Archive for January, 2010


When the means forget they weren’t the end

January 27, 2010

Yesterday, in discussing Senator Bayh’s warning about a “political catastrophe of biblical proportions,” Ezra Klein articulated what’s been eating at the edge of my brain for a few days.

I’ll just note that the “catastrophe of biblical proportions” that Bayh is referring to is not that health-care reform doesn’t pass and hundreds of thousands of people die unnecessary deaths. It’s not that the Congress is unable to pass a second stimulus and millions of Americans are jobless, anxious and uninsured for years longer than necessary. It’s that Democrats lose a bunch of seats in the midterm elections.

Politicians have a tendency of talking about the consequences of elections as if they’re very real and the consequences of policy as if they’re very abstract.

It’s exactly this–this grand confusion between goals and the means by which we attain those goals.  Having Democrats retain their majority in Congress is a means, not an end.  And the sooner they get that straight, the sooner I’ll be able to care whether or not they get reelected.



There is no left-wing politics in the United States

January 26, 2010

Exhibit 3,427: this happened last night.

I was not really mentally prepared to watch Jared Bernstein, former senior economist at the progressive Economic Policy Institute, defend the idea of a spending freeze in the middle of a recession, but this debate between him and Rachel Maddow is worth watching for the administration’s justification of this move. Maddow doesn’t give an inch but gives Bernstein a chance to make his case.

While my initial reaction was pretty extreme (something like Paul Krugman’s), if the administration defense is right, this may not actually mean all that much in a real economic sense, and might just be a move to try to gain support among the general populace that has bought into the frame that excessive government spending is the biggest problem we face economically.

That’s appalling in and of itself, of course. The left has spent its entire existence fighting against the misguided notion that government is bad. That the Obama administration is now feeding this narrative (in a knee-jerk panic reaction to a bad election result) is massively disappointing. Even if this is all words and no real meaningful action, the words matter.

For more, Andrew Sullivan has a nice summary of the range of blogger reactions.

Flying Whale


Apparently I don’t know what it means to be a failed state

January 22, 2010

A few weeks ago, when Yemen grabbed a news cycle or two and folks were saying things like this, Flying Whale and I had a conversation with a good friend about what the criteria was for being considered a “failed state” and whether or not Yemen qualified.

Between the three of us, we dutifully recited Weber (loss of monopoly on violence) and hypothesized that it meant the inability of a centralized government to enforce its will outside of the capital.

And then I read this article.  And now I’m wondering if being categorized as a failed state is even bleaker than I realized.

Khaled Fattah of the Yemen Times writes that Yemen’s government has lost its “infrastructural power” and become a creator of problems, not a source of solutions.

[O]ne may point to the wide-spread endemic corruption, the expansion of ‘dark spaces’ that are far beyond the reach of the state’s eyes and hands, the growth of hidden economies, and the tendency to ignore the juridical processes of the state.

This loss is evident in the absence of the state in many parts of the country, in the inability of state institutions to counter lawlessness and social disorder, in the very poor quality of basic government services, and in the very limited impact of state controls. Unsurprisingly, Yemen today is one of the best examples of political entities where the state is performing ‘self-canceling.’

Although united Yemen has been holding together as a fragile Middle Eastern state, the wide array of anti-central authority actors who are engaged in varying degrees of violence and subversion are operating within a new poisonous environment that can push Yemen towards joining the list of failed states.

A birds-eye view of the current security situation in Yemen reveals how the Weberian notion of a state that enjoys a monopoly on violence is nothing more than a fantasy.

If the author hadn’t so clearly implied that Yemen wasn’t yet a failed state, I’d have thought the description certainly qualified it. I need a new working definition.  Thoughts?

P.S. I’ve been following these three blogs.  They’re a decent starting point.



Haiti, debt, the IMF, and what we should be doing instead of texting

January 21, 2010

So here’s the deal.  Texting HAITI or QUAKE or YELE to the right number is, well, it’s something.  And if you can look me in the eye and tell me that that’s all you can do, then you should text the word of your choice to the number of your choice, preferably the matching one.

But our real chance to support Haiti over the long haul–and yes, this is going to be one very long haul–is elsewhere.

Haiti has spent the last 150 years under an extreme debt load.  That means that they’ve paid a HUGE percentage of their export earnings in debt service.  That’s money that could have been used to build roads, enforce building codes, train the police force, pay teachers, and develop a healthcare infrastructure.  Instead it got used to pay interest on a loan.

If we’re serious about earthquake recovery that does more than just get Haiti back to the survival side of starvation, we should be spending as much energy looking at deleting the nation’s debt as we are scrambling to get crisis assistance to the survivors.  And chin up, there is reason to be encouraged.

The IMF announced a $100 million loan a few days ago.  Under pressure from international debt relief activists, they clarified the terms of the loan yesterday, announcing that it’s an interest free emergency loan (and doesn’t carry the same conditions as the original loan).  Even better is this statement from the IMF’s Managing Director:

The most important thing is that the IMF is now working with all donors to try to delete all the Haitian debt, including our new loan. If we succeed—and I’m sure we will succeed—even this loan will turn out to be finally a grant, because all the debt will have been deleted.

I don’t trust the IMF.  I really don’t.  But this isn’t vague, dancing-around, PR language.  It’s concrete and, well, very unlike the IMF I know.  And that gives me hope.

Also, if you want to get a handle on this whole debt thing, I can’t recommend this article enough.




January 21, 2010

From the continuation of the nightmare in Haiti to a devastating Supreme Court decision (more soon) to the Democrats’ inability to pull it together, this has been one hell of a news cycle.

On the upside, nice job, Washington Post.  If only the Democrats could find it in them to do this level of analysis themselves and, I don’t know, turn this narrative to their advantage.



Don’t just give; give well

January 15, 2010

If you’re new, read Part 1 first.

After sending the email below, I stumbled across a very similar post over at Good Intentions are Not Enough, so you can check that out too.

this isn’t the promised follow-up email–that’s still a few days away. rather, this is an addendum to yesterday: less-helpful disaster responses.  i was pretty committed to only offering positive advice, but i’ve gotten enough emails from folks asking about the issues below that a p.s. seemed worthwhile.

i know many of you are engaged in discussions with your community about coordinated responses; wanted you to have these points at your fingertips as you influence that process.

1. sending food or clothes is less helpful than sending money.

here’s the rule of thumb for ALL phases of disaster recovery: if the item in question is something that CAN be purchased nearby (in this case, in Haiti or the DR), then the cost of shipping it and the logistics of getting it distributed equitably and efficiently aren’t worth it (plus, buying local will help small businesses get back on their feet).  the only things that should be shipped are things that CANNOT be accessed from the disaster location (generators, surgical equipment, heavy machinery to remove rubble, etc.)

RIGHT NOW: large organizations and governments–who have the capacity to deliver literally TONS of food, water, tents, etc.–are the best route for those items.

however, if you feel really committed to food: focus on pop-tops and ready-to-eat foods.  if folks don’t have access to food, chances are they don’t have access to a can-opener or cooking fuel.

if you are absolutely committed to clothes: do a little research on haiti’s climate and think about what folks will actually need (underwear, t-shirts, and socks–not bathing suits and fancy dresses)

2. respond to specific needs from folks on the ground.

folks here might be willing to donate all kinds of stuff, but if it isn’t needed by someone managing operations there and integrated into their response plan, then it just muddles what is, essentially, a incredibly complex logistical effort.

3. if you don’t have concrete skills to offer, please do not try to go to haiti right now.

later on, in phase two, relatively unskilled people who are willing to follow directions and work hard will be really helpful.  right now, doctors (especially orthopedic surgeons–if you know any willing to go, please put them in touch with me!), nurses, folks who are fluent in creole, and logistics specialists (yes, that’s a real job category) are what is needed.  the rest of us should stay out of the way.  folks with expertise in disease outbreaks should be on stand-by–you’re up next.

4. finally, it’s ok to ask folks to be thoughtful about their response.

it’s ok to say, “i know donating X would be easy to get folks excited about and we already have a catchy slogan to match, but intentionally raising money now for X organization that will be involved in the long-term rebuilding effort is probably a more sustainable response and will complement some of the more crisis-oriented relief that many folks are engaged in.”

don’t just give, give well, and push other folks to do the same.



Haiti: how to actually be helpful

January 14, 2010

Hi folks, apologies from both Flying Whale and I for being away for so long.  Real–and regular–posts soon, but for now, an email I sent out early this morning.

most of you know about my background in disaster relief–so while i clearly don’t know everything, and post-disaster areas are notoriously complex, i’ve got a few thoughts.

first, some guiding principles (this wording from Texas in Africa):
1. Donate to organizations with an established presence, quickly. The ability to charter helicopters, buy tarps, and distribute water is eased considerably if the organization has cash in hand.
2. Work with organizations that have local staff in leadership positions and who are empowered to make quick decisions on the ground.
3. Work with organizations that partner with local social institutions, like houses of worship or community organizations. These groups’ social networks and language skills mean that they’re quickly able to identify specific problems and solutions, make lists of victims, and respond to traumatized populations in culturally-relevant ways.

for folks who want to give and have impact now, i’m suggesting MSF (Doctors Without Borders) and Partners in Health because both have in-country staff, strong in-country relationships, and a fantastic track record.  unlike in many other countries, MSF was already an important part of haiti’s healthcare infrastructure, so they aren’t outsiders to the degree that they sometimes are.  also, MSF’s main building was destroyed, so they’ll be in particular need of cash, fast.

that said, PIH and MSF are going to max out their capacity at some point, and then we’ll need to bolster their efforts by supporting smaller, less-well-known groups.  unfortunately, those groups haven’t emerged yet–it’ll depend on who still has able staff. so, you might consider holding off for a few days to wait and see who they are–figuring that most folks are going to give immediately to the big-name organizations they can easily trust.

or you might consider looking ahead to longer term recovery.  my main suggestions on that front at this point are Catholic Relief Services and Architecture for Humanity.  CRS has been in haiti for 50 years and will likely be one of the long-term recovery partners (in addition to crisis response right now).  giving them some support on the front end will make their planning for the next year better.  AFH will be focused on the rebuilding effort.  they’ve got a long history with haiti and frankly, they just do good work.  i’d encourage folks to think long-term while this is still dominating our thoughts.

finally, if you have connections to a faith-based or community-based group that you KNOW is doing EFFECTIVE, EMPOWERING work and still has on-the-ground capacity, i’d recommend giving to them as well.  they’ll be able to be more nimble than some of the larger organizations and, like i said earlier, can support the Red Cross, Mercy Corp, PIH, MSF, etc. once the bigger organizations’ capacity is reached.

I’m sending a second email–which I will also post here–once those “less-well-known” groups emerge.