Archive for the ‘LICs’Category

Merci, FIFA

This is a French-language FIFA billboard about Ebola:

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It has 11 anti-Ebola messages from famous footballers, which happen to be printed small enough to be unreadable from the street or sidewalk.

Not that it would matter anyway: it’s on a major road in Monrovia, Liberia, where no one speaks French.

13

04 2015

Stesheni kumi na moja

I’m a bit late to the “social science bloggers love Station Elevenparty. Chris Blattman put it in his 2014 favorite novels list, and Jay Ulfelder shared a nice excerpt. I loved it too, so I’ll try to add something new.

Station Eleven is a novel about what happens after – and just before, and during – a flu pandemic wipes out 99% of the human population. The survivors refer to that event as the Collapse, and mostly avoid talking about or thinking about the immediate aftermath when all was a fight for survival. But Station Eleven is not just derivative post-apocalyptica. The book avoids a garish focus on the period just after the Collapse, but instead focuses on the more relatable period just as things are beginning to unravel, and much later, as bands of survivors who made it through the roughest bits are starting to rebuild. The main characters are a band of musicians and thespians who are trying to retain some of the cultural heritage and pass it on to the next generation, who have no memory of the world before the Collapse.

It’s also a novel about loss, both personal and societal. One of my favorite passages:

…No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities.… No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through the litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

Since I was reading this novel while traveling for work in Tanzania and Zimbabwe and Liberia, I was struck by its focus on Canada and the US. Nothing wrong with this: the author is Canadian* and the presumed audience is probably North American. But I kept wondering what the Collapse would have been like elsewhere. It was global, but would it have been equally catastrophic elsewhere? Urban centers like Manhattan are ludicrously unworkable in the absence of the electricity and cars and subways and other bits of the massive, distributed, and – to casual eyes – largely invisible infrastructure working to constantly feed them with supplies and people and information.

The novel implies that these urban centers fared worse, and focuses on suburbia and rural areas, where survivors re-learn how to farm, how to make things for themselves. We see nothing of the global “periphery” where the fall from wealth might be less great, where the collective psychological trauma of losing 99 out of 100 people might dominate the loss of technology. Of course, the periphery is defined by the observer and the writer, and isn’t the periphery at all to those who live in it. Maybe things would fare better, or maybe not.

Imagine the same novel, but set in Tanzania, or some other country where the majority of people are small-holder subsistence farmers. Maybe it would use the device of following two relatives, one living ‘upcountry’ or in ‘the village’ (i.e., poor rural parts) and the other living in Dar es Salaam. Relationships are established in an early chapter when the successful urban relative visits the village, or the rural relative visits the big city, and both marvel at their differences.

Then the flu hits, and things start to break down. Narrative chapters are intersperse with transcripts of SMS (text message) exchanges, demands for mPesa transfers, the realization that money doesn’t matter anymore, and finally the realization that the networks aren’t getting anything through anymore. Some city dwellers flee for the countryside but find themselves shunned as bearers of contagion. The urban protagonist makes her way, over the course of months or years, to the rural area where her relative once lived, hoping to find things are better there. Her belief that the village will be the same mirrors the readers’ belief – and common trope in writing about developing countries – that subsistence farmers today somehow live just as they did centuries or millenia ago. Bullshit, of course.

As the urbanite nears the village, her encounters reveal all the ways the modern fabric of village life was related to society and technology and has likewise broken down with the Collapse. Perhaps the power vacuum set off struggles amongst survivors and led to some new social order, where none of her skills are that useful. Nearing the village, she finds that the rural relative is now leader, revealing his situation has been reversed by the Collapse just as the once successful urbanite finds her way into his village with her last shilling.

Maybe this novel already exists. Or something else using the post-apocalyptic form to explore somewhere that’s not Canada or the US or Europe and not reliant on mechanized agriculture. Pointers, please, as I’d love to read it.

*originally I wrote the author was American. Oops. Apologies, Canada!

10

04 2015

"The opening deal"

I liked this quote from economist Karthik Muralidharan, which is pulled from a conversation at Ideas for India with Kaushik Basu of the World Bank:

My own take on what is happening in economics as a profession, talking to people in other disciplines, is that our fundamental weakness at some level is that because the touchstone of policy evaluation is the idea of a Pareto improvement (is someone better off and no one worse off) – effectively, economists do not question the justice of the initial positions. You kind of take the initial position as granted and say that conditional on this, how do I improve things on the margin.

Given vast inequalities in the opening deal of cards, so to speak, there is obviously a deep political need to create the space for more pro-poor policy. I think because the professional economists have abdicated that space to saying that it is a philosophical debate and we have really nothing to say, the rights-based movement that has created the political space for pro-poor policy has also then occupied the space of how to design it because they are the people who have created the political movement.

My own view on this is that because economists have kind of been seen as apologists for the status quo in many settings, we have lost the credibility to say that we are as pro-poor as you are, but conditional on these objectives there are much better ways to design it.

Lots on poverty policy, inequality, etc at the link.

Uganda is beautiful

I’ve been in Uganda the last few weeks helping with the implementation of a large scale survey: a representative national household survey and survey of drug retailers and healthcare providers, all focused on the availability and usage of essential medicines for childhood illness. The system we’ve set up is pretty cool, with data collection on Android tablets via ODK meta and real time checks for data quality (by teams, individual interviewers, and individual interviews) and feedback to the survey group, which I hope to write up at a later date.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some photos of Uganda, which is really, really beautiful. There’s a whole album here, and below are some highlights:

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25

10 2014

Born in the year of […]

I was looking for the Kenyan 2009 census data and came across that survey’s guide for enumerators (ie, data collectors) in PDF form, here. There’s an appendix towards the end — starting on page 60 of the PDF — that’s absolutely fascinating.

Collecting information on the age of a population is important for demographic purposes. But what do you do when a large proportion of people don’t have birth certificates? The Kenyan census has a list of prominent events from different regions to help connect remembered events to the years in which they happened.

This may well be standard practice for censuses — I’ve never worked on one — but the specific events chosen are interesting nonetheless. Here’s the start of the list for Kirinyaga County in Kenya:

So if you know you were born in the year of the famine of (or in?) Wangara, then you were 100 years old in 2009. Likewise, 1917 was notable for being the year that “strong round men were forced to join WWI”.

On the same note, the US birth certificate didn’t have an option for mother’s occupation until 1960! (That and other fascinating history here. Academic take here.) Also, there are 21 extant birth certificates from Ancient Rome.

09

04 2014

Friday photo: Upanga, Dar es Salaam

The view from my (temporary) window, click for the zoomed in view:

This is at low tide — most of the sand in the distance is covered when it comes in. On the horizon on the right side you can see the line of ships heading into the Dar harbor

Also, Wednesday I was taking a Skype call with a colleague looking out this window and saw a whale in the distance. Having never really lived on the ocean before, that’s pretty cool.

28

02 2014

Tanzania readings and resources

My recent post asking for tips on what to read on Tanzania and Dar es Salaam yielded some great emails. I’ve compiled the recommendations and am sharing them back here:

Books:

Papers:

  • Bjerk, Paul K. “Sovereignty and socialism in Tanzania: the historiography of an African state.” (PDF)
  • Lal, Priya. “Self-Reliance and the State: The Multiple Meanings of Development in Early Post-Colonial Tanzania.”

News:

Blogs:

No recommendations so far, alas. Anyone?

Food:

  • quick local bite: Chef’s Pride on Morogoro Road
  • Lukas Bar on Chole Road
  • Al Basha (good Lebanese food)
  • Al-Qayam
  • Badminton Club and Retreat (Indian)

Travel and sights:

  • In Dar: The National Museum (on Sokoine Street). I actually visited this already and found it quite interesting, especially the exhibits on history and rock art.
  • “Zanzibar and Pemba are affordable and gorgeous and filled with history”
  • “Mikumi is a less expensive game park if that is your thing”
  • Arusha and Kilimanjaro
  • Kariakoo market (with good Swahili or a guide)
  • Udzungwa Mountains National Park (with camping gear)

Map:

  • “The coolest map remains the really simple photocopied black-and-white line one of the city center that every hotel gives out for free.”

Swahili:

  • Get a dictionary and go “to one of the many school supply shops to buy some elementary school Swahili books. These are books designed to teach Swahili to students in the interior who are only generally only hearing Swahili at school (sometimes church), and they’ll definitely get you up to speed.”
  • Live Lingua has the Peace Corps’ Swahili resources.

24

02 2014

Tanzania and Dar bleg

When I moved to Ethiopia I posted a bleg (blog request) asking for reading suggestions: blogs, novels, history, academic papers, etc., and got some very useful feedback — some in the comments and some by email.

I’m moving to Dar es Salaam this week, where I’ll be continuing my work with CHAI but living a bit closer to the projects I’m working on. I’m interesting in reading broadly about Tanzania, and also specifically about Dar. I’d love to hear any suggestions you have for the following:

  • History books – Dar-specific, Tanzania-specific, or regional
  • Novels
  • Academic papers
  • Blogs / news / RSS to follow
  • Swahili resources (I already have several books and audio guides, but I’m curious what media others have watched or activities you’ve done that facilitated learning Swahili)
  • Must-see travel destinations, must-eat foods, must-do activities
  • Cool maps
  • Tanzania data sets / sources I should be familiar with?

I may report back with my own ideas after I’ve settled in a bit.

Update: read the recommendation I’ve received so far.

03

02 2014

Spreading the word

If you haven’t already read Atul Gawande’s latest New Yorker piece on why some ideas spread fast and other spread slow, get to it:

 In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

Much of the material is Gawande’s essay won’t be new if you’re already interested in or working on maternal and child health, but Gawande presents it incredibly well. His comparison of spreading social innovation with the work of salesman also reminded me of another parallel: the parallels between diffusing secular, health-enhancing ideas and missionaries’ evangelistic techniques.

If that last sentence scares you off, hold on a moment for some background. I grew up in a small religious town in Arkansas and my first trips to developing countries were as a missionary. Over time my interests shifted from the preaching and teaching side of things to the medical side, and eventually to health and development policy as an entirely secular pursuit. When I first got to grad school for public health this resulted in some awkward moments, as many conversations would start with “so what first interested you in global health?” If I led with “well, I grew up wanting to be a missionary” I would often get one of two reactions: immediate skepticism of my motivations from my secular liberal classmates, or enthusiastic endorsement of my work (as they misunderstood it) from religious classmates. All that to say: while I think there are very good general reasons to keep public health and missionary efforts as separate as possible, both in theory and praxis, there are several things we secular liberals can still learn from the more devout.

One example is the neverending debates amongst evangelists between those who seek technological shortcuts and those who stick with old-fashioned person-to-person contact. This is a frequent topic at missions conferences (if you didn’t know such conferences existed, it might be an interesting google). You can view the rise of Christian radio broadcasts, followed by Christian TV and televangelists, as the great technological shortcuts: they give a single preacher the ability to reach millions, and if the message is just as good as when delivered in person, why shouldn’t it be just as effective? Some people are persuaded by televangelists, of course, but the effectiveness of the individual doesn’t scale easily to mass media. Likewise, in recent years there’s been much enthusiasm for social media and its potential to save more souls — but the results rarely pan out.  So despite all of the advances in mass and social media, most evangelists still harp on the importance of individual contact, of building relationships. One of the most effective (in terms of growth rate) groups in the world are Mormons, who, no coincidence, devote years of effort to one-on-one contact.

Gawande’s essay tells the story of how BRAC precipitated oral rehydration solution in Bangladesh, and I couldn’t help thinking of their campaign  as a sort of especially successful roving gospel meeting. And here’s Gawande’s closing, where he talks with a nurse who was convinced by a younger, less-experienced trainer to adopt some best practices for safe childbirth:

 “Why did you listen to her?” I [Gawande] asked. “She had only a fraction of your experience.”

In the beginning, she didn’t, the nurse admitted. “The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.” From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.

“Why?” I asked.

All the nurse could think to say was “She was nice.”

“She was nice?”

“She smiled a lot.”

“That was it?”

“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”

Shortcuts are nice: in public health, unlike evangelism, it’s usually actions rather than beliefs that ultimately count, so I’m all for technological shortcuts when they’re available and effective. But they’re too few and far between, and much of the low-hanging fruit in global health has already been picked. To climb the next step require a lot more effort at improving the “messy and anachronistic”  processes of people and institutions.

07

08 2013

Transatlantic

Gumbo, a favorite food in the southern United States, particularly in the Louisiana area, is a variation of popular west African (including Yoruba) stews in which similar ingredients, such as okra and spicy peppers, are served over a starchy substance. In west African stews the starch is usually yam or cassava; in gumbo it is usually rice. West African language patterns have also merged with the English language over time. For example, the Yoruba language does not conjugate verbs. Therefore, the English “I am,” you are,” he/she/it is,” translates into Yoruba simply as “emi ni,” iwo ni,” and “oun ni” respectively. Scholars equate this lack of conjugation with colloquial African-American speech patterns that would conjugate the same phrase in English as “I be,” “you be,” he/she/it be,” representing the retention of African language patterns over time and space….

From A History of Nigeria by Falola and Heaton.

10

07 2013