A Peace Corps Problem

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I aspire to serve with the Peace Corps after I graduate from OU. While this post takes a critical look at one of the short pieces published on the Peace Corps’ website, please rest assured that I still wholeheartedly support the mission of the Peace Corps and fully intend on applying to serve.

Since its founding in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps has sent over 75,000 Americans to Africa in pursuit of world peace and friendship. This worldwide cultural exchange provides partner nations with trained individuals who are charged with “promoting a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” and “promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” The Peace Corps has become a popular post-graduation alternative to entering the workforce, and the 7,376 volunteers currently serving abroad are by and large making positive impacts in their host communities. However, the reflections of one former volunteer who spent time in Senegal, Mali, and Sierra Leone suggest that not every Peace Corps participant fully capitalizes on or even understands the nuances of their cultural exchange. By one individual’s accounts of his time in Africa, the cultural exchange he experienced was a very one-sided affair, in which he imposed American values and beliefs on the members of his community and made little attempt at understanding the merits of his hosts’ cultures and the fact that Africa does not need saving.

Serving in the Peace Corps is a substantial commitment to representing America well in word and deed, because every action and conversation is a display of American culture for people who may never visit the United States, but perhaps even more important is the way in which volunteers bring the culture of their host community back stateside. The cultural exchange aspect of the Peace Corps comprises two-thirds of the program’s mission statement but seldom receives proportionate emphasis, although the project work is also significant. In “What I think about when I think about West Africa,” the author reminisces on cherished years of volunteering in Africa, which he spent planting trees in Senegal, righting a failing business in Mali, and teaching middle school language arts in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, he also fixates on his ability to instill Western behaviors and beliefs in his host community and barely acknowledges the reverse, as if the African point of view had little to offer. The author concludes by stating how proud he was to be the light that “humanity everywhere so desperately needs,” and in doing so evokes the age-old portrayal of Western saviors bringing light into Africa’s heart of darkness. I believe that this is a fundamentally flawed approach to serving in the Peace Corps, not to mention international volunteering in general. It saddens me to see this point of view highlighted on the Peace Corps’ website, but I will admit that a year ago I wouldn’t have noticed anything problematic about the blog post in question.

A Note on Slacktivism

The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for Dr. Andreana Prichard’s Images of Africa class this past semester. It is a critique of “slacktivism” and the END IT Movement.

The END IT Movement was founded at Passion 2013, an evangelical Christian conference for college students that takes place annually in Atlanta, Georgia. Attendees were encouraged to “shine a light on slavery” and raise awareness via donations and social media for the plight of the 27 million men, women and children still trapped in some form of modern-day slavery, both in Africa and across the world. The END IT Movement is now in its fifth year of campaigning against modern-day slavery in all of its various forms. Every year on “Shine a Light on Slavery Day,” athletes, celebrities, and many others take to social media to share images of their hands, adorned with red X’s, in an effort to educate and inform the public about present-day human trafficking and forced labor. The evangelical END IT Movement has tackled the troubling issue of modern slavery through “slacktivism” with relative success, but tends to place disproportionate emphasis on combating sex trafficking, which is markedly less prevalent than labor trafficking.

The END IT Movement relies on what has come to be known as “slacktivism” – a term coined for campaigns to raise awareness over the internet that require little more from participants than a click and a share. The Red X Campaign by END IT asks individuals to post a picture of themselves with a red X drawn on their hands, with the hopes that other members of their social media network will inquire about the meaning of the action. This is raising awareness at its most basic, which has yet to produce tangible results in regards to modern slavery. Slacktivism is potentially better than nothing, but even that much remains to be proven. Surely, there must be better uses for the END IT Movement’s considerable resources.

Deutschland braucht keine Alternative

This past February, Dr. Carsten Schapkow, an Associate Professor in the Department of History at OU, gave a timely presentation on the rise of Germany’s most prominent far-right political party: Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). AfD is a Eurosceptic party, meaning that it is critical of EU membership and the Eurozone. Eurosceptic political parties are generally considered anti-establishment and can lie anywhere along the political spectrum, but the most successful Eurosceptic parties in recent years are overwhelmingly right to far-right, such as the AfD, France’s Front National (FN), the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), which is the largest Eurosceptic party in Europe. Dr. Schapkow discussed Alternative für Deutschland’s present and future goals, constituents, and its implications for Germany and Europe. In the first election after its founding in 2013, the AfD could not secure enough votes to obtain any seats in Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag. Four years later, Alternative für Deutschland, won 94 seats in the Bundestag, making it the third largest party in the parliament. Support for AfD is concentrated in eastern Germany (Saxony in particular), and tends to be male, working class, less educated, and between 30 and 60 years old.

I see myriad parallels between Donald Trump’s rise to prominence and the explosion of support for Eurosceptic parties. Both developments are characterized by conservative, anti-establishment, anti-immigration, populist movements that rely on fear-mongering and nationalist sentiments to raise and maintain support among very similar constituencies. Alternative für Deutschland is still the minority party in the Bundestag, but growing concerns over immigration and the economic troubles of the Eurozone may contribute to gains by the AfD in future elections. However, while the UKIP-spurred exodus of the United Kingdom from the EU encouraged Eurosceptics across the continent, similar anti-establishment campaigns in EU countries have seen less success. I, for one, hope that the Alternative für Deutschland dies an early death, as Germany does not need an empowered bigot at the reins. We tried that. It sucks.

Image result for alternativ fuer deutschland

Book Club pt 2

For the second semester in a row, my friend Tram and I led an Honor’s College Reading Group. After And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, which we chose for our first reading group this past Fall, we decided to go with a decidedly more dated work of fiction: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Tram and I were not complete strangers to Agatha Christie’s writings, but neither of us had heard of this particular novel, despite its well-deserved reputation as one of her best. We chose Roger Ackroyd from her vast catalogue of published works after reading a handful of the overwhelmingly favorable Amazon reviews, and it did not disappoint. Agatha Christie was an incredibly prolific author; according to the inside cover, only the Bible has sold more copies than Ms. Christie, the original mystery writer. To our pleasant surprise, Christie proved a popular pick, and our reading group filled up in a matter of weeks, with a short waitlist to boot. Of course, a few of our members would never show up to claim their copy, and attrition would take its toll as the semester dragged on, which may have been exacerbated by scheduling; we attempted to stretch a 312 page book to fill an entire semester. The bite-sized portions that this created were appealing at first, but we quickly realized that mystery novels are not designed for such piecemeal consumption. Consequently, a few of our weekly meetings adjourned early because we simply ran out of things to talk about. You live and you learn.

Tram and I once again spearheaded a weekly bribery scheme in an effort to retain our book club members, to varying levels of success. We made a concerted effort to provide some sort of sugar-loaded baked good each week; the highlight of the semester was the blackberry pie, courtesy of a generous guest celebrity chef who goes by Sojeph. I’m ashamed to admit that more than half of the baked delights this past semester were purchased, not handmade, but we made a good-faith effort to provide for our book clubbers and sometimes the bargain cookies from Baked Bear were our only option. I’m not sure if any of our attendees made it to every meeting (although I’m fairly certain that I did), but some of the most consistent also happened to be big Agatha Christie fans. I owe them my gratitude for entertaining our wildly off-base theories as we tried to predict the outcome of the mystery at every meeting, and for not ruining the shocking conclusion that left most everyone reeling. The aforementioned individuals were also very helpful when we didn’t understand Christie’s references to characters or happenings in her other books, which few of us had read.

Through the ups and downs of the semester, an Honor’s College Reading Group provides a refreshing break from the mundane, and Tram and I are currently discussing our next selection, coming Fall 2018. I don’t yet know what we’ll be reading, but I would love to have you along for the ride!

Constructivism and the Ebola Epidemic

Paul Richards writes “Ebola is a disease of social intimacy” (Richards 1). Ebola is transferred through bodily fluids, and therefore is often transferred to those caring for the sick or washing the bodies of the dead. There is no cure for Ebola, simply palliative care. Although there have been several recorded outbreaks of Ebola, the 2013 outbreak in Upper West Africa quickly turned into an epidemic. With inadequate domestic health systems, Doctors without Borders, among other NGOs, were the main actors on the ground (Arreguín-Toft and Mingst 420).

The efforts of such aid agencies can be understood through the constructivist lens. A book published in 2017 notes that constructivists would focus on “how we think we know what world health means, and how that meaning came to be established” (Arreguín-Toft and Mingst 424). This means that all foreign aid efforts and healthcare infrastructure must be evaluated in terms of their cultural and historical contexts. As mentioned previously, Ebola is a very intimate disease. There are many social practices deeply engrained in local cultures that contributed to the spread of the disease. For example, ritual burials where the bodies are washed before they are buried is a very dangerous practice during an Ebola epidemic. Due to the spiritual and social implications of a traditional burial, however, many Africans continued to wash and bury bodies in the traditional way. Western aid workers, however, drew problematic assumptions based on this fact. Many assumed that Africans were “stubborn” in their “unsafe” traditions and unwilling to listen to the recommendations of aid workers (Richards 48). This apparently problematic assumption does not recognize that from a social and spiritual perspective, an “epidemiologically safe” burial is deemed spiritually unsafe by the local population (Richards 52). The issue is the social disconnect between the Western aid workers and the African locals, who are acting on their ingrained social practices. This idea exemplifies the fact that cultural ‘norms’ and ideas drive the behavior of a country’s citizens.

Despite providing medical resources, the aid workers were primarily responsible for “changing the ideas” of the people in Western Africa (Richards 28). This, in itself, exemplifies the “constructivist” viewpoint. Western aid workers acted in ways that reflected their individualistic, direct, and informal upbringings. They struggled to understand the communal, traditional, and spiritual characteristics of African culture. This led the aid workers to act in a way that did not include locals in the Ebola eradication efforts.

In a 2014 post, Susan Shepler describes the popular coverage of the Ebola crisis, “People on radio call in shows have asked: Why can’t they understand what needs to be done?  Why they need to submit themselves and their loved ones to quarantine? (Shepler)” This type of coverage highlights the “ignorance” of African citizens. This is not “ignorance,” however, and can be explained by several cultural factors. The most important factor that highlights the ‘constructivist’ viewpoint is that African citizens have a “mistrust for the state” (Shepler). Because of this “mistrust,” many ignore public health warnings from the state. This “mistrust of the state” that Shepler mentions is something that is deeply woven into the actions and decisions made by many African people. This exemplifies the ‘constructivist’ viewpoint in that politics and decisions of people are shaped by “non-material” elements.

The “constructivist” viewpoint can also be explained by the differences in the “norms” between the home countries of the aid workers and Western Africa. In developed countries, it is common to have a surplus of household supplies including trash bags, rubber gloves, and rain jackets. In developing countries, however, these items are not common. In 2014, as the international push to stop Ebola began, The World Health Organization developed their agenda to fight Ebola based on what they call ‘the messaging approach’ (Richards 124). The “messages” spread by the World Health Organization included how Ebola is spread, how to safely care for someone who supposedly has Ebola, and how to create protective clothing from “common” household items. The World Health Organization, however, did not acknowledge the impracticalities of these messages. Resources such as raincoats, trash bags, and gloves are difficult, if not impossible, to find locally in Western Africa. The differences in resource constraints, and the “norms” in each society influenced how The World Health Organization initially responded to the Ebola crisis and how locals reacted to the messaging.

As a final point, it is important to recognize that while the Western response of aid workers to the Ebola epidemic can be explained by the “constructivist” point of view, the situation entirely violates the ‘liberalist’ view. From a liberal perspective, the efforts to end the Ebola epidemic should have been a group, “holistic” approach. It is clear that this is not what occurred. The efforts to end Ebola were more divisive than communal.

Domestic and Foreign Effects of International Aid

“The urge to help” is a common phrase that resonates throughout many academic works. While, in many cases, the “urge to help” may be less pragmatic and more self-benefitting, there are domestic social benefits that result from these trends. Evidence of this can be seen throughout the ethnographic report The Need to Help by Liisa Malkki.

It has been established that positive intentions do not directly correlate with positive outcomes. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the implications of positive intentions in a domestic atmosphere. In The Need to Help, Malkki discusses the implications of international aid efforts in the country of Finland. Finland’s culture stresses the importance of the individual; community is not integral to Finnish society (Malkki 137). In her book, Malkki refers to the community that has been built as a result of the “Aid Bunnies” (a project of the Finnish Red Cross). This “community” is largely archived on crafter’s blogs and internet sites (Malkki 119). This community can also be exemplified by the various knitting groups that have arisen from the project. In Finland, many people, especially the elderly, gain community from these domestic volunteer efforts. It is important that Finnish people are encouraged to find community, as loneliness can lead to several negative factors including an increased mortality rate (Malkki 138). This contrasts the American need to help, which stems from the American values of self-improvement and reliance on fake humility.

It is evident that as many Fins participate in humanitarian efforts to achieve community, they are not acting in complete selflessness. It is also apparent that in many (if not most) humanitarian efforts the actor is not completely selfless. The “Aid Bunny” project allows for people to participate in humanitarian efforts in a more “human” way while creating a sense of community for its participants and allowing them to fulfill a specific internal need. The question that remains is: where do we draw the line between preserving domestic humanity and, the more pragmatic option, effectively meeting the needs of foreign aid-recipients. An effective answer to this question requires more analytical research on the impact of aid in foreign countries.

While it is difficult to interpret the fine line between the two aforementioned values, it is important to consider the impact of citizens’ imagination on foreign aid-recipients. Imagination in humanitarian efforts have two main effects: imagination makes performing humanitarian efforts more meaningful, and it de-individualizes foreign aid-recipients. It is important that aid workers and volunteers understand the implications of one’s “imagination.” In The Need to Help, Malkki writes “The suspension (if not erasure) of the child’s parents, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives, and also friends, teachers, and neighbors, was a striking feature in the imagining of the needy children” (9). Adding imagination to the visualization of the needs of foreign aid recipients neglects many important factors. This omission can perpetuate a problematic image of foreign aid recipients. The use of imagination in foreign aid is an important factor to consider when evaluating the efficacy and value of international aid projects.

In a recent discussion with Betty Bigombe, she was asked about the effectiveness of campaigns such as The Enough Project. Although it has garnered national attention, The Enough Project has long been criticized for their ineffective and incomplete messaging about conflict minerals in the Congo. Bigombe remarked that it is difficult for American activists to tell the complete story and still gain support. Despite this, the publicity that the campaigns provide is very important (Bigombe). This idea parallels that of the “Aid Bunnies.” Although it may not be the most effective or pragmatic way of addressing an issue, it garners national attention and allows a wide range of participation in philanthropic acts.

The provision of foreign aid affects both the provider and the recipient countries. When evaluating the effectiveness of various humanitarian efforts, the social domestic benefits must be evaluated in addition to the more pragmatic foreign effects. Foreign aid efforts in Finland, specifically the “Aid Bunnies” have been successful in boosting Finnish morale. These domestic effects are important to recognize when determine the efficacy of various international aid projects.

International Group: The International Business Student Association

The IB Student Association is a group of International Business majors. This group allows us to share information regarding business in the international community. One of the retirements of the IB curriculum is to study abroad for a semester. The IB Student Association helps us keep up with our peers as they study and complete internships abroad.

AirTable Review

I have been trying out different project management tools over the last few weeks. So far, I’ve used Notion, Trello, and AirTable and also looked at half a dozen others. I also tried a notebook and paper, but I definitely prefer the digital.

via GIPHY

My first goal is to try to find something that can help me keep track of the various projects that I’m working on. I have a habit of saying yes to literally everything anyone proposes, and then losing track of my commitments. So I need something that will tell me what projects I’m already working on, when they’re due, and some sense of how much bandwidth I have to spare.

The second goal is seeing if any of these tools also make sense for adoption by the Office of Digital Learning. We are in the process of hiring new IDs, a new instructional technologist, and a new video person. We’ve been using a combination of Trello and excel to track things for a while, but in an OLC Live conversation with Clark Shah-Nelson, I realized that we could probably do better.

AirTable

This week I’ve been trying out AirTable at the recommendation of Angela Gunder. As the name suggests, AirTable is a lightweight tool for building tables. My guess is that many people are put off by tables due to repressed memories of having to look at MS Access in a poorly thought out computer class as a kid. I, however, love tables. Working with websites as much as I do, everything now looks like a table. Each webpage is a table. A website is just a table of webpages. And I manage big tables of all the OU Create websites. I’ve organized my research notes into online tables and I’ve built tables for history undergrads to do the same.

For a couple of weeks, I was using Notion.so, and I like how it lays everything out in linked webpages with embedded spreadsheets. Any record that you put into the system can become it’s own little wiki page with embeddable images, spreadsheets, and links to other pages.

However, I eventually decided to abandon Notion, because it was not enough like a table. It was difficult to create two-way links between records for quick movement around the note system. Updates on one page rarely carried over to related pages, so you had to enter the same information on every relevant spreadsheet, rather than just updating a single table.

I spent about two days back in Trello, before remembering that Trello doesn’t do anything other than Kanban charts. There’s no interrelation of information across different charts, and once you’ve completed an item, you just archive or delete it or live it sitting taking up space.

So what I wanted, was something that combined Trello’s Kanban to-do charts with a broader table layout with multiple ways to drill down into the data. AirTable has Kanban charts taking care of my need for visual to-do lists:A screen shot AirTable's Kanban chart viewWhen you update the status (or any other information) of a card in the chart, that update carries throughout the rest of the system. You can view all of your items in a set of spreadsheets that can be tied together with relational tables:

Screenshot of AirTable's table view

In my “To-Do List” database, I have created a table of tasks. Each task can be tied to a broader project, and I can see information about those projects in their own spreadsheet. I also made a spreadsheet for ‘Ongoing’ tasks that I do daily or weekly or monthly, the types of things that can’t just be checked off and removed.

My table also includes a spreadsheet for readings, and these can in-turn be linked back to tasks or projects.

Conclusions

For my own usage, AirTable is brilliant. I’m happy to put in the time and energy to build a table to keep track of all of my stuff. The sheets are interrelated, so my updates propagate through all of the various views and sheets easily. I can sort by deadline to see what’s urgent or by impact to see what the big, important projects are. When a task is done, I can change it’s setting and then hide completed tasks. This is similar to the archival feature in Trello, but it’s much easier to unhide all of my completed AirTable tasks and analyze the amount of work I did in a given week or on a given project.

For my group’s usage, I think AirTable has a lot of power but also several drawbacks. We could easily set up a spreadsheet of all of the programs around campus that we are working with and list out points of contact and notes. We could then create a related spreadsheet of the courses we are developing and have developed. A task list might then list out all of the pieces of content and meetings and design work we are doing for the various courses. We could even set up a separate media table of all of the video and image assets we have acquired and created for the courses. I think in terms of keeping track of all of the stuff that the Office of Digital Learning is working on, this would be a really great tool.

However, my usage so far has been free, but I think we would need to pay about $5 per user (about 15 of us) per month. That’s not a ton of money, but it’s a new cost as compared to our current free usage of Trello or Basecamp which we already have access to.

Also, I felt very comfortable playing with tables, but I anticipate most people will want to stay on their views of the main tables, especially as the database gets much bigger and less comprehensible. It’s easy for me to modify my tables to my exact needs, but it will necessarily be harder to design a set of tables that fit everyone’s needs. My guess is that we will end up with a few tables that are only used by one person, so that they can organize their information as they want. As long as those tables are related back to the main tables, that’s not too big of a problem, but the system will grow ever larger and more complicated.

But, those are all tasks to worry about next week. For now, I will change the status of “Write-up on AirTable” to done, and call it a day.

International Issue: Child Marriage in Central African Republic

Another issue that caught my attention this semester was the rise of child marriage in the Central African Republic (CAR). I came across an article that detailed this issue as a growing problem in the country as a result of their poor economy and the warfare in the region. CAR has the second lowest GDP in the world and experiences high rates of crime. For these reasons, young girls are married off in order to financially support their families, and because their families believe they will be better protected by their husbands. However, this issue presents both moral and ethical violations against the lives of these girls. It is estimated that young girls on average only complete school until they are seven years old, that one-third of young girls are married by the age of fifteen. This means they never have the opportunity to receive an education and contribute to the failing economy in order to help save it. It also means that they have no autonomy over their bodies, or even knowledge that they could have autonomy if this problem was eradicated and they were empowered to establish equality in their country.

In addition, the common age gap between the girls and their husbands is appalling. In a VICE News video I watched regarding the issue, they profiled a young girl who was only 12 years old in comparison to her 46-year-old husband. It is also common for husbands to take on multiple wives, and their social status is even elevated the younger their wives are. I hope that human rights activists will do more to call this issue to the attention of both international governing bodies like the UN and to governments of the developed world, so that positive change can take place to improve the lives of young girls in danger of domestic abuse, marital rape, the many dangers of early pregnancy, and female genital mutilation, which are all issues that are tied to the larger problem.

International Issue: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

My senior year of high school, I took an International Baccalaureate class that covered more recent historical topics of the twentieth century. Among those topics, my teacher decided to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and issue that I can now absolutely say is widely misunderstood or ignored by the majority of people my age or younger. That class helped shape my understanding of the history of the conflict, but it wasn’t until recently that I became more aware of the endemic political support and foreign aid Israel has received from the United States.

I came across a VICE News video that explained the tremendous amount of financial support that Evangelical Christians in America have given to Israel. It is their belief that if the entire land of Israel is restored to the Jewish people, that the Armageddon and the long-awaited second coming of Jesus Christ will finally occur. It is estimated that the number of Evangelical Christians supporting the encroachment of the Israeli into Palestinian land, which is a violation of international law, is three times the total Jewish population worldwide. I found this statistic particularly surprising, because it shows the clear irony of Christian Americans supporting an issue that has little to no involvement of them. They fail to see the consequences this will have in displacing millions of Palestinians if Israelis continue to settle further and further into Palestinian land that was granted to them by international law. However, because international law is a form of soft law that is virtually unenforceable, it is likely that Palestinians will have to retreat further and further back to avoid the military force that is prevalent in their communities and largely financed by the U.S.

Since 1948, Israel has been adamantly backed by the U.S. government. Recently, in a clear display of the lack of willingness on the U.S.’ part to listen to Palestinian struggles and challenges during this conflict because of civilian and military warfare, Nikki Haley, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, walked out immediately when a Palestinian diplomat took the stand before the council to voice the Palestinian perspective of the issue. It is my hope that the next U.S. administration will continue the more realistic policy choice introduced by the Obama administration of a two-state solution, and that politicians will advocate for a more bi-partisan effort to see how this conflict has persecuted Palestinians. It is also my hope that more and more young Americans take the time to become educated on the subject, as it is one of the most pressing international issues that calls into question the values Americans actually support in terms of human rights and morality.