May
09

Explaining Successes in Africa

Erin Accampo Hern's "Explaining Success in Africa: Things Don't Always Fall Apart" (2023) is a great teaching book (upper undergraduates or generalist graduate students). The book is easy to read, presents a clear methodology, and integrates theory / variables / data in a most-similar most-different approach. In a class, this could be the foundation, with further readings on the theory and the countries. And, as the author points out, provides an important counter narrative. Recommended, particularly for consideration as a teaching tool. I am also using this as an example for graduate students for thesis ideas. One quote:

"The case comparisons included in this chapter suggest that governments' policy choices have been a key factor distinguishing the countries that have flourished from those that have floundered. Importantly, those policy choices do not exist in a vacuum, but in all cases discussed in this chapter have a clear relationship to the logic of political survival each leader faced. Despite starting with different resources, backgrounds, and timing, Seychelles and Gabon have used policy to nudge investment toward the "next" sector. They both also had political incentives to diversify and distribute government revenue. Neither approach has been perfect, but they have both consistently outperformed their neighbors and other similarly situated countries in both GDP per capita and ­quality-of-life indicators." (Page 41) 

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May
03

The Power of Positive Deviance

In 2010 Pascale, Sternin and Sternin published "The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems", published by Harvard Business Review. I am not sure how this book landed on my desk, but takes an outlier sampling approach to be utilized in a self-driven learning context for social change (and in one chapter, corporate change). The book is summative and chapters are essentially extended case studies and there is a methodology at the end. A few quotes:

"This book comes from years of hearing "We've tried everything and nothing works". Positive Deviance (PD) is founded on the premise that at least one person in a community, working with the same resources as everyone else, has already licked the problem that confounds others. This individual is an outlier in the statistical sense – an exception, someone whose outcome deviates in a positive way from the norm. In most cases this person does not know he or she is doing anything unusual. Yet once the unique solution is discovered and understood, it can be adopted by the wider community and transform many lives. From the PD perspective, individual difference is regarded as a community resource Community engagement is essential to discovering noteworthy variants in their minds and adapting their practices and strategies" (Page 3)

"The positive deviance process is not suitable for everything. As noted earlier, it is unnecessary when a technical solution (e.g., drought-resistant corn; a vaccine for smallpox) exists. But the process excels over most alternatives when addressing problems that, to repeat, (1) are enmeshed in a complex social system, (2) require social and behavioral change, and (3) entail solutions that are rife with unforeseeable or unintended consequences. It provides an alternative when problems are viewed as intractable (i.e., other solutions haven't worked). It redirects attention from "what's wrong" to "what's right" – observable exceptions that succeed against all odds." (Page 10).

"… what separates the PD approach from the alternatives. Unless the community itself spearheads the discovery, it doesn't own the "answers". Unless the community designs and staffs the workshops to practice successful strategies, participants will not successful "act their way into a new way of thinking," nor will the practices be sustainable." (Page 155) 

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Feb
23

Travesty in Haiti

I cannot recall where or how I was directed to "Travesty in Haiti: A True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Food Aid, Fraud and Drug Trafficking" (2008) by Timothy Schwartz. The book appears to be self-published, and Paul Farmer is quoted on the back as saying "This book knocks it out of the park" (assuming that is the Paul Farmer, who better to speak on a book about Haiti and the NGO sector?). The author spent ~10 years in Haiti, for graduate school research and then consulting work in the NGO sector. This is an academic book, and closer to a reflective personal history as well as quasi-expose of the aid industry. The personal stories make it an engaging and easy read. There are some errors here and there. For anyone seeking out a reality check on the non-profit sector, this is the book. One lengthy note:

"...beneath the surface it was a fiasco. Massive reforestation projects had consumed millions of dollars but when I investigated they turned out to be decades long failures. Irrigation projects meant for the poor turned out, when I investigated, to be owned by congressmen and senators, doctors and nurses, engineers, and lawyers, some of whom were living in the United States. I could tell about a dike that became a dam and caused flooding and about a dam built at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars but that with the first heavy torrent snapped like a stick. I could tell about roads the NGOs built that became massive gullies. About twenty years and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on BIGs (Bio Intensive Gardens that are small, highly productive vegetable gardens) that the peasants never paid the slightest bit of attention to but into which CARE International went right on pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars of aid. I could tell about a massive seed project in which, despite the fact that the Jean Makout rainy season is only three months, the NGO agronomists distributed long season seed varieties, causing the peasants who accepted and planted the seeds to lose their harvests, to be driven deeper into poverty, and I could then tell how the project was continued for four more years, how the peasants instead of planting the seeds took to soaking them to remove the pesticides and then ate them. I could tell about hundreds of barefoot doctors trained to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars and two years of effort, but when we tried to hire them for the survey, we found only five of whom could accurately take a pulse. I could tell about networks of local agricultural extension agents who are even more poorly trained, about the United Nation's million dollar fishing projects that were flops as well: Smoking pits going unused gran neg (political bosses) commandeering refrigerators and solar panels meant for the storage of lobster, motor powered fiberglass boats that never went to sea for any other reason than joyriding and sightseeing when local and visiting VIP's could afford The US$2 per gallon for gasoline. I could tell about all these failed projects and most bizarre of all I could tell the same stories several times over for they have been repeated in Jean Makout and throughout Haiti for over half a century the same projects, often in the same places, and always with the same result, failure." (p. 70-71) 

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Feb
19

Fields of Gold

Focusing on two country studies of the USA and Brazil, Madeleine Fairbairn's "Fields of Gold: Financing the Global Land Rush" (2020) explores the financial side of the global rush for land. This book provides unique perspectives on a widely written about topic (often under the land grab or large-scale land acquisition frame, I've also used the land rush in a book). A downside to the book is that it seems almost all of the interviews were conducted between 2011 and 2015, creating a rather large gap between the data / issues covered and the date of publication. The author has put a full copy of the book on Academia (available here). A few notes:

"In recent years, the financial sector has developed a surprising interest in farms. Institutional investors—pension funds, university endowments, private foundations, and other organizations that manage huge pools of capital—are increasingly incorporating farmland into their investment portfolios. The same is true of those extremely wealthy people who in financial circles are euphemistically termed "high-net-worth individuals." This investor interest has spawned a host of new asset management companies eager to accommodate and encourage investors' newfound passion for soil. Promoting shiny new investment vehicles including farmland-focused private equity funds and real estate investment trusts (REITs), these managers promise to shepherd investor capital safely, and often extremely profitably, into plots of farmland the world over. This book examines why and how this transformation is taking place…" (p. 2)

"In the 1970s, this plodding increase in land prices once again transformed into a mad dash. The US entered another farmland boom, this time lasting from roughly 1972 to 1981. The causes of the boom were many: global droughts in 1972, a huge sale of grain by the US government to the Soviet Union in the same year, the devaluation of the US dollar, a highly inflationary environment that translated into low real interest rates, and a certain amount of ungrounded optimism." (p. 25)

"Perhaps the most fundamental shortcoming of voluntary guidelines, however, is that they take the land deals as a given. They start from the premise that con-version to larger-scale, more capital-intensive agriculture is inevitable—or even necessary for rural development—and then strive to make those investments more environmentally and socially friendly." (p. 138)

"A final approach to re-embedding land markets in the social fabric lies in alternative ownership structures, such as community land trusts (CLTs) and real estate investment cooperatives (REICs). Unlike the previous two approaches, these are not explicit responses to the (financialized) land rush, but rather efforts to address the negative impacts that rentier landownership and real estate speculation, in general, can have on communities. The CLT model is based on the idea that property ownership should not just benefit individual property owners but should instead serve the interests of the entire community, particularly its most disadvantaged members. Under the CLT model, the landowner is a private, nonprofit corporation that is governed by a board largely composed of local community members and homeowners/lessees of the trust. This entity owns the land, while the buildings on the land are available for purchase, and the building owners are granted extremely long-term, inherit-able leases for the property upon which their buildings stand (ninety-nine years is a common lease term)." (p. 142-143) 

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