Tuesday, 30 September 2014

"Nothing is what you think it is"

There are things you learn about yourself and your surroundings when you have the opportunity to live in unfamiliar surroundings, but unless you're up to your waist in those new surroundings you’ll be hard-pressed to actually understand them. Most are content to not understand them. Fucked up things happen and that’s just the way it all flows. Fortunately, I don’t subscribe to that philosophy, and am in the habit of trying to understand some of these fucked up things. A common phrase to anyone who’s witnessed or been subjected to inequality or some other aforementioned fucked up thing is along the lines of “that’s just how it is”. This is a submission that things are flowing against how you would ever want them to be, yet can do nothing to fix this. Sometimes it’s out of laziness, but sometimes, there truly is nothing you can do without putting your life at risk. 

In Canada we have the good fortune to be able to publicly comment on government policy without being arrested or any other terrible thing, and in this case saying the above phrase, conceding defeat, is out of laziness. Too lazy to participate in democracy, and submission is much easier.

In non-democratic states, this is not always the case. You see harsh inequalities, or unjust occurrences and to speak out against them may mean your life, or in the very least an increase in discomfort. I see many new luxury vehicles around the city now, yet with a mean annual income of $1,700 this would never be a reality for most. So people work hard to fight this monster called inequality. They work for NGOs and even government agencies, they rally companies to get involved and the best ones put their asses on the line to help those who could never dream of owning that car, mostly because they cannot even sleep long enough in a day to dream in the first place. 

They work hard, and yet their work is often clouded by realities. Realities of needing partnerships. Realities of needing funding. Realities of not being arrested. These are often unavoidable, and some of these workers I’m sure are tempted to concede defeat against the wave of fucked up things. Sometimes we can fight against the realities to still make a meaningful difference, and in the field of development it’s just something we have to do. We push through them, holding our values as key, until we can find a solution. A co-worker told me that one of her friends’ had a nanny who took their infant outside on a daily basis to beg on the streets with her (unbeknownst to the parents), adding with a tone of near-resignation that “here, nothing is what it seems. There is always a reality hiding underneath what you see”. 

But her friends didn’t give up. They installed cameras in their house.

And sometimes, that’s just what we have to do to un-fuck situations.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Practioner's Dilemma: The Professionalization of Development

The economist Bill Easterly is likely the largest proponent against technocratic, heavy handed development efforts around today. He argues against the 'big development' type of development that repeatedly witnessed a strong lack of consistent success, and yet the largest voices in development such as Jeff Sachs, The World Bank, and The Gates Foundation are still working within this framework. As his recent book The Tyranny of Experts' name would suggest, Easterly has an issue with the professionalization of development that has taken a stranglehold of the decisions that are made across the Global South, and became a standard for all major (and most minor) development organizations. Professor Easterly refers to these experts themselves as the dictators, and the problem the continues to plague development efforts worldwide. The experts are the technicians who can fix technical problems, when in reality problems faced by the poorest one billion people are far more complex than any technical solution can handle. How can experts, such as Jeff Sachs, travel around the world preaching the technocratic solutions for poverty and one hand, and live in a multi-million dollar flat in Manhattan on the other?

And herein lies the problem. I want to be that same expert, technician and now apparently dictator.

I agree with Easterly, who echoes the likes of Arturo Escobar and Amartya Sen when he says that poverty reduction is something that can only occur through freedom, not technical solutions. A conflict exists between this approach and the more technocratic, expert-aligned approach, and it is very politically derived. When rationally-minded people are faced with seemingly logical solutions it is natural to take the path of least resistance, work within the bounds of reason which dictates problem identification, finding the most effective cost efficient solution and implementing it. This is how I was taught to find solutions studying Geographic Information Sciences and data base management, because this is how they are structured: within the confines of logic. Humans, on the other hand, do not easily fit into the confines of this model. We are often irrational and incomprehensible, we do things that often work against us, and often times do it repeatedly.Effective development, like all things, should be completed holistically. It should be entirely based around the needs of the beneficiaries, with the inputs of experts being done within a loose and accommodating framework.

 I have faith that while working for beneficiaries instead of for donors I can still be an expert, but an expert who doesn't carry only his laptop to hotels, hold meetings, and fly home. A balance must be struck between being a logically minded technocrat or expert and someone who can accept (not try to understand) the irrationality of human decisions. I anticipate learning from both schools of thought will help this become a reality in coming years.

Monday, 30 June 2014

GIS and Poverty Reduction: Part 2 (Map Kibera)

In Part 1 I provided a brief explanation of what a GIS is and what it does. I'll focus here more on what a GIS is capable of within a poverty-reduction framework, with some examples where applicable. It is important to emphasize that I:
 a) do not assume that any technological tool can alone remove poverty;
 b) do not want to further enhance the dichotomies that exist international development studies by emphasizing rural/urban, North/South 

What really sparked my interest in this topic is a project which was launched in 2009 by  Penn State called Map Kibera, seen in the video above. This ambitious project involved the residents of one of the largest slums in the world in Nairobi, Kenya to map out, and create household and geographic data of the entire city.

There's a few reasons why this project is so much more than providing a detailed map of pathways and roads in the area. It makes those residents that were previously invisible on a map visible; it marks the beginnings of land-rights reforms, it allows services to be measured and provided (or enhanced); and, finally,  it can help to identify where change can begin to happen.

It is not the software itself that can bring forth poverty alleviation, it is how the software is used, who is using and for what purpose they are using it. In this case, simple digitization efforts by hard working individuals in a community created a wealth of new options and choice, efforts that are currently being replicated around the world. I'll continue to explore how a GIS can help in the fight against poverty, but giving people the power of being formally recognized is an excellent place to start.