The new things I have encountered and accomplished during my first three days in DC can be best conveyed in list form:
Work in international development is a study in constraints.
Work in international health takes this rule and ups the ante by virtue of sheer complexity.
Here’s one example: many vaccines are temperature sensitive, and can be spoiled by fleeting exposure to heat (for instance, 80% of tetanus vials will no longer be potent after 3 hours at 65 degrees Celsius – an entirely achievable temperature in the back of a metal truck). Vaccine vial monitors have by and large minimized the issue of administering ineffective doses, but the primary problem of spoilage remains. This can happen if, say…
Et cetera. And the potential impact can be just as varied: a waste of labor, time, physical resources, and money in a setting where none of those things are readily available, not to mention the potential health impact upon a population (worse if the vaccines are administered anyway and a sense of entirely unwarranted protection is developed; worse still if this a HPV vaccine distributed to potential rape victims, or whatever other awful scenario you can think up). Implementing an effective aid program requires very careful and systematic prediction of where things can go wrong, and failsafe plans for when things not-thought-of do. Similarly, post-program analysis can also benefit from more rigorous methodology, such as with use of controlled studies to evaluate the effectiveness of aid (here is a fantastic study on the effectiveness of various methods of HIV prevention among adolescent girls).
This particular way of framing complex problems in international affairs is not only beneficial but essential to forming strong policy. A thoroughly analytic, numerically focused perspective is invaluable in constructing effective development programs: building a bridge in Nicaragua, a complex of biosand filters in El Salvador, an economic program to support schools in Pakistan. This isn’t a thought process I’ve ever had to implement in a political science or policy studies course, but instead is incredibly reminiscent of the manner in which I’ve had to approach design problems in engineering classes – and I’d like to argue that it places people with this sort of training in a key position in policy agencies. Only so much can be learned from reading case study after case study; students intending to enter high-stakes fields need more trial-and-error, more hands-on practice in program development and design. USAID doesn’t hire systems engineers, but they should if we ever intend to become serious about development.
Here is The Thing from this week that will stick with me:
At Princess Haya Al Hussein’s talk on world hunger at the Baker Institute, she brought up the Millennium Development Goals and general lack of dedication most signatories have shown with regards to their fulfillment by 2015. Of course, there is a general lack of awareness about such things. Though the MDGs represent a significant commitment on behalf of UN member-states, the plan began as long-term and the details belong to a relatively obscure field – neither condition makes for a compelling news feature (I mean, this is a field I want to pursue as a career – I can name four things I know are on the list, rattle off some sub-goals, guess well at the others, and know there are eight). Her most telling anecdote, however, involved talking with two children in a less-than-developed are of Nairobi who discussed the directive in detail, and who were intimately aware of the promises the United Nations had made to the very broad group of people – those experiencing poverty in a global, crippling sense – that they belonged to. They discussed these points as if they were things that were actually going to happen, as though we were not failing massively, because they outlined a commitment those in power had made to pulling them out of an awful situation.
I’d like to relate this sort of commitment to expectations of government in the United States. This is a nation where people are consistently vocal about their lack of expectations for the president and congress, and where we in general have an unyielding lack of faith in the ability of elected officials to accomplish productive tasks – and yet we feel cheated, disappointed, betrayed when an elected official who otherwise upholds his duty does so much as tweet out a picture of his dick. I don’t intend to undermine the seriousness of that act – quite the opposite. My point is that that wasn’t even in the job description; we became enraged at an unwritten expectation of good conduct. And yet we do not flinch at the very serious prospect of abandoning a clearly outlined agreement to millions. We don’t expect the UN to accomplish anything, because they’ve failed at so much? Is that a good excuse? I don’t expect attractive male congressmen to act like anything other than horny sixteen year olds, but I still cringe when they do.
Can’t afford it? Great. Don’t sign it. Don’t make the promise in the first place, and save on failing floods of people later, on causing potentially very serious social unrest due to hunger or disease or disappointment – don’t provide detailed steps on alleviating hunger, concrete approaches to slicing child mortality in half (sterile razors!), on providing legitimate ways to counter the spread of HIV. But if a country vows and falters without anything resembling a worthy national effort, it should be prepared for the hostility that will follow.
A major step here would be to educate Americans on the issues of global development and foreign aid – to counter the ridiculously inflated statistics people throw out when told to guess what percentage of our GNP goes to other countries (10%? 20? More like less than 1 [CGD]). This would, ideally, reduce calls to cut developmental aid and allow the masses to refocus on other questionable portions of the national budget. A national election would be an excellent platform for this if the economy were back in full swing – I’m betting on 2016 for a decent post-failure examination.
1. I wanted, so badly, to roll my eyes and rage after reading this headline. I come from an academic world that is all for grand challenges, all for ridiculous attempts at large improvements in health metrics or disease eradications with limited resources. But internet?! Yes, in context: when Syria shuts down two-thirds of access in a national rebellion, it becomes a violation of freedom of expression; when communications are shut down, it becomes crisis. Damn good for the UN.
2. Spending power in various cities: I cheered! And then I scrolled down. Good demonstration of economic disparities in Texas, primarily as a function of well-run businesses and a poorly-run state; also a solid example of why the words “President Perry” strike terror in my heart. But as a San Antonian transplanted to Houston who also wants to live in D.C., I’m happy to keep moving up. And I would be willing to bet that health care costs are a major contributor to the valley’s incredibly low ranking.
…is Tex-Mex, and undeniably so. Having grown up in San Antonio, I have been an avid consumer since birth, and as such feel qualified comment upon the various subsets of the genre:
This is not that place in downtown Philly that my friend thought was tex-mex when he was growing up because they had menu items with too many l’s in a row and a very thin bowl of ketchup on the table. It is not, for that matter, anywhere north of Dallas or east of Beaumont; there is usually (though not always) a tortilla lady making tortillas thicker than 1 mm, and your chips do not – do not – break under the considerable weight of your spice-laden guac. El Real is the best new example I can think of in Houston. Puffy tacos! Recipes that taste like the Rio Grande Valley, which in my imagination exclusively produces food from the 1970s! Also, an orange building – all the best capital-t-capital-m Tex Mex places are orange, as a rule.
It’s 1 a.m. and you’re really not sure if the room is blurry or is that just how that wall looks or is it you? and the TV is on, maybe, because there are only four other people here and it would be too quiet otherwise, and you’re trying to figure out the plot but all you see are girls and businessmen gesticulating a whole lot in an exclusively Mexican language of hand-motion. You figure out how to read again when handed a menu, and then figure out that the first two pages of the menu are filled with margaritas and obscure tequilas, and then decide to order whatever the fuck a “chimichanga” is. You see cracks in the windows, realize you’re eating on a plastic table, hear the stiff drone of a portable air-conditioning unit, and begin to wonder about how your car is doing in the gravel lot out back. Behind the back entrance. Which was covered with a tarp. And then there’s a flutter, and thirty people storm in! Bars have closed, but this place is still open, and every single person here is drunk and in desperate, desperate need of greasy food from a waiter who may or may not speak a language that they also speak. And then your food arrives! It’s a burrito the size of a baby dipped and oil and fried to hell and back! You tip gallantly, and do not return until very, very early the next Saturday morning.
I will defend Chapultapec’s performance in this category slightly over Ruchi’s until my dying day. Tapatia? Don’t even touch it.
Food truck? Maybe. Attempt at Korean fusion? Also that. Crumbled and spiced soy protein as a ground beef substitute? Definitely.
Tex-Mex by Analogy
When eating Ethiopian food, there is a fantastical lack of silverware: you pick up various chucks of meat and vegetables and things using a thin sheet of vaguely sourdough-esque bread. Savory filling wrapped in bread = taco, and this analogy can be extended indefinitely. Does your kolache have egg and sausage inside? It’s a breakfast taco. Russian pirozhki: bread wrapped around stuff? Taaaaacoooo. In this sense, every culture – every single one, except maybe some places in Asia? – is obsessed with tex-mex, and it’s great.
Not Tex-Mex, or Sketch-Mex, or Honestly Anything Worthwhile
Also New-Mex, because damned if I’m going to call a taco a burrito.
I’ll begin with a story:
I like to drive fast, and for long distances, with purpose – generally to places where there isn’t much to stop for until the very end. I have a car named Clyde (he is boring and old and white), and together we tackle Texas on a roughly bi-annual basis. The most recent adventure involved dropping a friend off at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, but was motivated primarily by finally getting a chance sample the margaritas at Blue Mesa Grill (note: worth it). Post-dinner, at roughly 9 pm, I came to two very serious realizations: I will likely not be in Texas after graduation, and I have not yet visited the Panhandle. Solution? Drive seven hours to Palo Duro Canyon, in the dead of night, to satiate my ridiculous drunk personality and complete the map of my home state. Events of note are as follows, times taken from texts:
11:05 pm – I’m outside of Wichita Falls, and owls begin swooping across the road: at least five, massive things, figments of J.K. Rowling’s imagination rather than anything I would ever expect to witness. I swerve madly, thinking that I would be the worst goddamn Rice student in the world if I hit an owl while driving. Best: one was carrying my first in-person view of a wild 3-foot snake.
2:23 am – Rainbow-variety of flashing lights in the distance illuminate what might be cornfields. They go and go and go and stop and suddenly the fields fade away to empty storefronts, lights still blazing in the distance, leaving my headlights for all other purposes useless. I blare the radio and bite my tongue hard, thinking I’m beginning to hallucinate (not out of the question – Critical Mass the night before, anyone?). But no – Quitaque, Texas, is actually where any potential alien invasion will begin. No David Duchovny sightings, to my dismay.
5:45 am – Pull into a Starbucks in Amarillo (This is a real town! Not the ex-cowboy-turned-railway haven of my imagination, though there is a bit of that) and witness FAR too many hipsters. There’s no way, there must have been a convention – the man at the table next to me, all skinny jeans and Pitchfork, is certainly en-route to Austin. But the barista calls his name and chats about his dog. Madness.
7:30 am – This absurdity:
I found an abandoned bright-orange can and added something to the ten-car collection, one step closer to completing Texas Monthly’s bucket list.
9 am – Make the short drive back to Palo Duro Canyon, endure the typical Memorial Day Weekend state park entry extravaganza, and set out on the Lighthouse Trail to a brisk 76 degrees. Straightforward, easy trail, but entirely distinct from anything I’ve done before – something that belongs in Arizona or Malawi, rather than a spot of rust on the sea of wheat. I’m in Birkenstocks like an idiot who didn’t plan to be here (surprise), but three miles from the trailhead I come across three figures straight out of a Cormac McCarthy book – old men with boots, horses, sun-worn skin who greet me with “how’d’you do” and a tip of the cowboy hat.
I return to my car to be greeted with a heat index of 116, rest with the AC on for ten minutes, stand up, and promptly pass out. Not a joke. Ridiculous first-time occurrence. Awful. But whatever had been afflicting me (low blood pressure, my best bet) fades quickly and I begin the drive back to Houston.
2 pm – And what a motherfucking drive it is. There is no way, none, that this wind and this landscape are real things, no way I’m still on earth. I’m surrounded by stripes: graying asphalt at the bottom, light yellow, and then sky. The only thing on the horizon? A few windmills, maybe, far in the distance, only if I’m not deluding myself. How can I tell? The sky is purple. I indulge my inner high school physics nerd by toying with my driving, seeing how long it takes me to drift across two lanes, trying to calculate wind speed, but mainly this is just terrifying.
12:23 am – I’ve just finished getting lost in Ft. Worth and my phone is dead, I’m approaching my third day of very little sleep and my 18th hour of driving during that same time period. Fifty miles outside of that city, my least favorite thing happens: the check engine light comes on. Ten minutes later, I’m looking for somewhere decent to pull over when my car starts bucking, physically rattling beyond anything that should happen when you’re not on an angry horse – so I take the next exit and drift into a closed gas station and get out. Bars on the windows, closed liquor store nearby, the sketchiest set of cars I’ve seen in my life, and a skittish Dachshund in the parking lot. Panic panic panic panic panic. Like a freakshow, I circle the building, searching for somewhere to plug in my phone: I eventually pry open a rusted metal cabinet and unplug the “closed” sign. And then I’m delirious and panicked and alone and terrified and I grab pepper spray from my car and literally cower, tethered to the aluminium wall and trying to stop hyperventilating long enough to place an intelligible call to AAA. This is less than productive, as there will be a three hour wait. So I sit and panic some more until a homeless guy shows up and starts, pardon the stereotype, crazytalking at me and telling me I’m pretty. CUE: batshit insane bitch. Flee to my car, lock it, start it until he meanders off. Charge my phone for thirty more minutes until I realize the car was normal when I had trapped myself inside; decide to risk at least partially driving back (within the 100-mile tow circle, perhaps?), and crawl at 40 miles per hour back to Houston, radio crooning country music from the 90s all the while.
This is a good example of things that I do. Likely this attempt at blogging will fall by the wayside, but ideally I’ll keep being interesting enough to have things to say.