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Throughout the fall, our friends Michael and Gabrielle spent much of their time in kitchens and delivery trucks, visiting food stands and local markets.  In doing so, they were able to highlight some interesting angles of the local and community-oriented food scene in DC.  After spending time interviewing and writing, taking photos and creating video slide shows, some of their work is now online on The Atlantic’s food blog, and more of it will be posted soon.

Take a look at what they’ve created, and learn a little bit more about food in Washington, DC.  I’ll post links to other articles as they become available.  Enjoy!

As greedy, short-sighted capitalists surround us daily, Warren Buffet provides a dose of humility and wisdom. Listen to him writing on his pledge to give away 99% of his wealth to charity:

“My wealth has come from a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest. Both my children and I won what I call the ovarian lottery. (For starters, the odds against my 1930 birth taking place in the U.S. were at least 30 to 1. My being male and white also removed huge obstacles that a majority of Americans then faced.) My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious. The reaction of my family and me to our extraordinary good fortune is not guilt, but rather gratitude. Were we to use more than 1% of my claim checks on ourselves, neither our happiness nor our well-being would be enhanced. In contrast, that remaining 99% can have a huge effect on the health and welfare of others. That reality sets an obvious course for me and my family: Keep all we can conceivably need and distribute the rest to society, for its needs. My pledge starts us down that course.”

The circumstances we are born into have something to do with luck? Capitalism works well overall but produces some widely distorted results? There is a point at which more wealth does nothing to enhance well-being and happiness? All obvious truths, but still truths worth making in times like these.

Read Buffett’s full comments here, and learn about his and Bill Gates campaign to encourage American billionaires to commit to giving at least 50% of their wealth away philanthropically.

There have been two especially popular topics in the world of development/aid blogs this week.

The first is this TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, which I insist you watch.

Adichie’s “single story” framework resonated strongly with me and she does a great job of describing how harmful the single story can really be.

The second hot topic is Nick Kristof’s Sunday column in the New York Times, in which he aims to tell a “blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous.”  Kristof goes on to highlight the problem of poor people in Africa spending money on alcohol, cigarettes, and other items instead of spending it on their children’s education.  Kristof lays out this problem as if the entire continent is choosing alcohol over education, and doesn’t stop to consider the nuance that’s inevitable here.  Wronging Rights does an excellent take-down of this article, picking apart a number of his arguments.  In essence, they remind us that 1) education is often a public good, and family spending on education (depending on where you are) may be very low; and 2) although spending on alcohol, cell phones, and elaborate parties may take money away from other parts of a family’s budget, it is nearsighted to think of them as luxury items.  All of the above are usually associated with close community relationships, and social capital is acknowledged as an important element of raising oneself out of poverty.

But what I want to highlight here is the serendipity of the two topics being published around the same time.  Kristof, trying to tell a new story about Africa that does not “romanticize poverty” (as he claims aid workers tend to do), ends up retelling the Single Story about Africa.  In this story, the Poor African Father is unable to think long-term, is childlike and self-centered in prioritizing his desire for a drink ahead of his children’s education, and is in fact the reason why his family will remain poor.  Nevermind the fact that alcoholism is an often unacknowledged, heartbreaking, and ubiqutous problem all over the world – the Poor African Father is especially guilty of harm because he is poor.

Meanwhile, Adichie reminds us that telling these Single Stories not only flattens reality, but is dangerous.  In presenting drunken dads and miserible, uneducated children as the norm of African life, Kristof teaches his fellow Americans to pity and look down on anyone from Africa and to assume that war, disease, and poverty are inevitable there.  If you’ve spent any time engaging in other stories about Africa, you will probably come away with another conclusion.  I certainly have.

Jon with his dear friend Jacob. Note Jacob wears his cell phone on a cord around his neck.

The New York Times magazine has a fascinating piece on the spread of cell phone technology throughout the world. I, of course, was most interested in its focus on sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s a story that has been told over and over in recent months: mobile phone use has spread rapidly throughout Africa and there are a thousand different ways that mobile phones can be used as a tool for development.

This article tells the story from the perspective of a guy with basically the most interesting job ever: traveling the world to observe how people use their cell phones and talking with them about design.  One of the things I really liked about this article was that it went beyond describing possible development projects based on mobile phone technology to highlighting the fundamental ways that cell phones change the way people live, which in turn impacts development.  For instance, the concept of “just in time,” which is the ability to make decisions with little advance planning.  A great quote:

Something that’s mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal — land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars — can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. A “just in time” moment afforded by a cellphone looks a lot different to a mother in Uganda who needs to carry a child with malaria three hours to visit the nearest doctor but who would like to know first whether that doctor is even in town. It looks different, too, to the rural Ugandan doctor who, faced with an emergency, is able to request information via text message from a hospital in Kampala.

And of course, I loved this article for the descriptions of cell phone use in Africa I have come to know so well.  Sending money via text message (our friend Hellen would do this all the time). Cell phone entrepreneurs (kiosks are everywhere, selling time on a phone or selling an hour to charge the phone).  Small businesses transformed by immediate access to information, or immediate contact with their customers (we would call up our boda boda driver, John, all the time to see if he was available to drive us.  And we’d ask him to bring along however many bodas we needed to move whoever we were with).

Cell phones have become a mainstream part of the culture in a way other technologies haven’t yet, at least in Uganda.  Don’t let anybody fool you into believing that mobile phone technology will one day, in the future, encourage development in sub-Saharan Africa.  It already is.

I recently came across this article, via the NY Times Motherlode blog, which describes the frustrations experienced by the mother of an autistic child. Her frustrations lie not with the travails of raising an autistic son, but with the world around him and how his peers respond to him: not through empathy or care, but as if he were their charity project. Worse still, they are self-congratulatory about the many ways that they have “helped” her son, through participation in an alternative sports club. A few key passages:

One Saturday morning last year, Marc and I sat in the synagogue listening to a boy we know from our town deliver his bar mitzvah speech. “For my mitzvah project I’m so proud of all the work I did for the Alternative League,” he said. “I’m really good at sports, so I was able to share all my skills with those kids.”

There it is again. Those kids.

“I hope I helped their lives in some way,” he added.

Marc leaned in. “Did he come to any of our games?” he whispered.

“I saw him there once. Maybe twice?” I whispered back.

Here’s what particularly galled me: this kid, all self-congratulatory smiles, actually lives in our neighborhood. He’s close in age to our son Mickey. But in all these years, this boy has never – – not once – rung the doorbell to ask if my son wants to come out and play.

*****

My friend Susan, the parent of a child with a disability, tells me that last year some boy on her block who had an assignment for his church’s confirmation class asked to “borrow” her son Jacob. They played basketball in the driveway for ten minutes, till the boy’s mother came running to document the event with her digital camera. Susan showed less forbearance than I. “I’m sorry,” she said, stepping firmly between Jacob and the camera. “I feel very uncomfortable with you photographing him. My son isn’t a project. He’s a person.”

*****

I’m tired of other parents who expect me to go all soft-eyed and grateful because their kids spend one hour a week on a soccer field kicking a ball around with my son. My child isn’t a mascot. He isn’t a charity case. He isn’t a community project. He’s a kind-hearted, teen-age boy who enjoys having friends. And he happens to have autism.

This article hit me really close to home as I read it. As the older sibling of two kids with disabilities, I respond pretty viscerally to stories like this. I remember watching my brother and sister (they’re twins) enter high school freshman year, when I was a senior. Watching them, with heartbreak, from afar as their peers teased them, ignored them, or talked down to them. I would’ve been enraged if I knew that people used them for their own self-promotion. That by “befriending” my siblings, they would gain access to scholarships, get into ivy league universities, etc. I can completely sympathize with the mom who wants people to view her son as a full person – not a project.

But, just as much as Kupferberg’s article reminded me of my own brother and sister, it reminded me of much of the workings and attitudes within the development world. When the poor and the marginalized become projects – absent from real relationships – we fail to do our jobs. When we make a group of people into “those people” who should consider themselves lucky to receive the charity we’re giving them, we’re reenacting the dynamic that Kupferberg describes in her article on a large scale. If we think that working with “those kids” or “those poor people” is a reason for us to congratulate ourselves on what wonderful people we are, we are sorely amiss. There is another subtle message in this article, which is that Kupferberg’s son, and others like him, have a lot to offer their peers. This mirrors what the asset based community development school of thought says about poor communities: there is much knowledge and value in these communities, and this value should be central to any development that takes place.

Put more simply: the “other”-ing of both individuals and communities for our own gain is not only harmful to the individual/community, it also prevents us from learning something new and useful.

I feel a bit of irony writing about this, as I have benefitted greatly on account of the work I’ve done with various communities: from my admittance to Northwestern to my Mitchell scholarship.  So the article hits me very personally as well.  But I think Kupferberg’s main point is about the attitude with which we engage these people and communities.  Is it for our own gain, where we possess all the knowledge and are mostly working to advance our own careers?  Or is it for collective gain, where everybody learns and everybody teaches, for everybody’s benefit?  I hope that I can continually strive to work towards the latter.

Reading this reminded me of the pain experienced by individuals who are made into a project.  I want to keep re-reading it, to remind myself of that danger in my own work, and the very real consequences it can have.

A couple favorite articles from the past week.

  • A look at Sesame Street’s success in educating children, and how its strategies could be applied to other interventions.
  • A friend’s reflections on creating art outside of major centers of culture.  I think a lot of what he has to say can be applied to some of us outside the art world too, wherever we find ourselves.
  • Another friend, and former coworker at the Interfaith Youth Core, writes about the tragedy at Fort Hood.
  • Cool New York Times tool shows the unemployment rate for different groups of Americans, divided by sex, age, race, and education level.  Overall, a powerful tool.

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