Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Exploding Juice Bottles

Because of my library rage, the campus shops closed and all, in need of food and drink to stay awake and energised, I seem to be hoarding snacks and liquids in my bag. And being as scatterbrained as I am, I forget about it. Hence, I have a case of surplus edibles in my book bag and exploding juice bottles. This has happened twice now. An orange juice bottle from Pret exploded twice in my bag. Surprisingly, my books and notes were not seriously damaged.

Here I am waiting to go into my NGOs as Development Agencies exam. This is the last exam. I am thoroughly disinterested at this point. I wrote a lot of notes, re-read old notes and, cussed at the useless lecture notes. I have been in the library everyday however, I don't feel like I have thoroughly prepared for this exam. I wasted too much time reading the first two units which I thought would be useful given I had never read them. It was very important to have the initial readings for all my other courses. However, I find that it was a useless waste of time for this particular course. The texts are the usual moaning about the advent of neo-liberal ascendency. The rise of NGOs, therefore, was not an accident. There were readings on the neo-liberal state, how we survived capitalism, the hollow assumptions and claims of the current mainstream discourse and its emphasis on institution-making/strengthening, how in fact most developing countries are more institutionally advanced then were developed countries at a comparable stage of economic development and so on. It is all very good but unfortunately the question papers do not really address that per se.

Because I am so tired at this point and unmotivated, I hope conflict and NGOs comes up ii) accountability/performance comes up and iii) relationship between north/south NGOs. It is a 2-hour paper and I have 2 questions to choose from 6. I hope I remember all I have read and, I will try to beef up the answers with my extensive knowledge! I will use the DDRR programme, my capacity assessments/monitoring of NGOs, 'developing' the local NGO sector, our (UNDP) business-like procurement/contracting of local NGOs, and the World Bank infrastructure projects I was involved with.

Let's hope it goes well. I could be unkind at this point and say it was a very useless class, a bit boring and not dynamic enough. Our professor is a really kind and sweet lady however she did not really have extensive knowledge of the workings of NGOs in the international context - at least I did not feel so. Her experience and passion was limited to her research in Iran, Afgahnistan and Pakistan. Moreover, this was a class for undergrads and postgrads! The relief is that it was one of the 'easier' classes to handle and get through.

This is my new exam strategy for any question that comes up: how dare you ask me that, how very dare you! That's a personal question.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The VCD and War to Peace exams are over. Phew!

VCD was a bit ironic because I was writing down some quotations before the exam to kill some time including 'However repugnant violence may be, the one thing it is not is senseless' by Anton Blok. The question came up with that quote and the so convenient 'Discuss.' My answer to that question was all over the place. I started with a flamboyant, bombastic introduction - if I remember correctly, I was talking about Gilligan and violence the most dangerous epidemic of our time  or something - and proceeded with a jumpy-rehash of the introductions of all VCD readings - bemoaning amnesiatic Western notions of violence which are further colonised by the economists - and came to a very incoherent conclusion. Judge sahib, my lord, even though my essay may lack argument and coherence, what I am really trying to say is that violence has form and function. 

Yes, the above paragraph was probably what my answer looked like. Okay, I am cringing now.

The second question I tackled - explaining violence in middle-income democracies - was a better effort. I suppose I had collected my wits by then. Or not. The probable explanation for my first-question-disaster was the inevitability of it - i) my first essay was rational choice and it was a pathetic attempt ii) rational choice, economic explanations of war, rationality versus madness, Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing, everyone bemoaning economic forays into the social sciences, I swear they are moaning about it, every freaking reading, the whole damn thing - it's at the crux, the very core of the VCD course and of course, I would screw it up iii) we even attended the famous Cramer lecture beforehand and, it should have prepared me for it. 

Well anyway, the second question went reasonably well. I was glad that I could finally talk about democracy - having had that pleasure taken away in TPP - dammit. I tackled that question with respect to Brazil and South Africa. It was great! I had done the readings from the first three units of term 2 (gender, Brazil and democracy)and was able to tie it all together. It was such a pleasure reading these three units. Veena Das' text was great and it was so cool she was quoting Manto! The readings on Brazil were really painful and poignant. I am going to sound very cheesy but I feel that I relate to the readings much more so when they are interspersed with poetry and literature. So for that answer, I was able to make some points in my introduction and proceeded to elaborate them. So at least the answer was more readable than the first one. 

I will say one thing about the War to Peace class. I was not a fan. I could not believe the course conveners thought they could pass it off as a class. It looked like a class, it had a reading list and everything, it had a time and everything, there were other students, but no, you can't fool me. This was not a class, it was a self-taught-do-it-yourself-some-assembly-required thingamajig. 

It was worse than those lousy UN meetings or workshops. At least there was some entertainment, some pouffy-egoed official making a grandiose speech, at least you could give knowing looks to friendly colleagues or something. Or worse comes to worse, you could leave. These War to Peace classes were 9 to 11 on Wednesdays - killer timing. And they made it like a workshop - everyone sitting around in a - what'd they call it? - plenary style. And, the teachers would give a nano-second introduction and students would leap into their -yawn- extensively-researched presentations for the first hour and the second hour, there'd be a 'discussion.' The teachers would intervene now and then. Now, please tell me which part of this is sounds like a class? Where was the friggin' teaching? Excuse me, I paid good money to be taught - I don't profess to be a genius. I was not the least bit motivated for this class. 

The one time I felt like taking an interest in the class was when DDRR came up.  But the discussion was so up in the air. I tried to make it 'more real' by asking what everyone thought about the monetary issue - paying ex-combatants or rather, buying back weapons. I said it was a thorny issue in the beginning of the DDRR programme - one of the donors, the EC was not supportive of the idea - and even for us 'practitioners'  this was something troublesome. But nope, neither the teacher nor the students could pick up this issue. Moreover, none of the DDRR literature even addresses this - should we be buying weapons or can we come up with a more creative idea? I did have fun reading the literature and realised that there is quite a bit of subtle differences in the way DDRR was implemented in various countries. I was able to appreciate the bigger context in which these programmes are implemented. There was very little reading on SSR! 

Well anyway, the exam went okay. The exam preparation was erratic as usual but I had agreed with Helka and Anu to exchange some notes so that helped. Anu started to become a bit hyper stressed the night before and kept texting me through out the night while I tried to sleep. Apparently the war to peace men had declared war on her. Yeah, don't ask. If she gets a first, I am going to smack her. I will. And I bet she will. She slept for one hour only.

What questions did I answer? i) The something about mechanisms that secure and legitimise the post conflict environment ii) welfare in liberal peace building. I stuck in DDRR and SSR in the first question and covered a lot of ground. Ha, I said that because DDRR programmes are technical programmes, they have to be evaluated technically! I'm glad I stuck that in. And, besides talking about Congo, Afghanistan, Tajikistan DDRR and SSR case examples, I talking extensively about Liberia! yay! The second question was shorter due to my over-enthusiastic first answer. I spoke about responsibility to protect, NGOs and democracy. I used Heathershaw's 'unpacking' of liberal peacebuilding - that there are three strains: a) democracy b) statebuilding and c) civil society and all, have welfare underpinning them. 

So that's that. 

Now I am stuck in the library for the last exam - NGOs as Development Agencies. Today is really bright and sunny and it's a shame to be stuck inside. A lot of people are done with exams so it's a bit depressing. The library is emptier. The guards are as usual harassing everyone by making their rounds, poking their noses everywhere to make sure we are not drinking or eating, I swear I feel like tripping them.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Some last-minute notes

"I laboured under an unconscious Cold-War imperative that led me to sanitise my depictions of political violence and repression among revolutionary peasants.On a theoretical level, this obscured the multisided character of violence and the commonalities among its various subtypes of violence across historical, cultural and political settings....By contrast, in the racialised urban core of the United States, I was able to critique the demobilising effects of everyday violence by showing how it resulted from the internalisation of historically entrenched structural violence as expressed in a banalised maelstrom of interpersonal and delinquent aggression." 

The Continuum of Violence in War and Peace: Post Cold-War Lessons from El Salvador, Philippe Bourgois (2004)

- Cold War politics influenced the author's analysis and reading of violence in El Salvador while neoliberal politics influenced the author's reading of inner-city violence
- What politics guides/influences our view of violence and conflict today? 

He says, "In the post Cold War era, a better understanding of these complex linkages is especially important because it is international market forces rather than politically-driven repression or armed resistance that is waging war for the hearts and minds of populations." 

"..I found that economic agendas appear to be central to understanding why civil wars start. Conflicts are far more likely to be caused by economic opportunities than by grievance." 

Paul Collier, Doing Well Out of War: An Economic Perspective (2000)

"Those on the political right tend to assume that it is due to long standing ethnic and religious hatreds, those in the political centre tend to assume that it is due to a lack of democracy and that violence occurs where opportunities for the peaceful resolution of political disputes are lacking, and those on the political left tend to assume that it is due to economic inequalities or to a deep-rooted legacy of colonialism. None of these explanations sits comfortably with the statistical evidence. Empirically, the most striking pattern is that civil war is heavily concentrated in the poorest countries. War causes poverty, but the more important reason for the concentration is that poverty increases the likelihood of civil war. Thus our central argument can be stated briefly: the key root cause of civil conflict is the failure of economic development."

World Bank (2003) Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy

But dude, what's the cause of the failure of economic development? Why is poverty concentrated where it is concentrated? 

"I can stand in the most remote war zones of the world and watch a veritable supermarket of goods move into and out of the country along extra-state lines." 

Carolyn Nordstrom, 2000

"The phrase 'senseless violence' is a peculiarly empty piece of huffing and puffing according to Noel, historian of the Balkans." 

"However repugnant violence may be, the one thing it is not is senseless." Anton Blok

from Stephen Ellis, Violence and History: A Response to Thandika Mkandawire

"So if men emerged from colonial subjugation as autonomous citizens of an independent nation, then they emerged simultaneously as monsters." 

"Here it is the issue of the women drinking poisonous knowledge and men moulding the silences of the women with their words..."

"It worries me that I have unable to name that which died when autonomous citizens of India were simultaneously born as monsters. But then I have to remind myself and others that those who tried to name it, such as Manto, themselves touched the madness and died in fierce regret for the loss of the radical dream of transforming India, while those who found speech easily, as in the political debates on abducted women in the Constituent Assembly, continue to talk about national honour when dealing with the violence that women have had to endure in every communal riot since the Partition." 

Veena Das, 2003, Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain

The people's death was as it had always been:
as if nobody had died, nothing, 
as if those stones were falling
on the earth, or water on water....
Nobody hid this crime. 
This crime was committed
in the middle of the Plaza

Pablo Neruda 1991

On each hill a different story
That the police kill innocent people
And who was innocent is a bandit today
So he can eat a fucked up piece of bread.

--Chico Science, Banditry for Reasons of Class

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Library Rage

The SOAS library is pretty shabby by any standards. The main lobby or entrance is devoid of any natural light and I suspect this is one of the main reasons we have such crabby library staff who consider it an affront if you ask them for individual help. They look at you really funny if you say you can't find a particular volume or would like to check out a book in person rather than using one of those self-check-out machines.

So, my first rage is that there are not enough copies of the core texts. Moreover, there is a considerable gap between what the online catalogue says and what the 'real' bookshelves say. There are times when for the love of God I cannot find the freaking book and make three or fifty four rounds of the same shelf, section, re-shelving sections like a lunatic. That really makes my day.

Then, there is the we-have-rats-so-please-do-not-eat-or-drink in the library. With this law behind them, the security guards go around harassing us poor students trying to cram, sorry study. You will see them making random rounds picking up food items and juice bottles. These are collected and placed like trophies in the open glass office at the entrance of the library for everyone to see. They even check bags of students coming in. I think the security guards actually half enjoy doing this - and mind you they are young kids themselves. Actually, they are janissaries if you ask me, harassing the very people they should be in solidarity with.

What's next? The No-Smiling-In-The-Library-Everyone-Is-Trying-To-Be-Serious-And-Study. Ha, can you imagine these guys going make their regular rounds to make sure no one is smiling and laughing lest it destroy the serious library atmosphere.

The worst is during the weekends or those Bank Holidays when there is not any shop, student union or bar open on campus. Where the heck do we go? And who can study without tea?

When I am at the library I feel like I am traveling - it is like being in a plane or running around at an airport catching your next flight. Your student ID is like your passport: you need it to get in, to get out, to check out books and, to enter the short loan collection room. You constantly need to verify your identity. Then there are the announcements - ding dong, the library shall be closing in the next 2 hours, in the next 1 hour, in the next half hour, in the next 30 minutes, so please pack your belongings and make your way to the exit. It very well could be, please fasten your seat belts, you are in the library, it is going to be a long bumpy night. At least in planes, you get food. It is crappy airplane food, but it is food. Here, they take away your food.

Although I enjoy traveling - in business class - I don't particularly enjoy having to show your passport and boarding pass all the time to security. And, the library reminds me of the unpleasant features of traveling. That's my other big rage.

What else? Noisy eaters! For those who manage to smuggle in food, they choose to gobble it up so everyone can hear. I left the other day because I could not stand the carrot-munching guy next to me. He was munching on his carrot louder than Bugs Bunny. I gave him two dirty looks but that did not embarrass him. Today, it is a jelly-bean popping guy sitting next to me who is really getting on my nerves. He puts a bunch on the table and proceeds to pop them in his mouth - it is like a food-juggling, food-throwing act. It is very visible from the corner of my eye and very annoying. He still has more than half a container to go through.

But it is not all bad. One of the library announcers is a funny guy and tries to be like an entertaining DJ for 20 seconds or so. I always feel like making a song request when he comes on.

And, then there's the socialising that takes place at the library. Let's not forget how much fun that is.

Sitting next to the open windows can also be a pleasure, especially if it is a bright sunny day and you can watch the clouds roll by and enjoy reading about the 'dark side of democracy.' It's like a mental walk in the park.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

TPP Exam Done and On to VCD

If the vcd course forces us to question our notions of violence, barbarism and war and how they relate to, for example, democracy and the state,* I guess TPP portrayed development in much more concrete terms than I was familiar with. To some people I can understand that TPP might be a bit too 'life, universe and everything.' Or that it was a massive 'attack' on development with very few positive glimpses or possibilities for the future. 

In our last TPP tutorial session, we were asked about what we had learned through the year or what we thought was most important. When it was my turn to speak I said what had struck me was the idea that development was 'invented' and hence, imposed. I feel like the veil has been lifted from 'development's face. 

I knew there was something 'wrong' or very 'ineffective' about the way development was being conducted in the 'field.' I was befuddled by our curious, cumbersome, and lip-service techniques, approaches and bureaucracies. And how we would constantly pat ourselves on the back! One of my good friends, Chipo Nymbuya, who came to her country Liberia after a couple of decades  and worked with us at UNDP for a couple of years. But she eventually became fed up and left.  Needless to say, there were also personal reasons for her not being able to stay with the UN longer. In our discussions, she would say that development could not work because it was so a-historical. And I would bring up examples of the Asian success stories - that development can work and is working. But little did I know that was what we refer to as the 'developmental state' in development literature.  

But I could never put my finger on it, I did not have the language or concepts to frame my thoughts and frustrations. But now I can say that development fails because it is technical and de-politicised. Technical, country-driven programmes cannot hope to address larger problems of inequality and injustice, unfair trade laws and regimes and the weakness of states in the face of globalisation.

You know what, I feel like I took the red pill like in the Matrix and now I know. The rabbit hole goes reallllly deep. 

I had hoped to cover a lot of ground for my exam preparations - I had wanted to read more of my study packs and have a more solid grounding. I can console myself with the fact that the lectures still provided a good overview of those topics such as social provision and the problems associated with that. We had touched on the idea of NGOs limiting the state by acting as service providers in my NGOs class. 

I am glad I focused on the zero sum logics of dependency and post development theories. With all their faults, they are eloquent and poignant. And, they are historical.  What else? Poverty reduction and the state and democracy. I never knew for example how much the state has been reduced and weakened. And that, the international community, the World Bank to be precise, is not interested in strengthening the state. We are just hanging out around to artificially recover the countries we work in so that market forces may be allowed to flourish. 

It all makes sense now!  I swear, it does. It really helps me to put my experience into a context. I now know what we are doing out there. What the assumptions are. And to some extent what the intentions are, too. This does not mean that I do not want to work in the UN any longer - that is hardly the case. The course has given me a deeper perspective and helps me to better understand where we are coming from and we are doomed to go. I may not be able to command any major changes but I can be different as far as my own work is concerned. How? Well, writing better reports, briefs, and striving to work closer together with national counterparts and across within the UN system. It sounds pretty lame but believe me, even saying that one sincerely did all of the above says a lot. And if I become the first female secretary general like in my secret fantasy...

How did the exam go? Ha, well, I had a lot of fun studying for the exam with my friends. We had a good break (tea-lunch-tea-snack-gossip) schedule going on! It sort of motivated me to come to the library every day and get through topics and do practice essays. And eat a lot of berries! ** The day before Chris and I were joking that if democracy, civil society-NGOs doesn't come up, we'll start laughing hysterically and walk out. Guess what? That happened in the exam. I panicked for the first 20 minutes. I decided to go ahead with the Washington-Consensus and poverty reduction question ii) post development and social movements and iii) manipulated the good governance agenda in favour of democracy. I wrote two half-way decent answers. One of them was heavily laced with all the statistics and quotations I had memorised. That must have been an eye and brain sore for the examiners. The third had a long introduction, a long conclusion and a sweet and short body. Mariam was sitting close by and I could not help noticing her speed and call for a second set of pages. She was done 10 minutes before hand, twiddling her thumbs. My confidence level kept dropping and I had to remind myself to keep going, keep going. So that was that. The first exam was not all that. I managed to write if that is any consolation. The after party was good though. We had some good laughs. 

I would say that my vcd exam strategy is any more strategic but it is not. So far, I have just read extensively so as to cover as much ground as possible. I do not know whether I have read more for vcd or not but it feels like it. Strangely enough. Also, I think with all the time we spent on the group study case, it feels like we have been doing vcd all our lives. I am determined to spend all of tomorrow - or the better part of it - doing practice essays with bombastic introductions and gross generalisations. 

We are extremely excited about this evening's lecture. Get this - Bang Goes Homo Economicus: Terrorists, Economists and Rational Fools by Christopher Cramer. It is going to be, in Po's words, *** 'awesome.' 

As I have mentioned tirelessly before, I did the essay on terrorism (no, I have not even picked it up yet, why subject myself to pain?) and wish I had explicitly said that social science does not explain terrorism, especially suicide bombers. I totally grappled in that essay. Who becomes a terrorist and why? Is this question similar to asking do we all have propensity to violence? I need to have much more conclusive conclusions. 

So here is to this evening's lecture and continuing revision for the vcd exam on Thursday!

* and how much neo-classical theory stinks - how much economics stinks - how much rationality stinks
** for memory
*** Kung Fu Panda

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Terror of Exams and a Cup of Tea

I have my first exam this Thursday - TPP! It is hard to believe that it has already come to exams. What makes this especially nerve racking is that the exam for TPP is 70% of the grade - it is a 3-hour exam with three questions to choose from ten. Given that it is the first exam, it could either be a f****-up or f****** good one. Who knows!

There are entire swathes of territory that I have not touched through out the year and that makes the exam even more scarier. I started reading this weekend and was amazed at how interesting the topics actually are and wish, I had bothered to do more reading during the year. 

I love the language of some of the articles - they are so finely written and deserved to be read out loud. In booming, theatrical voices. I have been picking out some choice morsels of phrases such as 'traffic of meanings,' 'funerary image,' 'archaeology of poverty,' 'science wars,'  'tyranny of participation,' and so on to stick into my answers.

There is no way in hell that the texts would have the power they have were it not for the language, the delicate and nuanced turn of words. 

Among the topics I have decided to focus on are post development and alternative development. Although post development shares the 'zero sum logic' of dependency theory - my what a disastrous effort I made to tackle that in my essay! - it is again, one of the core, the existential, the critical, the most philosophical question for development. Why is development not working and what do we do about it? Sure, dependency theory or post development do not offer much in the way of answers and solutions but they sure give us the truth! "It ain't working!" Furthermore, the thing to be really noted here is that these theories and philosophical musings emerge out of Latin America. Our friends there gained independence a good 100 - 200 years before us in Asia and Africa. Having experienced independence, capitalism, interference, interventions, dictatorships, democracies and the rest of it, the main thinkers came to various conclusions - among them that development and capitalism was not really working. 

The rest of TPP - apart from perhaps gender and globalisation and a couple others - focus more on the practice of development and the agendas that inform them. 

I would like to do well in this exam so I am confident for the rest of the exams. So here is to exam revision. So here is to a good cup of tea.