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.


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.

As I finish up my work here in Honduras and look towards our return to New Zealand next month, I have been thinking more and more about the logistics of finding a new home and getting settled again. While it is tempting to rush in and enjoy all the conveniences I have missed over the past 7 months (a big fridge! a real stove! my little espresso machine!) being in Honduras has taught me that it is actually not difficult to live with few pocessions and basic bathroom and cooking facilities (although I’m completely over sharing them with ants, spiders, scorpions and centepedes!).  The post “Need” and the Standard of Living on the Sociological Images blog (and the original slide show Planet Slum) also help to remind me that what I ‘need’ is not always a need. What I do need, as I start the process of setting up a new home, is to think more carefully about the resources I am using.  What do we really, actually need, what are the luxuries I really genuinely love and which make our lives more pleasant and enjoyable, and what are the ‘needs’ that we can do without.

I guess you could call this a reveal, or a coming out. I’ve carefully and deliberately kept this blog apolitical for what I considered to be very good reasons, but those reasons don’t seem to be making much sense any longer, and I don’t want to keep quiet about it anymore.

On June 28, when Zelaya was removed from office and flown out of the country I has only been back in Honduras for a couple of weeks.  I was out of touch with the political climate and atmosphere in the country, and felt I didn’t know enough about Honduran politics to have an educated opinion.  In addition I was here primarily to do research and didn’t want to risk compromising that.  However over the past 3 months I have watched, listened and discussed the events unfolding and my initial neutrality has given way to open support for the resistencia.   Here’s why.

  • I don’t trust MichelettiWhile there has been ample discussion of Zelaya’s sins in the traditional media here in Honduras, and in online media, I have been surprised at how little  talk there has been regarding Micheletti and others in the defacto government.  Without even having to look into the past, or at the accusations of death squads and violent repression, it is easy to see actions that are far from ethical. The manner of Zelaya’s illegal removal from the country (even coup supporters will admit that now), the faked resignation letter, the forced closure of pro-Zelaya media outlets, the overkill of a nation-wide 48 hour curfew… none of this is the behavior of an honest and responsible democratic government.  With accusations of disappearing money and the selling off of grain reserves, one has to wonder what is actually happening behind the scenes.
  • The constitutionMaybe it is because I come from a country without a codified constitution, or maybe it is just because I am not a political or legal scholar, but the constitutional arguments don’t convince me.  The Honduran constitution has been bent backwards and forwards by both sides to try and support their position, and as a result it is perhaps no wonder Oscar Arias called the Honduran constitution the worst in the world.  While that might be an overstatement, from what I can tell the constitution appears to have hindered, rather than helped the democratic process.  A constitution that has articles that simply cannot be altered, and that make it difficult or even impossible for the people to instigate change, is at best a dinosaur, and at worst repressive of future generations.  Additionally, while the argument for Zelaya’s removal rests on the importance of upholding the constitution, it wasn’t a problem for the Micheletti government to suspend constitutional civil rights it on Zelaya’s return, indeed it seems to be becoming a major problem for them to reinstate them.
  • Misinformation, disinformationControl of the media seems to be one of the key strategies of Michelitti’s government. Certainly here within Honduras it is difficult to find any traditional media outlets not endlessly repeating the governments line and pro-Zelaya outlets have been shut down for inciting rebellion and uprising.  However I find it hard to believe that this was done in the public’s interest, as in several days of watching Canal 57 (Cholusat) near continuously my husband and I did not once hear Zelaya call for violence, although he did call his supporters to Tegucigalpa for peaceful protest.  We also did hear many callers describing the violent and repressive actions of the police and military in their neighbourhoods.  Characterising pro-Zelaya media outlets as inciters of violence allowed the regime to shut them down, and to shut down any reports that were not favorable to their regime. Again, this is not the actions of a democratic and enlightened government.I am also comfortably certain that the pro-coup media’s characterisation of Zelaya supporters as violent thugs, paid mercenaries or ignorant and uneducated is not correct.  While my academic background leads me to be highly suspicious of anecdotal evidence (and yes this post is full of it), this characterisation has not been my experience or observation. The resistence includes people from all walks of life. The Zelaya supporters I’ve met include grandmothers, small business owners and farmers. While I don’t deny there has been violence I don’t believe there is a simple “they are bad” explanation. For example in mid-July my husband had an interesting conversation with  a young street kid in Tegucigalpa who had no political interest (or knowledge) but who had joined the pro-Zelaya marches with his friends and thrown stones at the police for the fun of it.   More recently, on 21 Sept when Zelaya returned to Honduras, I spent the day watching TV footage of peaceful, happy Zelaya supporters outside the Brazilian Embassy, later I was saddened to watch scenes of chaos in that same street as the police and army moved in.  The violence is not necessarily endorsed, nor perpetrated by Zelaya or the resistance.

    Another example of misinformation from the media and many pro-coup commentators is that most of Honduras is supportive of Micheletti and the new government.  Again at risk of being accused of using anecdotal evidence, I have to say the majority of Hondurans my husband and I have spoken to are either pro-Zelaya or are ambivalent.  More convincingly, last week poll results from the authorized polling agency for the Honduran elections were released, which showed only 17.4% were in favor of the June 28 ousting of Zelaya, and 52.7% against. Interestingly I don’t think this poll was reported in the newpapers here.

  • The root of the crisis is fearSocialist, communist, dictator… there was , and is, a strong fear that Zelaya was going to usher in an era of Chavez-style politics to Honduras.  I am less interested in whether or not he was going to do that (and I’m not convinced he would have been able to anyway) than I am in the underlying fear of the left that drove Micheletti and co to desperate measures.  This fear is reflected throughout the pro-coup media and blogosphere, and I have been very frustrated over the past months reading posts and articles endlessly misusing the terms socialist and communist, and misunderstanding left wing politics and the rise of the left in Latin America. The United States has done very well promoting a right-wing, market-oriented form of development, and at vilifying all other approaches.  To read some of the pro-coup postings on the web is to step back to the cold war and to feel the fear of communism, ironically a communism that Zelaya was far far away from implementing. Talking to the poor, raising the minimum wage, convening a national constituent assembly… this is not communism, nor even socialism.  But it was enough for the elites and business community to feel threatened.
  • This is no changeFollowing on from the above – this was a clearly a coup to protect the status quo, not for change.  The coup leaders have vested interest in maintaining Honduras the way it was.  Michelettistas don’t like the term oligarchy, and would love to contest the idea that Honduras is run by just 10 families, but they can’t deny that the coup leaders are largely from the social class that had the most to loose from a change to the left. The coup was a means of retaining, rather than taking power. I don’t believe they were thinking of the good of the country, or of the poor when they took the actions they did, but rather of saving their position and power, and their businesses. The coup does not represent a fresh start for Honduras, but the ability for Honduras to continue with business as usual.  It means business as usual for the poor, selling candy on the street, picking someone else’s coffee, buying just a few tortillas with a little salt to feed their children.

So this is why I support the resistencia. Not because I think Zelaya is wonderful.  He’s not.  Not because I think Micheletti is evil, although I am very worried about what he is up to.  Because I want to align myself with the poor, with those that don’t have a voice, with those that will loose whoever wins the political battle.  I support the resistencia because I see this as an opening to begin a conversation about a Honduras that works for all, about what real change would mean.  Not a change controlled by the elite for their own benefit, but one where all Hondurans get a voice.

If you want to read more about the Honduran crisis (in English), I can recommend the following thoughtful and insightful blogs:

Honduras Coup 2009 – “Responses to the Coup d’etat in Honduras on Sunday June 28, with special emphasis on producing English-language versions of commentaries by Honduran scholars and editorial writers and addressing the confusion encouraged by lack of basic knowledge about Honduras.”

Quotha – Anthropologist Adrienne Pine posts online field notes and first-hand accounts of the coup from Hondurans.

Hermano Juancito

Carne con Frijol

El  Cinquito

While I should really be planning interviews, transcribing or otherwise engaged with my research work, I’ve been distracted this morning by a foray into the world of aid worker blogs, and specifically an ongoing conversation about the role, or non-role, of expatriate volunteers in aid projects.  This is a topic I have a great interest in – being central to both my Masters and PhD research, and to my own experience as a wanna-be volunteer.

It started with a single tweet from @SarahMDC:   “Good dig at some of the muky issues surrounding international dev #volunteers + volunteer projects http://digg.com/u18jMS“.  The link is to Tales From the Hood, and the post is the final in a series on international volunteers.  I found myself nodding in agreement with the post as it reflected my own academic scepticism of international volunteers, particilarly short term ones.  It set me thinking once again about my reasons for pursuing post-graduate study in development, and for choosing my research topic.

Here’s an abridged excerpt from some work I did last year on international volunteering:

Despite mounting evidence of the altruistic nature, and global popularity of international volunteering, I remained in a critical frame of mind.  Much of the literature surrounding volunteering for development is explicitly positive, identifying it is something that can potentially shape such new thinking and help to ‘humanise’ globalisation (Lewis, 2005, p. 15).  However I was reading with the eyes of a cynic, and found that not only was it easy to find literature that highlighted the problems with international volunteering, it seemed the critiques overshadowed the positivity.

The first criticism is the related to altruism.  While volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity, in most cases there is considerable benefit to the volunteer, perhaps even more than to the community or hosts.  Benefits to the volunteer include personal development, enhanced career prospects, friendship and adventure . This criticism is strengthened by the lack of research on the impacts on communities, who arguably may in fact be adversely affected as they spend time, energy and resources to accommodate the volunteer. This argument is particularly directed at volunteer tourism, where programmes may be explicitly developed for, or marketed to tourists rather than being developed from and for the community to be served.

In addition to this, while one of the purported benefits of international volunteering is the development of cross-cultural appreciation and understanding, research suggests that it may actually have the reverse effect, reinforcing stereotypes and actively promoting an image of a ‘third world other’ that is dominated an ‘us and them’ mindset…  The ‘us and them’ mentality is reinforced by the inherent inequality of the volunteer experience, where “the processes that allow young westerners to access the financial resources, and moral imperatives, necessary to travel and volunteer in a ‘third world country’, are the same as the ones that make the reverse process almost impossible” (Simpson, 2004).

International volunteering is also criticised as the volunteers come from outside the host community, with limited skills, experience, and understanding of the local context.  My research on short term, volunteer medical missions was very critical on this point, arguing that language and cultural differences, inadequate resources and time, and a lack of local knowledge significantly limits what the volunteers could do and often results in poor medical care.  (Other studies have found that short term volunteers programmes may) encourage the (false) view that development is a simple matter, and something which can be ‘done’ by non-skilled, but enthusiastic volunteer-tourists.

Another criticism is that international volunteering cultivates dependency.  A host community may become dependent on volunteers and voluntary programmes when these are promoted at the expense of longer term or community driven initiatives.  Dependency is also fostered when volunteers undermine the dignity of communities with handouts.  In addition Western volunteers can be seen as ‘modelling’ a lifestyle of cultural and material values that may be inappropriate, and which promotes modernisation, or development as westernisation.

All of these are reflected in the significant criticism of neo-colonialism.  This criticism… is reinforced by claims that volunteer programmes are built on the structures of colonialism (Smith & Elkin, 1980), use developing countries as training grounds for future professionals (Raymond & Hall, 2008) and are modelling a Western way of living (Roberts; Simpson, 2004).  At it’s extreme, is the argument that international volunteers are a form of Northern imperialism, as their activities boost Northern Government interests rather than tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice (Devereux, 2008).

This excerpt is part of a larger piece that explores both the positive and critical literature on international volunteering, and expands on the ideas as they apply to my research (probably not so interesting to blog readers!). It ends on a more hopeful note, one that is looking forward, looking for ways in which the passion and skills of wanna-be volunteers  (like myself 10 years ago) can be harnessed in ways that are mutually beneficial and constructive; and in which Westeners can learn about the reality of life in other parts of the world in way that break down rather than reinforce stereotypes.  I find it interesting that this is actually the starting place for the series from Tales From the Hood:

Appropriate, structured cultural exchange can be a very positive thing.This, I think, is an important starting place…  We blame lack of having traveled and lack of awareness and understanding of international issues for everything from Third World Poverty to the fact the George W. Bush initiated the Iraq war. But then, when someone has the idea of taking some ordinary citizens from “here” and letting them see what it’s like “over there”, we’re very quick to pick them apart for that. And perhaps in some cases, rightly so. But we ourselves offer no alternatives.

We need an accepted mechanism for exposing aid-work-outsiders. Our work is critical. It is (or should be) making a difference…
But we need a way to meaningfully and appropriately expose our work to our third audience: ordinary people in our home countries. I’m not saying development tourism is the answer. But it’s one possibility.

I guess I have taken this as my challenge.  I’m not sure whether my PhD study will find any definitive answers (actually I’m quite sure it won’t) but I know the questions will continue to haunt me in my future career, be it academic or in practice.

For now I really need to get back to work.  There will be no answers without actually doing some research.

Some other good posts on the issue:
Good intentions are not enough (series on guidelines for international volunteers)
Aid Watch

Next post – back to the non-drama of living and doing research during a (non-?) coup!

Congratulations Helen Clark, new head of the UNDP.

I was very interested to read John Key’s comments on the appointment:

“Helen Clark should be very proud of her achievement and New Zealanders should be very proud of her,” Mr Key said.

“She will be working to help establish democracies, reduce poverty, improve health care, help in crisis prevention and recovery and assist with environmental issues.”

“In other words the UNDP needs someone who can front for them, mobilise resources and give the organisation a human face,” he said.

This at a time when Key’s government is looking at merging NZAid back into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and thereby making aid a tool of foreign policy and economic priorities.  As I was told today by someone close to NZAid, in practical terms for the Pacific, this means money being re-directed away from grassroots development projects and towards propping up regional airlines and other strategic business interests.  It all makes me very skeptical about whether or not National really does care about poverty alleviation.  I’m quite convinced they know nothing about aid and development beyond thier own political biases.

While I am pleased for Clark, and think she will probably be a great person for the job (and I love seeing a kiwi woman in such a great position) unfortunately she doesn’t escape my scepticism either.  She says:

“For a start we have to ensure that the donors … the Western countries who donate, don’t drop back on commitments,” Clark told National Radio in her first interview since her appointment was confirmed.

This from someone who led a government that seemed unable to raise aid past 0.3% of GNI, despite being a signatory to a UN target of 0.7%.  Can she hold other countries to a commitment she couldn’t keep?

Pepe does not believe that he is doing anything special. He feels that everything consists of being on the side of the people, listening to them, learning, and not telling them what they should do. “The idea is not to make them become aware of the fact that they need to liberate themselves, but to listen and watch what they do; understand the people, not lead them. Listen up …”

Read the rest of this very interesting article here.

via Global Recession Squeezes Honduran Scavengers – NAM


I was doing a bit of ‘research’ today, looking for videos on the World Bank and IMF for a tutorial I am teaching tomorrow (I got locked out of the department video library…), and came across this 2002 documentary The New Rulers of the World, by British journalist John Pilger. Here’s part of the blurb from the producers:

In order to examine the true effects of globalization, Pilger turns the spotlight on Indonesia, a country described by the World Bank as a model pupil until its globalized economy collapsed in 1998. The film examines the use of sweatshop factories by famous brand names, and asks some penetrating questions. Who are the real beneficiaries of the globalized economy? Who really rules the world now? Is it governments or a handful of huge companies? The Ford Motor Company alone is bigger than the economy of South Africa. Enormously rich men, like Bill Gates, have a wealth greater than all of Africa.

If you have a spare 53 minutes I strongly recommend you watch this. Unfortunately my class doesn’t so we will just watch the IMF/ World Bank section but I will advise they watch the rest, if nothing else as a counter to the economics stuff they have been reading.

Food Riots

April 11, 2008

Did you know that around the world today a billion people are facing food shortages?  That average food prices have risen 40% across the world in less than a year, and as much as 300% in some places?  That a top UN official has warned that the crisis could cause worldwide turmoil and global political instability? That this is already happening- that in the last few weeks there have been riots over food in Haiti (4 people dead), Ivory Coast, Cameroon (40 people dead), Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal,  Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bolivia, Jordan and Indonesia?

I try and follow the news as much as a busy mum and student can, and as a Development Studies student have been aware of the issues for some time- and I still missed just how immanent this crisis is.  This may be because despite the fact that some have been warning for years of the potential for a humanitarian and environmental crisis (for example this article from George Monbiot in 2004), the mainline media has largely ignored to signs.  Until now.  When the world is at crisis point and it may be too late to prevent millions of deaths.

Benjamin posted on this issue on Justice and Compassion a few days ago, linking to an article by Paul Krugman in the NY Times.  He suggested that-

The most immediate need is more aid to people in distress: the U.N.’s World Food Program put out a desperate appeal for more funds.

We also need a pushback against biofuels, which turn out to have been a terrible mistake.

I don’t disagree, but I don’t think this is enough.  This is what I commented-

I’m actually not sure that Krugman’s suggestions as to what should be done are hugely helpful either. Food aid has been linked with all kinds of ongoing problems- including undermining local markets, creating desire for imported grains over local staples and generally creating dependency.

He is right about about biofuels. however. They are a mistake. But just pushing back won’t help- we don’t need to continue our love affair with oil. I think we in the west needs to seriously reduce our dependence on fuel.

The problem is most Westerners don’t know or don’t care. I guess they think science or politicians or somebody else is going to come up with an answer, and we can just keep consuming the way we have been. For the moment the food crisis is mostly impacting on the poor in developing countries, and as unjust as it is, I don’t think the West will make significant changes until it starts to impact on our lifestyles significantly. I just hope that isn’t too late.

Change starts at home though. I have been thinking about going vegetarian for a long time… this may just be the motivation I need.

This may be a contradiction in a sense (food aid and pushing back on biofuels is not enough but my personal change is?), and I know it’s a drop in the bucket but I’m serious about the vegetarian thing. I probably won’t be 100% vege (my husband is not keen on the idea, and I’ve no aversion to the occasional NZ grass-fed/ organic/ free range meat meal) but I can’t ignore the fact that it takes far more land and resources to produce meat than grains, that livestock farming is incredibly environmentally degrading, and that I just feel selfish when so many are hungry and I have an excess of food on my plate.

Now you know about the crisis- what are you going to do?