Friday, January 28, 2011

Urban Landscapes of Evaluation

"Different sorts of decisions need different sorts of evidence, just as [Jane] Jacobs said different sorts of businesses need different sorts of buildings. In particular, new ideas need cheap tests, just as new businesses need cheap rent. As an idea becomes more plausible, it makes sense to test it in more expensive ways."
That is from a nice post by Seth Roberts.  It is highly germane to many endeavors in life, including international aid.  Good progress has been made recently on the gold standard of (well-designed) randomized controlled trials (RCTs) testing aid project design.

But  RCTs can be expensive and cannot be done in all circumstances.  So we need a menu of approaches to determine whether different types of ideas at various stages idea are promising.

I recently had an interesting conversation along these lines with one of the creators of an innovation fund at a major aid agency.  I hope soon to be able to post an interview online with him here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Primes of High Performing Teams

If you work in a team, I recommend Chris McGoff's new book The Primes.  The associated website and blog are also excellent.

I met Chris in 1997, when he began helping the World Bank's senior management team work better together.  He was also critical to the design and implementation of the first Development Marketplace (though his role, along with that of Monika Weber-Fahr, was unfortunately omitted from this otherwise excellent HBR account.)

I can say from experience that the principles Chris describes in his book are effective; I have used them over the past fourteen years. They seem deceptively simple, but I can attest to their power if applied consistently.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Poetry and Development

A small group of us meet occasionally over dinner, ostensibly to talk about new ideas in international development.  Mostly we just have a good time; sometimes we forget to talk about development.

My friend April asked one day "Why don't we read more poetry?  What if we started off each dinner with some poetry?"  At first I thought this idea was little nutty - like a lot of April's ideas, to be honest (please don't tell her I said that).  What does poetry have to do with development, anyway?  But then I realized that good poetry makes us happy.  And that development is about enabling people to be happier.

So on this cold Friday afternoon, I am going to tip my hat to April and publish the following poem, which makes me very happy.  It is by my god-daughter, Evelina Kats, who gave me permission to print the unedited version below.  I recommend both the written and audio versions.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bridges Made of Paper?

Michael Woolcock recently wrote a CGD working paper with Lant Pritchett and Matt Andrews arguing that aid agencies have built a lot of bridges out of paper.  What do they mean by this?  They mean that aid projects have often put in place modern institutional forms, such as court systems or school systems, without much regard for the actual functioning of those institutions.

They call this approach isomorphic mimicry.  Mimicry is easier - and more feasible in the time span of a typical aid project.  But the authors argue that mimicry can actually retard the development of the desired functionality.

I spoke with Michael about the paper and some related issues, and you can listen here:
Listen to this episode

Thursday, January 13, 2011

How Marvelous Collaboration Can Be (Redux)

"Contrary to the old laws of information theory, it was common for us to find that more information was received than had been sent. I have almost never had that experience with anyone else. If you have not had it, you don't know how marvelous collaboration can be ..."
That is from a post I did sometime back.  It is a quote by Daniel Kahneman talking about his work with Amos Tversky.  I was reminded of this yesterday when talking to Michael Woolcock about his collaboration with Lant Pritchett - in preparation for an interview about a paper Michael recently wrote with Lant.  I will post the interview in the next couple of days, and I think you will like it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"If You Must Forecast, Forecast Often"

"Gold is going to $2,800 or higher, mark my words. It is THE ONLY hedge against the coming hyperinflation."

That is what someone told me recently at a conference.  I asked him how sure he was, and he reminded me that he works for one of the very few investors who predicted the subprime crisis.  "My boss is a genius," my table mate said.   I went right home and started researching the best way to buy gold.

The only problem, according to Joe Keohane in a recent article, is that people who correctly predict an extreme event such as the subprime crisis usually have a terrible overall record.  Keohane reports on research by Oxford's Jerker Denrell and NYU's Christina Fang showing that those who correctly forecast an extreme event had "by far" the worst forecasting record among their peers.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

TEDx Debut: Helping Outsiders Become Insiders

Here is a talk I gave at TEDx YSE (Young Social Entrepreneurs) in December 2010. I talk about how I accidentally discovered the pleasure and privilege of helping outsiders become insiders.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Ben Ramalingam on Complexity and Aid

The whole system disguises rather than navigates complexity, and it does so at various levels – in developing countries and within the aid system. This maintains a series of collective illusions and overly simplistic assumptions about the nature of systems, about the nature of change, and about the nature of human actors.
That is from my interview with Ben Ramalingam.  Ben is a consultant and writer who is currently writing a book about complexity and aid to be published by Oxford University Press.  I recommend his blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos.  My full interview follows:

Art at a Distance

"Several hundred people attend our openings over the web."

That is what Megan Lange at Robert Lange Studios (RLS) in Charleston, SC told me recently.  Mari and I stopped by there while attending a conference in that city.  The building and its space drew us in; the art kept us there.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Farewell! (But I'm not going far...)

You will notice a new design on this blog - after nearly 400 postings since mid-2006. This marks a transition in my life and career. Read the note below. It is both scary and exciting. I look forward to new adventures, some of which I will announce here soon. Stay tuned! Thanks for reading.


December 2010

After ten fabulous years at GlobalGiving, I am fully turning over the reins to my co-founder, Mari Kuraishi, at the end of December 2010.  This completes a transition that we began in 2008.

Although the decision to step down was hard, I feel that now is the right time.  We have proven the concept, established a world-class online platform, and made a big impact. When we started ten years ago, the idea of an open-access approach to aid and philanthropy seemed radical; it is now becoming the new norm.