Category Archives: where does that highway go to?

Bullets, beads and CDs

A former neighbor of mine has a Lesbian Christmas Party every year and she invites a few current and past neighbors. If I happen to be in town, I go. It’s a catered party with fantastic food, lots of good drinks and a high energy, extremely competitive Yankee Swap.

A Yankee Swap is not a Midwestern thing, I’m pretty certain it’s of East Coast origin. The way my old neighbor does it is that everyone brings a wrapped gift of around $20-25 and places it under the tree. After everyone’s pretty sauced up, numbers are drawn out of a hat. Whoever gets #1 picks a gift, opens it, shows it around, and sits down. Then whoever has the highest number goes next. That person picks a gift, opens it, shows it around, and has the option of keeping the gift or switching it with the gift picked by person #1. It goes on down the line till you get back to #1, with each person picking a gift, opening it, showing it around and then deciding if they will keep their gift, or swap it for a gift that someone else has picked. At the end, #1 gets to swap whatever he or she has for any gift in the room.

Normally the Swap gets pretty out of hand. My neighbor plays MC, calling out what the gifts are, hustling people along, reminding people who has what, and generally getting folks riled up. So there’s some rowdiness. People hide things. There is generally a lot of hooting and laughing.

Customarily, certain gifts carry the party. One year it was a tool belt. Another year it was a waffle iron. Whoever has one of the prized gifts knows they won’t have it for long, because someone else will draw something boring and swap it for the coveted item and they will get left with the dud. If you have the Wonder Woman Snuggie but someone down the line unwraps some Tupperware, you can guess what you’re going to be left with.

This year, the swap starts. And it’s really really tame. Disappointingly so. No one is stealing anyone’s gift. There’s minimal competition. It’s not as crazy loud as it usually is.

So I think, ‘I need to do my part to get this party started.’ I pick a gift, open it, and it’s a couple pairs of fuzzy socks. All devious like, I think ‘I’m stealing that nice bottle of Kahlua over there.’ Never mind that my old neighbor has been announcing that particular gift bag as ‘bullets, beads and CDs’ — my eyes are on the Kahlua portion of it.

So I make a show of going across the room to change my boring gift for the Kahlua. ‘These socks are great! But I’m switching them for this!’

‘Ohhh! She’s going for the bullets, beads and CDs!’ shrieks my fairly tipsy former neighbor to some applause and cheering.

I take the gift bag and go back to my seat on the sofa to relish that nice bottle of Kahlua and see what else might be in there…. And…. Well….

As you might notice, it’s not Kahlua at all. It’s chili chocolate beer. And it’s not anything like the bullets or beads I might have imagined. It’s anal beads, a vibrating bullet and a Marvin Gaye CD so you can get your sexy on. Aha. So that’s why she kept saying ‘bullets, beads and CDs.’ I feel my face turning a bit red as I sit hoping maybe someone will eventually want to swap with me and thinking that from here on out I’ll be known as the kinky former neighbor….

So, the moral of the story, I suppose, is that things are never quite what you think they are.

So pay attention, or you may just end up with the anal beads!


Tiny Living (and Shotgun Shacks)

Every now and then there’s a huge spike in traffic to my blog. In one case it was because @cblatts linked to a post of mine. But most of the time it’s not because people are actually looking for me. It’s something even better. They are searching for the term “shotgun shack.”

What’s a shotgun shack? Wikipedia gives this history and definition:

‘The shotgun house is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than 12 feet (3.5 m) wide, with doors at each end. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), through the 1920s. Alternate names include shotgun shackshotgun hut, and shotgun cottage.’

Wikipedia says that the style can be traced from Africa to Haitian influences on home design in New Orleans, but that shotgun shacks are found all over the US. The homes became a symbol of poverty in the mid 1900s.

‘Shotgun houses consist of three to five rooms in a row with no hallways. The term “shotgun house”, which was in use by 1903 but became more common after about 1940, is often said to come from the saying that one could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house and out the back door (since all the doors are on the same side of the house).[citation needed] Another reputed source of the name is that many were built out of crates, e.g. old shotgun-shell crates, and those made for other purposes. However, the name’s origin may actually reflect an African architectural heritage, perhaps being a corruption of a term such as to-gun, which means “place of assembly” in the Southern Dohomey Fon area.[2]

Midwestern rocker John Mellencamp’s song Pink Houses alludes to shotgun shacks. It’s a bit on the sarcastic side and makes commentary on rural hardships in the US: “Ain’t that America for you and me, ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby, ain’t that America, home of the free, yeah. Little pink houses for you and me….” And the killer line near the end:  “Cause it’s the simple man baby, pays the bills, the thrills, the pills that kill”

The Talking Heads song ‘Once in a Lifetime‘ directly references shotgun shacks and it’s where I took the name for my blog. The song captures a feeling I get often when moving around in the world of aid and development. I’ve found myself waking up in a shotgun shack one morning and then heading to the US to visit my parents in their middle class houses that feel absolutely palatial and luxurious in comparison. Or spending a couple of weeks eating rice and ‘leaves’ and an occasional egg in a rural community but being wined and dined at some donor meeting the following week.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here?

But people searching for shotgun shack these days are not looking for me or for those songs for the most part.

Nope. They are looking for information on how to build their own shotgun shack either because they are unable to pay for their current home given the economic downturn in the US or they are making a clear decision to downsize, prioritize and live more simply. (Or a smart combination of both).

For example this story‘…Debra and her family lived in a nearly 2000 square foot home on an acre and a half of land. Then her husband lost his job and they began to work 4 jobs between them to pay the mortgage, until one day they remembered they had a choice.

Before having their son, Debra and her husband Gary had spent 9 years living in very tiny homes in South America. Living small hadn’t felt like a sacrifice, but a way to stay focused on what is important. They decided they wanted to get back to that.

They stopped working so hard, sold or gave away all of their extra stuff and began looking for the perfect tiny home.’

I discovered this weekend that ‘tiny homes’ is actually a whole movement, thanks to a tweet by @blakehounshell pointing to the Tiny Life: Tiny Houses, Tiny Living blog.

According to the site, Tiny Living encompasses:

  • Tiny Houses
  • Life Simplification
  • Environmental Consciousness
  • Self Sufficiency
  • Sound Fiscal Plans
  • Social Consciousness
A pretty cool movement. So if you’ve arrived here looking for me, great – read on! But if you arrived by accident looking for info on shotgun shacks or tiny houses, head over to Tiny Life and get your tiny living on.

What’s hardcore?

As an expat aid worker (or journalist) you do a lot of talking and writing about how hardcore things are in the place where you are living, working or visiting.

You do this to get people out of their bubbles. You want them to know what is going on. To see what you are seeing and experiencing. To care. To react.

You feel the need to wake people up. To say to them: ‘You have no idea how hardcore it is here. You have no idea what people are going through!’

But sometimes you lose the plot and your narcissism kicks in. You totally change the nature of the story to: ‘You have no idea how hardcore I am because I’m living, working or visiting this place where people are going through terrible things.’

It becomes a contest of who’s the most hardcore.

Because that’s what this is all about anyway, right? You being hardcore?


July 10, 2011 update: This post was sparked by the 2 links below and related discussions on blogs and Twitter but I was unsure about saying so at the time.–researchers-respond-to-haiti-ptsd-article/

Then this morning I read this piece:

And right after that, I read this (including the first comments):

which refers to live-tweeting the visit of a rape victim to the doctor (something that really made me angry at the time):

And so yes, this post was dedicated to Mac, in case it wasn’t clear before. 


I made my first trip home to the Midwest after I’d lived out of the US for about 2 years. I wasn’t yet an ‘expat aid worker‘ but I had married a ‘local’. My husband and I lived minimally, surviving on his salary. Neither of us was on the front lines by any means, but the war in his country had only recently ended and things were still on edge, so we lived a bit on edge too.

This trip home was a classic example of so-called ‘reverse culture shock.’ Before my 2 years in my husband’s country, I’d been on the West Coast for almost 5 years. So being back in my mid-sized, middle class, Midwestern home town was a trip. People were big. They shopped in bulk. They ate large portions. They drove everywhere. They loved the mall, super-sized stores and fast food restaurants. The women had big hair, summer tans and gold jewelry. The fruit at the supermarket was big and fake looking. When you got it home, it was flavorless. Buildings were closed up, air-conditioned, sterile. The houses were sided or nicely painted, the lawns square and manicured. Streets were wide with multiple lanes. People drove shiny new cars and minivans. I felt a bit like I’d stepped into the Black Hole Sun video….

On the one hand, sleeping under a down comforter in a chilled, quiet room with venetian blinds drawn meant I didn’t wake up with the sunrise and the roosters, and that was nice. My feet didn’t get dusty when I walked around outside. There was a washing machine, a dryer and a dishwasher. There were no mosquitoes or roaches or any other bugs in the house. The streets weren’t jammed with buses and cars beeping, revving engines or blowing out clouds of black smoke. I could watch old episodes of my favorite childhood shows on Nickelodeon, and they weren’t even dubbed. My mom made my favorite meals. You could drink water from the faucet. There was an abundance of cheese, real butter, green salads, and the chocolate didn’t taste like flavored wax. I didn’t worry about being assaulted — or worse.

On the other hand, I felt like a stranger.

I remember my mother complaining about how my younger brother was wrecking the house and didn’t care. The house didn’t look wrecked to me at all. It looked just how it had always looked, and it was about a thousand times nicer than where I lived with my husband. “Come in here and look at this!” she said. “He put a hole in the carpet.”

We were having a conversation about a hole in the carpet?

I followed her into the room where the hole was. “It’s right here….” She scanned the floor for the hole. She couldn’t find it. She knelt down and ran her hand along the carpet, feeling for the hole. “Ah! Here it is. Look at this!” I looked at the small tear in the carpet and made what I hoped were appropriate comments. I felt closed and distant. I was angry at her for complaining. Did she have any idea that most people in the world didn’t even have carpet? And she was upset over a small hole?

I couldn’t relate my mom, or anyone else really. I didn’t know where to start when they asked what it was like where I lived. Most people had no idea where the country I lived in was located, what language was spoken there, or that there had been a war there that they were funding with their tax dollars. My grandmother wanted to know if we had toilet paper over there. It took too much effort to explain and contextualize. My self-righteousness ran high.

One of my best friends from college came out from the West Coast to see me for a few days. She at least knew her geography, wars, history and US foreign policy. But it took us awhile to find some common ground. I had my young child with me. I wasn’t as hip as I used to be. She talked about how she didn’t have her dream job yet, that it was hard for people our age to get going on a career. She talked about her aspirations to be something or someone special. I tried to find a way to relate, but it was hard. Where I lived most people didn’t have big career dreams and aspirations, they felt lucky to have some kind of income.

It was her first time in the Midwest and she was culturally shocked too. Things mostly just made her laugh in dismay. She found the Midwest ‘scary’ and Republican. We had often gone vintage clothing shopping in college, so we took a day trip away from my home town out to some smaller rural towns to check out the thrift stores. They normally sat on desolate Main Streets alongside little diners, variety stores, quirky craft boutiques and secondhand bookshops. She took black and white photos of the 1950s style storefronts, the old-fashioned signs for ice cream and hot dogs, and the church signboards with crooked or missing white letters that urged sinners to come in and be saved. We ate French fries and grilled cheeses and drank lemonade at one of the diners. A friendly old man in a baseball hat and overalls tipped his hat and held the door open for us, chatting us up in his slightly Southern accent.

After I got back home to my husband, my friend sent me some cassettes of her favorite bands, things she knew I’d like. She explained in the enclosed letter that one of the bands was fronted by Courtney Love, the wife of the lead singer from Nirvana. The band was called Hole.

I was excited to have some new music from an old friend. I popped Hole into the cassette player. Teenage WhoreBabydollGarbadge Man… It sounded harsh and ugly to me. My husband made faces. ‘Why are you listening to that?’ I pressed stop, annoyed at him, yet I couldn’t explain why I was listening to it. I wanted to defend myself, my college friend and Hole, but I had nothing to say.

For the next several weeks, when he was out of the house, I listened to Hole over and over, trying to learn to like it, trying to hang on to bits of my old self.


Once when the guy I had recently started dating (and would eventually marry) was late to pick me up, I decided I should be angry. I should practice my assertiveness (something I’ve never been very good at) and let him know that I was not going to take that kind of rudeness. That I wasn’t to be taken advantage of. That we needed to start this relationship off on the right foot.

I imagined what I would say when he finally showed up. The non-assertive voice in the back of my head kept popping in to make me doubt myself. Maybe there’s a reason… he’s never been late before… be patient… see what his story is. No, I argued with myself. I’m a feminist. We young women shouldn’t be taking this kind of crap. My friends and I need to demand more respect from men, and here’s a perfect example of what we shouldn’t be putting up with.

Time wore on. Thirty minutes. An hour. I veered back and forth between ‘you should be angry‘ and ‘maybe he’s not interested in you/he’s blowing you off‘ and ‘maybe something happened to him‘. Two hours. Two and a half hours. Three hours. Then a phone call. He’d been detained. Oh….


Then there was the time after we were married. We were living in his country. There was a war going on in the background. We were at the market and had run into an old school friend of his who was very flirtatious. She kept bringing up things they had in common that I hadn’t been around for. She kept touching him on the arm. She was pretty and she had an exotic name. On the one side it was obvious my husband was head over heels for me. On the other, this woman made me feel jealous. She invited us out to her mother’s place for lunch. I didn’t want to go. I knew I would feel out of place and uncomfortable. I made up an excuse to stay home, not saying what I really felt. Come on, my husband said. Come with me. I want you to go. At the last minute, I agreed.

We took a public bus out towards her parents’ home. About 45 minutes outside of the capital, we came across a group of soldiers. A long flatbed military truck was parked off the road with some civilian men and boys sitting in the back. The soldiers stopped our bus. A few of them boarded, guns slung over their shoulders. They glanced around, looking everyone over. The bus was silent. They started pointing: You. You. You. You. Get off the bus, they motioned. One of the people they pointed at was my husband. He got up from beside me. I got up too. No, no, stay there, he said. No, I said. I followed him off the bus, my stomach heavy. What was going to happen?

The soldiers noticed me.  No, no. You. Get back on the bus! they told me. I’m with him, I said reaching for his arm and circling mine tight around it. He is my husband.

Oh oh, they said graciously, raising their hands, palms out in front of them in defense. We are very sorry. Excuse us. Excuse us. Sorry, sorry. They directed us away from the group of unlucky boys and men who were not married to me, who didn’t have an excuse for not climbing up into the military truck, who didn’t have a way to get out of being forcibly recruited. Two soldiers walked us back to the side of the main road. One of them stopped the next bus and put my husband and me on it. We went on our way, off to lunch, the incident just a little 10-minute sidetrack for us.

Meanwhile those other sons, brothers, boyfriends, husbands would not be going on their merry way at all. What was it like for their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives when they never arrived for lunch that day? Were the women imagining the assertive things they would say? Were they musing over a reaction, only to realize they were oh so very wrong? When night fell, did they become desperate, looking for their boys and men? How long before they found out what had happened to them? How did that chance bus ride change a family of lives forever?

My husband’s old flirtatious school friend didn’t seem so threatening or important any longer. We rode the rest of the way to her house silent, sitting close, hearts pounding. Hyper aware of what had just almost happened. What if I had stayed home? I have no recollection at all of the actual lunch, that trivial thing that I had been ridiculously concerned about.


There was also the time that I was sitting in a chair in a tidy air-conditioned office, waiting for a job interview. Sitting there in my nice clothes, nervous about the interview, idly chatting with the secretary. While I was there, worrying about the interview, my husband was being held hostage by four heavily armed men out on an empty plantation off the side of a rural highway a couple of hours out of the capital.

It was a random thing. He and some co-workers were coming back from a training session in a community. Four men with automatic weapons stepped out onto the road and told them to halt, probably because they were in a decent looking 4×4. It was a robbery, not anything political or military, just simple post-conflict organized crime. While the robbery progressed, the old man with the machete who guarded the plantation ventured over to see what all the noise was. He was shot. The police happened by. There was a showdown of sorts but everyone came out OK, well, everyone except the old man with the machete.

My husband arrived home on time that night, but shoeless and carrying a small cardboard box. There was a wounded mourning dove in the box that he’d found and brought to give to his mother (she loved birds). His shoes, cheap watch and silver wedding ring had been stolen. It struck me that I’d been calmly sitting in an NGO office, interviewing for a new job while he and several others were sitting in the middle of a field, wondering when they were going to be shot. The whole thing felt surreal. What if we’d left the house angry with each other that morning and things hadn’t turned out OK for him?


Life goes on. The day-to-day takes over again. But underneath it, you keep your awareness of life’s fragility.

The most dangerous place…

So, this ad by anti-abortion group Life Always is pissing people off in New York City. And I mean really pissing them off.

Apparently there’s so much controversy that the ad is coming down. I like that. Score one for public pressure over an offensive media campaign.

What I found really interesting is the story that Tricia Fraser, the mother of the girl featured in the billboard, is demanding that her daughter’s image not be used. (HT ColorLines – News for Action) (Disclaimer: this story is from Fox News so there’s always a chance that it’s not actually true…)

Ms Fraser says she didn’t even know about the billboard until a friend told her about it a couple days after it was up.

I would never endorse something like that, especially with my child’s image,” she says. She did sign a release with a modeling agency, but never thought her daughter’s image would be used in an anti-abortion campaign focusing on African Americans, she says. “I want them to take it down.”

I applaud Ms Fraser for her reaction. I’m glad that she had access to the image and that she had the wherewithal, the courage and the strength to stand up and say “take it down.” I’m glad that the context in the US was such that she was able to do that.

It made me think about all the children’s photos taken in “developing” countries and then used externally (eg., not in that country) in various campaigns by INGOs and advocacy agencies. What if this child was from rural Uganda and her image was being used in a campaign around AIDS or child trafficking or another issue that can be stigmatizing? Would her mother have a real choice in how her image was used? Would she even know how the image was being used? Would she have the power to get the image removed if she didn’t agree with the campaign’s message or if she didn’t want her child associated with it? And how would she be viewed by the INGO or advocacy agency if she made a fuss about it?

How many aid agencies and their PR or marketing firms can say that they share their messaging and the use of children’s images with parents and communities to ensure that parents are OK with it? The images are likely taken with no remuneration for the children and families. When people ask to be paid, they are probably told that “we are a non-profit, we won’t be making any money from the image” or that the family should be grateful that they are able to give back to the INGO in this way (the INGO has been helping them a lot after all…), and that their image will allow the agency to raise money do some more good work.

I understand, in a way, how this all works and why it is how it is. And there is a lot of complicated stuff inherent there. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable about it.

People are not Props

Supermarket Sigh

Go Big G cereals! Go America!

Driving Development

I went to the supermarket one time with a local colleague in [a country in Africa]. He pointed to a shopping cart like the one in this picture. “That’s how we often do development work,” he said.

“We talk a lot about locally-driven development. We say the community is in the driver’s seat, that there is local ownership.

But if you look a bit more closely, the set-up is more like that shopping cart. You see, the communities may believe that they are driving and we may say the same, but it is often the NGO and the donors who are actually pushing the cart towards their own agendas.”

Mainstreaming complexity and failure

I don’t mean to come off as curmudgeonly. I don’t have enough facial hair to qualify as a curmudgeon anyway. But the potential for “failure” and “complexity” to become meaningless buzzwords in the aid and development field worries me. We do this to all the good concepts… participation… community engagement… ownership… capacity strengthening… learning… sustainability… innovation… gender equity. Sometimes there’s a price to pay for hitting the mainstream and you lose core meanings.

Admitting failure (the act itself as well as the new Engineers without Borders website) is good and necessary. So is more discussion about why aid and development are complex (and why many things in life are complex… Ethnografix talks about complexity and the recent killings in Arizona). It is a very good thing that these 2 concepts are discussed outside small circles and brought more broadly into aid and development (and other) discourses as they have been more and more over the past few years.

For one thing* complexity needs to be discussed because aid and development are complex, and it’s about time that aid and development practitioners stopped feeling crazy for noticing that. Ben Ramalingam talks about aid and complexity much better than I ever could on his blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos. It’s pretty engrossing. (There’s also a quote there by Stephen Hawking: “I think the next century will be the century of complexity” that proves I’m already way, way behind in declaring 2011 the year of complexity and failure-speak.)

For another thing*, failure needs to be allowed so that aid and development organizations can better learn from fails and share them openly. Ian Thorpe explains this well in his post Failure without Borders and links to some other recent “fail” celebrations such as Mobile Active’s FailFairePeace Dividend Trust’s failure report, and Engineers without Borders who followed suit. The Admitting Failure initiative and website, as explained by Good Intents, is a step forward for smarter  and better aid.


J. over at Tales from the Hood agrees with this admitting failure and talking about complexity stuff. He probably wasn’t aiming at jumping on the bandwagon, but ended up there anyway:

“It is time to start meaningfully coming clean. We’d better get busy and educate the public about the realities of aid work now, while they still sort of think well of us (and by the way, I use the term “aid” very generically in this case – development, long-term poverty-reduction, community development, international development, disaster response… all included). We need to come to terms with the honesty/transparency issue. We’d better provide alternatives to the glossy, over-produced, happy propaganda that has characterized our communications for the past decades.”

Terence at Waylaid Dialectic both agrees and disagrees with J. and also talks (inadvertently?) about failure and complexity:

[Yes J…. but it will be difficult… but] “here’s how I imagine it might play out:

“Amongst NGOs you need one NGO to take the leap. To publicly state that: ‘we’re going to keep working as usual on the ground, but we’re going to be honest with you about what succeeds and what doesn’t. To market its openness. I think for some NGOs this might work. Particularly those that already have a niche amongst the somewhat well-informed. And if it worked for one, it might take off amongst others. Might, might, might. Might fail miserably but, on the other hand, might become an established norm in the world of aid.

“It would be harder still for government aid agencies. Politicians are supremely sensitive to negative headlines. And opposition parties ever keen to generate them. And there are the Moyos and Easterlies of the world: people with ideological axes to grind. And who are likely to spin stories of failure to meet their own political narratives. None of this is likely to improve aid giving.

“Which is a long way of saying I agree with J. on the need for a new type of transparency in the world of aid. And for the end of the good news machines. This is change we should strive for. But, just like everything else in development work, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s going to be easy.”

So basically admitting failure might fail miserably… man, this stuff is complex.


But the stream has been kind of naturally flowing in the same direction over the past few years, seemingly without any centralized effort (correct me if I’m wrong). The discourse is moving towards admitting that aid and development are complex and that failure happens.

So, that’s all good. There’s this very cool talk that came out a couple days ago by Dave Snowden (HT @meowtree). In the talk, Snowden goes much further into detail about the link between complexity and failure. So I’m listening, and I realize wait, this is all kind of about the difference between systems engineering and complex adaptive systems and woahhhh.  I knew it was linked to natural systems and biology, but OK, no wonder this stuff is being discussed at an Engineers without Borders conference. It’s starting to come together in my head that failure is actually an integral part of this whole complexity and systems thinking thing. Doh. The century of complexity is here, and I’m actually pretty late to the party, and goddamn do I still have a lot to learn about it in order to understand it better and think things through.

But I still have this nagging thought about the buzzwordliness of “failure” and “complexity”. I’m still wondering if now that the failure and complexity voices are sounding louder and louder, the concepts and terms will become just empty buzzwords. Will “complexity” be simplified for the masses and will the depth in complexity theories be totally lost? Will “complexity” be over simplified and disjointed by being broken down into its minimal parts? (I mean seriously, complexity theory is complex, and has probably already been significantly dumbed down for people like me to understand it.)

@dymaxion sees me tweeting about this and steps in:


Fair play. And even more interesting (by now I want to quit my job and go study complexity full time….)

So there is a growing and focused effort on translating complexity and failure into a language that facilitates their discussion, and smart people like Ella (@dymaxion) are doing it. That is quite helpful.


But I still have some concerns….

  • Will we start to hear people blaming their aid failures on complexity? “Well it’s a complex field so inevitably we fail left and right and that’s a good thing….” Will that be acceptable or not? And will the push to move beyond failure be strong enough? (Snowden makes the point that the job of an engineer is to make a complex system into a complicated system so that it can then be engineered/figured out/resolved…at least I think that’s what he said.)
  • And what about all the failures that INGOs do admit? What about all the things written up in internal reports. All the “good practices” and “best practices” and “lessons learned” documents that fill the shelves and hard drives of the world’s INGOs and have often even been funded by forward-thinking foundations who understand that failure happens? Ansel (@mediahacker) a young journalist in Haiti, writes this after reading a recent report on Haiti “For me, something that stands out is the number of times the UN indicates an understanding of humanitarian failures but seemingly ignores suggestions from others on how to do better….” I’d edit that phrase to include “ignores suggestions from its own staff involved in implementing programs on how to do better.”  Failure means nothing if it’s not learned from and if political will is not there to change the conditions that cause known failures.
  • If failure becomes big enough of a concept and donors start demanding to know about failures, how many senior management discussions will there be about “which is the best failure to highlight for the donor?” “Which community can we visit to see a good failure?” “Which failure examples make us look the best? “Let’s pick a failure that it’s easy to fix so we will look good.” “Be sure to add the ‘failure’ sub-heading to the annual report structure and the logfail chart.”
  • How long till the “failure experts,” (as Ben Ramalingam (@aidontheedge) said today) descend upon us…. the consultants and contractors who soon, instead of only “delivering development” and “capacity building” will become specialists in “reframing failure”. Maybe AED can be their first client?

There’s where I feel curmudgeonly and cynical. I hope I’m wrong. I’ll let you know how I feel after participating in my first obligatory capacity building workshop on mainstreaming complexity and failure.

(And if you’ve made it this far in my wandering diatribe, please understand that this topic is complex, so I don’t pretend to completely understand it, and it was thus impossible to make this post any shorter or less rambling.)

*I realize that there is not only one reason that these points should be discussed — the reasons why they should be discussed are complex….


I started reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four over the year-end holidays. So far I’ve only gotten through the 2003 foreword by Thomas Pynchon, the annex on Newspeak, and the first 5 pages of the book.

Pynchon is perhaps best known for The Crying of Lot 49, another book I need to read. Strangely, I can’t remember if I’ve read either 1984 or Lot 49 already.

Pynchon’s foreword alone has me fascinated. I’m going to enjoy (or maybe simply be depressed about) finding parallels between Orwell’s 1984 and life in 2011, I can already tell.

Some interesting bits in Pynchon’s forward include:

Doublethink and cognitive dissonance

Pynchon says, “there has arisen a sort of schizophrenic manner of thinking, in which words like ‘democracy’ can bear two irreconcilable meanings, and such things as concentration camps and mass deportations can be right and wrong simultaneously….

“We recognize this ‘sort of schizophrenic manner of thinking’ as a source for one of the great achievements of this novel, one which has entered the everyday language of political discourse — the identification and analysis of doublethink…. Doublethink is a form of mental discipline whose goal…is to be able to believe two contradictory truths at the same time. This is nothing new, of course. We all do it. In social psychology it has long been known as ‘cognitive dissonance.’ Others like to call it ‘compartmentalization.’ Some, famously F. Scott Fitzgerald, have considered it evidence of genius….”

Doublethink in government entities

In 1984, Doublethink also lies behind the names of the superministries which run things… the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth tells lies, the Ministry of Love tortures…. If this seems unreasonably perverse, recall that in the present-day United States, few have any problems with a war-making apparatus named the ‘Department of Defense,’ any more than we have saying ‘Department of Justice’ with a straight face, despite well-documented abuses of human and constitutional rights by its most formidable arm, the FBI.”

Doublethink in the media

Pynchon goes on to say that “Our nominally free news media are required to represent ‘balanced’ coverage, in which every ‘truth’ is immediately neutered by an equal and opposite one. Every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed ‘spin’ as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round. We know better than what they tell us, yet hope otherwise. We believe and doubt at the same time — it seems a condition of political thought in a modern superstate to be permanently of at least two minds on most issues. Needless to say, this is of inestimable use to those in power who wish to remain there, preferably forever.”

Doublethink now

Obviously the current US (and every other) government system uses doublethink in pretty much every way, shape and form, regardless of the party in power.

And consider the reactions in the US to similar yet somehow different situations and events. I don’t say this to be offensive, but I’ve heard these arguments thrown out to counter each other:

  • Can we blame the horrible killings at Colombine on Marilyn Manson? Can we blame the horrible shootings of an Arizona congresswoman and others on Sarah Palin?
  • Should the NRA hold a conference in Colombine? Should a mosque be built near the site of 9/11?
  • What does Internet freedom mean in Iran and China. What does it mean in the US (hello Wikileaks).
  • What about support for Cote d’Ivoire post election vs. support for today’s Sudan referendum?
  • What about abortion being right and the death penalty wrong… or the death penalty being right and abortion wrong.

Certainly context and nuance need to be taken into consideration in each of these cases, but context and nuance are usually colored by our own subjective belief systems. We tend to do a lot of doublethink as a nation and as people living within political systems in general.

I won’t even go into the Tea Party movement’s doublethink. And if you are a Tea Party supporter reading this, certainly you’ll list off doublethink that you see in the beliefs of Democrats.

Doublethink in aid and development

Shortly after reading Pynchon’s foreword, I read this interview where Ben Ramalingam talks about complexity and aid. About two-thirds of the way down, Ben is asked How well do aid organizations operate in complex environments? and he responds:

“One of the most interesting complexity perspectives is the idea that has come out of Rosalind Eyben’s recent work at the Institute of Development Studies. Ros used to run DFID country offices across Latin America and was also the DFID chief of social development, and her argument is that…a number of people in aid agencies do deal [with] complex, non-linear, realities on a daily basis, but they do it under the radar, below the wire, away from the watchful eyes of head offices….

But these same people also have to spend a huge amount of time filtering complexity, making their good work fit the hungry machine, to feed what Andrew Natsios has called the aid counter-bureaucracy, which increasingly demands positive numbers and simple narratives.

People always talk about the challenge of speaking truth to power, the ongoing Wikileaks is just the latest and highest profile manifestation. But in our sector, there may be as much of need to get power to speak truth. Andrew Natsios could only speak out about the complexity of aid, and the idea that measurability was inversely proportional to development relevance – his words, not mine – when he was no longer in USAID. While he ran USAID he couldn’t say that – he perpetuated, perhaps even strengthened – the counter-bureacratic system. Why? There is a real, unspoken, but intensely felt, human cost to living with this level of cognitive dissonance.”

Doublethink isn’t only happening at USAID and other large institutional funding agencies. What about doublethink when it comes to marketing vs programs? What about corporate social responsibility doublethink?

So what’s up with Doublethink?

Is mastering doublethink a necessary survival skill in today’s world, a sign of genius as F. Scott Fitzgerald said? Or is doublethink something that needs to be overcome by speaking truth to power and pushing power to speak truth?