Posts Tagged ‘epidemiology’

99 Problems

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

…but foreign aid ain’t one?

I’m wondering whether we’re too problem-oriented in philanthropy. Are we so focused on figuring out things that need to be fixed about the world that we have a hard time seeing the way that things have improved?

Bill Gates published his annual letter about the Gates Foundation’s work this week, and it focused on countering “3 myths about foreign aid.” The crux of his argument is that within his lifetime (he was born in 1955), billions of people worldwide have been elevated from extreme poverty, and that in a bit more than 20 years (2035), he expects that there will be “almost no poor countries” in the world – meaning, almost no country will be as poor as the 35 countries classified as low-income today, after adjusting for inflation.

Put this alongside the recent news that India has all but eradicated polio, and it’s important to remember – things are actually getting better for huge numbers of people across the world. Gates also cites the rise of middle-income countries like China, India, and Brazil, which contain huge portions of the global population. Their economic development, while unequally distributed, has led to a notable decrease in human misery. There are still more than a billion people in extreme poverty, “so it’s not time to celebrate.” But it is time to recognize, Gates argues, that a lot of aid has worked.

The value and effectiveness of foreign aid is a whole other topic of discussion. But I’m struck by the notion that problem-oriented philanthropy may at least partly blind us to the progress that has been made in addressing problems. It’s like we get so focused on our particular problem, our theory of change, that we forget to look up and see that some pretty major collective problems have actually gotten better. No one needs to give up on problem solving anytime soon (though I’ll be glad when there are no longer any Indian doctors who have a memory of treating a polio case), but a virtual high-five to those who’ve made real progress, even if not in our field, is a good idea.

What sign of progress NOT in your own area of focus are you most excited about? Bonus points if it affects people nothing like you and whom you’ll never meet.


On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture (part 3)

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Continuing from yesterday: what kind of “diversity” are we looking for in foundations: perspective, experience, background?

I go back to the idea of inoculation: low doses of a pathogen to help you build up immunity. And immunity doesn’t necessarily mean, if I understand it correctly, that whenever the pathogen appears it’s destroyed, but rather, that its presence can be managed without danger to the host. So I think about this in terms of ideas or memes: what’s to be avoided is groupthink, and introducing low doses of ideas that are controversial to the group is a healthy form of preventative medicine, a kind of intellectual inoculation.

So if my little formula from yesterday is that part of an individual’s experience (what happened to them in the past) is how their background (where their past fits into larger social, demographic, political trends) shapes their perspective (the way they view the world, which is more mutable than experience or background), then it sounds like you want people with different perspectives, and you chances seem better of getting that when you have people with different backgrounds AND different experiences.

This doesn’t just have to be within the walls of the foundation, it makes sense to include perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds of grantee organizations, constituents, and other stakeholders. If we’re looking to avoid the perils of monoculture, a foundation should think about its full battery of intellectual immunizations. How do you make sure those are up to date, given the cast of characters (and their perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds) you currently work with? Do others need to be brought in the mix to give a booster shot?

On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture (part 2)

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

I wrote previously about the perils of monoculture in agriculture and institutions: it’s dangerous to have only one type of crop or perspective/experience/background because you’re more susceptible to infections that target that crop or groupthink/faddishness.

But let’s unpack the institutional component of this: I mashed together perspective, experience, and background. What kind of monoculture are we looking to avoid?

  • Perspective? This is very personal. Each person has their own perspective or worldview, but these are shaped by broader ideologies out there in the public sphere, and by the types of things one reads and hears. In these days of Fox News and the Daily Show (information monocultures?), people’s perspectives are formed, I would speculate, in more predictable and homogeneous ways. That’s another way of saying there’s polarization. Perspective is changeable, it’s not immutable – it’s not entirely about the past.
  • Experience? This is about the past. It’s about what’s come before. Some of it is a choice, what you’ve chosen to experience, and some of it is what happened to you (you don’t choose where you grow up). There’s your experience growing up, and your work experience. It’s very personal, even more so than perspective because it can’t change. You can interpret it differently, but it’s of a different category than perspective, which is how you view the world now vs. what has happened to you in the past.
  • Background? Ah, the joys of euphemism. This is about where you come from, where your parents come from, where your parents come from, “originally.” It’s personal, it’s about the past, it’s less changeable than perspective – but it’s more structural than experience. Experience is about what happened to you as a person, background is where your experience fits into larger social, demographic, and political trends. Part of your experience is how your background shaped…wait for it…your perspective.

So what kind of monoculture do you want to avoid in an institutional context like philanthropy? What kind of “diversity” are we looking for: of perspective, of experience, of background? To be continued….

On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

The second of my two questions is, “what would it mean to democratize philanthropy?” One of the topics this allows me to touch on is what’s usually labeled diversity. A few thoughts to start sketching out a path to explore on here:

Monocultures in agriculture and (?) epidemiology are bad: you want a diversity of plant species so if you have a blight in one of your crops, not everything is wiped out; and you want to be exposed to different kinds of germs so you build up a broad base of immunity and are less likely to be felled by the newest strain of cold or flu.

Monoculture of perspective or experience is similarly perilous. Groupthink, prejudice, tokenism, discrimination: all these can result in an ecosystem-of-people (whether an organization or a nation) where only one type of perspective or experience is present or validated.

Crop rotation and exposure to different kinds of germs are strategies for avoiding monocultures. Maybe there’s something to be learned from these practices in promoting diversity in institutional contexts, like philanthropy. Term limits on foundation boards and/or program officers may help ensure rotation of perspectives in the bodies that govern the organization and interact most directly with constituents. And substitute “memes” for “germs” in the first sentence in this paragraph, and the idea would be to provide regular, low-dose exposures to all different kinds of perspectives and experiences to inoculate the organization against the peril of falling for the newest fad (a constant danger in philanthropy).

But what might “perspective” and “experience” mean in this context? Are we talking about diversity of background? Identity? To be continued….