Archive for the ‘Whimsy’ Category

St Paddy’s Pifflery

Earlier this month the Irish celebrated St Patrick’s day. If you are an expat working in the aid sector posted to the capital city of a developing country you might well have received an invitation to a St Paddy’s day celebration at the local Irish Embassy. Or you might not. It really depends upon which circles you move in. Here is Bottom Up Thinking’s simple cut-out-and-keep guide to getting an invitation to this and similar soirées.

May be invited Won’t be invited
Has almost zero contact with aid beneficiaries Works directly with aid beneficiaries
Sits in endless meetings and workshops which achieve very little Attends as few workshops as possible because nothing gets done in them
Most meetings in air-conditioned offices Meetings often under a tree or in the local school house
Constantly harasses grantees/subordinates to comply with long lists of conditions Is constantly harassed trying to meet latest ridiculous donor demands
Lives in a nice big house, with maid and gardener, rent paid by employer Lives in the bush; cadges a bed for the night with friends when up in the big city
Job satisfaction from a big salary and drinking oneself silly with friends at the Irish Embassy Job satisfaction from actually helping poor people and sense of worthwhile achievement
Gives/receives large amounts of cash to/from drinking buddies at pet NGO/donor at end of each year when surplus budget needs to be used up Has to write ten pages of meaningless donorese just to get enough cash to pay themselves and colleagues

Sour grapes? Me? Am sure I wouldn’t want to talk to most invitees any way, it’s just I do like a touch of the black stuff every now and then …


Has OLPC’s moment arrived?

A major criticism of the One Laptop Per Child project is that it was a solution in search of a problem. Not that lack of computer literacy in developing countries is not a problem, but it is far from the most pressing problem in the poorest places. However, I think I spy a new opening for OLPC. Apparently a big reason why the shiny new vote tallying system in Kenya failed is that most of the voting stations (often primary schools) lacked electric sockets with which to power the laptops which were intended to record and then remit to the central system all the votes cast.

Step forward OLPC’s wind up laptop:


(Image from:

Hat tip: Peter B

Bottom Up Thinking would vote for …

I’m not American, and I certainly don’t think anyone’s vote would be swayed by an ‘endorsement’ from this blog. But just suppose one or both cases were otherwise, I would vote for … both Obama and Romney!

Yes you read that right: both. This isn’t fence sitting: I want both as president. I want Barrack Obama to be the president he clearly wants to be, not the president he’s ended up having to be. I also want Mitt Romney to be president, even though I disagree with him on just about everything, and particularly that bit about not worrying about the seas rising.

I don’t want them sequentially, however. That would be pretty disastrous, I imagine. No, if I had a vote, I would vote for schism.

International politics, and climate change negotiations in particular, are currently held hostage by an America that seems incapable of deciding what it wants. All sorts of treaties negotiated by American presidents in good faith languish unendorsed by the most powerful country in the world because Congress is deadlocked.

So I vote for USA to split: Obama can be president of the northern/coastal ‘Union’ and Romney of the southern and central ‘Confederacy’. (Romney gets my ‘vote’ as the least bad option for the south.) Is this nuts? America seems so utterly divided I have little faith much will change whoever wins this election. The BBC is predicting that Republicans will hold the House of Representatives and Democrats the Senate (but a long, long way from a filibuster-proof majority).

I have no stats to support this, but I reckon that the Scots and the English agree on rather more than the two American camps do, and yet the Scots are seriously contemplating independence. So why not the Yanks? Even better consider the most recent example: the creation of South Sudan. Are Americans not also the victims of a colonial misadventure which drew arbitrary lines on a map regardless of  tribal and religious affiliation?

Dividing America could help knock on the head some of that divine mission to lead hubristic nonsense that emanates from time to time, and might also force head-in-the-sand Republicans to face up properly to what the rest of the world thinks. At the very least we would be able to negotiate with both sides of America, rather than the present situation in which, frankly speaking, I sometimes wonder whether we’d be better off if they didn’t show up at all, such is the inability of negotiators to actually represent their country.

Any way, I can say all this secure in the knowledge that absolutely no-one in the American political establishment is paying any attention whatsoever. To all my American readers (whom I assume are quite non-hubristic) I simply wish you a nice election day. I feel I really ought to care who wins, but am struggling to do so, even though I’ll be gutted for you all if Romney wins. Please let us know when your country has decided on who it is.

(Not) Speaking on behalf of poor people

While I was away my long-ago written contribution to Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like finally came out. For those of you who missed it, here it is again (slightly edited to restore the original intended meaning of the final bullet point). Those sensitive to sarcasm should stop reading now.


“Please can you speak on our behalf?” (Image: Avatar – the ultimate white knight movie)

From time to time, every Expat Aid Worker will be asked to speak on behalf of their project, and, by implication, on behalf of said project’s supposed beneficiaries. This could simply be in a workshop, which is not such an issue. However, it may also involve fronting up to the insatiable maw that is the modern international media circus. It’s these circumstances that fill the newbie EAW with trepidation. Oh, the moral minefield through which she* will have to tread!

  • On the one hand this could be a great opportunity for the EAW to get her name out there. It could be just the career break she needs. Plus the oxygen of publicity can be great for Field Cred!
  • Except that all EAWs are justifiably wary of White Knight Syndrome. Being called a White Knight (or Lady!) instantly reduces the EAW to some totally insensitive boor.
  • Moreover, except for those EAWs who have utterly succumbed to the Dark Side, there is still a kernel of idealism that EAWs like to nurture inside their hard candy shell of cynicism. Falling into the White Knight trap is simply terrible for one’s idealist karma.
  • The veteran EAW will thread this needle by prefacing her points with the disclaimer that she really has no basis on which to speak for her project’s beneficiaries, but here’s what she thinks any way.
  • Unfortunately this will be cut by the film editor, and the EAW will have to tell everyone she knows how she hated being portrayed as the White Lady she is not. This makes a good excuse to let everyone know that she was interviewed by the media, even if it was only featured for 5 nano-seconds on an obscure piece put out during the graveyard shift on Crap Network News.

The smartest EAW, however, will realise that all of the above is utter tosh, and will instead write a snarky blog post about it, explaining the Lewis Carroll-esque contradictions of her position: that frequently in such situations there is nobody else in the room in a position to speak on behalf of her project’s beneficiaries, so if she doesn’t step up to the plate, they’ll be left entirely unrepresented.  Anyone agonising about such issues are therefore just spouting self-indulgent pretentious BS.

And who needs karma any way? If her project’s beneficiaries had even a fraction of their fair share, they wouldn’t need the EAW to speak on their behalf in the first place.

*All male EAWs are honoured to be called she or her, as nothing else quite demonstrates our gender sensitivity than not objecting when others get it wrong.

REDD Riposte

I’m a big believer in the principles behind REDD, namely:

  • Globally, forests are massively undervalued.
  • Carbon sequestration is one of those typically vital but undervalued services that forests perform for us.
  • Now that at least some people are prepared to pay something to abate carbon emissions, it seems crazy to ignore this possibility to value forests more appropriately.

That said, there are several different sides of the coin that bear more than a moment’s consideration. Here is a great satirical take on what REDD might look like in a more equitable world (I’m avidly awaiting part two). And this is a great golden oldie on the parallels with the mediaeval practice of buying indulgences.

Of course, there are lots of practical problems in implementing REDD too, but those are a topic for another post.


Some great cartoons on Conservation Bytes (with bigger archive here). I can’t say I agree with all the points being made, but I do like some of  the humour!

Seasonal Musings

“Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?” sang Bob et al.

For the 29% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa who are Muslim, I imagine this is a rather silly question. How many Band Aid singers know that 28th September is Confucius’s birthday? And the starving Ethiopians who had inspired the song would dispute the date since they adhere to the Julian calendar and celebrate Christmas on 7th January.

Equally many Africans might query:

Where nothing ever grows,
No rain nor rivers flow

as a representative description of Africa. (An early case of poverty porn.) Did his Bobness write about Africa because:

  1. Ethiopia didn’t scan well, but Africa did?
  2. The famine was also affecting the Sudan?
  3. Not everyone knows where Ethiopia is?
  4. To future-proof the song for other famines? (e.g. Niger?)

I shall be taking a break from bloggery until the new year. I shall spend Christmas in Africa in a place where rain falls, rivers flow and plenty grows. I’m hoping to be a little way away from chiming bells, but some lodges use them to announce dinner is ready rather than “the clanging chimes of doom”. I’m also quite certain everyone will know it’s Christmas without requiring Slade to tell them. But Band Aid will almost certainly feature on the iPod playlist, because it’s one of the great cheesy Christmas songs.

See you again in 2011, when hopefully we’ll have “plenty to cheer” (Lennon, not Geldof). Until then I wish you a very ‘melly klismas’ (people here regularly mix up their Ls and Rs), and a happy chronological incrementation.

Dilbert does Development

A larger than expected number of Dilbert comic strips seem to have a surprising connection to international development, and I note my fellow bloggers using them as illustrations from time to time. Did Scott Adams once work in the voluntary sector or is there just a lot of cross over with business thinking? The truth must be known!

This latest strip is a perfect analogy of how too many donors and aid institutions interface with government, and how civil servants engage in decision making.

Dilbert ©2010, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

(If you cannot see the right hand panes – my blog theme is  quite restrictive in that way – then just click on the cartoon to see it in its full glory on the  Dilbert site.)

Post-colonialist species names?

I was quickly perusing this story about the Horton Plains slender loris not being extinct after all – always nice to get some good news – when it struck me that if the article hadn’t told me the aforementioned loris was from Sri Lanka, I would have no idea where it was from. According to Wikipedia Horton was the British governor of colonial Ceylon, but why should his name be attached to a Sri Lankan mammal? In the past fifty years we’ve had a minor rash of re-naming places (countries and cities mainly), discarding the colonial names in favour of the indigenous. Sometimes that is just correcting a colonial error in transcription, such as Bombay to Mumbai, other times discarding an unwelcome colonialist assertion of authority by appellation – bye bye Rhodesia! So, I wondered, how long before we get the same exercise undertaken with all these quaintly English species names?

Our house guest queried the practicality of this because there is no clear authority. A country can decide for itself what it should be called, but a loris gets called whatever somebody else decides to call it. That one is easily solved, though; around here, if you are a wildlife researcher you have to get a permit to work in the country. It would be pretty easy for those people in charge of such permits to deny them to those people perpetuating the use of relics of imperialist hubris, and pretty soon anyone wanting to work on the real thing in the wild would have to tow the new line. Deciding the new name would be easy for endemics, but you can picture the odd academic tussle over the naming of cross border species. E.g. Denham’s bustard occurs in at least 6 different African counties according to the bird book nearest to hand, but maybe they could horse-trade a little bit, so that we get a Museveni bustard, a Kenyatta kestrel and a Nyerere nightjar?

All we need are brains

Hand Relief International is a very amusing blog, but presumably not widely read outside development circles. So it’s nice to see some satire on development reaching more mainstream sites, see here. And it’s got some bite, attacking one of the classic fallacies of development thinking: that all we need are some really bright people, and we can solve the problem of poverty in Africa and elsewhere. Clever people and new ideas can always help, of course, and too much development work is done like painting by numbers, but clever ideas need to fit with the real needs and context of poor people. And even then, outsiders’ brains can only help; ultimately development has to come from within individuals and communities, otherwise it will never be sustainable.

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