Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New blog post - on poop!

Pretty please, someone read my new blog?  Ok fine, I'll re-post it here.


Every morning, like a silent, stolid army, the fisherman families and slum residents living on the beach come down to the breakers to take their morning toilet run.  A trove of squatters spots the landscape, some relieving themselves quickly and rushing off to work, some taking their time, staring out at the horizon like it’s a good bathroom reader.  As I run along I dodge as many turd piles as trash pieces.  It’s one way to get a rough gauge for the amount of diarrhea in the community.

I noticed this morning that while seemingly all the men and most of the children (male and female) participate unashamedly in this ritual, the women are entirely absent.  Where do they do their business in the morning?  How do they get rid of it? And more importantly, if there’s a way for them to use the toilet without using the ocean turning the beach into what is surely every public health professional’s nightmare, why couldn’t the men and children do the same?

The much-acclaimed World Toilet Organization is tackling some of these issues.  It sees the “toilet taboo” as one of the biggest barriers to improving sanitation, and seeks to popularize the work of building and maintaining toilets for the 2.5bn people it estimates lack them, through such kitchy marketing campaigns as World Toilet Day and The Big Squat.  There’s also the World Toilet College for toilet design and maintenance capacity development, and the annual World Toilet Summit & Expo.  It seems to be working – they’ve gotten a ton of press and a number of avid followers – but these things take time.

Without much knowledge of the subject, my guess is that the biggest issue is the social one – convincing people that they need toilets, that open defecation is unsanitary and will lead to disease.  Is there some opportunity here in the disparity between women’s and men’s pooping routines?  I guess it depends on where the women really go, and whether their methods are any more sanitary than the beach.  Until then my neighboring slums will continue to use the ocean as their toilet-cum-garbage can, and I will continue to dodge the turds.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

New professional related blog posts

I'm making a concerted effort to populate my new, work-related blog.  Really I am.  Even though it's been three months and I have a grand total of six posts.

Have a look - some perspectives on corruption in Kenya and a note I posted on the India Development Blog, my organization's unofficial (and very popular) blog for researcher opinions, on entrepreneurship (original post here).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blast from the past

I just had a monster reminiscing session (mmm, procrastination).  And realized that my old Kenya blog was not only not public, but not accessible anymore because my host URL had expired.  So now it's public, and available here:


There's a bunch of depressing stuff about the evacuation, but also click back to the posts pre-Jan 2008 - an amusing journey back to Peace Corps for anyone who was there with me, and a window into my real developing country experience for those of you in India.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

New website launch!

It's not perfect, it definitely has some kinks to be worked out... but I think it's safe to say our new website is a big improvement over the past one.  

We're trying out a fancy new interactive web design where each researcher is a real time content creator, so that the site is (in the words of our director) an "open kitchen" to showcase the research and work initiatives we have going on in progress, rather than just our polished completed products.  They're supposed to be writing a blurb to explain this philosophy, but haven't gotten around to it yet.

If nothing else, what's exciting is that I can direct you to much more in-depth, interesting pieces of content:
Main site homepage (complete with new URL): http://www.ifmr-cdf.in/
My programme group (restructuring and new group description coming soon... hopefully along with improved URL, this one is gross): http://ifmr-cdf.in/pg/groups/1223/strategy-advisory-group&type=Program%20area∫=1223
My profile!  View all the interesting, or not so interesting, stuff I've been working on over the past year, plus wire posts and bookmarks and all sorts of other junk: http://ifmr-cdf.in/pg/profile/jsprague

Watch for updates and improved site capability coming up soon!  I hope...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Look at me, I'm so professional

I finally decided I wanted to write some blogs that were actually work/life/career related, but didn't want to compromise my ability to bash people and concepts at will, tell embarrassing stories about my life, and be generally unprofessional.  So I created a new blog:


Check it out, and follow if you're actually interested in my work.  If you're just interested in my shenanigans in India, keep reading this one.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shameless propagandizing

Check out our snazzy new brochure!

This is exciting because it is way, way, WAY less text than I've ever seen on a description of my organization to date. It's still a little hard to understand, but it's a vast improvement.

If you don't believe me, check out the text on our current website - which is also undergoing a major overhaul, relaunch scheduled for this month. But no guarantees on content quality.

Friday, August 14, 2009

This is why I love the internet

I was browsing through comments from my old blog posts today and wandered across a note from Mike Gannet. Turns out this guy was a Peace Corps volunteer 45 years ago in India, and spent 20-odd years working in and around the country in the 60s-80s. India doesn't have a Peace Corps program anymore but it's amazing to see how similar the experiences are and how much the country looks the same. Check out his picasa album for Rajasthan, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Kashmir and more circa 1966 - http://picasaweb.google.com/Gannettm.

Great pictures Mike, cheers and thanks for getting in touch!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fighting fire with fire sets the whole world ablaze, Mrs. Clinton


When I saw this clip of Hillary Clinton giving a “sharp response” to a Congolese student who asked what Mr. Clinton thought of China’s loan to the DRC, my first reaction was my aggressive feminist side: way to go Mrs. Clinton, way to stick up for yourself and show ‘em that’s not acceptable.

My second reaction was holy shit, that’s the DRC. And that got me thinking. Did she come off a little strong? Granted, I can’t tell the context of this interview session or what was said before, but I can imagine a few different interpretations of this question besides “you respect my husband more than me because he’s a dude”: how about “because he’s a former president of the United States” or “because he just got back from diplomatic negotiations in North Korea” or “maybe something was lost in translation”?

On the other side of the coin, what if the kid meant exactly what it sounded like? Now don’t get me wrong, I’m your biggest neighborhood fan of the long-term systemic need for women’s rights in a society. But maybe, just maybe, for a country that’s been ravaged over and over by war and corruption and genocide in recent years, ensuring gender equality in the home isn’t at the top of the priority list.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe. Probably the most high-profile and influential woman in the world, one who has years of public speaking behind her back and is responsible for international conflict resolution, had the opportunity to start a dialogue about a critically important global issue and instead came off looking like a bitter whiny old lady. Seriously you think the phrase “my husband is not the secretary of state, I am” comes off as anything other than the emotional blabber of a woman who’s sick of being stuck in her husband’s shadow? When she could have asked the kid why he cared about a civilian’s opinion, stimulated a conversation about gender equity and provided the example of a woman who has the power to challenge engrained cultural viewpoints, she may well have caused the opposite impression: that’s what happens when you put a woman in power, she gets all emotional and defensive at routine interview questions.

Wasted opportunity, Madame Secretary.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Quit your whining or I will pull this car over right now

Hmmm. Raila is whining about ambassador Ranneberger's "lecturing on governance": http://www.nation.co.ke/InDepth/Agoa%20Summit/-/634508/634912/-/xmlhr0/-/index.html

Now, I'm not saying the west has any business lecturing anyone on governance. But two things:

1) Uh, how are statements like "you need to implement the reform agenda you made when you formed the coalition government" controversial? Seriously?

And 2) haven't we heard this complaint before? Like, in 1964, when it was uncouth to criticize a newly independent government for corruption that was probably the Brits' fault anyway? This argument seems sliiiiightly outdated.

Also funny that Raila didn't mind when Obama said the same thing two weeks ago... http://allafrica.com/stories/200907140005.html. I guess the Luos have to stick up for each other, si ndiyo?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

New boss, same game?

I rarely follow Peace Corps news. But hey, what the hell. Maybe this one will be interesting.

Obama nominated Aaron Williams to be the next Peace Corps Director. And now it looks like he could be confirmed, really soon.

Who is Aaron Williams? Well, he was a USAID country director for a while (hmm...), and is now a VP of inernational business development at RTI International (hmm!). He also serves on the Council on Foreign Relations, and happens to be a board member at CARE alongside a number of my esteemed mentors (hmm hmm!). Sidenote: interestingly, his USAID experience isn't mentioned in his CARE bio...

So, will he be a good PC director, or more of the same? Chris Dodd, resident Senate Peace Corps mouthpiece and reform campaigner, seems pretty ecstatic about him. So do the other advocates pushing for reform. That and his experience are a pretty good sign.

That said, I was a little underwhelmed with his statement to the Senate committee - plugging sustainable expansion (yay for sustainability, ? for expansion), the continuing importance of volunteer security (sounds reasonable, but this is what cost me my respect for the organization), and the Third Goal of Peace Corps - coming home and getting Americans to "better understand people of other cultures" (yawn... like Peace Corps volunteers can do that). To give him the benefit of the doubt, I'm not sure what he could have said that would have been politically correct and actually impressed me. Maybe something about overhauling the priorities of the whole organization.

So, we'll have to wait and see.

Delhi enters the 21st century

For those who haven’t been following recent (not so recent anymore) news from Delhi - the High Court decriminalized homosexuality this month by ruling down the famed Section 377 of the penal code. Very exciting. Very about time. Very controversial.

Original breaking news: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/NEWS/India/India-decriminalises-gay-sex/articleshow/4726608.cms

Now Baba Ramdev, a very famous acclaimed yoga guru with millions of followers, is shooting his mouth off and trying to get the ruling overturned. Below is the (albeit very biased) summary of a (somewhat more, but still outdated) recent interview on Hindi TV from an LGBT listserv I get:

Just saw Baba Ramdev's Interview on :Seedhi Baat" at Aaj Tak. 
Prabhu Chawla, the interviewer tried to bring in some objectivity and reason to the rhetoric, but the baba went on and on with his tirade against
homsexuals. The gist of his arguments:
1] Its harmful to the character of the nations and therefore should be criminalised.
2] Only criminalisation will ensure that these people are brought in for 'rehabilitation'
3] That he will organise rehabilitation camps and change people using yoga.
4] That it is all about national interest and that irrespective of the court, the people of India who are opposed will win, because theirs is the
path of truth.
5] That his stand is constitutional because the exceptions to fundamental rights includes grounds like national sexurity and morality and
homosexuality is against both.
6] That WHO, UN etc are wrong in describing that homoseexuality is not a disease, and that he is right in describing it as such
7] That because homosexuality is a disease, homosexuals should be barred from donating blood, since anyone who receives this blood by transfusion
will also be infected with homosexuality.

I think the WTF is self-explanatory. I did like this response comment on India Today though:

Baba Ramdev said on Seedhi Baat that receiving blood from gay people makes the recipients gay. Why don't the people follow Ramdev's advice and donate blood to gay people and make them normal?

In better news, the mood here in Tamil Nadu is a bit more optimistic. Chennai, a particularly conservative part of India, does have one advantage in that transsexuals have traditionally been respected members of society – the community may not mingle with them, but few tamper with fate by failing to give money and get their newborns blessed by the hijras. More in the mainstream, one of the many sexuality rights organizations in the state is organizing a workshop to sensitize the Tamil media on LGBT issues, as well as undertaking the ambitious goal of coining new terms in Tamil to better define LGBT communities. Good luck to them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dog update

My current roommate (I'm staying with some friends while looking for a new apartment) is a photographer and caught my dog in a model pose. This picture is pretty much awesome.

In other dog news:

1. My friends have decided that Malaika bears a strong resemblance to Santa's Little Helper from the Simpsons. Her new nickname is, appropriately, SLH. (For the record, she is much MUCH better behaved than the cartoon version. But I can't deny the resemblance.)

2. My Kenyan host brother emailed to tell me that Malaika's puppy had a litter! So she is now a grandmother. Making me a great-grandmother. And my mom a great-great-grandmother. Do you feel old, mom?

3. My friend's driver differentiates me from his other female friends by calling me "dog lady". I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to be flattered or offended by this label.

Blast from the past

Kenya continues to surprise and perplex me.

My friend Phoebe just found this in her mailbox - her Christmas package to me from December 2007.

I left my village Dec 22, and never went back, so never received any gifts people might have sent me. My host family had told me there were some packages waiting for me, but the post office was raided during the riots and I assumed my gifts had just found their way into some looter's apartment.

So how did this one
a) survive getting there
b) not get looted
c) get sent back??! In my experience the Kenyan postal service does not shell out for return to sender
d) take over a year and a half for this whole process to happen, yet still make it back?

And all this when the gift involved electronics!

This would have been a really interesting study if it had been trackable.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I would like to dedicate this blog post to my good friend McKay, the original discoverer of the pirate bar in Adyar.

I recently had a conversation with a journalist friend about the Somali pirate trend, admitting that despite the seriousness of the situation I couldn't help but snicker every time I saw the term "pirate" splashed across a headline. And I think the media plays it up too - "Pirates take captain hostage and demand ransom," "Somali pirates strike again, hijacking 4 ships." I know I know, that really is what happened, but don't you think they dramatize it a bit?

And wouldn't you? Nobody dressed up as a burglar or a carjacker for Halloween when they were a kid, but a pirate...

Anyway, another participant in the conversation passed
this article on to me, justifying any sympathy I may have had for the real-life version of my eye-patch wearing, parrot-toting fantasy.  Pirates 1, Italian mafia 0.  And as always, Africa gets the shit end of the rest of the world's stick.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

CDF in the news

I don’t work on this project, but 10 points if this article helps you understand the term “economic governance.” If you weren’t confused about what my organization does before, you probably are now.

Speaking of governance, I’m pretty excited to have ordered a copy of It's Our Turn to Eat, which is only available in the UK and apparently is too hot for Kenya. I wonder if it’ll make it through Indian postal screening, because you know, Kenya is the only country with a corruption problem.

Monday, March 9, 2009

An apple a day…

I just had my first experience with the Indian healthcare system. It should be a credit to India that I’ve been here 8 months and this is the first time I’ve had to see a doctor. That or to Kenya, for immunizing me against every tropical disease imaginable.

India is acclaimed for the high quality and, more importantly, dirt-cheap nature of its healthcare services. It is so dirt-cheap, in fact, that health insurance covers hospitalization only, no basic services – which seems fair, since the typical price for a doctor’s consultation is around $10 (half that of just the co-pay in the US!). In Chennai, if you are a foreigner, no one will recommend to you any institution other than Apollo Medical Center, the world-renowned ultra-modern private hospital. There were rumors that Apollo was a little pricier than the typical clinic, but hey, this is “high quality and dirt-cheap healthcare” India. So when I developed a mild but stubborn skin rash from SE Asia, I decided to go check it out.

The dermatologist was friendly and professional, and shrugged off my concern about the price of tests with a “don’t worry, nothing is expensive in India.” Then came his recommended course of action for my rash:

3 blood tests
2 inflammation-reducing creams
Avoid groundnuts
Avoid bottled beverages
Avoid cheese
Avoid processed foods
Avoid strawberries and strawberry products
Avoid beer
1 anti-allergy tablet
1 prescription soap to use in the shower
…and a partridge in a pear tree.

I guess I don’t have to worry about underdiagnosis.

The bill for all of this hoopla came to about $60 – nothing outrageous, but at the end of the day it was 3x what it would have been if I was working in the US. It does not make me excited about the prospect of seeing a doctor for an *actual* medical condition.

And for the record, I bought one of the creams and the soap, ignored the rest of the diagnosis, and the skin rash was gone in 4 days.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dartmouth’s new prez

Dartmouth just announced its new president, set to take over for good old Jimmy Wright on July 1. He’s like, way young (49), way accomplished (MacArthur Genius Grant) and way global-poverty-focused (Partners in Health co-founder, WHO HIV/AIDS Dept director). Woot.

Of course there is no transparency on who the other nominees were, so I have no idea if this was the best choice. But in absolute terms, a young-minority-notentirelyacademic-globallyconscious choice for a traditionallyrunbyoldwhiteguys-antichange-indangerofinfluencebyneoconservativealums school sounds pretty good to me.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

When the law and order guys disrupt law and order

This week when I picked up the newspaper each morning, I have to admit that it was all I could do to keep from laughing at the tragic headlines. “Lawyers, police clash at Madras High Court.” “150 lawyers protest Madras High Court violence, arrested.” Lawyers and police are taking turns smashing cars, setting buildings on fire, and throwing stones at each other. Am I the only one who finds this ironic? The two groups of people we rely on to maintain law and order in society, the two that are supposed to maintain checks and balances and ensure peace is kept and justice is served, have resorted to skirmishing like drug-addicted youth gangs. These are the guys who have to deal with violent members of society every day and clean up the messes they make, one group stopping people from rioting and throwing stones and setting buildings on fire, the other prosecuting or defending those who commit such raucous acts. And here they are doing it themselves, as their chosen method of protest? Seriously?

On top of it all, the whole reason for this clash in the first place, raising the awareness of which which could be the only possible explanation for such childish misbehavior, has been completely diluted in this mess. If you’re lucky you might get a tiny tagline at the bottom of an article about burning effigies and flooded hospitals that provides a half-hearted explanation of “where it all started” – something about a lawyer or two unfairly arrested, a politician failing to support the Sri Lankan Tamils, or some caste discrimination issue at the root of the conflict. These might be worthy causes to support and publicize. But by 50 lawyers standing around, courtroom suits and all, hurling stones and burning police stations? By cops and police administrators bashing windshields of private vehicles? Really, people.

More coverage of the tomfoolery available here.