Dirty Development?

Got a note the other day from one of our donors:

I think this site is a great idea, and I went ahead and added my drops to the bucket, but I have to admit that I feel a little funny giving money to a country whose government is so violently homophobic. I know that’s all too common in sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s certainly no reason to deny children clean drinking water, but it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

And there in a nutshell is one of the great dilemmas of development work. In most of the countries with the greatest need in our world, social conditions are–shall we say–less than ideal.

By giving anything–money, resources, volunteers, even attention–to these countries, are we not somehow complicit in their corruption, their repression, their cruelty? Are we not somehow saying that it’s okay to be violently homophobic, to treat women like cattle, to make those who oppose you conveniently ‘disappear,’ to rule by fear and perpetuate idignity, to live in splendor while millions around you starve?

On the other hand, should all citizens of a country suffer because their government embezzles millions from the aid they receive? Should children continue to die of malaria because the government oppresses their mothers? Should peasants remain landless and destitute because their courts can’t be trusted?

Where’s the line? and how do you know when you cross it?

I don’t really have an answer–and the deeper I get into this world, the more often I get that “bad taste in my mouth.” Still, I believe in compassion, I believe in cooperation, and I believe that it is better in the long run to dig in and engage with a problem (even if you get your hands dirty) rather than standing on the sidelines waiting for the situation to be less messy.

Ghandi vs. Robin Hood

(or, Whether to Accept Federal $ through a Congressional Earmark)

Had an unexpected conversation this week–with a DC lobbyist (referred by an angel investing group we’ve been working with) who seems absolutely convinced we would be a “slam dunk” for some of the millions of federal dollars congress will allocate to various non-profits through this summer’s appropriations bills.

“Some” meaning on the order of 10x what we’ve spent on everything we’ve done so far—enough to finish building out the site, update the iPhone app, create a Facebook app, start our fellowship program, host a social entrepreneurship training conference, and establish our evaluation endowment. (Not to mention start paying some of our employees a livable wage…)

So, what’s the catch, right? There isn’t one—except if you consider the fact that the money would come through earmarks in the bill a catch.

The IDEALIST says that earmarks were originally developed as way to empower members of congress to bypass the crippling bureaucracy of the executive branch agencies to fund time-sensitive projects for the good of the people.

The CYNIC says that earmarks are a symbol of all that’s wrong with government—a loophole exploited by corrupt politicians and lobbyists too mired in the morass of personal and political favors to even see it’s wrong.

The REALIST says that such diametric thinking is almost always an oversimplification and that the practice is still used in both those ways to accomplish both those ends.

The PRAGMATIST says that if they’re going to toss money around (and they are), we might as well be open for the pass, especially if we can catch it without getting our hands dirty.

Those are the voices screaming at each other in my head. What do you think?

The Trouble with Stakes

Last evening, during the President’s health-care speech, I found myself frustrated. Why can’t someone just talk to me straight!? Why can’t anyone simply compare the perspectives, analyze the arguments, and explore the implications free from rhetoric, empassioned mantras, scare tactics, and tear-jerking stories. Why can’t we have some kind of genuinely objective perspective?

The answer’s pretty simple: the genuinely objective observers don’t CARE enough to do the careful analysis.

The people who care, the ones who invest time and energy and resources, are the one who have something on the line. They have a stake.

The connection from there was at once natural and surprising. So often in the non-profit and social entrepreneurship worlds, we extoll the virtues of (and even decry the absence of) objective, third-party impact assessments and evaluations. We proclaim (often quite correctly) that it is impossible for those at the heart of a venture, doing the day-to-day work, pouring their blood, sweat and tears into their programs to accurately assess their own impact and effectiveness.

The problem, of course, with these stakeholders (and any stakeholder) is that they CARE.

Essentially, we’re saying that in order to provide a reliable assessment, you must not be a stakeholder in the venture. You must not care.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a hyperbole. But it seems worth looking at. If what we want from non-profit and social entrepreneurship evaluation is thorough exploration, careful analysis and strategic recommendations, can we truly rely on evaluators without a stake?

Sustainability Outside the Box

You pretty much would have to have been living in a cave for the past decade not to have picked up on the sustainability buzz sweeping through sectors from chemical production to health care to broadcast journalism. The Wikipedia entry on “Sustainability” has had almost daily editing activity for the past three years and includes more than 300 (top notch) citations/references. Still, the definition is far from universally understood and far from static.

Ratner (2004) points out that the whole concept may be expressed as statements of fact, intent, or value with sustainability treated as either a “journey” or a “destination.” In terms of media attention and general public awareness, sustainability is primarily an environmental issue. We think of “going green” and carrying cute canvas bags to the super market. But succession planning and resource utilization strategy are just as much part of sustainability as those cute canvas bags.

Continue reading

Castro on Globalization

“Globalization is an objective reality underlining the fact that we are all passengers on the same vessel, that is, this planet where we all live. But passengers on this vessel are travelling in very different conditions.

Trifling minorities are travelling in luxurious cabins furnished with the Internet, cell phones and access to global communication networks. They enjoy a nutritious, abundant and balanced diet as well as clean water supplies. They have access to sophisticated medical care and to culture.

Overwhelming and hurting majorities are travelling in conditions that resemble the terrible slave trade from Africa to America in our colonial past. That is, 85% of the passengers on this ship are crowded together in its dirty hold suffering hunger, diseases and helplessness. Obviously, this vessel is carrying too much injustice to remain afloat.”

– Fidel Castro

Touche, Fidel.

Don’t get me wrong, there were some classic Castro moments in this little speech; “The wealthy nations can afford to pay any price for the energy they waste to sustain
luxurious consumption levels and destroy the environment.” for example. But, there were some concepts that really rang true:

“In the hands of the rich countries, world trade is an instrument of domination.”

“A special and differentiated treatment to poor countries has been considered not as an
elementary act of justice and a necessity that cannot be ignored but as a temporary act of

…and so forth.

Still, I found myself questioning every fact and statistic he presented, looking for footnotes [and discounting assertions in their absence] and frankly wondering if I would be doing the same if it wasn’t Castro I was reading.

Country Mouse

I’ve been in Asuncion since Thursday morning, the longest period of time I’ve spent away from the school since I got here.

Despedidas for three of the city interns this weekend, [suerte Sarita, Florian, and Andrew!] a sunny afternoon steeped in terere and stimulating [English] conversation, and a much-needed laugh at Andrew’s blog reminded me once again how un-characteristic my experience here has been.

It’s hard to say definitively that it’s a country-city divide, given the other significant differences between me and the other interns, [most notably my incompetence with the language and the fact that I don’t drink] but it seems to me a reasonable approximation of the difference I feel from Paraguayans in general.

I live in the Chaco.

It’s a bone-rattling, deathly boring 12-hour bus ride from the middle of nowhere, but I’ve never felt more isolated by a mere 25-mile stretch of relatively well-maintained highway. Coming to the city is a bit disorienting for me. I’ve never been one to shy away from new experiences, and I’ve certainly not devolved into some timid, frenetic home-body, but I feel strange in Asuncion. The noise is distracting, the air is oppressive, and the social structures blurred and unfamiliar.

In my little world, two-thirds of the adults can’t even read, let alone discuss poetry. In my little world people take a photo when they have a 100mil guarani bill, while the smallest withdrawal denomination at an ATM in the city is 1 million. In my little world, and in laughing spite of the Internet, nobody has any idea there were riots surrounding the recall election in Bolivia, not even the Bolivians.

As in any country, the rich and poor of Paraguay live locked in an utter empathetic impasse. And this country mouse isn’t sure what to do about it.

Too Mad to Think of a Clever Title…

Today was parent-teacher conferences. At least as close as we get to parent-teacher conferences here. Started out with a big meeting in the church where we did things like show them the new silverware we finally got around to buying last week [the kids were sharing broken spoons before—not a big deal, really, we share everything around here, but still] and talk about the progress of a couple of alumni and the programs we’ve been involved in. A couple of parents raised some concerns; “my son was sick and missed an exam and is therefore failing a class” to which the response was “Nilsa and Roberto and Juana were all sicker than your son and they’re still at the top of their classes.” And “I live 9 hours away and can’t just visit every month to check on my son, but when I call to see how he’s doing, no one returns my calls.” To which the response was basically “keep calling.” [In fairness, Celsa gave out her cell number to the whole group, but even I can guess the rate at which such phone calls are generally returned]

The biggest frustration, though, came with the “research” the director of the school was so excited about conducting. [He wasn’t here, by the way, apparently he’s doing some consulting for another school in Nicaragua.] I was all excited when they started handing out surveys to the parents…asking what changes [positive and negative] they had observed in their student, whether the school had fulfilled their expectations, how they would rank areas of improvement, what concerns they had about their student in particular, etc.

Anyway, I was all excited until I started looking around and realized that fully two thirds of them COULDN’T READ IT! Aigh! Even the ones who could read it couldn’t understand the university-level research language it was written in. I think it’s fair to say I was bitterly disappointed. What are we saying when we set up a system to only accept feedback from people outside the sector we’re supposedly set up to serve!? There’s just something very wrong here.