23 June 2009

Sustainability and the New Economic Order

I am not an expert in either macro or micro economics other than the fact that I studied both at university, and have managed budgets of several million dollars during my lifetime. What I do know well is the concept of sustainability learned from my work overseas on United States Agency for International Development activities. The concept of sustainability stipulates that any activity promulgated by a USAID funded project should, by definition, be sustainable once the USAID mission closes down funding for any particular project. I learned that my concept of sustainability and that of USAID can vary by 180 degrees. My first major lesson in sustainability came in Grenada. The United States decided to provide this poor Caribbean country with a large influx of aid following the “invasion” in October, 1983. It is likely that the United States spent nearly $100m trying to “rebuild” the country in what was our first, of many to come, exercises in “democracy building.” One of the myriad of activities was to build a new road around Grenada and two cross island roads to replace the wholly impassible roadways which had potholes filled with 55 gallon oil drums. Upon my arrival in Grenada, no car was able to drive faster than 10 miles an hour, and even the shortest of trips were painfully slow due to the lack of consistent road surface. Morris-Knudsen (MK), formerly a big player in international development, was hired to build the roadways. MK got to work on this task and the mess and mayhem created was beyond anyone’s imagination who had not worked, or lived, in a developing country. By the time of my arrival in Grenada, I was a seasoned professional when it came to understanding the ways of the developing world. I was not shocked by the roads given how bad the roads were in Asia from which I had only recently moved. I was, however, new to the USAID world and the concept of sustainable solutions. The building of the roads by MK provided me with a lifelong lesson which I like to share with people who are new to development. With the roads freshly completed, and the visit of Ronald Reagan completed, the stormy weather began, and the brand new roadwork was soon chipped away at an alarming rate. The reason you ask? MK had not taken any steps to divert the flow of water under the road into culverts or a sewer system. Within 6 months, the once pristine roads were in tatters. I asked someone at the USAID office why MK had neglected to build water diversion into the new road system and was told the following, “it was not part of their contract.” So MK had bid specifically on building approximately 125 miles of roads and its proposal was selected because it met the USAID specified criteria announced within the request for proposals (RFP) which did not include the diversion of water. MK was selected because they, most likely, provided the lowest cost proposal – no wonder. So there it was, an unsustainable solution staring everyone in the face, yet no move was made to adapt the project on the basis of knowing, without a doubt, that the roads were going to quickly erode away. And they did, rather quickly. Patches were applied, potholes became abundant, and the 55 gallon drums reappeared as the speed limits fell.

Why the lesson in sustainable solutions?

The American economy is in tatters, similar to the roads in Grenada. The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to “fix” the dikes which are springing leaks everywhere. The expression “too big to fail” has become a mantra in Washington, New York and other world capitals. From what I read in my econ classes, the key element which differentiates America from the rest of the world is free enterprise coupled with the chance of failure. It is the risk of failure which often drives people to success. My grandfather had a business which was very successful. His family, immigrants, came to America to build a life girded with a strong desire to succeed or risk failure. There was never the thought of the government coming to the rescue if he did fail. The same is true today with hundreds of thousands of small and medium sized businesses which may fail and will not receive any form of resuscitation. However, AIG, the largest insurance conglomerate in the world is too big to fail. For the past 10 years AIG took on riskier and riskier financial instruments in order to provide value to its shareholders. The U.S. government has stepped into the fray and become the modern day Sisyphus, providing billions, if not trillions of dollars to help companies which are “too big to fail.” While I consider myself a socialist, I am a fiscally conservative socialist who believes that it is not the role of the government to save private sector companies such as General Motors, Bank of America or Bear Stearns. In the world of international development, one must create a sustainable project or accept failure and realize that “all the king’s horsemen couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

It is odd that USAID is constantly stressing sustainable solutions while the head of our government is supporting non-sustainable, batten-down-the-hatches and be-prepared-to-take-on-water solutions. What happens if these measures to stave off the economic failure of America do not succeed? What is the fallback plan? Would it not have been wiser to have allowed companies, who made stupid mistakes and risked it all on the bottom line, to fail? Would our economic institutions and business sector be stronger had we allowed these companies to fail? What is the price of failure? The unemployment rate would probably skyrocket beyond the present 10% level. Michigan and California would fall into whatever the equivalent of Chapter 11 is for a state, but, in the end, perhaps a few years from now, wouldn’t the American economic footing be better and more sustainable? I recognize that I say all of this at the risk of being called a conservative, but I am certainly not that. We are not building sustainable solutions. Are we, as a government, simply “buying" our way out of failure only to feel the full brunt at some point down the line? My concern is that Obama might become the Jimmy Carter of the 21st century. Jimmy Carter came into office when inflation and interest rates began to skyrocket. While he is one of the greatest statesmen of our time – he did bring together Sadat and Begin to create a peace accord which stands today between Egypt and Israel – he ignored the economy during his presidency and, as a result, gave us only 8 years of a democratic presidency during the last 28 years. If Obama is not on top of this economic crisis, and he is unable to make it over that last wave – think of The Perfect Storm and that very last wave which sank the Andrea Gail – and this will likely usher in conservative leadership for another three decades. I did not like Ronald Reagan at all, but he did say one thing which remains as true today during the presidential candidacy debates with Jimmy Carter – “It’s the economy!”

Americans have put up with two simultaneous wars and elected the first minority candidate to the presidency, a progressive who represents a real chance for change, but once the middle class of America fails economically they will vote for anyone who promises to get them out of the morass. While Obama inherited a nasty mess from George W. Bush who will likely go down in history as our worst president, he may be the next Jimmy Carter and some nameless Republican will ride in on a white horse to save the day.

I travel all over the world and the United States, and see a lot of roads with potholes which need fixing. Whoever resolves the financial crisis must remember to design and implement a water diversion solution.

19 June 2009

The Twitter Oxymoron: Isolated Connectedness

I was on assignment in Albania for 3 months at the end of 2008. I had been to Albania a number of times before, so it was not new to me. My assignment was an extension of the work I had done in neighbouring countries such as Macedonia and Montenegro related to telecommunications. While I was technically assigned to work within the Ministry of Education I was, in actuality working for the benefit of the Deputy Prime Minister and his boss. The goal was to design an approach to provide 2800 schools with Internet access, and determining the best model to accomplish this goal. Unfortunately for me, the assignment was not going well for a number of reasons most of which were out of my control. I found myself 6 time zones away from the East Coast and all alone. I decided to break my sour mood by writing stories about Albania and tweeting them to my Twitter group of about 500 people. I tried not to let on how bad things were going, but I found solace in being connected to a group of people for whom I could post stories about my everyday life in Albania -- after all, not many people get to Albania. I did not receive any return tweets so I wrote a specific tweet out of sheer desperation basically stating that tweeting was like the tree which falls in a forest when no one is there to see it fall. I felt alone in Albania and I was using Twitter as a wall against which I could throw my observations but no one responded. The following day there were at least 15 messages awaiting me letting me know that my tweets were being received and that I should continue to share my stories and pictures from Albania. While it didn't make my job any easier, it did replenish some of my optimism and spirit.

Since returning from Albania I have met some of those people with whom I share a Twitter bond. I enjoy meeting people who I either follow, or follow me. But here is an observation about Twitter and Facebook. When I was in Albania, my use of Twitter did not come at the price of not spending time with someone in the flesh -- someone with whom I have a real interactive face to face relationship. On the other hand, when I use Twitter in the United States is does mean that I am not interacting with the people around me and that is a choice that can bring with it unintended consequences. I fully admit that I love Twitter, and I use Twitter every day and worse, I feel a sense of loss when I am not posting a message, or even more, every single day. I love finding articles and sharing them within my group on Twitter and Facebook plus I love writing blogs of all lengths. The truth of the matter is that I find it difficult to reconcile the time commitment I give to all of this. I am keenly aware of how Twitter is playing a significant role in making people aware of the riots in Iran; the earthquakes in China and Italy; the improvement it brings to many businesses, NGOs and governments. I can honestly say that I get “it” but it is no doubt that unless we make a living at "selling" social media solutions or we simply have nothing more urgent in our lives then we must stipulate to the fact that Twitter isolates us just as much as it connects us.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the back of the auditorium listening to a political process at my daughter's school. The candidates for class president and vice president were making their stump speeches which shared many of the same desires. They all spoke about how they would like to have a bit more time each day to spend with their classmates. They wanted to accomplish this by extending the lunch period by 15 minutes and the end of school by 15 minutes. Each candidate also wanted students to be able to use their phones during lunch, and listen to their Ipods during lunch and the 5 minute period between each class. I was struck by the incongruity of their desires -- they want more time to be social yet, at the same time, they want to be able to use the tools which would isolate them from each other. It is fortunate that the school is unlikely to change its ways and acquiesce to the "demands" of the rising 8th graders. I don't want my daughter to be isolated from the children around her. She needs that social interaction in order to become a more mature and loving person. It is interesting to see how technology is used by young, and old, to distract both from social interaction.

I am writing this passage because I had the extreme pleasure of listening to a presentation made at the 140 Character Conference by Laura Fitton (@Pistachio), founder, oneforty inc. and co-author of Twitter for Dummies. Pistachio was one of the first people I followed and she shared with us a very compelling story about her love affair with Twitter. She recounted that she went through some very difficult times and that her Twitter friends provided comfort to her during three very difficult weeks in her life. It was then that I was struck by the incongruity of Twitter. She found solace from her Twitter mates, some who even came to her and lent her support. But what did Pistachio give up in order to develop those relationships with people near and far? I intend no slight to Pistachio at all, I am just trying to make a point about Twitter specifically, and technology in general that it creates the oxymoron of isolated connectedness. I am as guilty as anyone else who spends time on social networking sites, perhaps even more given the extensiveness of my participation. Just other day my son was sitting next to me using his laptop to access Facebook as I was using mine to access Twitter. Am I a bad influence? Am I a neglectful father? I think that the next time I find myself doing this I will close my computer and see whether the two of us can actually communicate in real time rather than through emails and IMs.

08 June 2009

When "Friends" are Forever

I was driving my car running some things through my head, one of which was an informational dump from someone I knew 35 years ago. I was so intent on parsing it through my brain that I turned off the radio, closed the windows, turned on the AC and just thought about what she had done, in a single message, and what it made me realise. We live in a moment in time when it is possible for us, those who are over 40 to reconnect with anyone we ever knew if they have left some type of cyber-trail. What makes this so unique, is that our children will not have an issue with this because they leave bread crumbs everywhere they go and it is not an oddity for them to be fully connected to people around them be they friends, foes or otherwise. I located an old friend just today who used to fly me around the San Francisco region in a Cessna 150 as long as we split the cost of aviation fuel which was all of $3.50 at the time per flight. I asked her to friend me and the jury is still out on whether she will friend me back. So I live with the anxiousness of whether she will, and then wonder what I do next. How does one go about bridging a 33 year gap and then add to it that we were more than just friendly acquaintances – I am left totally discombobulated. Will she wonder whether I am trying to reconnect with her? What will her husband think if she has a husband? Will my first message be "So Anthea, what's been happening since the last time we flew to Monterey Bay?

I pity people who have accounts on all the various social media sites because they are in constant discovery of "new" old friends who may, or may not connect with them. So as I was driving, I was thinking about the note from Joanne detailing what has happened to her life since we last saw each other and said our seemingly last goodbye. She was able to distill her life into four very neatly ordered paragraphs covering her parents, marriage, children and professional life. Oh, and a final note saying "I am an obnoxious know-it-all, but I think I was like that even when you knew me." So now what? Once you open yourself up to another person online, do you simply dump your life details and move on to the next person? Do you meet them somewhere for lunch or dinner? Do you aggregate the demand and set up a reunion type event for multiple people? Who writes the playbook about this kind of stuff? What is proper etiquette?

Back to my children who will, of course make non-cyber based friends, but it is more likely than not that they will remain cyber-connected with no end in sight as long as Facebook et al remains a vital application. What happens if Facebook suddenly dies, and with it we lose all those cyber-based connections? While that seems unimaginable, old technology is constantly displaced by new killer apps. Someday the IPhone will seem as crude as those cell phones we see in movies from the 1980s. When I graduated high school during ancient times relationships ended, that was it! We went off to college, at least I did, and made new friends, and when college was over, I went to graduate school and made new friends leaving behind the old. I left graduate school and moved overseas and made new friends. Along the way there were people I really missed, but life was, at least to me, a process of moving forward and never looking back. Facebook, Myspace, Linkedin, Google, and an entire cacophony of cyber-tools make it so one never ever really has to leave anyone behind. It used to be expensive to make a telephone call and reconnect but now we have Skype and you can reach anyone anywhere for virtually no cost at all. We live in a connected world except for those who eshew technology - the luddites.

The fact is that our children, let's say people 30 and under, have lived in a world where computers and connectivity and the Internet have been as ubiquitous as bicycles, walking to school and writing letters and mailing them were to us. Remember what we thought of someone whose family didn't own a TV set? They were odd and more than likely shunned, or at the least considered strange. No child today between the age of 10 and 30 can really be without a computer because without the requisite technological skills, they will be held back professionally. So my generation is the last one which is able to use the excuse that we didn't grow up with a computer and society takes pity on us. I honestly hear the following within IT circles - "just wait 10 years and they will all be gone." When we are all gone, and out of the game, everyone will know how to use a computer, understand social media, be able to remain connected with every single person they have met throughout their lives but will they be able to communicate on a human level? I can see the future, "Have my bot contact your bot and schedule a date for when we can meet."

In closing this discussion, let me make something perfectly clear. I love the ability to reconnect with people from my past. I have been very fortunate in reconnecting with people who really played a significant role in the past. My concern is what happens to the 90 percent of people who friend you and did not play a significant role in your past. What do you say to those people, the ones who played a minor walk on role in your life so many years ago? Do you not accept their offer of "friending" on Facebook? Do you simply leave them hanging? As someone who was an outsider way back then I tend to accept every invite because one can never have too many friends in a cyber world.