Category Archives: policy/planning

2017, year of “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT)

Asking “Why are we doing this?” is often a good reality check. Posing the question is sometimes a way of expressing doubts about a course of action. It is a question that has been coming to mind a lot in the wake of various policy decisions by the new administration in the US headed by Donald Trump, and by the new Congress.

SDG logoActually I find myself asking this question – often as “why are we undoing this?” – quite a bit. And this is the proper form of the question -not “why are they (un)doing this?”- if you think of this as being one nation. We’re in this together and need to ask appropriate  questions. So I don’t regard this as partisanship, but rather critical and dispassionate (as much as is possible when considering the human dimensions of some of these issues) reading of policy proposals and actions.

“Why are we doing this?” & refugees in Australia

So come to find out the president himself  has been asking “Why are we doing this?” in regard to the agreement with Australia (made by the previous administration, of Barack Obama) to receive 1200 refugees (refugees, not “illegal immigrants” as the president tweeted). One might also ask “Why are we undoing this?” if the president nixes the agreement.

To really ask “Why are we (un)doing this?” however, means more than just throwing out a challenge or dismissing a proposed or existing course of action. There are several items to consider, such as:

  • What are the anticipated benefits of the policy/action (and for who), or what problem does it propose to address?
  • What legal, diplomatic, ethical, or moral obligations come to bear in deciding on the policy/action?
  • How will this course of action lead to the desired outcome?
  • What are the costs of pursuing this course of action, or of not pursuing it?
  • What secondary effects might result from this course of action and the steps involved in actualizing it, or from not implementing it?

In general, it seems the previous administration prioritized humanitarian concerns and international cooperation in the context of understanding the US as a nation of immigrants, while the current administration seems to prioritize protection and national interests even at the expense of international agreements, with a more “nativist” conception of America. Also the previous administration seems to have been more positive-sum in its approach to issues, while the current one sees things more in zero-sum terms.

However, even when understanding general approaches and biases, specific issues need specific questions. What are the benefits of the agreement to settle these refugees in the US is a question that can be answered more narrowly or more broadly (such as local cost/benefit vs. a more stable world system). On the other hand, the benefits of canceling the agreement are framed in terms of keeping out people described as undesirable (though frankly the president’s characterization of these refugees as coming from “prisons” is evidently inaccurate, and the apparent reference to Australia exporting the “next Boston Bombers” is also off the mark). A range of obligations are relevant in this case, from moral (humanitarian) to diplomatic (since the agreement has been made) to safety (to the extent that these refugees may represent a risk). The question of costs of settling the refugees vs. nixing the agreement can be calculated in human, monetary, and diplomatic terms. The contrary concern appears to be that these refugees represent a risk or burden that the government should avoid is one probably misinformed based on experience – but in any event addressed by answering how vetting would take place as part of the process.

The secondary effects of such issues need more attention than they seem to be getting. In this case, refugees as immigrants can be seen as benefiting the country, as they have for generations, in terms both of contributions they and their descendants make, and our national image. But some see in these refugees and their descendants as potential threats – a perception that is at least debatable (and debated) considering the long history of immigrant communities in the US, and especially in light of the rigor of established vetting procedures. Globally, the ripple effects of keeping refugees in camps could, aside from holding people in inhuman conditions, have their own longer term security risks. There is also a cost to the image of America in treating refugees in general as potential criminals. Populations are moving, in response to various problems, often fleeing dire conditions. Responses to their plight and needs – in a world system where even stable areas are seeing social problems, climate change, and increasing economic inequality – will require more than raising barriers or opening doors.

Other “Why are we doing this?” issues

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of policy proposals and decisions that have me asking this question. Such that it is tempting to acronymize it as “WAWDT,” and use that as a tag. To the extent that time permits I hope to look at some of them with attention to specific questions such as those proposed above.

In trying to answer such questions, I believe one will find that there will be a pattern to assumptions driving these proposed changes, and that some of the responses – the answers to the specific questions about “Why are we doing this?” – will also recur. For instance, the president’s reaction to this group of refugees held by Australia shares some common elements with the controversial and much more widely directed Executive Order 13769 effectively banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the US.


International Anti-Corruption Day 2016

IADC 2016 logoInternational Anti-Corruption Day (IACD) has been marked annually on December 9 since 2003, the year in which the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). Having just returned from a short term contract with an anti-corruption effort in Mali, I thought it worth highlighting this issue on this day.

IACD was actually designated as Dec. 9 by the UNGA at the time of adoption of the UNCAC. It figures as part of a global anti-corruption campaign led by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the U.N. Development Program. IACD’s dedicated website is at

What is corruption?

Corruption is variously defined, but involves uses of power and/or money to achieve a desired but unethical and illegal (or at least extralegal) benefit. By its nature it involves someone in a position of authority seeking or able to confer the illicit benefit. As such it is not one thing but a range of practices that can occur in many contexts.

The simplest distinction is between a person in authority charging a fee or gift for a good or service that should be provided without charge, and a transaction between a private citizen and a person in authority to allow the former to get away with something unlawful (e.g., illegal goods, avoiding taxes or fines). One can also distinguish for example petty corruption (what an individual might encounter) from grand corruption (of the big money sort one might read about in the press), or systemic corruption (which is generalized and organized) from sporadic corruption (which may arise in diverse situations).

In fact, once one begins to consider details of specific situations, the taxonomy of corruption gets a lot more complex. Two organizations concerned with corruption offer glossaries of its various forms:

There is, as one would imagine, a significant amount written about corruption. Among bibliographies, Matthew Stephenson‘s extensive (197 page) “Bibliography on Corruption and Anti-Corruption” and Inge Amundsen and Odd-Helge Fjeldstad’s “Corruption – A selected and annotated bibliography” are of note.

Personally, having encountered corruption (mostly indirectly) in West Africa at various points over the last three decades, and trying to make sense of those experiences and qualitative data from research by the project with which I worked, I have found J-P. Olivier de Sardan‘s discussions of what he calls the “corruption complex” helpful (see for example “A Moral Economy of Corruption in Africa?“).


Biofuels reconsidered

CPL Press, Biochemical routes to liquid biofuelsBiofuels – fuel derived from organic matter – are generally considered to be more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels in that they are renewable and, in theory at least, “carbon neutral.” However there are downsides to biofuel, such as the energy and resources to produce them, and in the case of fuel produced from food and oil crops, potential impacts on food markets. The picture is more complex.

Are some biofuels more environmentally friendly and beneficial to the socio-economy than others? What is the place of biofuels in the overall energy equation of the future? Without going into a long discussion, here are a few proposed maxims that may be useful in considering such questions. These are derived from some discussions a few years back and intended as relative measures rather than absolute binary choices:

  1. Gathered is better than purpose grown. For example deadwood chopped into firewood is less costly to produce (land, water, inputs, energy) than crops grown for biofuel. Waste matter is a potential energy source that could be “gathered” for that purpose, although requiring processing. Jatropha seeds collected from hedgerows costs little in land compared to a plantation of jatropha created for seed production. Production of algae for conversion to biofuels requires infrastructure and much water. One problem with gathering biomass suitable for energy from nature or human activity is that it tends to be diffuse and limited (with the possible exception of human waste products). For example wood waste as a byproduct from logging and sawmills is a source of energy but the volume produced (which can be collected) is a function of other activities and not one easily increased.
  2. Less processing is generally better. Processing does have the advantage of yielding a more concentrated and often more portable energy source, but it has energy costs and externalities. A simple example is turning firewood into charcoal, which involves burning off the volatile constituents (energy generally wasted) but yielding a lighter and more concentrated energy source. Towards the other extreme, fuel ethanol production from corn (maize) is a multi-step process. The energy balance (output from a given input) of such processes is a matter of some controversy, but probably all would agree that if it were possible to produce a given unit of biofuel with less steps and inputs, the outcome would be more positive.
  3. Less distance is generally better. Getting firewood locally (as we do in our home for a fireplace insert) involves less cost, and in theory at least, more potential for responsible management, than shipping firewood around the world. Of course no one proposes import-export of firewood, but other diverse biomass is exported for production of biofuels. One example is palm oil from Southeast Asia to make biodiesel in Europe. A big part of this is transportation, which of course is part of the fossil fuel market too, but with less flexibility in the case of biofuels (one can find petroleum sources in various locations, but some types of biomass inputs like palm oil are very region-specific and possibly not substitutable).
  4. Small is beautiful. Smaller scale production of biofuels has less of an impact on the environment and economy than larger scale operations. A big issue is use of finite land and water resources. Some years back I worked on a project in Mali which had as a major goal promotion of planting woodlots with villages which could then, so the thinking went, harvest wood from those lots for their their cooking needs. Small and local, this might seem to make sense, but in fact it meant taking land out of agricultural rotation for an uncertain future outcome. An even smaller and apparently more successful approach in another region of the same country a few years later was planting of jatropha in lines along roads and field boundaries – no lot required. Contrast with large plantations of annual biofuel crops which can have enormous impact in an area to serve needs far away (impacts being potentially both positive and negative, but with clear opportunity costs for types of land use and agriculture).

Another perspective on biofuels is worth adding to the mix here. Generally biofuels are considered along with technologies such as solar, wind, and wave energy as cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels. However biofuels work on the same paradigm as fossil fuels – burning something to release energy (with byproducts such as carbon dioxide). It can be argued therefore that biofuels are actually more like fossil fuels except for the premise that they are carbon neutral, and the fact that diverse biomass sources for biofuel production are arguably less substitutable than say crude petroleum from diverse locations.

Again the picture is complex, and all this is not to say that biofuels as a whole are bad. Rather there may be some types of biofuel and approaches to incorporating them into the larger energy equation that make more sense than others. Conversion of waste into fuel would be elegant – turning a problem into a resource. On the other hand, devoting land and water to growing crops or other biomass specifically to process and ultimately burn doesn’t seem sustainable in a world faced with a growing population and impending climate changes.

Longer term, the energy market will certainly follow Buckminster Fuller‘s observation about the “ephemeralization” of technology, which we see the beginnings of already with advances in utilizing solar and wind power. Eventually the burning of substances for energy will become marginal in the global energy equation.


Multiple languages & globalization: Two upcoming conferences

Two separate conferences that will take place this coming September address different aspects of languages in the globalizing world: policy and planning; and transnationality. (The CFP deadlines for both have already passed.) Although the topics are different, they do overlap in some ways. Quick profiles follow:

LPP 2016

LPP2016 imageMultidisciplinary Approaches in Language Policy and Planning (LPP) is an annual conference series sponsored by the University of Calgary since 2012. The next edition – the fifth – will take place in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on 1-3 Septermber 2016.

LPP includes “papers and colloquia that approach language policy from a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives, and in a variety of contexts, from the local/institutional to national/global” addressing the following areas (list from conference CFP; selected items linked to Wikipedia articles):

Language policy and planning are first thought of in the context of nation-states and their governments, and secondarily in terms of regional subdivisions in some multilingual countries. However, international/intergovernmental organizations also have language policies (such as the United Nations) and in some cases do language planning (such as various processes in Africa concerning orthographies and cross-border languages). And some countries (such as the US, UK, France, and China) officially sponsor programs to expand global use of their main languages. I suspect that the international dimension of language policy and planning will only become more important.

The last bulleted item in LPP’s list above (which appeared in its CFP) seems to have a significant overlap with the topic of the other conference, on language and transnationality, which is spotlighted further on.

The LPP conferences achieved early success and since have become well-established in the field of language policy and planning with participants from 25-30 countries annually. An interesting side note is that the University of Calgary also sponsors a more locally-focused annual spring conference on Linguistic Diversity and Language Policy (LDLP), which complements the LLP series. According to Prof. Thomas Ricento, organizer of these conferences, “The goal of both conferences is to raise awareness on language matters in Canada and globally and to provide an opportunity for up and coming scholars and seasoned scholars and researchers to meet (in the Fall conference [i.e., LPP]), network, and share research. … both conferences have featured plenary speakers with particular expertise in a range of areas in Language Policy and Planning.” (Thanks to Prof. Ricento for sharing information and links.)

Languages & Cultures in 21st Century Transnationality

The Languages and Cultures in 21st Century Transnationality conference will be held on 9-10 September at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. It is an interdisciplinary conference relating to the study and teaching of modern languages, and focusing on transnational aspects, which seeks to bring together three academic streams (info below reformatted from the conference CFP; selected themes linked to Wikipedia articles):

Within this list, thereis overlap with the LPP conferences, most obviously with the mention of language planning.

The conference CFP elaborated the concept in these terms:

Modern Languages, both implicitly or explicitly, deals with the transnational aspects of cultures and, as a discipline, it is hence ideally suited to have societal impact on the construction of transnational education. Intercultural citizenship, in particular, is becoming a sine qua non in the Twenty-First Century. Modern Languages poses multicultural and multilingual questions about identity, subjectivity and alterity of past, present and future. As academics we represent institutional power and theoretical knowledge; we are mediators between theoretical processes of conceptualization and practical moments of interpretation; information brokers and hence in the fortunate positions to bring about social change.

Unlike the LPP series, this is a first time conference. It will be interesting to see how it develops.


I find it useful to juxtapose such efforts, which approach a broad common area – in this case as I see it, how we constructively deal with linguistic diversity in a changing global (and national and local) society – from different vantage points. Each addresses different areas of practice – policy and planning, and education in the context of transnationality – but there are overlaps in some theoretical topics considered. LPP’s area of concern is scalable to a large degree – one can discuss and to a certain degree apply policy and do planning at different levels. The Translationality conference has a more explicitly global and perhaps multilocal focus in terms of understanding processes, though that knowledge could naturally be applied by educators down to the local level.


Thoughts about COP21 on a warm December day

It has often happened over the years that one day in autumn, something about the temperature, the sun, the air, and sounds has my senses saying “spring.” And vice-versa – on one spring day it just feels like autumn. Not sure, but I think I first noticed this after returning to temperate climates from years living in the very different cycle of seasons in the tropics (and therein would be another story).

It has never happened before, however, that on a mid-December day in temperate mid-Atlantic North America, I feel like spring and autumn have somehow overlapped. Raking the last of some autumn leaf fall to find some bulbs starting to sprout as if it were early spring. Trimming some dead flowering vines off an arbor, only to see that there are fresh green sprouts as well. And a few bright yellow dandelions coming up.

Technically it’s just a long warm autumn in one region – in what happens to be the hottest year on record worldwide. Still it was a bit surreal to be cutting the grass in a tee-shirt at a time of year when there are no leaves on the trees and neighbors have put up Christmas decorations.

Weather, climate, and policy

It’s a fallacy of course to draw conclusions from weather in one area to the state of the climate in that area, let alone globally. But it has sometimes seemed like weather here in the Washington, DC area has had an inordinate effect on rhetoric in the US if not on actual policymaking about climate change. The “Snowmageddon” storm in the US middle Atlantic in 2010 elicited doubts about global warming, and extreme winter cold in the eastern US in 2014 caused by a shift in the “polar vortex” had a similar effect. Last February, a US senator brought a snowball into the legislative chambers to punctuate his claim that global warming is a hoax. So maybe it’s helpful in the capital area to have some record high December temperatures more in line with what’s happening worldwide, as politicians and policymakers here consider the Paris Agreement of the just concluded UN Climate Change Conference COP21.


COP 21 logo

COP21 – the twenty-first “Conference of the Parties” since 1995 – was convened amidst growing concern about a number of issues related to climate change. For example, some island countries and major coastal areas face submersion from rising sea levels, other regions could become uninhabitable due to heat indexes of 165-170°F / 74-77°C, and large scale “environmentally induced migration” is already an issue (just to put yardwork in December or snowballs in February into perspective).

By most accounts, COP21 has done a remarkable job in finding an international consensus on goals and means for limiting production of greenhouse gasses. The Paris Agreement issued by the conference  is the latest in a series of protocols, agreements, and action plans within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which was adopted at the Earth Summit (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. However it is the first among them to be “universal”- that is it involves virtually every country (the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, for instance, primarily concerned emissions by industrialized nations).

Like earlier efforts – some of which are considered to have failed – it will require follow-through by signatories. The Paris Agreement is not a treaty, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, so is not binding under international law. Therefore a lot depends on decisions by individual governments concerning their respective “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDC) and monitoring of emissions levels.

Criticisms of the agreement begin with the latter – how do the INDCs add up, how will the Agreement be carried out by signatories, and how will it be evaluated – and include questions about whether it goes far enough, or allows crossing of too many “red lines.” Other criticisms relate to economic impacts. And then there is what we might call the “snow fort” of climate change denial.

In any event, this Agreement is all we have at this point, and whatever its imperfections needs attention and action if the worst of outcomes of climate change are to be avoided or, where already unavoidable, ameliorated.

Spanish moss in northern Virginia

Another surprise working in the yard yesterday was finding a sprig of Spanish moss on the ground, still very much alive. This plant of course can’t handle the winter cold that we usually and will eventually have, again, in this part of Virginia. We had brought some back from a trip to Savannah, Georgia last spring (gathered from fall beneath some trees), just to see how it grows. It obviously survived, and actually grew some, but never seemed to thrive. Then a month or two ago a windstorm stripped the last of it off the magnolia, so I assumed it had perished. Maybe will try to keep it going inside to hang out again in the spring as a global warming decoration?


International Decade of Languages proposed

There has been some formal discussion of the idea of an International Decade of Languages at UNESCO‘s General Conference this month in Paris. On 8 October, the representative of Austria, Dr. Claudia Schmied, “welcomed” a proposal apparently made by Hungary for the Decade (I have no information at this time on Hungary’s proposal).

Then in a meeting of the Cultural Commission (as part of the Conference), Venezuela, Chile, and Ethiopia joined Hungary in calling for the United Nations General Assembly to declare an “International Decade of Languages and Multilingualism.” According to Dave Pearson of SIL International, this took place in a discussion of a possible standard-setting instrument for protection of indigenous and endangered languages.

Hopefully there will be follow-up to this proposal. In the meantime, if anyone has references to Hungary’s proposal or information on any other proposals, statements, or discussion re the Decade, please let us know!