Interlude: What have I learned today?

Years ago, I had the privilege of working with a man named Sam Gresham. When we were close to wrapping up the day’s work, Sam would often say: “So, what have you learned today?” That question — or any other — had weight coming from Sam. He had been born on the less favorable side of segregation in the deep South, but made his way to the University of Illinois, Cornell and then Wharton. He spent two decades in charge of the Columbus Urban League, took a turn running the National Urban League, and generally racked up more civic accolades than most heads of state. Elected officials would call him on his cell phone just to shoot the shit. By the time I met him, he was old enough that a lesser man would have been thinking about finding a porch swing somewhere, but he still brought more fire than most of the 20-somethings I knew. Last I heard, he was still going strong.

I’ve tried to keep Sam’s question in mind over the years, though I struggle to find the time and space to really address it on most days. However, today marks an appropriate moment, as it’s the middle of my summer travels. I arrived in Mbale, Uganda, six weeks ago. Since then, I’ve worked here and in other parts of Uganda for MAPLE Microdevelopment, a small NGO based out of Oregon that does business/financial skills trainings and runs a girls’ empowerment program. In a few hours I’ll travel ~150km to Eldoret, Kenya, where I’ll spend the next five weeks interning with Mercy Corps, a much larger NGO that will be well-known to anyone in the development industry.

The transition has given me reason to pause. My work experience prior to grad school was all with US domestic-focused organizations. I arrived in Uganda without ever having done international development work before. I’d read the books and written the term papers, but I had to admit that my understanding was a little theoretical. It’s getting pretty concrete now.

So what have I learned in the past 6 weeks? This will be rambling as I have a bus to catch, but I’ll provide what structure I can.

1. Doing development is hard, and it should be.

A recent post by Tales from the Hood laid it out pretty succinctly:

The way aid should be done:
1) Understand the need that needs to be addressed, the problem that needs to be solved.
2) Plan a solution based on that need, on that problem.
3) Implement the solution to meet the need, fix the problem.

But that made it sound so easy. There’s a lot of ambiguity in those three steps, and a lot of opportunity for unconsidered assumptions to creep in. This isn’t something I learned recently. I’ve always known the world is complicated. We have to be okay with that, and even thrive on it, or we’ll go insane.

What I’ve been learning recently is how to better navigate that complexity. The development industry uses a lot of ink discussing the impact of local context on program effectiveness. Large NGOs and donors have manuals giving great detail on their frameworks for engagement, often with step-by-step instructions on the factors to consider. Methodologies and frameworks have been borrowed from the social sciences, medicine and business under the banner of greater rigor.

But I worry that these sometimes go too far. Attempts to systematize and science-ify the process bring shape to the ambiguity. They strip away some of the complexity, which can create a false sense of certainty and can introduce new blind spots. Such efforts are also very resource intensive. A small organization like MAPLE lacks the scale to make an intensive needs assessment and program planning process efficient. This might be an argument that small organizations shouldn’t exist. But don’t most large organizations start out small, often growing by doing something out of the ordinary based solely on the hunch of the founder? And while neither Muhammad Yunus nor Paul Farmer did rigorous needs assessments followed by log-frames, I’m pretty sure they both had an intuitive understanding of what the communities they sought to serve needed.

That intuitive understanding is what I’ve been pondering. How do you operationalize that? How do you build that into your organization’s activities? I think you do it by hiring people like Eddie, who teaches MAPLE’s business and financial skills trainings in the village where he was born. His decisions on what to teach and how to teach it may not be 100% accurate, but they are certainly efficient. The decisions are still tough (do you deliver a comprehensive curriculum over 6 months, or create an abridged version so that you can reach more people?) but they should be tough: these are important questions about complex issues. Leveraging the knowledge of someone who truly knows the community can at least give us some guidance.

2. Managing development work is harder, but it shouldn’t be.

The management side is where development becomes international development, rather than simply being development in Uganda (or wherever). Because it’s in the management side that we deal with isues of funding and other resources that come from outside the community being served. This complicates accountability, creates new frustrations, and brings host of potential miscommunications.

But are these issues really so different from the ones facing domestic nonprofit work? Prior to the trip, I suspected that they weren’t. Now, I’m certain that they aren’t. There are certainly new issues like language barriers and significant time zone differences. However, these are minor compared to the questions of organizational strategy, decision-making processes, staff management, and accountability for results. These questions apply to all organizations in all fields, whether it’s an international NGO, a private business or a football team. So the management side is the source of many complications, but we should be able to do it much better.

3. “Culture” is actually a useful concept, but cultural differences are still not that important.

I’ve come to think about culture differently since being here. The concept had always seemed fuzzy and only marginally useful to me. More often than not, “culture” seems to be what we use to explain the things we can’t explain. It fills the conceptual gaps and allows us to punt on tough questions. Don’t know why one country has economic growth while the other doesn’t? Must be the culture. I think Ha-Joon Chang used an example of how South Korea’s slow rate of growth was blamed on culture, until the country took off, at which point culture became the explanation for the country’s success.

Culture entered the development economics thinking when it became apparent that incentives are more complicated than they appear. The development industry has realized that incentives get interpreted through the lens of culture, and also in terms of an individual’s personality. But that still leaves culture as an exogenous factor in our development model: it comes from outside the model, and impacts the other elements without being impacted itself. That seems incomplete. Culture changes too. So what causes those changes?

I’ve started to think about culture as people’s learned responses to the incentives and conditions they face and have faced over time. You might call incentives a flow variable while culture is a stock (much as budget deficit is a flow while debt is a stock). To understand a culture analytically, you have to understand both the incentives currently in place, as well as how those incentives developed over time; the historical incentives determine how people react to the contemporary ones. Thus it’s not enough to see cite Christian fundamentalism in east Africa as an explanation for Uganda’s hostility toward homosexuality; you need to understand what religion means to people who are living through the tremendous changes in economic, political and other spheres that are currently taking place in this region.

Despite my new take on the concept of culture, I still don’t think cultural differences are all that important. Folks are just folks, anywhere in the world. Different cultures don’t make people inscrutable. They just have different assumptions about the world. Operating in another culture requires deference, humility and an admission of ignorance, but these are good principles when working in your home community as well.

4. Living in Uganda is pretty much exactly what I expected, but with less diarrhea.

I know some readers of this blog are more interested in the travel stories than development, so I had to include something for you as well. This has been my longest period outside the United States. Everyday life in Uganda is different, but nothing has come as much of a surprise. I should note that I’ve had a pretty nice setup for Mbale: electricity, semi-reliable internet access, a flush toilet and running (or at least trickling) water. I wash my clothes by hand and take cold showers every other day. I spent twenty minutes last night trying to chase a frog out of my garage-converted-to-bedroom. The food is good and hearty, if sometimes bland. I boil all my water before drinking it, or buy bottled if I’m on the road.

So far — I’m knocking on wood with one hand while typing with the other — I’ve had no medical problems. I’ve managed to avoid the temptation to buy the grilled-goat-meat-on-a-stick from the side of the road. None of the food has made me sick, I haven’t gotten sunburned, and I’ve been injured less than I would during an equivalent period living in NYC. I tend to remember my dreams more than usual, but I’m not sure if this is a side effect of the mefloquine or just the fact that I’ve been sleeping a whole lot better than I do in Manhattan.

There’s also a lot of haggling. It’s hard to tell who has fixed prices and who haggles, and you try not to get charged the “muzungu price.” When in doubt, I just offer the person half what they asked and see what they do. It also helps that the markets always have a dozen people selling the same things, so you can comparison shop. Last night, I got called out on haggling for the first time. I was trying to get a bargain on a couple bananas that would have saved me about 5 cents, and I pointed out that they were pretty small. The guy’s rebuttal was, “But you are white. You have money.” So I paid him what he asked. Smart guy, that banana salesman.

Postscript

Thanks for bearing with me on this long, rambling set of observations. Some are half-formed and I’d welcome comments or criticism. I’ve been accused of being “dangerously elliptical” so if I may have made some logical jumps. I’d be offended if you didn’t call me on them.