Monday, August 30, 2010

I work really hard

Kenya's new Constitution came into effect on Friday (now known as Promulgation Day).  There was a big ceremony in Uhuru Park, attended by Kenyan and many other leaders, including, unfortunately, Sudanese president and war criminal Omar Hassan Al-Bashir (who's been indicted by the International Criminal Court, which means as soon as he landed in Kenya the Kenyan authorities should have arrested him).

So Friday was declared a national holiday in Kenya, which meant U.S. government employees here got the day off.  So my friends and I celebrated by going horseback riding out in tea plantation-land.

You can see more pictures here.  It was so, so much fun, and I am hoping to make this a regular weekend activity.  I was super sore afterwards, though!

Then yesterday I went on another embassy-organized trip to a place called Bomas of Kenya, which is kind of like the Kenyan version of colonial Williamsburg.  The government set it up in the 1970s when they saw that the country was really starting to develop and change, so that Kenyans wouldn't forget their cultural heritage.  Of course there are lots of tourists that visit, but it's mainly for Kenyan schoolchildren to see how their ancestors lived.

They have traditional huts from different areas of Kenya; for example, this is the style used by many ethnic groups along the coast of Kenya:

Besides the traditional houses, at Bomas you can also see performances of the traditional dances of the different ethnic groups:

You can see more pictures of Bomas here.  Unfortunately the lighting in the auditorium wasn't great, and it was only towards the end that one of my friends pointed out that sometimes the pictures will actually turn out lighter if you turn off the flash.

Then yesterday I went hiking at Mt. Longonot, which is not just a mountain but a volcano!  I've never been to one before, so it was very cool.  In the morning it was very foggy, so we couldn't see much, but we finally got some good views at the very end of our hike.

You can see more photos of Mt. Longonot here.

It may not seem like it from this blog lately, but I do actually do some work in Kenya on occasion, when I have time in between all the fun stuff.  I'll write about it soon.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Finally my car is here!  I'm so excited to be able to go places now, without having to spend a million dollars on taxis or beg for a ride from other people. 

Tomorrow I have to get the oil changed and take care of a few other maintenance things, since it's been sitting on a boat for almost two months.  But after that, I'm going horseback riding and hiking and all kinds of fun stuff!  I feel like a teenager getting my first car (although in actuality I didn't get my first car til I was 21 and in grad school).

I just drove it from work to home today.  I thought I'd gotten used to the whole driving on the left side of the road thing just from riding in cars around here, but it's definitely going to take a little getting used to as a driver.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

World Humanitarian Day

In case you are still wondering, this is what my job is about.  (Although the video makes it look a lot more exciting than it is most of the time).

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tea Plantation

This past weekend I went on an embassy-organized trip to visit a tea plantation just outside Nairobi.  It was beautiful and made me think again that I understand why the British colonized Kenya.

I also found out that there's a place nearby where you can go horseback riding through the coffee and tea plantations.  So as soon as I get my car (hopefully next week!), you know where I'll be spending my free time and money!

You can see more photos here.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


An overwhelming majority of Kenyans voted to adopt the new constitution yesterday, and today William Ruto, one of the politicians leading the No camp, conceded that "the Kenyan people had spoken".  So it's all over, no violence so far, and none expected in the next few days.  We have been lucky.

Now if we can just be so lucky when the International Criminal Court indicts the leaders of the 2007 post-election violence (expected in the next few months I think) and during the next elections...

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Article about Kenya's referendum

I think this article gives a pretty good summary of what the main issues are in the Kenyan constitutional referendum.

Kenyan constitutional referendum

Today Kenyans vote on whether to adopt a new constitution.  I haven't studied the proposed constitution, or the current one, closely, but my understanding is that one of the most important differences is a decrease in the power of the presidency, which has long been called for in Kenya.  However, (and unfortunately I think), politicians and the media have instead tended to focus on two sections in the proposed constitution: one which allows abortion if the life of the mother is endangered (compared to an absolute ban currently), and another provision which allows Muslims to go to Muslim "Kadhis courts" for marriage, divorce, and inheritance matters, which they are already able to do anyway under the current constitution. 

In any case, after all the violence following the elections in 2007, there is a lot of nervousness that there could be violence again with this referendum.  But this time the government, the Kenyan Red Cross ( which is the designated first responder for humanitarian crises), the UN agencies, NGOs, and the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (where I work) are prepared. 

So we are praying for peace, but ready to respond if things go the other way. I'll update later when we know more. 

And for those of you who worry about me, don't worry, I'm very safe.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

USAID and the "counterbureaucracy"

I've been reading a perhaps overly-long but interesting article by Andrew Natsios, a former USAID Administrator, about how bureaucracy, in particular requirements to measure and report on activities, is preventing USAID from being effective at development.  Natsios describes how initiatives to promote accountability and improve government performance have led to an emphasis on more-easily measurable activities, like vaccination campaigns where you can easily count the number of people vaccinated, over less easily-measured activities that would likely have a more sustainable, long-term impact, like building the capabilities of developing nations' ministries of health so that they can vaccinate their populations on their own instead of needing our assistance.  He also shows how spending money quickly has also come to be considered good program management, (who hasn't heard criticisms of USAID or the Red Cross after big disasters like the tsunami, Katrina, or the Haiti earthquake for only having spent, say, 15% of their money allocated to the disaster within the first year?), even though, for a program to be really effective and sustainable, you need to consult with the local population and government, which can take a lot of time and means that you will spend money much more slowly.
Unfortunately, while Natsios points out the problems with the way USAID does things now, there don't seem to be any quick fixes.  (While USAID is fighting for its life as an independent agency, how likely is it that we'll convince the President and Congress to let us spend less time reporting results and being accountable, so that we can spend more time actually working on development problems? Fat chance, I'm thinking).  But Natsios does have some interesting recommendations, which I'm copying in below (and hoping that it's not violating copyright).  I will admit upfront that I'm only copying the recommendations I like and find interesting, and not, say, his recommendation that USAID technical staff should have to work 30 rather than 20 years to qualify for retirement, which obviously is not in my self-interest!
Okay, here are his (selected) recommendations:
Measuring foreign policy results. Critics of U.S. foreign aid have long argued that it has failed on three counts: not connecting aid with U.S. foreign policy objectives, moving too slowly to implement programs, and not producing measurable results. It may not have occurred to these critics, but these objectives are mutually exclusive demands. Political aid programs frequently do not produce good development results because they ignore both good development practice and theory; they have other objectives, which make diplomatic and military sense, but not much else. Political aid programs are not going away any time soon because they are needed to carry out U.S. foreign policy, but they ought to be judged using very different standards than traditional development aid programs.

USAID should develop, with Congressional assent, politically based evaluation standards for aid programs in war zones or where U.S. foreign policy interests are of central importance. Examples of such situations include Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the West Bank, Gaza, and Afghanistan, where the Defense and State Department micro-manage aid programs for purposes that are unrelated or counter-productive to good development theory or practice. These are political, not development, aid programs and should be judged by whether they win hearts and minds, attract the
support of particular warlords or political factions, prop up fragile allies, or send diplomatic messages. We should stop applying development performance standards to these programs, and dispense with the polite pretense that they are development programs at all. Development professionals have little control of how they are designed, implemented, or managed. We should judge them for what they are.
The End of Time-based Measurements. Using program spending or disbursement rates to judge the success of aid programs, whether by OMB, GAO, OIG or Congressional oversight committees, undermines the ownership and sustainability principles that have long been central to good aid practice. The regulator's assumption that appropriated aid money is not being spent quickly enough, and thus is being poorly managed, misses the point of good development practice. This kind of work cannot be done easily or quickly, if it is to be effective.  Moreover, it requires a much longer time line to achieve results when the institutions of the recipient countries are weak or non-existent. Disbursement rates
should be used sparingly as a means for judging aid programs. The weaker or more fragile a state, the longer the time lag will be in showing program results, and allowances must be made for this lag in evaluations.
Aligning programs with organizational incentives. I suggest that only direct hire aid officers with advanced technical expertise should design projects and programs (now contractors design them), the length of which should be coterminous with the designing officer's assignment in the country where the project is being implemented. Moreover, that designing officer should manage the project to its conclusion. At the end of the project an impact evaluation would be done that should be included in the personnel evaluation of the responsible officer and be used to determine promotions and annual salary bonuses. These field evaluations would have to identify factors that were beyond the control of the aid officers. The officers would have to have much greater mobility to visit projects outside their imprisonment in USAID and U.S. Embassy compounds, caused by the draconian security measures required by the Embassy Security Act of 1998. This reform would align program design and management with the personnel system and incentive structure of the agency (and would require amendments to the Foreign Service Act). Other process heavy systems required by the counter-bureaucracy would have to be scaled down or eliminated wholesale.
A concluding thought, again courtesy of Andrew Natsios:  T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) wrote in his celebrated memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom about his exploits organizing Arab desert tribes against their colonial masters—the Ottoman Turks—who had sided with Germany and the Austro-
Hungarian Empire in World War I: "Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way and your time is short."

Monday, August 02, 2010

Hiking in Hell's Gate

I went hiking yesterday in Hell's Gate National Park, just about an hour outside of Nairobi.  Besides being very pretty, there are zebras and antelope and warthogs and baboons, and other animals which we didn't see.  And it's a volcanic area, so there are hot springs and steam vents, which I've never seen before.

The zebras were just hanging out by the side of the road.

Steam vents.  Our guide Hassan carried a stick for fighting off baboons, just in case.  But we didn't see any until we got back to the car.  We did see hyena tracks, though.  Luckily we were following it instead of the other way around!

You can see more pictures here.