One Year in Kenya [Lesson 4/5]

Effective organizational marketing does not equal ‘good’ development work.

One of my work responsibilities was to write stories for the marketing departments of the two organizations I was affiliated with. Initially I was excited about this responsibility, but I soon recognized frustrations and limitations.

Since people everywhere relate best to stories, the marketing departments wanted stories from me about individual people. Conversely, my job, as a researcher, was to analyze and evaluate impact in the aggregate, for a population of individuals. As a result, any single story I wrote about an individual felt weak, anecdotal, and potentially misleading. Who’s to know whether this individual is an extraordinary outlier or an average Joe? (For more on this see The Danger of a Single Story.)

Several months into my time in Kenya, I recognized the distinction at the heart of my troubles. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate, but the difference between someone doing advocacy and someone doing science is always crucial.

Organizational marketing, particularly for non-profits, is essentially advocacy work. In order to garner support (both financial and otherwise) marketing must ‘sell’ people on the idea of the organization’s work. In order to do this, marketing must be confident and convicted that the work the organization does is, in fact, ‘good’.

This attitude flies in the face of that of a scientist. Particularly in evaluation work, the default attitude is to be constantly critical and almost superficially unsure. The strongest conviction of a good evaluator is his or her own doubt. The three most important words for a scientist are: “I don’t know”.

It is often difficult to differentiate between the two, as good advocacy actually sites and quotes science. Good science does this too, but there is a key difference. Advocacy aims at pushing an idea or concept while science simply (or not so simply) aims at pushing the truth.

This distinction comes to the fore when making sense of this article by Michael Mathethson Miller of Acton Institute latently written about the work of the organization I work for. It is a brilliant form of advocacy and marketing, but it is certainly not science. It absolutely and unequivocally should not be used to inform or direct program strategy or policy decisions. The article is designed to get people, who usually don’t think about this sort of stuff, to think about poverty alleviation (or ‘wealth creation’, whatever you want to call it. It’s the same thing) more deeply. It is wonderful advocacy, but terrible science, and confusing the two can be fatal both for the work of the organization and, sadly, for the people the organization aims to serve.

The development blog WhyDev recently wrote about the juxtaposition between effective marketing and good development. Effective marketing raises attention and donations. Good development work should improve the lives of poor people. Here are five reasons why the two are incompatible:

  1. We have short attention spans
  2. There is no incentive to translate complexity
  3. Even if it offends some, on balance, dumb simple is better
  4. Money drives the work, not the need
  5. Effective marketing draws on herd mentality

[For a remarkably well written story (yes, story!) about the danger of confusing advocacy and science – and really much more, read Nina Munk’s brilliant book: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the End of Poverty.]

HT: Brett Keller on the advocate vs. scientist distinction

One Year in Kenya [Lesson 3/5]

‘Africa time’ is hokum.

This is not a rant about all the time I’ve waited for meetings to start or for events to end. I actually think the idea that a conception of time is geographically based is rife with lazy logic.

Yes, people from some parts of the world often seem to act based on so-called cultural perceptions of time. Yes, during my time in Kenya, I’ve waited for almost every meeting to start well after the agreed upon time. Yes, I’ve attended weddings where ‘lunch’ was served at ‘dinner time’. I think the reason for this is a bit deeper and more complicated than simple geographical differences.

An example:

At the Africa Theological Seminary, where I live and usually work, everything was on time. Always. The remarkable thing is that everything is always on time and there is no bell system or clocks on the classroom walls to remind teachers to wrap up their lectures. In fact, from my reckoning, the only room with a clock in it is the chapel.

Somehow, the same people can be very late for church or a meeting in town but can be on time, with almost freakish precision, when at the Africa Theological Seminary. So what is going on?

Clearly time is not necessarily a geographical phenomenon. It has more to do with social norms and institutional traditions.

Think of it this way: It is often believed that the United States is home to people who are always ‘on time’. It would be considered strange, however, for me to show up for a party at a friend’s house at exactly the time it was advertised it to begin. If the party is to start at 6:00, we will undoubtedly show up at 6:30 or later. Again, conceptions of time do not seem to be geographical.

More correctly, conceptions of time seem most fundamentally tied to social norms and the traditions set up by the various institutions in our lives. It may seem that conceptions of time are geographically based, because history plays out in specific geographical locations. Behind every seemingly geographical cultural characteristic I can think of, there lies a more fundamental reason for the perceived difference that actually influences the local culture. It usually points back to the influence of political, economic, social, and religious institutions on our daily lives.

P.S. This lesson, perhaps even more than others, is not completely settled with me. I’m very open to discussing this further.

One Year in Kenya [Lesson 2/5]

When reading anything start with the presumption that this is almost certainly wrong.

Being a research assistant really requires you to read and think for whomever’s research you are assisting. Research requires a certain level of non-emotional attitude. Reading must be done quickly and summaries must be with pith. Starting with this presumption helps, it may not be how you read in leisure, but it will make you a more efficient and a more appreciated research assistant.

There is an important caveat to this lesson: Starting with the presumption that everything is almost certainly wrong does not always lead to a contrarian conclusion, questioning everything no matter what is cliché and bullish. True critical thinking knows what to question, when, and where and what to appreciate and objectively support.

An example of this in the negative form comes from Pikettymania: Thomas Piketty, the now-famous French economist, published his take on wealth inequality in his best-selling book Capital in the 21st Century.

The book, as it should, made a huge splash upon its translation into English. Many (I mean, almost everybody who thinks about this stuff) wrote and published their thoughts on the book (and its famous equation: r>g) all over the economics blogosphere in the first half of 2014.

Chris Giles, an economics editor for the Financial Times, wrote his ‘critique’ on the so-called mathematical and statistical errors of Piketty’s analysis. His conclusion, Piketty is wrong, inequality is not actually rising.

Several weeks later, Piketty responded to Giles’s comments clearly (I mean with head spinning statistics) showing that his so-called mistakes were actually regular data maintenance methods accepted by anyone performing analysis on decades long time-series datasets.

While a careful reading of Piketty’s book starts with the presumption that it is almost certainly wrong, quality criticism should not follow the path Giles took: Starting with a pre-set conclusion and combing for a story to support that conclusion. Due to the weight of the implications of Piketty’s book much rigorous criticism must be deployed, but this must be done objectively and credit must be given where credit is due.

One Year in Kenya [Lesson 1/5]

Over the next couple weeks I will be posting on several of the most salient lessons I’ve learned while living and working in Kenya over the past year. These lessons will be skewed toward what I am currently able to articulate and write about. Certainly many of the most profound lessons will be realized in later months and years.

The more I learn about the world, the more I find myself saying, “I don’t know”.

This lesson is, perhaps, half due to reading a book (Aid at the Edge of Chaos) and half from experiences. booknew21

The book should be an important book for anyone interested in a career focusing on international issues. It’s influence, however, may not be as wide as it deserves. The book, particularly the middle section, is kind of a slog. Ben Ramalingam introduces the rich but young history of complexity science, the study of complex systems such as ecosystems, traffic patterns, deep-sea oilrigs, epidemiology, etc. Ben’s point is that not only are political and economic systems categorically complex, so are the aid and development systems of providing information, aid, assistance, knowledge, and resources. His conclusions are important, I recommend the book, but only if you are seriously pursuing an ID career.

Saying the world is complex is almost cliché now a days. This lesson, however, bypasses the cliché, as a complex world is now a ‘jumping off’ point for me rather than a landing area. One story encapsulates this well:

One of the components of the program I was a part of was providing loans to groups of borrowers. We had $25,000 to loan out during a one-year period. Due to the experimental nature of our project we chose to give out loans on a term of 6 months. This would allow us to make adjustments halfway through our time with the money.

The first round was complicated by the nightmare that is the global money transfer system. Due to several mistakes along the way by accountants entering faulty routing and account numbers, it took about two weeks for the money (when I say money, I mean numbers recorded in a computer) to travel from the United States to our bank account here in Kenya. After we had the money we had to transfer chunks of it to several groups of borrowers who have their own bank accounts. Again, accountants made mistakes entering account numbers and two of the transfers were reversed. One time the money was “lost” in cyberspace with record of one bank initiating the transfer but no record of the other bank receiving it. All this eventually was ironed out, but delayed the lending by another two weeks.

The second transfer has just recently occurred. In the weeks leading up to the loan application deadline, I found myself sitting with several of the leaders of the savings groups. They explained to me why taking a 6 month loan starting in July is a less than optimal option for them.

For those who would use the money to invest in farming, the seeds are already planted and harvest will not begin until November. Any investment in farming at this point is not financial.

Due to this, and because Kitale is primarily agricultural, the majority of the other businesses from a medical laboratory to a women’s clothing boutique are currently in a season characterized by low sales numbers. Not generally an optimal time for investment for individuals who often provide for their family and run their business out of the same pile of money.

Furthermore, there is an added dynamic of group lending. We lend to several groups, which are officially registered and have a set list of individual members. These groups then provide financial services to their members. The groups all have different methods for loaning money, but generally individuals will not take a loan until they are ready to use it. One group leader told me he’s worried that if his group takes a 6 month loan now, the money will simply sit in a bank account for 5 months until the harvest season begins and then the group will be required to repay the loan (with interest) before the majority of their most productive season has completed.

There are so many surface level conversations about loans being inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The fact is, both of these opinions are right and both are wrong. More money does not necessarily mean more money. In what season was the money given or loaned? What are the terms? Is it one time transfers or multiple smaller transfers spread out over a longer period of time? Group lending is often considered less risky than individual lending, but what are the dynamics of the group? How did the group itself originally form? More generally, what are the other options for credit available in the area? How does the ‘market interest rate’ compare? What are the terms and conditions of the ‘competition’?

This is why, the more I learn about access to capital, microfinance, and financial products for the poor, the more I find myself saying, “I don’t know”.

One of my favorite movie quotes points to this idea of ‘the more you know, the less you know’.

“Conviction, as it turns out, is a luxury for those on the sidelines…”
A Beautiful Mind (2001)

I do not consider myself to be Hayekian, nor do I generally sympathize with Austrian Economics, this quote by F.A. Hayek, however, is really quite good:

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
– Friedrich von Hayek

13 Lessons 2013 Taught Us About [Aid and Development]

I recently wrote an essay and sent it in to RELEVANT Magazine. I enjoy doing this for several reasons. (1) It kinda makes me feel like I’m still in college–meaning somebody is actually going to read and critique my writing. (Sorry to all those who think it is “fun” to read my blog, I love you, but I enjoy more criticism.) (2) It challenges me to continue to improve the quality of my writing. (3) It is fun to actually have a professional editor edit my writing. (4) It just seems cool (I concede this last reason is totally vain.)

Anyway, I wrote about some of the lessons we have learned from the books, academic studies, and events of 2013. The first draft was nice and consisted of flowing prose forming well formed paragraphs. Since RELEVANT Magazine is what it is, the editor wanted the ideas in the form of a list. I agreed to rework the article. 

When my article was finally published I was a bit disappointed as to how much substance had been stripped away. Apparently the word limit is strictly enforced. 20-somethings must lack enough attention to read anything longer than 1000 words. (A platitude I and many of my friends reject.) Here is the article published by RELEVANT. But for the benefit of my readers, the deeper and meatier (Chicago style) version is below. 

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