Sunday, April 11, 2010

If a man speaks his mind in a forest, and nobody hears him, Is he still wrong?

This is apparently a few years old now, but the good old people at TED have done it again: Ken Robinson, who I don't know anything about, has a brilliant presentation on creativity and education.

Some key points:

* More people in the next 30 years will be graduated through education systems than in the whole history of the world

* Academic ability has come to dominate our view of intelligence at the cost of understanding and appreciating creativity

Nothing could be more true than this other nugget: our education systems, globally, are geared to produce university professors. But we ignore demographics at our risk: Robinson notes how a generation ago a college degree guaranteed you a job, lest you disdained one -- but today's MAs are yesterday's BAs. I'm lucky to not be home playing video games.

Degree-inflation has struck the development business something mean. Every person I've known working in development in their 20s has a pair of hopes: first is getting a PhD; second is teaching university at some point after acquiring their years of experience out in the real-world.

This is a problem, and I don't just mean because I want these things too. Demand for university educations is exploding the world over.

The number of applicants seeking entry into Kabul University, the premier institution of higher learning in Afghanistan, went from 4,000 in 2002 to 40,000 in 2005. There simply isn't enough space to accommodate such demand. Every day I drive by dozens of billboards and posters advertising English language and computer science degrees in a cacophony of degree abbreviations I've never heard of.

The infrastructure question of how to fill bodies into more seats is something we need to pay some mind.

That, and Robinson's take-home message on creativity: producing a new idea requires the preparation of being wrong. Something that education systems educate us out of.

He concludes we need to adopt a new conception of human ecology and intelligence, taking into account the full range of what intelligence means, not just academic ability.

Couldn't agree with him more.

And the man is hilarious while still driving home his message. Well worth the 20 minutes.

Oh, and my answer is: more than half humanity will say: Duh.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

NSP's the real thing, but a silver bullet it's not

Over at Aid Watch, they're getting a bit frantic about maintaining a balanced image on their often-times pesky critiques of everything aid. In their search they've seized on the momentum of Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart's Institute for State Effectiveness. Much excellent work is going on by the tremendous intellectual force of Ghani's mind alone, much less the two paired up.

But to prick a pin in the Aid Watch bubble, one of the key pillars they recently highlighted out of a Lockhart talk on Afghanistan is that of the National Solidarity Program (NSP). It's a great initiative, but not the all-answer to development in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The brain-child of Ghani, Hanif Atmar and others, NSP in effect supports local communities to pick and choose where they want aid monies to be funneled. This stands in stark contrast, of course, to the oft-equally pesky Money Resolves All Evil logic Jeffrey Sachs espouses. A brilliantly random visit to one of Sachs's Millennium Villages in Ethiopia turned up that decisions on aid were made by some big shot "very famous professor in New York."

NSP also reminds me of the fabled Mexico 'tres por uno' remittance program. Here the government would thrice multiply cash sent-in from abroad and allow communities to decide where they wanted to spend the sudden influx. Did that extra health facility, school, road spring up? Nope: they chose to invest in churches and cemeteries.

Beware the false consciousness of the poor. At least as much as our nearing-sacred notion that the poor know all there is to know about being poor. Slippery slopes these issues. But back to NSP.

So what's really going on?

NSP funnels government block grants between $20,000 and $60,000 to every village able to: elect by secret ballot a village leadership council; hold inclusive meetings to design its own plans; and publicly post its accounts. According to Fixing Failed States, p. 206 -- the 2008 Ghani and Lockhart tome, more on which later: NSP aims to show how democratization can be done from the ground up. Villager quotes on the next page support this, NSP, they say, is "the national tablecloth" and "the national learning school." Good stuff.

The website of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD in local-speak) also updates us on the following:

"As of 19th February, 2010 NSP has covered 361 districts across all 34 provinces.

22,488 Communities which have been mobilized by the FPs
22,216 Community Development Councils (CDCs) elected
22,091 Community Development Plans (CDPs) completed
50,978 Community sub-project proposals submitted to the NSP
50,901 Community sub-project proposals approved by the NSP
38,126 Community sub-projects completed"

The scale of what has been done is immense, as is the scale of what's in the pipeline.

Most people’s experiences with NSP have been very positive. This, we're told by an external review, is largely because communities feel that they are benefiting equally through a genuine consultation process.

So lots to commend on NSP. But there is a catch or two.

For one, despite apparent success there is no clear evidence to suggest that this programme has direct security benefits. In fact, to correlate (not causate) the broad trends: the more NSP projects implemented, the worse the security situation in the country gets. This poses a bit of a challenge to arguments that sustainable development is the real answer. One of the constant complaints, gaining attention now in the media, is about how much of aid in Afghanistan goes to Southern provinces, the really insecure Talibani ones. This then leaves calmer regions, in which there are still no livelihoods, a bit pissed off. That they're still saying they're not all-in with the government despite NSP projects is troubling. Hearts and minds ain't such an easy thang to get won.

Another catch is, to harp on my theme: water. The bottom-up approach NSP takes to community's deciding to install x number of water projects is great -- for those communities. But not so great for those further down a water system. Tapping water supply off from a river in one village transmits the opportunity costs of another village -- not only not being able to do the same, but perhaps suffering extreme forms of water scarcity as a result. Here is a where a more top-down approach -- focusing on river basins as the main unit of concern for water projects -- needs to be met with the bottom-up that NSP represents.

A really good development success story in such a difficult context NSP is. But let's not get too gung-ho on it as a silver bullet.

I saw Ghani speak a few weeks ago at the LSE. A brilliant talk that made many an interesting point. One was about how statecraft as an art isn't for everybody. In his years back to Afghanistan, where he first returned as finance minister in 2003, he says he's not once been out to a restaurant, highlighting his sacrifice (and there are some nice ones about, so what a pity).

Passionate as ever about his country, one point especially moved me. During the Q&A session he was asked by the moderator, one global governance expert, to break it down for us the mystery of stolen votes and just what in any god's name happened in the August oh-nine elections.

Ghani responded by saying he didn't really want to get into it. And why? Because it's time to move forward, a la Al Gore, with political reconciliation in Afghanistan.

He then parenthetically proceeded to mention that he was likely robbed of at least 1,000,000 votes. But let's massage that away and focus on his message: He was willing to forget a crassly fraudulent election and put his support to Hamid Karzai for the better good of his country.

Silver bullet or not, this is reason enough to take this man's ideas seriously.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Were the Taliban good for Afghanistan?

It's a question that seems to be coming up more and more these days in Kabul. It's told often-times as a joke. Or creeps up in conversation as a counterbalance to the current Karzai regime. But there's more to it than meets the eye.

Were the Taliban good for Afghanistan?

I heard this implicitly pop up three times today alone.

What the Afghans need (an Afghan man broke it down for me) is a strong leader. Come in, take control of things. Wham, bam. No more corruption. One tale spun today illustrating the point was about how a (Afghan) friend was living in Pakistan during the Taliban time. One day he receives a notice from some unknown somebody in Kabul, claiming that because his family's house was going empty they were going to stake claim to it. So my friend returns to Kabul to meet with this claimant. An offer of 800k Pakistani rupees, the true currency of the hour, converting to thereabouts 1k USD (NB: I've not done any verification on this, just conveying the perspective). After agreeing to the amount, it takes the so-called claimant a full 3 days to come and collect the bakhshish. What's the hold up? Fear of being caught out and losing a hand to the ruling Talibs.

One of the very first stories I heard when I started researching in Kabul was of how disputes over village territories were settled under the Taliban years. Somebody: go stand at the mosque and yell REAL LOUD. Somebody else go stand out at the edges of the disputed space. If you can hear the call, village. If you can't, village no more.

Another story I heard today was about a water dispute in a far eastern province -- I want to say it was around Jalalabad, but memory fails me. But it was out in the area near Pakistan. Two farmers get in a fight over who has right to an irrigation source. They take it to the village talib, who does what? Proceeds to beat the living daylights out of the two. One of the unfortunates dies by night. Dispute settled. And naught was heard another water fight for quite some time.

The last story I was privy to today was about my current neighborhood, the fabled Shar e now, a lot populated today by surly foreigners like me. It's considered the most secure part of town. But let's go on and delete that the two recent guesthouse attacks were within blocks of one another. And where? Shar e now. Photos of the still holed out windows of the Kabul City Centre explosion soon may make an appearance.

But so, late 1990s. Shar e now. Governed, I'm told, by the one-man force of a single talib. On Fridays, the first day of the Afghan weekend, everyone walked about in file "like ants." Nothing like fear keeping ya'll straight.

There's a lot of weight in this was Taliban good question. Though surely no one seems to dispute in the least the deep costs of the Taliban. Schools were destroyed. Women's faces sprayed with acid and freedoms indefensibly curtailed. And an odd case of smithereened Buddhist statues.

What, in essence, this question boils down to is a more conventional economic v. political development trade-off. One we're more used to being couched in Lee Kuan Yew or Pinochet terms. Do budding states confined to sudden national borders need to have a benevolent dictator telling who is who and what is what?

In this you have the stuff of self-Afghanized orientalism, per my friend's corruption story: invader-fending Afghans need a state walking with a very big stick. But then you also have Western political correctness. Via yours truly.

I did up this graph earlier today.

Nothing big. Just what international agencies say improved water access trends look like in Afghanistan. As I've mentioned before, my posse and I have got some issues with these data. Shockingly (or not), I've surmised this near-half the population has access to safe drinking water estimate is based on sloppy work. It includes Kandas, Arhads and Karizes -- which are all open to the environment to large degrees and thus to contamination, making them directly violate the international water law of It Shall be Covered. In their detailed write-up of the data, the good ol' people at WHO-UNICEF had a question, Uh, What's a kanda, arhad, kariz?, but seem not to have gotten a response proper. Do they off and engage in some half-hearted googling? Nah, let's publish our report why don't we. And claim the Afghans aren't really doing so badly on water and sanitation, poor folk already have their hands full with violence violence everywhere.

Did you spot Waldo? Yup: between 1995 and 2000, UN agencies claim that improved water access went from 3% to 21%. Seven-manifold increase. And who controlled 80% of Afghanistan roughly during that time? 'Islamic students.'

The argument, to be sure, is stability. Stability gives NGOs and others calm enough to go in and drill some boreholes and maintain some canals. From such a low starting point, the opportunity to get any real work off the ground is welcomed. Stability. That is why the Taliban rolled over cities with scarcely a bullet seeing the other side of a barrel. This is why they're not all out and done for today. Compared to the current regime, where everyone knows exactly what Karzai's half-brother is up to, neck-deep in opium (who, by the way, it seems is gonna get it big time, and soon), compared to this, stability smells real nice.

Aside from having statistical qualms about the viability of surveys deriving such late-1990s figures, I sat and thought I'd best not make too much a storm about these numbers. And why? Because what would Mrs. Clinton say about our showing up a ton of figures saying how life may have been better before the US-NATO tonned in $31 billion in 'aid'?

To round things out, this is what seems the best estimate, tell-all trend: something that shows a notably less up-tick than the few Taliban years. And who is in power during these years....?