Chaos Muppet Strategic Planning

A Guide for Plotting the Rest of Your Life, Terrifying Your Neighbors


I’ve spent the past few months in this exceptionally weird, expansive state of nondecision. There’s a scene in the last episode of the West Wing – someone’s trying to decide what to do after the administration ends – and the resident curmudgeon replies: “You’re a woman with a lot of options and you’re acting like the world is backing you into a corner. Maybe you should stop bouncing, pick something.” Ugh. Exactly. I’ve watched it a billion times and yet still couldn’t manage to pick a thing. (For what it’s worth, the way I feel about jobs has helped me understand how the rest of you feel about Tinder.)

Talking and kvetching about, I’ve gotten the sense that this is everything-is-possible paralysis runs particularly rampant in early-career global health and development circles for a few reasons:

  1. People tend to be drawn to this realm out of a compulsion to address particular problems, but when it comes to translating that into a functional career, there are fifty different ways to work on the same thing. (You come out of an internship in undergrad struck by the problem of antimicrobial resistance, say – but do you work on drug pricing? Pharmaceutical incentives? Behavioral research? Medical research? An intervention-based startup to improve compliance? Russian prison reform?)
  2. This space is also overwhelmingly interdisciplinary (epidemiology bleeds into biosecurity which bleeds into soft power and regional dynamics, which bleed into U.S. foreign policy…and that’s just my weird corner). In my experience and perhaps in contrast to other arenas, this actually gets worse with research-oriented graduate education.
  3. There’s also the problem of a hiring bubble: students emerge from MPHs & similar programs with concrete experience and hard research skills, feeling capable of doing a lot but mismatched to market dynamics or otherwise priced out (expected to intern after a master’s, etc).

I’ve also been getting a lot of emails asking for general career advice lately (which I am still totally happy to answer, eventually). But when wait-I-need-a-job season started in full force around February I had no idea what I was doing & so felt like the falsest prophet. Once I figured that out, the process I came up with was so clarifying that I thought a generic guide would be a useful standing resource.

big picture glance.jpg
Buckle up.

Continue reading “Chaos Muppet Strategic Planning”

Chaos Muppet Strategic Planning

Good Intentions & Subtle Contradictions, Pt. 1: Geek Heresy

I’ve been meaning to review Geek Heresy (Ketaro Toyoma, 2015) for a while. On the whole I really liked it, and would deem it useful reading for anyone doing work tangentially related to technology and/or international development. Three cheers for procrastination, however, as this week technology researcher Evgeny Morozov released a thoughtful and scathing assessment of technology and innovation policy in the Clinton-era State Department – which has important implications for how these elements will be viewed, addressed, and managed in the presumably forthcoming Clinton administration.

Moreover, all of this is especially important now: we’re in a murky era of unestablished norms and maladapted legal frameworks. While that era’s not coming to a close quite yet, things are in some respects beginning to congeal: only so many problems can pop up before someone, somewhere, has to make a decision and set a precedent.

Given all that! In this post – Part 1 – I’m going to summarize and review Geek Heresy. In Part 2, I’ll discuss its relevance to historical U.S. government-managed initiatives discussed in the Morozov article, spell out what I think this means for USAID in particular, and conclude with examples of organizations that I think are truly doing digital development right, as well as some academic frameworks I have found helpful when parsing these concepts. Continue reading “Good Intentions & Subtle Contradictions, Pt. 1: Geek Heresy”

Good Intentions & Subtle Contradictions, Pt. 1: Geek Heresy

The Donor That Came in From the Cold?

One of the loveliest elements of having so many friends working on international issues is puzzling over the odd bits of the world in which we’re cathected, and tracing the ways in which we became so (an assignment, a particular story, a particular problem, a plane ticket purchased on a whim…). Those, for me, have been the conflagratory slices – Gaza + AfPak + Yemen (1 2 3 4) – for no good reason other than that I find the combination of dire humanitarian need and conflict-based constraints intellectually challenging.

Paul Collier, in opening The Bottom Billion, puts this aptly and succinctly:

“Traditionally, development has been assigned to aid agencies, which are low in almost every government’s pecking order. The U.S. Department of Defense is not going to take advice from that country’s Agency for International Development.”*

Continue reading “The Donor That Came in From the Cold?”

The Donor That Came in From the Cold?

Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies

I’m a creature drawn to harsh climes (desert, scrubland, impossible mountains). In Jordan, this was neatly satisfied through lots of weekend canyoneering: down the mountains to the Dead Sea, mostly, at nearly the very tip of the Great Rift Valley. A ragtag, homegrown, and exceptionally enthusiastic cohort of literal trailblazers has emerged recently – they’re working, for instance, on a path that spans the entire length of the country.

Woke up to this somewhere along Wadi Hasa.

The Jordanian government seeks out and strongly supports these projects, integrating them into rural economies. And aside from private revenue-based organizations, nearly all them are funded through – you guessed it – aid money. Tourist sites in Jordan are accompanied by billboards covered in alphabet soup. Every ruin, castle, canyon trail, nature reserve, and religious site is bounded by signs touting funding from the American, French, British, Spanish, and Japanese people.

Despite a lack of formal acknowledgement, I firmly believe that this is strategic – and that if it’s not, it should be. Heavy investment in tourist sites all across nominally middle-income, Middle Eastern countries seems squarely aimed at increasing economic dependence on tourism with the ulterior motive of providing significant incentives for state security at the individual level. This makes sense: for countries in the region not blessed with petroleum reserves, economic diversification is critical. So, perhaps not coincidentally, heavy international funding of these low-cost, high-reward projects is common in the resource-poor countries of Morocco, Jordan, and, formerly, Egypt.

A similar pattern is evident in environmental projects, specifically for water – no puzzle in a region covered by vast stretches of desert. While wealthier countries in the region rely heavily on virtual water through imports, lower-income countries are presently bolstered in the throes of the fight against water shortages (made worse by population growth and displacement) through innovative development projects. Fog harvesting in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, desalination in Jordan, and dam construction in Egypt have all received funding through bilateral and multilateral loans. Donor incentive for funding water projects may, similarly, lie in concerns about possible associations between water availability and conflict. (I’m not totally sold on this, but it’s useful in any case and it drives money.)

Whatever the intentions, these sorts of programs environmental and preservation programs are areas where donor and recipient interests are well-aligned and provide a win-win-win model for donors, recipient states, and citizens. Tourism and nature sites frequently lie outside of urban centers, where the state control may falter. Stability-dependent economic development provides bilateral donors with a low-cost alternate means of discouraging terrorism. For state recipients, successful rural projects temper rural discontent and provide examples of contributions to global environmental efforts. For citizen recipients, they provide a noncontroversial and sustainable means of secure livelihood. I’m open to arguments – maybe this is sneaky? – but can’t really think of a downside. It’s an example of very smart soft power and everyone wins.

As goes one of my favorite snippets from Paul Collier in The Bottom Billion, “the U.S. Department of Defense is not going to take advice from that country’s Agency for International Development.” There’s really no getting around it: aid to the Middle East operates under the shadow of conflict and security concerns. Donors are guided heavily by the interests of the U.S. and allies toward development strategies designed to mitigate conflict. But while defense departments may not listen to development agencies, it is possible that well-managed development aid will preempt the need for listening by creatively tempering potential conflict.

I’m adding some photos after the jump, because my wanderlust is creeping up (and because I just managed to resurrect a phone I thought was lost to one of these rivers…).

Continue reading “Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies”

Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies

What’s in a Name? Terrorism and Development in the Water and Conflict Chronology Database

Water conflict is one of those topics that inspires terrific divisiveness: it’s either entirely over-hyped or the secret source of all mass migrations and international power struggles for the next century. There is, of course, a large and well-argued middle ground, but policy circles are often dominated by the groups with the more thrilling, oversimplified narratives. Continue reading “What’s in a Name? Terrorism and Development in the Water and Conflict Chronology Database”

What’s in a Name? Terrorism and Development in the Water and Conflict Chronology Database

High Maintenance.

If you’re interested in international development and have not been living under a rock, you’ve probably stumbled across summaries and reviews of Nina Munk’s The Idealist (link to Mike Miesen’s excellent overview as I haven’t yet read it myself). In short, the book highlights the shortcomings of the Millennium Villages Project, conceived of and ceaselessly touted by activist and economist Jefferey Sachs. The project consists of comprehensive funding to the villages over ten (up from an original five) years, with the goal of ultimately providing a system by which holistic aid can eradicate extreme poverty.

As you might suspect, this approach has been flawed. Presidents scoff at the project while purchasing fighter jets; parts arrive, but are not installed; wells are built and run dry. Criticisms of the MVP point to the immense difficulty of building something different in a vacuum of physical and political infrastructure, in an environment that is simply not yet capable of sustaining isolated pockets of prosperity.

This book was published in November, prompting lots of interesting discussion on sustainability and wise investment. But since then, a few articles have highlighted similar struggles in implementation of development projects thousands of miles from sub-Saharan Africa.

After Billions in U.S. Investment, Afghan Roads are Falling Apart,” heralds the Washington Post. And of course they are; this follows an article in the same vein on hospitals by the same author, and the challenges are very similar. Step one: donors invest in basic infrastructure with the hope of promoting a cure-all. Step two: funders are surprised when projects that require maintenance and outside support falter after not receiving those things. Step three: we complain about poor spending and wasted tax dollars, shaking our heads at it all.

For some perspective, Texas and Afghanistan are roughly the same size at just over 250k square miles. The Texas Department of Transportation spent $3,767,263,875 on highway construction and repairs in 2013.  To be fair, those repairs would have been allocated to a more extensive road network (79,645 miles of highway in Texas versus 7,673 miles of paved road in Afghanistan), so let’s cut the amount by a factor of ten. The article notes that international donors have allocated $4 billion since 2001, so we’ll also multiply the Texas amount by 14 for a grand total of $5,274,169,432 – nearly 33% more.

This ignores the fact that many of Afghanistan’s roads are newly constructed, which is more expensive than maintenance, and that they’ve gone without repair all together. Lest you forget, Texas roads are also not targeted by roadside bombs, and we don’t hire security for our construction workers – a substantial portion of costs abroad.

I don’t mean to provide a judgment on the worth of this spending, and this analogy is not intended to be perfect. It is obviously a Colossal Problem that so many of the roads we’ve built over the past decade and a half years are worn away and pockmarked and shredded. But given the challenges of undertaking an infrastructure project of this scope, it seems like $4 billion might be quite the deal. There’s no way these roads were originally planned without the expectation that the Taliban would target them for destruction, and there’s no way anyone reasonably expected one of the least developed countries to manage maintenance on that scale. But I’m a little disheartened by the number of people who seemed to somehow expect the roads and hospitals we plop in Afghanistan to work while simultaneously deriding the MVP and similar short-lived development initiatives in SSA.

My point is that we should not have separate standards for development projects managed by traditional humanitarian donors and those run though defense agencies. If we expect development projects from NGOs to fail or falter when operating in a vacuum, we should expect the same – if not less – of those being implemented in conflict zones and by people who many not necessarily have strong training in development-specific challenges. As we watch the millennium villages backslide when Sachs & co. retreat to other projects, we should not be surprised when IED-induced highway craters go unrepaired as their former stewards withdraw. And if development practitioners have not yet figured out how to maintain infrastructure projects in impoverished places, I don’t see how it’s reasonable to hold the U.S. Army, with its very different mission, to a higher standard on those specific tasks.

Poor development planning and a short-sighted focus on one-off costs is bad behavior for both parties, but it offers much more dangerous consequences when backed with the full faith and credit of the U.S. military. It’s something many professionals in the home field haven’t figured out yet, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that nobody in the Army Corp of Engineers has either. Moving forward, these places need to hire out the very best sustainable development practitioners for consultation on the dirty work.

High Maintenance.

Infants, Infection, and Insurgency: Disease Burden in Afghanistan

For a general Western audience, mention of Afghanistan may bring to mind several narratives: domestic implications of endless war, wariness of radical Islam, images of burning poppy fields supplying the international drug trade. While these observations are grounded in some degree of fact, they largely reflect an extraordinarily poor society with significant barriers to development just beginning to rebuild. To put this in perspective: the average Afghan* woman will live to 52 years and will bear six or more children. The average male will support his family on an annual income of $584 USD, and will not see the age 50.

Of course, this sort of extreme poverty extends to health access. Of the different population- and disability-adjusted life year burdens measured by the Institute on Health Metrics and Evaluation, Afghanistan comes dead last – behind all other countries – in 19 of 50 categories.

Relative comparison of the 15 countries with the highest disease burdens. That red ain’t a good thing (source: IHME).

At nearly 120 deaths per 1,000 live births, Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate is higher than that of any other country; in its especially remote regions, such as the Wakhan Corridor, an estimated 50% of children die before reaching the age of five. 34 years of constant war have wreaked havoc on health systems, skepticized a populace, and left mortality and morbidity burdens frozen in time, reflective of another era. Continue reading “Infants, Infection, and Insurgency: Disease Burden in Afghanistan”

Infants, Infection, and Insurgency: Disease Burden in Afghanistan