Monday, December 29, 2014

Six resolutions for aid workers (and other people who want to change the world)

It's that time again!  Our opportunity to reflect on the year and commit to concrete goals for improvement in 2015.  I've been thinking of simple changes that development workers can make that are good for them and for their work.  These are not radical suggestions, but if practiced earnestly truly can improve an aid worker's performance as well as an organization's impact.  No excuses this year!!

My six suggestions

1. Be the best manager ever.  Too often, supervision evolves to nothing more than signing forms, dealing with HR issues, and barking out orders.  But helping people learn and grow is at the root of what development should be about.  In 2015, commit to making time for discussions about growth, giving feedback, understanding people's goals, and guiding them. The world needs more changemakers and inspired leaders, and we can help cultivate them.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lights, camera, action: what happens in the village before you get there

Something about this sign makes me feel like it's there for
my benefit.....kind of like any other random poster
I see in English!
A friend of mine from South Africa told me some interesting development stories recently.  We were talking about the village we visited in Laos, and all the reasons why we should not take the experience at face value. 

Perhaps our immediate doubt is a sign of professional cynicism.  The village was clean, peaceful, and more vibrant than we had expected.  Could this possibly be the way it really was? We of course wondered if the village leaders had been instructed to lead a major drive to collect all the trash before we arrive, deter people from buying the local rice wine the day before, and ensure that everyone wore their nicest clothes that day.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Day trip to a "remote" village in Laos

Off the beaten path!  Where is everybody?

 I spent last week in Laos learning about rural electrification.   I spent one day in a rural village to better understand some of the issues on the ground.  The village’s name was Pakhao, in Vang Vieng, home to 78 households and roughly 600 people.

Typically it does not rain from October to May, but the day we went it rained relentlessly.  The dirt road that wound up to the village was slick, and our pudgy van could not quite get the traction to get up the hill.  It was a good reminder of what it means to live in a hard-to-reach area—communication is not something taken for granted.  I hopped in an SUV for the last leg; some of the others in my group had to settle for the back of a pickup truck and umbrellas to block the rain.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Institutions eat interventions for breakfast

This is what a development expert looks like
An article in the new republic has been circulating recently in the global development circles called "Stop trying to save the world--how big ideas are destroying international development." It contains a lot of useful reflections on failures in development and how certain paradigms perpetuate them.  While I agree with his analysis for the most part, I am troubled by his lack of discussion about the importance of local institutions in identifying and scaling effective strategies.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Everywhere you want to be": what some take for granted but many can't have

Do tip jars still exist in San Francicso?  Bet it's easier to get
tips in cash-based economies like Kathmandu and Dhaka
(photo from Cafe Kora, Kathmandu).
I know some people who essentially use only digital money.  That is, the only thing in their wallet is plastic.  If that's your daily life, it's easy to take it for granted and forget how awesomely convenient it is.

And Americans have it good this way--our cards are accepted almost everywhere.  I should know, I hopped off the plane in Hong Kong, walked up to an ATM, and walked out with a wallet full of Hong Kong dollars.  I bought a boatload (literally) of champagne and other drinks in Chiang Mai at a grocery store, simply by swiping my visa.  The hotel where I'm staying this week asked for a deposit, and I handed them my card again.  Easy as pie.

The Bangladesh government historically has had very strict rules on Bangladeshis taking money abroad, only recently beginning to allow small amounts of international credit card usage (for most people, the annual spending limit internationally is $5,000 and per online transaction it's $100, up to 1,000 annually).  Baby steps.  Online credit card payments WITHIN Bangladesh were only approved in 2009.