The literature review beast got killed today

Today the Washingtonians were excited about the sun that rose and set perpendicularly to the grid of streets of Washington, but I completely forgot to admire the sun when I left the office for a class of ballet (for the first time in about 15 years!) because I was so excited to have put together the first commentable draft of my thesis.

I’ve now written content worth of 24 pages, which corresponds basically to the theoretical background / literature review of my work. It’s was a great journey from development sector’s discourse on the fundamental principles of development assistance to refreshing my memory about knowledge management theories and finally to intensive studying of systems thinking in the wonderful library of George Washington University and applying that into the development world.

I’m a bit nervous to give out this my baby work of 3,5 weeks to my advisers and professor. The approach I’m applying and the point of view that I’m proposing seem to be very alien to the development assistance world. Sometimes my mind fills with hesitation and I start thinking that maybe the approach won’t make sense to anyone else…

Anyway.. here’s the current draft of the contents of my work!

      • Origins of development assistance
      • Trends in development assistance: proliferation, fragmentation and global endeavor for efficiency
      • Increasing efficiency through coordination
      • The role of private development assistance
      • Knowledge management and knowledge management systems
      • Overview of knowledge management in development co-operation
      • Inter-organizational knowledge management
      • Knowledge sharing
      • IT-supported knowledge management
      • Systems thinking and social systems
      • Private development assistance as a social system
      • Systems approach to knowledge management and private development assistance

H street identity

My new home is a row house in northeast Washington.

home street

The house is a few steps down from H street, one of the nightlife hotspots of Washington. H street is dotted with bars, restaurants and businesses, and during my first three first weeks I’ve grown to like it lots. Despite the area quickly becoming trendier, it has retained its strong character, and there are still dollar stores and credit union shops between the more fashionable places. My neighborhood more diverse than the fancy office area where I work with the tens of thousands other white business people, and it’s more cozy and somehow genuine than U street and 18th in northwest Washington, “where everyone goes”.

Neighborhood identity is a big thing in here. There’s at least two very comprehensive blogs about my area, featuring everything from the schedule of the street construction to bar reviews. Today the whole neighborhood gathered for an annual street festival. The children’s fashion show took place next door to the boxing show; there were small booths selling foods from different parts of the world, a tattoo competition, music in two stages, beer terraces, art, and an air guitar show competition.

Fashion show

Air guitar competition

This is made by a guy who was a scientist for 20 years, and was 'reborn' as an artist

help someone now

DC tattoo was my favorite

h street sunset

In the world of development

The modern development assistance has its roots in 1948, when U.S. assisted Europe and Japan to rebuild after the Second World War. Since then the official development assistance has come a long way, from the focus in market based mechanisms in the 80s, funding challenges in the 90s, and the all-embracing Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

Development assistance is about big money. The Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances 2010 estimates that private philanthropy in the U.S. reached over $37 billion dollars, over $10 billion more than the U.S. official development assistance, in 2008. No one really knows the global private flows, but the estimates range from 15-20% to 35% of the total aid.

During the decades of aid, the ecosystem of development actors has diversified from the fairly straightforward model of money flowing directly from rich governments to poor governments, and indirectly through multilateral institutions acting as middlemen, to complicated system with a myriad of heterogeneous actors. Over the last two decades, the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has mushroomed: in 2004 it was estimated that there were over 45,000 NGOs in Africa, with the global number totaling over 320,000. Not only has the number of actors risen, but they are also increasingly fragmented; the same time when the number of aid projects has increased, the average project size has shrunk.

Private actors in development assistance are diverse. They range from informal initiatives, such as the 29-years old Canadian traveling in Bangladesh and raising money through video blogging to foundations set by multimillionaire philanthropists, and projects run by university groups, religious entities and non-governmental organizations. Since mid-1980s, especially the role of NGOs has become increasingly prominent. The skepticism towards governance in developing countries and aspirations to strengthen civil society have made channeling official development funding through NGOs an attractive option. About 13% of the official Finnish development assistance is given through NGOs.

Despite the huge increase in projects and actors, there’s a heavy debate going on whether the aid actually is making any difference. Even the engineering students might have heard of probably the most famous address in the discussion, the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa (A really good book! I recommend!). The official donors have responded to the critique with series of high caliber meetings on the efficiency of the development assistance, in Rome 2003, Paris 2005 and Accra in 2008, and initiated global mechanisms to increase the efficiency.

The problems arousing from the upswing of actors and fragmentation are increasingly associated with a greater need for coordination. While official donors are increasingly taking actions to coordinate their efforts, private actors are still often absent from these attempts. In the meantime, without proper coordination, certain causes or countries receive massive efforts, while others are excluded. The consequences are duplication, overlap and waste of limited resources.

I am especially interested in the private aid, since that’s the “wild west”. The people-to-people nature of private development assistance, and its richness in innovation, diversity and agility challenge the practices from the traditional development donors. However, the new variety among the actors, differences in their structures, internal processes, objectives and forms of legitimacy, is inundating the aid field with a challenge of managing this anarchy.

Would there be anything in the world of knowledge management worth applying to this chaos?

Thesis page count: 7!

I don’t quite get it…

A good Canadian friend of mine, Colum, told me how he would always get the “that’s not typical at all”-reply when wondering about things that had been happening to him in Finland. I’ve learned that it’s actually a global phenomenon. When telling my US friend about the African American lady, who a week ago called me “Hi sweetheart, you look gorgeous today!” when I passed by her bus stop, he told me, “really, that’s not common at all!” And when I admired the American concept of hospitality, as a professor from a collaborating university had invited his kids and a neighbor to have dinner with us, and even offered us to stay at his home if we didn’t want to return to DC for the night, no, that never really happens around here!

Also, there’s a few more other things I’ve been wondering about, but haven’t yet sought for the views of the natives:

I walk past the White House to and from work, and there’s often a police car parked nearby. “Police” it says in huge letters, and in a bit smaller below “Secret Police”. Very secret!

Basically every time I’ve been out, I’ve been asked to show my ID. The drinking age is 21, and after a while I started wondering if I really look so young to the US people. “No”, the bartender told me, “we have to ask ID for everyone who looks under 40”!

In the ladies’ room of my stunning work building, someone has attached ugly signs above each toilet: “Be considerate and remember to flush the toilet”. And this is a toilet where the toilet flushes itself automatically!

Global experiment

I lived the spring in Nigeria, interning with an Embassy and the UN. Back then I planned to start my thesis part-time, but the long idle evenings were too attractive, and I ended up just doing three interviews with people working in the grassroots level in Nigeria.

As I didn’t want to take notes but focus my full attention to the interview, I ended up with English audio material of almost three hours. I kept postponing the tedious job of transcribing the interviews week by week, until I figured out that in this world of a global marketplace there must be another way than me spending hours and hours typing the interviews.

After few minutes of googling I found, self-appointed world’s largest online marketplace for freelancers.

My posting received 36 bids from both Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. The quotes varied from the Kenyan 200$ to 50$ in U.S. and 6$ in the Philippines. With the minimum payment in 25$, I felt the 6$ was just too little, and ended up choosing Isabel from the Philippines for 16$ for the transcription and proof-reading. For this work of 3-5 hours, I felt it was a bit more fair. has a built-in system to deposit funds before the work starts, but Isabel was so trustworthy that she just sent me the work she had done by email. The transcription was of a much better quality than those that I had been doing myself, and I ended up giving her the rest of my interviews for a total of 42$.

In Philippines almost half of the population lives on a less than two dollars a day, so I guess my forty dollars were a reasonable contribution to her budget.

zombie at work

My eyes are hurting and I feel exhausted. It’s my second day to work and the first one full-time dedicated to my thesis. I’ve read a book about qualitative research, attended a meeting with participants from Nairobi & Dakar, and sketched a work plan for the coming weeks. I came to work 8.30am, it’s 5pm, and the day just completely sneaked past me.

Yesterday I had studied the rider tool of the Washington transit authority, changed buses beside an impressive Chinatown gate, and walked around 15 minutes after I realized my workplace was located just opposite the bus stop in the Organization of American States building. First time I passed the building ignorantly wondering for what the US states need such a major organization housed in such a large building. Apparently they don’t, as concluding from the flags on top of the entrance, states actually refers to countries.

After the mandatory practical arrangements and introductions to everyone in the office my new colleagues took me to lunch to the World Bank building just next door. Development Gateway was an initiative by World Bank, and so we are granted with an access to their food court. Some people consider the lunch of about 4,5 euros too expensive and enjoy their microwave/home cooked meals in the office kitchen instead. I have a strong feeling that I won’t be among them.

After lunch we got some proper espresso for my two Italian colleagues and they showed me the neighborhood. “Bruce Willis is filming his new movie, so you have to go around for White House”, told the guard at the nearest entrance. So we went around and I was a bit disappointed. In real life the White House is actually quite small. I had imagined something like the Helsinki Cathedral, and it’s more like.. well, just a white house in the middle of a park.

Ready to go

About a year ago I went through an internal debate: should I follow the easy and common path laid ahead of me and do my master’s thesis with a Finnish company, or should I instead spend the half a year free from company interests, working on a topic that I would be truly passionate about?

The first option was offered to me on a tray. Good pay and an interesting topic in an appealing Finnish IT company. But it was too easy, and I don’t like options that seem too easy. They can blur one’s mind and lead to choosing something just because it’s easy, not because it would be right. And the more I thought about it, I realized I needed to set my own objectives, methods, and boundaries, I needed to spend the last half a year of my studies doing something of my own.

And after digesting my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa for a few months, I suddently realized that I had a contemporary, suprising and unique topic in which I could submerge easily for six months. The about page tells more about my topic.

Combining development co-operation and information technology is an up-and-coming area, but I struggled to find anything on my research focus, which is more on the meta level of development co-operation. Although a bit discouraged, I was determined that I had a good idea, and so I put it on a paper, and started spamming the diverse reseach groups, NGOs, government agencies and companies that I thought would have a stake in the matter. The first three months went past with thin results, and it was just after I was frustrated enough to extend my search beyond our small country’s borders that I found like-minded thinking.

Development Gateway is a US-based foundation initiated by the World Bank. They provide Web-based platforms to make aid and development efforts more effective. After sending my thesis proposal to them, I was suprised with a phone call from Washington D.C. and with an offer to do my thesis in collaboration with them. The initial schedule to start my thesis full-time in January 2010 had to be postponed due to an intriguing job opportunity at a Finnish Embassy in Nigeria, and so we agreed on fall 2010 for me to intern and do my thesis at DG.

Finally, a year after formulating my thesis topic, everything is set. I flew in this gorgeous and impressive capital 24 hours ago, and I’m a night away from the first day at the new job. Thanks for joining in this journey with me!

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