Pensive

February 8, 2011

Just a quick link to my new Tumblr blog.  Well, not so much a blog as a space to throw links to stuff I like or find interesting, with the odd comment or two. As I noted in my last post, ‘real’ blogging is on the back burner while I finish my thesis, a task that is going very slowly. In the meantime, if you are interested in what I’m thinking about (mostly development and politics, in New Zealand and Latin America, with some feminism and academic trivia for good measure) head over to http://pensiv.tumblr.com/.  See you there!

2010 in review

January 2, 2011

As is obvious from the stats below, I neglected this blog in 2010, as I concentrated on my thesis and my family.  This is likely to continue into 2011, as I work on completing the thesis – hopefully by May. Blogging is not completely forgotten however, I’m giving some thought to the future of this blog, and the possibility of a new one. Once the thesis is submitted I will most likely be back in some form. I hope to see you on the other side!

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 5,400 times in 2010. That’s about 13 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 19 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 242 posts. There were 7 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 5mb.

The busiest day of the year was January 19th with 46 views. The most popular post that day was Sunday Reader #2 (on Monday).

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were blogger.com, google.com, google.co.nz, thehandmirror.blogspot.com, and twitter.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for burma, children in poverty, coffee bean, banana, and bananas.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Sunday Reader #2 (on Monday) January 2010
2 comments

2

Free Burma October 2007

3

I love nappies/diapers (really!) January 2007
7 comments

4

Christmas in Honduras December 2009
3 comments

5

Life in the banana republic March 2007
2 comments

One year ago today…

June 29, 2010

After spending a day buried deep in writing about the political and economic history of Honduras for my thesis, the last thing I really feel like doing this evening is more writing.  And yet as the sun sets in NZ and rises on Honduras on June 28 2010, I want to add my two cents (lempiras?) worth to the discussion surrounding the one year anniversary of the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, and which is still not over. Not that I would really characterise it as a conversation, with the two sides still firmly entrenched and with such different and conflicting narratives as this and this.

One year ago we had just arrived in Honduras for nine months of graduate research for my PhD.  While I was well-versed in development theory, and somewhat familiar with the Honduran context I had limited understanding of Honduran politics – after all, I was studying grassroots development and ICT, not political science (although my Honduran husband majored in politics).  Over the next few months I had a crash course, reading all I could from both sides and talking with people on both sides of the divide (often to the detriment of my field research work).

Because I felt unqualified to comment, and because I was worried about my research community (mostly pro-coup) I didn’t write much about the coup for a while.  But it didn’t take long for me to figure out some key truths about who was doing the talking, although I have to confess to becoming heartily sick of the use of the word truth, which was manipulated in many ways in the months following the coup. Eventually, with some trepidation, I came out as resistencia. My reasons for doing so still stand, and another nine months of reading and research have only strengthened my support. In fact nine months after I wrote that post have strongly reinforced the final reason I gave in that most – that this was a clearly a coup to protect the status quo, not for change.

This is something that had really struck me as have been writing the Honduras background information for my thesis. Coups, constitutional manipulations, the use and misuse of power by oligarchs, the business community and the military, corruption, international meddling… there ‘s really nothing new under the Honduran sun (including the names of those involved). Understanding the history of Honduras places so much of what happened last year into context. The coup of 2009 is easily seen as one more attempt by the Honduran ruling elite to maintain their own position, to protect the interests of big business and ensure Honduras remains on a neo-liberal path, following the same policies that have lead to the dire poverty and inequality we see in Honduras today. And so in 2010, under the un-democratically elected Porfirio Lobo, it is literally ‘business as usual’.

But something is different this time. Zelaya may be gone but the events of 28 June 2009 were the spark that ignited a new force for change.  The coup has bought together labour unions, campesino and indigenous groups, womens groups, LGBT groups, academics… Hondurans from across the social spectrum, in a peaceful effort to ‘re-found’ Honduras. The traditional media and the coup supporters may sneer and label them misinformed agitators and haters, but I believe they misunderstand and underestimate the resistencia, the emergence of which is something of huge historical significance in Honduras (although given the human rights abuses directed at the resistencia I suspect the government understands this significance!).

I might not be Honduran, or even in Honduras at this time, but I know with whom I stand this June 28. Not next to the powerful, but with the poor, the indigenous, the disabled, the women and children who have been left behind by Honduran economic ‘development’ time and time again. I do not know what the future will bring, but I do hope that the historical cycle will not continue to repeat and that one day, soon, real change will come to Honduras. The resistencia might not be perfect, but I see more hope there than with any amount of international development aid.

Just another quick link, this time to Tales from the Hood.  This post on American Culture 101 sums up very nicely a theme I have been seen over and over in my research and which I find quite disturbing – the heroic nature of the (usually white, American) volunteer or development worker, and the patronising and moralising tone of the discourse around the poor and ‘needy’.

We love identifying with the benefactor. We love being the giver.

Not everyone can recall the message of Acts 20:35 offhand. But I’m guessing even many non-Christian Americans are aware of the existence of a Bible verse which says that it’s “more blessed to give than to receive.”

And that gets at the other half of the problem: While we love giving, we’re terrible at receiving.

Our culture is grounded in the belief that we can do it. We can go it alone. We can figure it out… We’d rather be poor and know that what we have we earned ourselves, than accept a handout.

Being able to survive on one’s own strength is almost a moral quality. “She worked hard and took care of her children, despite terrible challenges” = “she is a good person.”

And although we almost never say so directly, needing help is almost, well, immoral.

Fair trade coffee serves up benefits for Guatemalan farmers

While I don’t have much time to blog lately, given then theme of this blog I couldn’t not put a link to this article. This is a research project I would love to have done in Honduras….

Odyssey | Fresh-Brewed Research.

I just watched the TED talk by Emily Duflo, a French economist who believes it is possible to know which development solutions work and which don’t – by using randomised experimental trials to test different approaches to development problems. I was fascinated with her idea, and can clearly see the how policy-makers and development practitioners could find it useful.  She is right, there is a lack of information on the outcomes of development, and the more information policy makers have the more likely they are to make good decisions.

But I also felt very uncomfortable with the idea.  And I don’t think it was just my natural aversion to numbers and to economists. After some reflection I realised I had three core issues with Duflo’s idea, and these concerns were strong enough to drive me out of my unintentional thesis-writing induced blogging hiatus to post this (particularly as a quick google search didn’t turn up any other bloggers discussing it).

My three concerns are these:

1. Generalisation and over-simplification. Although Duflo does briefly state at the end of her talk that one of the limitations of the idea is that what works in one place may not work in another, I think she underestimates how much of a limitation this is, or perhaps she overestimated just how much the results of an experiment in social policy can be generalised.  Her example of the education experiment is one example.  This experiment showed that one of the most effective ways of increasing the number of years children stay in school is through worm treatment.  This is very likely the case in many areas… where there is a worm problem.  Anyone with a health background might have been able to remind her that this will of course only continue to be effective if treatment is repeated over and over… or if the source of the worms is eradicated. Just giving a worm treatment is simplistic.  Unfortunately while most development problems are more complex and multi-faceted, experiments by nature are only able to test a limited number of variables and therefore lend themselves to simplistic solutions.

2. Developing world comunities as experiment subjects. While I know Duflo and her research group probably have great motivations and want to help find development solutions, I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of using experimental methods in this context.  There are significant ethical issues related to knowledge and power, including questions who is designing and running the experiment, who owns the data, how the participant communities are represented. There’s a paternalism inherent in the idea of doing experiments like this, where white western researchers define the problem and offer the  solutions. I admit I don’t know how much input she has had from participant communities and developing world researchers, but at this point the whole idea of doing experiments on developing world communities seems rather neo-colonial to me.

3. Ignorance of structural and institutional injustice. This relates to point 1 and over-simplification. Duflo thinks that underdevelopment can be addressed by addressing the smaller problems – getting kids immunised or into school for example.  This is similar to an idea I have heard from research participants in my own research – that development is the sum of many small changes, from the bottom up.  I was not convinced when I did my research, and I am not convinced now.  While there is, and will always be some value in making changes at a grassroots or community level, I don’t believe that these changes are enough.  Solutions like those offered by Duflo do not take into account structural and institutional conditions that perpetuate systems of poverty. Racism and sexism, class and caste systems, corruption, these all contribute to poverty and until these are addressed (and the way in which they are addressed will differ between communities) there will be no significant development.

While I can appreciate the value of Duflos work for those working on specific development problems in defined areas, these issues ring big alarm bells for me.  It seems to much of a western-expert-led quick-fix-solution to me and I wouldn’t like to see it replacing long term qualitative research and development experience, and even less, usurping the knowledge of developing world communities themselves.

As an antidote to the discourse on saving the developing world, perhaps Duflo might benefit from some conversation with Design for the First World, a competition for designers, artists, scientists, makers and thinkers in developing countries to provide solutions for First World problems.

I think the world need more of this kind of thinking.

Our fellows in the first world often come to visit and give us their well intentioned but often very problematic ‘solutions’. We thought, why don’t we pay back? Dx1W is a competition for designers, artists, scientists, makers and thinkers in developing countries to provide solutions for First World problems.

Inspiration

March 23, 2010

Some quotes that are inspiring me as I start the writing journey:

Might it be possible to use other scholarly skills, including the ability to tell a story that both acknowledges imperial power and leaves room for possibility?
-Anna Tsing (Friction, 2005, p267)

What if we were to accept that the goal of theory is not to extend knowledge by confirming what we already know, that the world is a place of economic domination, conflict and oppression? What if we asked theory instead to help us see openings, to enable us to find happiness, to provide a space of freedom and possibility?
-J.K. Gibson-Graham, (A Postcapitalist Politics, 2006 p7)

In a time so widely understood by Hondurans to be one of desperation, it is my hope that they will have full support from one another and from those of us who cannot claim to understand Honduran habitus but who find ourselves struggling against the same agents of violence… it may be unstable but our compassion must not wither.
-Adrienne Pine (Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras, 2008, p203)

From my research blog:

Hi from New Zealand! We have been back in New Zealand for a month now, have settled in our new home and are now well immersed back into the university routine so it really is about time I posted here. Because I have been busy with travel, moving and settling in work on my thesis has slowed to a snail pace but there are a few things I should catch you up on.

After leaving Honduras in early February I participated in the Doctoral Colloquium at the CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) conference in Savannah, Georgia. It was a very interesting experience, which reinforced the relevance of my study. In the midst of a sea of brand new applications and web tools, the more than ten years of experience the network I am studying has was of great interest to many. While I went there to learn more about CSCW and computing, I found that I spent a lot of my time sharing what I have learned. As there seemed to be a lot of interest I am currently thinking about expanding my presentation into a journal article.

While there is much I could write (and will write) about the computing aspects of this study, this is a development studies thesis, and my interest is evolving well beyond the internet networking. The network founder uses the term ‘human capital’ to refer to people’s “time, energy, expertise, experience, talent, and contacts”. As I continue my analysis and start writing it is the people and organisations within the network and what they are saying and doing that is capturing more and more of my attention. I’m also interested in the philosophy of the network (constructive, positive and apolitical) and how people in the network interpret and work within that space, and how this all interrelates as a model for development.

So onwards I go. I am still trying to finish up some last minute interviews via the internet, and working on transcribing and coding those that I have completed. Within the next few weeks I hope to finally start putting some words on paper (or at least on the screen) and starting to write. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Although we are back in New Zealand I have been trying to follow the continuing political events in Honduras, although it is somewhat depressing.  Unsurprisingly the coup goes on, and coup participants have been appointed to important posts.  Fortunately (although under-reported) the resistance continues the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular of Honduras holds its second Encuentro Nacional por la Refundación de Honduras (National Meeting for the Refounding of Honduras). The Frente is aiming for a constitutional assembly, in order to create a democratic, inclusive and participatory Constitution.  For more information about the Frente and the ongoing events in Honduras check Quotha and the Honduran Culture and Politics blog, both written by academics with close ties to Honduras.

Another blog favourite of mine is Mama PhD, and this week Math Geek Mom wrote a post on her thoughts on “We are the World” asking about what Americans can do to help the poor in other parts of the world.  Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) until I commented she hadn’t had any comments, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to see a discussion on the topic.

On the topic of poverty Delia Christina of  Bitch, PhD has a post up titled If only the poor were more like me, which comments on a post by the Fat Nutritionist. Her final line: “So until we are prepared to solve the ‘problem’ of their poverty first, perhaps we should keep mum with our ‘advice’ to poor families about making better nutritional ‘choices’.” I agree entirely. Interestingly, it follows a similar line of reasoning to two development related posts this week, Drinking our own ORS by Blood and Milk, and Would you be willing to do this by Good Intentions are not Enough.  These posts pose difficult questions about the kind of advice and aid we give people, while we ourselves live comfortably.

Finally, on a lighter note, I really enjoyed Serious Eats bean to bar tutorial on Understanding Chocolate Basics, and this photo from Antigua Daily Photo, which is so me…

I have bee n reading and enjoying Alanna Shaikh’s blog Blood and Milk lately, and and today she has another pithy post up on  Why you can’t understand global health. I agree with her basic premise completely – even with years of nursing, overseas volunteer work and postgraduate study in development I still have no idea of how it is to live in the zero-sum game that is the life of the very poor.

But it got me to thinking about how we can start to learn about it.  I don’t know that experience, but my husband does.  He was born into a poor family in a small, third-world town.  I learn from his experience.  I refer to his expertise often in my work and writing.  And he is not alone.  The world is now so interconnected.  While there are still many living in poverty there are also the lucky ones who escaped.  How can we utilise their experience and expertise?

It also reinforces my belief in the value of the academic work of social scientists, particularly anthropologists.  Too often in health care and development we prioritise technical knowledge and skills. Long term and in depth ethnographic study of communities and their lifestyles, culture and values could add so much to the design of appropriate and effective interventions.  Yet it is rarely done… it doesn’t fit well in the project life-cycle.

So often the voice of the poor themselves is missing from health and development literature.  But itw ill take  time to stop and listen, and a change of mind-set to value the knowledge they have.

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