please, criticize me! (why anticorruption practitioners should scrutinize and challenge research methodology)

Although this guest post for the Global Anticorruption Blog is not formally part 4 in a series on Corruption among development NGOs, conceptually it certainly is part of it. For the background of this series, see part 1. The original of this post can be found here (the below is a slightly edited version). The full reports underlying the series can be accessed on my publications page. Parts two and three of the series can be accessed here and here .

Why anticorruption practitioners should scrutinize and challenge research methodology

In a previous post, I described a survey used to estimate the incidence of fraud and associated problems within the Cambodian NGO sector. The response to the results of that survey have so far been somewhat disheartening—not so much because the research has had little influence on action (the fate of most such research), but rather because those who have been told about the study’s results have all taken the results for granted, questioning neither their meaningfulness nor how they were generated. Such at-face-value uptake is, paradoxically, a huge risk to the longer-term public acceptance of the evidence produced by social science research.  I am relieved that methodological considerations (issues of publication bias, replicability, p-hacking, and others) are finally getting some traction within the social science community, but it is evident that the decades-long neglect of these problems dovetails with a public opinion climate that doubts and disparages social science expertise. Continue reading

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nepalese eye candy

I’m no mountainbiker, and generally not a fan of the dicovery/nat geo kinda visuals, let alone when accompanied by the spin-doctoring text and sound that characterizes that genre. But taste doesn’t rob me of the ability to appreciate craftsmanship. And this short PR piece is certainly well made. What pushed me to post it, is that its choice of terrain for selling Nepal to mountainbikers, and it could as well have been made for trailrunners, includes the Terai and Kathmandu valley.  The Terai gets zero trailrunning visitors, but it is absolutely lovely, and the footage of the valley includes one of my favorite valley rim spurs (from Kopan to close to Nage Gomba). With a scrapbook of Mustang posts I do not need to add anything about that part of the country. So this is not Nepal, but it is definitely why you should visit:

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corruption among development NGOs, part 3 – the need for collective action by funding agencies

For the background of this series, see part 1. The original of this post can be found here. The full reports can be accessed on my publications page. The previous post of the series can be accessed here.

the need for collective action by funding agencies

Previous posts on development NGO corruption (here and here) described a survey tool and its results in Cambodia and the conundrum of using the upward accountability relationship between local NGOs (LNGOs) and the grantmakers funding them for remedial action. The analysis of the report which underlies much of those contributions includes another foundational premise: Given the systemic functioning of Cambodia’s (and other countries’) LNGO sectors, anticorruption action to hold these LNGOs to account needs to be collective in order to be effective. Continue reading

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corruption among development NGOs, Part 2–the hot potato of upward accountability

For the background of this series, see part 1. The original of this post can be found here. The full reports can be accessed on my publications page. The third of the series can be accessed here.

the hot potato of upward accountability

My previous post in this series described the results of a survey that estimated the incidence of fraud and associated problems within the Cambodian NGO sector. The survey utilized a relatively independent source, the grantmakers that fund local NGOs (LNGOs), and triangulated the results with information supplied by the firms that perform external audits for LNGOs. The basic idea was that grantmakers are likely to have an evidence-based opinion of the quality of their LNGO partners’ financial management, governance, and fraud risk (and fraud incidence). After all, grantmakers assess organizational soundness before awarding a first grant to a potential partner LNGO, periodically monitor the work being funded by that grant, and require extensive, often cumbersomely regular, results and financial reporting, as well as yearly or project-based external audits. To put it simply: Grantmakers conduct regular due diligence (in the broad sense of the term) on LNGOs. Continue reading

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corruption among development NGOs, Part 1–Getting the Facts

I have been conducting  policy research on NGO governance and problematic financial management in the Cambodian NGO sector since late 2014. It’s an ongoing involvement. The material costs have been covered by the grantmaker that commissioned it, but given my board membership of this grantmaker, the actual work has been pro bono. Work on serious organizational weaknesses and fraud by definition needs explicit attention to unintended harm it may cause. Cambodia’s politico-economic elite (read the global witness reports on the entanglement of political and economic power) quite openly targets any NGO activity that it perceives as a political challenge. Any ‘negative’ information about the NGO sector, however true, is potential fodder for government misuse. Reporting on this work doesn’t seek venues for public debate. Sharing is limited to directly involved stakeholders and the objective is to support them in dealing with the issues with as little risk of blowback as possible.

Nevertheless,  research really really needs feedback on its conceptual framework, methodological assumptions, validity of its conclusions, and best next steps. Apart from conversations with stakeholders in Cambodia, I try to seek input from those more broadly interested in aid, financial management and accountability. Matthew Stephenson, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and Editor in Chief of the Global Anticorruption Blog, has not only been kind enough to allow me some guest posts on his anticorruption hub, but also incredibly generous with his editing time. What you read below is not my original submission but something much more readable, concise and to the point. I really don’t know how he does it, sleep can’t be part of his agenda. But I’m very grateful. Continue reading

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riverfronts, the good, the bad and the ugly

Rivers are redeeming features for any city. I’ve lived in quite a few that are mostly or partly defined by their rivers and haven’t come across any for which their riverfront was a total negative. However, what cities do with and to the rivers can  enhance but also obliterate most of their positive potential. Shanghai is working hard to make the most of it.

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trekking in Tibetan Sichuan

One of the things we did this summer was join our friends Connie, Ignas and their daughter Josien, whom we know from our shared days in Cambodia, on guided treks around mount Zhakra and across the Laghang grasslands. Our base was the still unfinished ecolodge  of Angela and her husband Djarga (near Tagong). They organized the treks for us and made us part of their household for the days we spent with them. Josien’s very distinctive visual perspective on this utterly fascinating region is worth sharing.

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some pedestrian thoughts instead of a 2015 trail running review

For two years in a row I reviewed my armchair trail running impressions (see here and here). Haven’t got much to add. Most trends have deepened (more business, more attention to FKTs and its variations, more extreme events, many more races) rather than much new emerging. So I didn’t bother for 2015.

Also the visuals are also mostly more of the same, so let’s go with this German band the name of which celebrates the subject of one of the trends that haven’t caught on, maybe never were, who is to say, all this trend watching business is as much goat entrails/rorschach blots/coffee grounds/man-in-the-moon illusion as anything else, anyways (if you can find three examples of something you can call it a trend– quote about journalists from a stand-up comedian I really like, Steward Lee).

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booming Shanghai

The China blog of the Asia Society just published a piece on the Dramatic Urbanization in China Over Decades. This is a partial reblog.

Twenty-six years ago, only 26 percent of the Chinese population lived in urban areas. Since then, China’s urbanization rate has risen to almost 56 percent, meaning hundreds of millions of people have packed themselves into the country’s 662 cities. As Jamil Anderlini at the Financial Times notes, this is actually thelargest migration of any kind of mammal in history. While these huge numbers convey the scope of China’s transformation, it’s hard to actually imagine what the movement of millions of people looks like. Struck by this idea, Dheera Venkatraman recently traveled across China, putting together a photo series called “Time Traveling in China.”

Most will have seen pictures showing the changing skyline of Pudong:


Pudong, Shanghai, approximately 1920 source:

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the best democracy money can buy

a disturbing (but strangely niche) read for anyone interested in what we settle for when accepting that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Haven’t come across much that added anything to this eye-opener that entered my smorgasboard of influences maybe a decade ago. This documentary does.

Its Stanford prison experiment feel makes it painful to watch. What it tells you about democracy even more so. Haven’t seen many stories with so many layers of meaning.

By way of introduction it deserves either a long and thorough analytic expose or silence. Silence seems better, because something visual that leaves me so  speechless can not be embellished by, should not be tarnished with, whatever my petty mind may come up with if I would make the effort.

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visualizing inequality

One of my resources to keep in touch with development debates is Oxfam GB Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power blog. Apart from his own interesting posts and guest contributions he regularly publishes a Links I Liked post that always contains click-worthy stuff. His latest contained three visualizations that  really did it for me, but at the same time brought a discussion about Wild Ass Guesses (“unreliable guesstimates  and made-up statistics in the public debates on corruption”) on the Global Anticorruption Blog to mind. Visualization is certainly a fancy of mine so here we go.

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street art with a great story

As long back as I can remember, reading about art has been a slightly upsetting experience, one that I therefore not seek out much. Especially explanations of visual art. Their usually arcane character leave me with a sense of inadequacy and stupidity. I’m sure education would help overcome some of this but why bother? It doesn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying art. I love to wander through museums and galleries and let the work do the talking. Sometimes all is quiet, sometimes one or more pieces totally engross me.

Occasionally I come across an explanation that captures my mind. An explanation that makes me look at its subject with close attention. Even if the work itself doesn’t do it for me, I can still appreciate what the artist or the curator, whoever formulated the blurb, intends to share.

Only very occasionally text and visual are so enmeshed that they enhance each other.

I quote the website of the (street) artist, French-Tunisian eL Seed, on this project:

In my new project ‘Perception’ I am questioning the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences.

In the neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr in Cairo, the Coptic community of Zaraeeb collects the trash of the city for decades and developed the most efficient and highly profitable recycling system on a global level. Still, the place is perceived as dirty, marginalized and segregated.

To bring light on this community, with my team and the help of the local community, I created an anamorphic piece that covers almost 50 buildings only visible from a certain point of the Moqattam Mountain.

The piece of art uses the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic Bishop from the 3rd century, that said: ‘Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.’

The utterly simple and adequate explanation from Anne Quito’s article on Quartz about this incredible 50-building-wide street art honors Cairo’s trash pickers, really hit home and enhanced my appreciation of the art: The design illustrates the project’s message about shifting points of view.

For more of this guy, visit his website, go to this older piece by Anne Quito, or check out youtube, quite some short videos about him and his projects. Click! It is really worth it!


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everest and ego

Nepal 1978, was my first ever time in real mountainscape, other then crossing an occasional pass in the Alps with my parents on our yearly summer pilgrimage to Italian beaches. Saw Everest from Gokyo peak, and very nearly got myself disappeared when crossing the Cho La.  No experience, no gear, no clue. Humbled and deeply affected, returning to Namche, I passed Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler,  sunburned and blistered, descending from their historic first Everest-without-oxygen. I don’t remember how I knew it was them, or how I knew about their climb. But the celebrity-effect of that encounter has been undeniable, ever since. Mention Everest and this absurd sense of entitlement pops up. Entitlement to what is very unclear. Entitlement to it being part of my personal narrative? My previous post was about similar tendencies to claim credit for what is not yours. We’re all posers, imposters, and fabulists.

This film was shot by Leo Dickinson and only very recently uploaded to youtube. It’s the traditional heroic tale of those out to conquer. But for anyone following Himalayan climbing, and especially the Everest dramas, it is instructive to see how very different the scene was three decades ago.

I mention Dickinson because he is another strand in my vacuous claim to this mountain. In 1991, during my stint as trekking agency manager, my company did the logistics for Leo’s second attempt to balloon over Everest. That movie also made it to youtube recently and for me is an icon of another era of heroic adventure. 1978 was a final chapter of more traditional mountaineering, the ballooning was part of a scene of sponsored adventures to be the first to do whatever wild undertaking (the current mainstream is commercial expeditions guiding paying clients up summits – but that may already be morphing into some new form, I’m out of touch).

Obviously the mainstream is not all, and plenty of very different exploits are happening. My intention is not to  armchair criticize mountain tourism. It is to share my embarrassment at these silly attachments, an embarrassment which in itself is silly, because the ego at the centre of it all cannot help it. The attachment needs indeed to be seen for what it is. And not legitimate any foolish behaviour out there. But embarassment about it changes nothing. It just blocks enjoyment of the show. And the show is all there is, however fictious it may be.

I left Nepal with the feeling that these heroic tales were only very partial stories of what was actually going on. My previous post tells you a bit about that. But that doesn’t preclude in any way a sense of entitlement to both of these archetypical tellings, the mountain at their centre, and anything else in there that my mind-body remembers. The popular uprising in 1990 toppling autocratic Nepalese monarchy? Yes, mine.

Which brings me to a contemporaneous example: Lloyd Belcher‘s documentary about Mira Rai has just been released. Check it out!

To wipe away the embarrassment, I have to close with something that I really have no claim to at all, may you enjoy it too:


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memes or bodies?

Some will not even get to this first sentence because they think memes are a crock of shit.  I disagree but would argue that one needs both to make something happen. An either or question is the wrong perspective. But that doesn’t imply lack of preference, such indeed is the cognitive make-up of us all, other than the Phineas Gage‘s and Ramana Maharshi‘s. And memes hold most of the floor space in my room of understanding. We individual specimens of the wise species are but conduits for the vast majority of what clouds our consciousness. Active ones, certainly, playing with the marbles, we make plenty connections, mostly silly,  sometimes amazing, some tinkering here,  some bricolage there, an endless chatterbox of horror, discovery, fun, and nonsense. But foremost conduits, not wells of creation. Given that predilection, our need for personal attribution is weird. That’s the portent of the title. I am the first to admit that seeing bodies feels much better than seeing memes. But truth is much more at the memes side. Sure, you still don’t know what I’m talking about, now how’s that for ignoring any writing advice ever given? But you made it this far, so have probably nothing better to do.

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reblogging kinky coffee

Renato Bialetti, the Italian businessman who turned an aluminum coffee pot into a classic global design, died last week at the age of 93. In accordance with his and his family’s wishes, his ashes were interred in an urn shaped like a large version of a Moka pot, the stovetop coffee maker he introduced to the world…

Bialetti didn’t invent the Moka. He just made it famous. A man namedLuigi di Ponti designed the appliance in 1933 and sold the patent to Renato’s father Alfonso Bialetti, an aluminum vendor. It works like this (via Alborzagros):


Sales lagged under the elder Bialetti, but Renato had bigger, coffee-scented dreams when he took over the business in the 1940s. He spearheaded a massive marketing campaign across Italy for the pots, which were branded with a charmingly mustachioed caricature—based either on himself or his father, depending on the legend you read.L’omino con i baffi, the little man with a mustache, remains a widely-recognized symbol in Italy today.

An estimated 330 million Moka pots have since been sold around the world. Bialetti’s Moka-shaped urn now lies in the family plot in Omegna, Italy.

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tourism as an indicator of tragedy

The Kathmandu post recently published a short article on the dramatic downfall of tourism arrivals in Nepal.

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the science business

It may very well be confirmation bias, which would be telling, a strange loop or bootstrapping kinda phenomenon rather than some real change out there, but the science business hanky panky finally seems to be getting more attention in mainstream media. It’s been a fancy of mine for quite a while. Until recently my impression was that this particular example of my general meta-obsession was largely ignored by science popularizers and journalists. But retractions, replicability, p-hacking, open data and other, what always felt like arcane, subjects, make it into the broader public domain.  Until recently I used to file it all under publication bias, but that is a synecdochic label. The trouble is widespread, way beyond publication bias.

This post serves to document my intention to spend some more time on this fancy and try to bring its various strands together into one picture.

By way of intro, I share a short video with one of the researchers who managed to get broad coverage for her particular strand:

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running movies

One of the trends in the trailrunning scene (to keep up a tradition I should do a 2015 piece but have too much on my plate at the moment) is the abundance of (short) videos being released. Even just a couple of years ago, it wasn’t difficult to keep track of what became available, but that has dramatically changed.

As with much in life, quantity comes with repetition of a couple of standard formats. But even an aficionado like myself can only stomach so many beautiful landscapes, listen to so many similar narratives, and the tendency to watch declines rapidly.

So let me share a couple that did get to me. You may notice that many would not label them ‘running movies’ but for me they are. Very much so. Enjoy.

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razor sharp

The day he turns 87 is as good as any other to share some recent words of a sharp mind. I think his views are sometimes too certain about shit being intentional  and planned, or at least predictable. The world’s too messy, too big, too intricate an orchestra for any planner, be it crook or saint, to conduct. Because we all tend toward conspiracy thinking, our mental machinery is hardwired to do so,  those of us, like him, who actively investigate the dark sides of power, cannot but go overboard sometimes. So I don’t blame him. And that tendency to grant power too much, well, power, doesn’t diminish the awe I feel when listening to this granddaddy of the critical intellectual class.

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running the blocks of my neighborhood

The scale of Shanghai is both immense and very manageable. It is very hip to these days to explore one’s immediate neighborhood, walking the block, as Alexandra Horowitz does so eloquently in On Looking.

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biggest Shanghai redevelopment zone I’ve come across so far

When I went out yesterday for an exploratory walk (air quality to bad for a long run) I had expected the last bit of it, on the Pudong side, to be the most boring. I was curious about the ferry – as crossing the Huangpu, wherever one does it , makes for an interesting experience, so that was the reason to cross, but from there…

click on image to go to everytrail where you can zoom in/ot. Make sure to use satellite view without labels for the correct placement of the track on the imagery. Chinese government censorship ensures tracks are approx 250 meters off-mark when using google maps

click on image to go to everytrail where you can zoom in/ot. Make sure to use satellite view without labels for the correct placement of the track on the imagery. Chinese government censorship ensures tracks are approx 250 meters off-mark when using google maps

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cityscape esthetics

I’ve rambled quite a lot about urban environments as natural habitats, ecosystems, cityscapes, and on it goes, but high-fly verbiage is a poor tool for helping anyone see. Australian photographer Ben Thomas, of Tiny Tokyo fame, has much better tools:

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city of art

Looking for a destination for my recovery run on the only day this week that is predicted to be dry I decided upon the Power Station of Art. Had seen the building several times already and ran past it during last Sunday’s marathon, but never entered.

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coloured cities, city colours, and the wonders of rain

One of the biggest joys of having time on my hand is the opportunity to wander through cyberspace as if it were a book store or a library, on the look out for finds. When work is calling I (have to) downsize time spend on this, but so far, the way I have organized access to the cyberspace seems to work for me.  Time: I scan all, no time, I have no trouble picking out the essentials. Here I want to share some art finds,  all about colour, as different as they come, and still to me intimately connected through their cityscape focus.

The first shows what a bit a colour can do to a Mexican slum:

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the rock star of data nerds

Didn’t know Hans Rosling, whom I greatly admire, had acquired rock star status but according to the data nerds organizing this ODI event he has. Although I do not share all of his opinions, I find it very difficult to watch his performances critically, they’re just such shows of wit, unexpected but very down-to-earth perspectives, and persuasive skill.

No one but a Rosling fan, or a too-much-time-to-kill loafer like me would ever watch a 1.5 hour lecture video, so I know it’s ridiculous to post it, but just in case anyone out there is silly enough, that alone will make it worthwhile. Don’t skip the introduction because the ODI staff remarks about data quality are important, crucially important, to imbibe. And if you’re at it anyway, follow it up with the Q&A follow up to the lecture, which has interesting views on the aging of world population and on inequality.

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