So you want to Blog about Development? (Part 1)

Every week I try to post a set of “Links I liked” based on what I’ve read over the last few days. This is mostly an excuse to share articles that I find interesting, but also a good way to keep up regular posting. Over the year, I’ve started coming back to the same sources, people and sites that have the most interesting and engaging content, and keep me current with development news. If you’re starting out, my first piece of advice would be to learn from the best. So here’s my list of recommendations:

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@cblatts

1. Chris Blattman: Chris Blattman’s blog was among the first I found, and remains the gold standard for development blogging. Blattman (a Columbia political economist) runs experiments on poverty and violence. Notably, his post on what to pack for development fieldwork is brilliant (as is his entire advice column). Beyond being an innovative researcher and talented communicator, he is also Canadian and a Waterloo grad.
Why I read: Honest reflections, Humour, Life advice for development practitioners and researchers. Basically, I get a secret sense of accomplishment when I find a story or image before it features on Blattman’s blog.

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@fp2p

2. From Poverty to Power: One of the happy accidents of coming to Malawi has been being on Twitter at the same time as UK-based Duncan Green, a “Strategic Advisor” at Oxfam. Like Chris Blattman, Green’s blog curates fantastic content but his writing on ‘how social change happens’ is equally interesting. If Blattman’s economics are too much, Green’s practical advice on advocacy and change might be for you.
Why I read: Current events, interesting links, frequent guest contributors

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@BruceWydick

3. Across Two Worlds: Bruce Wydick isn’t as prolific as the above two, but his posts are both academically brilliant and personally reflective. Wydick is a USF Econ prof who runs experiments to find out what interventions work best to end poverty. Personally, I am really impressed by the way he weaves his faith into his work, partnering with organisations like Compassion to make sure their interventions succeed, and promoting a wider idea of what it means to be “developed”.
Why I read: Rigorous and Holistic, enjoyable reading, he might yet convince me to like TOMS.

4. Our World in Data: I’m a huge geek for maps and charts, and Oxford Economist Max Roser’s work is unparalleled. Probably half the maps I share here are from him. His website is good if you need something specific, but I would highly recommend following his Facebook or Twitter.

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Why I read: Fascinating Data, He’s convinced that the world is getting better.

Honourable mention:

The Monkey Cage: “Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage” -Mencken. Political Scientists take their research and summarize it for a popular audience. Right now there’s a lot about the US election, but if you want a non-hysterical perspective on any current event, this is the place to go.

Tyler Cowen– heavy on economics, but only the most interesting. I feel like he publishes a new blog post every ten minutes, but his monthly “Conversations with Tyler” are brilliant- there’s one coming up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!

Guardian Global Development Professionals Network– Four months into my placement in Malawi, the advice and reflections here have become painfully relevant. I’ve featured a couple of the “Secret Aid Worker” columns here, and now it has garnered its own parody!

Aidspeak– “J” writes about the humanitarian system and runs fascinating public opinion polls on aid workers answers to questions like “Would you donate to the NGO you work for?”. Here’s my favourite piece from Aidspeak. See the rest of his writing here.

Priceonomics– Everyone has that one store where they want to buy everything on the shelf. From the definitive answer to “Should You Use a Pie Chart?“, to the economics/statistics of selfies and hair, I love almost every article on this site.

Branko Milanovic– The world’s expert on inequality. Very ugly blog. This paper changed the way I think about the world.

Of course there’s more- on twitter, Ben Parker, Tom Murphy, Charles Kenny (and anyone related to the CGD) and probably more. You can see everyone I follow here.

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A Year of Blogging!

A year ago today, I published the first post on this blog. It was about a trip to my dentist, and what I learned about development from him. I’ve written 56 posts since then.

This year, the blog has had over 3,500 views in 65 countries. Here’s what that looks like:

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Noble No More
started out as a school project, with the goal of telling stories that make development accessible. This has taken two directions, as I switch between personal reflections (that you all read), and political analyses (that no one reads but I like writing).

But I keep writing because I learn so much from both of these. A friend whose writing I really admire recently passed on his secret to growing as a writer: “write a lot, write often”. I’ve tried to do that as much as I can; taking what I’ve been learning and turning it into something that everyone can understand. This clicked for me last month, when I got a message from a friend I hadn’t talked to in years:

“I’m really enjoying your blog- it’s sometimes hard for me to really understand or relate to things that are happening around the world. It just seems so far away. But you have a way of bringing everything into perspective”.

I obsess over the analytics WordPress gives me, but I’m learning that the true impact of my writing is in these shared moments. I love what Oswald Chambers says:

“The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.”

Instead of using my writing to inform or persuade, I want to be able to use it to empathize.

With that said, here’s a sneak preview of what’s ahead in the next few months:

  • The second most popular piece of last year was a collaboration with a friend. I’m hoping to feature others more in the future, asking others to be a part of the conversation.
  • One of the scholars I admire has an incredible ability to make vast amounts of information incredibly succinct. I think that’s a crucial ability in any field, so I’m planning a “Development Debates” series where I’ll try to take some of the biggest issues in development and  do my best to turn them into something digestible.
  • The class just below mine should be starting blogs of their own soon, so I’ll take a couple posts to talk about my learning process and where I find inspiration.
  • But really, this blog is for you! What would you like to see more of? Do you ideas? Would you like to write a guest post? Let me know!

And more than ever, thanks for reading!

What Effective Altruism misses

Last week Medium launched a new publication called The Development Set. I spend a lot of time reading about development, and so this excites me. The publication aims to “ask, without ego or presupposition, what it actually means to make a difference in the world.” I think that is a great question, and I’m excited to see the stories and photos that they use to achieve this goal.

But for me, the tagline is disappointing.

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How do we do the most good?

This idea of “the most good” has been around for a while, but tipped in the last year mainly because of a book and  TED talk by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer advocating for “effective altruism” (EA). Like Medium, EA tends to attract tech-savvy millennials to its ranks. The Development Set has joined a billion dollar movement, with dozens of NGOs and hundreds of researchers, writers, and practitioners all focussing on the question of effectiveness.

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I think this is incredibly important. You don’t have to go far into the history of development to find a trail of abandoned theories and failed projects. The shift towards measuring activity and promoting excellence is long overdue.

But while effectiveness is important, it is not all important. Right now, our obsession with effectiveness has come at the exclusion of thinking about altruism. We spend so much on maximizing impact, but we don’t invest ourselves into the question of how we can become truly other-centered.

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So I’m glad that there are people out there thinking about “what philanthropic bets have made the most difference” and “what needs to happen to build a billion toilets this year”. But to make a difference in the world, along with “How can we do the most good?” we have to look inwards, asking “How can we be the most good”, and that forces us to grapple with much harder questions.

Sufficient

Azungu!”

The enthusiastic greeting from four year old James* is always the highlight of our walk home from work. He runs up to hold our hands, posse of friends close behind, still incredulous at the colour of our skin. James stays at the market near where my colleague Tanya and I work, and we see him almost every day when we pass through. On this particular day, we had bought James and his crew homemade freezies at lunch, ten kwacha each. It’s not something we do everyday, but it was fun and easy to treat them. Besides, ten kwacha is just barely over 2 cents.
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As we pried ourselves away from the children, we were greeted by James’ mom, one of the dozen or so women who sits at a stall all day selling tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. James’ mom only ever speaks to us in Chichewa- rapid and unforgiving- expectant that by now we should know what she’s talking about. We don’t make it far past traditional greetings, but still manage to purchase tomatoes and onions. The vegetables are set in neat little bundles; four tomatoes cost 300 kwacha. James’ mom picks up a an extra fruit and smiles. “Gift!” She says, stuffing the extra tomato into a flimsy plastic bag. I hand over the money, happy to support this family. 300 kwacha is not even a dollar.

We continue on, heading to the side of the market where the men hang out. The biggest building is a bar with pool tables and loud music. As we pass, a man in ragged clothes and bare feet approaches me.

Please sir, I need four hundred kwacha to buy shoes.

This isn’t the Christmas Shoes. His manners are bad and his breath smells like alcohol. I don’t want to enable dependency. But underneath, my reluctance is flimsier: I only have 1000 kwacha notes on me. If I cave, I would have to give him more than double what he asked for.

Something deeper nagged at me: when there are opportunities to give, there are two mistakes I can make. The first is to give to someone who doesn’t deserve it. The second is to not give to someone who does deserve it. To me, the second mistake seems a lot worse than the first. I decided to err on the side of generosity. I decided to err on the side of generosity. Besides, 1000 kwacha isn’t even $2.50.

As I hand over the money, another man walks out of the bar. He laughs at my naiveté.
He already has shoes, you know

Hot with shame in the afternoon sun, I quickly turn the corner. Standing in a group of friends is Loyal, who lives in the house behind ours. Loyal struggles with mental health issues and alcoholism. When we meet him he’s holding a styrofoam cup.

“What have you been up to today?”
“Drinking Smirnoff”

Loyal is missing most teeth and you have to lean in close to catch what he’s saying. We walk home together, and I learn that Loyal used to attend the University of Malawi for computer programming. He tells me about visual basic. As we pass the homes in our neighborhood, he names the owners of every house.

When we get to our house, we stop; I’m eager to end the conversation but Loyal keeps talking, inviting us for dinner anytime. I nod politely, but squirm inside because I couldn’t invite Loyal back into my house.

Our guard gives me a knowing smile when I walk in our gate. He fills me in on the details. Loyal’s father was a corrupt Parliamentarian whose political fortunes faded. Loyal had been in university, but had stolen from a relative and fled. When he finally returned, he was put under house arrest, spending some time chained to a tree.

“Like a dog?”
“Yes, with a chain and padlock around his ankle”

I’m warned not to invite him in; he has a reputation as a thief and a drunkard. We get inside and I sit with my roommates and talk about how we deal with all these people asking for our money and power. And one of my housemates put words to a feeling that haunts me:

“It’s like when you pass by, you don’t want to look at them because if you make eye contact then you will have to give them something”

I know that feeling all too well. When you really look at someone, you can’t help but be changed.  Every time I walk into town, I see them: the lame and the blind and the outcasts. I look away because if I really cared about these people, I wouldn’t stop at freezies, tomatoes and shoes.

But there’s so many of these people and their needs are so deep. Even my presence in relationship isn’t enough; a conversation can make someone feel human again, but eventually I go inside and close the gate to my walled in house and heart. It is not that I don’t want to give, it’s the crushing knowledge that deep down, no matter what, I can never give enough.

My money, my power, my presence fail all too quickly. I look away because I know that I am insufficient.

And I think of Jesus. Christmas is when came down and looked us in the eye. He abandoned riches and gave up power, he was present with us in the deepest way possible: he became a human being. He didn’t look away because he was willing to give everything. He gave and gave and gave until he faced the crushing weight of the deepest need in every human heart. And he gave his life.

And it was enough.

While Jesus is my role model, I know that I will never be able to give like he did. But he is also my Saviour, the one who took me- despite my insufficiency- and put his Spirit in me. And so now, while I do my best to share my money and time, I don’t pretend that I have enough to fill others’ needs. Instead, I give from what he has given me and I point them to the one who is always enough.

*A couple caveats: names are changed, the story is a month old, and the picture is a different market. 

We Need New Names

“When somebody talks about home, you have to listen carefully so you know exactly which one the person is referring to”

This week I finished reading NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, at the suggestion of my friend Amy. The book follows a girl named Darling as she grows up in a Zimbabwean township and then moves to Northern Michigan. The struggle to identify with home connected deeply with me. Bulawayo’s storytelling is both fierce and poignant, there were several moments where I put down the book because the imagery was so intense. This stuck out:

And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is it where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled. Where people run about naked? We smiled. That part where they massacred each other? We smiled. Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera— oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.

And when these words tumbled from their lips like crushed bricks, we exchanged glances again and the water in our eyes broke . Our smiles melted like dying shadows and we wept; wept for our blessed, wretched country.”

The book is haunting and requires maturity, but I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

Canada will host 30,000 refugees next year. This week I got to meet 15 of them.


I remember being sixteen, sitting in eleventh grade English watching Angelina Jolie’s Beyond Borders. You probably haven’t watched Beyond Borders. Wikipedia describes it as “a romantic-drama film about aid workers”, which was (much like real aid work) “critically and financially unsuccessful.

Teenage Jacob wouldn’t have believed you if you told him that six years later, he would be the one in  a white Land Cruiser* driving down a similarly dusty road to Dzaleka refugee camp.

IMGP0377.jpgIt takes about 40 minutes to get to the camp from Lilongwe. Crammed into the back of the truck were a Zambian Jesuit Father, three UK-based researchers, an American project director, and a few Malawian staff members. If you had of made a joke about it being like the UN, they would have responded “No, that’s the building next door.”

After a fable about a dog, goat, and cow riding a minibus, I got some context about the camp:

Dzaleka, an abandoned prison, was established as a refugee camp in 1994 to deal with large numbers of refugees coming from Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo. Right now, there are about 22,000 asylum seekers, refugees, and economic migrants living in the camp.

Unlike Angelina Jolie, I was not there to bring truckloads of grain to starving masses. My friend Emmanuel had invited me to come and give a talk to his students. Emmanuel teaches English to a group of students who have been selected by WUSC to study in Canadian universities.

The students are based at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) compound. When we arrived, we went around the JRS compound where we saw their offices, an adult education centre full of laptops where some refugees finish an online degree offered through Jesuit universities. While the camp is run by the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) all the education programs are run by JRS. As we walked through, we stopped to talk to just about everybody- apparently Emmanuel is a well known character- or maybe the community is just like that.

IMGP0390.jpgIntroductions took long enough that we had to skip our chai and go straight to class. The classroom was inside a brick building- a Canadian flag and world map hung on the wall. Fifteen students crowded onto the wooden benches and tables. I introduced myself, and asked that they do the same. It was strikingly un-Malawian. French was more useful than Chichewa as I chatted with the students, all from central Africa.

I presented briefly about how growing in university requires reaching deep (knowing and acting on who you are) and branching out (leaving your comfort zone to take new opportunities). It took around twenty minutes. For the rest of the two hours, they asked questions:

“How do you decide what major to take?”
“What is dating like in university?”
“Can I skip first year chemistry?”
“Which schools should I apply to if I want to study business?”
“Do you get enough sleep?”
“Can you get a job and study?”

“How can I make friends?”

These were the questions that I asked before starting university. I looked at these “refugees” again. All of them had smartphones. Most were dressed more stylishly than me. Some were reserved and others obnoxious. We took selfies after class. They could have been college applicants from anywhere in the world.

IMGP0370.jpgAnd yet in other ways their lives seem almost incommensurably different than my own. After lunch (at the Somali restaurant in the “rich” part of camp), they gave me a tour. We passed the office where the Malawian government decides whether to grant asylum seekers refugee status. We passed a large warehouse where food is distributed.

“It used to be 14 kilos of maize per month, but there’s so many people and its been dry so they reduced it to 6”
“People receive food based on family size. It starts at 23 at the beginning of the month and goes down to singles.”

We kept going, passing streetlights that no longer turn on and a borehole that recently broke down. They took pride in pointing out the camp’s single two-story building.

But at the same time this isn’t the refugee camp of your imagination. There are no tents. This is twenty thousand people who have been here for twenty years. It’s more like a town, complete with shops, markets, restaurants, bars, 66 churches and one mosque.


IMGP0381.jpgHalfway through the tour, we stopped outside a short mud house with thatched roof. “This is my house” Emmanuel announced. Earlier, Emmanuel had explained that he had got a full time contract coordinating part of a JRS project. He had been so moved by his time teaching these students that he decided that he wanted to live in the camp full time.

Who decides to move in to a refugee camp?

We finished the tour by the clinic, where a two rows of trees arched the path back to the JRS compound. “This is my favourite part of camp” Emmanuel announced, and walking with new friends in the cool shade, I had to agree.IMGP0386.jpg

We finished the day with a lesson on ‘Ethics’ from Father David, and I was once again blown away at the level of debate over reason vs. instinct and what “being good” meant.

On the way home, one of the JRS staff members started telling African fables. We learned not to be greedy (from the tortoise who fell from heaven and broke his shell), how to judge character (from the man who turned his cat into a daughter) and never to underestimate cleverness (from the rabbit who tricked the lizard). His ridiculous sound effects combined with (feigned) seriousness about each tale had us dying of laughter. The last story was “The story that doesn’t end” about a swarm of locusts who find a tiny hole in a granary. One goes in and gets a piece of maize….then the next…then the next…then the next…

Luckily we made it back to the office, because the story really wouldn’t have stopped. As I walked home, I reflected on how such deep pain and such vibrant hope coexisted so closely. I don’t want to sugarcoat the reality; life in the camp is difficult and these students carry heavy burdens. But in the midst of it all, we were able to share common fears and dreams.

At the end of the discussion on ethics, Father David asked each student how they wanted to be remembered when they died. Here’s how they responded:

“I want to be a remembered as a role model”
“Someone who tried his best”
“I want to leave a good story”
“An innovator who took the time to perfect”
“Someone who fought for justice”
“That I changed the life of even a single person”

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You can read more of what the students at Dzaleka are writing here.


*Riding a white Land Cruiser with an NGO logo on the side was, embarrassingly, an item on my Malawi bucket list.
**30,000 based off of Citizenship and Immigration Canada estimates (2015) and the 12,000 Syrian refugees promised by the current government. It is a surprisingly hard number to nail down.

Links I liked this Week

Over the weekend I’ll write up something about my trip to a refugee camp this week. Until then, you’re stuck with this:

1. B.C. landscaper finds out he’s the king of a tribe in Ghana. I assumed this was from the Onion when it came up on my newsfeed. Nope.

“For me to be an icon, people should look up to me, I think that it’s a big responsibility for me, but I’m grateful for that because it’s preparing me to be a mature man,”

See this, too, because apparently this isn’t as odd as I had assumed.

2. Controversy surrounds Zimbabwe’s “Ugliest Man” Contest.
You didn’t think it could weirder….it did.

“Masvinu and his supporters mobbed the judges upon hearing their decision, claiming that Sere was “too handsome” to win and his ugliness wasn’t natural since it was based on missing teeth.”

Zimbabwe Mr Ugly

3. Surname Sharing Among Coauthor Economists, by Goodman, Goodman, Goodman, and Goodman.’nuff said.12.jpg

4. Are social skills more important than math skills for career success? Or, ‘Why your job is more like Preschool’. Interesting reading, fun to play with the data a bit.

12The verdict is, unsurprisingly, “both are important”.