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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.

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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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