"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Posts tagged “cultural insanity

A Life Marked by Absolute Insanity

I’ll be honest. I’m a risk-taker. I like big crazy projects that seem to have global import. In that spirit, I decided to seek greater understanding of global poverty and international development through creative self-financing, a convenient change in US student loan policies for overseas institutions, a small grant through a private foundation, and a seemingly inane professional choice relative to completing my PhD. For me, helping engineers respond to global poverty required a deeper knowledge of why poverty persists in the world despite claims that the Industrial Revolution had potential to lead to progress for all. Yes, even Adam Smith pointed to the promises of industrialization when it comes to ending poverty. 250 years later, poverty seems more entrenched now than ever. Looking at places of “big promises” it doesn’t seem to matter where you start. The last big push to make poverty history came with the UN Millennial Declaration in 2000; but all forecasts say the goals are likely to remain unmet.

If I have learned anything about poverty in the last year, it is that poverty has more persistence than ever. Lots and lots (and lots and lots…) if people try to “do something” about poverty, but it seems that many blunders come from the well-intentioned. I never mean to fault the well-intentioned. But being well-intentioned still differs from being well-informed.

When an organization has been around a while, commentators can focus rather specifically on one stage of the project. Many people describing how the Grameen Bank works to alleviate poverty focus exclusively on Yunus’s model detailed in the first edition of Banker to the Poor. The Bank employs a very active learning cycle so various forms of financial services have been piloted and developed through Grameen Bank. Moreover, microfinance is a much wider category than the Grameen Bank. Microfinance could be regarded as “development’s silver bullet” in the 1990s with everyone pioneering different models simultaneously. Many people tried to replicate Yunus’s original Grameen model with some varying degrees of success; other more established corporate interests came in on the guise of “financial inclusion” for the poor and highly profitable banking services. The upside is that many mircofinance schemes have been explored and evaluated.

Today I came across a blog post advocating a collective investment model in microfinance. The idea would be to extend a loan to a group that had a business opportunity. Specifically, the following articulation of the plan in action caught my attention:

a person in the BOP forms a group of between ten to twenty people living below the poverty line. The group then goes through one week of training after applying for a loan from a microfinance institution or organization, starts a group investment and hopefully generates income.

It is truly a piece of innovative thinking. I cannot find any reference to the collective investment model in any of the journals I subscribe to. My collection is limited, so I turned to the library supporting my studies in development: collective investment appears nowhere. Google Scholar is temperamental with keywords so I started with “collective investment model” and found one reference in a law journal; scholastically “collective investment” blows up so I returned to a broader Google search to try to figure out where this idea comes from. While Wikipedia is surely not the best source, collective investment schemes have at least one clear history in developed countries where investors pool risk. I started digging around a bit because I cannot imagine how this model would be successful amongst the world’s poorest because the financial lives of the poor reflect incredibly dynamic and social arrangements. The idea of an financial institution enforcing a group repayment system without having some way of interacting at individual level just seems like an absolute nightmare.

Moreover, it is very easy to be looking for the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid apart from some key observations by C.K. Prahalad. Prahalad notes that businesses can be profitably while trying to eradicate poverty, but he also notes that the poor consistently pay premiums on services higher than expected. The poor already use these services. If a business can improve access to the service and while making it cheaper than the existing ad hoc options, then a business likely as a viable shot.

So while I can appreciate the suggestion that a group of poor persons might benefit from some access to venture capital, I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to start with a biogas facility. The Field Guide to Environmental Engineering for Development Workers has but one mention of biogas in a section on air quality:

Biogas emits less particulate matter and can be obtained from crop residues, manure, and even latrines. However, biogas systems are perceived as being more expensive to implement, and they require a level of coordination and technical experience that sometimes restricts them to larger projects (p 496).

Sustainable Wastewater Management in Developing Countries speaks reasonably highly of biogas systems while proposing that sanitation technologies get evaluated along 6 dimensions according to 10 guiding principles. The system articulated for wastewater processing of a hospital comes reasonably close to the population density of the slums, but this system does not use biogas generation.

Asking the poor to assume financial liability for a biogas facility just seems absurd, especially if the advocates for the Collective Investment Model want the poor to come up with the idea for a biogas facility. With considerable historic NGO practice, it might be a reasonable starting point to ask why the NGOs left the slum. I am not suggesting to leave the slum to its own devices, but it does make some reasonable sense to get the lay of the land.

To be completely clear, I think there is value in cooperative ownership and new models for technology. The poor often make their livelihoods, processing the waste in the rest of the world; expanding opportunities for scavengers might be completely fitting. As an engineer, I think considerable attention must be paid to the right design for the job. Within larger asset transfers to create new livelihoods for the poorest of the poor, I do not think people could go wrong in  talking with BRAC. Acknowledging that there might be economic possibilities for a viable business does not mean that things unfold as planned.

What is “Vulnerability” All About Anyway?

As an academic who regularly conceptualises about poverty and vulnerability, I get into a lot of back and forth arguments with people about the nature of poverty and vulnerability. Everyone thinks they know something about both of these concepts. To some extent, everyone does know something about both concepts. But it’s tricky when we try to generalise from our own experiences. What follows is one of my more readable syntheses on the nature of vulnerability. Should you want full citations, I’m happy to provide. One core citation is Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and a New War on the Poor. Strongly recommended.

I want to ask the reader to think about vulnerability and deliberately invite the reader to think of an infant known personally by the reader at some point in the reader’s life.  At the most basic level, what does an infant need?

When I did the exercise above, my one word answer was “care.” My friends welcome new babies into this world constantly. Almost everyone my age has direct, full-time responsibility for an infant. Conveniently, I do not have children of my own so I can stay out of the “fog of war” of the daily parental struggles associated with caring for children and notice some themes across the experience. In caring for infants, fears regularly collide with hopes. Parents want their kids to be healthy, happy, successful, and cultivate a broad sense of being able to have fun living life. Almost without fail, parents rejoice when these desires seem to be “on track” and mourn in seasons where these desires seem to be little more than pipedreams on a rainy day.

Measuring these conceptual insights against the literature, many people have written about analyzing failures to be healthy, be happy, and develop capabilities for life. Some physicians like Farmer recognize that “to be healthy” requires a lot more than simply bodily integrity. To Farmer(2004), “health” involves a holistic sense wellness that enables the poor people to realise their social and economic rights. To use Farmer’s criteria of discerning decisions that most prefer the poor, I demand evidence that the poor describe their poverty in terms of health and/or wellness. A major project conducted by the World Bank to ask people about their poverty indicates strongly that the poor view their principal challenges in life related to failures to achieve wellness. Building from the voices of the poor, advocates for the poor assert that wellness has dimensions of material wellbeing, bodily wellbeing, social wellbeing, and security while permitting freedom of choice and action (Narayan et al., 2001). Further, development scholars (Gough and McGregor, 2007) have begun the arduous task of synthesizing a vast volume of work across a range of scholarly disciplines to advance a more rough-and-ready wellbeing framework for use in development policies.

Thinking about caring for infants, I observe people differ. After all, no two infants are exactly the same. Even when infants live in the same family, their caregivers quickly realize that each infant represents a unique person and needs a different approach to care.[1] When theorising about the nature of individual care, Sen identifies at least five categories that change the basket of the goods and services needed by individual persons for human flourishing: 1) personal heterogeneities like age, gender, or disability, 2) environmental diversities largely presented as climatic regimes, 3) social climate concerning the overall quality of common public goods, 4) relational perspectives as to how one navigates various norms and customs in communities, and 5) intra-household patterns of distribution related to providing care (Sen, 1999, 70-71). Using Sen’s analysis (1999) encourages thinking about people as individuals, acknowledging that certain decisions, such as allocating resources within a household (1983), may be nearly impossible for an outsider to see.[2]

[1] The observation of no two infants having identically the same needs holds true even amongst the identical twins I have met.

[2] Sen’s framework can be misused, particularly when applied to the identification of vulnerable groups and in no way should be understood as the only framework to discuss wellbeing at an individual level. Sen’s conceptualisation around entitlement theory and development as freedom represent watershed moments in the intellectual history of analysing poverty and vulnerability.


Preserving sovereignty

This post still brings another instalment of the role of government in society. I’ve contended as a central argument that a government needs to follow the money. When a government follows the money, the government can see where the money does not seem to be flowing and address poverty.

Living in an increasingly globalised world, money flows in rather challenging patterns. Money flows when individuals or groups of individuals make a choice to invest somewhere. In searching for stable investments, many people have turned to investing in tracks of land. Major US universities have entered into a relationship with developing African land with the explicit intention of improving agricultural productivity.

The main issue at hand is land rights. Many times these agricultural lands support livelihoods of subsistence farmers. Additionally, land gets tied to natural resource management and exploitation. The government negotiates a deal to assign value to the land and create a contract. Some of these “contracts” fall far below any reasonable person standard of land wealth. Vidal and Provost outline one such deal in Sudan where “the 49-year lease of 400,000 hectares of central Equatoria for around $25,000 (£15,000) allows the company to exploit all natural resources including oil and timber.” Clearly, land should be worth more than $0.06/hectare. When you follow the money, you discover absurdity.

And these absurdities matter because the government who leases the land loses sovereignty. In economics terms, they lose the ability to capture the rents of their resource endowment. On Monday, I’ll post an accessible review of Paul Collier’s “The Plundered Planet” which provides a more detailed discussion about following the money around concerns of natural resources.

The Missing Middle

An unfortunate truth, things in the middle (be they children, book chapters, schedule of the day) tend to get overlooked. We often concern ourselves with the extremes, modulating towards beginnings and endings. If things start out right, we assume that they are well on track for a good end. But we’re not very good at seeing the mundane, ho-hum aspects of daily life. After all, daily life happens in the middle of just about everything else.

This year marks 100 years since the birth of EF Schumacher. His main work is entitled, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.” But as I read a piece in the Guardian today, I was struck by how easy it is to assume that small is simple.

Schumacher’s emphasis on what he called “intermediate technology” (neither basic nor large-scale) as the solution to many of the world’s problems led to the creation of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, now Practical Action, which recently hosted a celebration of his life. “A crank”, he said, “is a piece of simple technology that creates revolutions”. Nice.

“Intermediate technology” or really the technologies in the middle of the complexity scale. If we consider a crank, we’re not talking about installing a shelf, or bridging a small creek with a fallen log, or re-purposing a table as a chair. A crank, and other technologies like it, requires intentionality and consideration. The crank has a vocabulary of use that is slightly constrained by what the crank desires to achieve. When I think about my own experience with cranks, sometimes they are in challenging access points because of what motion they want to produce. When we start talking about cranks, we have to consider mechanisms.

I think that engineering and business complement each other nicely in this occasionally confusing middle space. After all, these technological challenges go just slightly beyond the materiality that everyone takes into their own hands. Someone might see problems of trying to ride a bicycle at night. Trying to rely on a massive infrastructural system where we install various sorts of beacons might not actually get at the core issue of riding a bicycle at night. A middle solution might be looking at how to attach and power a light on the bicycle itself.

The middle space requires deep knowledge of circumstantial particulars. Because the particulars constrain the available options, these middle spaces almost have the allure of compelling objective reality. The middle space creates choice because it zooms in on particular needs.

The Inconsistency of the Ciderhouse Rule

The Ciderhouse Rules premièred when I was in high school. I know I didn’t see the film in the cinema, but I remember watching it shortly thereafter. The premise of the plot is the quest for a young doctor to come to terms with questions of abortion rights. The film tracks through a variety of elements, but the convincing argument comes near the end as our young doctor must contend with a woman suffering from a botched self-induced abortion.

The Ciderhouse Rule is that we should establish proactive measures to ensure that women have access to abortion services because women will seek the procedure anyway. Because people will go to desperate measures to access the procedure, medical doctors have an obligation to provide safe, reliable access to the procedure.

Increasingly, this particular justification of abortion strikes me as totally odd. For instance, we do not typically argue that youth violence needs a safe, reliable outlet. We do not focus on trying to convince a person engaging in cutting behaviour to cut more safely. These behaviours fall into a category of behaviour that we would like to see stop. Humans engage in all sorts of activity that is both dangerous and problematic. We don’t direct our energies into making things safer. We try to address the broader problematic.

Recently, I read about a woman so desperate for an abortion that she paid someone $150 to beat her until she miscarried. I’m struck not by the context of abortion in this story, but rather by the woman’s willingness to be beaten. This woman’s willingness to be beaten might have come principally from an emotional imbalance that lead to risky behaviours to seek validation. Was this woman not, in effect, screaming out, “I’m worthless!” with her choice of mechanisms? Might not that view of self-worth influenced what drove her towards a sexual encounter? It does not take much for me to see that the presence of a child is a symptom of a much deeper root cause.

Having a child occurs amidst an interconnected web of causal factors. Some of these causal factors are distinctly biological. But I also think these causal factors are influenced a great deal by social realities. It is much more difficult to parse the differences between young poor women unexpectedly pregnant and partnered professional women inconveniently pregnant at the “wrong time” in their career. Encouraging girls to pursue their education with a healthy self-esteem and regard for the integrity of their bodies requires a very different approach than addressing the need for financial stability in the midst of an insanely paced professional world.

It’s much easier to cite the problem with a lump of unwanted cells in a woman’s uterus and remove those cells surgically. Because if those cells just go away, then everything will be better. After all, routinised technology solves everything.

But we can also fall into a huge trap of embracing a technological solution. I cannot for the life of me understand why some people treat abortive surgeries as minor procedures. The people I’ve talked to regarding the procedural aspects of an abortion are absolutely shocked to learn that I stayed awake for my wisdom teeth extraction. They could recite danger upon danger of wisdom tooth extraction and didn’t differentiate between exposed and impacted tooth. But I think there is also something that when my doctor extracts my wisdom teeth, he has to look me in the eye. Dental surgeries are uniquely human in that regard.

Acknowledging the uniquely human dimension means that yes, doctors will need to be prepared to support women with a myriad of pregnancy implications. Some of these implications may come from self-induced procedures. Yet, acknowledging the human dimension means looking beyond the technology while serving the full person present before you.

Two Great Distributions

Because I study poverty, I spend a considerable time thinking about income distributions. Largely, we can speak of countries with high incomes, countries with low incomes, and countries with medium incomes. You can see a map that shows the global income distribution here in terms of purchasing power parity (which I think is a better income indicator than say GDP or GNP). So we have one great distribution: the distribution of income.

Additionally, when you consider the map, I cannot help but think about global fertility rates. Have a look at the global birth rate. We see a lot of overlap in that the countries with lower incomes have a higher birth rate. So we have the other great distribution: the distribution of people.

The rhetoric around these two distributions could not be further apart. When it comes to money, we seem to be universally of the opinion that we should have more of it. Go, go economic growth! Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, you generally do not favour either reducing production or redistributing existing resources.

But when it comes to children, the dominant picture requires having less of them. The birth rates in the developed world are impressively low. [And as an aside, the UK’s rate is 1.66 kids per woman. The US’s rate is 2.05 kids per woman. I miss seeing little people.] Because population growth significantly taxes the planet’s resources, we should all embrace all forms of birth control including abortion.

If a high birth rate can stand as a proxy for income, then we have a problem related to the policies we encourage. Correlation does not equal causation. For instance, raising the legal marriage age and encouraging compulsory education will lower birth rates while simultaneously building human capital. Improving child survival odds can also lower the birth rate and build human capital.

Additionally, the desire for children is often like the desire for income. Some people would legitimately like more than they have. Yet, as we have emphasised the biological relative to children, we have families with large amounts of income devoting that income towards procedures like in vitro fertilisation. Sometimes redistributive solutions have their place.

Be careful what you read

Things began innocuously. I, according to my traditional custom, tried to read a book on the train completely unrelated to my course of study. The book focused on the power of weakness. I had never really given the idea much thought.

But, then, in the introduction, I found them discussing Down’s Syndrome. Down’s Syndrome, an unpredictable genetic condition, can only be eradicated through abortion. The book captured the obvious in a way that made me think. And when I think, I connect the various ideas screaming through my head.

My mid-term paper about the nature of development dominated my thinking. One question asked the advantages and disadvantages of defining development as “good change.”

Do I include the deliberately provocative example of abortion as a response to a difficult and unexpected pregnancy in my paper? If we consider something like eliminating disease and disorder as a good thing, then what methods will we use to obtain our goal? The provocative example survived not only my colleague’s feedback, but also a change in my title. Moreover, the tutor assessing my paper thought the example provided a very solid line of reasoning that could have been developed still further.

Because that piece of writing remains relevant to my thinking today, I will post the Introduction.

Learning about Development from Unlikely Sources

What can the experience of a child still in the womb teach us about the Western development agenda? Our responses to pregnancy and our hopes for children illumine our attitudes towards the weak. Additionally, our hopes for our children may reveal our ideological predispositions. Critical observation of how we respond to a child with anticipated disability may enable us to question assumptions inherent in assorted development projects. When confronting disabilities, people living today have greater interventions through technological changes than people living in the past who did not have the range of relevant technologies. We find ourselves in situations where we have power over people we have never met. Moreover, we may rethink how we rely on technology to change circumstances for people in places we have never properly lived.

Persons with Down’s Syndrome live within a web of compounding difficulties. Down’s Syndrome is a genetic condition that can occur in any population. The likelihood of a child with Down’s Syndrome increases with the age of the mother (Macnair and Hicks, 2010). Prenatal testing can confirm the genetic abnormalities; one often-cited study (Mansfield, Hopfer and Marteau, 1999) reports that over 90% of positive Down’s Syndrome prenatal diagnoses in the UK and Europe end in elective abortion. Additionally, advocacy organizations in the United States have issued position papers exhorting that any woman who wishes to continue her pregnancy after a prenatal diagnosis should be supported in that decision (National Down Syndrome Society, 2010). The presence of these position papers suggests clinical practice frequently involves pressuring the woman to terminate her pregnancy. Moreover, support organizations for persons with Down’s Syndrome hold the promise of living a normal, semi-independent life (Down’s Syndrome Society, 2010). The pressure to end Down’s Syndrome and the goal of an approximately independent life point to an ideological position that favors eradicating and mitigating perceived weakness through technological interventions.

Using technology to eradicate and mitigate perceived weakness reflects the ideological character of development. Development began with an agenda to rebuild Europe and expanded to building various economies throughout the world. Engineers and economists served as the first development professionals. The opening agenda of large-scale industrialization indicates the technocratic nature of development. Over time, development practitioners adopted various guiding doctrines that continue to support ideas of Western professionals providing technical assistance to communities (Thorbecke, 2006). Vocal critics of the development agenda have emerged with the exhortation to reflective practice (Nolan, 2002; Chambers, 2005) and the rise of post-modern critique (Esteva and Prakash, 1998; Rapley, 2004). In order to stay relevant, the development industry must adopt a different ideology towards human weakness and technological power.


If you would like the full citations of anything I’ve offered here, you can leave your request in the comments.