Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In Defense of Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof seems to have triggered a development storm. While America contemplates its post-election landscape, development practitioners are debating what Kristof termed D.I.Y. development aid. Dave Algoso offered an eloquent rebuttal to Kristof's highlighting of individuals who took the initiative to delve into development projects largely alone. Many more have jumped into this debate, some of whom did not take Algoso's kind and thoughtful approach to the argument and instead took to the opportunity to criticize Kristof's way of conducting humanitarian work at large, as well as his attitude towards reporting it. I do not fit squarely into either camp of this debate. I have been a recipient of a fellowship to design and implement conflict management projects worldwide, but have also been affiliated with UN agencies, NGOs and community-based organizations. I am not strictly a journalist, humanitarian or development worker, but I do write, report, design and implement humanitarian projects in conflict zones. I have been skeptical about Kristof's occasionally self-aggrandizing tone about development and humanitarian endeavors, but I have also been inspired by his writing, by his and his wife's projects and by the way in which he uses a forum as powerful as the New York Times editorial page to shed attention to issues of vital importance to communities worldwide. With a full understanding that my identity and own biases affect my perspective on this topic, here is my take on the D.I.Y. development debate.

Algoso's skepticism in the FP piece begins with a theme that has troubled me as well in the past year:
Here's one critical question: How can we ensure that the work actually serves the best interests of the beneficiaries, when the funding comes from the other side of the globe?
It is indeed a question of local community involvement and investment and, in turn, a question of the project's response to communal needs and its eventual sustainability. I agree with Algoso that this is not a question we ask ourselves enough -- but "ourselves", in my mind, includes individual development workers and institutional aid agencies alike. How frequently do we laugh (and cry) at the development projects that ignore local customs, traditions, and myths and, therefore, fail to have the intended impact? The toilets that flush automatically and scare the locals out of using them, hence failing the goal of increased sanitation. The doctors who ignore the myths and customs of Haiti, resulting in patients not visiting them and not receiving care, as Paul Farmer narrates in the early chapters of Mountains beyond Mountains. Perhaps the institutionalized programs of the UN and assorted NGOs in each field have a greater capacity for finding the answers to these questions and increasing the impact and sustainability of their respective projects -- but it has been my experience that too often they, too, fail at asking the questions at all, making Algoso's concern of serving the beneficiaries' best interest one that troubles individuals and organizations alike.

The answer, for both institutions and individuals, lies in needs assessments. Ensuring the work serves the interests of the beneficiaries becomes easier when we ask the beneficiaries what they hope to gain through their participation in a development initiative. What do they hope to learn? What kind of skills would they like to develop? Which of our proposed topics do they find more interesting and which are less relevant? A needs assessment extends beyond participant interviews; indeed, other NGOs, community-based organizations and aid agencies in the field can offer great insight as to the best and worst practices in a particular country or project sector. Many of Kristof's critics would argue that 'this is not the stuff of amateurs' and they may be right. Training development professionals to conduct and supervise these processes correlates well with effective project completion. However, this need not be as esoteric a process as it currently appears: Individuals with curiosity, a commitment to project sustainability and adaptability to local needs and cultures, and meticulousness can apply this formula and avoid common project design pitfalls.

Similarly, Algoso asks:
How can we ensure that the work actually serves the best interests of the beneficiaries, when the funding comes from the other side of the globe?
My answer to this question mirrors my response to his previous one. First of all, funding comes from across the globe for UN aid agencies, NGOs and individual projects, so this is once again not a problem that is particular to the independent development practitioner. Secondly, a needs assessment and survey of best and worst practices in the field can minimize the risk of the project not fulfilling the wishes of its intended beneficiaries. It is for this reason that fundraising staff and project design and implementation staff have different mandates and are involved in different aspects of development programming. Indeed, a fundraiser cannot necessarily be expected to know the best public health interventions to minimize the spread of cholera in a particular region -- for that reason, epidemiologists, development workers and field staff have greater input into the design of the actual intervention. Skeptics will say that the greater the financial assistance of the donor, the more heavily involved s/he will attempt to be in the project implementation, regardless of his or her expertise -- and they will sometimes unfortunately be right. However, the fact that the source of funding comes from abroad, from outside the community that the donation intends to assist, does not mean the project itself will necessarily be foreign, incongruous, irrelevant and, consequently, of diminished impact.

Texas in Africa, a blog I greatly respect and a resource I consult often, added the following critique of Kristof's article:
The problem here is that Kristof is relying upon anecdotal evidence (NGO's he has encountered) rather than systematically gathered evidence. [...] Because Kristof's only research method is his personal observation, we can't be sure that he's not simply making general claims on outliers. He's not using data; he's using anecdotes. And anecdotes are a slippery slope on which to base claims about the kind of aid work that will best aid the world's poor.
I do not dispute that this appears to have been Kristof's methodology for writing this article. However, I do not agree that this is necessarily an erroneous approach.  Kristof did not submit an academic paper that posited to hold the truth to innovative, independent aid work projects. Instead, he submitted to the New York Times Magazine profiles of individuals whose story can inspire others to become involved in the field of development. Whatever happened to the power of the story? Why can the narrative -- indeed, the anecdote -- not be moving and successful in mobilizing others to action?

I understand that glamorizing these individuals' stories can provide false motivation and an inaccurate picture to aspiring aid workers. I further understand that the allure of this lifestyle and these profiled successes can draw people to this field who are not qualified to run their own development projects individually. The people in Kristof's article are role models and, yes, they are examples of successes. Some have called them "outliers" and they may be that as well. But critical readers should be expected to understand that Kristof likely did not highlight these stories as blueprints for exact repetition. The very function of a role model is as a source of inspiration, as a seed in one's brain that can grow into a good idea, a new path, and a source of further research. Kristof appears to understand the potential for "wrongful application" of his piece as well, so he makes sure to point out potential drawbacks and dangers -- and it is valuable to have other development practitioners contribute to the debate by highlighting the caveats and nuances and difficulties of this kind of work on which Kristof may not shed as much light. However, at the end of the day, I see nothing wrong with inspiring and moving people with the power of a story; in fact, it can be as compelling as an academic paper or scientifically-researched article. t is not as though we have too many individuals donating their time and energy to causes in the developing world. And if the problem is that some people who do not have the guts or the training to be in the development field end up feeling disillusioned or ill-equipped in Africa or Latin America or the area of their choosing, then the field itself, its challenges and its learning opportunities will either force them to seek guidance and education in what they have yet to master or push them out, towards a direction that is more suitable to their skills and interests. In this sense, I am an optimist. I believe that anyone who wishes to learn and succeed and make impact and goes so far as to take a leap of faith and jump right in the middle of the issues one cares about will find a way to make up for his or her deficiencies - will find a way to learn and be taught and be successful.

Which brings me to the final point about independent development practitioners vs. institutional affiliations. When I was a junior at Harvard University, friends and classmates were going through the e-Recruiting system, whereby they submitted their resumes through an electronic platform to recruiters, mostly in the field of consulting and financial services (but also, in smaller numbers, in teaching and public service). Competitive rounds of interviews would follow and Harvard graduates would flock en masse to consulting firms and investment banks -- en such masse, in fact, that President Drew Faust acknowledged the pattern in an address to the Class of 2008 during Commencement Week. I was not interested in financial services (nor was I honestly qualified to be a consultant or investment banker). When I asked a friend with prior experience in this field what its appeal was, he earnestly said that it is good to receive this kind of structured training early in life; it does not matter in what field. It is helpful and valuable and significant to have someone teach a young graduate and young professional how to be a professional and how to function in the work sphere.

Even though I still have little interest in the field of financial services, my friend's words still resonate deeply. His argument is the same reason why it can be instructive to be a paralegal or to hold an entry-level job in the publishing industry: We all need to be taught and trained how to conduct ourselves professionally and development is no exception. In that sense, the title of Kristof's article may be misleading. "Do It Yourself" aid does not mean "do not ask for help, teaching, training or mentorship and assume that you know better than all the above." Capacity building initiatives for development professionals are catching on and they are initiatives in which I enjoy both participating and contributing to the design. Algoso and other critics of Kristof's article are right to point out that development is not easy enough to be a "Do-It-Yourself" endeavor. They are right. Where I diverge from their argument is in the ways one can be taught. There are mentors out there -- individuals with years of development and project design experience who will happily teach what they know. There are seminars and workshops and books and opportunities to learn outside strict academic or professional environments. Few of these ways of learning would be as structured as being part of a UN or other agency and I do know that all of these other ways of learning require the learner to take initiative, seek out mentorship and guidance and truly commit to amassing knowledge. However, I have found that such guidance and mentorship is available -- meaning that those independent development practitioners who actively seek out qualification and knowledge and instruction can find it.

In summation:

  1.  The problem of unsustainable projects or projects with minimal community involvement and inadequate response to the beneficiaries' needs is not particular to independent aid workers; it plagues aid agencies and independent professionals alike and its solution lies in comprehensive needs assessment processes and field evaluations on all sides.
  2.  Anecdotal, story-based evidence does not have to be less credible than academic, scientific data where the profiling of individuals is concerned, particularly when one of the purposes of these profiles may be to showcase role models. This methodology places an emphasis on inspiration and the generation of ideas and its intention is not to provide a single, ready, universal blueprint for individual development work. [Algoso is right to point out that Kristof does pick a homogeneously American sample of stories -- there are local leaders whose stories and projects are just as inspiring and there should be room for them in the NYT Magazine pages as well. Having read Kristof and WuDunn's Half the Sky, I do appreciate Kristof's awareness of this and his commitment - in the book - to highlighting the stories of a more diverse group.]
  3. "Do It Yourself" Aid does not -- and should not -- mean "Do It Without Outside Assistance, Teaching or Guidance." There are ways to become a qualified aid professional outside academia or institutional affiliation and it is doubly important for independent practitioners to take advantage of them. Mentorship, capacity development initiatives and the very nature of work and life in the field build aid workers' qualifications. I will, however, agree that institutional affiliations are advantageous in this regard; it is hard to compete with a rigorous training program and constant oversight as an individual.

Thank you for bearing with me and for contributing to the debate -- it is the passion and commitment of individuals to the field of development and to their respective projects that account for thoughtful, successful, sustainable initiatives and I am inspired to read about these programs, the individuals behind them and, indeed, their stories.


7 comments:

  1. Ignorance to local customs, culture and mythology most certainly befalls even experienced development organizations. We construct EcoSan latrines at our partner schools, which require mixing leftover ash from the cooking fires into the waste to create usable crop fertilizer. Who could have known that Acholi superstition holds that putting ash on someone's waste will curse them? In the end though, we told our schools to get over it and use the damn toilets.

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  2. Roxanne,

    There is a lot here.

    In regards to the power of stories and anecdotes: I think that these communicative styles serve the purpose of, as you say, inspiring ideas. I find it noteworthy that two important books on solving the issue of global poverty, Out of Poverty by Paul Polak and How To Change The World by David Bornstein, both rely on anecdotes to tell the story of social change.

    But the anecdotes point to profounder truths - paradigms that can be applied to make meaningful change in the world. For Polak, it's among other points to think simply, like a child even, for solving problems of poverty and rural development. When he saw that roasted nuts sold by Brazilian farmers could take a higher price at market, he harnessed the hot air being released from a home's chimney to roast the nuts the family was already growing, thus increasing their income. Above and beyond the fact that Polak brought I believe 24 million people out of poverty with his methods, the anecdote points to a principle that can be used to create real change - think simply about increasing income, harnessing / leveraging the the assets the poor already has and making them more effective.

    Perhaps Kristof could do a better job of pointing to the principles, the paradigms, that lay at the core of his stories. I haven't finished Half the Sky, so I can't comment with greater certainty on that point.

    Secondly, this debate itself brings to mind a simple maxim that I've found useful in thinking about development, poverty reduction, and the like. Simply, there are two types of people in the world - those who take action, and those who talk about people who take action. So much criticism comes from people who think of a better way to take action but then don't actually do so! I am far more interested in what people have actually done, and then learning from them so I can do something as well. It sounds like a lot of these Kristof-haters care, which is why they're chiming in, but at the same time they would probably offer far more meaningful perspectives if they got involved with one of these causes in a serious and meaningful way.

    I saw a different comment of yours on GoodIntents, randomly today. It's nice to know we're reading the same blogs. I hope you'll add Cause Integration to your list: http://causeintegration.com.

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  3. I may post this twice, as I'm not sure the comment got through the first time.

    Roxanne,

    There is a lot here.

    In regards to the power of stories and anecdotes: I think that these communicative styles serve the purpose of, as you say, inspiring ideas. I find it noteworthy that two important books on solving the issues of global poverty, Out of Poverty by Paul Polak and How To Change The World by David Bornstein both rely on anecdotes to tell the story of social change.

    But the anecdotes point to profounder truths - paradigms that can be applied to make meaningful change in the world. For Polak, it's among other points to think simply, like a child even, for solving problems of poverty and rural development. When he saw that roasted nuts sold by Brazilian farmers could take a higher price at market, he harnessed the hot air being released from a home's chimney to roast the nuts the family was already growing, thus increasing their income. Above and beyond the fact that Polak brought I believe 24 million people out of poverty with his methods, the anecdote points to a principle that can be used to create real change.

    Perhaps Kristof could do a better job of pointing to the principles, the paradigms, that lay at the core of his stories. I haven't finished Half the Sky, so I can't comment with greater certainty on that point.

    Secondly, this debate itself brings to mind a simple maxim that I've found useful in thinking about development, poverty reduction, and the like. Simply, there are two types of people in the world - those who take action, and those who talk about people who take action. So much criticism comes from people who think of a better way to take action but then don't actually do so! I am far more interested in what people have actually done, and then learning from them so I can do something as well.

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  4. Thanks for the post Roxanne, very tastefully done. I think what we need here is balance. Balance between formal, academically and structurally based ideas and grassroots, story-focused ones. Often trying to address every complexity in a development debate merely leads to paralysis for the average person. On the other side I have seen people who accidentally ravage communities because of their lack of understanding and research. We need to do our research with the understanding that eventually, we just have to ACT. Taking inspirational stories out of the equation takes the humanity out of development, and that is tragic.

    Kristof has sparked a great debate, and a very necessary one I might add. Good thoughts everyone.

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  5. Thank you all for chiming in. Auren, Cause Integration is most definitely on my list - what a fantastic idea. Michelle, your line about "taking inspirational stories out of the equation takes the humanity out of development" truly resonated. Thank you all for giving me lots to think about.

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  6. I can't respond to the whole post as it's huge but a few quick notes:

    So called 'inspirational stories' are in no short supply in Western media - White Knights ride in to dangerous locales and 'save the day' on a regular basis. People in the West like to read these stories, people in the West like to go to 'developing' locales and try to help, in the process gaining a sort of cultural capital.

    So these are not the stories that I want to hear more of. Development projects don't need more DIY'ers on the ground or in the news. The stories I want to hear more of are the ones of the daily lives of the people who have lived in a place since they can remember and who's mother grew up in the house next door; the people who these projects are about.

    Let's stop parading White stories in the news, inspirational or not. Let's start hearing stories and voices of those with the most invested, inspirational or not.

    This is my problem with Kristof and his writing, is his unapologetic focus on White Knights in Africa, the glare of his White lens that taints even the stories that include Africans who aren't war lords, rape victims, etc...

    Stories are vitally important to the process of development but I'm tired of hearing the same old one over again.

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  7. I absolutely share your desire to hear the stories of the people these projects are about - as well as the stories of those who work with the people on the ground when they do not fit the "white westerner" mold. I appreciate hearing these stories from Kristof and WuDunn in Half the Sky, but also from more writers, with or without Kristof's stature. However, I will still be receptive to stories of aid workers, white Westerners or not, inspirational or not -- their stories are intertwined with the stories of those who have lived in difficult locales all their lives and there is still something to be gained from their example.

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