Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Data, Data, Data .... and Pretty Pictures?

I have spent a lot of the last week pondering the distribution of information and the presentation of data.

Coming from a mathematics and science background, I am quite at home with numbers, and would prefer to read a budget then a written report, however I know that most of the general population have more trouble grasping numbers, and possibly because of this, mainstream media reporting focus on qualitative rather than quantitative results and issues. I feel that this has lead to some rather important gaps in public knowledge, and some horrifying misconceptions.

For example, this graph has had me captivated from the instant I saw it:
While most respondents thought they were advocating for less international aid, we could actually increase US aid money significantly, and still be satisfying the public. That the public thinks America spends 25% of it's budget on aid is a failure of media reporting. Methodology here.

I posted a few weeks ago about the Japanese nuclear crisis, there again we saw public panic due to misinformation - people failed to understand that the radiation numbers spoken about were tiny.

One solution to this public ignorance? Make data more accessible and in a format that is easier for the layman to understand. I am going to spend the rest of this post highlighting and applauding efforts to do just that. Hats off to these fantastic efforts.

I start with the wonderful website Information is Beautiful which I could easily spend hours on. One of the best tools is the animation below which puts large financial numbers into perspective. This is the one that those people from the survey above should have seen!

Other gems include: the true size of Africa, the billion-dollar-o-gram, What does China censor?, global fears, and their TED talk.

Another champion of the data is Swedish Global Health Lecturer Hans Rosling, who, as well as giving several really excellent TED talks (most recent), pioneered the fantastic GapMinder tool (demo here), which allows the user to select their variables and watch their interactive graph evolve with the world, a screenshot is below:
Datamarket has a similar tool to Gapminder, but it is not aimed at development specifically. GoogleInsights is also great for playing with data, for example, notice a correlation between terror alerts and elections?

Another worthy website is FlowingData, which again have a wide range of visualisations, and links to even more, such as a map of refugee flows, a graph showing that 40% of over 70s have sex, and the below chart of Faith and Poverty. The site also has lots of information for making your own graphics. If you are looking for the raw data to work with, try Timetric, an aggregate of the world's leading sources of economic data, try Here for lots of governement data about London, or Infochimp of an assortment of datasets. Another diverse and growing set of data available at MEDevEcon (h/t to AidThoughts). Patrick Cain produces interesting maps for just about every social variable in Canadian cities.

The infographic is appearing as the new information transmitter of choice, and consists of standard graphs or tables overlain with maps, pictures or symbols to tell a story. Examples can be found at Good, such as the Quest to Power in Africa below:

If people are seeking a little daily data burst, I'd recommend signing up to the Economist's Daily Chart RRS feed, interesting recent graphs include: Regional Inequality, Representation of Women, and the below chart on Child Brides. I would similarly recommend The Guardian's Data Blog, which also have interesting visualisation of government spending and a really useful timeline for the middle east protests (seriously!).

Finally, as unrelated yet interesting aside, check out OkCupid for data trends from a huge online dating site. Hits include: the lies people tell when online datingthe case for an older women, and finally, Gay vs. Straight sex. Enjoy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Arab Unrest: Worthwhile Reading

Libyan rebels have recaptured much territory in recent days, and have been recognized by Qatar and Kuwait, which will allow them to export oil and gain revenue. The lightly armed rebels may find taking Sirti and Tripoli harder than they expect. While airstrikes are effective in destroying tanks sieging cities, they will not be able to convince the significant percentage of Gaddafi loyalists to lay down their arms.

A slow advance will give the rebel council a time to consolidate their management structures, and figure out what they will do if they ever to capture Tripoli, Libya needs serious investment in public institutions, from Alex de Waal's excellent article on Libya:
Gaddafi deliberately refused to build institutions in Libya, reflecting both his own Bedouin background and his philosophy of people’s government. His Africa policy was similarly pursued by through the instruments of monetary patronage and ideological solidarity, strictly on the basis of personal relations with counterparts....Between eleven and seventeen African countries—to be precise, African heads of state—have benefited from his largesse. Many rebel groups, especially in neighbouring countries, have also been the recipients of extraordinary Libyan giving sprees. Not only Gaddafi but his lieutenants possess large reserves of money and enormous stores of weaponry.
Much of Libya is now ungoverned. That is particularly true of southern Libya. There has been little attention to the towns of the south, such as Sebha and Kufra, with no international correspondents there. These places are matters of great concern to neighbouring governments such as Niger, Chad and Sudan, because these towns have served as the rear base for armed rebellions in their countries, and rebel leaders still reside there. Gaddafi’s opening of the Libyan arsenals to anyone ready to fight for the regime, and the collapse of authority in other places, means that such rebels have been able to acquire arms and vehicles with ease.... Mercenaries, freebooters and rebels from across the Sahel, and even beyond, are heading for Libya to take advantage of this open-entry, take all you can arms bonanza.
For a different impression of Gaddafi, it is interesting to read a piece by Ugandan President Museveni, who discusses some redeeming points of Gaddafi, such as his investment in infrastructure, his demand for a higher oil price and his nationalism.

Writing in the NY times, the ever optimistic Jeff Sachs asks us to remember that democracy alone will not solve the underlying economic troubles of some arab nations, he asks the west to
...respond to the economic hardship that has fueled discontent. Youth unemployment is disastrously high, perhaps 40 percent of those under 25 years of age. The systems of vocational education, on-the-job training and skill apprenticeships are in disarray. Both Egypt and Tunisia are natural hubs for youth employment — in information and communications technology, business processing operations, light manufacturing, construction trades, public health, education and many other fields. But the ramp from school to jobs must be made, along the lines perhaps of the successful models of Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.

This week also saw a rare piece from Kofi Annan in the FT about what these uprising mean for democracy and elections:
National leaders must learn that to provide democratic legitimacy, elections must be free and fair. The international community must understand that every time it turns a blind eye to electoral abuse, it becomes complicit in degrading democracy’s potential. Short-term expediency cannot be allowed to overshadow the longer-term impact on security, development and human rights. We have to raise the costs for those tempted to rig or steal polls.
Meanwhile, Yemen and Syria are having their own troubles. In Yemen talks have stalled, and the presidents repeated promises of reform, stepping down in the future, or immediately handing over power appear less credible. In Syria there appears to be uncertainty about who is responsible for some of the violence, the Economist writing that many believe the government is not responsible for the gangs and armed thugs, however, the army has clearly been responsible for some killings. So far the Syrian government have only hinted at reform, and the BBC does not believe the administration is in any serious danger, then again, people said the same about Egypt.

The opposition movement in Bahrain has been significantly weakened after the arrest of key leaders, and the lack of international response to the violent crushing of protests, the foreign minister has declined their invitation to talk with Kuwait as a mediator. Egyptians voted in favour of a new constitution, but Kristof reminds us that there is still much work to be done. Jordon has also had a few protests.

The Economist is kind enough to explain why the US spends more on fighter jets then foreign aid, but the article is essentially a rehash of the Bill Easterly v. Jeffrey Sachs (v. Paul Collier) debate.

And I know that no one cares, but the Ivory Coast is also having troubles....

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Libya: Criteria for Intervention

Update: A touching piece by Kristof, apparently the Libyian like the intervention. And a more in-depth analysis by the Economist. A measure of the amount of support that Gaddafi retains.

It has been a nervous week for those of us watching Libyia - I have refrained from commenting about it till now because I simply did not feel informed enough, and while I am still far from an expert, a heated discussion with a friend today was enough to prompt me into writing what I am fairly certain about.

When people ask why there has been an international intervention in Libya, but not in say Cote d'Ivoire, it normally ends in a messy discussion about vested interests, practicalities and the imperfections of the international community. In this post I will try to lay out some of the justification and reasoning behind current action in Libya.

...all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.
This was adopted under Article 42 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter which provides: 
Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.
However `maintain or restore international peace' is a slightly vague criteria. What we need to have is a set of criteria about what justifies international intervention...Oh wait, we do. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty published a report in 2001 called the Responsibility to Protect, which unfortunately was far from perfect, and was not universally adopted, but it provides a starting place for thinking about how justified the current action in Libya is. The Report requires that requests for military intervention must satisfy six criteria, my comments are in pink

  1. Just Cause:
    1. large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or Gaddafi has been referred to the International Criminal Court for War Crimes investigation. Gaddafi has said “Those who don’t love me do not deserve to live, it will be hell for them” and “Arms deposits are open to arm the people and together we will fight, defeat and kill those who are protesting”, he has not just been killing civillians, but he has promised to continue doing so. He is also insane: "They give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafe...." By comparison, there were no massacres of civillians in Iraq immediately prior to the intervention there, the genocides there were years earlier. Also worrying reports that Gaddafi forces are using human shields. 
    2. large scale 'ethnic cleansing', actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape.
  2. Right Intention: The primary purpose of the intervention, whatever other motives intervening states may have, must be to halt or avert human suffering. Right intention is better assured with multilateral operations, clearly supported by regional opinion and the victims concerned. It is well known that lots of countries have vested interests in Gaddafi, but the operations so far have been multilateral, and just because a country may be happy to see the back of Gaddafi, does not mean that the primary motivation for intervention is not humanitarian. Unlike in Iraq, the USA has only been dragged into helping with the no-fly zone by it's allies, and is trying to give up command asap - but there remains a question of who will be in charge. It is important that the Arab League backed action (reports of it having changed it mind are false, Amr Moussa expressed concerns only over the scope of action, see below). It was pointed out to me that Libya is not a member of the Arab League, but actually a member of the African Union. The AU were silent about Libya before the no-fly zone, but have recently contemned the foreign intervention, given that many African nations are supported by Libyan money, this is hardly a surprise. It is also the Arab countries, Tunisia and Egypt, that will have to deal with the regional instability and refugee flux, not the AU.
  3. Final Resort: Military intervention can only be justified when every non-military option for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the crisis has been explored, with reasonable grounds for believing lesser measures would not have succeeded. The no-fly zone was not imposed immediately, indeed some say it was too late for many Libyans, and no other measures had been shown to have any effect at all for about a month. Gaddafi is insane, he is not open to reasonable negotiation, and has shown no indication that he will ever step down. Libya may also have billions of dollars worth of gold stockpiled that it could use to finance an extended war, or mercenaries - economic actions against Libya would be very ineffective in the short term. 
  4. Legitimate Authority: 
    1. There is no better or more appropriate body than the United Nations Security Council to authorize military intervention for human protection purposes. The task is not to find alternatives to the Security Council as a source of authority, but to make the Security Council work better than it has. The current intervention was mandated by the Security Council, Iraq was not.
    2. Security Council authorization should in all cases be sought prior to any military intervention action being carried out. Those calling for an intervention should formally request such authorization, or have the Council raise the matter on its own initiative, or have the Secretary-General raise it under Article 99 of the UN Charter.
    3. The Security Council should deal promptly with any request for authority to intervene where there are allegations of large scale loss of human life or ethnic cleansing. It should in this context seek adequate verification of facts or conditions on the ground that might support a military intervention. In Rwanda, the Security Council was far from prompt, and the cost was evident. ...
  5. Proportional Means: The scale, duration and intensity of the planned military intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective. This is perhaps the most contentious point, many people that supported the idea of a no-fly zone have since condemned the extent of action by the French, British and Americans. Amr Moussa said military operations had gone beyond the no-fly zone and said that the Arab League wanted “civilians’ protection, not shelling more civilians,” however he got into trouble with other Arab Officials for these comments, and has since state his support for the UNSC resolution. Imposing a no-fly zone was always going to involve some bombing, Gaddafi had anti-aircraft missile stations that would need to be taken out. However the UNSC resolution stipulation of `all means necessary to protect civillians' has also extended to the bombing of tanks which were firing upon civillians. This only happened once so far, right at the start by France, and French troops have also aborted missions that were deemed too risky to civilians. Is there a difference between firing upon planes that are attacking civillians and tanks that are attacking civillians? No, but the presumption is that the intervention forces would not actually be firing upon planes, rather just deterring planes from taking off in the first place. Personally, I view attacking land forces in the same light, hopefully we can deter Gaddafi's forces from attacking civillians, but if they continue to do so, I am not opposed to the use of force. Regardless, the most important point is that here no occupying ground force is needed to significantly improve the safety of civillians, the same cannot be said of other current or past conflict regions.
  6. Reasonable Prospect: There must be a reasonable chance of success in halting or averting the suffering which has justified the intervention, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction. Some are claiming success already, without his airforce the fighting is now mostly between armed groups and not against civillians, snipers are Gaddafi's only tool left that can target civillians, and snipers are much less damaging than bombs.

Evidenced above, the Iraq war, which has cast a shadow onto this weeks operations, failed on several of  the criteria for military intervention laid out by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (the most authoritative body I could find in the area), whereas the current Libyan intervention satisfies all these criteria. This is why I personally support international action in Libya. I thoroughly recommend you read Top Ten ways that Libya is not Iraq

That is not to say that the intervention is perfect, for the international community is far from perfect, and they will make mistakes, but I would consider lack of action a much greater failure.

As to why there has not been an intervention in other countries? BahrainYemen and recently Syria have both seen violent crackdowns against unarmed protestors and yet received no international action. One answer might be that the scale of the violence is not enough to statisfy the first criteria or large scale loss of life, another answer is that the international community lacks the capacity to police every violent dictator, but the most likely is that Bahrain and Yemen are US allies, whereas Libya was not.

Cote d'Ivoire, (and many other African nations) are also experiencing violence, but should not expect an intervention for two other reasons: the UN already has a peacekeeping mission there, if there was the will to intervene, it should start with strengthening the current operation. One of the mistakes in Rwanda was that when help did arrive it ignored the advice of the experience commanders on the ground and did a lot of harm as well as good. Secondly, in Cote d'Ivoire and other conflict zones, a no-fly zone would not work, civillians are not being attacked by aircraft, rather more typical skirmishes are occurring between armed groups, this would require a ground force to prevent, and the world will be a lot more hesitant to deploy an occupying force then a relatively secure air presence.

However, I believe it is very important that some failures do not justify others, even if we cannot protect all civillian, because some are being attacked by US allies, does not means that we should not protect any civillians. That we failed in Rwanda, does not take away from the fact that we succeeded in Sierra Leone (you rarely hear about successful interventions), and makes it all the more important that we do act when possible. 

Another factor that many forget is that the more the UN Security Council can establish itself as a credible threat with the means and will to act against people committing war crimes, the effective the deterrent will be for such events to happen in the future. Similarly, it was good to see the UNSC first refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, and I hope that the Court develops a rapid response team that can give preliminary reports to the UNSC in timely manner, and thus take on a great role in the  decision making about intervention. 

In terms of likely outcomes and endgames, I think it is obvious from Gaddafi's rhetoric that he will never step down or give up, yet the rebel's have a firm hold on much of the country (although less then it's peak of 89% of Libya) and without his airforce Gaddafi's military lacks the might to reconquer these areas, so the outcome will either be an a rebel victory or a stalemate. A stalemate, splitting the country, enforcing a demilitarized zone or similar all seem troublesome, but the good news is that the lack of sectarian or ethnic dimensions to the conflict reduces the risk of a prolonged civil war and instability in Libya. Most of us now are crossing our fingers for a rebel victory, although this might not come quickly. The Financial Times has an article that I fully agree with, it concludes:
The first few days of the campaign have been dramatic. The progress on to its conclusion will almost certainly be slower and more difficult. Western leaders must show patience. While they cannot do the Libyans’ fighting for them, they can and should contain Col Gaddafi. Once his military capacities are drained, the coalition should pull back to a vigilant posture from which it would be able to intervene were further violence to be threatened by the regime.
It will almost certainly be a messy process, but one that is surely preferable to deeper western military involvement with all its perils and uncertainties. As T.E. Lawrence observed of warfare in Arab lands almost a century ago: “It is better that the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly.”
If they are to put Col Gaddafi’s regime firmly behind them, the Libyan people should liberate themselves. The coalition should assist. It must not run the show.
The good news is that the USA acknowledges it will not be a short operation.

As well as the articles I have linked to, the BBC and Alertnet have lots of good resources and articles about the current action in Libya. I also recommend Chris Blattman's post.

Book: Mandela, Sampson

As a leaving gift, a friend gave me Sampson's authorized biography of Nelson Mandela. I had already read his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, and did not expect to get a lot more out of this book. I am pleased to say that I was wrong. I found this book even more inspiring than the autobiography, partly because Mandela is too modest, but Sampson also conducted hundreds of interviews, so the book is filled with different peoples perceptions and interactions with Mandela. It was a great read.

I finished it too long ago to give a proper review, but the one thing that has stayed with me is Mandela's sense of dignity. I decided to write a bit about this now, because of the many courageous people across the Arab world who remind me so much of my impression of Mandela. The Yemeni and Bahraini people who continue to stage peaceful rallys despite brutal crackdown is inspiring and in some ways reminiscent of Mandela and his contemporaries in South Africa.

What set Mandela apart with an unyielding sense of moral courage, and dignity in the face of adversity. Mandela was not just willing to die for his cause in the way that anyone fighting for freedom takes risks, during the Rivonia trial instead of following sensible legal advice and trying to deny the charges or reduce the sentence, Mandela chose to make a statement from the dock, explaining why he committed the alleged charges, and in doing so expected the death penalty. He was not just taking an abstract risk, he thought we was about to become a martyr when he concluded:
"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
The book is also filled with anecdotes about Mandela treating servants, millionaires and politicians equally. His capacity for forgiveness and treating his enemies with respect is well documented. If only more politicians were like this; Mandela describes a situation where instead of greeting settling Israelis with violence and hatred, they could have sent a small Palestinian girl with a bouquet of flowers offering to show the great hospitality of her people. Mandela lives his life they way I wish everyone did, and this book honestly changed the way I live mine. Everyone should read it.

I leave you with a poem that Mandela drew strength from in jail, it was moving enough that I can write it now from memory. Mayhap some people currently living under oppression have something equal to draw strength from:

Out of the night that covers me, black as a pit from pole to pole, 
I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeoning of chance, my head is bloody but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears, looms but the horror of the shade,
and yet the menace of the years, finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Advertising, Media, and a Book

How do we portray Africa in the media? And how should we?

I was pointed this week to this article in the Columbia Journalism review, and some of the blog commentary on the topic. Rothmyer writes about the tendency of NGOs to exaggerate the extent of problems, emphasis negative stereotypes and spread a gloomy image of Africa in the name of securing funding:
The main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

Over the past thirty years, NGOs have come to play an increasingly important role in aid to Africa. A major reason is that Western donors, worried about government corruption, have channelled more funds through them. In the mid-1970s, less than half a dozen NGOs (like the Red Cross or CARE) might operate in a typical African country, according to Nicolas van de Walle, a professor of government at Cornell, but now the same country will likely have 250.
This explosive NGO growth means increasing competition for funds. And according to the head of a large US-based NGO in Nairobi, “When you’re fundraising you have to prove there is a need. Children starving, mothers dying. If you’re not negative enough, you won’t get funding.” So fierce is the competition that many NGOs don’t want to hear good news. An official of an organization that provides data on Somalia’s food situation says that after reporting a bumper harvest last year, “I was told by several NGOs and UN agencies that the report was too positive.” 
She also criticizes journalists:
Even with shrinking resources, journalists can do better than this. For a start, they can stop depending so heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources. They can also educate themselves on how to find and interpret data available from independent sources. And they can actively seek out stories that deviate from existing story lines.
Rothmyer's article is hardly breaking new ideas, a decade ago, PM Tony Blair told us that poverty in Africa is a "scar on our consciences" and just last week I wrote about the media's favouritism of photogenic causes. News and media are often blamed for perpetuating the exciting negative stories at the expense of reporting moderate economic growth. See the CNN Effect. But recently attention has turned away from just journalists and towards NGOs, Rothmyer;s article is well written and effective, I recommend you go read it all

Good Intentions are Not Enough have talked about NGO adverts, and how it is normally assumed that the best way to encourage donations is to shock the audiences with appalling conditions and pictures of suffering and tragedy:
Is it any surprise that when constantly bombarded with pictures like this, people think that all children in Africa are either starving or fighting? Some more interesting thoughts about Poverty Porn.

And the effect of all this advertising on public perceptions? VSO's comprehensive report The Legacy of Live Aid provides the data; their summary is below, and the second point in particular I find very worrying.

Are donor funds just getting harder to extract because we have desensitized the public to violence and poverty? Should we uphold the dignity of those people aid agencies are trying to help, even at the expense of helping less of them? Maybe we are being short sighted, more short term funding that involves encouraging negative stereotypes might hinder aid efforts by scaring away investors and discouraging economic growth? I have yet to see a practical solution.

In the midst of all this bad news, I point you towards the new book Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More which is a story of successes. Charles Kenny writes about how, in much of Africa, development is working: life expectancy is increasing, child mortality is decreasing, people are earning and saving more. He goes on to detail how we could be doing a lot more by increasing funding for projects that have been 'proven' to work, Kenny does not including projects aimed and spurring economic growth in this, he focuses on health and education. From Poverty to Power have a well thought out and comprehensive review of this book.

Wronging Right's solution? Reality TV.

Japanese Earthquake

Further to my previous post which encouraged people to donate to more desperate causes than the devastating Japanese earthquake (although, if you really must, see here for a summary of the NGO that are doing good work in Japan), I write today to remind people to keep Japan's nuclear 'crisis' in context.

One of my nerd based guilty-pleasures, xkcd, published an excellent diagram showing the level of radiation around Fukushima - only slightly more than doses received during a mammogram.

It saddens me to see the Japanese nuclear situation taken up as an argument again the safety of nuclear power - with protests, articles and discussions around Europe.

I see Japan's excellent response to this crisis as an affirmation of the safety standards in modern reactors. In the advent of a catastrophic event, the correct emergency procedures and safety measures were followed, the result was that there was no significant and dangerous radiation leak. It worked!

Speaking about the Fukushima reactor, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that he had "no doubt that this crisis will be effectively overcome." I am perfectly open to having a rational fact-based discussion about Nuclear power, but this is not the way to start it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Cool Interactive links

Tales from the hood has a really good post about motivations for entering development work, as a student looking to do just that, I found his post really interesting.

The guys at La vid aidloca have put together of linked to a couple of diagrams describing aid flows, this is my favourite:

The economist has made an interactive 'shoe-throwing' index to measure unrest in middle-eastern countries, try it out below, and also have a read of the 7 steps from Autocracy to Democracy.

And finally, for anyone who has not seen it, gapminder is an impressive visualisation tool for development data, I thoroughly recommend spending hours on that site.

Emergencies and Donations

The wonderful blogs listed on the right have done quite a good job of advising readers to hold of in donate to Japan's devastating earthquake.

While Japan needs to start significant and costly rebuilding program, it is also extremely well placed to do so; Japan is a strong developed economy and expert and disaster management. Japan is currently refusing help from almost everyone except a few highly specialized NGOs.

In comparison, this week the United Nations published a list of forgotten distasters, all of which are worse than the Japanese earthquake, and is asking for $3bn for these causes.

Media attention is one of the key drivers of private donations and pressure for government assistance. The reasons for some disasters being neglected and others receiving over-funding is discussed here, earthquakes and tsunamis are sudden isolated events, provide dramatic and vivid images of destruction, and    have an element of unpredictability which leads to donors thinking about the victims and innocents. In contrast, most of the UNs forgotten disasters are typically slow onset famine and drought, conflict where the victims might seem less innocent, and occurring in far off African nations where reporting is difficult and empathy harder to trigger.

The conclusion? Don't earmark funds for a specific disaster, allow your trusted organisation to decide who needs your donation most. I recommend this excellent post on disaster donation.

Update: If absolutely must donate to Japan, Good Intentions Are Not Enough points us to the right guys:
From what I understand, there are two organizations in Japan that help coordinate nonprofit work.
  • JANIC (Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation) which, according to their website, is a network organization of Japanese civil society groups.
  • The Japan Platform, which, according to their website, is an international emergency humanitarian aid organization made up of a consortium of 32 Japanese NGOs, the business community, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.
Together they’ve issued a joint appeal (pdf) which explains how disaster response is coordinated in Japan and what the current needs are.
According to JANIC “At the moment, there are 28 NGOs among our members that are assisting the disaster victims in various ways. JANIC is now accepting contributions to support the activities of these NGOs.” And the Japan Platform has an update as to how its members are responding to the disaster.
JANIC’s website includes this statement “Please note that JANIC will retain 15% of the total amount of the donation to cover the operational cost for administering this relief fund.” I do not have a problem with that. Coordinating nonprofits, especially after a disaster, is important but often under-funded work.
For people wanting to support Japanese organizations in the recovery efforts, either of these organizations seem like a good option. Both now have websites up in English which include ways to donate.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book: Half the Sky, Nick Kristof

A few weeks ago, my mother, ever the feminist, gifted me the Pulitzer prize winner Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof (whose NY Times columns can be found here). A book about the plight of women around the world, and some of the steps being taken to improve their situation.

Kristof uses a style of reporting which seems very effective for infusing the casual reader with an urgent desire do something about the plight of women and the empowerment to feel like we actually could do something useful

Each chapter in the book is dedicated to a different life-threatening issue or group of oppressed women, ranging from forced prostitution and slavery to maternal health. And each chapter follows the same formula of focusing first on an individual, telling a heart-wrenching story of one women's struggle for life or dignity, then expanding to describe the scope of the problem and the statistics surrounding the issue, before ending with an example of the work being done to fix the problem. Tales of courage and persistance in the face of adversity, and examples of the massive potential ("women hold up half the sky") currently being wasted.

Kristof justifies his individual-focused approach to mobilising donors in this article, which makes several interesting points about donors. Including pointing to Paul Slovic's work, which shows that people are more likely to support a water project to save the lives of 4,500 people in a refugee came of 11,000, then they are to support a project saving 4,500 lives in a camp of 250,000 - it is about the proportion of people you can help, and the perceived impact of your donation. Kristof says:
Storytelling needs to focus on an individual, not a group. A classic experiment involved asking people to donate to help hungry children in West Africa. One group was asked to help a seven-year-old girl named Rokia, in the country of Mali. A second was asked to donate to help millions of hungry children. A third was asked to help Rokia but was provided with statistical information that gave them a larger context for her hunger. Not surprisingly, people donated more than twice as much to help Rokia as to help millions of children. But it turned out that even providing background information on African hunger diminished empathy, so people were much less willing to help Rokia when she represented a broader problem. Donors didn’t want to help ease a crisis personified by a child; they just wanted to help one person—and to hell with the crisis.
Still, it was some of the facts in Half the Sky that shook me most, for example that more women in slavery now (forced prostitution) than at the height of the slave trade, and the chapter on the prevalence of Fistula, a horrible and yet entirely preventable childbirth condition, was incredibly moving.

Critics have pointed out that Kristof focuses on individuals helping others, and fails to draw attention to the failure of Developed nation's governments to provide more effect aid. They also praise Saudi Arabia for anti-slavery laws and yet don't acknowledge Saudi Arabia's horrific treatment of female domestic workers.

Saying that however, upon finishing this book, I very nearly packed in my current life to go work in a Fistula hospital in Somaliland. Conclusion: while not quite rigorous enough for experts in the field, but a really great book for raising awareness about the plight of women around the world. Read it.

Find out more about the causes Kristof mentions at the book's website.
For a critic of the content, check out this Aidwatchers post on the Girl Effect.
A NY Times review of the book is here.


I gained much knowledge, insight and laughter from reading some great blogs. From Bill Easterly at to the sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply moving and I wonder how they started. Should I wait till I feel knowledgable about important issues to start blogging? Will I ever be? Or should I start now, at the start of my personal journey, and hope that if ever people start caring about my opinions, I will be more practiced writer?

Despite a fear of this blog becoming a chronicle of failure, I will start now, when I call myself a student of development - although even that might be generous.

I graduated a Science degree, Maths and Physics, but completely left my comfort zone of numbers and equation to spend a year working with an NGO in Brussels and Africa. I had spoken to people who had done similar things, they mentioned that volunteer experience had 'changed' them, but I think I failed to understand what that really meant. I heard but I didn't listen.

Africa changed me. My comfortable middle class life seemed dull upon return. How could the quiet grey urban streets compare to the vibrant loud and bustling street markets of Kampala? How could my friend's worries about the lastest fashions, which of the 3 pleasant graduate schools to go to or whether that cute guy likes them not seem petty after spending a year working with ministers to push human rights bills, or talking to victims of war crimes? How could pasta and potato be satisfying after so many simple yet exotic feasts? I spent a few months 'adjusting' back to student life, all the while feeling like I was trying to shake off the greyscale glasses that had dulled life. But I could not forget the people I was working with, or the causes they were championing.

Thus instead, I have diverted my post-graduate study to the field of development economics, and have developed a thirst for information that has resulting in a flurry of buying books and reading aid blogs. I want a career in development, but I want to do it right. I want to get an education and know where I can be useful.

This blog will be a documentation of my journey from eager student to probably a cynical disillusioned cat-lady. I'll post book reviews, links to people whose thoughts I agree with but express themselves infinitely better than me, and occasionally thoughts and observations about my life.

So Welcome to TimeGiven! I hope you enjoy reading much more than I enjoy writing!