Entries tagged with “Kenya”.


So, given the twitter/blog/social media/whatever response to my post expressing shock at my students’ lack of awareness of the Horn of Africa drought, I did a little follow-up with them today.  This was the first day of real lecture content in the class, and as it happens one of the first examples I hit on (while trying to demonstrate the concept of interdependence – how every part of the world is inextricably linked to other parts of the world, for better or for worse) was the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011 (and the imminent spike coming this fall as a result of the drought that has devastated the US maize crop).  Since we were on food insecurity, I pivoted a bit and decided to just talk to them directly.  A summary, for those of you interested in how the hell a bunch of college students/college-bound high school students could have missed a crisis of this size:

1)   The crisis was horribly branded: I think talking about the Horn of Africa confused the few people who did know something had happened.  When I started casting about (around this time last year, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, starving African babies…) a few students did remember seeing something on the news.  As one student put it, he saw it on a major network, but the anchor wasn’t reporting.  I suspect more of the students were briefly aware of the crisis at the time, but it has since been lost to time because of the sheer volume of calls for help/mentions of crisis to which they are exposed (see point #2).

2)   In general, the students disliked most current “disaster messaging.”  Yes, it grabs their attention…and then it overwhelms them.  First, there are a lot of bad things that happen, and therefore a lot of news stories/PSAs/etc. coming down the line all the time.  They become hard to differentiate, such that students just tune out the PSAs entirely.  Second, the messaging largely seems to be a competition to horrify people even more…but the explanations for the problem are simplistic or, worse, nonexistent.  The students don’t understand why the crisis is happening, and they are turned off by “solutions” that amount to “send me $5 and I will fix it.”  These are young, idealistic, energetic people – this particular constituency has a greater interest in acting directly than many others.  To summarize: screaming “IT’S A DISASTER!!! SEND ME MONEY TO FIX IT!!!” is rarely going to generate deep interest and engagement (and we need both, for a lot of reasons – see below).  Most messaging around the Horn was of this genre, and as a result it quickly receded into the daily noise of news feeds and celebrity weddings.

3)   Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame.  In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis.  Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off.  Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged.  Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work.  So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase.  If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc.  In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms.  After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand.  Why?

  • Crowdsourcing: folks, there is a big world outside the aid and development community, and some of those people actually have interesting ideas.  Maybe those ideas can only address part of one of the many causes of the crisis (i.e. adjusting a market’s function for one commodity in one part of the world), but with a lot of people acting in this manner, it becomes possible to identify a wide range of potential options to address a given crisis/prevent its recurrence.
  • Politics: not one person in my classroom, or really any person anywhere who has a clean bill of mental health, wants to see 100,000 people die for any reason.  I believe that the vast majority of them would support spending tax dollars to prevent this from happening.  But when we fail to explain what needs to be done, in all its complexity, we are turning off a key constituency that can be mobilized and can make its voice heard – they have something that all politicians want. Votes. I can’t guarantee that my students would use those votes to shape policy, but they can’t do this until someone gives them a reasonable, actionable explanation for the events in the world that we would all like to address.

4)   Message management is anathema to social media: let me state the obvious – in the social media era, controlling the message is only possible if the message is so insipid that nobody cares about it at all.  A lot of the Horn messaging was about controlling the message, which is the equivalent of lecturing people via social media.  Ugh.  One student who wrote to me after class argued, more or less, that our role should be a catalyst for social media – we light the fire, but count on the fire to catch and build in its own way once it is started.  Social media that tries to message top-down, instead of evolving with a viral situation, will fail…it will be ignored.  I just realized what I am going to assign my students to do in my absence next week – I am going to make them follow a few official twitter feeds and critique them…oh, the horror!  This will be fun…

5)   Explain why the crisis at hand is important to their self-interest.  Yes, this sounds crass, but self-interest is a broad thing that can be mobilized with decent messages.  To pull an example from my own work, I can sell using development dollars on forest conservation because it has an important impact on the functioning of ecosystems that limit the pace of climate change – climate change that is raising sea levels along the South Carolina coast and producing drought across the state, and eventually will negatively impact the tourism industry in South Carolina (one of the few sectors here that is going well).  The students got that right away.  But nobody really did this for the Horn.  Which is pathetic. Hell, I did an off-the-cuff 2 minute explanation of why they care about the failed state in Somalia in terms of piracy in class today, by referencing the various ways in which piracy is raising shipping costs and therefore commodity prices…which hits their pocketbooks, impacts job growth, etc.  From there, it is easy to get into a reasoned conversation about the relative cost of the development and aid work that could change things in Somalia and end piracy as a viable livelihood versus doing nothing and bearing the cost of piracy.  It is all about entry points and catalysts, folks.

There were several other points that the students made – the one that sticks with me now is one student’s observation there is real experiential distance between their lives and what is happening in a famine that limits their engagement.  While we cannot bring students to a food crisis, we need to start thinking about how to create this experiential engagement.  For me, this happened when I became a parent…I will never again be able to objectively stomach an infant mortality statistic, because I flash to one or more of my children lying dead on the ground and I start to get the shakes.  I’m not sure what would do that for an 18-22 year old, but that sort of visceral connection spurs action.

To summarize: I think I was right in my initial post.  My students’ failure to recall the Horn of Africa crisis was not really their fault.  The messaging went awry in all sorts of ways because it assumed a lot about the audience (they had no interest in the issue, and only wanted simple stories with simple solutions) that was simply wrong.  Not everyone is going to care about every crisis – everyone has limited bandwidth – and so bad messaging just fell back into the everyday noise of social and old media, another data point among many, but nothing new or engaging.  Good messaging won’t make everyone care about every crisis, but it could engage enough of the right people each time to get us different outcomes, and fewer crises in the future.  That alone should make the effort worthwhile – so I guess I am disagreeing with J over at AidSource. Or the hopelessly realistic optimist in me is just winning out again…

Today, I reentered the classroom for the first time in two years.  That’s not completely accurate, actually – I lectured at the Foreign Service Institute several times while I was in DC, and I have a number of lectures, so I am not totally out of practice.  And after you’ve spent over 1000 hours (!!!) in front of a classroom, it really is like riding a bike…

Despite my classroom experience, I was seriously thrown by a moment in class today – I was discussing the different climates we see in East Africa, and mentioned the Horn of Africa famine in an offhand way…then realized there were too many blank stares.  So I asked the class directly how many of them were aware of the famine.  Not a single hand went up – 70 students, no hands.  Now, maybe someone put up a hand in that half-shrug, uncomfortable sort of way and I missed it.  And perhaps a few people had heard of the famine, but had not heard of it as something going on in the Horn of Africa.  But…at best, that is a few people.  Out of 70.

HOW THE HELL COULD THIS HAPPEN?  Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine – actually, that is a very low estimate, given that we were looking at 20,000-30,000 under-5 deaths in August 2011, and things stayed bad for quite a while after.  This is probably the single biggest human catastrophe since the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 (that killed 230,000 people).

I don’t blame the students.  Honestly.  They are wired in – they get all kinds of media all day long.  The simple fact is that the story of this famine was never sold very well, or very widely.  I thought the PSA campaign around the famine was terrible – a bunch of B-list celebrities, at best, in really dull clips (more on that in a later post).  Media coverage was confused.  Most could not separate drought from famine (which led me to write my most-viewed post ever), attributing the causes completely to the weather.  Others played up the Somalia terrorism angle with al-Shabab, a heterogenous and not terribly effective fundamentalist group in Somalia that decided to turn itself into drone bait by aligning with al-Qaeda.  But the whole story was much more than could be compressed into 2 minutes on the nightly news.

That these students didn’t know about the famine is a lost opportunity – an opportunity to illustrate how complex the world is, how climate change compromises development efforts, how relief work is very hard, and very political, and how there are a hell of a lot of really heroic people doing amazing work that probably saved as many lives as were lost, if not many, many more.  These are the people who will become educated voters, who will shape America’s place in the world through who they elect and what sorts of priorities they express – and they have no idea that America has a tool like FEWS-NET, which now can predict when and where famine will break out months in advance in several African countries…this is an astonishing accomplishment, and the envy of the world.  And if the foreign aid cutters in Congress get their way, it could go away.

Maybe many more people paid attention to the famine on other campuses, in other states…but somehow, I have a feeling that my class was not all that much of an anomaly.  Simply put, we in the relief and development community suck at messaging.  Between the frantic and often disingenuous fundraising that imprint television viewers with the belief that the situation is hopeless, the confused media reporting as everyone looks for their unique angle, and the near-total failure of messaging from the donor institutions, it is no wonder my students were clueless – hell, they almost certainly knew about the famine, at least in passing, but the completely disjointed storytelling probably prevented any meaningful understanding of the causes of the events or how to address these causes and their impacts.

I have no idea how to fix this, but somebody has to fix this. It is too important to be lamented and then ignored in favor of “doing the work” of development and relief.  Messaging is the work of development and relief – telling the story of what we do, why it needs to be done, and how we could do less of it in the future if we just addressed some root causes now is fundamental to getting the societal buy-in we need to do our jobs right.  Somebody do this right.  I can only reach 70 people at a time…

Marc Bellemare’s blog pointed me to an interesting paper by Pascaline Dupas and Jonathan Robinson titled “Why Don’t the Poor Save More? Evidence from Health Savings Experiments.”  It is an interesting paper, taking a page from the RCT4D literature to test some different tools for savings in four Kenyan villages.  I’m not going to wade into the details of the paper or its findings here (they find some tools to be more effective than others at promoting savings for health expenditures), because they are not what really caught me about this paper.  Instead, what struck me was the absence of a serious consideration of “the social” in the framing of the questions asked and the results.  Dupas and Robinson expected three features to impact health savings: adequate storage facilities/technology, the ability to earmark funds, and the level of social commitment of the participant.  The social context of savings (or, more accurately, barriers to savings) are treated in what I must say is a terribly dismissive way [emphases are mine]:

a secure storage technology can enable individuals to avoid carrying loose cash on their person and thus allow people to keep some physical distance between themselves and their money. This may make it easier to resist temptations, to borrow the terminology in Banerjee and Mullainathan (2010), or unplanned expenditures, as many of our respondents call them. While these unplanned expenditures include luxury items such as treats, another important category among such unplanned expenditures are transfers to others.

A storage technology can increase the mental costs associated with unplanned expenditures, thereby reducing such expenditures. Indeed, if people use the storage technology to save towards a specic goal, such as a health goal in our study, people may consider the money saved as unavailable for purposes other than the specic goal – this is what Thaler (1990) coined mental accounting. By enabling such mental accounting, a designated storage place may give people the strength to resist frivolous expenditures as well as pressure to share with others, including their spouse.

I have seen many cases of unplanned expenditures to others in my fieldwork.  Indeed, my village-based field crews in Ghana used to ask for payment on as infrequent a basis as possible to avoid exactly these sorts of expenditures.  They would plan for large needed purchases, work until they had earned enough for that purchase, then take payment and immediately make the purchase, making their income illiquid before family members could call upon them and ask for loans or handouts.

However, the phrasing of Dupas and Robinson strikes the anthropologist/ geographer in me as dismissive.  These expenses are seen as “frivolous”, things that should be “resisted”.  The authors never consider the social context of these expenditures – why people agree to make them in the first place.  There seems to be an implicit assumption here that people don’t know how to manage their money without the introduction of new tools, and that is not at all what I have seen (albeit in contexts other than Kenya).  Instead, I saw these expenditures as part of a much larger web of social relations that implicates everything from social status to gender roles – in this context, the choice to give out money instead of saving it made much more sense.

In short, it seems to me that Dupas and Robinson are treating these savings technologies as apolitical, purely technical interventions.  However, introducing new forms of savings also intervenes in social relations at scales ranging from the household to the extended family to the community.  Thus, the uptake of these forms of savings will be greatly effected by contextual factors that seem to have been ignored here.  Further, the durability of the behavioral changes documented in this study might be much better predicted and understood – from my perspective, the declining use of these technologies over the 33 month scope of the project was completely predictable (the decline, that is, not the size of the decline).  Just because a new technology enables savings that might result in a greater standard of living for the individual or household does not mean that the technology will be seen as desirable – instead, that standard of living must also work within existing social roles and relations if these new behaviors are to endure.  Therefore, we cannot really explain the declining use of these technologies over time . . . yet development is, to me, about catalyzing enduring change.  While this study shows that the introduction of these technologies has at least a short term transformative effect on savings behavior, I’m not convinced this study does much to advance our understanding of how to catalyze changes that will endure.



After reading a lot of news and blog posts on the situation in the Horn of Africa, I feel the need to make something clear: the drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia.  We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause . . . which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.

First, I recommend that anyone interested in this situation – or indeed in food security and famine more generally, to read Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts.  It is a very readable account of massive famines in the Victorian era that lays out the necessary intersection of weather, markets and politics to create tragedy – and also makes clear the point that rainfall alone is poorly correlated to famine.  For those who want a deeper dive, have a look at the lit review (pages 15-18) of my article “Postmodern Conceptualizations, Modernist Applications: Rethinking the Role of Society in Food Security” to get a sense of where we are in contemporary thinking on food security.  The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies.  The HoA situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).

For those who doubt this, look at the FEWS NET maps I put in previous posts (here and here).  Famine stops at the Somali border.  I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have.  Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.  Rainfall is not the controlling variable for this differential outcome, because rainfall is not really variable across these borders where Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet.

This is not to say that rainfall doesn’t matter – it certainly does.  But it is not the most important thing.  However, when we focus on rainfall variability exclusively, we end up in discussions and arguments that detract from understanding what went wrong here, and what we might do going forward.  Yes, the drought reflects a climate extreme . . . but this extreme is not that stunningly anomalous in this part of the world – we are getting similar (but not quite as bad) results quite often these days.  Indeed, these results seem to be coming more frequently, and appear to be tied to a shift in the climate of the region – and while it is a bit soon to say this definitively, this climate shift is very likely is a product of anthropogenic climate change.  So, one could indirectly argue that the climate change (mostly driven by big emitters in the Global North) is having a terrible impact on the poorest and weakest in the Global South.  It will take a while to make this a firm argument, though.

On the other hand, it is clear that politics and markets have failed the people of Somalia – and the rainfall just pushed a very bad situation over the precipice into crisis.  Thus, this is a human crisis first and foremost, whatever you think of anthropogenic climate change.  Politics and markets are human inventions, and the decisions that drive them are also human.  We can’t blame this famine on the weather – we need to be looking at everything from local and national politics that shape access and entitlements to food to global food markets that have driven the price of needed staples up across the world, thus curtailing access for the poorest.  The bad news: Humans caused this.  The good news: If we caused it, we can prevent the next one.



PRI’s The World ran a story today about the boom in renewable energy in the developing world.  The story itself is fine – but I’m tired of reading stories that hang their angle on how amazing/interesting it is that the global poor can be so innovative, and so capable to taking up new technologies – this angle is misguided and condescending, and does a lot to keep us trapped in the development echo chamber that tells us how the global poor would be lost without our help.

The World, like all media, has to draw the reader/listener in with unusual and topical stories.  But this story is not all that unusual – it runs parallel to the explosive growth of mobile phones in the developing world.  When I first started working in Ghana, back in 1997, barely anyone had cell phones.  Landlines were also rare, and nearly impossible to get because the switchboards in places like Cape Coast were maxed out – basically, you had to wait for someone to move or die, which would free up a land line.  The waits for land lines ranged into years.  I could make outbound calls from the Ghana Telecom building in Cape Coast, but I had no means of receiving phone calls.  When I went out to a village to do fieldwork, I effectively disappeared – there was no means of reaching me except word-of-mouth messages passed by people going to and from the village on various errands (though that method was surprisingly effective – I could get a message in well under a day in that manner).

Fast forward to 2004 -when I arrived in Ghana, I borrowed a cell phone from a colleague of mine at the University of Ghana, went out and bought a SIM and some minutes for around $15, and had a phone number within a few hours of touching down in the country.  People could call me, and I could call out, nearly all the time.  Coverage did not extend into the villages in which I was working, but if I climbed a very tall hill behind my house, I could get a wobbly signal.  In 2005, the signal was much stronger.  Since 2006, it has been possible to make and receive calls from the village itself, without having to climb the hill.  And people have adopted the phone as these advances have taken place, to the extent that while these villages do not have electrical service, I have heard a farmer take a call on a mobile phone in his field (the phones are charged on car batteries).

Why the rapid advances in mobile phone technology?  People wanted the service (badly), but the dominant technology of the late 1990s (land lines) was too expensive to extend to everyone who wanted it.  Mobile phones filled the gap . . . and now we see all kinds of innovation in mobile technology starting to emerge from Africa – such as the unique talent pool of low-bandwidth phone app programmers in Kenya.

Given all of this, I am forced to ask why anyone would find the adoption of alternative energy sources by those living in the developing world surprising.  People want and need power, but the infrastructure to bring it to them is very expensive.  Dominase and Ponkrum, the two villages in which I have focused much of my research in Ghana, are less than five kilometers from huge high tension lines carrying electricity from the Akosombo Dam to coastal cities like Takoradi to the West.  Yet they have no electricity themselves, and little hope of seeing the grid extended to them any time soon.  As the story notes:

“One reason why renewable energy is expanding is because of the inadequacy of the power supply in much of the world. Conventional power grids simply don’t reach many people. And when the price of oil goes up, people who use diesel generators start searching for other ways to get power.”

I agree that situations like this one drive innovation (the villagers can run almost anything off of a car battery), but the emergence of alternative energy as one set of innovations is therefore completely unsurprising.

The real story here, as I see it, is the rate of change.  What we are seeing is a remarkable rate of innovation in the developing world around emerging technologies.  Further, this is not all the result of development projects, education, or other capacity-building efforts supplied by advanced economies.  Instead, such as in the case of the Kenyan programmers, these innovations are local phenomenon that illustrate just how capable the people living in the Global South really are.

Perhaps we need to stop writing stories that express surprise and interest in the emergence of new technologies among the global poor, and refocus to carefully explore why some technologies emerge and others do not.  Any time we see a useful, innovative technology hit the Global South without making a major impact, or without people picking it up, we need to explore what is preventing this sort of innovation and impact.  The only reason we don’t, I fear, is because we assume that the global poor are generally incapable of such innovation without outside help.  This is a bad assumption that empowers development projects that are probably not needed or misguided – efforts that could be better spent identifying and removing the barriers to adoption so that these local innovations can flourish.