21 October 2016

How to Message a person on Fetlife

Original at https://fetlife.com/users/789912/posts/2674835

This item originally written for the kinkster community is actually good advise for online dating PERIOD. Thanks to https://fetlife.com/users/789912 for writing this, oh and for his service in the Armed Forces.


How to Message a person on Fetlife

A Suggestion

Wow, you have found this place called fetlife… and this thing called kink/bdsm. How fucking cool is that. Here are women, real women who post pics of themselves, some are naked, some are having sex and some are tied up or being beaten. The have fetish list a mile long that list things like anal/deep throat/submission, they talk about doing those things you’ve read about in penthouse letters your whole life but have never actually met a real live breathing woman who would do them.

Okay, now roll your tongue back up, close your mouth and wipe the drool off of your face. Think you are ready to actually meet one of the lovely ladies? Sure you are you stud, you are the Domliest of all Doms but guess what…. They don’t know that.

Ways to meet those on fetlife

100% preferred method. Go to a munch, go to a bdsm club. If you are newbie or inexperienced that is okay, don’t pretend to be something you are not. Talk to people, be respectful, be nice, be sincere. But since this is meant for those that send email if you are not going to a munch read on my friend, read on.

Much less preferred method Send a message (but wait, read the rest first) So after a week or three you’ve sent messages to 30, 40 or maybe 100 women and have gotten zero responses, or at least zero positive responses. So what to do?

First and foremost in any human sexual situation involving a man and a woman (and even more so involving a man and more than one woman) that is not rape or coercion the female gets to decide. You might think she is the most unattractive person that has ever lived but guess what, she gets to decide. To be crude but to put it in terms you can understand let’s just call it the power of the pussy… it gets to decide who, when and where. She has the pussy and you don’t, deal with it.

Did you watch finding Nemo? If not rent it, and fast forward to the scene where there are about 300 seagulls and they all see one tiny little fish. All you hear is a chorus of Mine, Mine, Mine, Mine coming from all 300 birds. Guess what, you, yes you, the master of all around him is just one of those 300 sea gulls saying mine, mine, mine. And when you send that email telling a woman that you are the God of Doms and that she does not know submission until she knows you. She quickly sees you are one of the 300 other dudebros saying that today and goes back under water.

So here is what women on fetlife, bdsm sites and just dating sites in general deal with. They get a shit load of messages. Imagine enough junk mail in your mail box that you need a wheel barrel to carry it every day. Mail that you did not ask for, trying to sell you shit you don’t need and don’t want. Well that is what many of them get every day.

Here is another hint. Just like you, almost every other guy thinks this is a numbers game. They, like you, have typed up this great message. I mean really it is just talking about you, about your journey and what you are looking for. Then you message it (cut and paste AKA copy pasta) to every single profile that you think just might be something you would like to sleep with as well as ones that you don’t even know if you would like to sleep with.

That will work right. Out of the 100 women you sent that to at least you can expect what, 10 or 15 will be so overcome by your prose, they will find you so witty, insightful, intelligent and disarming enough to ignore the 50 other almost exact messages and stop what they are doing to email you back, quickly followed by listening to all your fantasies, giving you their phone number and address, stripping off their clothes, putting a blindfold on themselves and assume first position (yeah you don’t know that that is yet, that is okay) and waiting eagerly for you to walk in and put your dick in their mouth.

And if this were the alternate dimension of penthouse letters that might just have a small chance of working.

So how bout this.

1.) A profile. Fill yours out, and not just the kinky shit. Put the things you like, do you like science fiction, or maybe you are a history buff. Maybe you love Alfred Hitchcock movies well whatever it is put it on your profile.

2.) Profile pic. I know that you think your dick is amazing. I mean it is a dick and it is yours, how could anyone not want to see it. I don’t want to crush your dreams and I am sure you have a beautiful cock, your cock is probably so gorgeous it would turn me gay (please note the sarcasm in this line if no where else in this rant). However, don’t put it on your profile, put your face there. If you are really so worried about privacy then put a silhouette or a pic of you neck down but for god sakes do not under any circumstance send a pic of your cock to anyone until they ask. And here is a secret, normally (maybe not always) when a woman is ready to see your cock it will be in person.

3.) Don’t use the words “True Dom”, “Alpha Male”, “trained by long dead European Master who was god of all Doms” etc… Once you actually earn a pedigree it will be self evident. You don’t need to announce it. And this is just my personal opinion, you CAN NOT be a Master unless you actually have a true living breathing slave. You can’t be a Master of nothing. So until you have a slave just call yourself a Dom.

Okay so now you have a profile that someone can read and hopefully get a sense that you are a somewhat mature, reasonably sane human male. Great, what is next? Remember back at the top when I said the female ALWAYS gets to choose?

So lets talk about a way to possibly contact a woman on here… ready.

READ THEIR PROFILE. I don’t mean read their list of fetishes and look at their pics, then with the blood engorged cock start typing. I mean read their profile.

1.) Start at the top, sounds crazy right. Are they single or are they taken, maybe they are poly. Are they the yin for your yang? If you are a sub are they a Domme, if you are a Dom are they a sub etc. Are they looking. Guess what if they say they are looking for friends then they are looking for friends. If they are looking for females only and you are a guy guess what? That is not you. If they say no one over 40 and you are 42 guess what? That is not you.

1a.) okay I know you are thinking, but, but, but I am a nice guy. If they will only talk to me they will be won over, they will disregard that they were only looking for friends, or females, or a age range or whatever. Guess what? Nope. Let me be more clear with that, it isn’t going to happen. Do you know why? Because the FEMALE gets to choose. She has already chosen that she does not want someone as old as her dad, or as young as her son, or as fat as a walrus or as male as you. So don’t even write. Don’t even try.

2.) Read their description of themselves and what they want. I mean read it word for word. If you are slow on the uptake read it twice or thrice. If you don’t match to at least 50% of what is written there assuming no deal breakers, like age, geographic location etc then don’t even try. Move along, nothing to see here

3.) Look at the list of groups they belong to, are you in any of them. Do any of them you are not belong to appeal to you? What have they said in those groups?

4.) Read their history to see what kind of comments they have made in groups, do they like witty banter? Is there a thing they are curious about?

Sending a Message.

First contact, alright awesome. You’ve made a profile and you have read hers. In your honest estimation you have shared interest and a possibility at being compatible. And she is actively looking to make friends or find a partner. It is time to send that message. We aren’t all Hemmingway’s or Shakespeare. So just be honest, witty (if you can manage it) and non-sexual. What? really non-sexual? But, but, but this is a bdsm site, you just looked at pics of her boobs, you just saw a pic of her with a dick buried in her ass. But guess what SHE chose to be in those situations and you are not there yet.

Now I am not going to pretend that I am not thinking about sex all the time and I am going to assume that any woman by the age of 18 pretty much assumes that any guy that talks to her that is not her family (we hope) or gay, or serious about a committed relationship is not talking to her without some self serving interest. To put it more plain you are thinking about sex with her, and she probably automatically assumes that you are thinking about sex with her and that is all okay. But don’t say it, don’t hint at it, don’t beat around the bush, don’t use your amazing wit to slide in innuendo. It is the pink elephant in the room and we all know it is there.

Send her a message about her. Some interest she has, or comment on a pic that you that you like. Keep the message short, four of five lines max. Remember she gets a wheel barrow full of this shit every day. So short, about her, non-sexual. And maybe just maybe she will write you back.

Okay so you are good to this point right, she has written you back and thanked you for the comment on the stuffed antique penguin in her pic. She is ready to get freaky right? She is ready to hear all about how Domly you are and all of the things you will do to her dirty little slut ass. Nope. Not even close.

Next step… talk to her. Talk to her like you would any woman that you are face to face with and are exploring common interest.

Okay here is the real hurdle, if you can’t get past this step in real life, if you can’t talk to a woman like a person and keep the conversation engaging in real life then you are kinda screwed here. If that is you then get a bottle of lube (never, ever, never ever send an email) and go to xhamster.com or xvideos.com they both have great free porn, hundreds of thousands of clips. The even have lots and lots of bdsm porn there. Once you find a video you like put the lotion on your hand, your hand on your dick and go to town with your lube and your hand. (try to keep the lotion off the keyboard and mouse, they will work better without it gumming them up).

Critical next step. Let them be the one to bring up kink/sex/fetishes. If and when they are ready to talk about that stuff they will let you know. They will drop hints or flirt or usually just come out and say it. Hell you should even be surprised they brought it up to be honest. Once they do bring it up, remember the FEMALE chooses and she has not chosen you yet, she is thinking about it. So keep your douche bag hat in the closet and take the conversation at her speed.

When it is time to meet in person (assuming local). Insist on a public place, well lit and plenty of people. Put her at ease and you might even get past this first meeting.

So big NO’s

Don’t have a pic of your dick
Don’t copy pasta
Don’t tell anyone your fantasies or fetishes until THEY ask
Don’t talk about sex
Don’t be an ass hat/douche bag/dude bro/domly dom/alpha male etc.
Don’t expect to get laid online if you can’t get laid in real life.
Don’t assume they are into you until they tell you so.

*** Q and A:

Q. But I am a Dom and she is a sub, therefore she should immediately submit to me right?
A. No, she is submissive but not your submissive. If she gives you the gift of her submission you will know it.

Q. But I am a nice guy, really I am and she did not write back. Should I write her again?
A. I want to say no.. but lets be real, maybe she did delete you along with the 85 other messages she got in the four hours she was a sleep. My rule of thumb is twice. If after two introductory emails spread out at least two weeks apart she has not responded back then you are done. Move on.

Q. She says in her profile she is just looking for friends. Should d I message her and pretend to want to be just friends and then later try to get her to go to with me.
A. No, believe what she says. Take it at face value. It is the gospel and if she changes and wants you to know she will find a way to let you know.


The payoff is that you make a friend, maybe just maybe you get a sub and finally get to do all of those crazy kinky things you have read about . But a small word of caution here, it is still not like 50 shades of grey or those pent house letters. This is a real, breathing person that has needs and concerns and if you forget that she will decide to go elsewhere.

The Real Payoff:

Once you have learned to conduct yourself like an adult. Once you have played in the scene a while, met folks in real life and over time have shown that you are honest/sincere/respectful/knowledgeable/worthy etc and you have established that reputation you may just find that you are sought out by subs. How long does this take, 3 years, five years, fifteen years, (never for many). It may take a long time but if you are the good guy you claim to be you may find yourself in the situation that you constantly turn subs down asking for your time because you just don’t have it.

The real, real payoff:

You have learned that everyone is a person and is to be treated with respect until they have proven otherwise. You have learned that subs are not things, they are women. Women with lives, dreams, desires and the need to be treated as humans. You have learned the fact that just because you have a dick and you think you are a Dom that it does not give you the right to be a douchebag.

And remember. They have what you want, play nice, be real and sincere and they may just like you enough to give it to you. But if they don't then it is okay, it is their choice.

13 June 2016

On Surveillance, Survival, Being Gay, Loving Guns, Rights and Responsibilities

I don't agree with Clinton here, more nuanced lists sure but broader terror lists will just lead to witch hunts and less freedom for innocent people. More excuses for terrorists and other radical zealots to use to brainwash already angry people. 

Let's not forget this idiot was ON the lists, some of the others were as well or had other police and/or school records of similar aberrant behavior. What we need is to have stricter gun screening laws so people on theses lists and/or say have a record of abusing their partners or animals or any others - aren't allowed to have guns in the first place. Or if they already have them get them taken away, at least temporarily as a cautionary measure until a throughout investigation is done by the appropriate Law Enforcement branch and Medical professional to make sure this person is worthy.

This would've caught the majority of these mass shooters BEFORE. Because they had records which indicated behaviors prone to non-consensual violence towards others.

Yes a few of us who like our weapons (me included) will be periodically bothered, more paperwork, a psych-evals - so what? It's worth it to not have young lives wasted be they children in school or LGBT 20-somethings at a club. 

Let's remember when the Second Amendment was written muskets were about as powerful as it got and just about every free male over 15 years old had years of training in their family's weapons and tools. There were real, current threats of invasion and far smaller military to protect us than now. Wars are different nowadays, and amendments were meant to be amended. 

Also civilians don't need assault rifles (semi-autos) to take down a burglar or three, or to go sports hunting - so why in the hell are they legal for civilians to own? Idk ... makes NO sense. Hunting with one would be like shooting fish in a barrel. No Challenge, No sportsmanship, No Bueno
and an assault rifle won't protect you from a drone anyways ...

We need to close the individual and event sales loopholes. That's where a LOT of these nutter-shooters get their guns. It's also where a lot of gang members get their guns.

Canada, Switzerland, Germany, etc. all have as many or more guns per person than the US does yet Canada has had only 3 of these tragic events in the last 13 years and the US has had 7 in the last 10 days. #OrlandoPulseNightclub being the most violent. Switzerland, Germany also once every 5-6 years. They have better gun laws, better screening, better safety training, mental health checks, better mental health coverage and more strict weapons storage requirements.

We also need to end the ban on gun violence studies, you have to know why people do X in order to have less of X. However banning guns outright doesn't make for better statistics. Harvard proved that. What does then ... well ... more care, more understanding, more training, and more dialogue across groups.

How do we do this?

The most important thing though is we need to confront our racisms, sexisms, and all the other "-ism" things which contribute to a climate of hate. Toxic masculinity, othering, and a sense of entitlement create the rape culture which made Brock Turner as well as the self-hating shooter, Omar Mateen. We as a culture must see we've been a country of mass-shooting violence since Wounded Knee and the only thing which has changed are the weapons. We cannot leave it all up to the parents as some parents are incompetent, and as the sayings go "it takes a village to raise a child" and "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."

Relatedly better healthcare (including mental health) would make it so these people would get the help they need so even if they did somehow obtain a weapon they probably wouldn't feel so shitty to take it out on others. They'd learn to control and re-direct their aggressiveness in other directions (sports, martial arts, music, etc.). We need to unlearn selfishness, self-centeredness, and greedy. Greed is NOT good! We have to find a way to create layers of nurture, care and safety within the culture, without taking away freedoms from the majority of citizens and residents. That's what other cultures do better than America, this IS what we need to learn as a people. 

The Libertarian in me thinks EVERYTHING should be legal - IF - you can handle it in a mature way. Alcohol, drugs, guns, religion, atheism, any configuration of adult marriage or relations, sports, gambling, etc. ... IF you can do it in a way that doesn't violate the consent or life or liberty and freedom of others, and which doesn't harm the planet upon which we all live, you are good to go. If you can do it in ways which increase others pleasure along with your own, even better.

This is because of what I like to call the Churchill-Mill-Spiderman Principle "With
Power & Rights come Responsibilities" and if a person isn't clearly capable of carrying out those Responsibilities then they forfeit that Right. If you can't handle that power, you don't deserve that power. That's part of what the government's job is to make sure laws create order and maintain safety.

Though it's not just their responsibility alone. There's no them as we elect them and they come from us. They are us.

Consent matters. Effects matter. Your rights to do something potentially dangerous shouldn't be at the expense of others, and if you don't care then to that degree you've lost your humanity. 

Right now though I'm just glad my field-friend and his Florida-friend decided to change plans and not go to Pulse Nightclub the other night. But I'm still sad ... SO many people ... so many children ... so many of my fellow LGBT's ... so many young lives lost over the years. As someone who sometimes wears an educator role, it's the school shootings get to me the most. Sometimes I cry off and on for days afterwards, but the teachers and parents? they grieve for years.  

It's Pride Month, I should be shaking my bisexual ass to EDM, but that 22 year old Harry Potter ride operator paying for university, that one's REALLY painful. I cried, I'll probably cry some more - both of sadness of the never ending cycles of gun deaths and of joy for not losing my friend. 

But I will force myself to dance, and sing ... in the face of fear and to create joy. To do otherwise would be to not live freely, which is what the shooter wanted. It's what most of those shooters want in one way or another.

That's where my head's at now ...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Refs:


http://world.time.com/2012/12/20/the-swiss-difference-a-gun-culture-that-works/ http://www.cityoforlando.net/blog/victims/







http://anthropologyisforfoodies.blogspot.com/2012/12/forensic-medicine-in-south-africa-sex.html (see also reference list)

http://www.newsweek.com/why-there-lack-gun-violence-research-unites-states-400912 http://fusion.net/story/313760/omar-mateen-orlando-dylann-roof-terror/

06 June 2016

DESIRE ( … I want … )

Your gentlemanly side shields me from others harm
Even as I’m charmed, laughingly disarmed into
Minds freely pondering in ways which would make others cower
Leaking temporal thoughts, melding … welding, no matter if we’ve merely an hour
Still I thank you for being there, when the shit hits the centrifuge and  
Willingness to be vulnerable, sans subterfuge

Our inner children natter through their torments and tribulations,
Playing on, melting crayons we drift into frolicking contentment
Your yin feeling free to explore as
My protecting yang's deflecting potential injury  

Knowing I think you're perfect in caterpillar form
Yet to help you become a butterfly swarm 
Consuming of life like a calorie-free buffet,
Even if that means not always having my way

You never begging me or anyone else for that matter
Giving me what you wish,
Your power in action as sound striking
It when you see me thirst for it 
When you are yearning, to push me to my edges

When you are ready to 
Not to do these all the time or too many queue
No driving us crazy or doing far too much
Less thinking, increasing playfulness and such
In singing souls touch

Clutched hands whilst hiking on a pellucid day
Smiling just because it feels right
To love doing nothing together, and
For even naught to be good for something

I am a slow step in, a hug and a pause
Cause of so many things
Heart strings, pulled by you … you make music
Musing this tangible consent is clearly a clause 

Comprehension that my safewords are my real slows and stops
Knowing when I shout NO, it’s never to you
It’s into my past and the terrors therein
Understanding it is to reclaim my power
No longer to be a victim ashamed

Together we create autoschediastic scenes
Tapping into psychotherapeutic dreams
Heretofore unknown brain schemes
Bursting out subconscious seams

You luring my secrets out as a rapacious lion devours a gazelle
Voracious, you cripple me soaking pain into my dermis, 
With electric stroking of my furr,
A body left quivered drippings of demolished dendrites
Mushed into stews of dopamine until consciousness floats in nothingness
Passion … give in … given freely then

Your tongue darting about and into dark lips
Nibbling your spine while you caress my hips
At your push I recline, then out come whips 
Breathing in their beauty my eyes become love crumbed 
Curious laughter as I succumb, my bum is drummed, then I
… Cum

Periodically to be left wanting more, yet
you to meticulously moor me,
Navigating our sensory sails.
Charting into “here be dragons”

Do you know you’ve accidentally done it ALL before?
Perfectly, despite being unaware why I poured
………………. or soared?
Oh how … Freedom for you to be

You for me

You in …

31 May 2016

Why Moving my Father out of Holly Courts is a GOOD Thing.

Okay, here I am about to state what’s likely to be an unpopular opinion but so be it.

It’s come to my attention that my father (Neil) is running an online fundraising campaign so he can stay in SF. You can see it here: https://www.crowdrise.com/neils-househome

His story, in his words …


I am a 79 yr. old man, who the housing I'm in for over 40 yrs. is going to be putting me out --new owners who are doing this. I am a diabetic, macular degeneration, early Alzheimer’s. I am on social security--can't work. What will I do? I need a house-a home for me. Please help! I'm a veteran and my family lives far. So I have no help--a care giver who helps a little. If you can help--give me a house to live in. Send to Neil R. Seippel 106 Appleton Ave. San Francisco, Ca. 94110 Or Neil R. Seippel % Chase Bank San Francisco, Ca. Birth date: 8/07/1937 Phone# 1 -415-424-0074 Would like to be in San Francisco---San Jose or area of California. Have family in Southern California neilsacting37@gmail.com (but I don't have internet at present.)

So I’ll start with that I’ve no doubt the medical stuff he say’s here is true. It’s also true that he did a tour with the Air Force, and was a Merchant Marine under the Navy so I’ll give him ‘Veteran’ as well, though it should be noted he never served in a combat capacity or in a conflict zone.

I KNOW some of you are like, “why is Valerie who’s normally one of the first people to offer broke student and wandering academic friends a free place to crash not taking in her own father?”

Let’s start with the small ‘white lies’ contained in the statement. Being born in 1937 means he’s turning 79 in August, not 79 currently. My father has a propensity for exaggeration, and hyperbole. Learning this early from him has served me well as a writer where it has its’ place within fictional pieces, but a self-fundraising campaign isn’t one of them. What’s more at issue is what he’s omitted. That he was abusive to his first wife (my mom) and daughter (me), which is why said daughter (me) doesn’t want him living with us (hubby+dog+I), even though we actually don’t live “far” from San Francisco at all ~42-50 mins on the BART train. That's closer than the San Jose he’s also mentioned being ok with living in.

Next let’s discuss Holly Courts Project Housing which you can learn about here: http://sf.curbed.com/2012/11/12/10307338/sfs-earliest-public-housing-projects and this lady’s story here:http://abc7news.com/realestate/7-on-your-side-helps-woman-after-sf-apartment-flooded/1032065/.

Long story short it’s REALLY old, in need of the upgrades that are being done, and it’s NOT changed ownership as it’s still owned by HUD, but rather management as http://www.bridgehousing.com/ is managing the property for HUD and wants to renovate it with the money allotted, as well as to make sure people are in units appropriate to their family size. Therefore tenants are being temporarily located elsewhere (mostly in vacant units in Bayview and/or in Sacramento) while the work takes place. My father being racist probably doesn’t want to go to the heavily African-American Bayview, and being lazy doesn’t want to go to Sacramento where he doesn’t know the area well.

I’m not even going to go with technically he should be a sex offender (for what he did to me and my mum) and thus not qualified for public housing (http://archives.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/sex-offender-living-in-sf-public-housing-dodges-federal-rules/Content?oid=2912184) because that’s a bullshit rule anyways. Anyone at the poverty level or below should be qualified for housing assistance, though person’s with those particular issues should be housed in different locations from families and women

We should also note that Neil lives on his own, and unit 106 is a family sized unit with two bedrooms, one of which is a large Master bedroom.

San Francisco is currently suffering a homeless family crisis of massive proportions (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/24293-no-solution-to-record-number-of-homeless-families-in-san-francisco ) and is even housing SF working families elsewhere http://m.sfgate.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/S-F-spending-plenty-to-house-homeless-families-5588518.php so a family who needs that unit should have that unit. As a retire/unemployed 78 year old there’s no reason why he can’t be moved to a smaller unit somewhere, even one out of SF.

What’s unfair is having a working poor family whose jobs are in SF commuting from Sacramento while he keeps a unit far larger than he needs.   

That said everyone deserves a place to live, regardless of if they are an abusive liar, and that there’s nothing wrong with Sacramento, or for him to confront his racism by living in the Bayview neighborhood. In fact I think it would actually be good for him.

It’s certainly going to be good for the working family who needs a place to stay nearer to their SF or Bay Area based work.

24 March 2015

Joy Bucket

Put in to your joy bucket
For when there is a drought

Put in to your joy bucket
For when you go without

Put in to your joy bucket
For when you have flood out

Put in to your joy bucket
For there can be no doubt

Your joy bucket is life: 
Enjoy, Pig Out! 

Quantum entanglement

Is our relationship a quantum entanglement? 
A product of quantum superposition
Or mere superstition?

Why do I see all other lovers as relative to you?
Did a physical phenomenon occur?
When I paired with you?

Now all states with others,
Are here forward described,
Relative to ours together.

Spinning clockwise I whirl and feel polarized.
Either loving you or fearing your loss,
A passionate paradox.

Though periodically separated by arbitrarily long distances
We can never truly be untangled
For we gyrate simpatico even when separated

Our statistically unlikely timing of,
Apes scrapes moving travel dates,
A fatalistic momentum pushing muses together.

Bucking balls and electric flying whirling us physically apart 
Utilizing computation and communication resources
Light speed has nothing to our idea exchanges

Turning each other’s rough thoughts
Almost instantaneously
Into diamonds

04 February 2015

Dear Dr. Jenny McCarthy

This is written by a childhood theater friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous. The perspective is brilliant and I'm re-printing it here with their permission. 


Dear Dr. Jenny McCarthy
Hello there,

So I have for the last few years, read about things you have said about vaccines being responsible in part for your sons Autistic diagnosis. And I get that you have walked away from some of those things now that you have gotten basically "death threats". But now, since measles is back, and I’m sure other things are around the corner, I felt compelled to speak.

My father got Polio one month after his 17th birthday. It was his senior year in High School. To give you an idea of what sort of life he was having, He was the President of the class, quarterback on the football team, a Yell leader, and was, as my uncles friend Butch once said, "The only kid on the block we knew who was destined for college." He was also one of the first eagle scouts in Contra Costa County. He woke up one morning with back pain and feverish. But he knew if he were not to show up for school he could not play in the football game that afternoon. So he went.

He didn't last long. He left school early and walked to the doctor’s office.

There he was misdiagnosed with a slipped disc.

They put him in traction. It was like clearing a road way for an Indy 500 car. The fever hit him hard, the virus took off, and he was out for about 4 days.

When he woke up, he was in the polio ward at USFMC.

For the three months he was in isolation he saw many things. Kids in iron lungs. Kids who were learning to re walk. Little children left to see their parents through long windows waving at them.

He also saw, a newspaper roughly two weeks after he got the disease, stating, "SALK DISCOVERS POLIO VACCINE! TRIALS IN SCHOOLS COMING SOON."

Can you imagine it?

No you can't can you? Well maybe if you are older than 55. But if you are younger you can't. Cause you got a vaccine for Polio when you were a baby. And now you don't have it. And if you are lucky you don't know anyone with it.

For a certain amount of time, he had to wear braces on both legs. From the hip. Once out of them, he swore he would never wear them again.

His best friend in the world, a man who knew him before and for 60 years after, told me that while "Your dad was the same, He was different. Polio changed the colour in his eyes. He was mad as hell, and was not going to let it beat him."

He went to college. He walked into the admissions office at Berkeley, and without a full senior year of any one subject, talked them into taking him. Tuition back then was 50 bucks a semester. Pretty amazing.

He got married, and had four kids. When I was about 6 we were traveling and every once in a while, his legs would give out and he would fall. I remember him saying to my mother, " I think I need to get a cane. What if I pull one of the kids down with me and we are in a cross walk?" You see when we would walk with him, my dad would always put his hand on our shoulders, for balance. It was never a burden. For a man who needed very little, it was a nice thing to know we were helping him. He went to a store and got a cane. Over the years he bought many canes. Fancy ones... standard "need to go out into the garden and weed," ones.... ones made of gorgeous cherry stained wood... He amassed quite a collection.

He has endured many injuries in his years walking. He broke his leg countless times. Polio leeches the muscles and bones of vitality. So breaking a bone ravaged by Polio is like snapping a green bean in half. I've watched him soak his feet and legs in Epsom salt, and once in a while get talked into wearing a brace on one leg. But never for long. He just couldn't tolerate it.

He has seen specialist after specialist. Heard fatalistic statistics, and how he should be grateful he's alive. He has with great trepidation watched his children have hospital stays which have made him batty, as while also being our father, he has been a long term patient and it makes his skin crawl.

It has defined him. He has a low tolerance for feeling sorry for yourself. If you didn't think you could do something, like I once had to wear a patch over my good eye to strengthen my bad one, something I rebelled fiercely against, he reminded me that I had too. No choice was given. That life sucks sometimes. But if I tried hard, like he had too when he got Polio, that I would make it. You can't beat a "Crippling disease," argument. Well, maybe my brother can, but that’s a whole other story in itself.

Growing up with a father who had these issues, meant that there was no one to teach me how to swing a bat for softball. Or do a cartwheel. There was no impromptu dancing in our house. The frustration for him was palpable as he verbally tried his best to instruct us in various things. But reality is reality and on some level, I don't believe any of us are worse off. In fact, I think the man he became was better at a lot of things. We are champions of argument. We tend to not get emotional when advocating for ourselves or our loved ones. In fact we live knowing our hard attitudes about certain things make us difficult. But living with a man who had this happen to him, made us remember that not having fans in every town was not the end of the world. He taught us LIFE skills.

For instance, my dad taught me that I could get through anything. You see, he's now in a wheel chair. A place he would never have wanted to be years ago. But he lost mobility due to a shoulder surgery he had to have. He couldn't walk, and couldn’t keep the last bits of strength he had to walk in play. I would have thought a wheel chair would have destroyed his spirit. But when he got into a motorized one and realized how advanced they were.... He got used to it. He never let it stop him. He watches over all of us like hawks. HE's controlling sometimes, but I know in some ways it’s because the heart break of losing all you know over a few days of your seventeenth year can make you hold very tight to that which you get back.

Now of course there are many many other diseases we can become ill from. Pertussis, and mumps, and lots of others. The "Herd mentality" back then meant if you got Chicken Pox, so did every other kid in your house because your mother was going to get it all over at once. My siblings and I all had chicken pox at the same time. My oldest brother, had it everywhere. My youngest brother had a single pox mark on his butt. I was somewhere in the middle.

I have had meningitis, and shingles, two illness's I would not wish on a living soul. Last week when the lad (my son,) went for his well child check-up he had to get a meningitis shot. When he balked saying, "What's the big deal?" I nearly smacked him over the head with a chair. Meningitis is no joke. I had the best form. Viral. 12 days in isolation with a 2 month recovery. My cousin Scott, whom I never knew, got it as a baby. Spinal. The most deadly. A "sick at 12, gone by 4" sort of thing.

My father has been my example in all this. Because for as much as he has accomplished with Polio... he would not wish it on anyone. And if he could have avoided getting it he would have. Of course, he had no choice back then.

And that’s really what we are talking about right? Choice. If you are against it for whatever reason, not only do you risk yours and your child’s life, but you risk mine as well because your strain...may be a new one. One that would never have come about if you hadn't made such a rich host with which to feed upon. And I don't give you permission to risk my life. Or that of my kid.

Get a grip. You are on a pulpit. Of course it’s a pulpit of stupid people, but it’s a pulpit none the less. And those stupid people are running out, neglecting their duties as parents, and then hiding like cowering ashamed deer. Well you know what? Parts of being a parent are the hard choices you make. I have had to walk my kid through brain surgery. Believe me when I say if I had allowed myself a moment to let it sink in I wouldn't be here. If I had said "You don't have too," HE WOULDN'T BE HERE. It’s about making the hard choices and knowing that sometimes life is not fun, or easy.

Your son clearly has come a long way since his initial diagnosis. When you spoke of him speaking at your wedding and how that was hard for him, I felt for you. Knowing that somewhere locked inside of our children, is all the things we take for granted is soul destroying. But not if you don't let it be. Not if you look it in the eye and tell it to FUCK RIGHT OFF. Your son will hopefully always know, as my father taught me, disabled does not mean un-abled.

I wish you luck. and I wish for your son, everything he needs, and that EVERYONE gets their kids vaccinated.

24 November 2014

Stop Trying to Save the World - Big ideas are destroying international development {REPRINT}

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/120178/problem-international-development-and-plan-fix-it



Stop Trying to Save the World
Big ideas are destroying international development

By Michael Hobbes

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.

PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.

The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010. “That would mean clean drinking water for some ten million people,” a “Frontline” reporter announced.

International Development Is Broken. Here Are Two Ways to Fix It.
By 2007, less than two years after the grants came in, it was already clear these aspirations weren’t going to be met. A UNICEF report found pumps abandoned, broken, unmaintained. Of the more than 1,500 pumps that had been installed with the initial burst of grant money in Zambia, one-quarter already needed repair. The Guardian said the pumps were “reliant on child labour.”

PlayPumps were going to harness the energy of children to provide fresh water to sub-Saharan African villages. They didn't.
In 2010, “Frontline” returned to the schools where they had filmed children laughing on the merry-go-rounds, splashing each other with water. They discovered pumps rusting, billboards unsold, women stooping to turn the wheel in pairs. Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the handpumps they already had. In one community, adults were paying children to operate the pump.

Let’s not pretend to be surprised by any of this. The PlayPump story is a sort of Mad Libs version of a narrative we’re all familiar with by now: Exciting new development idea, huge impact in one location, influx of donor dollars, quick expansion, failure.

I came across the PlayPump story in Ken Stern’s With Charity For All, but I could have plucked one from any of the dozen or so “development doesn’t work” best-sellers to come out in the last ten years. In The Idealist—a kind of “where are they now?” for the ideas laid out in Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty—Nina Munk discovers African villages made squalid by the hopes and checkbooks of Western do-gooders. Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s Poor Economics finds dozens of “common sense” development projects—food aid, crop insurance, microfinance—either don’t help poor people or may even make them poorer.

International development is getting it from all sides. Governments and rich people (“major donors” in NGO-ese) are embracing terms like “philanthrocapitalism,” “social entrepreneurship,” and “impact bonds,” arguing that donations are investments, not gifts. Australia and Canada have done away with their international development agencies altogether, absorbing them into mega-ministries covering foreign affairs and trade.

I am conflicted about this moment. I have worked at international development NGOs almost my entire career (primarily at two mid-sized human rights organizations—one you’ve probably heard of and one you probably haven’t). I’ve been frustrated by the same inefficiencies and assumptions of my sector that are now getting picked apart in public. Like the authors, donors, and governments attacking international development, I’m sometimes disillusioned with what my job requires me to do, what it requires that I demand of others.

Over the last year, I read every book, essay, and roman à clef about my field I could find. I came out convinced that the problems with international development are real, they are fundamental, and I might, in fact, be one of them. But I also found that it’s too easy to blame the PlayPumps of the world. Donors, governments, the public, the media, aid recipients themselves—they all contribute to the dysfunction. Maybe the problem isn’t that international development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.

In the late ’90s, Michael Kremer, then an economics professor at MIT, was in Kenya working on an NGO project that distributed textbooks to schools in poor rural districts. Around that time, the ratio of children to textbooks in Kenya was 17 to 1. The intervention seemed obvious: Poor villages need textbooks, rich donors have the money to buy them. All we have to do is link them up.

But in the early stages of the project, Kremer convinced the researchers to do it differently. He wanted to know whether giving kids textbooks actually made them better students. So instead of handing out books and making a simple before-and-after comparison, he designed the project like a pharmaceutical trial. He split the schools into groups, gave some of them the “treatment” (i.e., textbooks) and the others nothing. Then he tested everyone, not just the kids who got the books but also the kids who didn’t, to see if his intervention had any effect.

It didn’t. The trial took four years, but it was conclusive: Some of the kids improved academically over that time and some got worse, but the treatment group wasn’t any better off than the control.

Then Kremer tried something else. Maybe the kids weren’t struggling in school because of what was going on in the classroom, but because of what was going on outside of it. So again, Kremer split the schools into groups and spent three years testing and measuring them. This time, the treatment was an actual treatment—medication to eradicate stomach worms. Worm infections affect up to 600 million children around the world, sapping their nutrition and causing, among other things, anemia, stomachaches, and stunting.

Once more, the results were conclusive: The deworming pills made the kids noticeably better off. Absence rates fell by 25 percent, the kids got taller, even their friends and families got healthier. By interrupting the chain of infection, the treatments had reduced worm infections in entire villages. Even more striking, when they tested the same kids nearly a decade later, they had more education and earned higher salaries. The female participants were less likely to be employed in domestic services.

And compared with Kremer’s first trial, deworming was a bargain. Textbooks cost $2 to $3 each. Deworming pills were as little as 49 cents. When Kremer calculated the kids’ bump in lifetime wages compared with the cost of treatment, it was a 60-to-1 ratio.

This is perfect TED Talk stuff: Conventional wisdom called into question, rigorous science triumphing over dogma. As word of Kremer’s study spread, he became part of a growing movement within international development to subject its assumptions to randomized controlled trials.

Dozens of books and articles (and yes, TED Talks) have tracked the rise of the randomistas, as they’ve come to be called. The most prominent of these, and the most fun to read, is Poor Economics, sort of the Principia Mathematica of “obvious” development interventions tested and found wanting.

If someone is chronically malnourished, to pick just one example, you should give them some food, right? Duflo and Banerjee describe dozens of projects finding that, when you subsidize or give away food to poor people, they don’t actually eat more. Instead, they just replace boring foods with more interesting ones and remain, in the statistics at least, “malnourished.”

In Udaipur, India, a survey found that poor people had enough money to increase their food spending by as much as 30 percent, but they chose to spend it on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals instead. Duflo and Banerjee interviewed an out-of-work Indonesian agricultural worker who had been under the food-poverty line for years, but had a TV in his house.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand the underlying dynamic here: Cheap food is boring. In many developing countries, Duflo and Banerjee found that even the poorest people could afford more than 2,000 calories of staple foods every day. But given the choice between the fourth bowl of rice in one day and the first cigarette, many people opt for the latter.

Even in countries where development projects worked, where poor people went from hungry to nourished, they weren’t more likely to get a job or make significantly more money. All the appealing metaphors of NGO websites and academo-best-sellers—“the poverty trap,” “the ladder of development”—go limp under the magnifying glass of actually being tested.

Deworming treatment had impressive results on education in Kenya—but programs elsewhere aren't being as rigorously monitored.
Armed with his rigorously gathered results, Kremer founded an NGO, Deworm the World. He launched it at the 2007 World Economic Forum and committed to deworming ten million children. He was feted by the Clinton Global Initiative; GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson & Johnson pledged $600 million worth of deworming treatments a year, enough for every infected primary school student in Africa. The World Health Organization issued a statement of support. Kenya asked him to help create a national program to deworm 3.6 million children. Two states in India initiated similar programs, aiming to treat millions more. The organization now claims to have helped 40 million children in 27 countries.

But wait a minute. Just because something works for 30,000 students in Kenya doesn’t mean it will work for millions of them across Africa or India. Deworm the World’s website talks a lot about its “evidence-based” approach. (It has now been folded into an NGO called Evidence Action.) Yet the primary evidence that deworming improves education outcomes is from Kremer’s single Kenya case and a post-hoc analysis of deworming initiatives in the American South in 1910. In 2012, the organization said that it had treated 17 million children in India, but didn’t report whether their attendance, school performance, or graduation rates improved.

I keep thinking I’m missing something really obvious, that I’m looking at the wrong part of their website. So I call up Evidence Action and ask: Are you guys really not testing how deworming affects education anymore?

“We don’t measure the effects on school attendance and school performance,” says Alix Zwane, Evidence Action’s executive director. At the scale they’re going for in India, entire states at a time, splitting into control and treatment groups simply wouldn’t be feasible.

Kremer tells me that enough trials have been done to warrant the upscaling. “There’s more evidence for this than the vast majority of things that governments spend money on.” Every time you want to build a new road, you can’t stop to ask, Will this one really help people get from place to place?

“Meanwhile,” he says, “there’s a cohort of children that, if you don’t implement the policy now, will go through years of schooling without treatment.”

It’s an interesting question—when do you have enough evidence to stop testing each new application of a development idea?—and I get that you can’t run a four-year trial every time you roll out, say, the measles vaccine to a new country. But like many other aid projects under pressure to scale up too fast and too far, deworming kids to improve their education outcomes isn’t the slam-dunk its supporters make it out to be.

In 2000, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a literature review of 30 randomized control trials of deworming projects in 17 countries. While some of them showed modest gains in weight and height, none of them showed any effect on school attendance or cognitive performance. After criticism of the review by the World Bank and others, the BMJ ran it again in 2009 with stricter inclusion criteria. But the results didn’t change. Another review, in 2012, found the same thing: “We do not know if these programmes have an effect on weight, height, school attendance, or school performance.”

Kremer and Evidence Action dispute the way these reviews were carried out, and sent me an upcoming study from Uganda that found links between deworming and improved test scores. But the evidence they cite on their own website undermines this data. Kremer’s 2004 study reporting the results of the original deworming trial notes—in the abstract!—that “we do not find evidence that deworming improves academic test scores,” only attendance. Another literature review cited on Deworm the World’s website says, “When infected children are given deworming treatment, immediate educational and cognitive benefits are not always apparent.”

Then there’s the comparison to textbooks. Kenya, it turns out, is a uniquely terrible place to hand out textbooks to kids and expect better academic performance. When Kremer reported that textbooks had no overall effect, he also noted that they did actually improve test scores for the kids who were already at the top of the class. The main problem, it seems, was that the textbooks were in English, the second or third language for most of the kids. Of the third-graders given textbooks, only 15 percent could even read them.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, a series of meta-analyses found that textbooks were actually effective at improving school performance in places where the language issues weren’t as complex. In his own paper reporting the Kenya results, Kremer noted that, in Nicaragua and the Philippines, giving kids textbooks did improve their test scores.

But the point of all this is not to talk shit on Kremer—who has bettered the world more with his career than I ever have with mine—or to dismantle his deworming charity, or to advocate that we should all go back to giving out free textbooks. What I want to talk shit on is the paradigm of the Big Idea—that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic blanket.

There are villages where deworming will be the most meaningful education project possible. There are others where free textbooks will. In other places, it will be new school buildings, more teachers, lower fees, better transport, tutors, uniforms. There’s probably a village out there where a PlayPump would beat all these approaches combined. The point is, we don’t know what works, where, or why. The only way to find out is to test these models—not just before their initial success but afterward, and constantly.

I can see why it’s appealing to think that, once you find a successful formula for development, you can just scale it up like a Model T. Host governments want programs that get more effective as they get bigger. Individual donors, you and me, we want to feel like we’re backing a plucky little start-up that is going to save the world. No international institution wants to say in their annual report: “There’s this great NGO that increased attendance in a Kenyan school district. We’re giving them a modest sum to do the same thing in one other district in one other country.”

The repeated “success, scale, fail” experience of the last 20 years of development practice suggests something super boring: Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied. It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another. No one will ever be invited to explain that in a TED talk.

The last NGO I worked for had 150 employees and a budget of more than $25 million. Employees were divided into “program staff” (the people researching, coordinating, and implementing our mission) and “overhead staff” (the fund-raising, human resources, and accounting departments helping them do it). Like most NGOs, we bragged to our donors that we had low overhead, that their dollars and euros and kroner and francs went to “the cause” and not to our rent or our heating bills. And this was, at least on the Excel sheets, true. Most of our money went to researcher and project manager salaries. The fund-raising, H.R., and accounting departments could have each fit comfortably in a minivan.

The problem is, those overhead tasks don’t disappear just because you don’t spend money on them. Someone has to monitor the accounts, find new donors, calculate taxes, organize the holiday party. Centralizing these tasks in dedicated departments, hiring specialists, getting good at them, that would have looked like bureaucracy. So instead, we spun them out to the entire staff: We assigned researchers and project managers—anthropology majors mostly, some law school dropouts—to do our H.R., accounting, fund-raising, and project evaluations.

The outcome was as chaotic as it sounds. Want to hire someone? You’ll need to write your own job ad, find job boards to post it to, and, in some cases, update the standard employment contract yourself. Want to issue a press release about the results of the study you just performed? Write it yourself and start sending it to journalists. Hopefully you know a few.

The downsides of this approach were most obvious in fund-raising. If there’s one thing donors hate, it’s paying us to find more donors. So every program staffer was responsible for raising (and accounting, and monitoring, and reporting) funds for their own projects. Staff members spent days doing the same donor research (“which foundations fund work on water scarcity?”) that a colleague across the hall did last week. Without a centralized staff to coordinate pitches, we contacted the same donors dozens of times with small-fry requests rather than combining them into one coherent “ask.” (One employee, legend had it, asked Google if they could Google Translate our website as an in-kind donation.)

No one had any expertise in writing grant proposals, conducting impact assessments, or managing high-maintenance funders like the European Commission—training courses would have counted as overhead spending. We missed opportunities for new funding, we bungled contracts we already had, and we turned donors against us. Every staff meeting, one or two people announced they were leaving. “I wasn’t hired to spend my day fund-raising” were the most common eight words at farewell parties.

My experience wasn’t unique. Stern cites the example of the American Red Cross, which sent confused volunteers, clueless employees, and, bafflingly, perishable Danish pastries to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina because it hadn’t invested in training its U.S. staff in actual crisis response. A buddy of mine works at an NGO with 150 staff where the H.R. department is exactly one person, and she’s also the receptionist.

It’s understandable that donors are paranoid about overhead. The last few years have seen charity after charity busted for blowing donations on corporate junkets, billboard advertising, and outright fraud. Some breast cancer charities pay telemarketing companies 90 cents of each dollar they raise just to raise it. Greg Mortenson, he of the Three Cups of Tea school-building empire, had to pay $1 million back to his own charity when a Jon Krakauer exposé revealed that he was spending donations on a never-ending book tour and pocketing the proceeds.

Dan Pallotta, who spent the ’90s and 2000s running a $300 million breast cancer and AIDS charity, has produced two books arguing that this obsession with overhead keeps charities from reaching the scale required to take on large problems. Pallotta uses the example of two soup kitchens: One spends 60 cents of every donation dollar on “programs” (i.e., soup), while the other spends 90 cents.

According to the conventional wisdom of donors and charity rating agencies, your donation is better spent on the organization where only 10 percent of spending goes to overhead. But using this one number ignores much more important indicators of the charity’s impact. Is the soup nutritious and warm? Is it getting to the right people? Does the kitchen open on time every day and have kind, professional staff? And, hang on, do free warm meals even help people escape poverty? Providing decent service, targeting handouts, testing these assumptions—these things cost money, whether donors like it or not.

So charities hide overhead, like we did, in overburdened program staff, untrained volunteers, and external consultants. Just as deworming millions of children is different in kind, not degree, from deworming a village of them, running a large, professional charity is completely different from running a new, start-uppy one. Small-scale projects (installing one PlayPump, say) can keep their overhead low through charismatic leaders, passionate staff, and long-standing relationships with the communities they’re seeking to assist. Large-scale projects require stuff like budget managers, reporting frameworks, light bulbs, and, yes, a goddamn holiday party.

Pallotta’s Uncharitable has a nice example of what this looks like. His first cross-country AIDS ride had 39 cyclists and almost zero overhead. The group was small enough to sleep in gymnasiums, to rely on churches and good samaritans to provide food and hot showers. If supplies fell short, they could knock on doors asking for help or, in a pinch, put up their tents in backyards. He raised $80,000.

By the 2000s, the rides were attracting an average of 3,000 riders. A group that size requires a logarithmic increase in organization and support—renting out whole campgrounds, professional catering, dedicated medical and legal staff. Overhead costs ballooned to 42 percent of each donation. But each ride raised $7 million.

As with the actual aid projects themselves, the success of a charity depends on specifics, not a single, one-size-fits-all indicator. Charities do all kinds of stuff—conduct research, train local NGOs, build infrastructure, give away goats. For donors to truly determine how well they’re doing it, they’d need to come up with a customized report card for each charity.

For a soup kitchen, it would be the stuff I just mentioned: Do they open on time? How’s their soup? For an NGO that, say, monitors government infrastructure projects for corruption, it would be things like, What percentage of projects are they assessing? Are their assessments yielding correct information? Is this information being communicated to the communities affected by corruption?

Judging charities like this, on the impacts of their work and whether they’re addressing the problem they set out to solve, yields qualitative information, sentences, and observations that can’t be compared across charities. Given the millions of international development NGOs with their upside-down hats out (the IRS, Stern notes, approves 99.5 percent of charity applications), it’s faster and easier to measure them all by the same standard.

This is why donors love overhead. It’s one number that allows you to compare the soup kitchen with the anti-corruption think tank. It smells all rigorous and objective, but it doesn’t require any actual work. Charities provide their own overhead figures, after all, just like they write their own annual reports and produce their own little Kony 2012 fund-raising videos. International development NGOs aren’t always obligated to issue audited accounts. Some of them report no overhead at all, the institutional equivalent of “I didn’t inhale.”

I’m not going to propose a cute little solution here to make this easier for donors, or suggest some “right” overhead percentage. For most charities, 10 percent overhead probably isn’t enough, and 90 percent is just fucking around. But the whole point is that we shouldn’t pick just one number to stand in for efficiency. We’re always arguing that, if rich countries want to solve the problems of poor ones, they’re going to have to spend time getting to know them. It’s time we apply the same logic to the agencies we dispatch to do the job.

Dertu isn’t a place very many people go on purpose. Located in northeastern Kenya, close to the Somali border, and next door to a sprawling refugee camp, in 2004 it was little more than a rest stop, a place for the local pastoralists to refresh their animals and catch up on local news. Its chief attraction was fresh water from a UNICEF-drilled borehole in the clay. Of the few thousand people living there permanently, more than 80 percent relied on food aid. Ninety percent were illiterate.

This is the “before” picture of Dertu that Jeffrey Sachs found when he initiated his Millennium Villages Project there in 2006. Sachs, a professor at Columbia University, became a Bono-approved development celebrity with his book The End of Poverty, a screed against the rich world’s complacency in letting easily solvable problems—malaria, literacy, clean water—damn an entire continent to misery.

Sachs’s book tour culminated in the establishment of the Millennium Villages Project, an ambitious plan to jump-start development with a huge influx of cash, in-kind support, and infrastructure to some of the poorest settlements in the world. Sachs’s premise was that millions of people, dozens of countries, had fallen into the “poverty trap”: Living in substandard housing leads to problems concentrating at school. Which leads to not graduating. Which leads to working in low-skilled jobs. Which leads to living in substandard housing. And on and on.

The only solution, Sachs argued, was to dramatically boost people to a level where they could start to develop themselves.

This is, it turns out, an incredibly persuasive idea, and in the two years after the book came out, Sachs raised $120 million (including $50 million from George Soros’s personal checkbook) and identified 14 villages throughout sub-Saharan Africa to test his theory.

As described in Nina Munk’s The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, things looked promising in Dertu at first. Sachs convinced GE and Ericsson to donate medical equipment and cell phones. He hired local managers who knew the culture and language to ensure his project was responding to Dertu’s needs. His teams built housing, schools, roads, health clinics. They set up a livestock market to attract farmers from all over the region.

But soon, the momentum faltered. Without electricity to run it or specialists to maintain it, the advanced medical equipment gathered dust—in Kenya, that means literally. The managers of the project, so knowledgeable about the local culture and mores, eventually succumbed to them, doling out benefits on the basis of tribal favoritism and tit-for-tat back-scratching. The borehole broke down and water had to be shipped in by truck.

The core of the problem, as Munk describes it, was that Dertu became a sort of company town, with the Millennium Villages Project providing the only reliable source of employment, benefits, and public services. Thousands of new residents came from the nearby refugee camp and other parts of Kenya, seeking jobs or handouts. Where Dertu was once a stopover for nomads, the influx of donor money, the improved infrastructure, the free housing and education and health care, had given people a reason to stay. Sachs’s funding couldn’t keep up. And eventually, it ran out.

In an interview about her book for EconTalk, Munk describes what Dertu looked like the last time she saw it, in 2011:

They were now really living in a kind of squalor that I hadn’t seen on my first visit. Their huts were jammed together; they were patched with those horrible polyurethane bags that one sees all over Africa. ... There were streams of slop that were going down between these tightly packed huts. And the latrines had overflowed or were clogged. And no one was able to agree on whose job it was to maintain them. And there were ditches piled high with garbage. And it was just—it made my heart just sink.
This is the paradox: When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected. You can find examples of this in every corner of development practice. A project in Kenya that gave kids free uniforms, textbooks, and classroom materials increased enrollment by 50 percent, swamping the teachers and reducing the quality of education for everyone. Communities in India cut off their own water supply so they could be classified as “slums” and be eligible for slum-upgrading funding. I’ve worked in places where as soon as a company sets up a health clinic or an education program, the local government disappears—why should they spend money on primary schools when a rich company is ready to take on the responsibility?

There’s nothing avaricious about this. If anything, it demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit we’re constantly telling the poor they need to demonstrate.

My favorite example of unintended consequences comes, weirdly enough, from the United States. In a speech to a criminology conference, Nancy G. Guerra, the director of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Delaware, described a project where she held workshops with inner-city Latina teenagers, trying to prevent them from joining gangs. The program worked in that none of the girls committed any violence within six months of the workshops. But by the end of that time, they were all, each and every one, pregnant.

“That behavior was serving a need for them,” she says in her speech. “It made them feel powerful, it made them feel important, it gave them a sense of identity. ... When that ended, [they] needed another kind of meaning in their lives.”

The fancy academic term for this is “complex adaptive systems.” We all understand that every ecosystem, each forest floor or coral reef, is the result of millions of interactions between its constituent parts, a balance of all the aggregated adaptations of plants and animals to their climate and each other. Adding a non-native species, or removing one that has always been there, changes these relationships in ways that are too intertwined and complicated to predict.

According to Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos, international development is just such an invasive species. Why Dertu doesn’t have a vaccination clinic, why Kenyan schoolkids can’t read, it’s a combination of culture, politics, history, laws, infrastructure, individuals—all of a society’s component parts, their harmony and their discord, working as one organism. Introducing something foreign into that system—millions in donor cash, dozens of trained personnel and equipment, U.N. Land Rovers—causes it to adapt in ways you can’t predict.

A friend of mine works at an NGO that audits factories in India and China, inspecting them for child labor, forced labor, human-trafficking, everything celebrities are always warning us about. I asked him if, after ten years of inspections, conditions have gotten any better. “Yes and no,” he said. “Anytime you set a standard, some companies will become sophisticated to meet it, and others will become sophisticated to avoid it.”
So international development sucks, right? I’ve just spent thousands of words telling you all the ways the incentives of donors, recipients, and NGOs contradict each other. Why not just scrap it altogether?

Because I don’t think that’s the conclusion these examples suggest. I think they suggest something much less dramatic: It’s not that development is broken, it’s that our expectations of it are.

First, let’s de-room this elephant: Development has happened. The last 50 years have seen about the biggest explosion of prosperity in human history. China, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, Mexico—these aren’t the only countries where you’d rather be born now than 50 years ago. Even the poorest countries in the world—Burundi, Somalia, Zimbabwe—are doing way better on stuff like vaccinations and literacy than they did earlier in our own lifetimes.

You sometimes hear this Cambrian proliferation of well-being as an argument against development aid, like: “See? China got better all by itself.” But the rise of formerly destitute countries into the sweaters-and-smartphones bracket is less a refutation of the impact of development aid than a reality-check of its scale. In 2013, development aid from all the rich countries combined was $134.8 billion, or about $112 per year for each of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Did we really expect an extra hundred bucks a year to pull anyone, much less a billion of them, out of poverty?

Development, no matter how it happens, is a slow process. It wasn’t until about 30 years after Mao’s death that China’s per capita GDP reached lower-middle-income status. The country’s growth is arguably the fastest of any country’s since we, as a species, started gathering economic statistics. Even in the most cartoonishly successful scenario imaginable, countries like the Central African Republic (per capita GDP: $700, adjusted for purchasing power), Burundi ($600), and the Democratic Republic of Congo ($400) will take decades just to reach the point where China is now.

The ability of international development projects to speed up this process is limited. Remember how I said the deworming project had a 60-to-1 ratio between the price of the pills and the increase in wages for the kids who got them? The increase was $30. Not $30 per year. The kids earned $30 more over their lifetimes as a result of the deworming treatment. You find this a lot in the development literature: Even the most wildly successful projects decrease maternal mortality by a few percent here, add an extra year or two of life expectancy there.

This isn’t a criticism of the projects themselves. This is how social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers. Leave the leaps and bounds to computing power. If a 49-cent deworming treatment really does produce a $30 increase in wages for some of the poorest people on Earth, we are assholes for not spending it.

And this is where I landed after a year of absorbing dozens of books and articles and speeches about international development: The arguments against it are myriad, and mostly logistical and technical. The argument for it is singular, moral, and, to me anyway, utterly convincing: We have so much, they have so little.

If we really want to fix development, we need to stop chasing after ideas the way we go on fad diets. Successful programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits (direct cash payments, which have shown impressive results in Kenya and Uganda, are a great candidate for the kind of deliberate expansion I’m talking about). NGOs need to be free to invest in the kinds of systems and processes we’re always telling developing countries to put in place. And rich countries need to spend less time debating how to divide up the tiny sliver of our GDP we spend on development and more time figuring out how to leverage our vast economic and political power to let it happen on its own.

As Owen Barder, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development (from whom I stole many of the ideas in this essay), puts it:

If we believe that trade is important, we could do more to open our own markets to trade from developing countries. If we believe property rights are important, we could do more to enforce the principle that nations, not illegitimate leaders, own their own natural resources. ... If we believe transparency is important, we could start by requiring our own companies to publish the details of the payments they make to developing countries.
PlayPump International, the charity I started with, doesn’t exist anymore. The pumps, however, are still being installed by Roundabout Water Solutions, an NGO that markets them as a “niche solution” that should only be installed at primary schools in poor rural areas. Four years ago, the same evaluations that so harshly criticized the rapid expansion of the project also acknowledged that, in some villages, under the right circumstances, they were fabulously helpful.

In 2010, “Frontline” interviewed the director of PlayPump about its failures, and he said, “It might have been a bit ambitious, but hey, you gotta dream big. Everyone’s always said it’s such a great idea.”

And it was. But maybe when the next great idea comes along, we should all dream a little smaller.

Michael Hobbes is a human rights consultant in Berlin who writes regularly for The New Republic.