Monthly Archives: July 2011

Random Thoughts

A few more observations to share:

–          Crime: I was walking around exploring the city on a Saturday afternoon when I ran into a group of three dodgy people. I saw that there was a girl with them and thought that all would be fine but soon realized that was not the case. One of the guys asked me the time and I tried to say something in broken French. Then he knew I wasn’t Brazilian and thus grabbed my watch to see the time. Luckily, they let me go without harm and without taking anything but this experience exposed me to the possible dangers of Brazil. When I asked my Brazilian friends if inequality was the main reason for the crime problem here, they emphatically said claro (for sure). It is great that Brazil has been witnessing such impressive growth but there are clearly many people not benefiting or participating in this process. “Inclusive growth” is meant to address this. Anyways, I guess my upcoming trip to Rio should be interesting and I hope that I can use my street smarts to avoid provoking trouble!

–          Reading: Another great opportunity that my summer internship has provided me with is the chance to do more reading. I already managed to finish Development as Freedom by Amaryta Sen. In short, a great book that is already influencing the way I see the work of international development. I highly recommend this book. I am also finished reading The Kite Runner. A great book – even better than the movie, which I rate highly. I rarely read fiction and that is a real shame. There is actually so much we can learn and gain from reading fiction – in fact sometimes much more that we learn from academic journals or books! We can obviously learn from the content of the stories but can also learn from the beautiful style of writing. My writing is improving (after 3 writing courses at LBJ) but I still have much room for improvement – as you can gather from the writing in this blog!

–          Touristy Stuff: I went out around town with Cecilia (the Brasilian intern who I share a house with) and her mom. We went to the feira (market) and walked around. I later went back by myself and had a fun time exploring all the various Brazilian food stuffs. Then we went to the TV tower and got to see Brasilia from atop. After that, we went to an exhibition on Islamic art. Almost half of the things were from Iran and it nice to see Brazilian exposure to “my part of the world”. Finally, we went to an upscale part of the city that had a beautiful pier along the lake. Just this past weekend, I got a chance to go to the famous Cathedral here but I have still yet to tour the Foreign Affairs Palace or the Congress building.

–          Really? You learn new things everyday and one of these days I learned that Brazil and Australia both have compulsory voting! I like to think of myself as quite well informed but I had no idea that there was compulsory voting anywhere – let alone in Australia. I am still not sure what to think of this but my first thought is that this is not a good policy. What do you think? Does it help to increase political involvement or is it an infringement of freedom and mockery of democracy?

–          Citizen of the World?: I went to a party hosted by one of our office colleagues at her house. It was nice to see some other expats living in Brasilia and to hear their experiences. There was an intriguing Costa Rican couple there. The husband had worked for the UN for over twenty years and he was curious to hear how I felt about constantly moving. I told him that although it was difficult, I feel it has greatly enriched my life. His children have also been through a similar experience and he also thought that the moving was more beneficial than harmful. Still, my experience in Brazil is humbling. I realize that despite having had the privilege of living in (and visiting) so many places, I am still ignorant of the great diversity in the world.  Despite feeling like a citizen of the world and a nomad, I still feel my Iranian heritage. So I got in touch with the Iranian embassy here and went there on a Thursday night for some special prayer we do. The Embassy was crazy big = 20 acres! Apparently, the Brazilian government provided each country with 20 acres for free (except Russia, China, and the US which got 40 acres). It was nice to see fellow Iranians and speak Farsi. I was just at the Iranian Embassy this past Saturday for a celebration and it was great to get a chance to talk to the kids here who are roughly my age. I was particularly struck by one kid who asked me that with all my traveling have I never questioned my own religious beliefs and thought about adopting another religion. I answered him honestly: my travels have exposed me to different religious but I am still fairly ignorant of the details of world religions. Yet, I feel happy with my current religion and believe that it has served me well to keep me grounded despite all the changes in social as well as physical environment.

Next time I will try to share more work related details…

The Many Faces of DC

"See no evil . . . " (credit to Dr Weaver!)

July already – the past few weeks have flown by.  As a group we’ve coded thousands of projects, and I must say my Malawian geography is as sharp as you like.  As a break from coding, we also have the chance to do a bit of digging in to some topics that interest us.  So Tiffany Tripson and I are looking at energy sector aid to Africa – for differences between donor groups, regions, countries, and projects – all using AidData’s great database. I’ll certainly link to anything we come up with later on.

Over the past year at LBJ we heard a lot about the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, and generally more three letter acronyms than I care to remember.  But this summer, through work and Dr Weaver’s class, I’ve had a chance to see some of the real ‘faces’ of these institutions – shiny buildings full of busy people (who, I must say, eat at the most glamorous cafeteria I’ve ever seen!).  And these organizations are trying to find solutions to real problems, both within themselves and out in a fast-changing world.  So it’s been great to meet some of the people that make these big bureaucracies tick.  For example, the World Bank is trying to get very serious about innovating to keep up with changes in technology, so serious that it hired on Aleem Walji of Google.org to help.  We had the chance to hear about many of these new ideas from a panel that Mr Walji moderated.  That same day I got to meet Daniel Kammen, Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the Bank, and another new acquisition.  He comes from UC Berkeley, where he was founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (among many other positions).  I just hope that these institutions can keep these kinds of people (and get more!) – making real use of their energy and experience.

But I’ve seen some more recognizable faces too.  Walking to work the other day I happened to see Christine Lagarde rushing in to interview at the IMF.  A few days later, on a stroll through Georgetown, my wife and I saw what looked like a police car convention – lights flashing everywhere.  Then SWAT-type trucks and fleets of SUVs and motorcycles.  As it turns out, it was just President Obama having ice cream with his girls for Father’s Day.  I suppose even the busiest faces in DC need a break sometimes. . .

Eu não falo Português

A few more experiences to share:

LANGUAGE & SETTLING IN: I assumed that Brasilia is full of embassies and consequently that most Brazilians here speak English but I guess that most diplomats don’t really integrate all that much with the Brasilia ‘street’. I have been to Portugal but I was spoiled there as I stayed at my friend’s house and he did all the talking for me. I did learn to say ‘obrigado’ = thank you. The first two words I asked my IPC colleagues to teach me where sorry and excuse me. Interestingly enough though it turns out that my semblance of French helps me to understand some Portuguese, especially the numbers. Although I can use hand gestures quite well to get my point across, I feel quite helpless in communicating. However, it does have its positives as I receive friendly smiles/laughs from the ladies working in the drugstore as I explain that I am looking for shaving razors by gesticulating to my face. They must be fascinated that someone who they think looks Brazilian has no idea how to speak Portuguese.

Chinese delegation visit: In my first week here I attended a meeting with a delegation working in the Chinese Ministry of Labor and Social Protection. They were interested to learn about Brazilian social protection schemes, especially Bolsa Familla (Family Allowance), which is a conditional cash transfer providing financial aid to poor Brazilian families; if they have children, families must ensure that their children attend school and are vaccinated. It is actually the biggest conditional cash transfer in the world! (Check out this World Bank site for more information: http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/LACEXT/BRAZILEXTN/0,,contentMDK:21447054~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:322341,00.html) Anyway, these Chinese guys asked us so many questions that there was barely time for us to get any information on the complex Chinese social protection system. All in all though it was nice to see their interest in learning from the Brazilian model. I guess that is what South-South cooperation is all about. There are many common problems that developing countries face. Although the solutions need to be tailored to a particular context, there is great scope for learning from others’ past successes and failures.

World Bank VC: I also got a chance to attend a University of Brasilia economics class that was held through a video conference with a World Bank official working on African economies. The lecturer, Shanta Devarajan, first laid out all the worrying signs in Africa but then recollected some anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is much room for optimism. It was refreshing and inspiring in some ways. However, his focus on macroeconomic issues demonstrated the danger of relying too heavily on data. A fellow intern originally from Rwanda shared some wisdom that the Rwandan government is too often unduly praised. For example, in order to increase urbanization figures, they force rural folk to move to urban slums! The devil is truly in the details. Nonetheless, I still appreciate data gatherers but maybe the real unsung heroes are data analysts.

Brazilian Style Busking: I have seen a lot of creative ways of begging in my time but I was impressed with the innovation of the Brazilian poor. Here, kids come into supermarket, pick out something they want (usually a sweet of some kind), and ask people to buy it for them. My mom is personally a big fan of giving food as opposed to money to beggars. I am not sure what I think about this but I am sure that something should be done so that these kids will be able to buy whatever they wish (within reason). Another more predictable yet still unique busking technique was juggling a football in the middle of the street behind a red light. That is Brazilian style busking for you. But seriously, seeing that guy with all this talents in juggling the football in unbelievable ways made me think how much potential is left untapped throughout the world. I am not saying that that particular person could have been the next Messi, but I do know that those living in dire situations rarely get to develop their potential. I hope that my work here and down the line can help to identify, foster, and harness some of this untapped potential.

Ridiculed Responsibility

Jambo!

I’ve enjoyed a highly productive week here in Kenya. The majority of this week’s time was spent in meetings with partner organizations and KIDS’ board members.

One of my board members, Yvonne, shared a story with me about a girl attending one of the primary schools in Kajiado that is too heartbreaking not to share.

Charity, 18, was raped by a cousin almost five years ago. She now has a four-year-old daughter who is being raised by a variety of relatives. Ridiculed for having a child while unmarried, regardless of the circumstances, and refusing to accept an arranged marriage with a man then three times her age, Charity found herself outcast from her family.

She now lives with Yvonne’s mother, who encouraged her to return to school. Given Charity’s skill level, she was placed in Class 2 upon her return to school. Though embarrassed to attend class with seven and eight-year-olds, Charity has persevered and is close to completing Class 4 this year. Unfortunately, her family is unsupportive of her return to school and speak critically of her in front of her young daughter.

When you ask the young daughter about her mother she scorns, “My mother is 18. She had me at only 14 years and now she’s only in Class 4 with the babies at the same school as me.”

In an attempt to take responsibility and create opportunities for a better life for her and her daughter, Charity meets ridicule at every turn. She cleans houses to earn money for her daughter and both of their school expenses in addition to attending class Monday-Friday.

These are the young women we’re trying to reach and encourage. What a lonely journey when even your own daughter scorns you. These girls should earn respect, not ridicule, for their attempt at taking responsibility for their own futures.