April 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
The New York Times recently did a piece subtitled “Seeing culture on its own terms.” I recommend pursuing the text and especially the panorama images along the right sidebar of the webpage. I have a soft spot for byzantine art, but I especially appreciated the dignity with which the author (Holland Cotter) and photographers captured culture and art in a land often underestimated by the West. Check the webpage regularly for more updates.
April 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
Today is Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance day. For those of us who did not suffer the horrors, we cannot presume to remember the reality of these events, but we can strive to never forget. The fact that multiple genocides have occurred since WWII speaks shame to our efforts in this respect, but it also gives us no excuse for future, and all the more reason to honor the souls of those who have been killed, mutilated, humiliated and traumatized.
Pause for a moment. Put yourself in the horror for just a moment and imagine how your would feel. It can’t possibly come close to the reality, but just take a moment to “remember.”
Now try, even just for today, to refrain from adding a single ounce of anger, hatred, resentment, injustice or unjust judgment to the world. Be merciful and kind to one another. Bite your tongue once in a while, or reach out your hand. You may feel that your small life and your tiny acts are inconsequential, but they’re not. In them are the seeds for emotions and actions much, much larger–either for better, or for worse.
In light of today’s memorial, I recommend the book Maus, by Art Spiegelman. It is a quick read in which Spiegelman interviews his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The characters of this graphic novel (the first and only graphic novel I’ve ever read) are depicted as animals (Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, etc.); this may sound odd, but Maus is the first graphic novel ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. I highly recommend it.
For those more visually inclined, I also recommend the movie Sophie Scholl. Based on real events, this film shares the story of one very brave young student–someone akin to many of the brave students fighting for freedom and justice today.
You can see my notes on a lecture at the Holocaust Museum here.
April 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
For those active or interested in the fields of international development and human rights, the uprising of indicators in recent years has surely been noted. We now have indicators to measure Multidimensional Poverty, human trafficking, economically active children, time required to start a business and hundreds of other phenomena. “Indicators are a political technology that can be used for many different purpose, including advocacy, reform, control, and management,” says Sally Engle Merry, an anthropologist from New York University in her new paper, Measuring the World : Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance. They are the quantification and standardization of complex data and events across many individuals and communities. They help us to formulate policy and garner decisions in a way that is (intuitively) less subjective than politics or personal values. For example, many institutions decide to invest, to sanction, or to remove support from a given community depending on that community’s level of X as determined by Y indicator. If a nation ranks too low on the US Trafficking in Persons report, for example, they can be subjected to harsh sanctions and public chastisement.
However, “as the world becomes ever more measured and tracked through indicators, it becomes increasingly important to sort out the technical and political dimensions of this new technology.” Engle elucidates this point by noting the fact that the power of indicators to standardize and thereby compare information across different communities is also their achilles heel; the process of standardizing data to fit a pre-specified indicator definition can dissolve many of the indiosyncracies that are inherent within a community. For example, an attempt to measure “child marriage” will rely wholly upon the definition of marriage; but when cultures practice marriage differently (i.e. some include cohabitation, and some do not) then standardization become a process of political decision making.1 Another example of this is the indicator for electrification: if a village has electrical poles and a single drop to light one bulb, does it qualify as being electrified? And what if the electricity is only there for an hour a day? This may sound trivial, but there are NGOs and other organizations that won’t work in a village if it already has access to electricity. Deciding how and when to submerge a community’s idiosyncrasies is, ultimately, a subjective but very powerful decision.
Engle’s paper gives greater detail into the history of indicators and the hesitancy with which we should approach them. She is not condemnatory–but rather, cautious. “How indicators are named and who decides what they represent are fundamental to the way an indicator produces knowledge” says Engle, and because indicators are a technology not only of knowledge production, but also of political decision making (e.g. where foreign aid should go, which countries are most promising for business investment, what nations ought to be sanctioned), we must be careful and aware of the subjectivity inherent in them.2
In other words–don’t swallow stats and indicators hook-line-and-sinker simply because they are published by well-known organizations. Be critical of what you read and expect transparency. Indicators may be a very helpful tool for policy construction and evaluation, but that doesn’t mean they are perfect…or in many cases, useful.
1 Read Engles further discussion of this topic of marriage on page 4 of her report. “One UN staffer sighed and noted that marriage is very complicated. Despite these complexities, they settled on cohabitation. I have since pondered this choice, thinking about the difference it would have made were another criterion chosen and wondering how the decision was made and by whom. What were the criteria? Was it the availability of data? To what extent was this decision based on a theory of early marriage and particular health or social problems?”
2Akin to this message of subjectivity within the construction of indicators is the message of subjectivity within their application. The US State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, for example, has constantly been critiqued for its tendency to place US political allies on higher “tiers” than political foes (even those with potentially better records).
April 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
April 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
The Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD) is a non-profit organization, founded in 2002, dedicated to encourage research and scholarship in development economics. They organize conferences, publish a working paper and policy paper series, and conduct a summer school. They also have a great resource for datasets relevant to developing countries, most of which are public domain. Information about the BREAD fellows can be found here, and some of their recent work can be found here. This includes (descriptions from abstracts):
1. A randomized trial by Banerjee, et al in India which sought to determine whether institutions can be reformed through incremental administrative change: The police department of the state of Rajasthan, India collaborated with researchers at US and Indian universities to design and implement four interventions to improve police performance and the public’s perception of the police in 162 police stations (covering over one-fifth of the State’s police stations and personnel): (1) placing community observers in police stations; (2) a freeze on transfers of police staff; (3) in‐service training to update skills; and (4) weekly duty rotation with a guaranteed day off per week.
2. A study by Nun and Qian looking at the effects of U.S. Food Aid on civil wars
3. A theoretical paper investigating how charities can increase small donor contributions via large donor leverage; the findings are a bit intuitive in this one, but interesting nonetheless: Karlan and List developed a simple theory which formally describes how charities can resolve the information asymmetry problems faced by small donors by working with large donors to generate quality signals. To test the model, they conducted two large-scale natural field experiments. In the first experiment, a charity focusing on poverty reduction solicited donations from prior donors and either announced a matching grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or made no mention of a match. In the second field experiment, the same charity sent direct mail solicitations to individuals who had not previously donated to the charity, and tested whether naming the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the matching donor was more effective than not identifying the name of the matching donor.
April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment