"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


it's all about meeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Well, World AIDS Day will soon be upon us. I've been bracing for another stupid Twitter stunt and whatever other kinds of ridiculousness might ensue in the name of marketing disguised as "awareness-raising." But I wasn't prepared for this:
On Wednesday, Kim Kardashian is going to die a little. So is her sister, Khloé, not to mention Lady Gaga, David LaChapelle, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Serena Williams and Elijah Wood.

That day is World AIDS Day, and each of these people (as well as a host of others — the list keeps growing) will sacrifice his or her own digital life. By which these celebrities mean they will stop communicating via Twitter and Facebook. They will not be resuscitated, they say, until their fans donate $1 million.
Dear sweet heavenly daylights. Internets, we have an opportunity to shut the Kardashians down for good. Don't fail us.

Seriously, though, if this ain't some badvocacy, then I don't know what is. I have no idea whether Alicia Keys runs a reputable charity or not (Tom Murphy at A View from the Cave helpfully points out the fact that a lack of clear information about exactly what Keep a Child Alive does is a tiny bit problematic.). The Keep a Child Alive website features lots of anecdotes but very little hard data.

What I do know is that the campaign has lots of markers of the sort of advocacy that raises eyebrows among people who know what they're doing with these things. What are those telltale signs?
  • The campaign emphasizes the innovative use of social media over what the money raised will actually be used for beyond vague promises to "keep a child alive."
  • Rather than allowing the voices of those living with HIV/AIDS to be heard, the campaign is all about celebrities and their voices or the lack thereof. The campaign reduces people living with HIV/AIDS to helpless victims in need of foreign saviors.
  • There's no measurement and evaluation data on the organization's website that I can find. That data may or may not exist, but without it, there's no way to evaluate whether Keep a Child Alive is using the most effective measures possible to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
  • This particular event appears to be an attention-grabbing stunt. Need I point out that pictures of celebrities in coffins have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual experiences of people living with or in communities affected by this epidemic?
And then there's this:
“We’re not one of those enormous twinset-and-pearls kind of bureaucracies; we’re a small, energetic activist organization,” Ms. Blake says. “And we think the language of donations is boring.”

Ms. Keys agrees, describing her philanthropic approach as simply “rock star.”

“Everything is done just rebellious,” she says. “You want to show all your folks and your friends: ‘Look what I’m into. Get into it, too!’”
Anybody want to take bets on whether a "rebellious" activist organization that's bored with standard procedures for donations bothers to do measurement and evaluation?

(Hat tip for the link to Kim Yi Dionne, whom, it just so happens, actually studies community responses to and understandings of HIV/AIDS. You should read her work.)



bemba at the ICC

And so it begins:
A former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) went on trial at the International Criminal Court on Monday accused of letting his troops rape and kill in the Central African Republic.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, 48, is the most senior political leader to be detained so far by the ICC. He is charged with two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes.
As the above article explains, this trial has implications for DRC's next presidential elections, scheduled for late 2011. Bemba is still hugely popular in western Congo, and Congolese President Joseph Kabila is today much less popular in his base of support in the east than he was in 2006 due to the failure to bring lasting peace to that region. Almost every knowledgeable observer expects that Kabila will remain president after the 2011 elections. What we don't yet know is who will run against him, or how he'll manage to win the election given how diminished is the level of popular support he currently enjoys.


today na today

Via Glenna Gordon and Shelby Grossman, this is too catchy not to share:


shameless self-promotion

I would love to meet any readers who can attend this upcoming event:

Congo: The UN Mapping Report and
the Responsibility to Justice

A Special Event in Collaboration with
The African Studies Program at SAIS

Thursday, December 2, 2010
9:30-11:30 am


Johns Hopkins SAIS
Nitze Building, Kenny Auditorium
1740 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20036

Forum Details:

On October 1, 2010, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report mapping the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo between March 1993 and June 2003. Already ahead of its official publication, the report produced diplomatic tensions between some States in the region and the United Nations. The report implicates Congolese and foreign parties responsible for abuses – including state or non-state armed groups from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Angola. According to the report, attacks against the civilian population in the Democratic Republic of Congo “reveal a number of inculpatory elements that, if proven before a competent court, could be characterized as crimes of genocide. The December 2, 2010 Great Lakes Policy Forum will bring together scholars and researchers in two short panel sessions, to discuss ramifications of the UN Mapping Report as well as suggestions for justice mechanisms to address past and ongoing crimes. How should these crimes be addressed? Which would be a competent court to address the crimes? What are the next steps for bringing about justice for the victims in the Congo? What is the impact of the report for peacebuilding? What are the implications for U.S. foreign policy in the region?

Next steps toward justice
Mvemba Dizolele
SAIS Visiting Scholar, Independent journalist

Carina Tertsakian
Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch, Africa Division

Peter Rosenblum
Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein Clinical Professorship of Human Rights Law, Columbia Law School

Implications for regional and U.S. foreign policy
Howard French
Associate Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Anthony Gambino
Independent Consultant, former USAID Mission Director for the DRC

Laura Seay
Assistant Professor of Political Science at Morehouse College

Peter Lewis
Director of the African Studies Program at SAIS

Register here.

I'm also at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association this weekend. Hope to see many of you there!


villages in action

Back in September, I wrote a post about the absurdity and irony of the gathering of rich, mostly white people talking about ways to help poor people of color that was the Millennium Development Goals summit and related events. A conversation about this issue started on Twitter, where T.M.S. Ruge (aka, Teddy, aka, the founder of Project Diaspora) launched the idea for an independently organized TEDx event around the idea of letting poor people talk about what they think their communities need, what works and doesn't work in aid, and new ideas the Whites in Shining Armor haven't even thought about. Appropriately enough, he planned to call it TEDxPoor.

Well. Long story short, the TED people (who charge $6,000 to attend one of their conferences) didn't take too kindly to the idea of their name being attached to "poor," and Teddy decided that another platform might be a more appropriate venue through which the voices of the poor could be heard. And Villages in Action was born:
We are excited to announce that on November 27, 2010, the first VIA conference will be held in Kikuube in Uganda; a small village with just over 260 homesteads and a population just over 1000. My mother, one of our speakers, serves as the local chairperson, as well as pastor. I was surprised that she— a village leader—had never heard of the MDGs. She is, however, very excited that she will have a turn at the microphone to represent her village.
I am beyond excited about the chance to hear what people who've never heard of the MDG's think about community development. Villages in Action will feature speakers, panels, music, and all the other sorts of activities that one sees at a fancy summit. The only difference here is that the voices will be those of people who actually live in poverty, who know what it is like to live on $1-2/day, and who some how figure out how to raise children and get by in the most difficult of circumstances. In other words, the experts.

Aren't there a lot of other venues in which the poor can speak? Well, kindof. Most big NGO's do regular "listening sessions" or focus groups in which Western experts sit in a circle with a group for a few hours, asking questions through a translator. But we don't get to be party to the unedited conversations there. We might get to see a write-up, or the exercise might be purely for internal measurement and evaluation purposes within the NGO. Plus there's the added problem that when people in the group know they are talking to an Important White Person from Save the OxPlan Vision, they might be hesitant to give their full and honest opinion out of fear of being impolite or losing access to resources. There just aren't many opportunities for the world's materially poor people to share their voices on a large platform without constraints. Which is why Villages in Action is so important.

Villages in Action takes place in just under two weeks, and there's a lot to be done. They could also use financial support - there are Bronze, Silver, and Gold Sponsor levels, as well as an option to give any amount as a supporter. If you believe that there's value in hearing from the people we purport to help, please consider supporting Villages in Action.


happy day

Maggie Fick is blogging. This is great news; Maggie reports from Juba for the AP, contributes all over the place, and has a great grasp on the situation there, especially with respect to the upcoming referendum on southern independence. If you're interested in Sudan and/or in great reporting, you should definitely add her to your feed reader. In the meantime, check out this post on the Media and War-Mongering in Sudan. From that post:
These news clips illustrate the tendency—rather, modus operandi—of the international media coverage of Sudan to highlight the worst case scenarios surrounding the key upcoming events instead of the best possible outcomes. Since I’m a member of this media corps, I can affirm that this is the case. My short experience to date as a journalist has taught me that—surprise!—editors do not think a story with a headline to the effect of “All looks set to go smoothly in Southern Sudan’s crucial independence vote” is newsworthy. Instead, a headline to the effect of “tensions rising,” “concern mounting,” and the like is what editors want to read, because they know it is what readers online around the globe will be likely to click on as they skim the news.
Welcome to the blogosphere, Maggie!


carrots & sticks

President Obama has told Sudan that if it allows a politically sensitive referendum to go ahead in January, and abides by the results, the United States will move to take the country off its list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as next July, administration officials said Sunday.
It's pretty hard to come up with a policy proposal that simultaneously:
  1. has serious potential to make al-Bahshir pay attention and possibly even behave himself,
  2. allow the right-wing to paint Obama as "soft on terror," and
  3. makes clear how pointless symbols like Lists of State Sponsors of Terror are completely meaningless in real life.
This could get interesting.


this & that

recommended reading

Seeing as there's not much of a market for holidays in which all of the hoteliers are financing militias with their earnings, as a general rule, travel writers don't go to Goma. Or Bukavu. But Christopher Vourlias did, and he just finished publishing a beautiful, 24-part series that captures what life is like in Rwanda and the border cities of the eastern DRC. I spent the last month reading the posts at night just before going to sleep. They made me sad and glad homesick all at once. It's well worth your time to work your way through his narratives. Start here.


how social scientists think: edition Kristof

I've avoided reading and writing about The Kristof lately as I've really been trying to get the stress in my life under control. But this merits a response as apparently somebody still doesn't understand the difference between evidence and anecdotes.

In case you've been hiding under a rock, here's a quick rundown on what happened. The Kristof wrote a long piece extolling the virtues of Do-It-Yourself Aid projects, in which amateurs circumvent large aid agencies to implement programs on their own. Dave Algoso wrote a very measured and kind response pointing out that, actually, aid is a very difficult profession and not one that amateurs are equipped to undertake and do well. Tales from the Hood also wrote an excellent response in which he noted that aid is not about us, while DIY aid is often all about the do-er.

The Kristof responded to this barrage of criticism in a late Friday afternoon blog post, which seems to be his preferred time to respond to criticism. In it, he wrote:
Compared to professionals, amateurs tend to be more, well, amateurish. Accountability can be a real problem. But on the whole, I think this concern is misstated. I’ve generally found that grassroots, locally owned aid projects have a better record than large scale, top-down ones that don’t always have the same buy-in. And the truth is that DIY aid projects are more likely to be modest, grassroots efforts undertaken with strong local partners. They often keep their ear to the ground and tinker with their model more than the larger projects. Aid projects often succeed at the experimental level and then have difficulty going to scale, but that’s less of an issue with DIY investments that are never meant to scale up (that’s a separate problem with them, and a legitimate concern).
Tales from the Hood tackles, brings down, and sends to the locker room the idea that amateurism isn't that big of a problem in two wonderful posts on professionalism in aid here and here. What I want to focus on is the problem with Kristof's claims here in terms of research methods, namely that there's not any evidence for his claims. "I’ve generally found that grassroots, locally owned aid projects have a better record than large scale, top-down ones that don’t always have the same buy-in" may be true based on Kristof's limited exposure to local aid projects, but it's not one that's supported by any systematically gathered evidence that I've seen. Has anyone else?

The problem here is that Kristof is relying upon anecdotal evidence (NGO's he has encountered) rather than systematically gathered evidence. Even though Kristof has more anecdotes than your average observer, it's still not evidence. As @WrongingRights tweeted while quoting her dad, "The plural of anecdote isn't data." Data that isn't gathered systematically isn't data at all.

Why is this problematic? Because there are exceptions to every rule. In the social sciences, we call these exceptions outliers. You can't base a theory on outliers, because then you'd be wrongly explaining general phenomena based on an unusual case. Because of this, we generally place outliers in what is called the "error term." The error term is kindof like the remainder in a long division or algebra problem. We leave those cases out of our studies in order to avoid tainting our results. We do so in order to get the right answer - the one that explains what happens most of the time under given conditions.

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.

Also, I have to point out that there's a HUGE difference between "grassroots, locally owned aid projects" and the sort of DIY aid projects conceived and executed by well-meaning foreigners. I actually think he's probably right that the former work much better than many other projects, because they're grounded in the community. But that's not what Kristof wrote about in the piece. His article was entirely about Whites in Shining Armor, not grassroots, locally-conceived projects. And there's no evidence that I know of that shows that projects conceived by well-meaning, idealistic foreigners work better than professional, INGO-supported aid.

I met Kristof once in the eastern DRC. Based on that one encounter, I could claim that Kristof's standard research method is to go to the best local NGO a city has to offer and then to take the word of a few officials at major international NGO's and UN agencies as truth. But I can't make the claim that that's how he always works. Why? Because I only have one case. And that case could be an outlier. It could be that Kristof was having a bad day, or was scared to death of the eastern DRC, or that he accidentally drank the tap water at the Ihusi Hotel. I don't know. What I do know is that we shouldn't be making decisions based upon unreliable, anecdotal evidence. And if you want to be an aid worker, you'd better know what you're doing.

(Photo: Bernardo Guzman, via Inside Higher Ed)

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