Category Archives: Development

On motherhood, careers, and having it all

I only talk about gender, motherhood, and families in the Foreign Service with other women. Is that weird? While I certainly have male friends here, I find myself reluctant to complain about the inequalities and difficulties that we face to what I imagine will be an audience made unfriendly by its blind privilege.

Maybe this isn’t the case! Maybe the men I know here at FSI would be thrilled to have an honest conversation about making the Foreign Service more diverse and more family friendly! But I’m unwilling to take the risk of exposing myself as a whiner, a complainer, an angry feminist by having this conversation.

Yesterday, Tales from the Hood hosted Angelica, an international aid worker and mother:

Fast forward a few months, I’m walking around the office with a big belly when I find out that a job I am perfect for is up for grabs. I start asking around and get positive reactions from the people involved. It’s really interesting and a step in the right direction for me. After a few of these positive informal talks I ask why this position is empty:

 

“The woman that used to chair this group went on maternity leave. She was meant to return this month but has decided to quit instead.”

 

As his last words echoed we looked at each other in silence. I am wearing large overalls and am but a couple of months away from maternity leave myself. It dawns on us that there isn’t a chance in hell I’m going to get that job. No one is going to say it, they are going to make me go through the steps (written exam, panel interview…) but no matter how well I do we both know that fight is lost. At the same time my husband is interviewing for a great job. The fact that he is about to become a father is irrelevant.

I think about this every day in terms of my State Department career.

On flooding in Benin, and how to help

This year has been a rough one for Benin, and it’s not about to get any easier. ICC, the LEPI, and now catastrophic flooding are combining to make this fall one of the hardest since I’ve been here. The whole country has been affected, and to say that one region has it worse than another is to fundamentally misunderstand how Benin’s economy and social fabric work. Two thirds of the communes in Benin have flooded zones.

The rains stopped in the North several weeks ago, but that doesn’t mean that the flooding from the Niger river and other northern waterways has stopped. Karimama, Malanville, and any towns around major bodies of water have been affected.

The Ouemé-Plateau is now really just the Ouemé river. The river, Lac Nokoué, and other bodies of water have flooded the plain.

The Zou has also been heavily flooded.

The Mono-Kouffo, with the Mono river and its thousands of lakes and rivers is equally flooded.

And then there’s Cotonou. My neighborhood is OK. We’re on a hill that gently slopes down towards a swamp. Those who live on the border of or in the swamp have been affected, but to be honest, they’re affected every year. Other parts of the city have not been so lucky. Lac Nokoué and the lagune have risen by several inches, flooding whole neighborhoods.

There are parts of Cotonou that can only be reached by pirogue (canoe), including major roads. You know the back route between the Stadium and the old Peace Corps office? Where they used to make foosball tables, on the left there, over the small bridge? That’s been flooded out for weeks, as has the surrounding neighborhood. There’s a guard-vélo to keep an eye on your bike or moto while you take a pirogue to wherever you need to go and come back. Akpakpa is equally flooded.

There are hundreds of dead, thousands missing, and hundreds of thousands displaced. People don’t have lodging, jobs, food, clean water, or mosquito nets. All of Benin’s most fertile plains have been flooded. Nigeria, a crucial food supplier, is also flooded. Pineapples? Beans? Rice? Wheat? Corn? Tomatoes? Prices are already climbing, and this season’s harvest is going to be a disaster.

How can we help?

So people are homeless, kids aren’t going to school, and disease is rampant. What can we do from our armchairs? I checked with the USAID director and several other international donors to find out what they’re doing. The relief effort is being lead by Caritas, who works in partnership with the Beninese government to get supplies and support to areas affected by the flooding. The American mission is funneling funds through Catholic Relief Services (CRS), who in turn work with Caritas. Caritas has already begun distributing mosquito nets, food, and much needed medication. They have also helped to build temporary housing for thousands of people who have lost their homes.

Because we’re all smart development workers and activists, we know that sending in-kind goods is a terrible way to help populations in need. Donors on the ground have far better supply chains and know where they can source supplies locally. Donating to CRS will guarantee that the funds reach Caritas Benin.

Donate today.

On being broke, being poor, and being glad that I have the luxury of saving

I hate the end of the year in Benin. Everybody turns into a liar. “I’ll pay you tomorrow.” “I’ll call you this evening.” “Stop by at the end of the week.” “Let’s make an appointment for 4:00.” Nobody calls, and we constantly show up to empty offices. It’s more socially acceptable (and easier) to lie than it is to simply admit that they don’t have the money.

Manipulating and manging people you owe money to is an essential part of Beninese culture. You can’t cut someone off unless you have a face-to-face meeting, and if miraculously the face-to-face meeting never occurs, well, it’s your debtor’s lucky day. “Il nous gere.” we say to one another, and sigh.

The biggest spender in Benin is the government, who ran out of money in May. Since then, they’ve been begging, borrowing, and stealing (oh yes) just to pay salaries. Contracts finished in 2008 rest unpaid, and look to stay that way until at least April 2010. If the government can’t pay its large contractors, large contractors can’t pay medium sized contractors, who can’t pay the small businesses they work with, and at the end of the day, somebody’s salary’s not getting paid.

People Online works with small businesses. A lot of people owe us money. It’s easy to say, “Cut off their hosting! Stop doing work for them!” But if we do that, then we lose any change of recouping our losses when everyone finally does get paid in April 2010. And of course, you can’t squeeze water from a stone. We’re well aware that our clients are broke broke broke. It’s not like it’s their fault. Their clients aren’t honoring their contracts either.

Neighbors who can’t pay their rent. Friends who’ve had their electricity cut off. Colleagues who can no longer afford their Internet connection. Small businesses that can no longer pay salaries. This is the precarity of the middle class.

What do you do when a friend comes to borrow $20, and for the first time it’s a choice between helping your friend and paying your water bill? When your brother, who’s always been able to rely on you in a pinch, needs twice as much as usual, but you only have half as much as usual? When your niece’s family can’t afford her school fees, and you no longer have enough to make up the difference?

In normal times, you wouldn’t hesitate to put yourself in a position of slight difficulty to help out your family. You know that when you’re in trouble, your neighbors and family will be there for you too. Everybody’s always broke, and the the easy give-and-take of favors often means the difference between being broke and being poor. Today, the friendly process of social loans has stopped working, and it’s breaking apart the fabric of society.

Everyone knows the end of the year is difficult. Smart businesses (like People Online) prepare a cushion. Normally, this process starts right about now. Mid-November. The gov’t closes the its coffers, and everyone begins the waiting game until February, when some bills will start to get paid, or April, if you’re a small business owed by the government.

This year, the government stopped paying its bills in September, which means that funds were cut off before anyone finished establishing their cushion. Call it corruption, call it the financial crisis, call it utterly irresponsible government spending, call it what you will. The country’s run out of money, and for Benin’s middle class, the difference between being broke and being poor gets just a little bit more blurrier every day.

Did you know the sky is blue? Obvious and less-obvious in ICT4D conversations

I have a confession to make.

I’m not a development worker.

I work with ICTs in the developing world, but I am driven by profit. This is both a luxury and a burden. It’s cool that people think I have something to say about ICT4D. I don’t. I have a lot to say about ICTs in the developing world, but much less to say about ICTs in a development context. Because I don’t know a bloody thing about development. My world view is skewed towards profits and markets.

In my line of work, ROI is very clear. Either the project makes (or saves!) my client a lot of money, or it doesn’t. Either it increases exposure by X number of readers a month or it doesn’t. Either it brings in advertising revenue, or it doesn’t. Either it brings in new clients, or it doesn’t. Either it fills a market need or it doesn’t.

Our clients are not poor. Broke, sure, that’s normal for small businesses everywhere in the world. But not poor. Their clients are rarely poor either. We don’t work with the BoP.

We don’t have to worry about quality of life.  We don’t have to worry about development indicators. We don’t even have to worry about government buy-in. While we do worry about ethics, we don’t have to worry about negative externalities that will make life worse for a large number of people. Our projects just don’t work that way (and thank goodness for that).

On the other hand, because our clients are paying for the tools we build, I don’t have the luxury of choosing an expensive tool that may or may not work. I can only choose tools that work. Otherwise, I lose clients. Not taking end-users needs and wants into consideration results in failed projects lessoned learned. “Lessons learned” = “very expensive mistake” for clients with limited cash flow.

Seems people still thinking, develop in West and take it to Africa who lags. Need to develop in Africa within resource & context #ICT4D

It’s a luxury to be able to work exclusively locally. Even when we deal with the government, there’s flexibility that doesn’t exist in development and aid sectors, because we’re a private sector firm being paid for our services. As a businesswoman, I cannot imagine designing a tool for local businesses without ever having set foot on the ground and spoken to the end users.

Technology is a tool that allows users to do many many things, including becoming more informed about the world around them, improve rural heath care, encourage citizen journalism, clean water, and a million other things. Tools have to be appropriate to their context.

In some ways, it’s limiting to only do work for money. There are a lot of cool projects that pass us by, including projects that could improve quality of life for a lot of people. Our work is almost exclusively small and local, which means that we rarely work on country-wide implementations. We don’t do large-scale public health projects, for example. Even when we work with development organizations, we’re very focused. We’re hired to accomplish very specific goals: build X tool that accomplishes Y within Z budget, or train X number of people to be able to accomplish Y.

Technology is easy. Issues around geography, language, culture, true empowerment and paths to adoption are challenges. #ICT4D

On the other hand, it’s liberating. My job is to look at the market and find new ways to fill market gaps, and that’s easy to measure. Either we’re profitable or we’re not.

ICT4D fills the space between “market demand” and “making lives better.” There are a million ways to improve quality of life that don’t have obvious revenue models. I like to use crisis mapping as an example of this, but there are many others (public health, education, etc). Projects like this are what government and development do best. Entrepreneurs aren’t moving into this space because we can’t figure out ways to make them profitable (yet).

It’s appalling to me that there are people who design projects without accounting for local needs. It’s appalling to me that we even need to discuss why this is important. Those who took part in yesterday’s Twitter chat are aware of this. But for me, it’s like being aware that the sky is blue. Of course it’s blue. There’s a reason it’s blue. Everybody knows it’s blue. Why are we running around talking about how blue the sky is?

#ICT4D #FAIL is corp. IT firms installing high end Cisco + Blades + CO2 fire supression in crumbling gov ministries. IT is not Magic.

The answer is, of course, that there are a large number of people involved in ICT4D who are not aware that context-appropriate solutions are the only solutions that work. Which is crazy. I actually don’t know anyone in #ict4d who isn’t having intelligent conversations about appropriate technology. I do, however, have evidence that such people exist, because Beninese ministries keep paying me to clean up their messes. Someday, I would like to meet these folks.

It’s odd to participate in conversations about development where everyone’s like, “Yeah! Local! Small! Low-tech! Sustainable!” For a businessperson, these things are so painfully obvious, they even don’t need to be said.

Why is so hard to understand why Universal fucking Health Care is a GOOD THING?

I had lunch with an expat this morning, and said I that sometimes I have a hard time talking about development in Benin, as even we haven’t gotten it right yet. She looked at me with raised eyebrows and said, “We??!? *I* come from a country that has universal health care and free education up through university.”

She’s Danish.

For everyone who’s not actively involved in the battle for a public option, let me explain something. I do not have health insurance, and I want to have children some day. I can:

  1. Give birth in Benin, where, if something goes wrong, there may or may not even be any blood in the national blood bank if there’s a problem and I hemorrhage. Certainly, if my baby is born prematurely or in poor health, the odds of its survival are small.
  2. Go home and pay upwards of $10,000 to give birth in the country of my birth, where if something goes wrong, I will be paying off medical bills larger than my student loans for the rest of my life ($50,000 for a premature birth, for example).

There are those of you who will respond that it is my choice to live in Benin. What if I were simply unemployed? Would that make you more sympathetic? If I were on welfare, would you be less sympathetic? Do I have less a right to health care because I live abroad than because I live in the States? Do those without jobs have less rights to health care? Pre-natal care? Maternal care?

These days, the political has become very, very personal.

On capitalism, consumerism, and Fake Steve Jobs

I am appalled that I 100% agree with something Fake Steve Jobs said today.

We all know that there’s no fucking way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused — what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.

I believe in capitalism. Sometimes, I even believe in free market capitalism. I believe people should be able to buy what luxury they can afford.

I also believe that consumption is only a sustainable lifestyle choice for the West because everyone else is locked out of it.

It is a very useful exercise to ask yourself, “What if everyone lived like I do?” Does what you contribute balance what you consume? I own several computers and an iPod. I like things and I like travel. I do not have any answers.

My lifestyle is more sustainable today because I do not live in the States. I am convinced that it is still not sustainable enough.

I do not know how to fix this.

West African IPs blocked again

For the past two days, a client has desperately been trying to get a hold of us. He said he couldn’t access his website. We checked, no problems on our end, and brushed him off.

He showed up this morning at 8:05am with his laptop and CDMA connection. “I’ll prove to you I’m not an idiot,” he says. He’s right. Our hosting provider has blocked his IP. Except that wireless connections in Benin don’t have individual IPs when connecting internationally. Thanks to the miracles of DCHP, all of any one ISP’s clients share an IP address.

Apparently, our webhost instituted several anti-spam measures last night, catching our West African clients in the cross-fire. A few frantic emails later, they’ve unblocked the IP in question, but I’m left wondering, what if this happens again?

What’s the difference between social entrepreneurship and plain old entrepreneurship?

Hmmm.

The difference between “social entrepreneurship” and “entrepreneurship” can break down quickly. When we’re talking about African students building new web applications to make it easier to send money to families back home, what should we designate that? Entrepreneurship or Social Entrepreneurship? Or does it not matter? Should it perhaps make us wonder if we should instead be holding up that type of work to argue that real entrepreneurship is about the creation of all types of value – not just about financial wealth. In other words, maybe our view should be about the inseparability of “social” from “entrepreneurship,” and perhaps that’s easier to understand in the emerging market context.

At the end of his article on Rwanda and the Infrastructure of the Future, on the excellent Social Entrepreneurship blog at Change.org, Nathanial Whitteman raises an interesting point, namely, at what points do starting a business/ earning money start and stop being social?

A business that sells mosquito nets is providing a product important to the health of his village. But why is this business more social than a woman who sews wedding dresses? Both are providing a necessary service to the community, and both are often marginal (less so in a city). A cybercafe? An accountant? Why is someone who makes and sells artisanal goods to westerners starting a social enterprise, but a thriving dressmaker not?

Is the difference a commitment to non-exploitative labor practices and giving back to the community? If so, most micro and small businesses are social businesses, whether in the developing world or not! They could not continue to exist in their communities if the communities felt exploited.

  • Businesses create employment.
  • Financial stability creates demands for goods and services.
  • B2B services make business easier and more profitable for other businesses.
  • Small businesses mean a rising middle class, which means a higher standard of living.
  • I’d like to add that investors can pressure governments to improve investment and business environments, including reducing corruption, but I actually don’t know if there’s any research on this or not.

The more I hear “social enterprise,” the more I’m convinced that it’s just a more palatable phrase for, “people are willing to pay for goods and services that make their lives better and this market is not being exploited as well as it could be.”

Hmmm.

I’m still not sure what I think about this subject, especially as an entrepreneur in a developping country. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

Starting Pink BENIN, a Beninese charity (subtitled, “Why Theresa doesn’t have spare time anymore, not like she ever did”)

logos-ong-02-copie1I’ve mentioned Pink BENIN and the work we do briefly here, in emails, and on Twitter, but I haven’t really gone into a lot of detail about what’s become a huge part of my life.

How Pink BENIN got started

About six months ago, a Beninese friend of ours came back from a trip to France and told us she’d gone to remove several lumps from her breasts, and to undergo treatment for breast cancer. This woman is a woman of means and education. She studied in both France and the United States, and is persuing a successful second career as a banker. Her first, as a journalist, was equally successful. All this to say that she is rather atypical of Beninese women in that she has access to wealth and knowledge.

After finding a lump, she approached her family doctor, who told her that, while she could have the lump removed in country, he didn’t really know where to send her for further treatment. X-Ray therapy? Chemo therapy? Can that even be done in West Africa? That was all beyond him. She combed the network of Beninese doctors until she was given recommendations for a doctor in Paris. The process was humiliating, time consuming, and frustrating. Upon her return, she annonced her intention to form Pink BENIN, a non-profit dedicated to helping women survive breast cancer.

We don’t want to cure breast cancer, just stop women from dying from it so bloody often

We want to inform women and doctors that breast cancer doesn’t have to be fatal. We want to teach women how to self examen. We want to dispurse social taboos about maladies that touch women and our sexuality. We want doctors and midwives to know what breast cancer is and where to send women when they find lumps. We want to lower the cost of surgery, and bring x-ray therapy to Benin. We want mammographs in major population centers outside of Cotonou, and we want women to use them anually. We want women to form support networks that encourage self testing and early screening. Most of all, we want to lower the cost of treatment so that women don’t have to die from beast cancer.

Sounds like a lot? Well, we’re ambitious, but we’re also working with smart doctors and health professionals to design programs and projects that do as much as we can with as little funding as possible. We have several models, and while none of them will completely cover our costs, we think we’ll be able to get buy without major gov’t funding for a little while.

What do I think of all this?

Personally, as an American who started out as a Peace Corps Volunteer and ended up emmigrating, it’s a very rewarding experience to work a group of dedicated men and women who aren’t counting on int’l aid to come in and save the day. I see it as the same “volunteering” I did back home; however, this time I sit on the board of directors.

We don’t have any staff (yet), so everyone pitches in where we’re needed. It’s very hard, but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m learning a lot. I wish I knew more about running a charity, running a non-profit, the public health sector, community organizing, and herding cats. While this sort of thing hasn’t yet been done in Benin, it *has* been done throughout the developed world. There are even models as close as the Ivory Coast!

We’re doing our best to learn as much as we can as fast as we can. It’s amazing the work we’ve already done (I’ll write some follow-up posts on that, I think). We’re all terribly worried about doing more harm than good, but we’re also worried about being paralyzed by worry.

If you’re interested in what we do, check out our website at pinkbenin.org.