Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why am I here?

I'm a real boy!

and I don't mean that in the metaphysical, gazing-at-the-stars-around-a-campfire "what are we all here for?" kind of way.

I figure it's about time to actually explain what it is that brought me across a continent, an ocean and another continent: work.

Kenneth Dale Drive

This sucker’s going to be pretty dense. So as little rewards for your readership, I’m going to stick in mostly unrelated photos of the office and my daily back-of-a-motorbike-taxi commute.

The office. That's my desk on the right.

Kenneth Dale Drive from the other side

As I mentioned in my first post, I'm here with an organization called Innovations for Poverty Action ( So far my short response when folks have asked me what I do is “research on microfinance. Well… that’s not really entirely true.

Every year, billions of dollars are spent in the interest of “international development”. Thousands of NGOs, funds and foundations throw their energy, money and manpower at projects that they think and hope are going to make a difference in their cause of choice – be that alleviating poverty, promoting environmentally responsible agriculture, distributing medicine, purifying drinking water, or any one of a million other causes. That there are so many people willing to spend so much money in order to promote the wellbeing across national (and continental) lines is undoubtedly terrific.

The problem is no one knows whether all this stuff actually works.

The conference room. Oooo!

The view out my window

Thinking of it in terms of pharmaceuticals makes most sense. Imagine scientists in a drug company – intelligent, experienced scientists no doubt – decide that they are pretty sure a certain new chemical compound will significantly slow the brain cell death involved in Alzheimer’s. They come to this conclusion based on the effectiveness of similar chemicals in treating similar diseases, so it seems to make sense.

Could you imagine that pharmaceutical company, based solely on this logic, immediately undertaking mass production of this drug and disseminating it worldwide without ever actually testing it? Of course not! (for one thing I think the FDA might have something to say about it)
Before a drug ever hits mass markets, it’s tested rigorously through randomized medical trials – patients are recruited and some are randomly chosen to receive the drug and others do not. After a certain amount of time, the two groups are compared (the treatment group versus the control group) and the results are derived from any discernable differences between the groups. If the treatment group is found to be significantly better off than the control group, it can be assumed that this difference is purely due to the effects of the drug.

Hooray! MAKE THAT DRUG! But ONLY after the completion of this rigorous evaluation to ascertain that the drug a) actually works, b) doesn’t cause harm (or at least more harm than good) and c) works well enough to justify the costs of production and distribution.

Police-in-training march by the office singing marching songs.

A Subaru in its native element

So this makes perfect sense in medicine… but why are so many people in so many organizations around the world willing to spend so much time and money on what are effectively social medical treatments without ever actually finding out if they work? Or without determining what use of that time and money works best?

That thinking is what led a handful of Yale, Harvard and MIT professors to start IPA, Ideas 42 and the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, respectively. The idea is to rigorously test development programs BEFORE undergoing massive cost-intensive implementation – in order to make sure the program works and is designed for maximum effect. What we do, in the jargon, is to conduct “impact evaluations”.

This short presentation gives a great idea of what these organizations aim to do:

I was hired to essentially design and run two of these impact evaluations:

1. SaveMoRe: Savings Mobilization Research
(I named this one, and I’m quite impressed with my acronym)

The Foundation for Internatonal Community Assistance (FINCA) is an international microfinance institute. Basically this means that they have branches in developing countries around the world that work like small nonprofit banks – providing loans, savings accounts, credit or any one of a number of other financial products that are specifically targeted at benefiting the ultra-poor.

FINCA wanted to try out a couple new ways of enticing poor folks in Uganda and Ecuador to open savings accounts, so they approached IPA to work hand-in-hand with them in order to help them determine which incentives to try out and to find out which ones work best.

Enter Daniel.

(Okay, actually, enter Daniel’s boss to put up a job posting for a project associate to run this impact evaluation.)

We are still very much in the design phase for this project, but the idea so far is to do a two-phase evaluation.
First, we are going to find out whether making savings accounts free makes a significant difference in the number of accounts open. Currently the cost of opening an account with FINCA is 11000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX) – or about $6. On top of this there is a monthly maintenance fee of 1000UGX (about $0.60). Will eliminating this fee make people much more likely to open accounts? Let’s find out! And, what’s more, will people value free accounts? Will people with free accounts use them as much as people with paid accounts? Let’s find out!

The second part is to test a couple techniques for encouraging people to actively continue saving once they open account. To that end we are going to test the effects of personalized savings consultations (in which new clients are helped to define their savings goals) and automatic every-other-weekly text messages informing them of their account balance.

The plan is to start this project in January, and it will run for about 8 months before we collect our results. Wooo!

Good for you! You've made it this far! Here are some pretty pictures as a reward:

The normal view during my commute

The Hungry Caterpillar!!

2. Starting a Lifetime of Savings: Teaching the Practice of Savings to Ugandan Youth
We lovingly call this one SaLSa (yes, we’re hot on the partially-capital-letter-acronyms)

Thiiiiis is the big one. The budget is about 10 times the size of SaveMoRe, and whereas SaveMoRe is happening in four FINCA branches in and around Kampala, SaLSa’s going to be implemented at about 250 sites all over the country.

This one was also IPA’s own baby. IPA applied for and won a grant from the Financial Education Fund to conduct this study on the effectiveness of financial education to youth. The need for this project comes from the intersection of two critical and defining concerns of the Ugandan population: the fact that fifty percent of Ugandans are below 18 years of age and that the country’s current savings rate is exceptionally low, even judging by Sub-Saharan African standards. So let’s see if we can get those kids saving early! Woohoo! Get excited!

Enter Daniel. Again.

(Photo break!)

For this sucker we’re again working with FINCA, as well as an organization called the Straight Talk Foundation. STF has a network of youth clubs allllll over the country, and has a really good reputation with the youth of Uganda. So we are going to tap into that network of clubs in order to test two things: financial literacy training, and youth group bank accounts. We are I am hard at work trying to figure out how the heck to best teach kids to save money, though I’ll be getting some help from Freedom from Hunger on the development of a curriculum.

Oh yeah, and I have to figure out how FINCA should design a bank account that kids in youth groups would like and use.

Do I sound like I’m in over my head yet? No? Well how about when I remind you that this project is to be conducted in 250 clubs all around a country in which about 35 different languages are spoken. Oh, and this one is ALSO set to start in January. 2010 is going to start off with a bang for Daniel. New Year’s resolution? Don’t lose my damn mind.
This sucker’s supposed to run until about May of 2011

So those are my babies. I spent 4.5 years studying psychology and political science in order to land myself a job trying to figure out how the hell to design savings accounts. Hah!

Seriously, though. The amount I’m learning is incredible – I’ve basically spend the past couple weeks self-administering a master’s level education in behavioral economics and research design. Awesome. And scary. And awesome. It’s a hell of a lot of work already (and I know it’s only just starting), but already the moments of epiphany have been numerous thrilling – the moments of figuring out how to solve a potentially damning hang-up in our design (such as setting up an IPA call center and having FINCA marketers call the center in order to find out which treatment group a new client is randomly assigned to – that was one of my best brain-children so far!).

Ok, I’m sorry this one has been so dense. I’ll try to make my next post as inane as possible in order to make up for it!

Aaaand some more photos:

One of my favorite buildings.

Space-man Daniel, signing off.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Some tidbits of the every-day

I figure it's about time to offer some information on every day life from a gringo (whoops, "mzungu") in Kampala. This is going to be a rambler.

First of all, this is my flat:

I did a little video tour, but I'm not having any luck uploading it. Hopefully the internet will have a better day soon!

Secondly: language. No, I don't know how to speak with clicks yet. In fact I'm pretty sure there aren't even any languages in Uganda that involve clicking. Bummer.

Almost everyone I've interacted with so far in Kampala speaks some amount of English. Most of them are fluent enough to make usual conversation pretty easy. I don't even have to be Typical American Tourist and make myself understood by yelling really really slowly!
Seriously, though, it makes adjusting much easier when I'm not battling the language barrier and therefore feeling like a total moron every five minutes.

The most common indigenous language in Kampala is Luganda. Luganda is the language of Buganda - the largest of the handful of kingdoms that still exist as traditional divisions in Uganda. Yes, "Uganda" comes from "Buganda". Other than Luganda, however, there are about 35 other indigenous languages spoken all over Uganda. It gets confusing quickly. Imagine how much fun I'm going to have in a couple months when I'm traveling all over the country visiting survey sites for work? I'm going to need a different interpreter every 5 minutes. Or one interpreter who speaks 30 languages. Woo!

I really enjoy Ugandan accented English. It has a very precise and proper (maybe British influence?) sound to it. It helps that people, in general, are very polite when they speak. Almost every interaction, no matter how trivial, begins with "Hello. How are you? I am fine" or something along those lines. It makes buying bananas feel so much more formal.

There are some funny little nuances to Ugandan English. For instance, the most common farewell is "nice time"... waaaaaay easier than saying "HAVE A nice time". Similarly people will say "nice night" or "nice weekend". Ugandans also will say "pick" and "drop" rather than "pick up" and "drop off". You know what? Maybe they're on to something... they speak so much more efficiently!
A particular favorite cultural language tendency is Ugandans' love of the word "sorry" (generally pronounced "soddy") - to be used in damn near any context. I dropped a brick on your foot? Soddy! You tripped in a pothole? Soddy! I almost t-boned you with my motorbike even though your walking on the sidewalk? Soddy! You sneezed? Soddy! All the food in your refrigerator went bad because you haven't had electricity for 24 hours even though the power company (apparently) charges the 2nd highest rate for electricity in the world? Soddy!

I also love that when little children see me (or any other non-Ugandan), they instinctively yell "MZUNGU BYYYEEEEEEE" which apparently translates to "HIIIII WHITEYYYY!" Hah!

Now on to food. I'm afraid to say the local food doesn't really knock my socks off. It's by no means bad! And I think it's probably pretty healthy... it's just kinda bland. Basically the way it works is this: you get a big plate piled high with starches, another dish with some sort of meat, usually some pinto beans on one or the other dish and if you're lucky you may also get some sort of greens - be they a coleslaw-y salad or something along the lines of collard greens [thank you mom for the well-meaning email about "collard" greens not wearing shirts nor committing crimes, and therefore not, in fact, being "collared" greens... aaaaaand making me feel like a moron]. And if you're REALLY lucky there will be chili sauce with which to douse it all (and clean out your insides). Oh! And sometimes there's g-nut sauce, too. "g-nut" is how the cool kids say "ground nut". "ground nuts" are, well, peanuts. G-nut sauce is therefore close enough to peanut butter to thrill my pants off.

The plate-o-carbs options that I've discovered so far are: matoke (green bananas boiled into a pulpy mass), sweet potato, pumpkin, brown rice, cassava, white rice, phenomenally tasteless polenta-like stuff and french fries. Also that list is in the order of my preference at the moment (high to low).

The meat options are usually super-sketchy beef, slightly less-sketchy chicken and least-sketchy fish. I usually choose fish. I'm pretty sure the most common kind is Nile perch in a stew. Dip a forkful of carb-of-choice into stew, spear piece of meat, insert in mouth. Seriously, it's not bad, it's just... kinda... there. I could see myself averaging 1 local meal every other day without getting too burnt out.
The real up side is that a meal at a local-food restaurant usually runs between 3000 and 4000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX), or about $1.75 - $2.25. For a SERIOUS amount of grub.
Kampala does also have a pretty vibrant foreign-food scene - so far I've had Italian, Thai and Indian, all of which have been dang tasty.

Rice, beans, matoke; chicken & beans; chili sauce

Fish stew; matoke, sweet potato, beans, greans

This is, however, a GOOD place to be a tropical-fruit lover. I just got back from the Bugolobi Trading Center (the local marketplace), where I bought 2 mangos, an avocado and a bunch of those super-sweet little golden bananas for... $2.00 (also the pineapple I bought the other day was about $1). VICTORY! The only real tragedy is the lack of tortilla chips with which to eat aforementioned avocado. Kate, however, is working on this.

How is Kate trying to solve Kampala's tortillalessness, you may ask? Well... it just so happens that I lucked out and am living with a woman whose job is (among other things) to work with students at Makerere University's Food Science and Technology institute. What exactly is Food Science in Technology? It is the Science and Technology of making FOOD! Better food! These students work in groups with Ugandan farmers to "add value" to their products. For instance, if a farmer grows pineapples, he can sell those pineapples for, say 1000UGX, and he has to sell them relatively quickly before they go bad. If, however, he has the know-how and required technology, he can dry and package this pineapple, then store it for much longer and sell it for much more (packets of probably 1/5 of a pineapple go for 500UGX). It's a pretty cool project, and the students are coming up with pretty brilliant products. Kate, however, being the exploitative mzungu that she is (joking), is on a one-woman mission to get one of her students to figure out how to make tortillas (and thereby tortilla chips) with local ingredients. Joseph, one of her students, is hard at work. We wait with bated breath.

Some of the awesome products Kate's students are producing (and thereby stocking our cabinets with) are:
Peanut butter! (actually includes peanuts and sesame seeds... delicious)
"Nutri-nut": chocolate peanut butter!
Mango garlic sauce (we marinaded chicken breasts in this stuff and grilled it... WOW)
Mango chutney
"Zeeba Multi Grain Bar": super-crunchy nut-and-seed bar (this has been breakfast a few times)
Garlic & Chili Sauce (as I've been typing this I took down half an avocado with salt and this sauce on it)

They're all amazingly delicious. And cheap! And sustainable! Woohoo!

Needless to say, I lucked out and am living with a couple of serious gourmands. Life is tough.

The other day we got a bit carried away and breaded&fried everything we could. Including okra. Mmmm....

Epicurious Kate makes meatballs from scratch for spaghetti last night! Which means leftover meatball subs tonight! Woohoo!

In other news, click this for some photos from my walk to Bugolobi Trading Center today:
Images of daily life

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Already a weekend away

Only my second weekend in town and I decided it was time to get away.

Ok... that's not entirely true. My adoptive friends decided for me it was time to get away. Actually, a pair of those adoptive friends had their wedding party last weekend, so they decided for all of us that it was time to get away. Whatever - the important part is that I spent the weekend - from late Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon at a lovely place called Ssissa up a hill about 20 miles outside of Kampala. And it was awesome.

On the road to Ssissa:
From Ssissa

Friday was actually Ugandan independence day and a national holiday... not that that meant I didn't have a meeting plus a couple hours of work. Sheehsh. Aaaaanyway, we arrived at a little club called Ssissa, well up a dirt quasi-road Friday evening and spent about an hour just coming to terms with the view. Helllooooooo Africa!

From Ssissa

Moses and Jillian had their wedding ceremony in early September but, for reasons I forgot to ask about, had their party this past weekend. If you have the chance to go to a Uganda wedding, go for the second half. The first half is pretty much a long stream of long speeches by relevant folks which, while interesting for their cultural nuance, had the tendency to get a bit... rambling. One relative of Moses treated the 100ish guests to a long ambling diatribe about what a wonderful success his bank is. I needed to know that.

Oh! One highlight of the speeches was that one of Moses' relatives told Jillian that they're giving her a cow as a wedding present! HAH! It must have been a runty baby cow, though, because I investigated and there were definitely no full-cow-sized wrapped packages on the gift table. Also the local band definitely played a song at one point that had "hakuna matata". Hah! I'm in Africa and someone said hakuna matata!

As, in my experience, is characteristic of weddings around the world, shenanigans ensued after dinner as the beer and wine flowed. I had long conversations about totally irrelevant topics with people I didn't know (including a freelance journalist - that was a pretty interesting one), I drank some beer that renewed my despair about the developing world's distaste for beer with flavor, I saw my boss get down to some Ugandan music, and I got down to some Ugandan music (by "got down" I of course mean tried not to worry about how much of a doofus I was making of myself by trying to imitate my brand new Ugandan buddies).

The lodge had beautiful cabins for rooms... but not enough. So I slept on a cot in a tent! I love fake camping! (I was about 8 feet from the cabin some friends were staying in, complete with hot shower and flushing toilet... talk about roughing it). Saturday morning was a bit rough for everyone, but that just made the day that much more relaxing: no one could really muster the energy to do much of anything beyond read. And read. And read. And nap. Nothing like being in a comfy chair in an open-air lodge during an African thunderstorm to put me right to sleep.

Can you figure out where I slept?
From Ssissa

The lodge:
From Ssissa

Most of the guests left later Friday night or Saturday morning, so Saturday evening was much mellower. It actually got cold Saturday night so we spent the evening blanketed and couched around a roaring fire, enjoying pleasurable conversation. Wait, scratch that. It was me and 4 girls on a couch... I'm sure you can imagine the conversations I had the pleasure to be privy to. If I hadn't been so damn comfortable...

I was thrilled to discover that Sunday presented the same phenomenal view as the previous days. Fortunately, however, the storms stayed away for the first half-day so I could watch my petite female flatmates trap-shoot. What we discovered: Kate, the somewhat-firearm-experienced 5'1.75" (by her report) Kansasian couldn't hit the broadside of a quickly-moving clay-pigeon-sized barn. She hit 1 of 25 targets. Hannah "Sharp-Shootin'" Schwing, the timid Texas-bred never-touched-a-gun mysteriously also 5' 1.75" vegan took down 7 out of 12. Well played.

Sharp-shootin' Schwing:
From Ssissa

Well that was about the long and short of the weekend: read, read, read, eat, nap, read, watch little girls shoot big guns. And back to town we mosied. I'd love to say that the nice relaxing weekend made for a nice relaxing Monday, but I'm still in the midst of the frantically-try-to-learn-how-to-do-everything-while-being-expected-to-do-everything first few weeks of work. Example: I'm going to be sent up to the North of Uganda to teach another IPA Project Associate how to use a program I don't know how to use. Woo!

And on that note, click here for lots&lots of pictures:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No real theme... but some pictures!

First of all, check it out! You can see where I live (You have to copy and paste the link into a browser):,32.626503&spn=0.002806,0.003535&t=h&z=18

It looks just about as soulless from the ground, too. It's the inside that matters, though, right? Here's a sneak peak:

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Yes, it is bigger, more spacious and generally more comfortable than my apartment in Berkeley was. And it has a washing machine! And a gas stove! I had to travel clear to the opposite side of the planet to finally have these luxuries.

Sooo in the process of making my living space even more livable, I bought myself a new foam mattress. Except I didn't really "measure" my bed before buying the mattress. So what do you do when your foam mattress is about a foot wider than your bed? Equip your flatmate with a bread knife and sick her on it:

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A few people have asked me about the weather here. Yes, I am only about 25 miles north of the equator. And yes, it is POURING rain right now. And actually kinda cold. Uganda in general is actually fairly high-altitude, meaning that we don't get that stereotypically hot&steamy air-so-thick-you-can-almost-drink-it equatorial clime. Instead it's actually pretty nice. There have definitely been a few moments of "holy crap it is Africa hot!" but the weather tends to be pretty variable. Today's a good example: when I left the house at 8:15 it was bright and sunny and bordering on hot. At noon it starting thundering, lightninging and POURING rain. I don't remember the last time I heard thunder like that - it sounded like someone was shelling the office.

Aaaanyway, this kind of weather makes choosing one's attire in the morning a bit tricky... especially when one's mode of transportation to the office is the back of a motorbike-taxi. Hence my awesome traveling-to-work get-up on Tuesday:

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I was going for the pastel-spaceman-commando look.

And 30 seconds late, voila!

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And a completely unrelated pretty picture of Kampala from the hill of Makerere University:

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Ok, that's about the end of my themeless rambling for the evening. Have a nice yesterday!