Musings on research, international development and other stuff


Jaded Aid – the sequel?

I’ve been a little bit delighted to see the publicity that the Jaded Aid card game has been generating (see for example this Foreign Policy write-up). Nothing is more loltastic for development workers that some wryly-observed development humour. As Wayan Vota observes in that FP article, it is affectionate humour; most of us care deeply about the work we are doing. But if we can’t laugh at some of the absurdities of our industries we might go mad (or explode with pomposity).

In this spirit, I’ve been thinking about what other business projects I could crowd-source funding for from the jaded aid generation. I think I have come up with some crackers. Here they are – in ascending order of cynicism 😉

Somehow I suspect that my business ideas wouldn't get me that far on Dragons' Den...

Somehow I suspect that my business ideas wouldn’t get me that far on Dragons’ Den…

1. Many people have questioned aid workers abilities to actually end world poverty – but surely no-one could deny their deep, contextual knowledge of long-haul flights and seedy business hotels. I mean, I don’t know anyone else as good as me at securing the best seat in economy class or blagging my way into business class lounges. So my first idea is to combine this latent travel knowledge with another skill which development workers have – creating online knowledge repositories My one-stop-shop would enable seasoned development workers to mentor and share knowledge with long-haul tourists looking for exotic adventures. Development workers will get the satisfaction of being truly useful. And the boost to the tourist industry may benefit poor countries more than many misguided development projects: win win.
2. Wherever you go in the world, you get ethnic spas based on sanitised versions of indigenous health beliefs. So you get Thai spas with incense, Thai muzak and traditional Thai massages; Indian spas with ladies in saris, treatments inspired by Ayurveda and incense. And, to my surprise, I recently came across a ‘traditional African spa’ with treatments inspired by African traditional medicine carried out to the sound of the Soweto gospel choir. And incense.
People love these spas because it is well known that while people in developing countries may lack wealth, they are rich in indigenous wisdom, charmingly exotic practices… and incense.
So, my proposal is that we give something back to all these developing countries from which we have appropriated our luxury spa treatments. And what better gift than the marvelous indigenous health system of Germany: homeopathy*. I suggest that we set up our german spas across the developing world. Homeopathic massages will have been watered down to the extent that no actual massage is left. Instead, customers will sit in a room with a mulleted German masseuse listening to the relaxing sound of David Hasselhof – and sniffing bratwurst-scented incense. Health impacts will be mediated by the placebo effect – and the huge pitcher of German beer you will be given before leaving.
3. I have long felt a dilemma about gap-year voluntourism projects. On the one hand, I feel that sending under qualified people to carry out projects in poor countries can be patronising, unhelpful and potentially undermining to local economies. Or the other hand, I do think that it is useful for young, impressionable people to have the chance to connect with people from other cultures and (hopefully) to realise that people the world over are just people. I wondered if there is a way to enable this cross-cultural exchange without the patronising well-digging projects. Which is how I came up with the Mzungu** houseboy project. The idea is to link up earnest European gap year students with nouveau riche African families. To be precise we would need to find a particular subset of the newly wealthy who want to show off to their friends and family. The Europeans would get an authentic experience of poverty as a houseboy/girl – secure in the knowledge that they are not falling into the white saviour cliche. And the ostentatious families of Lagos, Nairobi or Kampala get the ultimate status symbol; a European houseboy! What is not to like?!

* A system of alternative medicine/quackery – invented in Germany – where active substances are diluted down to infinitesimally low concentrations.
**The word for a European/Caucasian (or sometimes foreign-resident Africans) in many Bantu languages


Guest post: Louise Shaxson on advising governments… and ugly babies

I have known Louise Shaxson for many years and have always valued her advice and insight. However, when she wrote to me recently to tell me that she had written a blog about how to talk to new parents about their ugly babies… I was seriously concerned that we might be heading for a fall-out. Turns out I had no need to worry. For a start, the article is actually about giving advice to governments (although I think it is relevant to people giving advice to any organisation). But also, on reflection, I remembered that MY baby is totally ADORABLE. So it’s all good.

Right then, here’s the blog – and I couldn’t resist adding some pics. Hope you like it!

Being nice about an ugly baby… three tips for presenting research to governments

Presenting research results to government can be like talking to a new parent whose baby isn’t, perhaps, the best looking on the planet, (read on to find out why).

Even if a government department has commissioned your research, it can be hard to write a final report that is well received and acted on.  I’ve heard numerous researchers say that their report was politely received and then put on a shelf. Or, that it was badly received because it exposed some home truths.

A long time ago, I submitted the first draft of a report that the client didn’t like. He told me it was too confrontational. But he recognised the importance of the message and spent time explaining how to change its presentation to make the message more helpful.

I was grateful for this guidance and redrafted the report.  Consequently, it was not just well received; it helped instigate a series of changes over the next two years and was widely referenced in policy documents.

It’s not easy—I still don’t always get it right—but here are my three tips for crafting your research report, so that it is more likely to be read and used:

  1. Be gentle – government departments are sensitive to criticism.

All parents are proud of their baby, even if he doesn’t look like HRH Prince George and no parent wants to be told that their baby is ugly in public.  You can still appreciate chubby cheeks, a button nose or a wicked grin.

The media is constantly on the lookout for policy ‘failures’ – both real and perceived.  Even if there’s no intention to publish, things can leak.  If the media picks up your research and the coverage is unflattering, your client will have to defend your findings to senior managers, maybe even to the Minister, and spend a considerable amount of effort devising a communication strategy in response. 

Begin by recognising what they have achieved, so that you can put what they haven’t yet achieved into context.

  1. Observations might work better than recommendations.
tired mum

Don’t comment on how badly the baby’s dressed without recognising how difficult it was for an exhausted mother just to get her and the baby out of the house.

No matter how much subject knowledge you have, you don’t fully understand the department’s internal workings, processes and pressures.  Your client will probably be well aware of major blunders that have been made and won’t thank you for pointing them out yet again.
Framing recommendations as observations and constructive critiques will give your client something to work with.

  1. Explain why, not just what should be done differently.
messy baby

If you are telling a parent that their baby’s dressing could be improved, they may have to sell the idea to other family members – even if they themselves agree with you. Make their life easier by explaining why the suggested new approach will work better.

Your client will have to ‘sell’ your conclusions to his/her colleagues.  No matter how valid your criticisms, it’s difficult for them to tell people they’re doing it wrong.

Try not to say that something should be done differently without explaining why.  It allows your clients to work out for themselves how to incorporate your findings.

Taking a hypothetical situation in the agriculture sector, here are some examples of how to put these tips into practice:

More likely to cause problems More likely to be well received
Recommendation 1: If the agricultural division requires relevant evidence, it needs to clearly define what ‘relevant’ means in the agricultural context before collecting the evidence.

Implication: you haven’t really got a clue what sort of evidence you want.

Observation 1: Improving our understanding of what constitutes ‘relevant evidence’ means clarifying and communicating the strategic goals of the agricultural division and showing how the evidence will help achieve them.

Implication: there are some weaknesses in specific areas, but here are some things you can do about it. Using ‘our understanding’ rather than ‘the division’ is less confrontational

Recommendation 2: Relationships with the livestock division have been poor. More should be done to ensure that the objectives of the two divisions are aligned so the collection of evidence can be more efficient.

Implication: you haven’t sorted out the fundamentals.  ‘Should’ is used in quite a threatening way here.



Observation 2: Better alignment between the objectives of the agricultural and livestock divisions will help identify where the costs of collecting evidence could be shared and the size of the resulting savings.  The current exercise to refresh the agricultural strategy provides an opportunity to begin this process.

Implication: we understand that your real problem is to keep costs down.  Here is a concrete opportunity to address the issue (the strategy) and a way of doing it (aligning objectives). Everyone knows the relationship is poor, you don’t need to rub it in.

Recommendation 3: The division has a poor understanding of what is contained in the agricultural evidence base.

Recommendation 4: More work needs to be done to set the strategic direction of the agricultural evidence base.

Implication: wow, you really don’t have a clue about what evidence you’ve got or why you need it. 

Observation 3: An up to date understanding of what is contained in the agricultural evidence base will strengthen the type of strategic analysis outlined in this report.

Implication: having current records of what is in the evidence base would have improved the analysis we have done in this report (i.e. not just that it’s poor, but why is it poor?). Recommendation 4 is captured in the rewritten Observation 1.


This guest post is written by Louise Shaxson, a Research Fellow from the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme at ODI.


How to to look smart to development geeks

xfactorI have been having an amusing and distracting twitter conversation this week about how to look smart in front of the various different tribes of development specialists. Here’s a few tips to instantly up your credibility no matter who you are meeting with…

If you are meeting a social development expert, no matter what the topic, be sure to ask if they have considered it through a ‘gendered lens’.

In meetings with evaluation experts ALWAYs question the credibility of the counterfactual. If that doesn’t work, you can resort to questioning the external validity.

Make social scientists think you are one of them by dropping the word epistemology into any discussion. For example, try opening a sentence with the phrase “Epistemologically speaking,…”  but be sure to practice this beforehand because if you come out with a few too many syllables all your efforts will have been wasted. “Normative” is another good social science word to throw in and is particularly useful for throwing doubt on someone’s opinion while maintaining the facade that you are just upholding objectivity i.e. “hmm… isn’t that a rather normative stance you are taking?”

People from IDS will invariable nod enthusiastically if you say “I think we need to unpack this a little further”;  ODI types will be more impressed by you alluding to political economy analysis and/or complexity theory; and those working for DFID will love you if you mention value for money in every second sentence.

And of course, everybody’s favourites: the economists – it is just too easy to tease them for their impenetrable jargon. There are so many good economist catchphrases that it is hard to know where to start but I particularly liked @otis_read’s suggestion of “wow, interesting project, except for obvious endogeneity problem” and, from @fp2p: Look em in eye & say “I’m not convinced by your elasticities”

Have a great weekend – some slightly more serious blogs coming up next week.


Dealing with disagreement

At a training workshop I attended this week the facilitator argued that while being able to make a logical argument is a vital skill in life, we can all appreciate its limits by considering, when was the last time we won a logical argument with our partners…


This got me thinking about the alternatives –  when logical argument is not enough to overcome disagreement, what options do we have? I have come up with a few below – but I want to preface them by saying they are not offered from a place of expertise but rather from my ongoing experiences of learning the hard way! So apologies if they seem really obvious to you but anyway, here are my options…

Option 1: Give up

The biggest lesson, that I keep failing to learn, is that in many cases it is just not worth trying to argue with someone. If they do not have a similar way of seeing the world – and particularly if they do not share your views about evidence and logic – you are just going to waste your time (as illustrated beautifully – albeit with a bit of strong language – here). In this case you have two further options: if they are being mean, proceed immediately to this outstanding advice on dealing with mean people in subversive ways. However, if they are basically harmless, have a cup of tea, and turn the conversation to something less charged.

Option 2: Figure out if you are close in opinion but facing different directions

I have noticed that many of the heated discussions I get into on a professional basis fall into this category. This is where you are both actually arguing with someone (in your head) who has a far more extreme position than the person in front of you – a little like this…


A good example of people standing close but facing in different directions was a seminar I did with LSHTM’s Justin Parkhurst (you can view the whole thing here if you are bored!). In essence, I think we were making very similar points in our talks about evidence and policy making (he did express his ideas more eloquently but I made up for it by having better pictures). The main difference was in some of the language we used and the aspects we chose to emphasise. I imagine that Justin, as a social scientist surrounded by pesky scientists who tend to see the world as measurable and absolute, finds himself having to emphasise the social and cultural influences on the creation of ‘knowledge’. I on the other hand work to promote more use of evidence in policy making and therefore, while I ponder the nature of reality and truth as much as the next person, I also spend a lot of time trying to persuade people that, for the purposes of decision-making, it is helpful to consider certain things (that HIV causes AIDS, that homeopathic remedies do not cure malaria, that Chihuahuas are cute…) as scientifically proven. If you can recognise that you are in this category of disagreement (and luckily in the seminar I mention, we very quickly did), it becomes much more easy to figure out the small differences of opinion you have got and discuss them rationally.

Option 3: Learn from them

My boss, whenever faced with a disagreement, likes to consider what the situation looks like from the other person’s perspective. He reckons that even if what another person is saying seems ludicrous to you, to them, it will seem like a logical and internally consistent position and it is worth trying to figure out what that might look like. This learning might at least help you to deal with the person – but it may also help you to realise that there is some merit in the position they are taking. If you can be open-minded enough to properly listen to a conflicting point of view, you can really learn a lot. I have experienced this by reading a whole load of BIG books in development – Dead Aid, The Bottom Billion, The End of Poverty, The Trouble with Africa, White Man’s Burden, Why Nations Fail etc etc. These books present a range of ways of looking at the world – some of which I instinctively disagreed with from the outset – but I really think I have learnt a lot from each book. Of course, the great advantage of trying to learn from other perspectives is that, just occasionally, you might realise that your perspective was (whisper it) wrong! It reminds me of a story I have heard about Gandhi – when asked why he could contradict this week what he had said last week and he is said to have answered – “It’s because this week I know better!”.


Chickens and eggs

I was listening to a radio debate the other day and the host attempted to sum up the trickiness of the argument by saying “ah well, it’s like the age-old question, what came first the chicken or the egg?”. Which kind of annoyed me cus I have always thought the answer to that question is pretty obvious. You see, at some point in history, our understanding of evolutionary biology* tells us that the sequence of events outlined below occurred:

As you can see, the very first member of the species ‘chicken’ (as defined by the standard criteria of ability to interbreed with other members of the species) was preceeded not only by the egg from which it emerged, but in fact by a whole lot of eggs which hatched to reveal creatures which over time became increasingly genetically similar to chickens. So you see? It’s simple. It’s the egg!

At this point you may be wondering how I am going to draw out some wise lessons from this story and link them to international development. Well, I’m not. It’s been a long day and I just fancied blogging about chickens. Having said that, now you don’t need to waste any more of your brain power pondering this question and so I trust that you will have much more time to grapple with the big questions of global poverty.

*If you want to learn more about evolution I thoroughly recommend this blog by @HollyDunsworth

**The species name for chickens is Gallus gallus. Which is, by the way, really funny if you come from Scotland. Probably not so much for the rest of you.