Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Damascus Moment

My final paper for the year is completed and turned in, one day ahead of deadline.

I've been pretty excited about the topic of the paper, which ties in South Africa's need for more skill development (which can also lead to combating unemployment) with the need for better public transportation systems and infrastructure. Just enrolling in school or training or getting a job is only half-solving a problem for many South Africans, because trains and minibus taxis are unsafe and unreliable.

This paper is for my Development Planning class, which met last night. The class bombarded the professor with detailed questions about how to write our paper (due tomorrow, whoops). The instructions were to tie the needs and capabilities of one specific NGO in Cape Town to the larger policy frameworks and processes of the Western Cape Province as well as South Africa, nationally. (A meager task, ha ha ha.)

What resulted from these questions was a very in-depth explanation of how lesgislation is passed in this country--dirty politics and special interests and all. We also had to face the music with regards to funding the policy programmes we were to suggest--where exactly should it come from? Reprioirtize the national budget (which I now know how to lobby for) and give less money to something else? (I for one would like to defund the President's earmark for personal cars for all of his wives. I would like this done YESTERDAY.)

Or should money come for new programmes from a raise in tax? If so, which one? (My classmates like sin tax a lot. Well... some of them!) I really appreciated having SA's tax policies spelled out for me so clearly. (Even though it was driven home that this is the least popular and effective way of financing a new project here.) Finally, SA could take out a loan from World Bank or IMF. That option makes me a little bit stabby, and I must say I'm impressed with the nation's avoidance of new deficits since 1994.

Last night's class was a great way to start wrapping up the semester--and the year. Finishing my paper today, I had a sort of Damascus moment about what I've been learning all year.

I will admit, I thought I had no interest in social science research when I started school in February. But now I see that this research is key for understanding a country, the nature of a social issue, and more*. That research can be the basis of a social policy that can make change in a country--not just welfare programmes (though those are definitely included), but education policy, policy regarding healthcare, TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE, you name it!

I am being trained to collect that data, and then to decide what do do with it, as well as how the political system will treat a new plan. And if that plan (many, many steps later) gets signed into law, the goal is that the change desired after conducting research with people on the ground... actually reaches those people.

It's kind of a big deal.

*I am nerding out with excitement for the Census being taken in South Africa now. There hasn't been one since 2001, even though there was a plan to count the population every five years. The paper I just turned in drove the need for good Census data home for me.

One focus of my project was the immigrant and refugee community in Cape Town, which has not been formally counted for 10 years. A LOT can happen in 10 years--the year after the last Census, Robert Mugabe faced an election controversy in Zimbabwe, and the political and social conditions of that nation have deteriorated steadily ever since. South Africa has been a haven for many folks immigrating from Zim... we just don't know how many folks, officially, right now. And anecdotally, many of the people I interviewed for the qualitative section of this paper came to SA in 2009, so they're not counted in the 2001 Census data, obviously. We need a clearer picture of the population for development planning!

A Census is actually an example of hard data, but it's good data, and necessary to understand a country now and plan for the future. Census data has been the basis for most of my research projects so far, and I'm truly excited to see some up-to-date stats.


  1. “[N]ow I see that this research is key for understanding a country, the nature of a social issue, and more.” Can I hug this sentence?
    My favorite protest sign of all time, as seen at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity: “What do we want? Evidence-based change. When do we want it? After peer review.”
    Even when I was in college, I was struck by how some of the smartest people I knew had no time for the quantitative side of political issues. Not a few times, I was accused of stalling or waffling because I asked for details about the implementation of some hypothetical or actual policy or program.
    I remember the on-campus debates about the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) ca. 2009. In one conversation, I said I was undecided about it. I explained I was looking for independent projections of its costs to insurers, customers and taxpayers, and whether it would give coverage to as many people as its supporters said it would (or, if not that, at least a number that would justify the costs). I was somewhat angrily rebutted by someone who claimed, given the urgency of the crisis posed by 40 million uninsured Americans, “Now’s not the time to play with numbers!”
    I thought that there could be no more *important* time to look at the numbers. It is precisely *because* of the scope of the health crisis and the suffering it causes that we must examine the problem in depth, study and consider reform proposals, and commit ourselves to those that we can be confident will actually work.Salvation is in the details.

  2. PREACH.

    This IS a debate we have in class often--it's so frustrating to conduct social science research on a population that is so clearly suffering. You leave the field and want to yell at the department, "So what can we do RIGHT NOW!?"

    At the same time, being in South Africa has been eye-opening regarding the gap between policy and implementation. SA has the most progressive Constitution in the world, which is something to admire... but the guarantees of that document are not delivered--especially to the people Apartheid most painfully excluded. The most amazing policy document STILL needs to be backed by research (OK, not a Constitution. Those are the unalienable rights and all.) and have a painstakingly detailed plan for implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Otherwise you have drafted a great philosophy paper about the way things SHOULD be, but you haven't done a damn thing to get us there. :/