October 30, 2012

International Development Consultants: Divide The Good from the Bad

Map of Afghan Sheep Distribution 1998 using AIMS data, available at UC Davis.
Ultimately a good international development consultant should give more than he/she takes away.   But does this always happen?  No.  I would say it is even uncommon.  International Development Consultants are frequently detested by company staff and equally unliked by communities.

In fact, just the other day, I heard a great Afghan joke on this topic:

A western man walks up to an old shepherd in rural Afghanistan and says "If I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have, will you give me one?"

The old man said yes, and the westerner walked back to his car, pulled out a laptop, turned on Google Earth and some fancy GIS software then after a few minutes said "You have exactly 872 sheep."  The old man agreed this to be the correct number, so the westerner walked into the pasture, picked one up and loaded it into the back of his car.

The old man then said "Now, if I tell you the name of your profession, can I have that back?"  The foreigner agreed and the old man said "you are an International Development Consultant."

Surprised, the foreigner said "Yes! I am.  How did you know?"

The old man replied, "Well...You showed up when no one asked for you to be here.  Then you told me something I already know.  And lastly, that creature in the back of your car is my dog."

While hilarious, there is unfortunately a lot of truth to this.

International development consultants  were held as the great answer by institutions such as the World Bank in the 1980s and after a couple decades of actions, are today often regarded with absolute disdain by those who work the daily-grind.  Yet big organizations constantly hire them.

I can tell you from my own work experience, nothing is worse than the expert who parachutes in, gives a bunch of irrelevant advice, then disappears leaving behind a busted budget (for the cost of services), empty wallets (from the bar tab), and a frustrated community who is still wanting something to change. Sometimes the company is lucky and the consultant is insightful and genuine, but to be honest, I've met more bad ones than good.  Too often its a combination of irrelevant information, a poor understanding of local issues, and an oversized ego.  Ugh.

Yet consultants can be great because they can supply detailed technical knowledge, an outside perspective to help improve the robustness of current projects, and they can supply a demand for innovative solutions that is not being met by the local market.  If a consultant is simply providing the same quality of insight, than can be locally obtained, then they are not worth the high price.  But if they provide something more, its worth considering.

But the work of an international development consultant can be priceless.  

A good international development consultant will do the following:

a) spend time with the local community to get in touch with local values and knowledge

b understands the legal and political framework which dictates the viability of solutions

c) listen to locals experts on the problem (not explain the problem to them)

d) introduce concepts that are uncomfortable  because the combination of accuracy and honesty 

e) infuse new energies, resources, and opportunities into a given scenario

A good consultant, no matter the price, will provide concrete changes to a situation so that any observer will note that the situation is remarkably different and in a positive manner.  

A good consultant will not arrive with "the answers" but will arrive with enough knowledge so as to ask the best questions.  

As an International Development consultant with Sutika Sipus LLC, I also provide a service that is different from among all other practitioners in the field.  I believe that to be a excellent international development consultant, it is my job to become unnecessary to the client and the community.  If I am tasked with a problem and 5 years later am still working in the same place on the same problem, then I must be doing it wrong.  

It is my job to create the conditions so that my work is no longer needed.  I don't charge as much money as my competitors, but I also know that I am not the lowest bidder.   I am however able to consistently provide viable solutions for radical change in a given project on behalf of multiple stakeholder interests.  That takes a lot of work and sacrifice.  It also isn't something you can just find anywhere.

October 24, 2012

An Integrated Process For Better Urban Planning


Urban planners frequently believe their projects maintain the most efficient balance between demand, costs, and utility.  A project may be result of community discourse, technical analysis, review by the local business community, and a fusion with the most cutting-edge theories.  Yet when the proposal sits before a local planning commission or city council, too often it is torn to shreds. Heavily debated and politicized, if the proposal ever emerges from the other side of the gauntlet, the final outcome is a shadow of it former self, too weak to do anything effective.  There is a pressing demand for an Integrated Planning Process that accounts for the organizational machine of local government and decision makers.

I once heard a story about an urban planner who taught at the University of Cincinnati. The story goes that the planner spent everyday of 30 years studying a particular neighborhood, Over The Rhine, which has historically been a concentration of poverty and crime.  Everyday he walked the streets, spoke with residents,  befriended local businesses, studied the history, conducted economic research and over 3 decades acquired a thorough understanding of the internal and external forces that shape the neighborhood.  But when members of the local government asked for his input to create jobs, reduce crime, or improve the quality of the streets, he was incapable of providing realistic solutions. 

Certainly he had ideas.   Many of them were brilliant.  But the problem was that his sophisticated understanding of OTR also resulted in highly sophisticated proposals.  Many of these solutions were outside the interests of some decision makers, beyond the means of the local government, or required the overhaul of dominant frameworks such as state laws or county budgets.  The proposals that were acceptable were then diluted through tedious meetings, city council debates, local commissions, and ongoing budget cuts.  By the time his solutions actually hit the pavement, they lacked the means to create actual change.  Does this sound familiar?

Urban Planning has become increasingly complex with the rise of big data, inflating costs, diverging politics, and the advent of new technologies.  Given the historic challenges to balance all the demands of planning and development, it is a wonder that anyone can integrate all the new elements at all.  The process becomes unwieldy, and it is therefore no surprise when the final outcome fails.  It doesn't necessarily take decades for many of us to find ourselves faced with a scenario similar to the one described above.

But perhaps we can learn from the field of Product Design, an industry that has also become increasingly complex.  Imagine creating a new mobile phone.  Multiple departments must work together to compile a functioning design, some departments have to create new technologies to meet the demands of the co-workers across the hallway, and once everything is assembled it must also be mass produced, marketed, and sold.  But the process is not strictly linear.  There are limitations for mass production and supply-chain challenges to acquire the necessary parts. There is often a need to create the tools and technologies to assemble the product and then to sort out the logistics of packaging, shipping, and retail.  All these variables have a cost, all these variables entail the energies of thousands of people, and all of these variables must be delicately balanced to result in a working final product for mass consumption.  And if the item doesn't work as well as a competitor product, then no one will buy it. 

To ensure that the product can meet an array of expectations and capacities, every variable is recorded and investigated from initial ideation to the point of consumer use.  In the samer manner, the Integrated Planning Process maps the array of variables to create, design, modify, and implement a solution.  This procedure can reveal to stakeholders and participants what is essential, what is not, impose more clarity, and save time by providing alternatives for individual components.  

This process allows decision makers the ability to look beyond what needs to be stripped down, there is a means to prioritize what is essential, non-essential, and what adds value.  The project will of course change, but the planner is taking responsibility for the forces that impose change, and therefore holding more control over the outcome.  This improved capacity to understand and measure flexibility, will result in higher-value outcomes.

There are several ways to utilize an Integrated Planning Process.  Here are just a few possibilities:

 1.  Simple info-graphics to articulate the processes of decision making reveal the degrees of flexibility in the planning process.  These can be shared publicly (suggested) or for internal use only.

2. Presenting a comparative "teardown" of similar projects in other municipalities can provide a platform for critical engagement to document costs for optimization.   If you identify teardown components in relation to the outcome, you can better isolate the variables that matter most.

3. In addition to itemized costs, planners can provide details for alternative options with the clear cost/benefit of each alternative.  Instead of letting city council decide what works and what doesn't, or too demand more research, simply provide 2 or 3 options for each element of the plan that will have a similar outcome but with a clear cost/benefit.  These variables can then be reconfigured like Lego Blocks.  In this manner it is possible to find ways to quickly reduce cost while maintaining performance.

4. Planners can submit a list of prioritized alternatives or suggestions for modification to the entire proposal,  to better control the outcome of political committees. I do suggest you have this ready and waiting, but do not offer it up in the beginning.  Expect that your proposal will be changed according to the whims of dominant power systems.  There is nothing you can do about this so it is best to factor it into your planning process to create a more viable solution.

5. Planners must recognize that the organization implementing the project (doing the construction work for example), maintain their own level of influence upon the success of the project, such as their ability to finish work on time and under budget.  Map it.

The Integrated Planning Process maps the variables informing project design,  the influence of those who hold authority, and the influence of those who implement the work, and will provide planners the means to propose solutions that are resilient to the political machine.  An Integrated Planning Process results in flexible proposals designed to contend with external demands and will always create a more robust outcome. If a development scheme consists of the insights of stakeholders, but has the ability to fluidly accommodate the organization structure of government and implementing partners, the final result will be more value-laden for the target population and for the neighborhood.

Will such an integrated process always work?  Absolutely not.  There are too many variables, and it is incredibly difficult to measure how much influence each variable will impose upon the outcome.  To borrow from Nate Silver's book, it is a challenge to separate the signal from the noise.  But product design is no different.  There are always glitches, a necessity to release updates, and to release a next generation product based on the precursor.  The Integrated Planning Process does not result in a single one-off solution to later abandon.  Rather it sets the foundation for sequential upgrading.

There are many planners who already work in a similar fashion, but do so intuitively. Integrated Planning thus becomes a skill acquired through experience and therefore is not universally upheld. But if Integrated Planning can be  can be more directly implemented by practitioners (and not just in their minds), or utilized in university curriculums, the benefits will soon become obvious. Planners will typically be more satisfied in the outcomes of their work, but ultimately it is cities who will benefit the most with better projects conducted amid less debate, in shorter time, and for less money.

October 21, 2012

Mali is Not the New Somalia

When Northern Mali was overtaken by a couple months back, I assumed at the very outset that Somalia had something to offer.  After all, Somalia had just crawled out of 21 years of war, 6 of which were under the domination of extremist militant group al-Shabaab.  As the UN, EU, and US look toward military intervention in Mali, their reliance upon Somalia as a model is not a good idea.  

The Taureg Rebels of Northern Mali

Why Mali is Not the New Somalia

1. The Rise to Power 
Al-Shabaab was the police force of the widely supported Union of Islamic Courts that quickly rose to power upon the collapse of the UIC.  Consequently it was already an organized force for governance, recruitment, and community support.  As an organizational structure embedded in the community, it had a distinct advantage.

The Taureg rebels are local, however they maintain an evolving organizational structure and are imposing a rule of law and social conventions upon an unwilling population.

2. The Message
Al-Shabaab maintained a message of Nationalism supported by Sharia to overcome tribal strife.  To support al-Shabaab was to support the emergence of a new Somali state, not a direct means to support their extremist ideology.

In Mali the rebels seek an independent state.  Separatism and religious fundamentalism are a potent mix and do more to arouse support from the fringes of society than from the center.

3. The End of Shabaab
The collapse of al-Shabaab was influenced by military action, but military action was not the cause for their undoing.  Rather the collapse of al-Shabaab was the consequence of multiple variables occurring at the same time.  Environmental drought forcing widespread famine and thus undermining Shabaab's financial tax-based infrastructure was a critical element in their demise.   Furthermore, conflict in Mogadishu between Shabaab and AMISOM had become embedded into protracted trench warfare with minimal gains to either side.  Shabaab is stronger when more mobile, and the collapse of the the environment and financial assets hurt their supply lines.  It was to their economic and tactical advantage to resort to loosely-distributed hit and run tactics.

Comparatively, reliance upon outside military intervention in Mali is only part of the formula to remove the Taureg rebels from power.  Already there is an emphasis on targeting leadership, an unfortunate decision, given its poor history of success with other organizations.

4. To militarize or to pacify?
EU is moving toward training fighters in Mali. Haven't we learned from Afghanistan, Syria,  Libya, or Mexico?  Injecting weapons into a conflict zone, no matter how how much attention is paid to specifying the recipients, simply results in more weapons in the conflict zone.  It escalates the conflict and in an era where protracted ad-hoc terrorism is always the endpoint, why facilitate the market of war?  It was long known that in Somalia, AMISOM soldiers would frequently sell their ammunition for cash, which of course ended up in the hands Shabaab fighters.

Perhaps a potent strategy would be to demilitarize the region more than strengthen it.  HUMINT becomes an essential element in the mix, to understand how the rebels get their resources, and to map the structural underpinnings of their operation.  But getting these answers is not rocket science.  As I learned from doing similar work regarding the economics of al-Shabaab, it simply is a matter of asking the right questions to the right people. 

Designing a non-military solution to Mali
Of course I don't want to give away all the answers, but there are some obvious opportunities within the Mali conflict for widespread stabilization and transformation.  But I can say that Regional Science contains a few relavant ideas, and a good starting point is regarding gravity analysis.  But beyond that, utilizing market interventions among rebels isn't a new idea.  In fact, al-Shabaab applied a similar tactic against the Somali Transitional Federal Government.   I'm not advocating embargoes on Mali, as those never work, but rather, we to analyse and manipulate market forces.  If there is anything to learn from Somalia to use in Mali, perhaps we should look not at how Shabaab was defeated, but rather, we should ask how did they stay in power for so long?

October 17, 2012

Urban Planning Trends are Bad Medicine


Smokestack chasing.  Garden cities.  Tactical Urbanism.  New Urbanism.  Creative cities.  What do all these have in common? They all reveal the greatest weakness of urban planning as a discipline. The reliance upon urban development trends, which shift every few years, has ruined neighborhoods, devastated communities, and undermined economies.  Yet we keep doing it.

When I was a graduate student, sustainability was the utmost priority.  And for the last few years, every planning and design firm advocates bolstering resilience as the prescriptive cure for cities ensnared by poverty, conflict, or natural disaster.  But how do any of these concepts actually make a difference in the field of urban planning?  While they may posit some degree of merit by creating philosophical or operational frameworks for positive action, they do far more to impend weakness upon a community.

Anyone can read a book about the creative class and push for their city to open more coffee shops and tattoo parlors.  But an urban planner is trained to measure problems so as to determine solutions, not just impose preconceived ideologies upon a space or population.  Measurement is the core of urban planning.  The ability to fuse social, economic, spatial, environmental, and cultural data into an observable model provides planners the ability to determine structural weaknesses in a community.  These structural weaknesses may be offset through direct internal realignment, manipulation of broader legal frameworks, or offset by outside interventions.  But the application of broad concepts as a cure-all is not a solution, it simply is a waste of resources, or at worst, an act of  imperialism.

Certainly urban planning trends are drawn from observable social processes.  And many of the ideas, such as sustainability, are not bad things on first review.  But when New York city planner Robert Moses proposed putting a highway through East Village, he was simply subscribing to the values of the day.  He believed that cars and highways were positive tools of progress.  He believed that the old communities were dirty and backward.  He was doing the residents of the East Village a favor by installing this highway, to connect them to all of New York and the rest of America.  It never occurred to him that they would want, or deserve, something different.

One of my first projects as an urban planner was to conduct an impact analysis for a wind turbine farm in rural West Virginia.  Thousands of acres of virgin forest were to be destroyed to install wind turbines which would route the power to New Jersey.  The residents of the local community were outraged.  Yet entrapped by poverty, these residents did not own the land around them.  It was the property of coal companies and the US government.  They could no nothing but watch their lands be destroyed.  New Jersey of course didn't mind ruining one community to facilitate its own energy needs.  After all, wind energy is sustainable.

What we as urban planners believe to be true and good in ideology can just as likely wield a terribly destructive power.  In that regard, is it not better to forgo all ideologies?  Perhaps it is better to attend  the intricacies of measuring complex systems.  We must recognize that every method of measurement  imposes a value upon the outcome, and so we must place greater attention and selectivity upon this primary step in the planning process.  If a given system of measurement works in one location, it will not necessarily work in another.  So how then can we presume that outputs are transferable?

Good urban planners will not invent the wheel every time they approach a settlement.  They will aslo not limit themselves to particular methods or ideology.  In the same way a good musician will not say simply "I am a jazz guitarist" or "I am a rock guitarist," rather, a good musician will study all forms of music so at the moment of performance he may play freely, not thinking about "I must infuse a minor third on the next note to get a given result." When trapped by conventions such as style or planning trends, the intentional application of convention will undermine the effectiveness of the final product. Urban planners trained to measure and respond will forever create better solutions for community problems than those who apply preconceived notions of community or development.

October 16, 2012

After the War: Why Inflation in Mogadishu is Not a Problem

Rapid Development in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Mitchell Sutika Sipus. 2012.
Over the last 24 hours, the interwebs have been buzzing over an Al Jezeera Report about the disproportionate rise in property values in Mogadishu.  Suddenly, after months of positive gains in Somalia, there is panic that those who have suffered so long at the expense of war and poverty will again be abused, but now by the forces of capitalism.  Returnees and speculators are blamed for rapid inflation, making housing and property costs far from accessible for displaced and impoverished populations.  This is a valid concern given that free markets typically facilitate the accumulation of capital faster than the distribution.

But this criticism is wrong.  Inflation is not a problem in Mogadishu.

Certainly many are returning to invest and property prices are rapidly changing.  This is necessary.  The only way for Somalia to rebuild from 21 years of war is for outside investment to facilitate change and for the quality of life to improve, so does the price tag.  

While Somalia does have some natural resources, its greatest asset is its location between the Middle East, South Asia, and all of Africa.  It was founded because it was an important link for international trade, and in recent years Somali pirates were able to poach billions of dollars from international markets because they exploited this strategic location.  With a geography founded on international trade, the recipe for Mogadishu to become a successful city and for Somalia to become a stable nation is to rebuild accordingly.

After the Transition
Rebuilding from the War. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
Within every post-war reconstruction process, rapid inflation occurs.  The sudden influx of foreign money distorts local markets and in most cases creates a two-tiered economy.  Typically, as in the case of Kabul Afghanistan or in Phnom Penh in the 90s, you will find a wealthy foreign class paying exorbitant prices, a rapidly growing class of wealthy business owners, and the bulk of the population stuck with low incomes, low prices for basic goods, high prices for real estate, and an increased ability to acquire luxury goods.  When the wealthy foreigners leave the cities struggle to adjust, and in the best circumstance, distribution of capital becomes a little more even.  This scenario is brutal as the intentions of reconstruction are only partly established and the process is economically painful to local populations.  But Mogadishu has multiple advantages.

The Mogadishu Advantage

1. Lack of High-Level Foreign Interests
There is evidence that Mogadishu will not follow the typical same formula as other post-war cities. Foremost, the collapse of al-Shabaab is the consequence of many different phenomena  some being military, but many also are economic and environmental.  The concluding war in Somalia is not entirely due to outside actors.  

Likewise the reconstruction process taking place has very little to do with outside actors.  So far I have yet to encounter another westerner while walking down a street in Mogadishu, unless the person has returned from diaspora.  I have met many people who work in Somalia with NGOs or foreign aid agencies, but compared to most global development hot-spots, there is barely a humanitarian/development presence in Somalia.  In that same regard, there is funding from EU, Turkey, USA but the budgets are far smaller than for other countries, so at the political level there is limited foreign involvement.

2. Investment by Somali Returnees not foreign expats
Mogadishu at Work. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
At the local level, the situation is similar as outside investment is obtained primarily through individuals who have a committed personal interest in Somalia.  These individuals will not disappear from the landscape with their pockets full of war profits, nor will their presence create a dual economy.  

3. Reclamation is first issue among returnees
Many of those returning to Somalia are less interested in buying new property and are more interested in reclaiming the property they owned prior to the war.  This becomes contentious with the massive quantities with internally displaced persons occupying many of the homes.  There are no property records and the result is clogged courts over property ownership disputes, not rising costs of land.  However I have been working with the Benadiir Regional Administration on this issue and have a feasible solution, it is just a matter of working with the proper ministries to implement the program. Notably, speed is a critical factor in this area.

4. Broad Multi-sector growth and regulation offset inflation
Inflation is only an issue if there is no access to employment or no means to regulate the growth so as to make the benefits accessible throughout the population.  But this is not a problem in Mogadishu.  While Al Jezeera argued that there is an "emerging economic divide" in the population and referred to a single estate at the cost of 8,000 USD per month to rent as evidence. the reporter had the situation backward.  
Within a conflict, there is always rapid rise in prices for luxury housing, because there is so little of it.  In the case of Mogadishu, there are were maybe 5 available properties like this among thousands of bombed out buildings, so 8,000 USD per month is actually  a real deal!  

Now that other housing options are emerging, supported by the construction boom (employment), luxury estates will cost less and populations will have more options.   The widespread economic growth is evident in other sectors, such as the increase in internet access, and there are ongoing efforts to regulate growth, such as the developing initiative to register automobiles.  In Mogadishu, rapid property adjustments is offset by widespread economic gains in employment and improved governance.  As long as the rate of inflation is consistent with overall growth trends (assuming the distribution remains similar to now) an improved quality of life will be attainable to most the population in a matter of years.

Naturally there are other problems.  Lack of maps, no land titles, no business registration, no functioning tax system.  But these are on their way and will be implemented over time.  Trust me, I'm working on it.

October 6, 2012

The Post-War Ghost Towns of Foreign Aid

Within the context of Post-Conflict Reconstruction, it becomes difficult to isolate the best solution to a given problem. There is a necessity to balance demands for immediate change alongside the benefits of steady, consistent progress.   I see the consequence of billions of dollars of investment into direct urban and economic development everyday in my neighborhood in Kabul Afghanistan, and it leaves me unconvinced that the most direct solutions are always the best or most efficient.  Take for example the Kabul neighborhood of Sher-Pur.  

A "single-family" residence in Sher-Pur, Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2012.
Originally a low income neighborhood of informal, mud brick housing, Sher-Pur was subject to government land grabs around 2004 and is now Kabul's wealthiest neighborhood.  Built up using mashup of imported architectural designs from Dubai, the neighborhood is full of massive poppy palaces and narco palaces, a reference to the illicit capital flows that drive the construction of these buildings.  These single-family houses frequently contain as much as 45 bedrooms, and many were constructed primarily to facilitate the interests of the international humanitarian regime.  For years, NGOs commonly pay anywhere between 12,000 USD and 100,000 USD per month to rent these structures for their staff.  Yet now as the international community pulls out ahead of the 2014 NATO withdrawal deadline, many of these elaborate mansions are sitting empty.  Sher-Pur is already becoming a ghost town of opulence.

Sher-pur Poppy Palace For Rent. Source Unknown.
At the time of initial construction, Sher-Pur was the simple, direct solution to a given market demand. People were making more money and aid agencies need secure housing for their staff. But it was not sustainable.  Who knows what the future will be for this neighborhood, but I suspect it will deteriorate in scale, but always remaining a haven for wealthy government officials and organized crime.  Nonetheless, Sher-Pur will forever remain a disproportionate concentration of wealth and power in a city where informal housing shelters between 60% and 80% of the population.

Notably, this is not the first time that the influx of foreign aid and new urban development schemes did more to reinforce the dominant power structures than meet the interests of those in greatest need.  When Cambodia began to stabilize, the same thing happened, with foreign aid workers filling the city's colonial mansions and paying inflated rents.  When the aid market dried up, the foreign elite vacated and the houses were empty, ghostly vessels that eventually scaled back into the urban fabric.

Can this process be circumvented?  For example, as Somalia opens up to international aid, will Lido, Mogadishu become a neighborhood for the disproportionately wealthy and then likewise regress?  Or must we continue to distort land use and real estate markets according to the interest of dominant power-structures?  

Building Facade, Sher-Pur Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus. 2012