30 January 2011

The Limits of Community Driven Development


People in development love to talk about the importance of community involvement with and government buy-in to development plans. The idea is that international donors shouldn’t just wing into a country and demand a certain development agenda according to a cookie cutter formula. It’s largely a good sentiment, and a very necessary response to disastrous international plans like structural adjustment. At its best, community-driven development ensures that local priorities are realized, previously disenfranchised voices are heard and indigenous customs preserved. What happens though, when the community gets it wrong (or at least, doesn’t get it all right)?

Let me start with an example. A few years ago, Liberia adopted a Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), which was a three year plan to guide government and donor priorities for development investments. It included things like professionalizing the military, rebuilding schools and constructing roads. The process of developing the PRS included extensive public consultations, with a road show into the counties to get input from rural populations and traditional leaders. The PRS is complemented at the local level by the County Development Agendas, which prioritize local projects within the national framework (which schools, which roads, etc.). The whole process has been widely lauded for its inclusiveness and focus on community needs.

While the process was good, the content leaves some relatively glaring omissions. Specifically, the national plan and every county in the country chose to ignore Liberia’s most vulnerable populations. In 16 total plans, there is no mention of social protection, welfare or safety nets for the vulnerable who can’t fend for themselves. This isn’t a small oversight: though the data are a few years old now, the last estimate was that Liberia has at least 50,000 households living in extreme poverty without a single adult available for work. With an average household size of just over 5 people, this translates into roughly 250,000 Liberians, or about 7% of the population.

Part of this is obviously a problem of voice, as extremely poor, work constrained households are unlikely to have the opportunity or means to participate in community dialogues, no matter how beneficial that participation might ultimately be. Assume though, that we can somehow solve the problem of voice. What happens when 7% of every community in the country shows up and asks for social safety nets and is turned down in favor of roads and power grids? Liberia and many similarly situated countries have to make difficult decisions about resource allocation all the time. Is it right to put those decisions to a majoritarian test?

This problem certainly isn’t unique to development contexts. They happen in government budget fights all across the world and even the best intentioned forms of participation can lead to distorted outcomes. I’m thinking now of a case study from Oregon that I read years ago in a policy class. The details are a bit foggy now, but I believe the gist of it was this: Oregon didn’t have enough money to fund all the Medicaid services it wanted to provide, so it established community fora to allow citizens to prioritize the services to be covered. Participants eventually settled on some sort of wellbeing-for-the-buck formula, and things like tooth capping (relatively cheap) ended up rated more highly than simple but more expensive life-saving treatments like appendectomies. The priorities were eventually tweaked, and the courts stepped in to assure that some basic minimum services were guaranteed.

This brings me back to Liberia and the question of who has the right to tweak development priorities. In the Oregon case, the federal government and courts were able to step in because most of the program funding was coming from Washington. For the foreseeable future, a huge chunk of Liberia’s development funding will come from outside sources, but the governments and multi-lateral organizations providing that funding are committed to nationally-directed development, and are none-too-keen to delve in to rewrite local priorities.

In a positive-rights-protective democracy, there should be two easy checks for this problem. First, positive rights to things like a safety net would be enshrined in an enforceable legal code, with viable means of redress for violations thereof. Second, in a representative (as opposed to direct) democracy, elected officials would enact policies with an eye toward the protection of minority rights, in this case, an economic minority. The delegated democratic authority vested in the legislature could provide justification for altering the plans while still claiming broad representativeness.

Liberia is painfully far from realizing either of these two solutions, which brings us back again to the democratic appropriateness of external meddling in development priorities. There isn’t a neat answer to this question, but my substantive-over-procedural democracy bias inclines me toward saying that outside intervention is both necessary and appropriate. Without assuring a minimal baseline for living standards, promises of substantive democratic participation are relatively meaningless. I’m thinking of it along the lines of a political version of Maslow’s hierarchy – without accounting for base needs, higher order values like democratic participation are unattainable.

All this leads me to the conclusion that, while increasing country ownership is an important improvement in development policy, there are some pretty serious limits to allowing communities too-free a hand in setting policy prerogatives. Donors should certainly seek coordination with governments, but should be prepared to fill the gaps that majoritarian policymaking will inevitably leave.*


* This also provides two other benefits which I’ll just mention briefly here, though perhaps write about in more detail later. Pragmatically, donors have the benefit of experience with successes and failures around the world, and throwing this experience out the door for the sake of country ownership is, at the very least, counterproductive. Ownership doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel in every developing country. Politically, a higher level of donor participation in decision-making addresses the other side of the democracy question – the extent to which citizens of donor nations deserve a voice in the allocation of their tax dollars. While the concept of democratic voice is stretched awfully thin by the time that it gets to USAID funding decisions in West Africa, it’s not entirely unreasonable to say that unrestricted grants for aid represent a diminution of what little voice citizens once had.

23 January 2011

Not loving Love


Now that I’ve started this book review thing, I feel somewhat compelled to continue with it, at least as long as the whole book-every-few-weeks streak continues (and in so announcing, I’m sure I’ve just ended it). I’ve got another post in mind though, so I’ll make this one short.

I finished Love by Toni Morrison this week. I suppose it’s somewhat inevitable if you start with an author’s most famous and well-received work, but it seems that each Toni Morrison book I read is worse than the last. Granted, this is only #3 (following Beloved and Paradise), but they’re also in chronological order of publication, so it seems I might want to dig further back in the archives if I come back for more Morrison.

Love is supposedly a gripping novel about an intergenerational family struggle to wrest control of the affections and memory of a complicated patriarch. It felt like an unnecessarily meandering novella, part inartful Lolita, part cheap romance novel, part silly suspense story. In what I think was an attempt to make the story transportable, Morrison never really sets it in any location, which has the effect of making it rootless and untethered rather than universal. This was particularly strange when contrasted with the obsessive and confusing use of specific dates in the story line. So, the book ends up anchored in time and flitting about in space, without any characters interesting enough to drive the plot forward. 

I didn't actively hate it the way I have other books, but that was largely because I couldn't be bothered to care that much. If it had been more than 200 pages, I doubt I would have made the effort to finish the book. It makes me want to read Beloved again just to reinstill my faith in her as an author and in the Nobel Prize as an institution.

On a side note, I’m having trouble getting Blogger to upload a photo header in the right size and proportions. It doesn’t let me actually choose the pixel dimensions of my image, so I can’t just resize my photo to fit. If anyone has fought with this overly-simplistic template problem before and knows how to help, please let me know. The page will be prettier for your efforts.

20 January 2011

Two little numbers, not little enough


You’d think that with the copious amount of free time I seem to be amassing these days, I’d have plenty of time to write long, interesting posts about fascinating things happening here. It turns out that this isn’t really the case. I suppose I do have the time, but I’ve been struggling for things to write about that would be interesting to read if you don’t care about the internecine struggles of Monrovia’s expat community or the antics of the zany cast of characters where I work. Honestly, the latter might be interesting, but in my half-hearted attempt to maintain some level of professionalism, I’ve tried to avoid specific details about what goes in my place of employ. You’ll have to wait for my memoirs for those particular juicy bits.

In the meantime, here’s a slightly wonkier post with some depressing numbers I’ve been pondering for a while:

Liberia has grand plans for its growth over the next twenty years. I would like little more than to see the realization of those plans. That strong desire notwithstanding, there are some pretty daunting challenges to be faced along the way. Among the most substantial will be changing these two numbers:

-          $0.40/ton-km
-          $0.50/kWh

These are the prices, respectively, of moving a ton of goods one kilometer in most of Liberia (it can be twice as high in the rainy season) and of generating one kilowatt hour of energy here. In isolation, they mean relatively little, but these are the numbers that may impede progress here for decades. To give you a sense of perspective, transportation in Southern Africa costs about $0.05/ton-km and energy in most manufacturing economies is $0.05-$0.10/kWh.

Without dramatically reducing these costs, Liberia simply won’t be able to compete with its neighbors on West Africa or with other developing countries with similar natural resources. These obviously aren’t the only challenges facing the economy, but they may just be the linchpin that holds up progress on nearly every other front. I won’t bore you with the whole network of connections between energy/infrastructure and other development priorities,* but let’s just say that all the stuff I care about depends on lowering those numbers. Now we just have to figure out how to do it.

Here’s hoping it’s just a Herculean, rather than a Sisyphean, task.


*If you’re really interested, I’ll email you the report I wrote last year on cross-sectoral advantages of prioritizing specific development interventions. Doesn’t that just sound thrilling?

12 January 2011

Read, Run, Repeat


I really didn’t intend this as a book review blog, and I’m sure the frenzied pace of reading will abate at some point in the near future, but I read another book over the weekend and thought I might as well not recommend it to you all. During my prowl through the Cezky Krumlov bookstore on New Year’s Eve, I decided to take a relatively big gamble on Dave Eggers, giving him two of five closely contested spots in my return flight stack-o-books. Honestly, I didn’t think it was such a gamble. I loved What is the What and everything else I knew about Eggers politically and personally. The man lives in Berkeley, wrote about Sudan before it was trendy, and started McSweeneys and a whole slew of storefront shops (including the pirate store!) to support kids’ writing endeavors. What’s not to love? Apparently, the answer is You Shall Know Our Velocity.

The hook for the book was good: two guys have a life-changing event and decide to go around the world and give away a substantial amount of money. The actual book was two guys going around the world doing incomprehensibly stupid things that made me alternate between cringing and raging. As an added bonus, it had pretty serious errors in both technical and substantive editing.

In trying to pin down why I disliked this book so much, I was tempted to think that I just don’t enjoy books with characters to whom I can’t relate or whose basic character traits I dislike. The more I think about that conclusion though, the less convinced I am. I adored Lolita, couldn’t get enough of Gatsby, and count a large number of dictator-driven plots among my favorites. I think that the book maybe just isn’t that good. Dave’s got another chance to come back with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which I’m told is much better), but I’m implementing a two-strikes policy on authors, so he’d better make it up to me.

In non-book news, there really isn’t that much news to report. I’ve been told that the key to making it through the boredom and frustrations of a place like this is to develop routines. For a bunch of reasons both good and bad, mine got upended toward the end of November and I’m now trying to re-establish them. I’ve been running most evenings at sunset, a nice little 5k course through Capitol Hill that takes me past all three branches of government. Tides, the local ex-pat bar/rooftop lounge, has started movie nights on Tuesdays, offering the closest thing Monrovia has to a movie theater. Even though the same pirated US movies are available – remarkably quickly – on bootlegs all over town, there’s something nice about watching a movie outdoors with a group of somewhat-similarly situated people.

If I manage to keep a Ministry car for the weekends, I try to make it to the beach on Sundays when everything in town is closed. If not, I’ve been using my wily charms to get into one of the pools at the fancier compounds in town. For better or for worse, I’m now keenly aware of my need for Vitamin D and whatever else it is that sunshine offers, and without any public parks in town, pools and the beach are the best options for getting my fill of sun. Sunday nights have a pretty regular poker game which is a great way to stave off the gloom of impending Mondays. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I walk to work and back (staying there for roughly 8 hours in between), cook a good deal, listen to a ridiculous amount of BBC World Service, and make my way through old TV series I missed the first time through. Despite many offers of friendship from random people on the street while I run (“Hello, please be my friend.” “Hello, can I know you?” “Marry me baby”), it’s a pretty lonely existence, but one to which I’m slowly becoming accustomed.

And when all else fails, there is more lapa to be procured and there are more dresses to be designed. Here’s one of the newest efforts (and the last picture taken on my camera before it was stolen last week):


05 January 2011

Book Report


I’ve got several half-written, more substantive blog updates, but can’t seem to finish them off for posting. I’ve decided to shelve those for now and go with slightly lighter, less Liberian fare in order to actually get something up here for the first time in weeks.

I spent the holidays in central Europe with my mom, who very kindly showed up at the Vienna airport with a whole bag of warm things, on loan from my recently-spent-a-month-in-Kazakhstan sister. Austria, Hungary, Germany and the Czech Republic all delivered on the implied promise of snow and general wintriness. The trip was great and the cold only made me cry once – outside a castle in Prague, where I was pretty sure I’d leave half my fingers behind.

Bundestag! (Currently closed to the public, but exciting nonetheless)

Winter sporting, not yet available in Monrovia.

I have many questions for the Catholic Church, but will never question its ability to create beautiful things
New Year's Eve, Czech Republic

I may post more photos and trip insights later, but today is time for a little book report on what I read on my winter vacation. I ended up making my way through (almost) three books, all of which I’d recommend. I realized only this morning that all three rely on alternating narrators in each chapter, an apparently trendy device, but each to very different effect. Without further ado, may I humbly recommend to you:

Little Bee (or, if you’re outside the US, The Other Hand, which I think is the much better title) by Chris Cleave. I got this book as a gift just before I left the US and had been saving it for a special break where I could really enjoy it. I foolishly thought that it would last me the whole trip. A flight and train ride later, it was done. Since I read nothing but The Economist that quickly, this should tell you something about how great it was. I’m not quite sure how to tell you what this book is about without telling you too much – even the dust jacket struggles with this – so I’ll just say that it’s about two women whose lives get mixed up together for better and for worse. I think my love for this book was about much more than the life-timing of it (though that was pretty remarkable as well), and will now faithfully read anything suggested by the brilliant friend who gifted it.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. I’d never heard of this book before stumbling across it in a very well-stocked English section in a Vienna bookstore, but then proceeded to see it all over Europe. I now know why it was everywhere. This may be the most straight-up addicting book I’ve read in years. I couldn’t wait for train rides or darkness to set in to curl back up with the book and its incredibly personable characters. The book is about black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, but it’s also about a whole lot more. It’s the kind of book where you can see plot elements coming from a hundred pages away, but you don’t really care. Just read it. Trust me.

The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Since finishing the entire Garcia Marquez canon several years ago, I’ve picked up random books by other Latin American authors and nearly always put them down again, disappointed they weren’t more Garcia Marquez. Vargas Llosa was included on that list of close-but-no-cigar authors for a while, but I decided that the whole winning the Nobel Prize thing should maybe merit another look, or at least a different book. Plus, there weren’t that many English books in whatever bookstore I was visiting, so I decided to give this one a go. While I’ll still defend Garcia Marquez as the greatest Latin American author ever, this book has brought me around on Vargas Llosa. It’s not magical realism, but once you’re about quarter of the way in, there is a remarkable sense of time and place that’s pretty engrossing. Plot wise, it’s somewhere between Chronicle of a Death Foretold and The General in His Labyrinth. If you’re into the genre, you’ll like it. If you’re not yet, read A Hundred Years of Solitude instead.

I don’t know how many years it’s been since I’ve read so much fiction in a row, but in the hopes of sustaining this little fiction renaissance in my life, I grabbed several more books on my way home. Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer and Achmat Dangor are all along for the ride for the next few months. Updates as I make my way through them.