Category Archives: Work

Know Thy Self-Help

One of the books I read when I was on vacation was Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In. I negotiate contracts at work sometimes, so I thought I should verse myself on the way businessmen get everything they want.

I’m biased against self-help books, how-to books and business books, so Getting to Yes represented a kind of perfect storm of low expectations. I assumed it would give monosyllabic, bullet-pointey instructions for dominating a negotiating opponent through trickery, theatrics and graft. Dress nicer than him! Speculate on the unattractiveness of his wife and children! Arch your back to appear larger!

Somewhat disappointingly, the book is basically an instruction manual for how to be an adult. The core recommendation is to negotiate not from positions (‘I’ll give you $50 for that vase.’ ‘I won’t take less than $200’, etc.) but from interests (‘I’m asking for a raise because feel like I’m not appreciated enough at work.’). Negotiating from positions just makes everyone louder and stricter to avoid losing face, whereas revealing interests allows everyone to separate themselves from the situation and come up with a mutually beneficial agreement.

Even in negotiations over things like the best price for a home, the book says everyone loses out when the buyer and seller each name an arbitrary price (‘$75,000!’ ‘Never! $500,000!’) and split the difference. Instead, they should use objective criteria (‘What did the house next door sell for?’ ‘What was the property appraised for?’) and together decide which criteria is most fair.

Instead of telling you how to dominate an adversary, the book asks you to turn them into a teammate.

My first reaction throughout the book was that negotiation is far from the only area where these skills come in handy. In a million work and personal situations that aren’t negotiations as such, it would probably be a good idea to ask, ‘Why do you want it this way?’ and ‘How can we work together to make everybody happy?’

My second reaction was, Ugh this is fucking hard. It’s so much more satisfying to get a win than a mutually beneficial compromise. It takes work to find an objective price standard. It’s fucking boring to do research on the criteria applied to solving a similar problem. Regarding a work-adversary as a person rather than a role takes energy.

The times when I’ve acted like history’s greatest monster in my professional life aren’t when I was angry or avaricious, they’re when I was lazy. I can’t be bothered to regard you as a person at the moment, I implicitly decided, so let’s just put our hierarchy roles in the ring and let them dogfight.

The book won’t necessarily prevent me from ever doing this again, but at least it makes me aware of when and why I do.

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Why Does USAID Outsource Development in Haiti?

As someone who works in international development, and has been asked to perform tasks for which I am unqualified, this section of an (excellent!) article on Haiti’s reconstruction piqued my interest and guilt:

By the spring of 2010, it had become clear to many observers that imposing a lack of expertise on a situation that required a tremendous amount of it had become a hallmark of the State Department’s “results” strategy. […]

One of Dalberg’s assignments was to do an assessment of a broad, bow-tie-shaped swath of land near the Corail camp, where thousands of Haitians had moved earlier that spring. Even as refugees were streaming onto the land and establishing squatter camps, the State Department hoped to create new communities in the area as part of an attempt to depopulate Port-au-Prince. […]

After looking at the photos in Dalberg’s report, he said, “it became clear that these people may not even have gotten out of their SUVs.”  […]

Vastine says the entire process could have been avoided if USAID had simply relied on its own surveys of the area, which had been done on a regular basis for the past 50 years. “I kept telling these State Department people to go and look in their frickin’ filing cabinets, but it fell on deaf ears,” he says. “It was truly astonishing to me. The amount of previous study on Haiti is immense. But there was no reflection on the existing knowledge base. Instead, they would go out and hire some company to the tune of half a million dollars to barge in equipment from the United States and go punch some holes in the ground, even though we already knew what was down there. Then they’d hire some Ph.D. to study it for six months and do a PowerPoint presentation. Haiti doesn’t need any more Ph.D.s to study it. What it needs are some professionals who know what they’re doing to go out and do the goddamn work and rebuild it.”

This is what happens when you outsource your aid agencies to consultants.

Instead of developing a team of professionals well-versed with the economy, politics and culture of Haiti, who could have used their contacts to coordinate a fast, appropriate response to the earthquake, USAID relied on a for-profit firm to fulfill its core function.

This is like going to Denny’s, ordering a Grand Slam and being told by the waitress, ‘We don’t know how to make breakfast! I’ll go buy some eggs from McDonald’s across the street.’

I’ve met a number of people at USAID over the years, and it apparently conducts most of its projects this way. Get an idea, hire a consultant, hope for the best. The staff of USAID itself is basically a bunch of accountants, making sure all the Excel sheets are in order and that consultants are meeting their self-defined objectives. Oversight is limited to reading summary reports.

Professions like human rights, international development and humanitarian aid aren’t just playgrounds for bleeding-heart Harvard kids who want to ‘make a difference’ between summers in the Hamptons. They’re technical, professional fields that require long-term knowledge of the languages, economies and cultures of developing countries.

We would all find it incredibly strange if, say, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up a food bank in South Chicago run by a bunch of people who had never been to the US, didn’t speak English and hadn’t asked any residents what they actually eat. So why does America’s official aid agency operate this way?

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Uganda Leftovers: Down with OPP (Other People’s Pictures)

Remember how I said I managed to thoroughly not-capture the essence and character of Uganda in my photos?

My colleague did a much better job than I did. Here's a dude returning home from fishing all day.

You see a lot people carrying big loads in inefficient ways like this. Apparently they tried to install a proper bus system, with departure times and everything, in Kampala but the minibus drivers protested and it was scrapped.

All the travel guides said not to swim in Lake Victoria due to urethra-bugs, but the Ugandans were doing it.

Either my colleague photoshopped this, or Uganda had the sepia-filter on that day.

There's a lot of dilapidated, abandoned equipment hanging out in Uganda. It's like a more keepin-it-real version of Hustle and Flow

My colleague took lots of pictures like these. 'Their bodies!' she moaned whenever we were within zoom distance of a beach

This is the market where they yelled 'White people!' as soon as we entered. It's like a Wal-Mart greeter, only facing the other way.

We didn't know what most of this stuff was, so we mostly bought bananas.

This was at the zoo. I love how the hyena and the lawnmower-man are both utterly indifferent to each other.

This is the president. I understand why he had more election posters up than anyone else, but I don't understand why he's wearing a sombrero in all of them.

Here's another market in another city. Bananas, please.

Don't worry, they signed a release form.

This was like the CostCo of Uganda. People were selling grains and other basics in bulk.

Shopping looks like it takes all day there. Nothing is labeled, the stores are constantly understocked, etc.

It makes you realize how much more productive our economies are simply for their reliability.

Reacting to the capriciousness of the Ugandan retail sector, my colleague said, 'But how do people plan their day?!'

Uganda has like the fourth-lowest median age on Earth. I cannot express how fucking *everywhere* the kids are.

No seriously, between the breakfast buffet and the dinner buffet, all we ate was bananas.

Qaddafi supported a bunch of programs and infrastructure in Kampala, so hella stuff is named after him.

This is how entire families get around Kampala. Female passengers sit to the side, men to the front or back.

They also serve as taxis. I've been told you'll be openly laughed at on the street if you sit with the wrong orientation on the back.

The retail sector in Kampala is a bit more developed than in the countryside, but not much more. The only foreign companies are gas stations and mobile providers.

See? Facing sideways. If she was facing front, we would have pointed and laughed out the car window. Integration!

I think my colleague was going for something artsy and metaphorical here. She probably stood there for like 45 minutes waiting for a dove to land, achieving maximum poignancy.

Even her photos from our hotel look better than mine! Ugh, I need a banana.

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