So, I have news. In August, I will become a Full Professor and Director of the Department of International Development, Community, and the Environment at Clark University. It is an honor to be asked to lead a program with such a rich history, at such an exciting time for both it and the larger Clark community. The program uniquely links the various aspects of my research identity within a single department, and further supports those interests through the work of a fantastic Graduate School of Geography, the George Perkins Marsh Institute, and the Graduate School of Management. At a deeply personal level, this also marks a homecoming for me – I grew up in New Hampshire, in a town an hour’s drive from Worcester. My mother is still there, and many friends are still in the region. In short, this was a convergence of factors that was completely unique, and in the end I simply could not pass on this opportunity.

This, of course, means that after twelve years, I will be leaving the University of South Carolina. This was a very difficult decision – there was no push factor that led me to consider the Clark opportunity. Indeed, I was not looking for another job – this one found me. I owe a great deal to USC, the Department of Geography, and the Walker Institute for International and Area Studies. They gave me resources, mentoring, space, networks, support, etc., all of which were integral in building my career. Without two Walker Institute small grants, the fieldwork in 2004 and 2005 that led to so many publications, including Delivering Development, would never have happened. The department facilitated my time at USAID, and the subsequent creation of HURDL. I will always owe a debt to South Carolina and my colleagues here, and I leave a robust institution that is headed in exciting directions.

As I move, so moves HURDL. The lab will take up residence in the Marsh Institute at Clark some time in late summer, assuming my fantastic research associate Sheila Onzere does not finally lose her mind dealing with all of the things I throw at her. But if Sheila is sane, we’ll be open for business and looking for more opportunities and partners very soon!

Development and humanitarian assistance have, over their respective histories, attracted rather substantial literatures. The percentage of that literature I might call “accessible” to the general public is quite small, and much of that popular literature does very little to convey the experience of working in these fields (indeed, very little of the literature in general accomplishes this)*. In 2010, after 13 years of studying development and development issues as an academic, I joined USAID in a policy position. It took only a few days for me to realize that I had no idea what was going on, what motivated decisions within the Agency, and what it actually meant to do development and humanitarian assistance. Nothing in my reading (and I am an academic, so it was a lot of reading) had prepared me for this experience.

In retrospect, it is too bad Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit had not yet been written before I went to USAID, but I suspect that even if it had been I would not have read it (academic snobbery and all). This would have been a mistake.  MMMM presents a compelling, accurate feel for what it is to be a part of the development and humanitarian assistance industry.  While J’s attention to detail is striking (for those of us in the industry, this accuracy can draw us in but also make us grumpy, as more than once I found myself muttering something about a particular meeting or document described in MMMM), he works in a lot of real material into an interesting, compelling read. In short, this book accomplishes something remarkable: I can recommend it to not only to anyone who thinks that humanitarian assistance or development looks like a good career path, but also to anyone who needs a good beach read this summer. Take that, Jeff Sachs, et. al.…

Set in Bur Amina, Ethiopia, MMMM traces J’s protagonist, Mary-Ann, through the twists and turns of delivering humanitarian assistance to refugees near the Ethiopia/Somalia border.  The plot moves Mary-Ann through different positions in her small NGO, accurately conveying how abruptly one’s life and position can change in this world…and also (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrates one of the most important lessons of any career: competence is in much shorter supply than most people realize, and if you are good at your job people will notice. At the same time, J lays out the jockeying of assistance organizations in the context of a humanitarian crisis, and the challenges of balancing the goal of helping the world’s most vulnerable with the institutional imperatives of budgeting, fundraising, and surviving.  Even the most careerist and craven of the characters in MMMM is understandable and relatable – the reader can understand why they are pushing for a particular project or outcome, even as the reader loathes them for it.  Perhaps this is why Soledad Muñiz Nautiyal, in her review of the book, noted “the book presents ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the aid industry without ever adopting a cynical perspective, and merely acts as an observer of a complex picture”.  This perspective, which permeates MMMM, makes the world of compromise that is humanitarian assistance palatable.  As the book so effectively conveys, too much idealism can render you irrelevant and ineffective.  Some readers may hate this lesson and perspective. If so, you will probably hate the real world of humanitarian assistance.

The reliability of even J’s loathsome characters leads to my next major point about MMMM.  In this book, J addresses my principal critique of his first effort, Disastrous Passion.  In Disastrous Passion, I felt that J created well-rounded, interesting humanitarian assistance characters, but many of the ancillary characters felt like caricatures.  This, perhaps, was a product of J failing to live by the first rule of so many writers: write what you know. In Disastrous Passion, I felt like I knew the characters that worked for the various donors and agencies in Haiti, but the ancillary characters felt a bit like unwanted interlopers.  In MMMM, even the ancillary characters are better-rounded, and I was drawn in by them. I had exactly one moment in the book that I felt was too shallow – when the protagonist has to address a problematic personnel issue (trying to avoid spoilers here), J never explains the motivations of the problematic person. Now, on one had I must say that this reflect reality – sometimes people do things that are inexplicable. It is a frustration the real world hands us. But somehow, in the context of MMMM, this made that character feel a bit shallow – like a plot device that allowed us to see another stressor in Mary-Ann’s life.  And while I did note that the character of Jon is, in many ways, the oracle of J in the narrative, unlike Dave Algoso I did not find this intrusive or slow reading. Instead, I thought these passages tended to crystallize the many plotlines J traces at various points in the book without having to abandon the narrative

I really enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, and one that I found difficult to put down. It was interesting, the plot very believable, the characters relatable, and the lessons (both overt and subtle) worthwhile. Whether or not you want to go into development or humanitarian assistance as a career, if you care about global poverty and want to better understand just how difficult this work really is – and you want to understand the real reasons why it is so difficult – then go get your copy of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. It is well worth the read.


Buy it here:

Find a set of pictures that inspired details from MMMM on the book’s Facebook page here.





*I feel compelled here to note that John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is just awful. I can’t speak to the veracity of his firsthand accounts, but his reading of institutional motivations and processes is beyond poor. Seriously, don’t waste your time…

I’ll be running my mouth about the book again at Chatham University on December 2nd.  Chatham has some very cool stuff going in sustainability and the environment (a new school!), including a new Eden Hall Campus in Richland Township, PA.  My talk will actually be out on that campus, and not in the Shadyside campus . . . directions are here.

The flyer (they’ve done a nice job on it):

Hope to see some of you there . . .

This graphic, from Skeptical Science, is just awesome. I spend a good bit of my time thinking about climate change and its impacts on the global poor – mostly how we might address both global poverty and climate change, maximizing synergies and minimizing trade-offs between these efforts.  I’ve been a lead author of two major global environmental assessments (the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and GEO-4) and I am now a review author of the IPCC’s AR5.  Despite all of this, I find that people still question my understanding of climate change – they want me to be deluded by false data, or somehow motivated by another political agenda that I can only accomplish through an environmental hoax.  In short, they want me to be either stupid or a liar.  Not that anyone will say that to my face, of course, but that is really what it boils down to.

So, I greatly appreciate when someone comes up with a means of communicating what we know about the changing climate that is both simple and clear.  In one post, Skeptical Science has managed this.  Everyone should take a look and have a quick read.  First, the graphic:

Second, the explanation of the graphic:

1) If greenhouse warming is taking place, the stratosphere should cool while the troposphere warms (heat is being trapped in the troposphere). Check.

2) If greenhouse warming is taking place, nights should warm faster than days, as the nighttime radiation of heat into space will be limited by the greenhouse effect. Check.

3) For similar reasons, if greenhouse warming is taking place, winters should warm faster than summers. Check.

4) If greenhouse warming is taking place, and #1 is true, the troposphere/stratosphere boundary should rise as the warmer troposphere expands relative to the stratosphere. Check.

5) If greenhouse warming is taking place, out of the total carbon we find in the atmosphere, a rising percentage will be fossil carbon.  There is really only one way for a lot of fossil carbon into the atmosphere, and that is burning fossil fuels (remember, oil, natural gas and coal come from the decomposition of long-dead animals). Check.

6) If greenhouse warming is taking place, the oceans should be warming up overall, not shifting heat around.  Check.

In short, every theoretical predictor of the greenhouse effect is being realized in empirical measurement – again, not models, but the actual instrument record.  So, unless folks are willing to argue that all thermometers, weather satellites, weather balloons, and tools for measuring atmospheric chemistry are wrong or somehow perverted to a hoax, there is no empirical basis to argue that greenhouse warming is not taking place – nor is there much of an argument to be made, given the rising presence of fossil carbon in the atmosphere, that humans have nothing to do with it . . .

Time to start dealing with reality, instead of denying it.  What is happening in the global climate is affecting how we do development – or at least it should be.  Changes in the global climate have manifest in various environmental shifts that in turn are impacting livelihoods, migration decisions, and the food security of the global poor.  I’ll address this in a subsequent post . . .

A number of folks have contacted me asking for a post that discusses how we might address the rapidly worsening famine in the Horn of Africa. In short, folks want to know what is being done, and what they can do, both in terms of the immediate famine and to prevent this from happening again.

First, in addressing the acute situation right now: please understand that aid agencies are moving as fast as they possibly can where they possibly can. There are a lot of challenges in southern Somalia, and these political-logistical hurdles matter greatly because the only remedy for the immediate situation is massive relief efforts to address the acute food insecurity in the area. There are complex logistics behind where those supplies might come from. That said, agencies are already moving to preposition aid materials as best they can.

If you want to help with the immediate relief effort, send money. Yes, money. Don’t send clothes, shoes, or any other stuff. It’s hard and expensive to deliver, and usually the donation of material goods just screws up local economies, making recovery from the crisis much harder and prolonged. Look into the groups, such as the Red Cross and the World Food Program, that are on the ground delivering aid. Examine their philosophies and programs, and donate to those you can agree with. There is a world of advice on donating to aid organizations out there on the blogs and twitter, so do a little research before donating. Oh, and please, please stay the hell out of the Horn of Africa, as you’ll just get in the way of highly trained, experienced people who are working under enough strain. I will make an exception for those with experience in emergency relief work – feel free to work through your networks to see if you are needed. If you don’t have a network to work through, you shouldn’t be going. It’s really that simple.

The question of how we will prevent the next famine is an open one. In my personal opinion (which, incidentally, counts for exactly nothing right now), addressing the causes of this famine, and the continuing sources of insecurity in this region, are going to require a rather different approach to development than that we have taken to this point. In my book (Delivering Development – hence the title of the post) I argue that part of the reason that development programs don’t end up solving the challenges that lead to things like famine is because we fundamentally misunderstand how development and globalization work. We are going to have to step back and move beyond technical fixes to particular challenges, and start to think about development as a catalyst for change. This means thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region, and how our resources might be used to initiate processes that bring those changes about. As I keep telling my students, there is no such thing as a purely technical, apolitical development intervention. Even putting a borehole in a village invokes local politics – who gathered the water before? Who gathers it now? Who can access the borehole, and who cannot? If the borehole has resulted in the creation of free time for whoever is responsible for water collection, what do they do with that free time? The answers to these questions and dozens of others will vary from place to place, but they shape the outcome of that borehole.

At the same time, such a process requires redefining the “we” in the sentence “thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region . . .,” because it really doesn’t matter what people, living in the United States or anywhere else outside the Horn of Africa, want to see in the region. It’s not their region. Instead, this “we” is going to have to emerge from a real partnership between those who live in the Horn of Africa, their governments, and the aid agencies with the resources to make particular programs and projects happen. For example, we are going to have to use our considerable science and technology capacity to really explore the potential of mobile communications as a source of rapidly-updated, geolocatable information about conditions on the ground to which people are responding with their livelihoods strategies. However, this technology and data will only be useful if it is interpreted into programs in concert with the sources of that data: people who are already managing tremendous challenges with few resources. Information about rainfall is just a data point, until we place it into social context – whose crops are most impacted by the absence/overabundance of water? Whose boreholes will dry up first? Whose cattle will be the first to die off? You can see how even changes in rainfall are nothing more than catalysts for local social process, as the answers to these latter questions will vary dramatically, but in the context of trying to understand how things will play out, they are far, far more important than simple biophysical measures of the environment (or quantitative analyses of the economy, for that matter).

In other words, I think that any effort to really address the next famine before it happens is going to be long and extraordinarily involved – and is going to require the help of agencies, implementing partners, academics, affected governments, and the people on the ground living through these challenges. It sounds utopian . . . but it is not. It is necessary. To end up doing the Horn of Africa famine dance again in a few years for lack of ambition, or because of an unwillingness to take a hard look at how we think about development and how it does not work, is an outcome I cannot accept. We will be judged by history for how we respond (if you have doubts, feel free to read Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts and look at how the British come off).

As of 10am Nairobi time today, the United States Government, along with the UN, is acknowledging the presence of famine in southern Somalia.  This is the first declaration of famine in twenty-odd years, reflecting the fairly high bar for human suffering that has to be crossed before an official declaration can be made.

The declaration is complex.  The full text of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) statement is here.  But to summarize:

  • a famine is currently ongoing in two areas of southern Somalia: the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle
  • A humanitarian emergency currently exists across all other regions of the south, and current humanitarian response is inadequate to meet emergency needs. As a result, famine is expected to spread across all regions of the south in the coming 1‐2 months
  • FEWS-NET estimates 3.7 million people are in crisis nationwide; among these 3.2 million people need immediate, lifesaving assistance (2.8 million in the south).
  • FEWS-NET projections suggest that assistance needs will remain extremely high through at least December 2011

I think it is important to review what the currently understood conditions on the ground are right now:

  • The crude death rate (simple measure of the number of deaths) has surpassed 2/10,000/day in two areas (Bakool agropastoral, and all of Lower Shabelle).
  • The under 5 death rate has surpassed 4/10,000/day in all areas of the south where data is available, peaking at 20/10,000/day in Riverine areas of Lower Shabelle.  These numbers are horrific.
  • The prevalence of global acute malnutrition (GAM) exceeds 38 percent in 9 of the 11 areas where recent survey data is available – we consider 15% to be an emergency threshold.  Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) exceeds 14 percent in these areas – and the emergency threshold here is 2-4%.

The projections going forward are not pretty.  If, as FEWS-NET projects, we have famine conditions in play across all of Southern Somalia, historical death rates suggest we could be talking about mortality rates somewhere in the range of 2500 deaths a day at some point in August (though this is a high estimate, and a minimum number would be more in line with 700 deaths a day).  I have no idea what percentage of these deaths will be children, but given the extremely elevated under-5 death rates (2X to 10X the global crude death rate), we can assume that the answer is “a hell of a lot.”

The causes of the famine are complex, and FEWS NET reviews them in the link above.

We are trying – and we are all frustrated at how slowly our response is moving.  FEWS-NET’s efforts have been herculean, from data collection (see the picture below) to the organization of reports and data – I am seeing emails from these guys at 3am.  I was impressed with them before I got here.  I am even more impressed with them now.  FEWS is just one part of the equation, though. There are a lot of people who are not sleeping right now, and even more who have dropped everything else they are doing to support this effort. We are trying.

Measuring arm circumference for a nutrition survey in Southern Somalia, July 2011

Please follow developments at FEWS-NET’s site for this emergency here.  There is no better resource on this anywhere.

The Satellite Sentinel Project released a report the other day that detailed what appears to be violence in the villages of Maker Abior and Todach in the Abeyei region of Sudan.  The imagery in the report is fairly standard DigitalGlobe 60cm stuff – and nothing fancy has been done to it to enhance analysis – it’s not clear if the imagery is even georectified, though given its largely illustrative use it probably doesn’t matter.  In the images are clearly burned buildings, and what certainly appear to be fortified areas where the Sudan Armed Forces are moving in equipment, fortifying defenses and improving storage facilities.  They claim to have imagery related to a parallel buildup of forces on the South Sudan side of the border.

But what do these images really tell us that good, on-the-ground intelligence does not?  Nothing.  In fact, I would argue that these images might be leading to unwarranted conclusions . . . or the Satellite Sentinel Project needs to do a much better job of explaining how the imagery enhances their conclusions.  For example:

  • How are the structures on the South Sudan side of the border representative of military buildup? Do they share a construction or layout with other known military encampments? Or is this conclusion completely supplied by on-the-ground intelligence?  If the answer is the latter, what exactly to these images add to the analysis?
  • How are the burned structures in Maker Abior and Todach linked to the military buildup in the subsequent pictures? There is no imagery of an attack in progress – and there will likely never be this sort of smoking gun evidence from this project. Data is gathered irregularly, and often at fairly wide intervals – so what you will end up with are a lot of before and after photos that can only be explained by on the ground intelligence.  In this case, it seems the on-the-ground intelligence has provided (at best) a weak link between this buildup and whatever happened in Maker Abior and Todach . . . but in presenting the imagery in this sort of a sequence, it appears that the evidence for the connection is much stronger than the data allows.

These are major issues that the project should be thinking through carefully.  Inadvertent misrepresentation of events on the ground will greatly damage not only this project’s legitimacy, but indeed any efforts to use remotely sensed data to identify/verify events on the ground in this region.

Please note: I am NOT suggesting that there is no violence in the region, or that what is happening isn’t hugely problematic.  However, I want our interpretations and responses to be based upon clear evidence, not loose circumstantial data strung together into potentially flimsy arguments about what has happened, and what might happen next.

So, what can we do about the problems in this region with this sort of data?  Well, for one thing the project might think about how to use its considerable remotely-sensed imagery resources to fill some significant gaps in data and interpretation about the political economy of natural resources in this region. Abeyei has a long history of conflict between different groups using natural resources for their livelihoods – especially conflicts that occur when pastoral/semipastoral groups move their cattle through agricultural areas, damaging fields (this is a thin distinction – really, most everyone in this region makes a living through a mixture of pastoralism and agriculture. The question is which group’s crops are impacted by the other’s cattle.).  This may be one of the most significant challenges facing this region – how to address this ongoing challenge, especially once there is a border dividing the transhumance routes these different groups have used to move their cattle to new watering and feeding areas.  Given the potential impact of a border on these routes, and therefore access to needed natural resources, we’ve already seen the Dinka to the south and the Messiriya to the north laying out territorial and resources claims far in excess of any previously recognized situation.  It is nearly impossible to adjudicate these claims because, as my colleague David Decker at the University of South Carolina – Sumter has argued, there is very little literature on the political ecology of this region.  The bulk of our understanding of natural resources, livelihoods and political economy that we do have are derived from colonial accounts more than a half century old.  With good intelligence, some serious on-the-ground research and the mobilization of people like David, and the integration of satellite imagery of the region that we can use to analyze (no more pretty pictures, just serious analysis) things like land cover, soil moisture, biomass, etc. we might at least create a stopgap for this knowledge gap that can then enable a settlement in this area that meets the widest range of livelihoods needs possible, lowering the potential for future conflict.

Lord, there are days . . . look, people, the connection between climate change and any sort of social behavior is complex and difficult to trace.  I’ve mentioned before that the connection between climate change and conflict is not at all straightforward.  So too the connection between climate change and migration/refugees.  But no matter how many times we say this, people still go with the simple connection – climate change = more refugees/more migration.  Take, for example, this bit of reporting at CNN.

The devastating effects of climate change and conflicts fought over ever-scarcer resources such as water could cause a surge in migration that experts fear the world is totally unprepared for.

At least one billion people will be forced from their homes between now and 2050 by such forces, the international charity group Christian Aid predicted in a recent report.

Oh, for God’s sake.  Look, we’ve been over this before.  There will be relatively few new refugees, and all I can offer is a very qualified maybe about more migration.  Why do I say this?

First, a refugee, by definition, is someone who is forced to move (a nebulous issue) and then does move across an international border.  People who are forced to move but stay in their country after moving are called internally displaced people (IDPs) – this is not merely terminology.  Refugees have all sorts of rights that IDPs do not.  And most work on climate and migration suggests very short moves, meaning we might see a surge in climate-related IDPs, but probably not climate refugees.  Well, that and the fact that international law does not consider climate-related events as legal “forcings” that can result in refugee status.  So, most people will not clear a border, and those that do will not be recognized under current law as refugees.

Second, there are a hell of a lot of assumptions here about what causes people to move and why in the context of environmental change.  I’ve written on this in refereed journals, and a chunk of the first half of my book addresses this issue indirectly.  Simply put, any decision to move incorporates more than an assessment of one’s material situation – it is a complex decision that takes into account a whole range of factors, including social considerations and opportunities elsewhere.  These factors are locally-specific, and therefore any wide, general claim about the number of likely refugees is mostly crap – we simply don’t know.

So where did the crappy analysis come from?  Oh, right, this crap story was built on a completely crap report that I complained about just recently.  Crap begetting crap.  Super.

are killing me.  But, the book is here, and I am cleaning it up.  I hate page proofs.  Deeply.  This is the sort of detail work I loathe – combing back through 90,000 words looking for misspellings and erroneous punctuation.  It is taking days, because you can only focus that hard for so long.  And at the same time, I am cleaning up the index.

Oh, and that is on top of the article that was due back in today – I worked with two of my Ph.D. students, Mary Thompson and Manali Baruah, to produce a paper that examines how REDD+ functions as a form of unacknowledged environmental governance (defining legitimate terms and actors within debates over how to implement terrestrial carbon sequestration projects in forest areas).  We’ll see how it does in this round of peer review.

And then there is the talk I am supposed to be giving at UNC – Chapel Hill on Friday.  I’ll be discussing how we think about livelihoods in development, how current framings might have carried us as far as they are going to, and what a new framing might look like.  Yeah, it is coming together, but not as quickly as I’d hoped.

But, without further ado, the first few hundred words of Delivering Development:

For those interested in things environment and development, the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in DC (actually in the Ronald Reagan Building along with USAID and EPA) runs a very cool, interesting blog The New Security Beat.  It’s going in the blogroll to the right – check it out . . .

Next Page »