Monthly Archives: October 2013

My Job

The other day I got in an old green LandCruiser SUV, drove 2 hours down corrugated red dirt roads past herds of cattle and fields of cassava and sorghum, arrived in a rural village called Kokodu where villagers had decorated their secondary school with purple flowers in anticipation of our arrival, observed a workshop intended to teach villagers how to develop plans to achieve their goals and maintain their self-confidence when times get tough, and then watched as 20 groups of three villagers each received grants of $100 to use to build new businesses in their communities.  The recipients cheered and sang.  I was given three chickens and a colossal bunch of green bananas. 

            This is more or less what my job looks like when I go out to do fieldwork.  Currently I work as a consultant for Village Enterprise, an American NGO that has been running economic development programs in East Africa since 1987.  They work with the poorest households in rural areas and use a very comprehensive program that combines teaching basic agricultural and financial skills, giving cash transfers, providing business mentoring and forming villagers into collective savings groups to help them build sustainable livelihoods.  Their program is intensive and produces outstanding results: four years after completing the program 75% of the businesses Village Enterprise starts are still operational, and after participating in the program for one year 67% of participants report an increase in household food consumption and 75% of people report an increase in their standard of living.  To evaluate what appear to be terrific outcomes to their programs, Village Enterprise recently began an official impact evaluation, in which the model that they’ve developed is run simultaneously against a number of different development interventions to see which produce the best results on a number of villages that have been selected for their comparability.  The overall question is: what is the most impactful (and cost-effective) means of assisting marginalized people in rural communities to lift themselves out of poverty?

            This is where I come in.  As a consultant, I’m not involved in the day-to-day operations of Village Enterprise; instead, my chief responsibility is to help design, pilot, and implement one of the OTHER models of economic development.  The full comprehensive Village Enterprise program is being compared with a number of different variables, including villages that receive only cash transfers, villages that receive nothing (control villages), villages that receive only cash and business training but don’t form savings groups, and lastly, villages that receive cash transfers AND a behavioral intervention.  This last is, in my opinion, the most unpredictable and exciting part of this whole experiment.  I am responsible for developing and implementing the behavioral intervention on the ground here in Uganda.

            You may be wondering what a behavioral intervention looks like, and frankly I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering the same thing.  The basic idea is this: imagine that you are going to give a very large amount of cash, with no conditionalities or strings attached, to a person who is not expecting to receive that money.  It doesn’t matter if that person is American or Ugandan or Danish: most people are completely unprepared to receive a lot of money all at once (think about lottery winners!), and if someone just GIVES it to them the chances are slim that they will carefully think through the steps that they have to take to put that money to the best possible use.  The full Village Enterprise program mitigates this issue by working with communities intensively over the course of a year to help farmers develop the plans and skills necessary to use that money effectively, while other NGOs simply give farmers and rural villagers money and encourage them to spend it however they think is best.  There are problems with both of these approaches: the former is expensive, time intensive, and difficult to coordinate and operate on a large scale, whereas in the latter it is frankly implausible that most, or even any, of these unstructured cash transfers will go towards building sustainable livelihoods.  So here’s the obvious question: what if there was some kind of miraculous middle path, that involved very little involvement from the NGO making the cash transfer, and yet could somehow structure the way that people think about this large and unexpected windfall and nudge them towards putting it to good use?

            A behavioral intervention is intended to be a “light touch” intervention that minimizes the amount of time an NGO spends with rural communities, but uses a combination of activities to influence the way that villagers think about and allocate the cash transfer that they receive.  The term “behavioral intervention” sounds reminiscent of something that happens to dissidents in 1984, but actually the goal of the intervention is to strike a balance between urging villagers to use the money for specific purposes (buying land, investing in livestock, etc.) and allowing them to make their own choices about how they want to spend the money that we give them.

I’m not doing this on my own.  I work with a pair of psychologists— one at Princeton, one at U. Chicago— who have been enlisted to envision what an effective behavioral intervention should look like.  At this point they’ve developed a “script,” a series of activities that a trainer will go through with a group of villagers.  First villagers identify a successful person in their community, list items that person has that mark them as rich, describe habits or characteristics that that person has that allow them to succeed, and then the trainer asks them if they can emulate these habits in their own life.  The script then segues into affirmation storytelling: villagers turn to their neighbors and tell them, in great detail, a story about a time that they confronted a challenge or obstacle and eventually overcame it.  The trainer then distributes large pieces of cloth to the villagers, and ask them to draw themselves, their households and their farms as they see them now, and ask them to draw themselves and their possessions as they would like them to be in one year.  Villagers then speak one-on-one with the trainer, describing what their goal is, the specific steps they will take to achieve this goal, and the rough dates by which they will achieve each step of their plan.  Finally, the trainer gives them their cash transfer in two separate envelopes: a red envelope, containing 90% of the money, which villagers are encouraged to use exclusively for business, and a green envelope with 10% of the cash which villagers can spend as they wish, on nice food, booze, or luxury goods.

So let’s unpack that.  When we talk about the “poorest of the poor” in rural villages, we’re talking about people who have very few past experiences of success, and therefore often think that they don’t have the capacity to succeed.   We begin with an exercise intended to “demystify” the rich, where we ask villagers to think critically about HOW successful people acquired the things that mark them as successful, and then ask them what habits rich people exhibit that they do not, and ask them if they too are capable of emulating these habits.  We transition to an activity where we stimulate villagers’ memory of a time that they encountered a challenge and were able to overcome it.  Many of the people that we work with have never told anyone their success story before, and remembering past successes encourages people to believe that they can achieve similar successes in the future.  When villagers draw on a piece of cloth their lives as they are and their lives as they want them to be, they can more tangibly visualize their goals and the specific things they hope to achieve.  The people we work with are people who have little experience making drawings, and we encourage them to hang their drawings in their house to serve as a reminder of their goals.  We ask villagers to think of and then share the steps they will take once they receive the money, the idea here being that if villagers have a roadmap in mind of the things they have to do sequentially to build a business, once they have the cash in hand they’ll feel that they have a reasonable means of achieving their stated goal.  We distribute money in two envelopes because we are not naïve, and we realize that poor villagers who receive a huge windfall of cash will spend some amount of it on luxury goods that were previously inaccessible.  The green envelope is a safety mechanism: by telling villagers that it’s OK to spend some money according to their own whims, we allow them to buy a few small luxuries without feeling like they’ve derailed their whole plan. 

All told, the whole training session takes about two hours.  While I’m here, I hire, train, and direct the Intervention Leaders who will facilitate these training sessions in the village, run pilots to refine the script by seeing how villagers react to and engage with each component, communicate with these psychologists in the US, and spend a lot of time in the field learning about which are the most effective means of motivating and inspiring people who are unfamiliar with NGOs, receiving cash transfers, or starting businesses.  I’ll be here for at least the next four months, and here’s the thing: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we were on to something, if I didn’t think that this could really work.  I’m convinced that we’ve found a mix of activities and exercises that convince people that they can be successful if they have a clear goal and focus on a plan to achieve it, and as I continue to refine this script in pilots I see villagers engaging with our activities more and more.  Today I ran a pilot that involved asking fifteen villagers to draw their current situation on a piece of cloth and then draw how they visualize their lives in a year.  One woman raised her hand and asked (in Ateso) if she would be allowed to participate because she had never held a pen before, and two other women chimed in to add that they were in the same situation.  I assured them that they could, passed out the pens, and saw that these three women put more time, effort, and thought into their drawings than anyone else there.

Knowing that someone believes in you is an incredible motivator.  I think just giving someone a cash transfer doesn’t convince them that you have any real stake or interest in their success; but if you sit with them for a few hours and ask to hear about their hopes, dreams, past achievements, and the steps they plan to take to make these dreams reality, they have a reason to believe that they can be successful.  My goal in Uganda is to do my job well, spend as much time as possible in the field to understand the communities that I’m working with, and fulfill the contract that I signed a month ago.  Nevertheless, there’s something deeper underlying that: I really think that if this works, behavioral interventions and light-touch approaches to cash transfers can revolutionize the field of economic development, offering a cheap, easily facilitated and effective way of encouraging people to use an unusual opportunity to its maximum potential.

This intervention is complex, and I’m still struggling to articulate what exactly I’m doing here and why I’m doing it.  Please comment to give me your thoughts or ask me questions.  As always, I’m looking forward to hearing from you.




Poverty Impairs Cognitive Function

Poverty Impairs Cognitive Function

I work for this professor, and a component of my job involves testing the relationship between poverty and cognitive bandwidth.

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Here I Am

I really dislike the expression “it’s a small world.”  It’s the kind of thing people say when they meet someone new and realize that they have a mutual friend on Facebook that they went to summer camp with ten years ago, or learn that a supermarket in Kyrgyzstan carries their favorite brand of crackers.  This world we live in is huge, full of bizarre and wonderful things that are so interesting simply because of their strangeness.  I’m afraid that if I start thinking that it’s a small world, I’ll find myself focusing on things that are familiar to me rather than seeking out all of the crazy new STUFF that’s waiting to be discovered beyond the horizon.  The world is unequivocally enormous—it’s the biggest thing that most humans will ever have to think about—and despite planes and global media and the internet there are a lot of things far away from us that are inconceivable until we see them ourselves. 

            Right now I’m in Soroti, Uganda, and the trip here was a potent reminder that the world is pretty big.  It took me about four days to get from my home in New England to the office in central Uganda where I currently live and work.  Glossing over the details, over the course of the trip I collected five new stamps in my passport, spent 23 hours in the air, went through four different countries, and hauled the 70 pounds of stuff that will last me the next five months on planes, buses, taxis and motorcycles.   I was last in Soroti about two months ago piloting the development intervention that I’m now responsible for, and it’s kind of comforting to be seeing things around here for the second time: the road into town with one foot deep potholes, the Hindu temple with a swastika on the gates, and The Soroti Rock looming over the otherwise completely flat landscape.

            I started work as soon as I arrived, and I’ll explain the details of what I do a little later.    Until I rent my own apartment I’m living in a room attached to our office building, the result being that I’m basically always at work.  It’s a convenient setup—there’s a kitchen, electricity, and wifi—but the downside is that my schedule is set by everyone else who works here.  People start showing up to work at 830 in the morning, drop by on weekends, or stay until 20h at night using the wifi to surf Facebook and watch YouTube videos.  It’s a little disconcerting: I’ll be in the kitchen in a tanktop and shorts making coffee when my coworkers arrive to read news online before work.

            I spent the weekend doing a little exploring.  Two things that I really like doing when I travel in Africa are getting haircuts and going to the gym, and I’ve already managed to do both.  I got a haircut at a barbershop called IDENTITY FIRST, which gave me the impression that I would have to present a passport to be allowed inside.  The place is extremely swank and sophisticated: the seats are massive leather armchairs that look like they were taken from a Lincoln Navigator, they have those clear bubble things that dry your hair or something, and the guy who runs the place owns a pair of scissors, which is by no means in given in a Ugandan haircuttery.  My haircut took 45 minutes, included a full shampoo and being doused with olive oil from a spray bottle, and cost me $1.40.  Meanwhile, the gym is a relatively new place called Camp David.  The weightroom itself is about the size of my college dorm room, and they have six different handweights.  The place is wicked expensive (three bucks a visit!), but they do have a steam room, a sauna, and a bar that serves cold beer that the gymgoers drink after, and sometimes before, working out. 

            To see a bit more of the town I rented a bike this weekend: the rental place is run out of a cargo container by a Ugandan who used to live in Sweden and gets annual shipments of mountain bikes and electronics from Stockholm.  I picked a decent looking bike, took it on a quick test ride, noticed that the brakes hardly worked, and pointed this out to the guy running the shop.  “Why do you want brakes?” he said, “you’re a young man.  You want to go fast.”  He was right.  I did.  I circled the Soroti rock, cruised about halfway to Lake Kyoga, and got a lot of angry comments from the boda boda drivers, who complained that when I rode my own bike I was putting them out of a job.  That night I went to the biggest nightclub in the area with a bunch of pilot cadets from the local flight school, and found a scene that looked a lot like the Camp David steamroom with more strobe lights and hip young people.  It was great.

            So I’m here now.  I’ll be in Soroti for another two weeks or so until I move across country to Hoima for work.  Maybe I’m safer up here: a friend  informed me that yesterday the US Embassy sent a broadcast to all American citizens living in the country warning them that Al Shabab may be planning an imminent attack in Kampala similar to the Westgate attack in Nairobi.  Uganda is a safe country, and I have no worries that I’ll be alright where I am.  Stay tuned for more updates, and keep in touch!


As a followup to my first business trip as an adult, I’ve now taken my first Real Grownup Vacation.  With a pocketful of frequent flyer miles and a lot of downtime on my hands I decided to fly down to Guatemala to visit my friend Jake for 10 days.  Jake’s working for the year as a Princeton in Latin America Fellow with Pueblo a Pueblo, an NGO that promotes school attendance in rural indigenous communities.  My boy’s wicked smart.

The flight down to Guatemala (by way of Panama) was fantastic, because both the Boston and Guatemalan airports are pretty exciting places to start and end a journey.  Looking out the window of a plane taking off in Boston is about as close as I’ll ever get experiencing Top Gun: the plane is slingshot towards Boston Harbor, full of floating sailboats and rocky islands, and just as you think you’re about to plunge into the ocean the plane takes off and you’re soaring south.  In Guatemala the landscape as seen through the porthole was aggressively three-dimensional: volcanoes shot out of the land, valleys marked by spraying waterfalls plunged into it, and the runway is probably the only ¼ square mile of the country that doesn’t have the geographic properties of egg foam.  We dropped out of the low hanging clouds, landed safely, and I was on my way.

I stayed the first night in Antigua, the gorgeous old colonial capital of Guatemala located only about 20 kilometers from the current capital, Guatemala City.   The city boasts a handsome central square ringed by a cool arcade, cobblestone streets, white-faced colonial churches looming over the skyline, and a lot of Israeli backpackers.  I stayed in a hostel, woke up early the next morning to catch a bus through winding mountain roads to Lake Atitlan, and was deposited on the docks to catch a boat to Santiago Atitlan, where Jake lives.  I asked around and trucked my enormous haul bag over to the next boat leaving for the town, asked the price for a one way trip, and was told that it was 25 Quetzales.  I don’t give up that quick.  After a mere 20 minutes of discussion we settled on a price of 15 Q and I chucked my stuff in the boat for the 30 minute trip across the lake. 

“Gee Sam,” I hear you asking, “Your Spanish must be pretty good for you to be making moves all over the country like that.”  Well, I humbly admit that my Spanish improved a lot over my stay, to the point where by the time I left Guatemala I spoke it atrociously.  I wasn’t nearly that eloquent when I first arrived, but I still managed to get around.  Two key ingredients that I found helpful for speaking Spanish were a confident attitude and speaking in French with a different accent, somehow it worked out.  I met Jake at a coffeeshop on the Calle Principal of Santiago, and had a magical reunion moment.  I’ve known and lived with Jake all through college, and here we both were on a narrow sloped street between low stucco buildings as tuk tuks trundled past us and people in colorful traditional Mayan cloth chatted with each other in Tzutujil as they passed us by.  It was amazing to think about how easy it has become to go so far, to literally drop out of the clouds, cross a lake, and reconnect with a friend in the rural Mayan highlands. 

That first weekend we went to Xela to attend the largest Independence Day feria in the country.  The trip there was hectic: it took us four buses and a boat to get to the city center, and the buses were more packed than any I’ve ever been on (and I’ve ridden public buses in Senegal).  The Feria fulfilled all of my wildest hopes and dreams.  There were THOUSANDS of young people in the streets drinking 5 Q beers, the municipal hall had been converted into a club with throbbing lights and enormous speakers, street food vendors stood elbow to elbow to feed the masses, and everyone in sight was liberated from the dastardly yoke of Spanish colonialism.  I bought a Guatemala headband and flag and we all joined the party.  We were only in Xela for one night and two days but it felt like much longer.

We returned to Santiago for the week, where Jake worked and I explored.  I stayed in the Posada Ratzan, and for $9 per night I got a huge room with a balcony and attached bathroom.  On my second day there I negotiated to pay a guide $5 to show me all of the sights of the town, and we set off.  The first site we visited was Maximon, a voodoo deity housed in a private house in town.  To get to Maximon you walk through a maze of alleyways, through a courtyard full of chickens and babies, and into a dark, smoky room whose low ceiling is rendered even lower by all of the streamers, dried fruit and animal pelts hanging from it.  Maximon himself is located in the dead center of the room: when my eyes adjusted I saw a three foot tall statue of a man, whose carved haggard wood face had a tightly rolled cigar jutting from the mouth.  Maximon wore a dozen nectkies of different colors around his neck and had two huge sombrero hats on his head, and arranged in front of him was a plate full of coins and offerings of food and drink.  Two Spanish tourists had arrived prior to me, and I arrived in time to bear witness to a fascinating ceremony.  One of the men was beckoned into a flatbacked wood chair facing Maximon, and the owner of the house, who was not much taller than Maximon himself, circled the tourist a number of times with a brazier full of incense.  He then poured a measure of strong clear alcohol into a metal cup, told the man to close his eyes, and then very solemnly took a sip of the liquor and blew a spray of it into the man’s face.  He did this four times in total, dousing the man’s whole head, and then took one of the sombreros off of Maximon’s head and passed it over the Spaniard’s head a few times.  The ceremony complete, the Spaniard placed a handful of bills in the dish in front of Maximon.  I asked my guide what that was all about, and he told me “perhaps that man was ill or suffering from some pain.”  “Maybe,” I replied, “but at least he’s been disinfected now.”

It took about another 20 minutes to see all of the sights of Santiago.  I visited the colonial cathedral, which is built on a hill in the center of town with a white steeple that can be seen from the middle of the lake, and visited the peace park, a simple cobblestone square with memorials to 14 townspeople who were shot by the military toward the end of Guatemala’s 36 year civil war.  At the end of the week myself, Jake, and his coworker Michelle got on a boat to go to San Pedro, another indigenous community on the other side of the inlet of the lake.  The two towns are 3 kilometers apart by boat, but the local languages spoken in the two towns are different enough to be almost incomprehensible.  San Pedro was much more touristy, although not necessarily in a bad way: there were bars and cafes scrunched together in the narrow streets, places to rent bikes, kayaks and horses, travelers from all over North America, Europe and Asia, herbal remedy shops run by aging hippies, local kids wearing MLB hats selling shoeshines and ganja, and tons of places to get a very decent cup of coffee. 

The main reason we three had come to San Pedro was because we had heard rumors that there was a spectacular wine and cheese bar in the neighboring community of San Juan—best food on the lake, said everyone.  To get to San Juan we took a tuk tuk (motorcycle rickshaw: imagine a tricycle with a lawnmower engine and an Oregon Trail style awning) over a mountain and waited by the San Juan dock for directions.  Jake called the restaurant, and they sent a busboy with an umbrella and neon purple sneakers to collect us and lead us half a mile through the jungle.  It was impossible to lose the path because the path we were walking on was actually a small creek, and we had to swagger through the trees straddling the trickle of water til we got to the high gate of the restaurant.

Well, it was magnificent.  We got a litre of cold, crisp fruity white wine to start, followed by a litre of hearty red wine and a charcuterie plate that had 12 different types of cheese, olives, grapes, a basket of hot homemade bread, and finally small Havana cigars.  The owner himself brought the cigars out, along with three glasses of complimentary grappa: he was clearly overjoyed that ANYONE would walk a half mile through the jungle in the rain at twilight during the off season just to lay hands on some camembert.  The next morning we rose at the crack of noon and went kayaking, and we ended the night in Antigua.

Antigua was a ridiculously social place: we met a Canadian mineral extractor who mined gold from the top of mountains with hydraulic drills, a pair of Kiwis who had bought motorcycles in LA and were on their way to Patagonia, a Fulbright fellow investigating corruption in the natural resources management branch of the government, and finally Omar, a magical elfin man with a Dali moustache who shimmered into our lives and showed us fascinating things in Antigua.  The guy was incredible: he took us to a refurbished cathedral that displayed human bones, got us into nightclubs for free, and took us to the roofdeck of any bar we happened to be in, even if the roof was closed.  He is a Facebooking and social media fiend, and it will probably take him about 4 minutes to find this blog post.

That’s that really.  My last night in Guatemala we stayed in the cousin of a friend’s house in Guatemala city, sharing a tiny bedroom while gunshots popped in the streets outside and the owner’s massive dog tried to ooze under the door to jump on us.  The next day I rose at 4:30, accidentally got on a plane to Caracas, sorted out the mistake, and made it home safely to Boston.  It was a good adventure, and I’m looking forward to traveling again.  Stay tuned: updates from Africa will come within the week.