Saturday, June 28, 2008

Professional Rant of the Week: PC stinks

Robert L. Strauss bends over Peace Corps:

Think Again: The Peace Corps

"In the eyes of Americans, no government agency better exemplifies the optimism, can-do spirit, and selfless nature of the United States than the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, it’s never lived up to its purpose or principles."

Guest Rant of the Week: Response to “Think Again: The Peace Corps”

One of my good PC friends, Jon Walsh, jotted an email to Mr. Strauss in response to his article in Foreign Policy above:

Dear Mr. Strauss:

I read your article on the Peace Corps in FP. It was a little brutal. I also thought it was a tad bit unfair. I think you made some generalizations that aren't true (maybe they were for Cameroon, but not elsewhere), and wrongfully place the blame for some things on Peace Corps. Some can be explained as looking just at the bad apples to describe the rest, but I really do think you got a few things wrong.

I served as a volunteer in Kenya in water/sanitation from 1997-1999. Our service was evaluated by more than just a biannual survey. The Wat/San director, Lusimba Rague, came out several times to visit me at my site (and I was in the bush for both of my sites) and would talk to people I worked with when I wasn't around. I was moved halfway through my service when it became apparent that my first site wasn't going to get anything done because of the amount of corruption there. We also had to talk with Mr. Rague upon leaving to determine if it would be worthwhile to send a replacement in the area. We had to make a case. Additionally, the wat/san sector was not trying to do the same things that it had done when Peace Corps was first created. We were more about teaching about health and HIV/AIDS than trying to construct water tanks and wells (although some did, myself included), which was the original mission. And some of the projects that I and others were involved with had nothing to do with wat/san at all, but were seen as needs in our respective community (I helped build some fish ponds to provide money for a local woman's group). I think this shows some accountability and adaptation by the organization that you claim doesn't exist.

Additionally, I think Peace Corps has done some good development work, albeit incremental and not without its share of fighting political BS within and without the organization. As you rightfully state in your article, Peace Corps tries to do a lot of things with little money. Sometimes it doesn't work, but I think going grassroots is a safer bet than throwing more money at problems. Africa has plenty of examples that show that big pockets for development doesn't always get a lot done, and often can be harmful due to ever-present corruption there. More money draws more criminals (just the appearance of this can do it sometimes) which sap the resources and will of people to tackle problems there both short-term and long-term. If you have worked there, I know you know this. And I'll bet that Peace Corps has a better record getting at least something done more often than some of the big money development outfits there simply because of that. I saw examples all the time of this while I was there. And as for solving some of the problems there, but it really is on the people who live there in the end. You can change policies in Peace Corps and other relief efforts all you want, but if the local governments and people aren't willing to take the handout and put it for the greater good, your efforts will be fruitless. Identifying these people takes time and cultivation, and it's something Peace Corps really is a hell of a lot better at doing outside of the capitol of countries than just about anyone else in the development field.

And it's because volunteers really get to know the people. Labeling that as a front for semester-abroad or merely public relations type work it flat out wrong. If you want to criticize something, you should be complaining about how other relief organizations haven't tapped Peace Corps volunteers for their information on who to go to in their sites to try and get work done (So many times I saw clueless NGOs hand out money for projects to people that should have never been trusted in my town). It really is a great untapped resource. I would have to be done delicately so as not to portray volunteers as the conduit to getting lots of money (as stated above), but I think it could be done, especially at the close of service when volunteers really do have a good handle on what is going on (I definitely would not ask volunteers who just got there who would be good to approach).

I have no doubt that some reform is needed in Peace Corps (it is a government organization, after all). I went through two directors in my time at Kenya, and one was absolutely asleep at the wheel. I know of a couple of volunteers that probably never should have made it out of the recruiting process and were probably huge headaches for Peace Crops staff in Kenya. But, for each of those examples, I can come up with 10 other ones where volunteers and staff were doing good work. I'd hate to see your article get used in Congress and elsewhere to smear that effort.I'm sure you have gotten a lot on email on this. I thank you for taking the time to read mine. Hope all is well with you wherever you are.

Jon Walsh

In a matter of minutes, Mr. Strauss shot Jon back an email from Madagascar:

Peace Corps is not a joke. It's one of the best ideas the US has ever had. It's also one of the most poorly administered best ideas ever. The result is that it horribly undershoots its potential and in the process does a disservice to many of the people involved; volunteers, staff and locals. PC has been over-promising and under-delivering since day one.

It's time to turn that around.

But because of PC's incredible PR machine, this has never happened because no one wants to disturb a beautiful imagine, whether it represents reality or simply perception.

A lot of good work happens in PC but because PC is like a relay race, with one volunteer or staff member handing off to the next, many good things get dropped and disappear with no lasting impact. That isn't always the case, but it is very often the case.It's great that your supervisor got out to see you. Believe it or not, it still happens that in some countries PCVs are lucky to be visited once a year. They should be visited once a month. If that were the case, many of the staff-volunteer resentment issues would go away. Everyone would be focused on the work and on working with and serving the local community.

It's also great that you saw some evolution in your program. But that isn't the case in many places. (I've worked in more than 50 countries and encountered lots of PC and development projects over the years.) But PC itself has not guidance for local evaluations and doesn't support any systematic, objective monitoring and evaluation. That has to change.

I used to say in all sincerity that a great thing about PC is that it has never had enough money to do any real damage. But it has never had enough money to do any real, lasting good either. I would rather see PC (try to) do great things in a small number of countries than to simply limp along in 70 or 80. I don't see the point in that.

I also used to tell PCVs who wanted to continue in development that if they did one day they would see that by the standards of other organizations, PC wasn't such a mess as they thought. But we shouldn't be comparing ourselves to ineffective NGOs or out of touch multi-lateral organizations. We all can see what the potential is and we know we are falling short. We should be shooting for the stars and we're patting ourselves on the back for being better than what is a pretty sorry lot (and I've worked for many of them).

You mention you had two CDs, one asleep at the wheel. I wasn't around PC then but I'll take your word for it. Until very recently, one could become a CD without ever being interviewed in Washington. Can you imagine? I don't say that face-to-face interviews will always reveal something well hidden, but selecting someone to run a PC program without meeting with them first? Hard to believe, but it was true until very recently.

When major things like that are not being handled correctly, you can imagine that some of the smaller but important things hardly getting a passing notice. Peace Corps could do just fabulous things. But it won't happen by sticking with the status quo. Sorry I can't go into more detail right now. A few more emails to answer. I lived in the Bay Area for most of 1982-2002. Moss Landing. Sounds nice. Though foggy and cold.

Thanks for writing. Write back if you feel inclined. I'll get to it. It just may be a while.

And if you'd like a bit more about my thinking on development in general, see


Robert Strauss
Antananarivo, Madagascar

Rant of the Week: Anti-immigration xenophobes

There is no other issue in Colorado that gets folks riled up like illegal immigration. It’s really quite astonishing. Coming from Idaho and living a short time in Massachusetts, I was not exposed to the great amount of xenophobia in America these days. I was called a “pro illegal immigrant advocate” the other day on the Denver Post forum. For what, expressing a realistic and effective immigration solution for America? The “anti-immigration” interests, if I may call them that, have several solutions to address this issue. Let’s take them one by one.

1. Build an impenetrable fence and aggressively arrest and deport all 12+ million illegal immigrants in America.

I find it quite enjoyable that the only Republican candidate with a semi-reasonable immigration policy is John McCain. This burns the xenophobes big time. This option is just plain infeasible. In a Republican primary debate (yes, I stitched to a few during commercials), Mitt Romney went on a “big wall and mass deportation” rampage, until the debate moderator asked “But is that really feasible?” Mitt stammered and stumbled around and conceded, “No.” But this is the still the only acceptable approach for most of the anti-immigration crowd. I never get a straight answer on how this “round them up and deport them” thing would work. The only thing I can think of is arresting everyone in America with a Latin last name and sort them out in holding camps. Maybe over the top, but how else are we supposed to deport 12+ million people, who mostly live in the shadows? Sadly, the concentration camp scene is fully acceptable to many anti-immigration nuts.

(If you’ve noticed, I’m not calling them anti-illegal immigration zealots. Every anti-immigration person will tell you “I’m not against immigration; I’m against illegal immigration.” This is surely true for some, but not all. They’ll tell you that, then they’ll speak out against issuing work visas and granting amnesty. Don’t buy it.)

2. We can stop illegal immigrants from coming to America by denying them services and perks. We should not be giving illegal immigrants free public education. Wal-Mart should quit “catering” to illegal immigrants by printing everything in Spanish. Illegal immigrants should not be issued drivers licenses. In fact, we support a recent ordinance in Texas that would forbid landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. And of course, we want our hospitals to deny treatment.

I love to picture Jose and Juan at the border with their gallon jugs of water, ready to cross.

“Hey Jose, did you hear?”
“What’s that man?”
“Wal-Mart isn’t going to print their signs in Spanish anymore”
“Oh no! What do we do now, Juan?”
“Fuck this! Let’s go back home and work for pennies so our families starve.”
“Okay, good idea. I can’t see how I could ever live without Wal-Mart printing stuff in Spanish.”

LOL! Immigrants don’t come to America for incentives. They come for jobs. You can strip away all the incentives you want, but until that job in America doesn’t pay 10 times more than it pays in Mexico, it doesn’t help one bit. To assume cutting off services will help the situation is not only a ludicrous notion, but would be damaging to America.

We’ve seen most of these immigration issues before, and we’ve become a stronger nation for it. I’m not saying today’s immigration isn’t different in some regards, because it is. However, immigrants of old were successful because their families eventually pulled themselves up to the middle class by their bootstraps. Why are we hamstringing today’s immigrants so they can’t do the same? There's a proven connection between poverty and crime. If poor illegal immigrants are committing too many crimes as some anti-immigration zealots contend, why do you want to deny them a place to live and schools to attend? How does creating a bunch of uneducated thugs living on the streets solve our immigration problems? That is counterproductive to our nation’s interests. Instead of providing them an opportunity to make a living without resorting to crime, they would force them in this direction. We need to think about creating an avenue to prosperity as part of our immigration policy, not removing it. We need to help uplift our immigrants, not push them down.

Of course, not everyone expressing concerns about illegal immigration are xenophobes. This is a serious issue that warrants action. We need to secure our border in the most efficient way. What about bringing our troops home from Iraq and having the National Guard help on the border? We need to hold employers accountable for hiring illegal immigrants. Of course, let’s deport the illegal immigrants that commit violent offences. We need a sound and well-regulated system for our farmers and industries to bring in immigrants on work visas. And finally, we need to create an avenue for the immigrants here currently to get residency. There, I said it! Amnesty amnesty amnesty! Excuse me—I think my neighbours are banging on my door with pitchforks…

Recipe of the Week: Tarka Dhal

Emma and I try to eat a lot of vegetarian food. Not so much because of animal rights issues, or environmental issues, which are solid reasons. I eat vegetarian food for a selfish reason: it makes me feel good. No question that 30 minutes after eating a fat steak or a vegetarian meal, I feel so much better after the vegetarian meal. The problem for many folks is finding good vegetarian recipes. No flavor, you claim. Not to fear—there are a ton of very flavorful vegetarian dishes. If you want great, great vegetarian food, look no farther than India.

The recipe of the week is a lentil dish with a hot oil seasoning folded in before eating and a fantastic garnish. This makes about 3 or 4 servings.

3/4 cup yellow split peas
2 cups water
2 tsp minced/grated ginger
2 tsp minced/crushed garlic
1/4 tsp turmeric
2 fresh green chiles, serrano or jalapeño, w/ or w/out seeds, depending on your heat tolerance
1 tsp salt

2 tsp vegi oil
1 onion, sliced
4 dried chiles
1 tomato, sliced

1 – 2 Tbsp fresh mint
1 – 2 Tbsp fresh cilantro
1 fresh serrano or jalapeño, sliced in thin rings

Boil the split peas in the water with the ginger, garlic, turmeric, chiles, and salt for about 20 minutes or until soft. Mash the mixture with a potato masher or throw it in the blender for a few seconds.

To prepare the tarka, heat the oil and fry the onion, dried red chiles and sliced tomato for about 3 minutes. Poor the tarka over the dhal and garnish with the fresh herbs and chiles. Serve.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Professional Rant of the Week

Mr. Bush, Lead or Leave

Thomas Friedman

An excerpt:

It’s as if our addict-in-chief is saying to us: “C’mon guys, you know you want a little more of the good stuff. One more hit, baby. Just one more toke on the ole oil pipe. I promise, next year, we’ll all go straight. I’ll even put a wind turbine on my presidential library. But for now, give me one more pop from that drill, please, baby. Just one more transfusion of that sweet offshore crude.”

Rant of the Week: I paid 100 goats for my wife

I met Emma in 1999 when I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. We hung out a few times and I got an address and phone number from her before I left the country later that year. In 2001 in the middle of obtaining my graduate degree in International Development, I found myself returning to Kenya with an internship with UNEP and a Fulbright Scholarship. I kept Emma’s phone number and gave her a ring. A few months later we were dating. I had to leave Kenya in 2002, and leaving Emma turned out to be an extremely painful experience. Emma obtained a fiancé visa and we were married in my back yard in Salmon, Idaho in June 2003.

I had not met Emma’s parents before we returned to Kenya in 2006. It was quite a cool thing for her father John to let his daughter fly to America for some white dude he’d never bet. But he trusted her and I’m glad he did. When I talked to him on the phone before the wedding, he said “You have my blessing. We can take care of those other issues later.” I knew he was referring to the dowry.

Although at first glance some Americans might think dowry is a sick way of purchasing a woman as though she is some object, it's actually a complement of a woman's worth to her family. (Actually, the proper term in this case is "bride price." The formal definition of a dowry is where you pay the groom’s family to take your girl as a wife, like in India. This IS a very harmful cultural practice IMO, as it devaluates women and girls because they are a cost/liability not a benefit/asset. If anyone knows how/why this custom developed, I would be interested to know).

In pre-colonial days in Africa, Kenyans lived together as large extended families. When a girl got married, she would leave that family to live with her husband's. This was a significant loss in terms of labor contribution to her original family. The main function of the dowry is a compensation for that loss. Think of a family like my in-laws, where they had six children, all girls. Once all those girls were married and moved away, Emma’s parents could be stuck in poverty, without adequate labor to farm and make a living. But with the dowry system, they would be "wealthy" with livestock, which provides security and retirement once they’re too old to work. Additionally, there's a cultural value in building that relationship between the two families by the exchange of gifts over a long period of time.

Despite things changing rapidly in Africa the last 50 years, dowries are still very common. Emma's parents are quite "progressive" and live in Nairobi. However, her father still requested a dowry. So when Emma and I returned in 2006, we worked it out. Usually, the men in my extended family would come to barter with my future in-laws on my behalf for a fair bride price. This meeting would begin with (feigned) aggressive bickering and once a price was agreed upon, end with some good old fashioned male bonding, i.e., getting soused together on moritina, the local homebrew. However, since I had no extended family present, we didn't do the full-blown dowry negotiations. I was relieved. The only thing I was worried about was that I didn't want to get charged a higher dowry because I was white. (It's is sometimes common to charge more based on the wealth of the groom's family, or if the groom is a different tribe or race. Education level or other attributes of the bride are also taken into account, with an educated, beautiful woman fetching more). So we decided to settle on the same amount the groom paid for one of Emma's sister: 100 goats. Although dowries are rarely delivered in livestock anymore, the terms are negotiated in livestock, then paid in cash over time.

Each goat was valued at 2,000 Kenyan shillings for 200,000 KSh total. That was around $2,700 at the time (now it's over $3,000 due to the plummeting dollar). We were actually a little worried about number at first. We like to send her parents money throughout the year anyway, you know a few hundred dollars a time as "gifts." We were concerned that addressing a $3,000 dowry would not allow us to be able to send those gifts. However, her father was very clear that a dowry should be paid over a long period of time. In fact, to pay a dowry all at once can be seen as insulting. Like I said before, it is supposed to signify a long term relationship between the two families. In fact, just this year, Emma’s father completed his dowry Emma's mother's family, and they've been married nearly over 30 years. I plan on shipping John 10 goats a year for 10 years.

The dowry “negotiation” and subsequent celebration was a neat and interesting experience. Emma’s family held a dowry ceremony in 2006 and invited all the friends and relatives. There was tons of food, women dancing and singing, men drinking beer, all that good stuff. I also made an initial, separate payment before that ceremony. That signifies all the gifts my family would have provided the bride’s family before the marriage ceremony (a suit for the father, a dress for the mother, a cooking pot, blanket, beer, a ram to slaughter, etc). Once I complete my dowry payments, there’s another celebration. I’ll let you know how that goes in 2015.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bonus Rant of the Week: Dem’s energy proposals will hurt the environment

Click on this link for the proposed legislation:

Legislation to Force Big Oil to Use Owned Leases Introduced Today

An excerpt:
“Earlier today, Reps. Emanuel, Hinchey, Markey, Rahall, Welch and Yarmuth held a press conference to discuss legislation that will compel oil companies to utilize the 68 million acres onshore and offshore that are being leased by big oil companies, but not used to produce energy. Two pieces of legislation to achieve this goal were introduced today: the Responsible Ownership of Public Lands Act and The Responsible Federal Oil and Gas Lease Act of 2008.”
Let me explain what these Representatives are proposing here. Federal minerals are leased to oil and gas companies quarterly by the Bureau of Land Management. Companies nominate the lease parcels, and then they are auctioned to the highest bidder. A company owns the right to develop the resource on that lease for up to 10 years. Additionally, companies can hold a lease by production. In other words, if they drill a producing oil or gas well, they can hold the lease until production stops. This law would cut the life of a lease to 5 years, halving the amount of time companies have to develop a lease. Yes, companies do have a lot of land leased and even with today’s energy boom in full swing, they are developing very few of these investments. So why force them to?

I didn’t know it was the Democrat party’s goal to accelerate oil and gas drilling. Apparently some of our Representatives think that the rapid oil and gas development going on federally-owned minerals in the west isn’t quite quick enough. These politicians like to talk of “big oil,” then turn around and offer a proposal that would require “big oil” to expand even bigger to develop all their leases. That means more drill rigs, more roads, and more habitat fragmentation in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.

Our Dems in Colorado have been complaining that energy development is happening too quickly here, and are advocating that companies need to slow down. They urge development of alternative energy sources. I generally agree, and this proposal goes counter to both those goals. Western Democrats who advocate environmental causes need to step up and denounce this legislation. We in the west have been complaining that Washington isn’t listening to our concerns. Coloradans thought electing Democrats might help reflect our conservation ethic in Washington. Apparently, this is not happening. Either these politicians are extremely ignorant to the effects of this proposal, or they care little for the concerns of many Americans.