The beginning of spring

A blog about my work, where international development meets tech, and my life, where food, books, design, dogs, and friends (and the occasional pig) make appearances.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Career women and Jane Austen

The internet is abuzz about the Forbes article, "Don't Marry Career Women," just as it was when Linda Hirschmann published her article on "choice feminism" being a cul-de-sac in the real march towards gender equality last year. What both of these articles brought to the fore for me was a long standing debate that I have had with a very good friend about whether we would have been happier as characters in a Jane Austen novel, or ourselves.

Both of us are are career women, and by happenstance we were trained as Russia experts in graduate school. Today she's one of the world's authorities on private sector provision of health services, and I'm one of the co-founders of GlobalGiving. She "ran away" from small-town America, I've taken refuge in the US from familian and cultural expectations in Japan. Over many years of relishing our careers (including their unexpected turns that have taken us both far from our original focus in grad school), and puzzling over exactly how we balance our professional and personal lives, we've always used Jane Austen characters as our counterfactuals. Why? Because we both love Jane Austen, identify strongly with her heroines, and it's the easiest way for us to imagine having far less choices than we have ever had in our lives. And it has never been clear to us that we would have been actually unhappier as Jane Austen characters.

Of course, Jane Austen isn't a particularly grim writer, but the nub of our question was around choice--an issue that has been perfectly framed by Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz makes the case that too often we are made unhappy by too many choices because the more choices we have, the more we second guess any choice that we make.

But I think where I come out on this choice issue these days is not that I'd rather I was Emma rather than Mari. There are some choices that are worth having, for which I definitely have to thank women who came before me, and that is the choice to set off on your own. This is a choice men have had forever, and if we were to flip the Forbes article on its head, we'd be counseling women not to marry career men, but to go out there and find house-husbands because they appear to be less inclined to divorce. My favorite corollary to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has always been "a car of your own" if ever you decide you want to set off on your own--and you can't have a car of your own unless you can earn your own way. So yes, Michael Noer may well be right, and it's just as well.

[Sorry, Jane!]

Unintended Consequences

There are so many stories of unintended negative consequences in development, whether it's dams and resettlement, or the Green Revolution as well as stories of efforts that had no impact, that it gives me real pleasure to talk about intiatives that had unintended positive consequences. One is an old story, the other one far newer, at least to me.

The old story is about the story of Tripod and Ethan Zuckerman. Tripod, as you can read on Ethan's page, was originally intended as a edited content site but took off as a homepage site (and was eventually sold to Lycos) when Ethan and his techie team were fiddling around with a DIY homepage, made it available to the readers of their "content site" and discovered one day that they were about to exceed their bandwidth limits. When they investigated what was causing the massive traffic pileup, it turned out that far more people than they had ever expected had decided to set up their own homepages.

The new story is one that I read on a newly discovered blog of Christine Herron's. Although GlobalGiving is an investee of the Omidyar Network, I hadn't come across Christine's name until another friend started asking me advice on how to find the right people at O/net, and asked me about her. A little googling, and I found Christine's profile on O/neet, but better still her blog, and the wonderful story about Flickr. You should read more about it on Christine's blog, but in a nutshell Flickr intended to build an online multiplayer game, and the photo sharing function was just one of the tools for the game. But because they intended to be a game and based in an online community, they made a point of welcoming new people, teaching them how to navigate the site, etc. Although I still believe Flickr's tagging technology is a killer app and should be credited with their amazing popularity, I am also psyched to hear about the unintended consequence of their original intent to build an online game. And at least they got part of what they were aiming for--a real community.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Why we do projects

People ask us often why we focus on projects on GlobalGiving, instead of just letting people give to organizations, which is the traditional way that fundraising and giving is done to nonprofits worldwide. We also recognize that it can sometimes be a hassle, and there are many NGOs that don’t join our community because their strategy is to seek funding for their organization, not for discrete projects.

We insist on projects for two reasons. One, we’re asking people to consider giving beyond their boundaries—by far the majority of donations on our site involve resources being moved from one country to another. In that context, providing a clear statement of what the money will be used for is, I think, an important way for people to become comfortable about going “out of the box.” So that’s on the donor side. But even if it didn’t necessarily make people more comfortable giving beyond their boundaries, I still think it would be worth doing. And I believe it would be worth doing because at the end of the day, GlobalGiving is dedicated to increasing transparency and accountability. And although projects can strike people as being an awkward construct, in some ways (perhaps in not the most sophisticated ways) it is a way for organizations to put a stake in the ground about their own theory of change. By outlining a specific activity, they are putting the organization on the line that “this” is what they believe will make a difference, and when the funding is provided and the activities carried out, we can 1) ascertain whether the activities were carried out, yes or no; and 2) in the longer run, see if it lead to the outcomes the organization set out to affect. We’re so young we still are focused on 1—were the activities carried out, yes or no, and if not, why. And crude as that is, it DOES reflect on the organization’s and project leader’s accountability. We wouldn’t even be able to capture that measure of accountability if we didn’t insist on projects. It's not perfect, but it’s measurable. And that’s integral to the way we think of GlobalGiving.