Friday, December 30, 2011

Heading back to Eastern DRC 1/2

The last few days (weeks) a lot of running around took place, but now my bag is almost packed and I think I'm quite well-prepared. Between Dec31 and Mar4 I'll be in the DRC for fieldwork, and expect to be away from internet for maybe two to three weeks at a time. I was hoping to upload posts via SMS (see here) but the service doesn't work for Congolese networks. So expect posts in bursts upcoming weeks.

If you want to get in contact. My phone-number is +243 998 399 330 or (between 5-6pm GMT+2) +88 2164 3340 723.

Tomorrow morning I fly first to Turkey and then to Uganda, from where I hope to take a buss to Congo via Rwanda... I see many hours ahead in which I will have time to write about what the plans are for the weeks to come. Thus more soon!

Monday, December 26, 2011

40 Best Protest Signs of 2011.

Saw these some time ago. They're fantastic. My three favorites:

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thank you Earth Institute.

Spread over four trips I have lived in East Congo for over a year now. However, my role has always been that of a designer of the evaluation and trainer of the enumerator teams or, once in the field, as team leader to either implement the evaluation or check on its quality. I thus have had only very limited time in the field to actually work on my own disseration. Therefore, at the end of this month, I'll head to the Congo again, until March, and work solely on my disseration. Over the last months I have done a lot of preparation and everything seems to be set up for village mapping, field experiments and indepth interviews. On purpose I will thus not be connected with the IRC - our implementing partner there. Another reason is that now it is possible to stay overnight in the villages - something that is important for a researcher (I have done it before in Congo) but also something that the security rules of the IRC explicitely forbid.

One big drawback of all this is that I have to pay for everything myself: flights to the DRC and back, the enumerators, accomodation, in-country transport, etc. And Congo is everything but a cheap country for fieldwork. While the Center for the Study of Development Strategies provided funding to conduct fieldwork, I've saved money over the months to be able to add several thousand dollar out of my own pocket. However, last Tuesday I heard that I will be a 2011-2012 Graduate Fellow at the Earth Institute's Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity, which comes with $3,000 for this fieldwork. Woah! Thank you Earth Institute!

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

And we're back.

I know; there hasn’t been a single post since I arrived in New York City last September (the start of the Fall 2011 semester). Now the semester is over and I left NYC again... and I am on my way to the DR Congo.

Last semester

Although short (around three months), it was a fantastic semester. You’re ready for a summary? I got three (!) field-projects approved by Columbia’s IRB. I worked on my dissertation (migration, cooperation, the impact of NGOs, etc.). Several papers were sent to conferences that will take place next year. With Macartan and Raul an R&R at a good journal was re-submitted (hopefully more on this in a future post). I presented my dissertation work at Columbia's CP workshop, and was discussant at CAPERS for a paper presented by Leonard Wantchekon. Together with colleague Neelan we worked out our network field experiment. An application for a bursary was sent out (I should hear from them soon so I’m keeping my fingers crossed). Today it was confirmed that I’ll be consulting for an evaluation undertaken by Wageningen University and the Dutch government in Congo. And it seems a book for which we are writing a chapter about Voix des Kivus is going to get published at Oxford University Press. I spent several days consulting for the IRC, and also worked with the IRC on a to-be project in Sierra Leone. I visited several of Columbia University's CP seminars, CP workshops and Political Economy breakfasts. Also, together with Massimo Morelli the last months I spent 3 times a week 2.5 hours in the gym. And I finally had a longer period of time in NYC so was able to see more of the city (for example the disappointing dinosaur exhibition in the Natural History Museum), and I had some fantastic weekends out of the city with friends. Oh and I even tried dating this semester (although little luck there). Thus a fantastic and busy semester, but I do feel that I didn't do enough. The reason is that I spent too little time on my dissertation proper. I’m a fifth year student and really should have a paper or three specifically on my dissertation finished by now. My thing for next semester!

Back to the Congo

So I’m heading back to the DRC? Yes. I’m now in Berlin at the Freie Universitaet to present our Voix des Kivus project and I’ll be in the Netherlands and London for a few days, but then the 31st of December I’m flying to the Congo. Actually I’m flying to Uganda; I didn’t have a lot of money so I'll try to find a bus from there to Bukavu. I will be in Sud Kivu for two months to do fieldwork specifically for my dissertation. More in the next posts! It's good to be back though.

A weekend in Massachusetts

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Trap.

"The Wire" is a great HBO series about the Baltimore Police. One topic throughout the series is the importance of "numbers" to the Police Department: the amount of arrests made, number of homicides that took place in Baltimore, etc. It are these number that are used to promote majors to colonels and that make mayors win their elections. It's not about the quality of the police work, but about these numbers (and as a result they are jigged). This reminded me of a great BBC documentary that a friend suggested when in the Congo last year: "The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom". The documentary, made by Adam Curtis, consist out of three one-hour parts that explore the concept and definition of freedom. The documentary is an absolute must-watch! (Something you can do here).

The documentary shows how "a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today's idea of freedom." By making use of contributions by people such as (this is just a selection of what I remember): Frantz Fanon, James Buchanan, Thomas Schelling, John Maynard Smith, Richard Dawkins, John Nash, and Isaiah Berlin, the documentary start by describing how the individualistic, "robotic" description of human kind has its roots in the Cold War with it's use in game theory, and then how it was validated by fields such as psychology and biology (think for example of Dawkins’s "The Selfish Gene"). Curtis continues by conjecturing that this zeitgeist combined with Berlin's concept of negative libery (freedom from coercion) was taken up by the public sector. The state was nothing more than a mechanism of social control and in order to create a stable society and true freedom it had to embraze a free-market economy: social safety nets were thus torn down, subsidies decreased, and state-owned enterprises had to be sold. Curtis argues that by doing so these governments (Blair specifically) had created the opposite of freedom. We now live in a society without meaning, populated only by selfish automatons. People have become slaves of numbers (e.g. output targets). Curtis argues that there is value in positive liberty (the opportunity to strive to fulfill one's potential) in that it allowed people to strive to better themselves.

I enjoyed this documentary a lot. First, it placed connections between readings that I had not yet seen myself (e.g. Hayek and Hawkins). Second, I just can't get this feeling away that there is much truth in the main point of the documentary - and about how society has changed over time; with the decrease of social bonds and the increase of the individual and the importance of numbers. I recently read two books by Geert Mak
(here and here) about how Dutch society changed over the last century and that has only deepened this feeling. Also, I am sure that people who have ever shopped in New York's Century 21 (or any big US shop for that matter), or has tried to get internet for his/her apartment understands me. People are no longer given responsibilities. More and more, people receive a screenplay about how they have to behave and an output target to know what they have to achieve. Welcome to society.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Machine delivered to South Africa without instructions.

Just received a link from a friend to the video below. It's hilarious! (after the laughing do read the comments to this video on YouTube - there is a good chance they are not that dumb).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Humans are SuperCooperators.

A few months ago the book "SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed" came out. I just finished reading it. The book is written by Martin Nowak - the director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University. He combines evolutionary biology and mathematics and is an extraordinary researcher. I was looking forward reading the book having read all of Nowak's work on cooperation. I am a big fan of his work. To give an idea: he is the only author that has a separate folder on my computer (called "nowak”) in which his publications are listed. His work has been groundbreaking, and for me eye-opening and motivating in a number of cases.

In brief, the book singles out five mechanisms to understand why we cooperate (which in this case means how we can get people to cooperate in Prisoner's Dillema-type of situations):
  1. Direct Reciprocity: I scratch your back and you scratch mine the next time (repeated play);
  2. Indirect Reciprocity: I scratch your back, others see it, and they scratch my back (so reputation);
  3. Spatial Games: We do not meet each other randomly. Populations are structured which promotes cooperation;
  4. Kin selection (nepotism): Haldane's famous "I jump in the water to save 2 brothers or eight cousins"; and
  5. Group (or multilevel) selection: I cooperate because it is beneficial for my group.
After discussing these five mechanisms the book continues and discusses important and interesting topics such as cancer, language, and networks.

So, am I enthousiastic about the book? Unfortunately not that much. I agree with Nowak's main argument, which is that cooperation should be placed together with selection and mutation as one the fundamental parts of evolution to create complex entities. It is cooperation that made us humans (aka SuperCooperators) so successful. Moreover, I also think this book gives a good summary of the work he has done on the topic of cooperation. However the way he gets this message across I do not like. Firstly, there is not a clear red thread in the book. For example, after listing the five mechanisms my Kindle indicated we were at 40% of the book. The book then continued with topics (cancer, networks, language, etc.) that seemed to be only weakly related to the rest of the book. The reason for this is that the book is more like an autobiography of Nowak - discussing his research over the last decades. Nowak definitely deserves an autobiography, but I did not expect this and thus did not enjoy a lot of paragraphs with not-useful information like the following two:

“We discussed the Dilemma as we drove back the next day in the same VW that my father still uses today to putter around Austria.”

“The next day, once the cross-Channel ferry had set us down, I caught my first glimpse of Britain. It was not William Blake’s green and pleasant land. The soil was cracked and dry. The grass and foliage were brown and the country was in the grip of drought.”

Secondly, the way it was written I did not like. This could be a cultural thing, though. In the Netherlands we have a saying that translates to something like this: “Do normal and you already do crazy enough”. So, even if you are amazing and do great work, there is no need to keep on pointing this out. Let's just say that this book could have been written more humble. Nowak, for example, moves without hesitation from Michelangelo and Mahler to himself and his own work.

Overall, the book is about a very important topic. Moreover, it is a summary of impressive work Nowak has done on the topic cooperation, which he has covered from a lot of different angles and that definitely deserves a book. Also, it is written in an easier and more accessible way then his academic articles.
So, if don't mind reading paragraphs like the two above and the one below (to give an indication), this book might be something. However, if you already know Nowak's research this book adds little and the reference I give below (one of his 4-page articles in Science) sums up the most important part this book quite well - then from there keep on reading his other academic papers.

“I was fascinated and wanted to formulate a language game around this idea, one that could shed light on the origins of language. I had the same visceral feeling I’d had when Karl mentioned indirect reciprocity in the Wienerwald. I felt something new and great would come out of this idea. In fact I felt it was inevitable. But before I could make a start, my career path in academia would undergo an extraordinary change.”

  • Nowak, Martin A. "Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation". Science, 2006, Vol. 314, 1560-1563.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Applying for funding?

Research is often expensive and thus many academics apply for grants. The National Science Foundation is the place to get it. In four days (15th of August) the political science funding proposals are due, which made me think about following article. To quote part of it:

"According to the scientists, the electromagnetic science-maker will make atoms move and spin around very quickly, though spectators at the hearing said afterward they could not account for how one could get some atoms to move around faster than other ones if everything is made of atoms anyway. In addition, the scientists said that the device would be several miles in circumference, which puzzled onlookers who had long assumed that atoms were tiny. Despite these apparent inconsistencies, the scientists, in Rep. Gordon's words, appeared "very smart-sounding" and confident that their big spinner would solve some kind of problem they described."

Fig 1. This is a big expensive science-thing.

Now I that I' m taking material from the Onion anyway, please also see the following video:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How God Left Jorwerd.

I just finished “Hoe God Verdween uit Jorwerd” (“How God Left Jorwerd”) by Geert Mak. The book is an autobiography (1945-1995) about Jorwerd – a small, rural Dutch village. The village is representative for much of rural north and east of the Netherlands over the last decades. (The west of the Netherlands, which includes the provinces of Holland, had already undergone modernization for centuries).

As with a previous book by Mak (blogpost here) I was struck by how a large part of the Netherlands only a few decades ago is so similar to the Congo now. Mak discusses how just a few decades ago Dutch farmers did not specialize. Families would make their own bread, milk, butter, potatoes, and even furniture. Only soap, sugar and coffee and those type of products would come from outside the family. At public gatherings there would be a separation of men and women at public gatherings – something that we look at strange now when we see it happening in the Congo. A large part of the Dutch population just a few decades ago lived of the land and often on the edge of survival. I notice that we
(including me) quickly judge Congo as backward – thinking that we, people from the West, lived like that in the medieval period. But take the fighting and minerals away and there are many things really not too different between the Congo now and a large part of the Netherlands just a few decades back.

The most interesting part of the book, though, is Mak’s discussion of why and how things changed in Jorwerd from 1945-1995. In a fantastic way, Mak discusses the influences that modernization had on the village. How this led to urban-rural tensions (an important topic in the developing world literature) and how things changed from a production to a consumption society. Most interesting is how Mak discusses how over time there was a decrease of "community". The emphasize went from
qualitative to quantitative. There was a move away from the community and towards the individual, and towards numbers. For example, he discusses in much detail the importance and role of mechanization for the farmer. Farms, for example. were no longer a place were many people would work together. Mak discusses how in order for the farmers to stay competitive they had to scale up, mechanize and decrease labor costs.

A very impressive read.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why We Cooperate. Michael Tomasello.

“Why We Cooperate” is a book by Michael Tomasello – co-director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. It’s a thin book, but full with interesting result from years of top-notch research by Tomasello himself and his colleagues.

Tomasello tries to answer whether humans are born cooperatively and society corrupts them (Rousseau), or born selfish but society teaches them better (Hobbes). He distinguishes three types of altruism: 1. with regards to food: sharing, with regards to services: helpful, with regards to information: informative. Over time Tomasello and colleagues have conducted many (very interesting!) behavioral games with young children (around one year old) along these three dimensions. Based on this work he argues for what he calls the “Early Spelke, Late Dweck” hypothesis. In brief, young children are from a very early age cooperative. They do not learn this from adults, it comes naturally. It’s only later on in life that this indiscriminate cooperativeness becomes mediated by people’s judgement of likely reciprocity and concerns about reputation.

Tomasello and colleagues also worked with non-human primates and found that
humans are more cooperative. Why? Behavioral games indicate that humans alone humans alone have "joint attention" for altruistic communicative purposes (joint attention = something that is interactionally-achieved when one person, animal or agent alerts another to a stimulus by means of eye-gazing, finger-pointing or other verbal or non-verbal indication). Also, apes do group activities in the "I"-mode, not "We"-mode. While humans can form a joint goal with a partner and see this from a births-eye-view, non-human primates understand their own action only from a first-person perspective and that of the partner from a third person perspective. Compared to their fellow primates, humans are therefore more likely to undertake mutualistic activates (for example, Rousseau’s staghunt). Tomasello argues that theses mutualistic activities - because in these type of activities helping you means helping me - provide a protected environment for the initial steps in the evolution of altruistic motives.

At the end of the book Carol Dweck, Joan Silk, Brian Skyrms and Elizabeth Spelke also write each several pages in reaction to Tomasello’s argument. All in all, a very good read with much more interesting (and worked-out) information than what I just wrote above.

Friday, August 5, 2011

My 250th blogpost - some reflections on 2 years blogging

This is my 250th blogpost. Wooh! This blog was launched in May 2009 just before me leaving for the first time to Congo for fieldwork (first post here), and I definitely did not expect to write this many posts. I've come to enjoy blogging, though. The benefit of this particular blog (at least for me) is that it is "A not-really academic blog for family, friends and others". In contrast to a "real" blog I therefore do not feel obliged to upload things regularly or keep the posts to a certain high (academic) standard. Moreover, I often give my own, Dutch opinion. As a result this is frequently (and without meaning to) blunt, and over time I have received several upset emails. Several of them, however, have lead to debate - something I (and I hope the other) enjoyed a lot. The approach of this blog also gives me the liberty to post about a large set of different things:
The biggest benefit of the blog, though, is that it often forces me to think a bit more about issues and to learn just a bit more about a subject I want to write about. A post often starts by me thinking "I will post X", often followed with me noticing that I know too little about X to write an interesting post. Or that in order for X to come across properly also Y and Z have to be discussed, or X has to be properly worked out. Whether it is about things that strike me as strange or experiences during fieldwork, conferences, etc..

I am very (happily) surprised of the traffic received over the last two years. My expectation was that mom, dad and maybe one or two friends would occasionaly visit the blog to see what I was up to. However - I just checked Blogspot's statistics - the blog has received 14,540 unique visitors! And the Flagcounter that I installed on July 18 2010 indicates that these visitors have been from 123 different countries! I really don't have that many family or friends. :) Moreover, some blogposts were mentioned on several well-established, "real" blogs: Mo'dernity Mo'problems, Wronging Rights, and Texas in Africa. Although I mainly blog for myself, family and friends, knowing that more people read the blogposts really gives a kick.

So, what about the future? I'll keep on blogging. However, when looking back at the first set of posts I am afraid that my posts are becoming less 'nice'. For example, at first every new activity in the Congo was a new experience: visiting villages, sitting in a 4x4, etc. I seem to write differently about that now (if at all) than back then. Things are no longer new; I do not want to upload yet again a Dutch white guy in an African village. I seem to have lost part of the naivity; probably at the expense of the posts being interesting or at least written in an exited and ethousiastic way. But! I'm now starting my fifth year at Columbia University. And this is going to be a very interesting year: with projects in the Congo and Sierra Leone, visiting conferences to present work, a ton of work on the dissertation ahead, and a lot of ideas on migration, cooperation, networks and natural resources to be worked with Macartan Humphreys, Massimo Morelli, and colleagues Raul and Neelan. There are definitely more posts ahead.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Causal inference in the Dutch Parliament.

A friend recently sent me the video below. Its a discussion taking place in the Dutch Parliament about what works better to avoid backsliding: community service or a prison sentence. One MP notes that recent reports show that community service works better - compared to somebody with community service, a person with a prison sentence is twice as likely to backslide. The MP at the stand (Lilian Helder from the PVV) doesn't belief this. She keeps on saying "You can't compare person A with person B. They are different."

This video received a lot of attention. Up to now, it has already received more than 300,000 views, 2,000 comments and almost a 1,000 "likes". Moreover, the reactions to this video are all of a particular kind, nicely reflected in the title "PVV lady doesn't understand statistics".

Lilian Helder is an MP from the Partij Voor de Vrijheid (PVV) - indeed, the infamous Dutch right-wing party of Geert Wilders. The people that read this blog know that I'm against almost all that this party stands for: anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-development aid, anti-Europe, etc. As a result, any possibility to take a shot at the PVV I take - even cheap ones. However, Lilian Helder - probably without knowing it herself - touches on a fundamental issue in statistics.

Person A is indeed different than person B. In order to make a proper causal claim one would have to compare the occurence of backsliding by person A that has community service with the occurance of backsliding of exactly that same person A that has a prison sentence. Of course this is not possible - we only live one life. This problem is so important in statistics that it is called "the fundamental problem of causal inference".

Comparing person A with a community service and person B with a prison sentence does indeed not make sense because they are different people. Any difference in occurence of backsliding between these two might very well be because of individual characteristics. Maybe person A is well-educated and quickly finds a job, while person B is not and thus might backslide. It is true that one can use statistical regression techniques to control for these factors. However, not all variables can be measured (psychological variables for example), and one can never be sure that all the necessary variables are included in the regression. These are very important problems in causal inference.

In order to make a correct causal claim one has to make sure to find a correct comparison. One way to do this is by a so-called Randomized Control Trail (RCT). Under this technique instead of individuals one compares groups. In our case above it would look as follows (I'll keep it brief). Let's say we have 10,000 people that have to be punished. We then randomly select 5,000 people for community service and 5,000 people for a prison sentence. Because these two groups have been selected randomly, the groups will have the same characteristics. For example the number of people that backslide in each of these two groups (community service vs prison sentence) can then be compared. While this technique has been used in bio-medical sciences for decades they have only recently been introduced in the social sciences. For a more complete discussion (with development aid as an example) please see here (in English) or here (in Dutch).

I haven't read the studies that the MPs refer to but it is very well possible that they did not make use of an RCT or a related strategy to make these causal claims. I have difficulties writing this, but Lilian Helder's remarks might not have been that dumb.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Back online & Pillars of the Earth.

After two weeks in Martignas sur Jalle (close to Bordeaux) and three in Sauveterre de Béarn (in the Pyrenees), I'm back online. Short summary? Well, I gained 5 kilograms. This is not that strange with French wine and cheese around. Also, with pâté and foie gras, and more than half a baquette per day, I think I ate more than 20 meters of baguette and probably a duck or two. ;)

During the last three of those five weeks we didn't have internet so I got a lot of dissertation work done (that was the goal of being away). I probably read close to every paper in economics, political science and evolutionary biology on "cooperation" (more on this in future blogposts). Raul -
a colleague from Columbia - joined the last week in Sauveterre so we could work together. Did you know that by putting white paper behind a window, the window becomes a perfectly good whiteboard?

Fig 1. This was day 1. On day 2 the paper touched
the floor, and on day 3 we had also paper on
the wall. On Day 4 Raul was writing on the fridge.

I also read the first two books in the series "Wheel of Time" by Robert Jordan. But I'm not that enthousiastic about it. The book is well written, but it was difficult getting into the story. "A Dance with Dragons" by George R. Martin was much better. The book is the fourth in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. However, the big suprise was a book that was partly related to my dissertation. I am fascinated by cathedrals and castles. One of the reasons for this, and also one of the reasons for my disseration's topic, comes from a question (maybe more a frustration) that I have had for years now: "Why are there villages now that can't get their act together and build a simple school, while hundreds of years ago people build enormous cathedrals and castles that still stand today?"

The book is "The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett - a (thank you Wikipedia): "historical novel about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. It is set in the middle of the 12th century, primarily during the Anarchy, between the time of the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Thomas Becket. The book traces the development of Gothic architecture out of the preceding Romanesque architecture and the fortunes of the Kingsbridge priory against the backdrop of actual historical events of the time." It is informative and very well written. Thanks Ali for recommending it! (she's another colleague and survived a full five weeks with me).

Fig 2. The Pillars of the Earth

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Away from blogging for most of June and July.

A few days ago I arrived in "Martignas sur Jalle" a small town close to Bordeaux where I will stay for two weeks. After that I'll be in "Sauveterre de Béarn" an even smaller town close to the Pyrenees. Why? Well, over the last years I've spend a lot of time on fieldwork and preparing for it. However, I've only spent little time on developing my thoughts - in words and equations. So, in upcoming weeks I'll be in isolation; with a white board and very limited internet connection. Blogging will therefore be much less. I'll be back in August!

My staple food for the weeks to come. :)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fellow Dutchmen: please do solid evaluations.

The randomized control trail (RCT) is the golden standard for impact evaluations but largely unknown in the Netherlands. This bothered me as we are one of the world's biggest donors. Over the last two years I have learned quite a bit about doing evaluations: lots from Macartan, lots from my own two years plus experiences in the Congo, and of course lots from collegues at workshops or via their research papers. So over the last year I wrote four posts (in Dutch) on the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs's website about how to undertake solid evaluations:
  • In the first post I explain the concept of an RCT;

  • the second (including a discussion with a reader) discusses the importance of behavioral measures;

  • Alternatives to the RCT are discussed in the third post;

  • and the the final post gives techniques to get at sensitive information and tips for a solid evaluation.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Back (then) in the Netherlands.

Since two weeks I'm back in the Netherlands. Two days ago I visited my grandma and we started chatting about the Netherlands decades ago. So interesting! History has always had my interest. For example, when studying economics at Tilburg University I travelled once a week to Utrecht University to take evening courses at their History department. However it was only this week that I noticed how many things that happen now in the Congo and are completely strange to the Netherlands, were not strange in the Netherlands not too long ago.

Fig 1. Geert Mak's "De eeuw van mijn vader"

Our of curiosity (and because my knowledge of Dutch history and Dutch literature is appalling) I am now reading Geert Mak's "De eeuw van mijn vader". This is a book in which Mak discusses - in an autobiographical way - about the century in which his dad lived - so starting at the turn of the previous century (19 to 20th). I've read about 100 of the 523 pages now and am surpised how many things are similar to the Congo at the moment. The level of development: at the end of the 19th century a shower was a cold bucket of water, health conditions were horrible (a third of the children died at birth), there was no electricity and most people washed their laundry in the river. But also how society was organized: people hardly travelled beyond the borders of the village (railways were build after 1880), village committees were very important, and the priest had a central role in society. Of course many of the reasons for these similarities are different, and I know that I'm reading this book through Congo glasses and also that many more things are completely different between Congo now and the Netherlands then. But still. It's incredible how many of the things that I know only from the DRC and are otherwise completely strange to me, were very normal in Netherlands. Even during my grandma's time!

Btw, my granny is awesome. Not only do we send emails back and forth when I'm not in Oudewater, she also handmade Escher pillows
for the whole family. Here is one in my apartment in New York.

Fig 2. Granny's pillow in NYC.

And here is one in Schoorl (the Netherlands):

Fig 3. Awesome cousin Noortje with granny's pillow.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Diceman.

Only few books have made a lasting impression on me. However, I think I just finished one that did: "The Diceman" written by George Cockcroft (alias Luke Rhinehart) in 1971. In brief, Luke Rhinehart is a successful psychiatrist who feels bored and unsuccessful, and begins making life decisions based on the casting of dice. While at times a bit vulgar (rape and sex are very present throughout the book), this is a very impressive book. Rhinehard's new method of live puts in questions the one most of us are living at the moment - one where we are slaves to rules, customs, and often our own grown-into set of habits.

Fig 1. The Diceman

Btw, I recently received an email from Tim Butcher - the author of "Blood River". At the right of this blog one finds my reviews of several books. This included a review on his book: "[Not a good book]". In the email to me he wrote (paraphrased): "Unfortunately you did not like the book, but it's always good to get reviews. Good luck with your future work." That's good sport, and so I was planned to write a more complete review. However, the dice told me not to. :). Also, I also recently finished a new book by Jason Stearns - a PhD collegue at Yale and a real expert on the Congo. Of course, a large, well-structured review about this book has been added to the right of this blog as well.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Debating heaven.

From two churches that face each other in the street. Brilliant debate!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Toy Peacekeepers.

"Miniscule Blue Helmets on a Massive Quest" is a project from fellow-country man and graphic artist Pierre Derks to distribute tens-of-thousands of blue-helmeted toy soldiers around the world. The Hague (Holland) functions as their forward operating base from where they take off. Eyewitnesses of the quest have submitted hundreds of photos taken on nearly all continents - photos of their new patrols can be seen on the website. (Thanks Simon for letting me know about this project!).

Fig1. Blue helmets in Berlin.

Field Experimentation in Political Economy.

Last week I spent my Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at a workshop on Field Experimentation in Political Economy, organized by Columbia University's CSDS. In brief, this was great!

In a bit less brief, during these three days most things necessary for good field experimentation were covered (for the complete agenda see
  1. The first day was theory-based and discussed the theory behind causal inference (the fundamental problem of causal inference, randomization, instrumental variables, etc.), issues of analysis (estimators, missing data, spillovers), etc.
  2. The second day was more design-oriented and discussed differences in data-collection techniques (survey, lab, lab-in-the-field, etc.), how to get at sensitive information, etc.
  3. The last day discussed practical issues (forging partnerships with implementing partners, ethics, etc.) and several design-in-progress field experiments were presented and discussed.
This was a very useful three days. Not only because some of the top people from the field were present (Don Green, Chris Blattman, Becky Morton, Macartan Humphreys, etc.), but also because it was a small crowd (maybe twenty people), the discussions were lively and close to all topics on field experiments were covered. Moreover, what I know about field experiments I learned from our work in the Congo. We would have for example X that had to be done and we would ask Macartan "How to do X?". He would then give us an explanation, an example and some papers to read and we would figure it out (and if we didn't he would do it and explain it in detail). As a result we learned about field experiments bit by bit. Now for the first time I saw all bits together as one coherent whole. Very useful!

Together with Raul we gave two presentations ourselves: During the round table we discussed ex ante analysis plans and the benefits of behavioral measures over for example surveys or lab-in-the-fields. The last day we discussed the design of an evaluation that we will be undertaking in Eastern Congo from 2011 to 2014 with the International Rescue Committee and CARE International. More on the latter soon!

Fig1. To sex-up our presentation a bit we
added a picture - made in Haut
Katanga - of a lovely DRC bridge. In the
end it was about field experiments.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Voix des Kivus @ FrontlineSMS.

The Ushahidi blogpost (see previous post) was also posted on the FrontlineSMS blog. FrontlineSMS is a great (and free!) software program that allows you to do great things with the combination phone and computer. We have been using it for almost two years now. Find the post HERE.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Voix des Kivus @ Ushahidi.

Since the ICCM Conference on Conflict Mapping in Cleveland in 2009 I've been in contact with Patrick Meier; one of the founders of Ushahidi and a Ph.D. Candidate at Tufts. He does some truly incredible work. We recently met each other again in Berlin, and he invited Macartan and me to write a blog post about Voix des Kivus for the Ushahidi Blog.

Of course, we were very willing to do so. You can find the blog post about Voix des Kivus

An informative four-pager with information about Voix des Kivus can be found here.

Fig1. Introducing Voix des Kivus in a
village. Due to the sensitive nature
of the project I never blogged much
about it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Breakfast in Maniema.

Today I came across several pictures made while visiting an enumerator team in Kibombo - a city about 200 kilometers from Maniema's capital Kindu. We had not seen each other since October 2010. As a celebration we had a fantastic breakfast. Note: when the teams are in the field they often do not eat for breakfast or only eat left-overs from the evening before.

Fig1. Me getting water. Thank you USA?

Fig2. The superassistant preparing eggs. We
also got some onions locally. Great!

Fig3. Pascaline got bananas. The latter
have to be cooked for a long time before
they can be consumed.

Fig4. Preparation of foufou [1] is hard work.
These are the superassistant's and my feet. :)

Fig5. Great breakfast. F.l.t.r.: Luc (supervisor Maniema),
Alain and Pascaline (enumerators), Emmanuel
(superassistant), and me. Our bikes in the background.

Fig6. Of course after breakfast the laptop came
out. There is always work when I'm around. ;)

Foufou is the staple food of the DR Congo. You take manioc (cassava) roots, cut this in pieces, leave it out to dry and then grind/smash it until it is powder. Then mix this with hot water and you get a dough-like ball.

Friday, May 6, 2011


I know. This is not very substantive. It is fun though. Last week I had two good friends from the Netherlands in town and we spent quite a bit of time in the metro.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Back in the US of A.

After several days with mom and dad in the Netherlands, several days at a conference in Berlin on "Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood", and three weeks of field work in the Eastern Congo, I am back in New York City.

Let's start with some true American patriotism. While waiting for the Western Union employee to send money to the Congo, I noticed the flag below hanging on the wall. Indeed it has some seriously patriotic words written on the flag.

But since when does the United States have 87 States!? Hehe!

Fig. America patriotism.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bukavu architecture.

Fig. A tree trunk, two births and an elephant head.
If you are rich and want to show off, this is how you
decorate your house. Several building in Bukavu
already have this and their number is growing because
this of course looks ... . :)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Random things.

  1. After a seven-hour bus ride from Bukavu to Kigali I am now in Shocolate: a very romantic place to drink a good cup of coffee in Rwanda’s capital. Of course, I’m sitting alone and behind my laptop. ;)

  2. What is development? Answer: An IRC expat helping a local employee with uploading a picture to Facebook.

  3. When you ask a Congolese “Comment allez-vous?” you will consistently get back “Une peu bien”. In the Netherlands people say by default “I’m good”. Here by default people say “I’m a little bit ok”. Interesting! Why? Is this because conditions are so much different in the Netherlands and Congo? Is this cultural?

  4. When you are a white and in the Congo expect to hear people scream “muzungu” at you many times a day – especially when in the field. Both children and adults will shout this at you. Muzungu means ‘white person’ in Swahili – a word that is now also related to having a wealthy status. It gets annoying to hear people shout the same thing at you tens of times a day. Several MONUSCO soldiers in Maniema got so tired of it that they created t-shirts saying “My name is NOT muzungu”. Nice!

  5. Another thing you have to get used to when you are white and in the Congo is the famous words “Donnez-moi…!” (“Give me…!”). People consistently use these words. For example, last Friday I came back from Kalehe Centre and police officers stopped me to check the motorbike’s insurance. I think I was using one of the few bikes in the Congo that is actually properly insured, and thus after the five police officers sequentially looked with stern faces at the documents (surprisingly, this time they did not held my passport upside down), they knew they had nothing they could do with me. So: “Give us a Primus!” It seems these words are completely ingrained in Congolese society now: children, police officers, random people on the street will use these words. Why this culture of asking? Is it the NGOs that have created a culture like this?

  6. As you know, religion (and especially the Catholic Church) is hyper important in Africa. However, a friend of mine recently got married and his wife was clearly visibly pregnant. I asked him how this is possible because the Church forbids intercourse before marriage. He told that in his tribe (the Mashi), but also many other tribes in Congo, it is normal to first make sure that she can get pregnant because this would avoid that you would have to split later. Interesting! This seems a clear case where local customs beats the Church customs. Of course being a (read: try to be) proper academic, I asked a bit further around and this isn't necessarily the case. Some argued this was not true and that the story only nicely fitted my friend because he got his wife pregnant before marriage. Anyhow, interesting!

  7. A long time ago I posted a blog asking why including "security" in the name of MONUC lead to the name MONUSCO and not MONUSC. See among others the reaction by Alex Engewete here. Of course, I wasn’t very serious with this post. I know it is quite common to have “CO” in abbreviations in the Congo. Also, I actually don’t care too much about the name, but more about what they do. But well, when on the bike in Maniema it occured to me. When in the field people often shout “MONUC” because for many villagers very much everything that looks foreign or is in a white car is MONUC. However, in Maniema when children were shooting at me I was not able to distinguish whether they were screaming: “Mo-ney”, “Mor-ning”, or “MO-NUC”. So, did the Security Council move on purpose from a two to a three syllables word. Are they trying to make life more complicated for Congolese villagers?

  8. I’m not sure I ever told this story, but it’s a fun one. About a year ago I was with one of our evaluation teams in Katudu – a small village in the territoire Walungu of Sud Kivu. We would sleep that night in the village so before going to bed we were invited by the chief to drink a beer. I wanted to show off that I could count to ten in Swahili and started: “moja, mbili, tatu, ine, tano, sita, saba, munane, kenda, kuma”. After people making fun of me, the evening continued fantastically with lots of beer. The next morning one of the evaluators told me “Peter you still owe me $20”. I seemed that everybody had understood I wanted to have ten beers! I am happy I can’t count to more in Swahili! :)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A high-tech Saturday with the counterparts.

Raul and me were present in the DRC from July to December to train the teams, and prepare and launch the evaluation. However, with almost 100 people in the field for over a year continued supervision and technical support is necessary. Unfortunately, it is difficult to do this properly all the way from New York City. We therefore introduced 'counterparts' to replace Raul and me when we left in December. These counterparts had to be graduate students, interested in development, interested in doing a PhD, and a million other criteria. We found Deo for Raul's southern provinces (Haut Katanga and Tanganyika) and JP for my northern provinces (Sud Kivu and Maniema). In the months before our departure Raul worked closely with Deo in Lubumbashi and I did with JP in Bukavu. Raul and me learned a lot from them, and we thaught them about statistics, causal inference, how to use particular computer programs, how to manage teams, etc. JP and Deo are now an indispensable part of the evaluation, and Columbia University's ears and eyes on the ground.

The evaluation is technologically very heavy. In each province we at least two laptops, tens of PDAs, tens of solar chargers, satellite phones, GPS devices, cameras, etc. The surveys are conducted on PDAs for four reasons:
  1. Data is immediately saved to a database which allows us - with computer code that we wrote - to check the whether enumerators are doing all the surveys, but also whether they are filling out the questions correctly or not;
  2. There is a higher quality of survey filling out by the enumerators because we can restrict enumerators' options in a PDA;
  3. It avoids carrying around piles of paper by the enumators;
  4. We save part mother nature by not having to print (literally!) 100,000s of pages.
Because I am only for three weeks in the DRC only two provinces were visited: Maniema and Sud Kivu. As a result, Deo from Lubumbashi joined JP and me in Bukavu to work together. Also last Saturday we worked together. We spent a day checking all the laptops and PDAs. It was a fun sight. At a certain point we had 11 computers up and running: some checking virus definitions, other defragmenting, others downloading forms to PDAs, etc.

Fig 1. JP and me together in the TUUNGANE office.

Fig 2. Deo working on three laptops at the same time (he did not
do this for the picture).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Happy for the rest of the day.

Fig 1. A picture I shot last year in the village Muhembe (Sud Kivu).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Living in History: Kibombo and Kindu’s Train Station. 1/2

After a five-hour wait at Kindu’s airport and a two-hour flight with UNHAS, I just arrived back in Goma - capital of North Kivu. However, there is one post regarding Maniema that I still want to share.

Both Arabs and Belgians were present in Maniema. During the nineteenth century this was an important area for Arabs for ivory, gold and slaves which were sent overland to Zanzibar. Also Belgians were here until independence
fifty years ago. Arab and Belgian constructions are still very much present. In Kibombo, with a little imagination, you see a Belgian colonial family walking through the street. It seems as if time has stand still ever since independence. The Congolese have not maintained the buildings since the Belgians left. People camp inside them. And what is newly build are wooden sheds or half-build adobe houses. Even after more than fifty years the colonial constructions by far outbeat the newly build constructions in both grandeur and quality. It is a really strange (and frustrating) feeling when walking through either Kibombo or Kindu. Why were people able to build houses, roads, trainstations, ports, etc. a million times better fifty years ago then they do now? Why don't people get their act together now?

Fig 1. Made from the motorbike. Arab castle?

Fig 2. City center Kibombo.

Fig 3. More city center Kibombo.

Fig 4. Ruin.

While it doesn't answer the questions raised above directly, I think there are two important reasons why Congolese have a tendency not to maintain nor renovate buildings. First, the colonial buildings are often for government employees. The government is responsible for their upkeep. Moreover, government employees often haven't been paid in many months. And if they get paid it is close to nothing. Second, even if they have money to do maintenance, there is no system of property rights or enforcement of them. As a result, if you would invest in your house and make it nice, a more powerful person would take it from you. As an indication of the lack of property rights, see the picture below that I shot in Bukavu. This is quite a common sight in Bukavu and other cities. People write on the building « Cette parcelle n’est pas a vendre », or "This is not for sale". All because there are no clear ownership rights in the Congo.

Fig 5. « Cette parcelle n’est pas a vendre »

Living in History: Kibombo and Kindu’s Train Station. 2/2

Also Kindu has beautiful old Belgian buildings. See for example this picture I shot about half a year ago when in Kindu. The city also has a train station. And yes, the trains still operate. For $50 you have a first-class ticket to Lubumbashi. I checked the price last week at the station; I did not check the 'first-class'. For more info about Congos's railroad system please see this. The only problem is that the train arrives and leaves rather irregularly: maybe once or twice a month a train arrives at the station. In addition, it's very likely you get stuck for a few weeks during the trip because the trains have a tendency to break down.

Fig 6. Kindu's train station. If you look carefully in the back you see
cranes. The Congo river is there and it used to be a port. Now there
are piroques and carcasses of Belgian-time boats.

Fig 7. More train station.

Fig 8. And more train station.

Fig 9. Belgian-constructed houses. These are currently occupied by
people working for the national railroad.