Monday, October 17, 2011

E. O. Wilson and the "eusocial" gene

Here is an interesting article about E.O. Wilson, the renowned ant biologist who, among many other projects, started the field of sociobiology. He is helping out a billionaire who is trying to rehabilitate Gorongosa National Park in nearby Mozambique. I hope it doesn't turn into another case of too much (foreign) money and to little (local) sense.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


So the head of Dfid, Andrew Mitchell has just said that countries who receive UK aid may face "fines" if they continue to discriminate against gays. This has not gone down well in Malawi. Check out the comments below the linked-to article. Relations between the UK and Malawi have been strained for awhile now over a number of issues, in particular over the recent departure of the High Commissioner .

I'm torn on this issue. On the one hand I completely agree that gays should not be discriminated against by any government. On the other hand as a foreigner in Malawi I am very pessimistic about my chances to, or even my right to, engage with Malawians on this issue in a constructive manner. The UK's choice to single out this issue does not seem politically or culturally smart to me if their end goal is really to change the attitudes and laws of Africans and their governments. You can't "fine" a people, particularly a people with a history of colonial oppression, into adopting the values of their former oppressors.

And yet I too hold those values and so wish there were a way to engage in a constructive and respectful dialogue with Malawians about homosexuality.
There is always an unresolvable tension between a need to respect diversity and a need to protect the vulnerable.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Give me some data!

Although I know very little about economics and economists, I love following their debates. Tyler Cowen, Russ Roberts, Karl Smith, Paul Krugman, et. al engage in, lively, serious, and data-informed conversations that, with a little struggling, even most laymen (i.e. me) can follow. Take a look at my blogroll for some good sites where these debates are happening.
Its a shame that we don't, and can't, have similar conversations in the realm of environmental management particularly in the developing world. Certainly there have been, and continue to be, lively debates about the efficacy of Aid and its effects on the developing world but much of it is nakedly ideological rather than data-driven, whatever side of the debate you happen to be on. Some have called for more randomized trials of development projects and I think such tests are probably a good idea though implementation, as always, will be difficult.
However in the little world of environmental management, and in the even smaller world of coastal and oceans management, it should be possible to collect comparable data from various management schemes in order to starting making some statements about their efficacy that are more than just anecdotal and ideological. Of course there will be arguments over the data and about what data should be collected, how, by who, etc, but that is precisely the point. Just as in economics, a field in which huge amounts of datum are collected, such data becomes the fodder for rich and useful discussion. Without it, productive conversations are difficult and ideological punch-ups, very easy. Unfortunately in environmental management in the developing world all we get are individual project reports that don't reference concrete but general data indicators that would make cross-project comparisons possible. The expected audience for such reports are usually government officials, potential donors, and other Aid or conservation organizations, not policy analysts.
I'm not sure how such data collection could be orchestrated. The nice thing about economic data collecting is, to a degree, that everyone in our increasingly globalized world operates according to the same economic rules and measures themselves, whether in China, Sudan, or the U.S. against the same indicators, GDP, inflation, equity, debt, etc. However in environmental management we haven't even gotten that far except in very abstract terms, i.e. biodiversity, conversation, "clean" water, endangered species (although that one is getting closer to what we need), etc. International management and data collecting training organizations like ReefCheck and the GCRMN (Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network) have made some efforts to standardize data collection methodologies but, at least I haven't seen, larger attempts to use the data collected from these methodologies on a global scale as the basis for discussions on how we can best manage coastal and ocean environments in any real rigorous fashion. Either the data just isn't there or we haven't analysed it enough to start having debates about what management schemes, or perhaps other factors, have led to "good" outcomes.

Any ideas out there?


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Masks in Malawi

Africa Past and Present has a new podcast on the role masks and dancing in Malawi, check it out.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve

So we had our first mini-vacation this past weekend since arriving here in Malawi. We went camping up at Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve with a couple friends and saw these,

And a bunch of these,
and a lot of other nice critters. I also read most of William Dalrymple's "City of Djinns" which he wrote while living for a year in New Dehli. Part travelogue, part history of colonial New Dehli, its entertaining and mildly scholarly. I think it would be cool if someone would write a similar book about Blantyre or even Nkhata Bay.