Showing posts from 2010

Are we still chasing the flame? A few reflections after reading Sergio Vieira de Mello’s biography

My last post for this year will be in line with the reflective end-of-the-year mood rather than engaging with an ongoing debate. I enjoyed reading Samantha Power’s biography of Vieira de Mello and it made me think about two bigger issues that have been part of my research work and that also interest me beyond academic endeavours: First, the book is a vivid example of how the UN transformed from a small, political and 'neutral' organisation into a participant of the global aid industry and became part of the transnational work- and lifestyle – and how little the UN seem to have engaged in these transformations. The other issue is that Vieira de Mello’s career and his duty stations are good/sad examples of how difficult, slow and interlocked peacebuilding challenges are. Practically all of the countries he has worked in throughout his career are still struggling with (the aftermath of) violent conflict and civil war – which often happened years or even decades ago – and that man…

Great article: Autoethnography-An Overview

I'm a big fan of FQS, the Forum for Qualitative Social Research:

FQS is a peer-reviewed multilingual online journal for qualitative research established in 1999.
FQS is interested in empirical studies conducted using qualitative methods, and in contributions that deal with the theory, methodology and application of qualitative research. Innovative ways of thinking, writing, researching and presenting are especially welcome.The current issue features an excellent introduction and (literature) review of 'autoethnography':

Autoethnography: An Overview

Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner

Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience. This approach challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others and treats research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act. A researcher uses tenets of autobiography and …

Why I would like to see more critical debates on the ‘open aid data’ discourse

I enjoyed reading the summary of David Eaves’ presentation on aidinfo. Especially the concluding remarks seem to be a good summary of why the discourse on open data seems to gain some momentum, they sound right and they are also right in many ways:
With a good set of examples, patterns and common practices, the use of data will become embedded in development practice. Better information will make aid more effective: data portals improve data literacy, an open culture promotes learning, and using information to add value in the aid sector will ensure data remains open and will promote the release of more [my emphasis].
But then I read ‘Story project aims to put people back at the heart of development’ and it confirmed some of the discomfort I have with the rising popularity of aid data:
Concern that an obsession with numbers is leading to development donors distancing themselves from those they seek to help has led to the creation of a new initiative which seeks to bring stories and story…

Deconstructing Development Discourse-book available for free download!

This is an excellent book and yes, I have contributed one of the chapters on 'Peacebuilding does not build peace'. I'm glad that Oxfam and Practical Action have re-published the contributions and best of all you can download the entire book for free! Writing from diverse locations, contributors critically examine some of the key terms in current development discourse. Why should language matter to those who are doing development? Surely, there are more urgent things to do than sit around mulling over semantics? But language does matter. Whether emptied of their original meaning, essentially vacuous, or hotly contested, the language of development not only shapes our imagined worlds, but also justifies interventions in real people's lives. If development buzzwords conceal ideological differences or sloppy thinking, then the process of constructive deconstruction makes it possible to re-examine what have become catch-all terms like civil society and poverty reduction, or …

Why work doesn't happen at work – and conference rituals rarely spread new ideas

I just listened to Jason Fried’s interesting TedX talk ‘Why work doesn't happen at work’:
Jason Fried has a radical theory of working: that the office isn't a good place to do it. At TEDxMidwest, he lays out the main problems (call them the M&Ms) and offers three suggestions to make work work.
Although he mentions charities and non-profits at the beginning he is clearly focussing on the classic corporate setting of offices, meetings and 9-5 work. But what he also does is to describe the rituals around meetings, why they are organised, how they are implemented and that they are often an expensive performance that does ad very little to productivity, knowledge or information sharing. The key part for me that is also relevant for development work and learning is between minute 10 and 11:
So they go into a meeting room, they get together, they talk about stuff that doesn’t really matter usually, because meetings are at work, meetings are things you are talking about things you a…

Publishing (in) books vs the modern world

After a brief travel- and flu-induced hiatus two articles in the excellent Inside Higher Education on academic textbook pricing and challenges of university presses reminded me that I wanted to write a post on my own recent publication experiences – by way of promoting my published works ;). Being active on Twitter and writing a few blog posts now and then is part research, part creative writing exercise and part developing a professional identity around certain issues I feel strongly about, e.g. the ethnography of aid or the value of qualitative research. Two recent examples, a co-written chapter in an edited book and a journal article in a ‘fancy’ (i.e. with high impact) journal show the complexity of publishing research, and, more importantly for me, engaging in discussions about said research with a broader community.
As part of this (self-)reflective exercise I recently wanted to find out about the sales figures of a book I contributed a chapter to together with another colleagu…

Corruption, consultants and contributions to academic life

I was part of an interesting seminar of the Nepal Study Group at the University of Trondheim/Norway last week. I presented and discussed with the audience via Skype which worked really well and I was able to listen to the other presentations and the discussion for three hours. It was great to be in Trondheim virtually and an important reminder about how relatively inexpensive technology can contribute to important academic exchanges. But this post is less about technology and more about one particular aspect that a Nepali participant raised in the discussion: How 'development' and its agencies are in his view 'corrupting' academics (and other parts of the elite) by hiring them as consultants.
After my presentation one Nepali member of the audience made a comment about how donor money has been 'corrupting' Nepal for a long time. This is a claim that I have often heard during my research and a point that was argued most prominently in Devendra Panday’ 'Nepal&#…

DIY aid: A report on a 'revolution' or merely an indication of how development journalism is changing?

Nick Kristof’s New York Times article on ‘venture philantrophy’ (D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution) made me think about the changing coverage of international development issues in the media, because as interesting as his case studies are, I do not think that they constitute a ‘revolution’ in foreign aid. Revolutions rarely start when the ‘Harvard Business School’ is mentioned in the third line of an article – but this more of an ironic remark on the side.  Nick Kristof certainly features three interesting, worthwhile initiatives that may be indicative of a new type of D.I.Y venture philantrophy, but deep down sound quite familiar to those who have been engaging with development issues for a while. I do not know the featured initiatives, but since I have been doing research on and in Nepal since 2002, I will focus on the initiative in Nepal to highlight some of my more critical remarks. The mere words ‘orphans-Nepal-primary school’ make me sigh a little bit. This is not exactly a revolutio…

Can Nepal escape the ritualisation of international peacebuilding?

This is a presentation I prepared and recorded with Camtasia for a conference in Kathmandu in July that I could not attend in person. The conference was entitled

Conflict, Transition and Possibilities for Peace in Nepal: challenges to engagement, practice and scholarship. The whole video is about 35 minutes long and covers four key areas:
What is ritualisation and why does it matter engaging with peacebuilding?The transnational work- and lifestyle of peacebuilding in the context of post-conflict Nepal The local discourse of engaging with peacebuilding rituals Critical, reflective and creative practice – how to challenge ritualsCan Nepal escape the ritualisation of international peacebuilding?
If you are interested in a pdf-handout or additional information just send me a message and I will share the presentation in a more accessible way.

Twittering your MA? Development studies, social media and challenging dominant discourses

During my small research project on ‘blogging development’ one issue that has come up a couple of times and that I had not thought about initially is how social media, i.e. Twitter and blogs, will change higher education in the development field. In short, the argument is that given the amount of information and the emerging sharing and debating culture how can a place like IDS (I just take IDS as an example, because I know it fairly well and know they appreciate critical debates) justify to charge £10,000 in fees for a 9-month course in England (which adds another £10,000 for living expenses and travelling-give or take)? As the MIT has started to put lectures and course materials online (interestingly enough, a year after the THE article, MIT now seems to contemplate to charge for its online content), why would you spend £20,000 on a social science-centred degree that primarily focuses on reading books and articles, writing essays and a longer dissertation at the end? I do not want t…

Why publishing aid data does not equal 'democratizing development'

I read Owen Barder’s comment on Robert Zoellick’s speech with interest, but I am hesitant to agree with the notion of ‘democratising development’ that he seems to find in the speech (interestingly, the comments section of this article is closed...). Zoellick was saying a few interesting, politically correct comments on aid transparency and, of course, nobody wants to disagree with him about the value of these endeavours. Nobody wants to see less data in the public domain or disagree that transparency is important. But this focus on data, on abstract numbers and seemingly neutral, objective statistics is by no means about to change development research or even ‘democratising development’. What is missing in Zoellick’s speech is the ‘institutional I’, the role of the organisation called World Bank, its internal discussions and use of the numbers rather than simply publishing numbers ABOUT developing countries. The underlying argument is that any aid organisation bases its programmes and…

The globalisation of aid rituals-MDG summit and twittering about peace in Darfur

The current hype around the MDG summit in New York reminded me of a very insightful ethnography by Frank Lechner and John Boli who had a closer look at UN summits/world conferences. Their key observation in their chapter ‘Constructing world culture-UN meetings as global ritual’ is that conferences tend to follow some ritualised processes and it seemed to be truer than ever:

‘Somewhat defensively, a UN document asserts that the series of UN conferences is more than an “extravagant talk-fest” (UN 1999). They have had a “long-term impact,” it says, in mobilizing organizations, serving as a forum, stimulating government commitments, and setting international standards. As a public relations effort, such self-congratulation may not be persuasive enough to assure the future of summits, but it contains a kernel of truth. As peak events in a broader process, world conferences have served as a kind of global ritual. Not only the women's conferences have been effective at sacralization; so h…

Chances and limitations of blogging development

I am currently doing research for a journal article that addresses blogging and blogs in the context of reflective international development practice. My particular focus is on the role and impact different ways of writing have on personal, organisational or even broader reflection and learning processes. I have already contacted a few interesting bloggers and received some even more interesting feedback and will write more as this small 'project' 'guiding references' for my initial theoretical framework are listed below-in case you have a more academic interest in this subject:
Gillie Bolton 2010: Reflective Practice. Writing & Professional Development. London: Sage. 

Andrea Cornwall, Jassey, Katja, Arora-Jonsson, Seema, and Patta Scott-Villiers 2007. The Beast of Bureaucracy and Other Tales from Valhalla. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

Rosalind Eyben et al 2010: Stories from Aidland.

Rosalind Eyben 2010: Hiding relations. The irony of …

How peacebuilding has become a ritualised space – An aidnography from Germany and Nepal

There is now an updated and more comprehensive post on the completed PhD project!

This is the abstract of my PhD thesis How peacebuilding has become a ritualised space – An aidnography from Germany and Nepal

This research uses structural ritualisation as an approach to study peacebuilding communities in Germany and Nepal. Based on anthropological and sociological literature a ritual theory framework is used to emphasise the importance of symbolism, liminality and performances for the ethnographic study of aid (aidnography). The analysis of the fieldwork in Germany starts with the peace research community and their workshops, conferences and trainings. Ritualisation processes around acceptable forms of knowledge are the basis on which new policy institutions operate; leaving discourses unchallenged. For example the PEACE network that aims at facilitating learning and knowledge management on peacebuilsing inside German development institutions. Detailed organisational ethnography of the P…

The anthropologist always wins

Robert Albro wrote this short comment on ‘Anthropology and the military-AFRICOM, ‘culture’ and future of Human Terrain Analysis’ which summarises key debates on whether and how anthropologists should get involved in the military. I fully agree with his key argument that was produced for a report for the Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (American Anthropological Association) (CEAUSSIC) (which sounds itself a bit like military jargon): 'When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment – all characteristic factors of the HTS concept and its application – it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.'But the real elephant in the room is less about the ethics of getting involved with the military…