This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.
Last week, through the medium of the internet, we again joined Professor Sachs in the large, airy room from which he gives his lectures for the second instalment of the course. Whilst the previous session gave a detailed yet accessible introduction to the key challenges faced in sustainable development, along with some basic technical concepts, this week things were taken a step further. The focus in this second session was economic development and income inequalities, and the influence this has on wellbeing across the globe.
There has also been an impressive growth in social interaction between participants in the course, with some discussion forums reaching upwards of a thousand posts. Contributors can be seen introducing and debating key development topics all over the world. There are over fifty different threads with participants looking for local study groups, with locations ranging from Toronto, to Nairobi, Valencia, and Manchester. The global reach of the course can be seen, and hopefully over the coming weeks more people will join the Google hangouts and forums, and will continue to be educated in what is truly a modern way to learn.
Sachs appears to have a knack for discussing the greatest issues the planet faces in a calm, cool way, making them sound like any other problem that requires a solution. The story he tells about the state of inequality across the globe is interspersed with case studies, statistics and potentially intimidating terms and concepts, but he outlines them clearly, making them easy to grasp.
The fallibility of various methods of income and wellbeing measurement were highlighted in this session. While GDP per capita can give an insight into the overall productivity of a country, it does not necessarily reflect the standard of living of the population. Especially important to note is that it does not take into account important factors such as healthcare and social inclusion, however it is a good starting point from which to build. We were introduced to the classification of countries that examining GDP per capita allows us to make: low, middle and high income countries, with around one billion people living in low income countries across the globe. Of these, 48 countries stand apart due to social instability, low education levels and susceptibility to droughts, disease and violence. These are the Least Developed Countries, several being in Asia and tropical Africa, and with landlocked countries and small island nations also cropping up more frequently than their total number would suggest.
We were introduced to the complex process of attempting to compare different incomes across the globe, and to normalise them taking into account the variation in purchasing power that this money would have within these different countries.
Professor Sachs then discussed the issue of urban and rural inequality, along with the current worldwide trend towards urbanisation, with around 70% of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2030. This brought to light the growing importance of both urban sustainability and agricultural efficiency.
Income inequality within countries was then discussed, using the Gini coefficient as a tool to measure income distribution within a country. Examples of countries with comparatively healthy (low) Gini coefficients are Sweden, Norway and Denmark, whereas some with with higher Gini coefficients and therefore more inequality within the country are seen in much of the Americas, and in some African countries. These variations in income equality were explained using historical case studies, such as in the case of the Americas, where European settlers displaced local people to establish large landholdings, which have been passed down the generations and led to a more affluent class.
Sachs then went on to explain how the solutions to problems of inequality are often contentious, with the individual interests of those with the greater share of the country’s wealth, and often therefore a greater share of the power, using trade and globalisation to increase their wealth while the poor get poorer.
Wellbeing was another key topic, especially the individual perception of one’s own wellbeing, with factors such as social inclusion, honest governments, and values of compassion and generosity being credited for increased feelings of wellbeing alongside income.
The Human Development Index was introduced as a more holistic measure, attempting to assess quality of life independent of GDP per capita.
The week’s session was concluded with the importance of the understanding of convergence and divergence between different economies, with convergence being a key aim in global development. This was an area where, while it is important to take into account the “doom and gloom” of the global situation, it is clear that there are real potentials for improvement, and where improvements have been seen, such as in Scandinavia.
Apart from the lectures, the resources on offer are extensive, and give an opportunity to go further than what is discussed.
The chapters of the coursebook provided for download in weekly instalments gives thorough background information, and provide figures used in the lectures and more.
In the last decade ‘sustainability‘ has become a crucial consideration in crafting development policy. From the mega-conferences of the UN and the World Bank to the planning and evaluation documents of specific projects, ‘sustainable development’ is on the lips of development experts and amateur bloggers the world over.
It makes sense. Global climate change and natural resource shortages present perhaps the greatest obstacles to development in much of the world as well as challenge the continued feasibility of the ‘developed‘ life-style in the West. Wolfgang Sachs and his fellow development critics would argue the ecological consequences of development are of such a magnitude that they necessitate a re-evaluation of the Western model of growth oriented market capitalism as well as any efforts to export that model elsewhere with any development efforts. Sustainable development, he argues, is a term created to preserve development and the implicit model it bears, and not the globe’s dwindling natural resources.
He might point for instance to the World Bank’s 2008 Agriculture for Development report to support this claim. In describing the ecological challenges to agricultural development, it concludes,
“The solutions not to slow agricultural development – it is to seek more sustainable production systems”
Of course, aligning with Sachs leaves the empathetic practitioner in an awkward situation. Without global revolutionary social change, the Sachs argument leaves little room for any attempts at ameliorating the lives or livelihoods of the world’s poorest individuals.
A recent trip of mine to the Ferlo region of Senegal portrays this ecological challenge to development all too well.
The Ferlo portion of Northern Senegal is historically the stomping grounds of Senegal’s highly mobile pastoral herders (called generally the Fulbe or Fula). In the last few decades agriculturalists have slowly expanded into this semi-arid area, spurred on by both development organizations and the Senegalese government. Concurrent with that trend has been one of ecological degradation that is transforming this Sahelian strip between the Sahara and the lush grasslands of central Africa into an environment that looks much more like the latter than the former. Thus the Fulbe are struggling simultaneously with an increase in demand for, and a diminishing supply of, natural resources.
Further complicating the situation those new cultivators in the region are high privileged over the pastoralists, as agriculture is considered a main engine of economic growth. Agriculturalists are encouraged to claim new lands and expand cultivation. Pastoralists, under Senegalese land tenure laws, have been unable to make similar land claims, and have received only comparably minimal support from the development industry.
Clearly, something is wrong here. However, no easy alternative presents itself. One might argue not enough consideration has been given to sustainability and the current shortage of natural resources. By supporting agricultural as a means of development, we are further endangering a fragile environment as well as the people that have used it successfully for hundreds if not thousands of years. Alternatively, one could argue a halting of agricultural support would mean an abdication of one of development’s most powerful tools. Agricultural support might initiate wider economic growth in Senegal or help to reduce its need for food imports, thereby making the nation more food secure. While hurting the Fulbe and endangering the already ecologically weak region of the Ferlo are certainly not positive consequences of this development strategy, perhaps agricultural expansion is a necessary condition for development.
This brief portrait shows how crucial, and often unsettling, ideas of sustainability are in development tactics. Can development continue to march forward considering its ecological effects and challenges? Are these environmental effects a necessary and permissible condition for growth? How can we support poverty alleviation and still preserve our shared, and singular planet?
I would love to hear your thoughts.
On 22 August, I participated in Kathmandu’s Gai Jatra Pride festival along with three other representatives from the Embassy. It was an amazing experience, with a brilliant blend of the traditional Gai Jatra festival that falls on the same day, LGBTI symbols and banners, and a huge number of participants of all ages – in costumes, dressed up in sarees and in casual clothes.
The parade was organised by a local LGBTI rights organisation called Blue Diamond Society (BDS), which the Norwegian Embassy has supported since 2008. An Australian friend heard that Norway had officially supported the parade and that I had gone to it as part of my job, and made a simple joke: “that’s so Scandinavian.” Because I am a perpetual over-thinker of all things, that got me to… well, over-thinking.
According to my personal value system (and, to an extent, that of my country) BDS, Gai Jatra Pride and other measures to improve the human rights and welfare of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal are very good investments. The advocacy of BDS has been a direct cause of Nepal being one of the most progressive countries in the region with regard to LGBTI rights, a milestone of which was the inclusion of a third gender category in the 2011 national census.
The vast majority of the people in the Gai Jatra Pride parade were not Western or Norwegian, neither are the majority of the people doing the campaigning, advocacy and project work. They are Nepali LGBTI activists exercising their own voices and carrying out work based on to their own perspectives and values.
However, the choice to support BDS over another Nepali organisation working for something completely different is, as my Australian friend touched on, informed by a very Scandinavian value system.
I can think of other countries whose majority values I would not be as happy to see reflected in development support.
This is another case where it’s difficult to reconcile an anthropological attitude of cultural relativism to development work – though if the focus is placed on local agency the mental acrobatics become a little bit easier.
The situation in Uganda, where I have also done project work, is a very different one. There, mere association with LGBTI causes could be a huge detriment to the perceived trustworthiness and ethical stance of a development partner in the eyes of many local stakeholders, even if their involvement in the country were far removed from LGBTI advocacy.
Though activists in Uganda have held their first two Pride parades in 2012 and 2013, it would be impossible to take these processions through Kampala in the same way as Gai Jatra Pride wove through Kathmandu, at least without grave danger to the participants.
Even in a remote location, activists join the parades at great personal risk.
A common argument from Ugandans speaking out against LGBTI rights draws on arguments of cultural relativism and indigeneity. “Homosexuality,” the argument I have often heard goes, “is not part of our traditional African culture.” However, others have argued that the wide-spread vehement hatred of LGBTI in the region is at least in part a consequence of the significant presence of Christianity, originally brought to Uganda by the colonizing British and more recently by evangelists like Rick Warren from the US (and other places.)
The issue seems to be relevant to a greater or lesser degree in a lot of – or even all – development work. The UN in Nepal has recently been subject to a lot of criticism from Nepali commentators because of its increasing focus on measures combating ethnic and caste discrimination, which some feel is an unwelcome foreign imposition in the way local society works.
Of course, this work is largely carried out through working together with Dalits and indigenous groups that are themselves Nepali activists. But even if we’re just supporting local change agents, the choice of which agents to support represents a value judgement. On the level of principle, do the facts that we have money to spend and the inclination to do so give us the right to make these judgements?
Should our Western values automatically be given a privileged position?
My opinion is that Norwegian support to LGBTI rights and welfare in Nepal should not cease – rather the opposite. My motivation in writing this is in part an attempt to counter the lack of attention paid to the Pride procession at Gai Jatra in Nepali media (as of now, I have been unable to find any mention of it.)
But that’s what I think.
Should what I think matter in this context? And how do we decide when it does, and deal with the ethical consequences if it doesn’t?
There are two interns at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal. Luckily for us, our responsibilities go somewhat beyond fetching the coffee. The diplomats and local counsellors are keen to include us in all sorts of events – from meetings at UN House to receptions at the Ambassador’s residence.
We’re becoming experts at being the least important, least interesting people in the room.
It’s hard not to get dejected when you’re introducing yourself to some civil society big-wig, and stating your name and job title is directly followed with “oh,” and the other person’s interest in talking to you visibly plummeting. Especially when they go on to unsubtly excuse themselves and slink off to talk to the UN executive or important local politician at the other side of the room.
However, these situations can also be fantastic opportunities for networking, learning and meeting some genuinely fascinating people. After all, as a person starting out at the bottom rungs of the development ladder, getting a chance to meet some people who can help you climb it is definitely worth the time spent feeling awkward and small while holding a glass of wine. So with that in mind, here are some tips I’ve discovered for navigating those situations when you’re the least important person in the room:
Watch what the people around you are doing and copy them
You don’t want to be the only person asking the waiter for wine if everyone else is on soda water. Nobody else is going to care what you’re drinking, but it will make you feel more awkward and self-conscious than necessary.
The benefit of being the least important person around is that most of the time, hardly anyone is paying attention to you. This gives you a perfect opportunity to learn by observing the people who have been in the game for years. A diplomatic reception or civil society workshop is a pretty different setting to a university party, and you should take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to behave in these contexts.
Everyone else is more interesting than you, and they want to talk about themselves
You may not be very interesting (yet), but chances are most of the people you’re meeting are – and they probably know it. Development types are often very happy to talk about themselves and their work to a wide-eyed intern who asks intelligent questions and seems genuinely impressed with what they have to say. Asking good questions and active listening are key, and knowing something about the person’s field is especially useful because it will enable you to say more than “oh, that sounds really cool” when they start explaining what their organisation does.
An anecdote: A few weeks back, I met the Director of a local climate change NGO at a reception, at the time only knowing his organisation and not his rank. I engaged him in a discussion about the integration of social and natural science in environmental work and the importance of smallholder agriculture (both personal areas of interest). He ended up inviting me to a workshop a week later, where I sat starry-eyed listening to people debating a climate change adaptation programme I’d be happy to start working for tomorrow – an opportunity I never would have gotten if we hadn’t had that conversation.
Do make sure you don’t monopolise a single person for too long, no matter how fascinating they are. The vast majority of the time, networking events are for mingling and circulating, not long in-depth debates. Better to take the person’s contact details and continue the conversation another time.
Don’t be too obvious about wanting a job from the person you’re talking to
The people I’ve found are the most dismissive when I say my job title are often my fellow bottom-rung hangers-on, who have come to these events purely for the purpose of career climbing. Not only is it annoying for the people you spurn, but it’s painfully obvious to everyone else if you spend your evening making beelines between every executive you can find, handing out business cards like SWEDOW. Just be subtle, and be aware that people who aren’t Directors can be equally as interesting to talk to, if not more.
If all else fails, find the other unimportant people and make friends
If you’ve tried to engage the big-wigs without luck, you can always just seek out any other interns that are there. Receptions often have free drinks, so why not create a party within a party and make some friends instead?
This is a post by Sora Edwards-Thro, a 17 year old volunteer for Unleash Kids in Haiti. She is, even for this site, impressively young to be struggling with the complexities of development work. She will be using this site as a forum for talking through these difficulties and would be very welcome to advice from more experienced development workers.
I’m writing this from Haiti, with ten other laptops I’m going to be using to start an education project at my side and a Skype conversation with the board of directors of an organization supporting it open in another window. This blog is partly for you but mostly for me – no need for donor propaganda here; just some honesty about what it’s like to be plunging in to this sort of thing.
I’ve been in Haiti for a week. We’ll start the story at the first disaster (don’t worry: there are good parts too): I actually missed my first flight out, which could have been absolutely terrible. This project is completely supported by donors, and even if they would have been willing to pay for the cost of another flight to cover my mistake, losing that much of other people’s money that was intended to help kids in Haiti just because I couldn’t get to the airport on time would probably kill me a little inside.
Luckily, I just happened to be wearing a shirt that said “Apps for Edu” and told the lady about how I was late because I had been buying mice for laptops for charity. She managed to put me on the next flight out, enabling me to make all my other connections, and at no extra charge. So it all worked out, but it made me realize just how scary it really is to be responsible and accountable for donations, especially when those donations are intended to benefit other people.
Every dollar I have to spend to correct a mistake is one less dollar for the project.
This might just be part of how I work, too, though. I screw up probably a little more than someone who’s more cautious and I’ll expend ridiculous amounts of energy trying to fix whatever I did wrong. For example: after not sleeping for 48 hours (not the night before my flight, and not during my overnight layover in New York), I was too drowsy getting off the plane in Haiti to remember that I was supposed to be buying a NATCOM Internet stick [Ed: the first 3G plugin modem available in Haiti] and a Digicel telephone and ended up with a NATCOM phone and Internet stick. As soon as I realized my mistake I tried to return the phone and ended up talking to the cashiers for an hour, trying to convince them to take it back in Haitian Creole. They didn’t budge, unfortunately, but often that extra effort and a little bit of luck does make the difference and I can fix the things I break.
From the airport James, Junior and I went to Junior’s house. James is another young guy (19) starting another laptop project on a mountain near Port-au-Prince, and Junior is slightly older (25) and has been teaching a class with the laptops in Grand-Goave, a nearby town and another one in a nearby orphanage.
We were officially there to help Junior develop a newspaper at the Grand-Goave school but we had a lot of unofficial jobs as well. James and I worked together to develop lesson plans for the newspaper launch, and we figured out early on that we were learning a lot more from our experience than the kids would probably ever learn from those classes.
First of all, there were were a lot of unforeseen challenges: we were thinking we’d be teaching three classes with twenty kids each, bringing the total to sixty kids, but actually it was just three classes of twenty kids maximum, with the same ones showing up for multiple classes. There were also a big variety of skill levels, with some kids who didn’t know how to click and others who were ready to start some basic programming.
That, and we realized that our role wasn’t really to force the kids to generate some content but to expose them to new ways of creating content and new activities on the laptops. I showed Junior how to transcribe sheet music notes into XO keyboard notes that the kids can use to play songs. There were a lot of good moments throughout the week and the pressure was on us to then ensure that Junior would be able to reproduce them on his own after we left.
Early Sunday morning I said good-bye to Junior and started off on my 12-hour journey to Anse-a-Pitres,in the deep south-eastern corner of the country. I traveled with another volunteer, first in tap-taps and then perched on the top of an oil truck. Quite a journey!
We finally arrived, and it’s been an interesting two days so far. The organization I’m staying with is here to improve the environment , so there’s sort of a hippie flavor to everything (well, they describe themselves as productive hippies). I’m going to have to learn some things like going to the bathroom without toilet paper if I want to fit in here, but it’s interesting to spend some time being exposed to this perspective, and I’m actually enjoying the time I spend in the morning planting and watering trees. It’s nice to get dirty and to put something in the ground that wasn’t there before. I guess the only thing I really won’t get used to is how relaxed they all are – I’m used to spending all my time abroad rushing around from one activity to the next, and here most people actually relax all afternoon.
We had our first class yesterday – just kind of an intro to the five teachers I’ll be working with over the next month. Later tonight I go to a community meeting to speak about the project with them. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm so far, and a a local guy named Nixon who’s very involved had a long conversation with me about how excited he is and how he wants to see it continue. This week I’ll be spending two hours a day with just the teachers, trying to get them up to speed before we introduce the kids next week. Fingers crossed that the solar panels survived their tap-tap ride and can provide the power, and that everyone catches on quickly.
I know it’s going to be a lot of work to get this thing up and running, but it would be nice to have as few glitches as possible along the way.