Sunday, January 17, 2010

Leo's Analytical Approach: World's Worst Country

In the Economist’s The World in 2010, self-described as a ‘collection of forecasts,’ which present ‘a flavour of the year ahead’ or ‘a whiff of it’ (pg 11) – you’ve got to congratulate Editor Mr. Daniel Franklin on his sense-based expressions – there is an article entitled ‘The worst country on Earth (pg 91).’ The Economist’s answer is: Somalia. It is based on analyses undertaken by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, which is located in North America. The article’s writer is the Unit’s Editorial Director Leo Abruzzese.

The cluster of factors that Leo puts forth to defend his argument are: civil war, poverty and piracy. [Intruding Q: Did Leo get that three factor approach from McKinsey & Co.?] Three paras are devoted to each of these three factors. The Civil War Para discusses the US’ consideration of Al-Shabab as one of al-Qaeda’s allies and the problems that this poses for People Like Me; the Poverty Para outlines aid dependency in Somalia and the struggles that Aid Workers encounter with regards to security – that argument can be applied to almost all conflict and / or post-conflict contexts, and at the turn-of-the-coin raw materials dependency can be applied to almost all countries in the so-called First-World; and the Piracy Para describes the impact of Somali pirates on world trade. The piece starts by stating that ‘calling Somalia a country is a stretch’ and ends with the forewarning that the ‘world’s most failed state, regrettably, threatens to become a bigger problem for the rest of the world.’ [Intruding Comment: I always admire the whole ‘failed state’ shebang = natural / or unearthly disaster. Was the Mighty-Nation-Sovereign-State God-given in 1648? I thought it was granted by a select number of Bald-White-Tuxedoed-To-The Nines-Gentlemen]. Out of a total of 72 sentences, only six sentences communicate about the conditions of those people on-the-ground in Somalia in terms of food, health, displacement etc.

The focus of this article, and the indicators employed, are all eyes and ears on the impact of Somalia’s domestic state of affairs on Western states, esp. the US, not on familial and social and economic life in Somalia per say. This confuses me. Can someone (anyone!) perform the subsequent straightforward – they’re v. obvious, which is why Leo’s analyses are especially baffling – calculations for me?

  • Ratio of # of people murdered and / or injured by US personnel across the world to # of people murdered / or injured by Somalis across the world in 2009;
  • Impact of US-driven credit crunch on global economy compared to impact of Somali pirates on global economy in 2009.

Final point: I like Pirates. They're like new-age anarchist anti-capitalists - intended or otherwise - employing old-age methods. I hope EU/or US warships discover copies of The Communist Manifesto and Modern Science and Anarchism floating in troubled waters. It would make my day! Can you imagine the headlines: 'The Communists and Anarchists are Back, but Black.'

Saturday, January 16, 2010

11 Members; 11 Countries; 11 Months - Squad-Led-By-God of 11

Guzzling my cappuccino – two espresso shots; two tea-spoon-sized-bags of brown sugar; extra paper cup to ensure that my hands are not subject to the steamed milk’s scorching temperature; extra paper cup of ice-cold H20 in the event that my two-cup-method falls short – in a foreign-possessed coffee shop in a part of the majority world (i.e. developing world) that recently emerged from a decades-long violent conflict, three (one male; two females) happy-sun-sodden white low-/mid-twenties march in, introduce themselves to a comparable group-archetype as members of the “Squad-Led-By-God of 11 Called to 11 Counties in 11 Months” and proceed to chart out their mission statement and enthusiasm re current context:

  • “We’re here to help and learn and undertake the Lord’s message and work – ya know”;
  • “The opportunities in this country to deliver God’s work are awesome, it was so much harder in Turkey and Israel – Muslims make it all so difficult – they have all their own opinions on whatever – I don’t know what their problem is – ya know”;
  • “The spiritual is so much more important than the physical – angels and demons are fighting it out y’all – it’s so weird, but so real – I don’t know why everyone goes on about development and money and roads and stuff – people need God – ya know”;
  • “Life is great – I’m so excited – ya know.”

Enter a “local.” He appears to be associated with the Squad-Led-By-God of 11. Later I discover that he is a pastor at the squad’s local partnering church. He asks: “Have you all eaten?” Squad-Led-By-God of 11 indicate that they have. He says: “I haven’t.” They express sentiments as follows: “Sorry my friend – ya know”; “It’s past lunch – ya know”; “You should have eaten – ya know”; “You must eat soon – ya know”; “You better get pumped up for tonight’s activities – ya know”; “You better have a full stomach so you can hear our mighty Lord speak – ya know.” Squad fails to tune into pastor’s efforts to extract capital for lunch. He probably has the money; just wants them to pay. Female Squad Member One progresses to describe her calling: “I want to travel around the planet for the rest of my life on behalf of God and help people and increase God’s great and glorious army – ya know.” Male Squad Member interrupts and explains that they must all go round the table and compliment one another. He expresses this with gravity and authority and desperation. It’s startling sudden. They take immediate action. The squad members really need these expressions of appreciation – you can tell – particularly Male Squad Member. Pastor’s stomach grumbles. Seriously. It actually grumbles. Compliments are mostly light and directed towards friendship and love and care – it’s really nice. Pastor is thanked for utilizing his van to drive squad members to a village in a neighbouring district last week – “otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to reach those village people, and they wouldn’t have heard about the Bible, and I’m scared to know what would have happened to them after they left their physical bodies and this world and had to face God’s final judgment – ya know.” All squad members confirm that they have salvaged a number of “village people” from eternal damnation. Enter more squad members – approximately between five-six. One male wears an Israeli Defence Forces’ t-shirt; one male wears a tank-top; all males wear Bermuda shorts and fluorescent flip-flops. Female Squad Member One takes Tank-Top-Male outside and asks: “Would you rather punch your mum in the face or eat a lightbulb?” Tank-Top-Male says he’d rather eat a lightbulb. Male Squad Member is clearly upset. He plugs in his iPod. Pastor shifts attention to Israel-Defence-Forces-T-Shirt-Male situated at another table. He asks: “Have you eaten lunch.” Female Squad Member One interjects: “We’ve all eaten!” Shifting concentration, she states: “I’d rather punch my mum.” I tune out.

Three cups of Tea will get you a Marmot

Whenever I, as a development worker, return “home”, I have to deal with well meaning commentary on the profession from neighbors, friends, and Billy Bob the local supermarket checkout clerk.

In America, this usually involves a discussion about why America spends “so much money” (I won’t bore you with the oft quoted less than 1% of the budget stat) on developing countries when we have so many needs in the good ol’ US of A, and someone gazing at me dewy deer eyes saying how “brave” I am for doing such good work. All of this is annoying, but manageable.

And then Three Cups of Tea was published. Suddenly, suburban book club members and NY stockbrokers alike are instant experts on development. One person can make a difference! Now I am confronted with conversations along the lines of “why should we believe an organization can ever make a difference when one man did it all alone up there in Pakistan drinking tea with the natives”.

Yes, I said it. I’m a development worker who hates Three Cups of Tea. Sound the alarm. Call Oprah – this is newsbreaking!

If you haven’t read it please don’t. For the curious, here is the propaganda website:

It sounds like an amazing story, doesn’t it? So heart warming. So human.

So why do I hate it? The dude, bless his poor lumbering heart, got ripped off. He ain’t no saint. He came to the same old conclusions all development professionals have known for years – invest in women, invest in communities, empower locals. Fight Islamic extremism in poverty alleviation and improved access to education. Talk to the locals.


The mass appeal of this book is based on thee things:

  • anti government/big organization backlash: why should the American tax payer pay TAXES to help countries develop when people can do it themselves? While drinking tea?
  • People would like to believe that they too have the potential to become the great white hope and save the world with no instruction manual.
  • The Lebowski factor. The guy is an oaf. A big, strong, lumbering American who probably speaks with a lazy twang. Do not tell me that if he had been a quick talking Chinese- American anyone would have liked the book as much. It just ain’t so. We want our cowboys, this book provided one.

Actually, there is a resemblance between the Dude and Mortensen:

(It’s a comfort knowing the dude is out there somewhere, isn’t it? The dude abides).

When you work in the field and you meet yahoos who have been inspired by this kind of book and have ditched everything to “DO something”; and have to stoop to the level of this book to discuss what you do…. you get a bit sensitive about this sort of thing.

I don’t begrudge Mortensen for doing what he did. Bully for him. Really. But please, don’t assume that the dude approach to development is how things should work – or I may have to throw a marmot into your bathwater.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Best practices,lessons learned and the Forum des Conneries

Two sacred cows of development are "best practices" and "lessons learned". Regardless of your nationality, and whether you are a grubby NGO worker in the field or a desk jockey at HQ, I can guarantee you that somewhere in your office there is a document that refers to "best practices". Everyone writes them. Everyone funds them. Its standard discussion material in round tables on conflict, microfinance, health...whatever the sector, there are BEST PRACTICES and LESSONS LEARNED.

I'm sorry, but it’s all a load of crap.

Not because the findings are not valuable, I'm sure they are (again, and again, and again). The problem lays in the stick your finger in a light socket rule of human psychology. Don't touch the iron, will burn you. I know the vanilla smells great, but trust me, it tastes terrible. She's a bar girl, for god's sake - She doesn't love you! Etc. No one believes that someone else has found a best practice. There is always a better way, and dammit , I SHALL find it (and write a book about it). So donors must - they cannot resist- doing the same old thing, slapping a shiny brand on it and calling it new. And a best practice.

Come to think of it, I am surprised there is not yet an annual prize for best Best Practices development publication. Something to consider, surely.

It goes without saying that arrogance also plays a role in the Best Practices Lessons Learned arena. The implicit assumptions are:

1) that the funder/author is qualified to judge what constitutes a best practice (what exactly are the criteria?) and

2) that someone has actually learned something.

The message is: we did an AMAZING Job on this; everyone should do it just like us!

What about what we did that sucked? How come we never talk about that?

I once had a discussion about this with some of what Artful Aid Worker would classify as Real Aid Worker friends in West Africa. We started trading stories of really bird-brained projects we had worked on (or even designed). We ended up agreeing that what would be really useful is to share those experiences in a Forum des Conneries (idiocies, more or less). It would at the very least remind us that we do not always get it right, and heck, maybe we can even laugh about ourselves a bit instead of touting how much we have learned.

The "Conneries" are endless, and please, do chime in. To get the forum rolling --three I have personally witnessed:

  • An animated film, locally made, of comparative conflicts around the world. It sounded like a good idea. However, in the African example the implementer thought it too sensitive to use Hutus and Tutsis. So they opted for Pygmies instead. I need not tell you what an African Pygmy animated by someone decidedly NOT African looks like. To add to that, the entire dialogue was in poetry. It was...stunning.

  • Paying people to resolve their own conflict. Aside from the incentive to keep talking, talking talking (eg: earning a salary) and not resolve anything, uhm..hello? this is THEIR conflict. Given the sacred cow of sustainability, its difficult to understand how this happens in the first place. Its one thing to support meeting costs, another to give people who ALREADY have jobs money to fix something they should, in theory have a stake in solving.

  • Paternalistic judgments on who suffers most from a conflict that impose selection of beneficiaries. Can someone tell me why, really, its more difficult for a woman to be alive and taking care of her children than for a man to be maimed, tortured, humiliated or just plain dead because of a conflict? Does it really make a difference if the person who has been tortured is in the "ruling class" or "elite" group versus one of the traditional oppressed? Are the psychological effects of torture somehow related to class and former income?

I do believe in best practitioners of development. A best practitioner of Development knows which practices are worth adopting, which can be adapted to local situations and made useful, which to file on the shelf next to the Milli Vanilli cassette tapes.

The best development professionals do not need to tout their successes and sell them as lessons learned. End the proliferation of Best practice and lessons learned pamphlets. Save the trees. Or at the very least, save filing space.


Just a quick one - what the hell is the UN not doing that it should be doing in Haiti with 9,000 blue helmets already there?!

It's tragic they lost so many of their own in the earthquake (viz. conservative estimates are 34 peacekeepers), but why can't the other 8,966 peacekeepers roll up their sleeves and pitch in?

Or is there some reason they can't, like;

- It's not within their mandate;

- Someone hasn't filled out the right form;

- "For safety and security reasons...."

- It's "pending" or "in process"

- Amiable platitudes need to be broadcast on BBC/CNN/AJ/etc. by some UN Aid Lord prior to any token, poorly managed gesture can be made

- Funding is not approved

Oh, for God's sake! C'mon UN, get off your backsides for once!

Links again

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


It appears that the unintended benefits of Inexact Science are even more potent than initially reported.

A man currently detained in Saudi Arabia is claiming that his terrorist leanings were motivated by the memory of his Inexact Science Experience.

Mohammed al-Awfi said his Inexact Science Experience started six years ago at the Bagram U.S. military base in Afghanistan before he 'graduated' to Gitmo (we should all know by now that extraordinary rendition is when that fortuitous tap on the shoulder comes in the form of the Inexact Science Opportunity).

BBC journalist Peter Taylor reports that, "Al-Awfi claimed his U.S. interrogators... sat him on a chair, made a hole in the seat, and then pulled out the testicles from underneath which they then hit with a metal rod."

But that is not all - there's more!

Taylor goes on to report that al Awfi alleges, "They'd then tie up your penis and make you drink salty water in order to make you urinate without being able to do so, until they make you scream."

Al Awfi was amongst a select group of the best of the best Inexact Science Experiential prospects. He then moved up to the Science's Higher Learning Orbit, through the Deradicalization and Rehabilitation Campaign in Saudi Arabia.

The DRC in Saudi Arabia reportedly "involves counseling by Muslim clerics to alter their thinking, extensive contact with their families, and practical help to reintegrate them into society."

Taylor notes that, "When I asked al-Awfi why the rehabilitation program had not worked for him, he said it was because the memories of what he had suffered at the hands of Americans were far more powerful than any corrective inducements he had received in the program."

This sort of testimonial is proof undeniable of the efficacy of the Science.

It came as no surprise to his trainers that after passing through DRC in Saudi, in January 2009 al Awfi joined the Yemen-chapter of al Qaeda, as a Commander no less.

The Unspoken Public-Private Partnership between Inexact Science and prominent insurgent networks such as al Qaeda is by now well documented. What's interesting here is the affirmative action by al Qaeda that accredits Inexact Science graduates and reinstates them with a corresponding al Qaeda rank.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Quick Peacemeal: Inexact Science

A recent Pentagon assessment using Inexact Science (more on that later) has shown that about one in five detainees released from Gitmo have joined or are suspected of joining militant/insurgent groups.

"There are 198 detainees left at Guantanamo, which once held 750...Among those still being held there, roughly 91 are Yemeni.

"A previous Pentagon assessment last April showed that 14 percent of former detainees had joined or were suspected of joining militant groups, up from 11 percent in December 2008.

"The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the revised Pentagon assessment showed that percentage had grown to about 20 percent.

"Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell...said the vetting process for releasing detainees was an 'inexact science,' adding: 'You know, we are making subjective calls based upon judgment, intelligence. And so there is no foolproof answer in this realm. That's what makes this so difficult.'"

As an aid worker, I am pretty sure that there might be lessons learned from The War on Terror on self-sufficiency and sustainability. Gitmo is now providing that critical feedback loop we aid workers all strive for: By disaffecting new terrorists and feeding them back into failed states and fragile spaces which (as we all know by now) incubate insurgency and terrorism, and in turn, these spaces become new and challenging contexts for Surgettes to apply their COINtastic solutions and do nation-building. Perhaps there's something we could all learn from this approach; I believe the military calls it iterative learning or something.

I also take this opportunity to Welcome three new bloggers to Double Negative, all chums committed to the kind of positive thinking that permeates this forum.

Rank and File is a Female Combatant , so she's really vulnerable. If she posts her views, nobody better be critical!

Five Finger Discount is a Specialist in Inexact Science. Look out for her seminal piece exploring Secret Portals and the War on Terror.

Centre Half-Forward is the more cautious and diplomatic member of the team. He often writes posts in draft form and errs on the side of not pressing 'Submit'. Not that submission is a problem for him... As our resident Conflictologist, when he does eventually submit, it never offends anyone!

Links again:

Aid Lord Perception Index

A friend recently sent me an email in which he asked the innocent question:

“Why Don’t We In Civil Society (NGOs, INGOs, campaign groups) Begin Assessing the Competence of Senior Figures on the International Circuits?”

He went on to argue that:

“International entities such as the UN, OSCE, World Bank…are hierarchies, with one or two people – almost always male – sitting at the top of the pyramid. These people hold immense power over the organisations’ staff who therefore, understandably, never criticise them for fear of their careers.

“These people at the top are virtually unassailable. They simply revolve from one top post to another, year after year after year.

“As things stand, there is no-one ‘out here’ in the wider world assessing such individuals’ performance. Their Governments go on sponsoring them, probably blind to their failures. The same names can be seen in top posts for decades.

“I suggest at the very least the world’s civil society sector should try to develop an objective assessment process for these international figures.

I think the idea is sound. I am glad someone else maintains their rage against impunity in the face of what is far too often no-outcomes, let alone poor and destructive aid/development/recovery/post-conflict programming (“Do No Harm” notwithstanding, which I think sets the bar absurdly low).

Obviously certain institutional donors, UN agencies, highly successful consultancies, and/or international organistions will probably not support this from the outset. But you never know.

In terms of means and spaces, the internet and the blogosphere is the perfect place to do this.

The funny thing about accountability is that in the majority of donor countries, there are ample precedents; think about all the municipal regulatory structures providing oversight, compliance monitoring, and professional standards supervision in the many areas of the public and private sectors. The broad aim of such regulatory controls is to circumscribe and assess the outcomes of the industry in question against wider policy, public interest, and community expectations.

Indeed, why is it that in this particular industry, i.e. international aid and development, a huge gap exists in terms of supervision and regulatory controls?

Centre Half-Forward (Welcome!) and I kicked around some possible indices for an Aid Lord Perception Index:

Salary + fringe benefits/funding raised (not including base or institutional funding from permanent endowments, compulsory member states’ contributions, etc.)

Travel costs per year/#new deals signed

Travel costs per year/new deals signed in $

Average number of reporting lines between Aid Lord in question and a project manager directly responsible for a specific project

Total headquarter costs/total funding

Total number of emails sent by him in the last six months

Recipient government perception responses (qualitative)

Donor government perception responses (qualitative)

One concern I have are outliers or anomalies. These are organizations whose business model will make them look unduly ineffective – such as organizations that spend most of their resources on policy development. The other group of possible outliers and anomalies are organizations that move huge volumes of materiel and get paid accordingly, e.g. logistics, food, etc. These organizations, particularly during emergency/disaster response, may look really effective, but this may often has little to do with their respective Aid Lord.

Methinks there are many things to consider.

Perhaps the worst perceived Aid Lord(s) could get an award. Possible awards could be:

- If not already obtained, Man of the Year in Time Magazine;
- Return business class trip to tribal administered areas in Pakistan for a speaking
tour alongside Ronan Farrow;
- Round-the-world aid convoy with British MP George Galloway;
- His own ten-acre plot in Gaza to do whatever he wants with; or
- His own hut in a Millennium Development Village with residency requirements.

The best perceived Aid Lord doesn’t need to be awarded because he’s paid well and he's DOING HIS JOB. But, if rewarding mitzvah is your thing, perhaps he could win a symbolic set of golden keys to Jerusalem or something. Or mayor of Kabul (actually, that’s taken – the ballots have spoken).

Links again:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Alas, Today's Terrorists Don't Write

I never thought of terrorism along these lines:;jsessionid=2AB221C13D4D53E51973B72BF6628111.w6?a=526631&f=112&sub=Columnist

Roger Cohen is tremendously provocative columnist, whose favourite pieces of mine range from drone wars (although, he started his piece about how the US weaponised the fruitfly) and a deliciously sarky piece about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Anyway, Cohen's irreverent musing links intrepid revolutionaries of yore with displacement/resettlement of today's pre-terrorists and their subsequent anti-Western militancy.

I know of no written treatise/manifesto/exegesis penned by Zawahiri, Bin Laden, Haqqani, Mullah Omar, al Sadr, Irwandi Yusuf, Prabhakaran, Kony, or Mehsud (or his lucky donkey); no equivalent to Mao's guerrilla bible from 1937.

By comparison, today's guerilla, or 'insurgent' if you prefer, is a dull sociopath.

Still, the point Cohen makes is really interesting; to what extent is displacement or resettlement in the West a feature of modernday terrorist experience and subsequent thought patterns? Certainly travel to places like Waziristan, Peshawar/Rawalpindi, Quetta (oops all Pakistan), and um, Sudan?, London?, the seething airport lounges of Lagos; are these the paltry incubation sites for anti-Western militancy?


No wonder the poor sods are so dull and disaffected! Ho, Mao, Che, Castro, and Friends had Cuba, Argentina, Paris, Moscow and many other FUN places to scheme and conspire. Perhaps if we offered today's pre-terrorists (starting perhaps with Gitmo ex-cons - sorry I can't say "con" because they were never convicted - I meant "detainee") happier sanctuaries, they might write more. Then we would learn more about them (and learn what's wrong, for crying out loud!).

This Happy Potential Terrorist Sanctuary would have psychoanalysts fluent in Urdu, Arabic, and Arabic. We could construct an adventure course where we would play corporate trust games - they always look like fun (learning to trust sniping co-workers to break your fall off a jungle gym). Even contemporary writing classes and workshops; where we explore other ways of expressing oneself without resorting to C4. Day care would have to be made available; Bin Laden could really use this - the dude is really lacking parenting skills.

I think I'm onto something. Perhaps I should start working on a proposal - "Camp Ray of Sunshine" or something. I suspect that hosting it in Cuba might give everyone the wrong impression so we'll choose somewhere fun and lively, and remote (naturally). Galapagos might work actually.

Links again:

Bin Laden and Parenting:

Cohen on Drone Wars and Fruitflies:

Cohen on Obama's impromptu Nobel:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Africa

What is it about vacuums, editors/publishers in the US, and Africa?

Altitude sickness.

As soon as its 'African' they lose all their critical faculties and instincts of inquiry. They get so high on their moral pedestal, the air thins out.

If the Ishmael Beah hoax (at the very least he was fast and loose with his factotums) was not enough, they are prone to the dumbest of assertions. Seriously, it's altitude sickness or lack of oxygen or something.

Case in point: Dambisa Moyo's contribution to the body of work that is Self-Loathing Ex-World Bank Employees Seek Redemption in Print.

The introduction/foreword by Niall Ferguson says of Dambisa; "an African view of Africa's Problems".

By her own account, this is a woman born in Zambia, whose father has a PhD from University of California, and a mum who is a leading banker. Dambisa spent big chunks of her formative years in the U.S. Her CV amongst other things reads;

- MBA in Finance and Bachelors degree in Chemistry from American University;
- Harvard for her Masters in Public Administration;
- PhD from Oxford;
- Two years working with the World Bank; and
- A stint with Goldman Sachs.

That's an African View?

It's the view of an exceptionally privileged Zambian-born woman who trawls through contemporary American thinking on Africa and comes up with a different point of view. It’s a pretty long bow to draw when one describes this rarefied viewpoint – however well-meaning the compliment is intended – as somehow representative of a homogenous ‘African view’.

At worst, Dambisa’s book entitled Dead Aid is 154 pages of circular corroboration. At best, it’s a thorough desk review of all the most prominent thinkers; another way of looking at it, is that it is an instructive example of how to schmooze and tip one's hat to all the Big Thinkers in the Faculty of Aid and Development.

Being that as it may, some people will find this slim volume controversial because it is openly critical of aid by advocating a 'tough love' approach to causing development and stability in Africa. Again, this is not in and of itself ground-breaking when one considers the genre; Self-Loathing Ex-World Bank Employees Seek Redemption in Print.

The main thrust of her argument is that aid to Africa in all its forms negatively reinforces corrupt/conflict-fractured/poor African states so 'we' in the West should impose stricter conditions and make more time-critical demands upon these regimes/states. Wean Africa off the big bosom of the West, so to speak.

As I flicked pages restlessly - and with a trace of exasperation I will admit – through Dead Aid, I couldn't help but imagine the ambience in which the book was written;

- The soft tap-tappa noise of perfectly manicured fingers on the soft keys of laptops, singing in syncopated chorus with all the other laptops in the sort of cafe that serves drinks called "grande" "frappacino" and "doppio". Everyone greets one another and the Barista named William with "Hi-ee!" and cute little wash-on, wash off hand waving. William, probably a carrot top (never set foot in Italy), says his obligatory 'ciao';
- The swatch and rustle of patent leather cases, belts, clasps, satchels, handbags, and clutches. Embossed with names like Prada and Hermes;
- Entering into atriums and climate-controlled rooms; the sterile whooshing drone of electric doors, lifts, and elevators;
- The twinkle-clinkle and steady murmur of the kind of restaurant where the wine and the water comes from France or Italy (or some other thinning glacial spring in Europe);
- Lunch consists of Ligurian olives, rich fetta, Sicilian parma and swino nero, bread with names like ciabatta or baguette or panini, bufala mozzarella, marinated peppers and aubergine, washed down with coffee that came from a machine named Gaggia;
- Meat with citations like loin, rump, and fillet (as opposed to 'goat' or 'beef');
- Chuckling friends, colleagues, irony, and private humour.

Here are some ambient noises and dynamics I don't hear when I read Dead Aid:

- The dull roar of a diesel engine as you clock up 750km per week;
- Papa Wemba or Mama Afrika on squealing cassettes;
- The soft thud of stool hitting the latrine's hand-dug pit;
- The whine and ratta-tatta of heavy rain hitting corrugated iron sheeting;
- The stiff clicks and taps of a manual typewriter while you wait two-three-hours-maybe-all-day to meet yet another incompetent senior bureaucrat;
- Chickens, chicks, turkeys, and all manner of fowl jabbering in a constant background cacophony;
- Lunch, if you're lucky;
- Dinner is upland rice, a sloppy broth, and a long slender rooster thigh so taut you need elbow room to break it apart;
- Mzungu! Omuzungu! Mono! (For obvious reasons, mind)
- Eh! Ah-ah! Percussive exclamations in stereo with the poultry
- People hold hands when they greet, and fix you in the eyes;
- Guffawing, full body laughing, probably at someone making a gaffe.

What is it about self-loathing and the former World Bankers? So many of the big names she cites all too frequently are all dyed in the wool self-loathing ex-World Bankers - Collier, Easterly, Sachs...and now, Moyo. At least one of them is African, I suppose!

There's a willful quality to the Bank's recruitment practices. I often wonder if they consciously hire to self-loath. Their keen sense of hubris can only be described as compulsive. Do they persist in funding the woeful programmes around the world in order to feed their self-loathing?

Dead Aid is to self-loathing ex-World Bankers and their acolytes like the tantalizing Ninth Most Highly Effective Habit (is it the Ninth or is Stephen Covey already in double digits?) is for grasping middle managers with personality disorders.

Are editors and publishers at all aware of how over-represented former World Bank self-loathers are amongst their bare-all 'woe Africa' stable of writers?

It would be funny if their ideas weren't so deprived of oxygen. I get dizzy just reading the titles and dizzier still when reading how earnest and seriously they take themselves.

Although, I must say Dambisa is seriously good at sub-headings. You can see the argument unfold by just reading the table of contents.

To be fair, the book should be judged, not on the background, attractiveness (maybe I'm shallow, but it counts; Dambisa is a hotty – somehow it makes the text fly off the page!), or the good living of its author; rather it should be judged on its standalone merits.

And here it is. Dead Aid is a Big Name literature review of Africa's liaisons with the West’s donors and the vicissitudes of executing our na├»ve intentions in Africa. There is no significant primary or secondary analysis in amongst the 154 pages. Even the anecdotes are, for the most part, dry and passionless. That said, it's easy to read and mercifully short.

Links again:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Too Big to Fail

Even their own generals doubt their own ability to collect intelligence.

At least according to Major General Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan for the U.S. military and its NATO allies:

"Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy...ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced ... and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers."

Is Afghanistan – just like Vietnam before it – too big to fail?

Made me think about an interesting post on dumb-as-rocks aid/development in Afghanistan. It is stating the numbingly obvious when I say that the constantly changing and deteriorating security climate in Afghanistan is a significant impediment to aid and development or “nation-building” as the US/NATO counter-insurgency effort terms it. The whole chicken-egg riddle of you can't have development without security (and vice versa) is nonsense too. It's a conversation that sucks in oxygen for no good reason at all. In a fragile security environment you can have stability interventions. Usually such interventions are highly contextualized. Contextualization means understanding the context – social networks, local/tribal solidarities, patterns to ethnic and cultural dynamics, and the recent historical calculus that has led communities and their allegiances to where they are now.

Hard to do when your bombing them out of the sky. Doubly hard when there are not even pilots flying the planes.

One of the pillars of effective counter-insurgency, or “COIN” as it is called at the moment, that of intelligence-gathering, is losing its burnish. The tragic events last week in which seven CIA officers only underscores that the Taleban are not really on the run. In fact, they are taking advantage of the poor intelligence-gathering practices of US/NATO.

Ready-made interventions that conveyed well in other contexts frequently don't work in complex conflict-riven contexts. This is because interventions need contextualization. This means that the success, fleeting or otherwise, in Iraq in 2007 cannot be super-imposed on a fundamentally different context.

Where are the precedents for the touted military-led nation-building that the US insists will work?

Aside from WWII and parts of the Balkans, the US government (and NATO by extension) simply cannot point to a reliable or sustainable precedent for their much vaunted military-led nation-building. If you doubt the substance of what I am asserting check out Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index; all the bottom-order countries are post-conflict.

154 Yemen (ok, not yet – but coming soon!)
158 Cambodia
168 Haiti
176 Iraq
176 Sudan
179 Afghanistan
180 Somalia (the very bottom)

Another way of grouping them together is “post-US-conflict”.

The question is whether armed or military organizations are well placed to contextualize their interventions and achieve civilian objectives through the use of force?

The argument the buzzcutters will contend is that other organizations (invariably citing wooly NGOs and their fluffier comrades at the UN) are far too process-oriented to be able to realistically make meaningful aid interventions in fragmented and rapidly shifting contexts.

Interestingly, at odds with many of his colleagues and contemporaries, Major General Michael Flynn, senses that no matter how intricate their analyses (if and when they can get it right), no matter how swift their feedback cycles, no matter how attune their leaders are to the context; the chilling reality looms. NATO/US can’t win this war. Their keen sense of denial is akin to a consciousness of guilt.

Just like in Viet Nam.

Billions of taxpayer dollars later, after the expiry of so many young lives, and at the behest of a local population with almost no say in what is happening to them; what will be left?

Afghanistan reinvented for the Nth time.

Why does the current debate and approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan bother the Artful Aid Worker so much?

Simply put, ‘the Surgettes’ are already gathering the evidence for Viet Nam Redux. No manual or doctrine – no matter how many copies it has sold or how media savvy its authors are – can paper over the debacle that is already the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Their so-called “population-centric” approach is symptomatic of a military mindset that is dominating a rapidly deteriorating space.

For an aid-worker who works on post-conflict recovery and reintegration, albeit not in a war zone (for reasons obvious to me, but not to the Surgettes) the way that “nation-building” projects are described and implemented always presumes military objectives as part and parcel of “the process”.

Take for instance, road-building; we are told that “the process is the outcome”. This is to say that the road itself is a secondary objective – what happens during the road construction is the primary objective. The processes the Surgettes applaud are “permanent presence”; bringing “the fight” to US/NATO troops on favourable terms, winning local support in order to precipitate an intelligence-cascade, and “integrated campaign management” which appears to suggest that government is a participant-spectator not really running anything important. Many of us are left with the unambiguous conclusion that the nation-building approach is clear, hold, build, KILL. And at least from where I look at it, that’s enemy-centric.

Furthermore, the entire corpus of contemporary counter-insurgency theory with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan relies on the alignment of too many fundamental/critical/key/must-have/important requirements.

For instance in his intriguing book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, prominent COIN expert David Kilcullen, prescribes the following conditions-precedent for his COINtastic solution to work:

"Priotization is critical"

"our strategy must seek first and foremost to build... an Afghan state capable of managing its own problems"

"Effective COIN requires security forces who are legitimate in local eyes"

"Population-centric...human-security 24 hours a day is critical"

"Integration with Pakistan strategy is also fundamental"

"Building the planning and oversight capability of the Afghan government is key"

It just goes on and on. From a technical viewpoint, the presumption of so many enabling factors being in place or created concurrently for this approach to work is fanciful in the extreme. I have never experienced such a celestial alignment of enabling factors in difficult working environments.

Military agencies should be trying to get out of there (Afghanistan and Pakistan) as soon as possible, and not being tasked with whatever their toxic strain of “nation-building” is supposed to mean. Counterinsurgents and military types don’t really understand what socio-economic reintegration and community stabilization involves, and even if they did, they can’t do it because their are the wrong agents of change.

If they are truly population-centric, then they would understand – they’re really not winning the hearts and minds. In fact, their approach is having the opposite desired outcome.

Leave it to USAID, DFID, and all the other international and non-government agencies that, despite their wooliness and many shortcomings, actually know what and how to develop and work within fragile and difficult spaces emerging from conflict.

Links again:

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Not Unwelcome Beginning

I have been thinking and procrastinating for years about writing a blog, worried about potential repercussions. The stern warnings and reasons not to were brought home to me by a not unwelcome reminder email that read something like:

"...there continue to be too many improper and unacceptable uses of email, often involving emotionally charged exchanges ...which unnecessarily exacerbate personal relations and inhibit solutions to problems... bear in mind that, once written and sent, an email takes on a life of its own, and often cannot be recalled, and risks being forwarded to others who may be tempted to join the altercation..."

Then I read some numbing epithet that I received via sms, totally unsolicited mind you from a complete stranger, along the lines of "life is short, break the rules, forgive quickly..."

So I thought, 'I'll give it a go. And if it all goes horribly wrong? And I am forced to speak in high-minded principles, then explain in syrupy concession-laden tones? Then so be it. What is the material difference between that state of affairs and my usual course of dealing? Nothing - so as often say to confused staff, "Approved, please proceed".

By way of introduction, I am an aid worker.

There are three types of self-described aid workers - actually there are more, but it sounds so much more decisive to speak in threes - which may be calculated as follows:

Donor Aid Worker: This aid worker is usually wearing really nice clothes and access to a flushing toilet is taken for granted. This person can tell you what foie gras is or has traveled on business class at least once or has read at least one book by Collier, Easterly, Moyo, or some other really important and absurdly prolific intellectual meridian of aid thought.

You may calculate Donor Aid Worker using the following formula:

Loads of education + preppy + selfish + self-entitled + slack + risk-terrified + uncritical + intelligent + obsequious = Donor Aid Worker.

I'm not saying it's fool proof, but it works alright. So long as you intend the equation to result in Donor Aid Worker. If you wanted some other result, then there could be a problem, the main thing is that you are purposive about this and other stereotype arithmetic.

Well Paid Implementing Aid Worker: This aid worker is usually expatriate, even if it's a Kenyan working in Uganda (or vice versa). You would be amazed what frequent air travel does to one's expectations and sense of well-being. It's a wonder that more refugees don’t feel more important as a result of air travel. Then again, UN pilots have a disturbingly ’grounded’ manner about them that could negate the 'Air Travel Effect'. And, calico bags really detract from the jet-setting experience. Anyway, this person is usually a Donor Aid Worker aspirant.

Ergo, you may calculate Implementing Aid Worker using the following uncannily alike formula:

[(doing/just-finished Masters + officious + self-entitled + groveling + critical in meetings + intelligent + post-paid mobile phone + knows what ‘ergo’ means) x frequency of air travel]/risk-repugnancy (NB. as a scale of 1-5, where 1 is 'seeks concurrence on everything' and five is 'regularly makes decisions') = Well Paid Implementing Aid Worker.

Then we have Actual Aid Worker. Poor sod. Actually if he's gay, the chances are that he is probably not open about his sexuality because being open about one's sexuality usually accrues around the Well Paid Implementing Aid Worker altitude. Being openly gay is something of a luxury for Actual Aid Workers. But I digress. Actual Aid Worker knows what a pit latrine is as a user, unlike Donor Aid Worker, who only knows how to appraise a WASH proposal. Actual Aid Worker as his/her name suggests probably has a pre-paid mobile phone, and has probably never left her/his own country.

The formula for Actual Aid Worker is really simple:

[competent + knows all CSOs s/he partners with by name + thinks all bule/farangi/mzungu talk like instruction manuals + has never commented on a blog) x average miles traveled each day]/USD1,500 (NB. 95% of Actual Aid Workers makes less than this) = Actual Aid Worker.

I’m a self-loathing Well Paid Implementing Aid Worker. Not that I don’t love my job, I just loathe my species that’s all. It’s more complicated than it sounds, and I prefer to pay someone when I talk about it.

For instance, I let things get to me. When I find out that a prestigious U.S. based NGO wins a sh-tload of money to do the absolute bare minimum to keep some Donor Aid Worker out of trouble, I get bouts of self-loathing.

But, I wail, the mandate from the donor state’s citizens was to get jobs for vulnerable youth emerging from war and help an astonishingly corrupt government stabilize an extremely fragile part of Asia/Africa/somewhere ‘Eastern’.

So what does the Donor Aid Worker and his/her cohort do? Outsource the entire thing to one organization. Rather than break it up across multiple implementing agencies thereby introducing competition, rather than disaggregating the M&E for the sake of accountability, rather than directly engaging civil society as implementers - what does the donor do? They choose the modality that removes as much decision-making and responsibility from themselves. Gutless and totally at odds with what the donor state’s citizens expectations of their government.

So there you have it a rambling blog post with no resolution. I really wanted Double Negative to be like the clever title suggests, ultimately positive, albeit unnecessarily.

I guess the upshot is that I wrote about it - I expressed myself - and I feel a bit better now.