Posts Tagged ‘Africa


Are institutions becoming counterproductive?

I think this thought has been kicking around in my brain for a long time, but today things coalesced into this post. You see, I was sitting in a meeting for one of my jobs. I work in a pedagogical role at Tufts (that’s all I’ll say for fear of offending superior or giving the wrong idea to colleagues who I might read this, but I doubt that will happen). Anyway, there was a training meeting where we talked about various issues and what to do going forward.

My main problem is that I think institutions, jobs, organizations, are losing their purpose. As always, I hope to make this vague rhetoric more clear. Take an ordinary institution like a charity in Africa. Presumably the value of this organization is that it promotes some good; it helps people in Africa. This charitable mission is the reason that some people work for the organization full time (of course they work for the money, but most people who work for non-profits care about the mission of the organization to say the least) and why others give money to the organization so that, well, people can be hired to work full time. The organization is a MEANS to accomplishing some goal, and by pooling talent, communication, money, and probably most of all, coordination, the goal of healthy people in Africa can be pursued more effectively than if each Afrophile tried to help on their own.

All this is perfectly intelligible, but I think there is a growing cultural shit to considering institutions valuable IN THEMSELVES so that there is value in merely participating in groups. For one good example, take the interest that college and high school kids have in being part of various clubs and groups that EVERYONE KNOWS don’t actually do anything. Ok too cynical; let me scale that back. Some clubs do great things, but those are the clubs that people join because they want to do the thing that the organization promotes. On the other hand, we have a word for people who join organizations just to be a part of an organization. The word is fake.

And this is kind of what was going on in my meeting today. We had a meeting to talk about issue that either a) any person with commonsense could resolve or b) were irresolvable and should not be legitimized by spending time on them. For example, someone talked about a student that was being difficult and so could not be helped effectively by the service this group that I work for offers. And I’m sitting there thinking WELL THEN WHAT CAN YOU DO? We run an organization that helps people who want help, and of course you can go along we in seeking out people who need help but forget, or are weak-willed, or need a nudge. Fine. But if someone using a voluntary service is just screwing the service up then what more is there to say. And if there is more to say, is it worth saying.

You see, I think the critique can be deepened. An organization is meant to act as a mechanical lever by allowing a group of people to be more effective at something than they would otherwise be trying to fly solo. But remember, flying solo is very effective for many things. We had a bunch of announcements in this meeting in which various individual problems were addressed in front of 20 people. But if only one person has a problem and it’s not contributing to the effectiveness of the other members, than things would be much more effective if the one person with a problem just invested time in finding out the answer on his or her own by talking to the right person or just thinking about the problem for a little bit.

Now of course, there are reasons why its good to air concerns to the group because other people might not have encountered the problems YET, but could benefit if they knew how to react ahead of time. A good point, but there is a real information cost balance between having the organization take time in promulgating information and holding meetings and then having individual members of the organization find stuff out on there own. For some information, it will be easier to disseminate and email, and hold meetings, but other information is best discovered by NOT having the group do anything and letting members come to the information as needed. If the information isn’t widely useful, then you end up wasting the time of people who didn’t need the information to get it to people who do.

Let me back track for one second. I said institutions are only a means to achieving a goal, and that isn’t quite right. There is something uniquely valuable about sharing ideas and decisions with peers toward a common end (for one thing it is a training ground for democracy and a wellspring of mutual respect). However, this value, the value of working in concert, disappears if everyone in the group is working for the group WITH THE GOAL OF GETTING THAT BENEFIT.

For group life to be uniquely valuable, the members have to be part of the group not in order to get the benefits of group life, but to advance the interests of the group. I’ve used this analogy a million times on this site and I hope its starting to creep into people’s lives because its a big difference. Take sports. Sports are uniquely valuable because they teach special lessons. But you can’t get the special lessons of sports by going into each game and practice trying to get those special lessons. The lessons will run away from you and you’ll never find them. You have to train, struggle, and in the end, desire VERY INTENSELY, to win. By doing all this, you will, as a side effect, grasp the specific value of sports.This is not to say that there is not value in “playing for fun.” There is, but it’s not the same type of value that is only available for a certain type of attitude.

The same is true with institutions, and if people forget that they have to join groups and clubs and whatever FOR THE THINGS THOSE CLUBS DO, then we’re going to slowly fall into a kind of self-congratulatory stasis in which everyone does group business all day without there being anything at stake and without the goal itself animating the minds and hearts of the participants.




NASA, national security, and Africa

More of a grab bag today, but some interesting things are going on.

First, the supreme court is in session (some people care about football season, others care about supreme court season) and one of the cases it’s hearing is NASA v. Nelson. The briefs submitted by both sides are here, and they’re surprisingly accessible, except of course when they talk about what the law actually is. It’s also hard to get a good idea of what’s going on since lawyers for both sides make it sound like their case is great.

Basically, a bunch of Caltech dorks (I use that term with affection, but seriously, the actual BRIEF says that the work these people do requires nothing more than “a computer, a pen, a piece of paper, and a calculator” who work at a NASA jet propulsion lab got upset because they were asked a bunch of sex and drug questions.

Now there are points on both sides. These employees don’t deal with any sensitive information and have been working at this lab for 20 years, but the government points out that background checks are required for all federal employees (I think an exec order in 2005 passed by Bush is what made the check required for these guys who are, I guess, quasi-federal employees) and that their responses are voluntary, not disseminated publicly, and protected by the privacy act. Like I said, I’m still learning about this case, but it seems like a pretty solid victory for the government, but interestingly, the whole things probably resulted from security tightening done under Bush.

Is this an example of how national security laws overreacted and so swept within their net some wholesome jet propulsion scientists, or is this case about a narrowly tailored government policy designed with an important government purpose in mind?

Also, the 9th circuit ruled in favor of the scientists and ruled pretty decisively that direction as well. I’m interested to see how this case shapes up. Of course there probably won’t be much written about it until the decision is rendered far in the future.

Anyway, I also saw this interesting report that says that though Africa as a continent is moving toward a better economy, its political indicators have fallen. More Africans are now living under threat of violence or are politically disenfranchised. Really? It’s worse now than in the past? Damn things must be really bad. I didn’t know things could even get worse in Africa.


long term returns to humanitarianism

When we invest our money for personal gain, we often think of the return that the money will earn in a given period of time and the riskiness of that return. All sorts of things go into this calculation. However, how should we think about returns to investments when deciding to make a charitable contribution.

Take this example. I’m thinking about either giving 150 dollars to AMREF, which, they tell me, can “rehabilitate” a village well, or investing this money in the stock market and then using the proceeds of this investment to create many wells in the future. What should I do?

When facing the tradeoff between future and present charity, I think it’s important to remember that the marginal benefit to charity is likely to hugely to outstrip the returns to financial investment. What I mean is that a well built now, when there are few wells, will be more helpful to people then multiple wells will be in 20 years, when there are more wells. In other words, a well built right now might save 100 people, but a well built in 20 years (when Africa has more capital and infrastructure) might only save 10 people. Thus, unless I expect my 150 dollars to reap a massive return (10x growth), it makes more sense to give the money away now.

Put simply, my suspicion is that basic infrastructure improvements generate a ton of utility per dollar spent, but that subsequent infrastructure improvements don’t generate near the amount of utility per dollar. Thus today, humanitarian “consumption” makes more sense than humanitarian “investment.” Another way to put it is that the present holds many once in a lifetime opportunities for humanitarian bargain-hunters.