Facing change

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I love this blog and I always will; it’s some of my best work. For a long time I thought I’d start writing here again. I actually reorganized my whole life to give myself time to write. I shifted from full time work to independent consulting and coaching so I wouldn’t have to worry about employer approval of my work. As a bonus, I now live in Cairo, a city with a thousand inspirations to write.

It turns out that I still want to write, but not here. This blog is the story of me facing a particular situation; the transition from entry-level development work into jobs with real responsibility. When you stop being a serf and start being able to shape things, you need to think very hard about your impact. This blog is where I did that thinking. It’s me, growing up, as a development professional. It’s where I identified what I believe to be true about good development work.

I’m still thinking. But when I face a challenge now, I know what to do. I don’t have answers, but I know how to attack a problem. My outrage has been (mostly) transfigured into motivation. I don’t need to think through the kinds of problems I used to, because I have done that thinking and it’s part of me now.

I’m still writing. Just not here.

Here at Blood and Milk, I figured out what I know. My next step is how to apply it: This World Needs Brave. I’m thinking now about how to be a decent person in a broken world. How to be brave enough to make things better. If I have figured out that you can’t run a decent health project without buy-in from nurses, how do I go about using that knowledge in my work? When do I speak up? And how? It’s a mixture of coaching and career advice and me trying to learn from the many, many mistakes I’ve made. It’s about finding my brave and helping other people find theirs.

I won’t be taking down Blood and Milk. People still find it useful, and I’m happy to pay the hosting fees. But if you have liked Blood and Milk, you might like this new thing, too. Please take a look.

I’ll finish with a quote from the new blog:

“Our systems are too damaged to function without exceptional people. So it’s time to become exceptional. To do jobs that matter, to do them better, to leverage our time and our money and our willingness to make a lot of fucking noise in an attempt to force this broken world to turn out just a little bit better.”



Career Question: What do I study in undergrad?

Dear Alanna:

I would really like to go to University next year but am still unable to decide what to study.  All i know is that i am interested in social problems such as poverty, poor education and inequality to name a few.  I am not sure what degree would suit me or give me the skills to make positive changes that actually work and would have a lasting impact.

This is probably the most common question I get, and the easiest to answer. There is no undergraduate degree that will give you the skills you need to achieve lasting change in the world. Choose a degree that sounds fascinating to you, and has classes that sound like you’d love to take them. Once you have an undergrad degree, then you can look at jobs that bring change in the world and probably a graduate degree. In the beginning, though, just start with an undergrad education you can love.

Where I’ve been

Observant readers will have noticed I have not updated this blog since February. I have every intention of starting again soon. Really soon. In the meantime, I’ve started writing in other places.

I am now writing regularly for UN Dispatch on global health issues – see me eviscerate Russian HIV policy right over here. I will also be contributing to Humanosphere. My first piece, of which I am rather proud, is an op-ed explaining exactly why we should allow as many Syrian refugees as possible into the US. I’m also still active on twitter, and on Instagram.

That’s half my big news. Here’s the other half: I left my job with USAID and I am out in the world as an independent consultant. This is mostly great. I can write anything I want to without worrying about clearances, I can choose work I care about, and I can live in Cairo, the big mango, the mother of the world.

However. I have to market myself and go around talking people into hiring me. This is horrific. But if you need someone to troubleshoot your underperforming project, force your logframes to make sense, or write a proposal, keep me in mind.

Globalization and its discontents

A friend of mine in Tajikistan used to consistently buy prepackaged foods for her children. Anything specifically marketed to kids caught her attention. She’d buy it – all of it, and feed it to them, even when it was more expensive than other options. So, functionally, she was raising her kids on a diet of junk food.

I do my best to let people be people. They’re allowed to make the choices they need to make, and my friends don’t need me to be hanging over them judging their choices. So for a long time I said nothing. Eventually, though, I broke down and asked. Why? Why the junk food, when fresh food was cheaper?
And she said (of course) that the food made for children was better for children. Because it was made for children. I responded with an impassioned rant about marketing and corporations and selling to people. I was very into it. I was, I felt, very convincing.
My friend (of course), didn’t believe a word of it. Alanna, she said. They make these products for children. Sure, they make money. But they feed children.
I realized she came from a village in a country where people feel responsibility to their community. She knew there are terrible people in the world – and in her own government – but she thought of them as isolated bad guys. She couldn’t conceptualize that a company made of ordinary decent people would target products to children that were bad for the kids. It just didn’t fit in her world view.
Honestly, I wish it didn’t fit into mine.

Worries for the new year

Technically, they’re not 2015-specific worries, or even solely worries so much as some ideas. But it’s 2015 now, and this is what I’ve been thinking about lately:

I have so many feelings about the article on Aleppo’s Civil Defense Force. Tragedy brings out the good and true in some people. I’ve seen it happen. Not everyone – it turns plenty of us (I include myself there) mean and selfish. But some people turn into something like saints. This article about Aleppo’s Civil Defense Force reminded me, vividly of that truth. I wonder, though – what happens to these boys if they do survive the war? Syria is burning in part because there isn’t enough meaningful work for young people.

And, of course, the wreck that is Aleppo. The bazaar in Aleppo – long gone now – was one of the most beautiful, magical places I’ve ever been. I am reminded also of the old story about Damascus. When the prophet Mohammad arrived at the gates of Damascus, he hesitated to cross, as you should only enter paradise once. Side note: I was very pleased to see that medium uses fact checkers.

I think development needs to take the changing ideas of family, masculinity, and femininity seriously. We tend to ignore the squishy stuff – just disregard the the emotional impacts of the changes brought by development, and they matter. These two articles both touch on the idea – Modernity and Matrifocality, and The Rise of the Non-Working Man.  See also the foreman in this NASA article, devastated that his grand project was for nothing. He got paid well to do this. His regret is that his work won’t be used.

I read an article years and years ago that suggested we look at terrorism as a kind of horrible performance art. That it was no longer a strategy or tactic used as a means to an end. Instead, it’s simply and solely about the splashy act and its impact on observers. This view struck me as profoundly, intuitively true. It’s an awful way to look at terrorism, because it gives us no clear idea of how to stop it. But it at least stops us from expensive, painful efforts that only harm ourselves. It seems to me this perspective on terrorism is getting more mainstream, as evidenced by this recent article in The Atlantic.