Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hardrock, Coco, and Joe

This is a very weird and somewhat disturbing Christmas video.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Ding Dong Rummy's Gone!!!

I'm stunned



Afraid to be excited. The devil that you know and all that.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Return to Beirut

I'm back in Beirut, one of my favorite cities in the world. In spite of the recent conflict, it is still a beautiful and fun city to visit, although there is a palpable sadness now that wasn't present last year. People talk about the conflict in much the same terms as we do in the States -- wondering how this happened and what Israel was thinking. I haven't run into anyone who is supportive of Hezbollah, but I haven't been to the South yet, where they are currently doing really great work with the reconstruction effort. Regardless of what you think of them, they are doing much more to help those who were affected than anyone else.

Right now, I'm in my hotel room, looking out of my tenth floor window at the Mediterranean. It is winter here, too, and has been raining and cool. Right now, it is overcast and windy, with whitecaps in the water and the curtains billowing ominously.

Yesterday, I found a yarn store! It was a really great place. Perfectly done, great staff, friendly, amazing selection, decent prices, and really nice buttons, notions, and handmade gift items. y.not is in Saifi Village, and is very easy to find if you are in Beirut. I went in just to check it out, and maybe buy a few souvenir yarns, but ended up sitting and knitting with the owners and staff and three young Beiruti girls for about 2 hours. It was lovely. If you are in Beirut and you knit, go there. Tell Samera and Dinah that I said hi.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Off to Lebanon and Turkey

On Monday, I'm going to Beirut again, the first time I will be there after the war. The last time I was in Lebanon, I fell in love with the country. It is a beautiful, multi-faceted, and culturally rich place, where the modern and the ancient, the scars of war and the beauty of reconstruction, come together with an intoxicating grace. Of course there is a dark side to all of that, but, as in every other case, the dark side, the negative space of place, is what makes the beauty of Lebanon so poignant.

While I'm there, I will be writing a proposal, so I probably won't get to do the sitting in cafes writing that I love, but I will get to see my two good friends, who improbably share the same name. There is nothing like a dinner in a restaurant in an exotic city, sharing wine with friends who I haven't seen in a while. I just love the catching-up-sharing-nostalgia that happens.

After Lebanon, I'm making my first trip ever to Turkey. Our regional meeting is in Istanbul. Really, who can argue with that? I have to admit, I'm most excited about the shopping and the food.

Friday, October 06, 2006

End of the Brain Vacation

Yesterday, I was finally feeling a little pensive again. I haven’t felt that way for a while, which is why you haven’t seen any blogs up here for a while. I think that it is fall. Fall makes me feel smart and New-Englandish and philosophical.

A couple of questions came to mind yesterday, along with an overwhelming urge to have an intellectual conversation over beers with the Professor and my friend, E. The first one, inspired by my frustration with the stubborn refusal of so many Americans to think outside of their own little worlds, was, is the voluntary ignorance of a large proportion of the population necessary for the maintenance of a large state such as the US? After trying to think of reasonable comparisons to see if I could test the theory (China, no, India, no, Russia, almost-but-not-quite, Brazil, no), I decided that it wasn’t so. I mused about it for a while, imagining the chaos that would happen if everyone started having an opinion about everything this country’s leadership did, and scaring myself. After actually implementing the intellectual conversation plan at Bertha’s, I brought the question up with E, and she succinctly and confidently (she’s like that) stated that no, large states like the US encourage the development of voluntary ignorance, because it becomes increasingly less important for people to know or care about what happens outside their country. I had to agree – for many people living in the US, the most foreign thing that will ever happen to them in their lives is a shirt made in Indonesia they buy at Walmart or a New Yorker’s car breaking down on I-70 on their way to LA.

The second thing on my mind was how we’ve managed to create this political elite that runs the country with little or no practical experience of life outside politics. I’m not going to go on and on about this now, but basically I was asking myself if it was a good thing or not. It certainly frees everyone else up to do what they really want to do, but it prevents our political leadership from being truly representative, and also from having an understanding of what life outside the political circles is really like. Not sure how I feel about it.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Hopefully this means my brain is back from vacation.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Proxy War

I think that this quote, published in the Washington Post today, is really telling. When put in this light, the implications are horrifying.

"It's really a proxy war between the United States and Iran," said David J. Rothkopf, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "Running the World," a book on U.S. foreign policy. "When viewed in that context, it puts everything in a different light."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Israeli bomb kills UN observers

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Israeli bomb kills UN observers

Israel killed four Western UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon. Observers believe that it was deliberate targeting. Somehow I knew that this would happen. Does anyone else need any evidence that this is much more than a routing of Hezbollah? I cannot fathom why Israel would believe that bombing the UN was in its best interest.

I hope that this brings the US and UK to their senses.

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Israeli bomb kills UN observers

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Israeli bomb kills UN observers

Israel killed four Western UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon. Observers believe that it was deliberate targeting. Somehow I knew that this would happen. Does anyone else need any evidence that this is much more than a routing of Hezbollah? I cannot fathom why Israel would believe that bombing the UN was in its best interest.

I hope that this brings the US and UK to their senses.

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Israeli bomb kills UN observers

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Israeli bomb kills UN observers

Israel killed four Western UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon. Observers believe that it was deliberate targeting. Somehow I knew that this would happen. Does anyone else need any evidence that this is much more than a routing of Hezbollah? I cannot fathom why Israel would believe that bombing the UN was in its best interest.

I hope that this brings the US and UK to their senses.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

This makes no sense.

U.S. Appears to Be Waiting to Act on Israeli Airstrikes - New York Times

Someone is going to have to tell me how bombing a Christian neigborhood, Ashrafiyeh, in Beirut has anything to do with dminishing the capacity of Hezbollah. How does the murder of Lebanese civilians hurt Hezbollah? 285 Lebanese have been killed in this campaign by Israelis, and 25 Israelis have been killed by Hezbollah. Am I the only one who thinks that this is complete lunacy?

Furthermore, we are going to let Israel bomb innocent people (because if you really still think that they are just after Hezbollah, you need to be smacked really hard) for another week before we do anything.

I'm at a loss for words at the horror and inhumanity of this entire situation from start to finish.

A colleague today asked whether people were discussing how much Bush's position on this is influenced by his millenial vision of Christianity, or how much his neo-con politics might be influencing his use of religion, and how either way, this is an atrocity. Our sitting out of this and our bullheaded refusal to rein in Israel is a flat out disgrace.

Monday, July 17, 2006

BBC NEWS | Business | Bush lunch chat is caught on tape

BBC NEWS | Business | Bush lunch chat is caught on tape

Why are we supporting Israel on this? They have killed 120 Lebanese civilians in their bombardment, even though it is Hezbollah, without the support of the Lebanese civilians, who is carrying this out. It seems that we should tell Israel to cut it out, and then protect Lebanon against Hezbollah.

Furthermore, everyone needs to start getting honest about this BS -- all of the parties know exactly what is going on. Hamas knew what would happen when they captured the Israeli soldier and started to hurl rockets at Israel. Israel knew what would happen when they retailiated. Hezbollah knew what would happen when they did their own kidnappings and started to bomb Israel. They knew that Lebanon would be drawn in and that it would start a proxy war between Syria/Iran and Israel, fought on the already scarred and punnished streets of Beirut, Saida, and other cities in Lebanon.

This war is not going to go away, and a few hundred or even a few thousand UN peacekeepers in Lebanon are not going to do anything. We need to get tough with Israel, engage the political arm of Hamas, and break the links between Hezbollah and Iran and Syria. The longer the US supports Israel at the expense of Arab civilians, the more anti-US senitment we will generate around the world, and the more insecure we all are.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


I know I haven't been writing recently, and yes, I will again soon. But for now, on request from enninej, here is my line:

"Fortunately, larger programs went into effect within two years of the armistice." -- Catholic Relief Services: The Beginning Years, Eileen Egan

1. Pick up any book. 2. Go to page 127. 3. Find third sentence 4. Post it on your blog (plus these instructions) 5. Don't choose the book, just pick up the one closest to you.

Pointless, yes. But amusing.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

BBC NEWS | South Asia | Muslims join Da Vinci criticism

BBC NEWS South Asia Muslims join Da Vinci criticism

Fiction. Fiction, fiction, fiction. It is a word that has a long and lovely history in the English language, and words of equal meaning in many, if not all, of the world's languages.

Maybe I should protest the movie Bring It on, since it insults cheerleaders. Or any of the hundreds of movies and books that vilify Americans or women.


Friday, May 12, 2006

What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? - New York Times

What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? - New York Times

I know that this is seriously off-topic, but in this list of the "Best American Fiction", you have to be kidding me that they couldn't come up with more than two women? And the list of men is limited enough to be a complete joke. How are we supposed to take this seriously?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Panel Faults Pfizer in '96 Clinical Trial In Nigeria

Panel Faults Pfizer in '96 Clinical Trial In Nigeria

For all of you who thought after reading The Constant Gardener that there was no way it could actually happen in real life, please read the above-linked article from the Post.

If this happened in the US, Canada, or Europe, there would be universal outrage. It wouldn't have taken five years or more for this to have gotten to the national press. Pfizer would be the Enron of the pharma industry. But it didn't happen here. It happened in Africa, to poor black children in a country that most American schoolchildren wouldn't be able to find on a map (maybe most adults wouldn't be able to find it, either).

The West uses Africa as guinea pig in many ways, not only through pharmaceutical trials. Many development programs are also tests. I'm not sure what it is, what arrogance we have, that makes us think that it is ok to test our theories on the poor of Africa in ways that would never be acceptable here. Their deaths are such common news to us that we think of it as par for the course, and shrug off our part in the disaster.

We should be outraged with the behavior of Pfizer in Nigeria; not because they took advantage of poor, illiterate Africans, as the author of the article states, but because they took advantage of human beings. Of children.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Warning -- another long one. I wrote this in repsonse to a National Catholic Reporter article my Father-in-law sent asking whether the torturers aren't more of a threat to national security than the whistle-blower.

I think that the American ideal of America and the reality of America in the world are often, often purposefully, at odds. The ideal that this is a country devoted to freedom and the pursuit of dreams and excellence both here and abroad; that this is a country that acts as a benevolent hegemon to the other countries of the world without exacting a price for our benevolence; that we somehow uniquely represent the political, social, and economic apogee of human kind.

On the other hand, however, America is a country in a horrifyingly imperfect world, run by imperfect people with contradictory interests. On the surface, we value peace, prosperity, innovation, education, and diversity, but in practice, Americans elect leaders who are nationalistic, conservative (even the Democrats), unconcerned with poverty, and apt to play up ethnic, social, and religious differences for their own benefit. The American media and American educational system breed citizens with little or no concern for the world outside America, and thus create a hermetic seal around knowledge that even the Internet has been unable to break. I think that one could argue that the Internet has had a larger educational impact on the populations of less free nations than on the US, simply because our media and educational systems are so much more efficient at brainwashing citizens with ideas of inherent American superiority.

This reality of America provides and enabling environment for the atrocities to which you refer. As far as most Americans are concerned, the government can do what it needs to to "protect our way of life" (let's not even get into whether or not they ought to), as long as it doesn't a) interrupt daytime TV; b) contradict parochial pseudo-Christian values; or c) expect common citizens to get their hands dirty by participating in any way. This is the outcome of the media and educational system.

That leaves us with wealthy, well-educated, powerful men and women jockeying for position in a world of politicians and pundits. Of course, many of them are actually patriotic and honest, but even those have a warped view of their role as political leaders. There is no accountability mechanism in place to ensure that they actually help America reach toward the ideal. Who really cares about the ideal, apart from simply being able to hold it in one's head undisturbed? So, our political leaders take themselves and their need for power more and more seriously, and justify it with more and more conviction, using the ideal as cover.

But still, the question remains, how can men and women in the 21st century from a "civilized" country acquiesce to torture? I don't have an answer to that, other than that we aren't living in a civilized country. What civilized country in the world continues to impose the death penalty, even though it has been proven that innocents have been killed and that it might qualify as cruel and unusual punishment? What civilized country in the world consistently fails to come up with a serious plan for universal health coverage? What civilized country in the world blames poverty for the failure of education for the poor?

The torture doesn't surprise me at all, actually. We do not live in a civilized country. The only thing that we have left is a modicum of law and order in most places. Apart from that, the statistics on education, malnutrition, and health alone would make the US a prime candidate for development assistance.

So, is national security jeopardized more by those who torture than by those who shed light on it? Yes, definitely. But it is jeopardized most by those of us who can see the wrongs and don't get angry enough to act for change. Security is more than freedom from war. Peace is more than freedom from war. Peace is freedom from injustice. Those who at all turns threaten the justice of our society threaten national security in a way Saddam never could have.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Four Things

I've definitely got a hankering to post, and not much that I want to post about, so I'll take eninnej up on her "challenge".

Four jobs I've held:
- Short-order cook at the community pool snackbar. I still have pork roll.
- Lifeguard at the pool in the summer
- Student assistant at the U of Richmond computer lab. Learned a lot, did very little.
- Grad-school student librarian (my favorite job ever -- I will be a librarian for real in some future life)

Four movies I can watch over and over:
- The Princess Bride
- The Thomas Crown Affair (new one)
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
- Any Harry Potter movie

Four places I've lived:
- Aldan, PA
- Richmond, VA
- Cordoba, Argentina
- Nacaome, Honduras

Four TV shows I like:
- Gilmore Girls
- Charmed
- Crossing Jordan
- Scrubs

Four Family Vacations I've been on:
- Many summers at the beach in New Jersey -- they all run together
- Disney world when I was 8 and my brother was 5. We had a blast. I got sick in China at Epcot and my Dad lost his glasses and wallet and hat at Space Mountain even though they tell you before you get on to take them out and put them somewhere safe.
- A trip to Maine to visit my cousins that I don't remember but of which there are pictures, so it must have happened.
- I can't think of another. We were beach people. That was vacation.

Four of my favorite fast food dishes:
- Hoagies and cheese steaks from Phil and Jim's in Chester and PAT'S in South Philly (not Gino's, never Gino's)
- PB&J and chicken noodle soup at Panera
- kabobs
- Wafflee House waffles

Four sites I visit daily:
- Bloglines
- Washington Post Crossword
- BBC News

Four places I would rather be right now:
- A clean, sparsely-populated beach with my knitting, music, and a book.
- Costa Rica
- Home in bed
Only three.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Wired News: Laptop Detractors Shrugged Off

Wired News: Laptop Detractors Shrugged Off

I'm a little worried about this effort. On the surface, and from a Western perspective, this seems like a good solution to the digital divide. However, if you look at similar past programs, they have become seriously problematic. I'm thinking in particular of the early drive to bring mechanized agriculture to smallholders, resulting in rusting tractor carcases strewn about the developing world or sold on the black market; of the mosquito net distribution issue that resulted in black market use of the nets rather than home use to prevent malaria. Of course, having people purchase the computers will avert some of the potential value problems, but even at $50, they will be far out of the reach of those at the 'bottom of the pyramid'. Furthermore, who is going to service all those computers? I'm sure that Negroponte doesn't expect teachers and aid workers to become the help desk for all these devices, and they will break, many of them the first time they are used.

It seems to me that all this money would be better spent improving teaching skills and educational materials and infrastructure and access to education, especially for girls, rather than on a device of questionable value.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Can’t Get Ahead: a review of Barrett and Carter’s Article

On the whole, this article brings up very important points about the current climate in the development industry. The shift from development assistance to emergency relief is real. Inappropriate or ineffective targeting of beneficiaries is real. Structural poverty is real. However, Barrett and Carter miss a great opportunity to take this discussion to the next level.

It is certainly true that there is a cycle of poverty, vulnerability, and disaster that keeps people from improving their living conditions. This is evidenced by anecdotal evidence from the field, which notes that sometime we work with the exact same beneficiaries for more than a decade, with little discernable change in their quality of life, in spite of numerous small changes in behaviors or environment. This fact alone, however, does not mean that there is not enough money going to development assistance; given the fact that Barrett and Carter also criticize targeting for being ineffective, perhaps we should consider more efficient uses of the development funding that exists before investing more money into a system that demonstrably fails the poorest of the poor.

The authors state that there has been an overall shift from development assistance to emergency relief. They do not present much data to support this, but it is well-supported by both anecdotal evidence and shifting priorities with donors such as Food For Peace. However, food aid is not the only type of assistance, and it is the highest-value assistance. Other types of assistance have been changing, but not necessarily towards emergency relief. We have seen a move toward more high-value contracts, away from medium and small grants. We have also seen a move away from traditional development sectors (education, health, agriculture) toward democracy and governance, civil society, and economic development. This reflects reductions in funding at major USG donor agencies as well as disillusionment with traditional development interventions at the donor agencies. It is not clear whether this has resulted in improved or worsened return on investment, but it does not show a clear movement of cash resources toward emergencies.

There most certainly has not been a serious enough long-term investment in the development industry to determine whether or not development assistance makes a significant impact on global welfare. The decreasing amount of funding available for long-term development makes it increasingly less likely that we will be able to tell if interventions are working on a global scale. Just because an intervention appears to work at the local level within the period of measurement does not mean that it contributes to overall long term improvements in the human condition. If we want to know whether or not development assistance works, then we need to make a serious investment in it, and in honest and long-term monitoring and evaluation that reaches beyond the direct scope of the interventions in question to the indirect by-products, positive and negative.

On the other hand, the money that has gone to development work to date has not always been well-used. Empirical data, anecdotal evidence, and personal experience show that there are a number of inefficiencies in the development industry that would not be tolerated in the corporate world. Regulations on the use of US shippers and transportation for international shipping and travel raise the costs of getting food aid and human resources to developing countries unnecessarily. A lack of systematized organizational learning prevents development organizations from internalizing and implementing improvements to interventions, resulting in less effective programming being repeated.

The article cites the change in the percentage of PL480 resources that goes to emergencies and development projects, and claims that this contributes to the “vicious cycle in which reactive relief efforts further undermine already-fragile market and social institutions”. I agree that a too-heavy focus on emergency response relative to development activities with long-term security-enhancing results exacerbates poverty. However, the change in the proportions of PL480 can’t be evaluated without first asking whether food aid is even an effective means of doing development. There are enough good arguments against food aid as a tool for development that it merits further research. One problem, though probably not one of the greatest, that I see with emergency assistance is that you have Emergency People who work on Emergencies, and Development People who work on Development, and the two groups have more in conflict than in common. I think that we need to see our way to a more integrated, holistic approach to all poverty interventions, so that there is a smoothing of the transition to development.

The article states that the tying of aid to geo-political goals exacerbates the problems associated with an increased proportion of aid going to emergencies. It is true that the political aspects of development aid make it inherently less effective than it would be in a perfect world. However, the question remains, why should countries give development assistance if not to achieve geopolitical goals? Our shared constructs of nation, state, and government do not include motivation for or a mandate fro philanthropy or poverty alleviation abroad: if it is not demonstrably in the interest of the socially-constructed political entity, there is no motivation to do it. The only argument for nations engaging in international poverty reduction is that it is morally good. However, in the context of nations that have poverty and justice issues of their own internally, it is a hard sell to convince people that spending money abroad for a moral good is more important than spending it at home to make citizens better off. We can’t even prove that aid reduces anti-Americanism, thus improving national security, since many of the countries that have received the most assistance from us are the most intransigently anti-American.

Barrett and Carter state that “there is little evidence that [linking relief and development] works.” (36). This is supported by anecdotal evidence, but again, some of this is due to the disconnect between the planners of relief and development responses. It is true that the success of interventions, particularly emergency interventions, depends on a sound institutional and policy environment in recipient nations. However, on the other hand, nations with truly sound institutional and policy environments rarely are the largest recipients of emergency and development aid. Instead, the places where poverty is deepest are countries where corruption reigns, violence is endemic, and the separation between the rich and the poor is huge.

I agree with the authors that aid has not reached the intended beneficiaries effectively, and that there are better ways of doing things. However, under the current political climate and funding structure, it is very difficult to see how we could make the necessary changes in implementation. Implementing organizations know that people-centered holistic community development projects that work with and through successful local social entrepreneurs are the most successful. However, USAID and the other large donors fund large, multi-year, single-sector projects that do not take into consideration the collateral damage of the trendy intervention of the day, and frequently insist on out-dated and ineffective implementation strategies rather than innovative and responsive strategies. As long as governments are giving aid, it will be political. As long as it is political, it will be a market ruled by oligopsony, with USAID, WB, and the EU providing all the meaningful funding, and thus determining the type of product available.

My favorite point in the paper was that “The common denominator to these examples is that poor people respond to insecurity today in ways that compromise their capacity to build a better life tomorrow. Such behavior is rational.” This is 100% true, and if we do not incorporate a more refined sensibility about both transforming negative coping strategies and a fundamental respect for the rationale of people’s choices, we will continue to be a part of the problem. If people are engaging in negative coping strategies, then we need to ask them what they need to switch to positive coping strategies. We can’t just assume that they are only doing these things because they are stupid or don’t know better. Often, there is a lack of access or availability of information or resources that prevents them from coping in positive ways.

Monday, March 06, 2006


I've been tagged by eninnej with the 5 resources meme. The mistress of procrastination and gender is asking me to 'fess up and choose an expertise, and then state which five resources, online or otherwise, I would give someone to introduce them to my field of expertise.

Well, I'm kind of a jack of all trades, master of none, but more than anything else, my field of expertise is International Development Theory and Policy. So, without further ado, here are the recommended resources:

1. Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen. This book is a good introduction to modern thinking about poverty and development, written by a brilliant Indian economist. I don't agree with everything that he says, but I think that it is a good start to getting your mind around the key issues.

2. Food Aid after Fifty Years, Christopher Barrett and Daniel Maxwell. This book is a great introduction to food aid, including a relatively honest assessment of its pros and cons.

3., the US Agency for International Development website. This is a good way to get an idea of how the US government does business in the development industry, and to learn what types of activities are supported in various regions.

4. Paul Krugman and his other site: My favorite economist. Well, second favorite after my father-in-law. This isn't technically International Development-related, but he does write about it once in a while, and his ideas are broadly applicable.

5. The Center for Global Development: a great website for learning about the issues facing the development industry today. You can learn about specific regions, policy issues, or technical progress. My personal favorite is the section on Aid Effectiveness.

So there -- it is done. Now I will tag two people: Grampa and Brother-in-law. I'd tag The Professor, but his blog is all serious and work-related.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tbilisi, again

Here in Tbilisi, I’m staying at a nice little hotel called the Villa Mtiebi. It is tucked into a crumblingly charming neighborhood in Old Town, a short walk to great restaurants and shops and interesting sights.

Tbilisi is a complex city. Somehow, all eras of history seem to exist simultaneously here, shifting translucent time. One look out into the city from the hotel window can encompass 6th Century Persian and Christian ruins, 12th Century Byzantine ruins, 19th Century Georgian buildings, 20th Century Soviet ruins and buildings, and 21st Century Georgian construction. The food and wine traditions span time and culture, with a variety of flavors encountered probably nowhere else in the world. Beliefs and practices are a mélange of modern and traditional, international and parochial.

Many of the buildings here retain the scars of the destruction from earthquakes past. Scars is actually an understatement: many of the buildings are broken nearly in half, with one entire part of the building sitting on a perilous angle, or part of the roof fallen into the courtyard. You can actually see into some of the cracks. Formerly elegant townhomes lean against one another as they slowly collapse into history.

In addition to poverty, there are reasons why people, particularly in Old Town, don’t fix their homes. They don’t get government assistance to move unless their home collapses, so they just let the buildings crumble around them. The business people gentrifying and renewing this trendy area just wait. They can’t buy the people out, but when the buildings fall, they are there like vultures, maybe keeping the façade or old shape of the building, maybe demolishing it to build a concrete architectural nightmare. There are some parts of Old Town where the old buildings have been repaired and made into chic restaurants and shops.

The Game
On my first Saturday in Georgia on this trip, I accepted a friend’s invitation to meet for lunch and then head to the Georgia vs. Russia rugby game.

Six of us met for lunch at the World of Wine. This absolutely lovely wine shop/restaurant is worth of visit for the friendly service, good wine selection, and great food. However, it will be forever known among those of us who ate there that day as the House of Urine. Gross, but true. The reason for this is the sign outside. The “w” for wine looks more like a “ur”. The World of Wine is just off Rustaveli, the main drag in Tbilisi (the Lonely Planet guide for the region describes it as “the street you always find yourself walking on”, and they are right), on the street to the left of the Paliashvili Opera.

The rugby game was a real trip. Tickets were dirt cheap: only about $2.50 a piece. The huge arena was barely 1/3 of the way full, but I didn’t see a single Russian. Given the state of relations between Russia and Georgia right now, I’m not surprised. I even felt bad for the ref who had to make the occasional call in favor of the Russian team. The Georgians showed a lot of team spirit, but were surprisingly tame as far as fans go. The Georgian army provided security in the first row, but they were unarmed. The team was supported by a handful of “Castel girls”, apparently some sort of cheerleading squad sponsored by the beer company. They wore shiny pinkish-silver outfits that clearly showed their panty lines and stiletto boots. They didn’t do much cheering, but they did get on TV quite a bit.

It was a rout, and by the end of the game, we were all rooting loudly for Georgia. I’m not sure if it was the skill and brawn of the Georgian team, which ran roughshod over the Russians, leaving a trail of wounded in their path, or the banner of St. George, which a faithful fan held up over the crowd the entire time. Maybe it was the traditional polyphonic singing that followed “We Will Rock You” from the stands. Whatever it was, the Georgians emerged victorious, and we emerged at the German pub Kaiserbrau.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Flying to Georgia (the country)

This trip began with a very long series of flights: DC to London, London to Munich, Munich to Tbilisi. There were no serious problems on any of the flights, but so many layovers and such long flights is exhausting. I’m sure that this isn’t the first time I’ve griped about Heathrow Airport, and I’m equally sure that there are many who would point out its finer features, but I really don’t like it. It is a huge shopping mall full of bad pop music and jangling food noises. The gates are absolutely secondary to the place, so much so that you could easily miss them amid the noisy advertisements and myriad duty free and cashmere and luggage and food shops.

My biggest pet peeve about Heathrow is that they don’t post the gate for the flights until the last minute, just before it boards. So everyone waits, glancing periodically at the monitors, until suddenly there it is. If you watch consistently, it doesn’t appear, much like the proverbial watched pot. So the monitor secretly announced “Gate 42”, all the way through the gauntlet of shops and down this corridor or that one, a five minute walk, we are notified by the sign on the wall, but it seems like a race against the clock, which it can be if you don’t look at the monitor at just the right time. “Boarding” it reads.

To eat or not to eat? Who knows what the mysterious “snack” on the plane will be, or if the “dinner” will be edible. Eating at the airport passes the time on a layover, but in Heathrow, that requires that you leave the precious monitors.

Anyway. I arrived, short one bag but safely nonetheless. The food was terrible and the child in front of me was noisy, but I arrived.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him - New York Times

Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him - New York Times

This article, by the NY Times'Andrew Revkin, describes NASA's attempt to stifle the dissemination of scientific information that does not concur with the mythology of the Bush administration. I am not surprised, but I am still horrified. This is probably going on in many fields. The scientist in question is a climate expert, and has spoken and written often over the past 30-odd years on climate change. He is highly respected in the scientific community, and presents his views as his alone, not official statements from NASA. Yet, NASA is trying to prevent him from speaking to the press because his messages do not make the Bush administration look good. I'm not kidding:
"In one call, George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen, said Leslie McCarthy, a public affairs officer responsible for the Goddard Institute.

Citing handwritten notes taken during the conversation, Ms. McCarthy said Mr. Deutsch called N.P.R. "the most liberal" media outlet in the country. She said that in that call and others, Mr. Deutsch said his job was "to make the president look good" and that as a White House appointee that might be Mr. Deutsch's priority. "

Where does it end? It isn't just at NASA. Apparently this happened at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, too. Who knows where else.

It is absolutely inappropriate and unproductive for politicians to gag or message-manage scientists. The Bush administration has created an alternative to reality, a mythology in which scientists are crazy and religious nuts are credible scientists (ID). They are trying to create a situation in which the only available information is information that supports their version of reality. If this doesn't remind you of The Matrix, it should at least remind you of China and other dictatorships.

I keep saying it, and I will say it again: it will not surprise me if Bush tries to get a third term. It will not surprise me if the elections are rigged. Everywhere else I have seen the symptoms of tyranny, that is what has happened.

A False Balance - New York Times

A False Balance - New York Times

Just read this.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Foreign Aid Shell Game

In many ways, government use of foreign aid to further foreign and even domestic policy agendas makes sense. If we accept the human construct of the nation (for, what else is it?), then on some level we must accept that those who are members of the nation have shared interests at stake, both domestically and internationally, that must be protected. As I’ve stated before, I’m still not convinced that there are many good arguments for caring about people in other nations that aren’t implicitly or explicitly moral. If we assume that the nation is not a moral actor, then using foreign aid to support national agendas makes perfect sense. Why else would a nation do it? The biggest problems with this approach are 1) “national interest” is often full of contradictions; 2) members of the nation do not always have an agreed-upon image of what the “national interest” is; and 3) the inherent short-term nature of democratic government makes “national interest” a politically moving target.

So, in response to eninnej’s question, is it a bad thing that NGOs that receive government funding are complicit in furthering government aims, I would say that it depends. It depends on the purpose and the moral stance of the NGO. If the moral stance of the NGO happens to be in line with the national interest stance of the government, then as far as the NGO is concerned, who cares? Take the money and run. On the other hand, if the moral stance of the NGO is at odds with the government, as it often is, then I would say that NGOs in this position that take government funding lack integrity. We can’t expect all NGOs to agree with us as individuals, and these institutions have no representative role vis-à-vis the larger national population. However, an institution that supports and actively implements what are, essentially, a government’s foreign policy objectives has no business portraying itself as neutral.

NGOs that implement the US government’s foreign policy will never rock the boat enough to create meaningful social change (more another time on how, if at all, they might do this; see also Saul Alinsky). If development NGOs do make positive change in the lives of people as individuals, through microfinance, agriculture, or education programs or what have you, great. But saying that there is an improvement is still making a value judgment: this is better than that. Sure, I believe that individuals are capable of making that judgment for themselves on the basis of their unique situation. I like living in a house better than living in an apartment; that statement is culturally bound, but it is individually arrived at by me in my unique circumstance. However, I can’t extrapolate from that and say that living in a house is better for everyone.

NGO workers will certainly be more at risk the closer the ties are between their funding source and the Department of State. In many of the places where these hard-working and well-meaning folk strive (like Sisyphus) to bring justice and progress, they will be targeted because their employers receive funding from the US government. Eventually, all NGO workers, funded or not by the US government, will be targeted, because the terrorist’s weapon is blunt. Their work will surely be negatively affected.

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Cash meant for Iraqis 'misused'

BBC NEWS Middle East Cash meant for Iraqis 'misused' This news of US government corruption related to reconstruction in Iraq is likely to be overlooked by most, but the truth is, it is the tip of a disgusting iceberg of corruption and deception related to Iraq. Just the thought of all that money wasted by this administration's incompetence makes my stomach turn. This corruption has hurt everyone who has been concerned about Iraq in good faith, from Liberal to Conservative.

How dare they think that they have any right to use taxpayer money in such an irresponsible way? Taxpaying Americans, especially those who pay honestly, do so with the implicit assumption that their money will be used to pay for the operations of government that benefit Americans and serve our interests as a nation. This fraud, which of course is not beyond my imagining of what this current administration is capable of, has betrayed that trust. I'm not naive enough to think that this is the only black mark on the US government, or that this administration is the only one to sink to this level of depravity. What really gets my goat in this case is that the honest taxpayers across the political spectrum who expected our country to commit in a serious way to reconstruction in Iraq, which convinced some of them to vote for Bush in the last election, were lied to and deceived. Yet I am well aware that the likelihood of them getting angry enough to kick him out is slim at best -- they are still starry-eyed over his religion.

The Iraqis have suffered a double indignity at our hands. I'm not talking about the insurgents or the terrorists. I'm talking about the regular people of Iraq. They never asked for us to destroy their country in the name of their freedom, yet we deigned it our responsibility to do so. And this is how we pay them back for letting us put on the anti-terrorist show: we steal money meant to help them recover and rebuild a functioning country. What a lie. What more proof does the world need that the US, as currently led by the Bush administration, is in itself a danger to humanity. That money could never have been meant to actually rebuild anything for the Iraqis. Look to other post-disaster and war programs the US has funded: the Tsunami, the Balkans. While the progress in those cases has been painfully slow and faced many bureaucratic hurdles, work was being done in good faith. For the most part, the contracts and grants dispersed and managed by USAID and cooperating NGOs were implemented to the benefit of the people who survived. There have been many problems, of course, but nothing like this.

Why, then, did the US government choose not to follow normal, proven procedures for reconstruction programming? This article postulates that it is because of the desire for secrecy before the war. However, that isn't enough. Once we began hostilities, they should have begun to plan for recovery openly, taking advantage of experts in the field. They did not, proving once again that this administration has no interest in the sustainability of change in Iraq. That was never the point.

When we start to take a hard look at the Iraq crisis, I think that we'll be able to see the outlines of the truth about the Bush administration. Nothing they have done to date makes sense within normal American logic or reasoning if we assume that the goal was a stable and democratic Iraq and the end of terrorism, but it must be the result of some coordinated thought process. So what is the motivation? What is the goal? I shudder to think that the entire point of all this death and destruction was only meant to enhance Bush's political standing and take attention away from the crimes his administration is committing against the American people on the domestic front.

Someone will have to tell me what part of this doesn't look exactly like any typical Latin American or African dictatorship. Spying on civilians, limitation or elimination of judicial procedures on executive order, punishment for straying from the party line, senseless war (see the Falklands Islands conflict for another, albeit less drastic, example), propaganda...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

BBC NEWS | Africa | Cattle raids 'kill 38' in Kenya

BBC NEWS Africa Cattle raids 'kill 38' in Kenya This article talks about recent cattle raids in the north of Keny, which folks there attribute to the on-going drought and famine in the region. When I read articles like this or hear about these events at work, it really drives home the point for me that this world is not one, but many. I have been to northern Kenya and southern Sudan, and I have seen cattle herders and talked to them about conflict over grazing pastures and water holes, yet still I have trouble getting my Western mind around it. Cattle herders living in the Horn of Africa region are on the edge of survival every day, and they sing love songs to their cows because those cows mean life and hope to them.

I have heard people in the States call these cultures 'primitive', but they have been around a lot longer than our culture has, and yet they have not had the motive or opportunity to 'modernize'. They aren't more noble than we, as many would like to imagine. They aren't necessarily more spiritual or closer to nature. They, like all humans, make rational decisions, and act within what they perceive, given their cultural, geographic, political, and religious perspective, to be their best interests, just as we do.

The most interesting question to me is, "What are the conditions within which is it rational to kill other human beings over cattle?", which leads to the questions, "If it is decided that this is negative, how can the conditions under which is it no longer rational be brought about?" and "Who is in the appropriate position to decide whether a behavior is negative or positive?"

I know that I sound abnormally relativist here, and I can actually feel some of my friends and colleagues cringing as I write this even before they read it, but "development" and "justice" and "peace" depend largely on those questions. When we engage in "development", we implicitly decide, either with or for the targets of our development, that the status quo is inherently worse than the ideal to which we attempt to move them. Either we accept the value judgment of the target beneficiaries, which might be flawed by proximity to the issue, or we impose our own value judgment, which is flawed by distance from the issue.

Furthermore, much "development" work does not aim to create conditions under which rational action conforms to the ideal. Rather, much of it is aimed at treating the symptoms (getting people to dialogue instead of fight, rather than asking why there is conflict in the first place), or trying to encourage people to change their behavior without changing the conditions that made that behavior rational. This approach is absolutely not sustainable. If the conditions do not change, the rational response to them will also not change.

Therefore, if we decide that somehow we can figure out what the ideal world looks like and we commit to bringing that world into being, then we must change the fundamental cultural and social infrastructure of the world. This means activism against the status quo, which is dangerous and can have myriad negative outcomes as it is unpredictable and in conflict with the power structure.

Since I have yet to meet a development worker who is a committed activist for sea changes in culture and society (myself included), my conclusion is that we are lying to ourselves and others, feeding on a pleasant, ego-fulfilling fantasy that somehow we are making a difference. We might have a finger in the dyke, and it might be the right dyke. It might not be a dyke at all.