Monday, August 26, 2013

Why buy the cow when you can get the cash for free?

See that tagline up there? “Part mommy blog. Part aid blog.”  Well, maybe you’ve been waiting for the aid part for the past year or so. Truth is, since I stopped working full time, my focus has been on the mommy part; on my own family’s diarrhea rates and not the worlds.

But a development program operating near where I live in Kenya has created a bit of a media firestorm, and it seemed like an opportune time to get my “part aid blog” up to more than 5% of this blog.

First an explanation and then the “kerfuffle.”

Give Directly, is a new charity which gives “unconditional cash transfers” (UCTs) - basically free money, no strings attached - to poor rural villagers.  UCTs have been heralded as the sexy, new, so-crazy-it-just-may work development strategy of the moment (OK, governments the world over have done this for years, but no international charities had seen fit to try it).  The idea is that the poor know best just what they need, and the most efficient way to spend donor money is to just give it directly.  Gone are hefty program overhead, training, and donated goods or services which might not be what the recipients need or want, so more donated money lands directly in the pockets of the poor.

Microloans, the sexy development strategy of the last decade, have fallen slightly out of favor. It turns out that even though many poor are credit constrained, not all have the gifts or wherewithal to be successful entrepreneurs, and in some places the loans simply put more people in debt, trapping them further in poverty. With UCTs, the logic is almost laughably simplistic: people are poor because they have no money.  Give them money. 

But it’s a hard sell. Of course, “free money” encourages dependency and reduces the incentive to work, the conventional wisdom goes.  And a big wad of cash can create disunity among family members as they argue about what to do with their windfall and also among neighbors who may not have qualified for the program but justifiably feel equally poor. Then there’s the whole worry that recipients will spend the money on vices like liquor and gambling, things which donors are understandably loathe to subsidize and likely result in deeper poverty. 

So, that’s pretty much the debate. 


NPR’s This American Life and the New York Times Magazine both profiled the Give Directly 
program in Kenya interviewing recipient farmers in Siaya district, about an hour from our house. Give Directly is not only open to the criticism thrown its way, it’s supporting rigorous studies to evaluate its program – to learn precisely how much the money improves recipient’s lives compared to a randomly selected comparison group. Does health improve? Do more kids attend school?  Do recipients invest in productive businesses? But also does domestic violence go up? They want to know.

The kerfuffle starts with the fact that NPR compared Give Directly to the Heifer Foundation, which gives program recipients cows and training, and requires them to donate a calf to another family.  Seems like sensible work and a good “teach a man to fish” counterpoint to the Give Directly model.  Seems like the gift that keeps on giving.  Seems like a great way to spend donor money.  Hell, I’ve given to them in the past. 

But the “seems like” is the issue.  It becomes obvious in the radio program that the Heifer Foundation is not comfortable with evaluating its model to see if it truly is a great use of donor money.

Their VP balks at the idea saying: 
“That (evaluating her program compared to UCTs) sounds like a terrible idea. I mean, it sounds like an experiment, and we're not about experiments. These are lives of real people and we have to do what we believe is correct. We can't make experiments with peoples' lives. They're just -- they're people. It's too important."
The development community (at least the bloggers and my personal acquaintances) let out a collective “Argh!!” in response, arguing that it’s more immoral to continue a program without testing its effectiveness.  The development guru blogger, Columbia professor Chris Blattman, sums up the frustration best saying:

“Where it gets downright immoral to not measure them (participants and control group), I say, is if your program is so expensive it crowds out two other people who could benefit. We don’t know if that’s true or not, since Heifer (shame on them) wouldn’t share their studies or data with the journalists. But I’ve seen many, many, many projects that spend $1500 training and all the “other stuff” in order to give people $300 or a cow. Is it fair to ask, what if we’d just given them $1800? Or what if we’d given six people cows?”
I don’t disagree. Hell, I’ve spent the last 10 years evaluating programs so that money is better spent and people are better served.  The logic and even the ethics of doing these types of “experiments” on development programs, in my opinion, is air tight. 

But, the optics are not. And optics matter.

There’s a lot of subtext in the Heifer Foundation’s comment. The idea of being “experimented on” can makes people feel somehow discounted, like the whole of their being is reduced to an inconsequential number; like they are condensed only to those parts which might be interesting to science.  And when an NGO from the wealth world runs randomized experiments in a former colony, people - drawing conclusions from that ugly history of plunder and exploitation- might just somewhere deep inside feel played with once more.  Especially when they see their neighbor receiving something they feel they equally deserve and are told, “this is all in the interest of science” they feel suspicious and resentful.  

I’ve seen resentments build up in the field.  These perceptions do matter.  People, jealous of their neighbor’s randomly assigned program benefit accuse them of witchcraft, they accused the NGO dolling out the benefit of devil-worshipping and corruption.

I still believe that this kind of research is vitally important. In fact, it’s too important to ignore the cultural dynamics and the perceptions of people who allow this research to happen by acquiescing to be studied. Researchers should, and often do, take great pains to allay fears and carefully explain the research goals to the people they study.  Because if local suspicions and angers flair, there’s no research and no benefit.   

So, I still don't find the Heifer Foundations apparent reluctance to be studied defensible.  But I think there's something to be learned from their reluctance.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Waiting for Words: When will Emmet start communicating and stop screaming?

“Ee jish?” Emmet asks me earnestly as he holds up the ball for my inspection.

“Yes, I do see this Emmet” I reply.

“Ee jish” is about all he can say, and he says it in relation to a lot. It can mean, and I'm guessing here, “Do you see this?” “Can I have this?” or “What the hell is this?”

He also says “ma” with the "m" drawn out into a kind of whine, but, before you get too excited, we think means “more” since it's most often associated with his begging wanting something.  He can imitate me when I ask - really implore - him to say “mama” but it unfailingly comes out “da da” syllables he spits out loudly and with a misplaced look of accomplishment.

But that’s pretty much the extent of his vocabulary. He points and whines, and for special emphasis when mom is failing to understand that “I want the goddamn milk woman!” he screams. So, there’s communication happening.  But no real words.
Who needs language when this kind of behavior eventually gets you what you want?
Still, I pretend he can talk, and he responds in kind. He thinks he can talk and streams of complete jibberish spill out of his mouth as if another language.  It’s not a totally unfun charade, but underneath all this I wonder if I should be worried. 

His brother at 18 months had dozens of words.

A quick look at the go-to parenting neuroses stoking/calming Website,, shows dozens of parents of under 1-year-olds sick with worry that their baby hasn’t said a word. At Emmet's one year check-up the doc, going through her routine list of questions, said, barely looking up from the list, “And he’s saying mama and baba and the like, right?” shaking her head 'yes' so convincingly that I just went along and agreed, since I figured it was right around the corner.

But 6 months have passed and we have this:  “ee jish” “Mmma” and “mbo” (a sound he makes when he sees cows). It’s all terribly endearing, but I wonder if it’s “enough.”

I used to tell other similarly worried moms about my brilliant uncle who couldn’t speak until he was three.  When he finally spoke the words spilled out in complete sentences, fully formed thoughts.  Before this, his parents worried he might be intellectually impaired, and the central irony is that instead he grew to be an academic giant, the dean of a major university and a leading game theorist.  This narrative is meant as a comfort, a lesson to parents to relax and know that each kid develops on their own timeline and that you can’t predict intelligence by it.  But I have no expertise to back it up. 

Emmet is hearing two languages – English and Kiswahili – so that could be the root of his slight delay. And maybe “advice-giving Kim” is right: kids progress at their own rate.  In my heart of hearts I know that Emmet is bright and communicative and that his language “explosion” is right around the corner. So, maybe I’m just getting impatient waiting for it.

So, here’s to hoping the blogosphere will work it’s Murphy’s Law magic in which the moment I expose my worries, the cause of them disappears, making me look needlessly neurotic.  And… “publish.”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Boys will be dogs

A few weeks ago, I went to pick up my son Caleb at his friend’s house after they spent the morning playing together.  They came barreling out the door as I chatted with the friend’s mother.  They were slapping each other, kicking, bear hugging and finally falling to ground grappling like tiny Greco-Roman wrestlers. 

If there was no soundtrack, you’d be worried.  But through their screaming, you could hear giggles. If you looked closely, you’d see smiles. Even so, I had to fight my urge to tell Caleb to “stop hitting” or to “play nicely.”  For some reason, that day I followed my friend, a woman who has a much more free-range, hands-off parenting style, and said nothing.

The whole scene tested my comfort level, but somewhere inside I also felt that this kind of fighting might just be natural and perhaps even good. And I had the nagging sensation that I had witnessed this healthy play fighting before. Then I remembered: my sister’s dogs. 

She has two Shepard mixes who live in the mountains and spend lots of time outdoors, and lots of time “play fighting.”  They bare their teeth, bark fiercely, nip at each other and get so absorbed in their fighting that you have to watch out that they don’t knock you over.  For a non-dog owner like me, this display is always vaguely terrifying, even though my sister constantly reminds me:  “Don’t worry, they are just playing. Look at their tails wagging. They are happy.” 

If Caleb and his friend had tails, they would have been wagging.  And I began to wonder if stopping all this play fighting might possibly be doing our kids a disservice.   

OK. Yes, yes yes. I do appreciate that, contrary to appearance, our children are not in fact animals and we’d like to socialize them to have some non-canine civility.  But it made the anthropologist in me wonder if there wasn’t something deeply ingrained about this kind of play, maybe a human purpose served by it.  

So, I extensively researched Googled the matter, and my supersleuthing turned up some interesting things. First, this kind of rough and tumble play is pretty much universal. Michael Thompson, a psychologist who co-wrote "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" says, “play, rougher in its themes and rougher physically, is a feature of boyhood in every society on earth.” It's unluckily it would be so universal if it didn't serve some adaptive function. 

Secondly, aggressive play can actually be good for kids. Some experts note that “children turn to play so that they can learn what they need to learn about aggression. We should become concerned about children's relationship to aggression only if they appear to be overly pre-occupied with aggression in their thoughts or actions outside the sphere of play.”  So, aggressive play gives them a chance to experience and solve conflicts and to test their limits. It allows them to explore social boundaries, to practice and test their level of strength, and to determine social placement in the group. It also allows children to develop and practice restraint as they pretend to be aggressive. These are all skills I'd love my growing boys to develop.

Third: contrary to our fears, aggressively play does not lead to violent or aggressive behavior as adults. There have been no studies linking aggressive play in early childhood to adult violent behavior.  In fact, in a study of adults who had committed violent crimes, the researchers discovered that their childhoods had been marked not by violent play but, by a lack of play at all.

And lastly, my being a woman might explain some of my squeamish reaction to this kind of play.  I didn’t grow up rough-housing and don’t really “get” the fun aspect.  I worry, like a lot of modern mothers, about raising overly aggressive boys, so I think it’s only responsible to stop fighting and teach more appropriate conflict resolution skills.  Teachers, mostly women, largely feel the same.  One study found that teachers interrupt boys fantasy play (which tends to be rougher) twice as often as girls fantasy play.  However, the authors conclude that stopping this kind of play can inhibit boys’ opportunities to develop creativity, conversation and moral imagination, and probably does the boys a disservice. This kind of selective intervention might just be why more boys are currently struggling more in school. 

So, research completed, I think I now understand the value of rough-housing a bit more.  I have to admit it’s not a total revelation.  I’ve read those the books on the benefits of letting your kids get skinned knees and leaving them to solve their own conflicts.

But I still want to balance this permissiveness with the need to prevent my boys from breaking a clavicle or growing up to be a jackass.  I suppose this is the central tension of parenting – giving them both boundaries and freedom; roots and wings. I probably saw that on a nature-themed inspirational poster, but that doesn’t make it any less profound.

I suppose for now, I’ll sit on my hands a bit when the monsters boys are clobbering each other.  But only if their tails are wagging. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Why are book clubs so often all women?

I love my Kindle!  But it's taken me a while to admit that.  I hated the idea of e-readers, and generally resist new technology on principle. (Not sure which principle that is exactly, but I'm sticking to it just like a curmudgeonly but forgetful geriatric.)

I love holding a book in my hand, feeling the pages, wondering at the covering, flipping back and forth to the author's bio.  I love lining my walls with books. Having moved almost every year, I get - to my aching bones - how irrational it is to lug these things around and then spend time filing them back away into bookcases, but they seem to create a sense of home to me.

Living in Western Kenya all of that's gone.  There are no real bookstores of note, and we had to leave our book collections at home.  Enter the Kindle.  Even in remote areas there's often a 3G connection, so all is magically (it's run on magic, right?) at my finger tips.

And this technology has permitted me another great love - the book club!  Maybe Oprah has made it now seem lame, but I love book clubs.  I love getting together with a bunch of other people to discuss some world we all just stepped into, to see how others experienced it.
See how happy?!?  Well, except for old shifty-eye in the middle.  There's one in every group, right?
So, we finally got one together here in Kisumu. I volunteered to host the first one, and it was terrific! It happened to be all women. We had a lively discussion about the book and all got along well.

So, amid our discussion, after we had all become comfortable with one another, I threw it out there:

"So, I know at least one man who is interested in joining this book club.  What do you ladies think?  Should we let men in the group?"

The response was immediate and unanimous, a resounding, "No!!"

But I was taken aback and a bit baffled. This was not a timid group of women who are afraid they will be streamrolled or silenced by more forceful men. It was smart and accomplished group who were not easily intimidated by opposite sex. Our small group included a woman who had done relief work in Haiti and Sudan, an oncologist and an epidemiologist with a "trailing spouse."

This was a group of strong women with feminist tendencies and lots of male friends, so why the emphatic insistence on keeping the book club free of penises? 

I've thought about this a lot, and I've come to think that it's most likely it's because there's something sacred about the space created by a sisterhood of women which we are so often missing in our modern, meritocratic, "ungendered" world. As much as our spouses are often our best friends, and we mix easily with colleagues and friends of both genders, there's something special about the energy created by a group of women - people who share your experience of walking around on this earth and navigating life as a woman.

In a place like Kenya there is plenty of culturally institutionalized separation of genders. Women spend time cooking and washing clothes together.  Women buy and sell vegetables and meet at the market place. Women spend hours chatting while plaiting each other's hair.  When I gave birth at a Nairobi hospital there were almost no men, but laboring women leaned on aunts, cousins, sisters and even other laboring women. Here, especially in the rural areas, the rhythm of the day is completely different for women and men.

We in the West might see all of this separateness as enforced and unequal, but it's possible we've overlooked that this separation also ensures a source of comfort, support and solidarity, which American women might be missing out on.  Sure, we have the occasional "girls night" out and things like "knitting circles" are gaining in popularity, but we don't have as many regular times in which it's just women gathering in a safe space to talk and be together.  Maybe that's why the women in my group were so quick and eager to keep this space a sisterhood.

What do you think?  Am I reaching here?  Or are we missing something from our past when gender spheres were more separated?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Naked baby pictures on facebook: to post or not to post

My friend and I on were sitting crossed legged on her living room floor, putting away toys in wicker baskets.  The babies were finally sleeping and the big boys were off with their dads.  Our children are identical in age, and I look to this particular friend as something of a parenting role model.  She’s firm but kind in her discipline and intentional in all that she does.  Her meals always include a vegetable.  So, I felt twinge of excitement when she asked my opinion about a parenting matter.

“Kim, what do you think of this:  A friend of mine posted picture of her kids in the bath together on facebook. The girl, who’s about 1 year old, was standing naked, and you could see everything.”

Even though I kind of knew where she was going with this, I found myself blurting out: “I’ve totally done that before!!” at the exact same moment that she said “I think that’s just really inappropriate.”  So, it was more of: “I think…totally done… very inappropriate… that before,”  our contrasting opinions hanging awkwardly over the resulting silence.

My friend, being about the sweetest person I know, fell all over herself trying to undo the accidental insult, but it was clear we were of two minds on this.  And I wondered suddenly if I was wrong.  Possibly irresponsible even.

The picture I posted, which immediately sprang to mind, was of my son, not yet two, standing in a bucket bath.  We had just moved to rural Kenya and I was trying to be good about posting all that was new about our lives there.  This is Facebook at its best: keeping grandparent’s oohing and ahhing over adorableness thousands of miles away; keeping friends and family feeling connected even when you’re  worlds apart. 

The picture was of my son holding his toy truck in the bath, and the caption was “Caleb cleans his truck while I clean him.”  Maybe it was na├»ve or even a bit oblivious, but I couldn’t see past the red cheeks, the sweet way he clung to his toy, and the purity of his nakedness.  His private parts did not register on my registry.

The problem is that I want to live in that world in which naked babies are innocence personified. But I’m told that’s no longer where we live when we display our lives online. Those images reach throughout the world to seedy corners we’d never visit and they endure throughout time, making ephemeral embarrassments permanent. It’s our jobs to protect our children from these new and expanded risks.

But here’s my defense: There is such a glut of content, with Facebook’s billion (with a ‘b’) users posting everything from family reunions to what they had for dinner, that the odds of some creep actually finding my photo are slim to none.  There might just be an exaggerated sense of danger here. And even if some sicko finds this photo and looks at it with predacious eyes, my child is still technically protected, untouched. It’s a horrible thought, but no actual harm comes to my son.  I suppose the shot could be embarrassing to my son in 10 years’ time, and that argument holds the most sway for me. 

But taking a small and unscientific poll of my American friends it appears my cavalier attitude is in the minority, with most telling me they’d never post something like that on Facebook with its dubious privacy settings and ownership of content.  

Though other people have told me not unreasonably, “Kim, it all depends on your comfort level.”  Here’s my comfort level:  I don’t want to live my life reacting fearfully to miniscule risks.  I want to live it sharing the beauty I see with people I love.  And when I share an innocent photo on the one platform that friends and family can most easily access, I don’t want to immediately think about pedophiles and predators. I want to keep thinking about innocence personified. 

Still, I can almost see some of you shaking your heads at my Pollyannaish world view.  And in this case, because there’s nothing  gained by keeping the photo up and possibly future embarrassment for one of the greatest loves of my life, I’m taking the photo down.  But down with that sweet photo comes one of the remaining bits of my own innocence.

How fearful are you of the wrong people getting ahold of images of your children?  How much does this fear guide what you do?