Thursday, November 13, 2008

Drinking your own Kool-Aid

I was recently on a panel for a small dinner focused on international issues at the Indepedent Sector conference in Philadelphia.

The best parts of my brief stay in Philly:
  • spending some time in a small group setting with people who really are plugged into legislative and regulatory developments affecting not only nonprofits generally, but private foundations, international grantmaking, foreign assistance.
  • listening to the story of the ill-fated Carnival Cruises pinata on "Wait, wait--don't tell me," on the drive up to Philly and seeing the un-demolished beast on Broad Street in the rainy dusk (and no, the problem wasn't that they had blindfolded the guy operating the wrecking ball)
  • reminiscing about pre-reform Russia with a fellow conference attendee who lived in Irkutsk in 1990
  • meeting Ami Dar--founder of many years
The parts that gave me the most pause:
  • there were huge expectations that the incoming administration of President-elect Obama would focus outward--both to respond to international expectations, and because it was the right thing to do. I don't see that happening, for two reasons. One, American power is on a decline right now--it may come back up, but the collapse of the financial sector and the fact that after we emerge out of this tunnel the US may no longer be in a position to lead the world economy by virtue of being a consumption engine--so even with all the expectations that Obama will pursue a much more collaborative foreign policy, he basically has fewere and weaker levers to deliver results. Two, there is equally, if not arguably a much more engaged and vocal constituency back at home that will demand results--and even Obama has only 24 hours a day.
  • there was an implicit consensus on the panel--if not among all the dinner attendees--that internatinal philanthopy could take care of terrorism better than military means had to date. I think the jury's out on that. Whatever you may think about the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I honestly don't see any evidence that more education, more prosperity, more health services will actually address the origins of terrorist activity. That's giving too little credence to the power of ideology that feeds off of perceived insult.
Which is why I called this post drinking your own Kool-Aid. My whole professional life at this poitn is a commitment to the proposition that international development and philanthropy can make a difference--and that I can make a difference in that effort. But just because I've devoted my life to this doesn't mean I believe I can solve everything through this. That would amount to drinking my own Kool-Aid.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In praise of cross-platform

So I promised to blog further about Bill's new book Reinventing Aid, and I was catching up on my blog reading today, and this post from Lucy Bernholz struck me as the perfect hook.

in this post, Lucy points out that public goods are no longer provided exclusively by the government (traditionally the financier, if not the provider and distributor of public goods and services.). She calls it "cross-platform" provision and financing of public services. Totally agree, and from my point of view a good thing.

And here's where my point of view comes from. The World Bank--whose mission is to be the funder of public goods globally is an institution modeled on the classic assumption that government is the agency for the financing, provision, and distribution of public goods. Its governance, instruments, everything is aligned against that assumption--whether the government is low on capacity, high on corruption, or both. And even when governments are both competent and trustworthy, they are almost by definition monopoly actors. And monopoly power is a dangerous thing.

For one thing, it makes it really hard to even ask what I think is the key followup question Lucy raises as a follow up to her observation about cross-platform: what is the best (most efficient? most effective? most sustainable?) mix for [any] service? You can't ask that question when there's only one provider. Which is our beef--and our chapter in Bill's book--with the quasi-monopolistic provision of international assistance.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stop the Madness, GlobalGiving style

Yesterday Bill Easterly, one of the first economists I got to know and admired immensely at the World Bank working on Russia, gave a talk at the Center for Global Development about his new book, Reinventing Aid. Bill has since become a valued friend, and it's with both admiration and much gratitude that Dennis and I have contributed a chapter to this book. It's one of the benefits of being part of an edited volume--you can admire the book because of all the other amazing thinkers who contributed to the volume, whose reflected glory benefits your own work, "judged by the company you keep, etc." More on their chapters later.

I'm also pleased to blog about the book because it gives me an excuse to highlight a little known obsession about Robert Dubois and Alison McQuade--some of the youngest and most dynamic staff members we have here at GlobalGiving. You see, to paraphrase Bill, Reinventing Aid is a collection of some of the most interesting thinking around how to "STOP THE MADNESS"--that is, stop doing what we know doesn't work, and start trying something else. And for some reason that I can't fathom--besides the fact that this is one of the most insufferable music videos I've ever seen--"STOP THE MADNESS" is Robert and Alison's favorite video. They love to play it at the end of a long hard day of work and leave us all at a loss as to what draws them to a video that was made just about the time they were born. You can be just as puzzled too--here it is:

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Working to be disappointed

Some of you know I think Edward Tufte hung the moon on the visual display of information. And I've had serious iPhone envy since it's come out. So imagine my anticipation in seeing this video cited in a New York Times article on how the iPhone has proven that even on the web, less is more.

And here's where this post deviates from the script I'd planned for it ... because I actually don't agree with some of his observations. I actually think the iPhone display of weather is better than what he proposes, and I kinda think his version of the weather violates his own observation about "overload and clutter≠information." As a very wise person once told me, you have to work to be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Games for Change

The Washington Post covered games for social change lately, which reminded me why I thought they were so cool when I first started seeing them in our sector. From the game inspired by the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic to Darfur is Dying, to the game where you get to experience what it's like to be a farmer in the developing world, I've thought this was an amazing way to transport people directly into different worlds. At GlobalGiving we tend to stick to First Life most of the time, but occasionally we get lucky. Here's a project to support a game created by HopeLab, which helps significantly decrease the remission rates in young cancer patients. It sets them up as heroes in a game visualizing fighting the cancer cells using the tools in their arsenals.

This might even work as another argument for procrastination. At least you'd be learning something useful in the process ...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Working within the box and out of the box

Dennis has just blogged about Tim Kane’s observation when he first visited Japan in the 1980s—where he encountered a humbly equipped man sweeping the tarmac at Narita airport as if his life depended on it. Kane linked it to the overwhelming ratio of perspiration v. genius that adds up to excellence.

There's something else there though. It’s symptomatic of how intensely Japanese individuals and organizations have come to focus on discovering value within their constraints. Toyota’s continuous reform (kaizen) program is justly famous for the way they look at change as a continuous stream, but a lot less is said about the implicit mindset that allows for what feeds that continuous stream. It’s the idea of working your framework so intensely and carefully and allowing the individual changes combine and “re” form the whole until you’ve eventually got a different box. But you didn’t start out insisting on getting out the box. In fact, it comes from a culturally mandated willingness to focus intensely on where you are and what you have. (The flip side of course, is that it can drive you mad to be so constrained, but more on that another time.)

What I was saying about the incredible Tokyo discipline to obey what can seem like a pettifogging rule of standing on the left is, I’m convinced, part of the same phenomenon—everyone is intent on getting the most out of every frigging commuting minute. It just wouldn’t happen that way otherwise. Same reason Japanese geeks are the most intense geeks anywhere. Or why Japanese classical concertgoers bring sheet music to performances. And why I am currently obsessed with us doing a better job facilitating the exchange when our project leaders can convey to donors the sense of incredible value and adventure that every project on our site represents. Here’s just a hint of what donors say when when the value gets uncovered. (It’s also why I try to wash and reuse our ziploc bags. It just seems un-Japanese not to.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Rules in Japan: II

The other amazing thing about Japan, besides the fact that there are so many rules about what to do and not to do, is how many of them don't have to be written up, let alone have some sort of enforcement mechanism. Take a look at this elevator in the Tokyo See how everyone is lined up on the left? In London, there are signs everywhere about standing on one side to let others walk up the escalators. In Washington, there are no such signs and the local papers are filled with complaints about how people don't remember to stand to one side. In Japan, no signs, no deviations from the rule. Even by unsuspecting tourists. Amazing. But then, take a look at the transportation map (combined metro and trains). Can you imagine navigating that everyday, let alone actually making it run on time? They apologize when their trains are running 2 minutes late.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Order in the universe: Japanese style

Every time I come home to Japan I marvel at how they keep this incredibly dense , complex society not only together, but humming at enviable rates of efficiency. Some of it is regulatory-there are rules for everything. But the regs don't always come from the top--the sign above the cat door here says: "Please don't feed this cat. He has plenty to eat inside."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Only connect: Mother's Farm

Sometimes a donor comment on a project will make me smile. More rarely, a donor comment makes me want to read it out loud to anyone who will listen. And perhaps even more infrequently, a donor comment will make me come back to my dormant blog and restart the blogging engine. This is one such comment--here's an excerpt:
I am glad that the ladies started with sorghum this year as conditons are very condusive to sorghum harvest ... I am really proud of the way Ms. Fathima has been able to do the work necessary. Please continue this work to enable women to do better and educate them as well in agricultural practices. I for one am willing to help.
E.M. Forster was right. Only connect.

Happy Mother's Day!