Bibliografias & Bases de Datos: My graduation from Grupo FARO

19 July 2012

My supervisor assigned me a closing project that would essentially constitute my “graduation” from Grupo FARO. As the Research Director and a senior member of the organization, Andrea is connected to the research arms of several of our donors. That is, certain donors are more than just funding entities, but they’re also support bodies and social networks of sorts. They seek to support and strengthen research and connect researchers from around the world.

This is the case of two of our donors, IDRC (International Development Research Centre) and GDNET (Global Development Network). IDRC is the organization that put on the Think Tank Initiative and that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. GDNET, whose motto is “Connect South”, aims to link researchers throughout the global South. Both donors provide Grupo FARO with access to academic databases, including the EBSCOHost platform and its subsidiary databases, JSTOR, and Project MUSE. It’s a goldmine of information and any researcher’s dream.

Unfortunately, very few of Grupo FARO’s researchers regularly use this rich resource. They do use a plethora of statistical databases and create their own studies. However, the databases provided by IDRC and GDNET could be incredibly useful for literature reviews and looking for theoretical documents that form the basis of any paper or report.

I conducted a short survey using the handy online tool SurveyMonkey to find who uses the databases and if not, what obstacles are preventing them from effectively using them. I found that only three of the sixteen respondents did use them, and those that didn’t had little knowledge of what the databases contained or even what login information they needed to access them. Some weren’t even aware we had access to such databases. The survey was essential in identifying what I would need to cover in my presentation.

And so from there I began exploring the databases, their interfaces, their content, their search options, until I felt confident enough to explain to my colleagues how to navigate them. I was reminded of how much I love researching and finding that perfect source. From there I built a presentation with Prezi, which is always a blast to use. Finally, I practiced going through the presentation and wrote down some guiding sentences of what I might say. I was a little nervous as I would be speaking in Spanish to a handful of my coworkers, who are all older, more experienced researchers, and native Spanish speakers. What’s more, I realized that the presentation needed to be good. I wasn’t in a class of my peers anymore giving a presentation for a grade. I was in a professional setting giving a presentation to capacitate real researchers.

The big day came and it was sort of a dejá vu moment: I remembered all the presentations I had watched in the library on how to use Dickinson’s databases and other research tools. Except this time, I was on the other side, I was the one standing by the screen talking and pointing here and there. At three o’clock the faristas congregated in main room, where I had set up my presentation and lined up chairs. There was a bit of excitement at the chocolates I had brought. Nothing like starting off a show with some sweets, I say!

From there it’s a bit of a blur. I was on fire. You know when you’re unsure of something, but when you start, it just rolls? That’s what happened for me. I think my preparation paid off. I was still a bit nervous, so I talked fast at times and tripped over my words at others, but it got better as I continued. I tried to make the presentation as interactive as possible and so encouraged my audience to try to do their own searches as I was demonstrating. The second part of my presentation involved introducing them to some tools that could help with citation. And when I finished talking, people asked questions! Andrea helped me answer some of the more logistical ones, but it was nice to see everybody kind of jump in with comments or jokes and it became an enjoyable sort of collective brainstorm on how to use certain functions or find a specific source.

Also, as I’ve been an informal photographer of all things Faro for my time here, the end of the meeting devolved into a quick slideshow at the demand of the viewers. It was a nice way to end the reunion, and I feel that everybody left with a little more useful knowledge and a smile. I only wish I had thought to record the presentation in order to see what I could have improved.  I also plan to apply the same work ethic I had towards this project to similar ones in my last year at Dickinson. I really couldn’t think of any better way to end my time at Faro. There’s nothing quite like being successful at something after working so hard, even something small like a presentation.

For the full presentation, please click here. Also, here is a handout I made with more information on the available databases and other tools.

 


Where do think tanks get their authority from?

12 July 2012

This is a question that has come up several times during the course of my internship. And I believe it’s an important one to ask, too, if only to reinforce the legitimacy of think tanks and civil society actors in general.

In my last post, I discussed the launch of one of Grupo FARO’s publications. Dr. René G. Ortiz, one of the three commentators, opened his presentation with a quote from the former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan. While I was unable to find the exact quote, here is another quote, from Mr. Annan’s 2006 Truman Library address, that captures the same idea:

As things stand, accountability between States is highly skewed. Poor and weak countries are easily held to account, because they need foreign assistance. But large and powerful States, whose actions have the greatest impact on others, can be constrained only by their own people, working through their domestic institutions. That gives the people and institutions of such powerful States a special responsibility to take account of global views and interests, as well as national ones. And today they need to take into account also the views of what, in UN jargon, we call “non-State actors”. I mean commercial corporations, charities and pressure groups, labor unions, philanthropic foundations, universities and think tanks — all the myriad forms in which people come together voluntarily to think about, or try to change, the world. None of these should be allowed to substitute itself for the State, or for the democratic process by which citizens choose their governments and decide policy. But, they all have the capacity to influence political processes, on the international as well as the national level. States that try to ignore this are hiding their heads in the sand.

You can see the full speech here. His words echo those of my International Relations teacher, Professor Russel Bova. It was a great class, and I clearly remember sitting in the front row of a Denny classroom my freshmen year listening attentively as Professor Bova, in his distinctive booming voice, explained various theories of international relations. While realism considers states to be the main actors in the international sphere, liberalist theory holds that a plurality of state and non-state actors, such as civil society organizations (CSOs), have a hand in molding both national and international processes.

Mr. Annan is voicing what Professor Bova termed the “watchdog” function of CSOs. That is, organizations like Amnesty International and Global Witness (which happens to be one of Grupo FARO’s donors) essentially serve to shed light on injustice, bringing media attention and consequently State attention and action (whether of the country in which the injustice is happening or of other governments acting through their foreign policy or a global governmental body like the UN). It is certainly a crucial role that many non-state actors and CSOs in particular play.

However, I think that Grupo FARO (yes, I know, I’m always tootin’ their horn) is a perfect example of how CSOs go way beyond this single role. They don’t only exist to keep the State in check in order to protect democracy, but also to strengthen and support it when it is moving in the right direction. Think tanks like Grupo FARO serve a crucial function, and that is producing unbiased (as much as possible) analyses that can inform policy makers and enable them to make stronger, more effective, democratic, and sustainable policies. Often, they give voice to the common citizens of their countries. If nothing else, think tanks are the voices of experts, academics, and researchers, individuals who are rightly respected for their knowledge and experience and should be consulted in the policy-making process, just as all other stakeholders should. Because let’s face it, many of the world’s policy makers are elected officials. They handle a myriad of issues and are concerned not only with the laws they are trying to make but how the public sees them. Policy makers cannot be expected to make good laws all on their own. The most essential part of the policy formation process

Lately in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has taken to denouncing what he calls “oenegismo”. The term comes from the abbreviation ONG, NGO or non-governmental organization in English, and I suppose it approximates to “NGOism” (or “engeeyoism” if you try for a more phonetic spelling). He decries NGOs whose goal is to influence policy because, as most organizations in “non-developed” countries are funded by foreign bodies, he fears that they are just puppets for other countries to insert their national interests into Ecuador’s political agenda. His speech at the Organization for American States (OAS) in June made headlines. And he’s in part right. I’ve mentioned this before and I’ll say it again: Foreign aid almost always comes with strings attached. These all too often become a way for powerful countries to impose their values and interests where these have no business doing so. Plus, the U.S. doesn’t exactly have the best track record in the region (think CIA operations in Guatemala, Nicaragua, etc.). As Orazio Bellettini, the director of Grupo FARO affirms, other countries do not have a right to determine laws not their own. Would it make sense for Ecuador to be meddling in U.S. legislation? I don’t think so. You can see that the President has had the same no-b.s. approach to other issues. He also famously didn’t attend the Summit of the Americas in April in protest of Cuba’s exclusion. In 2009, the U.S. military base in Manta was reclaimed by the Ecuadorian government after its 10-year lease expired. I was told by an economics teacher that Correa had requested to open an Ecuadorian military base in the U.S. in exchange for renewing the lease.

That being said, President Correa is unnecessarily attacking one of the pillars of Ecuadorian society, its civil society organizations. I’ve heard some interpret it as him looking for an enemy to rally against due to the relative lack of conflict within the government. With presidential elections coming, this might be part of a strategy to strengthen his image. It’s also a reaction to organizations that actively oppose government policies, especially those that are presently involved in the very hot debate about the media and the press. There is increasing polarization between public (that is, State) media and private media, to the point that there’s a perception that articles that appear in public and private press are necessarily pro- and anti-government, respectively. Regardless, he is using his fear of foreign influence as a manner to discredit think tanks and other civil society organization and undermine their legitimacy. And from my admittedly very limited and certainly biased view, this is dangerous.

Grupo FARO has unfortunately been one of the organizations attacked. The State news outlet El Telégrafo and the President himself have labeled it a government opponent, essentially blacklisting the think tank and damaging certain projects that are being carrying out in collaboration with government agencies. I found out that the low attendance at the launch was due in part to this. And even as just a nominal member of Grupo FARO, it’s disappointing to see this happen. A think tank by Ecuadorians and for Ecuadorians, which works hard to maintain an independent agenda and strengthen the country, has every right to influence the nation’s public policy. The Constitution of the Republic and democratic theory say so.

 


Launching change: Extrayendo Transparencia and Hablemos de Política N˚2

10 July 2012

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the launch of one of Grupo FARO’s most recent publications, the second issue in the series Hablemos de Política. The issue covers the project Extrayendo Transparencia and the public policy proposal that came out of it.

At 8:00 o’clock the morning of Friday, June 29, I headed to the Marriott hotel to attend the project presentation. I had never been inside such a luxurious hotel. High ceilings, chandeliers, cascading bouquets every which way you look – it’s the real deal. The event took place in an elegant reception room. Unfortunately, only a few of the fifteen or so tables were filled. Three panelists from academia and the private sector, the project director, and Grupo FARO’s director were stationed at a table at the head of the room, alongside a podium and projector screen. I joined my officemates at one of the front tables and was delighted to learn that we would be served breakfast during the presentation, so I sat back and relaxed (and of course listened attentively and took notes and pictures throughout).

Extrayendo Transparencia, which translates to “Extracting Transparency”, began in late 2006 with the backing of the Inter-American Development Bank. It’s an initiative to promote more transparent, citizen-oriented information and the more responsible use of natural resources in the oil and mining industries. These sectors are central to the Ecuadorian economy – for instance, according to the Department of Finances an average of 35 percent of the State’s General Budget is funded by oil revenue – and as such profoundly affect the lives of all Ecuadorians. The industries are also at the center of much controversy and criticism (see a post of mine from another blog that touches on the situation). Indigenous groups and environmental activists are some of the most outspoken opponents to these activities. The project aims to help inform policy-makers, civil society organizations, businesses, and citizens so that they can actively participate in public policy decision-making processes concerning the extractive industry.

I should reiterate that Grupo FARO is an independent and non-partisan organization that was born with the goal of fortifying the State and helping to make it more democratic. Since then, its mission has expanded and it seeks to strengthen all of society’s actors – the State, civil society, the private sector, and regular citizens – as it recognizes that a democratic society is only as strong as its weakest part.

The basis of democracy is informed participation. Five years ago, Grupo FARO saw that the little information that was available on extractive industry and its contracts with the State was sparse, dispersed (that is, not gathered in one central location), highly variant, and not easily publically-available. A company might give you one figure while the Department of Non-Renewable Natural Resources would offer another. What’s more, none of the information available was “user-friendly”. Grupo FARO realized that information needed to be clear, unified, timely, citizen-oriented, and accessible. This vision prompted the project Extrayendo Transparencia.

Maria Paz Jervis, the director of the project, gave a super interesting presentation on the whole process. This was particularly informative for me as I saw how the project had progressed in the four years it was carried out. She broke down the initiative into four stages. First they set out measure the actual state of information in the extractive sectors. This would serve as a baseline by which to formulate proposals and measure improvements. Next, the researchers involved in the project established minimum standards for transparency. They went on to apply these standards in pilot projects, hashing out glitches and documenting successes in order to fortify the policy proposal that would eventually come out of the project. Finally, the last phase involved publishing the report and putting forth the policy proposal.

From there three commentators – Iván Narváez, a professor and researcher at FLACSO graduate school, Dr. Rene G. Ortiz, former Secretary General of OPEC and current Director of ANDE, and Dr. Marcelo Merlo, president of the CEEAS Corporation – gave their opinions on the project and the proposal. I’ve got to admit that I had a hard time connecting the speakers’ comments to the project. Professor Narváez gave a very theoretical lecture on the democracy and the importance of transparency… I think. The other two presenters were certainly more engaging. Dr. Merlo gave an interesting talk about natural gas subsidies in the country, though I understood little about how it related to the project. Essentially, each commentator exalted the project as an important advance for the industry and the country. I saw the importance of their presence and participation in the event. These outside voices are a way to lend legitimacy and authority to Grupo FARO and its work.

Afterwards, we hung around. There were lots of leftover breakfasts due to the low attendance and since they were already paid for I decided to do chip in and chow down! What can I say, I can never turn down delicious fresh fruit when it’s offered to me. I also had the opportunity to take some photos, which I’ve included in this post.

All in all, it was a nice way to spend the morning and certainly exhilarating to be able to participate in another aspect of Grupo FARO’s work.

You can check out the project’s website at http://extrayendotransparencia.grupofaro…, though it’s only in Spanish!


Human talent: how to harness and maximize it

21 June 2012

A think tank’s internal workings are often just as important as its knowledge production and ability to influence policy. Employees are people with unique experiences, home lives, ambitions, and personalities that affect how they work and interact with their colleagues. A think tank’s success depends not only on the strengths of its individual researchers but also on how they work together and envision the organization, its work, and its future. Last Wednesday all the faristas (the name for the people who work at Grupo FARO) gathered in the high-ceilinged open space at the heart of the house for an “Open House on Human Talent”.

I have to admit that I saw people I had never met before and I knew the names of only about half of those in attendance. Luckily, the meeting began with introductions. Along with our name and position, we were also asked to briefly describe what we understood by “organizational climate”. This was a really interesting exercise. My coworker Estefanía Charvet said that it’s what makes you get up in the morning and say “Woohoo, I’m going to FARO!”. One director explained that she thinks one should be able to answer three questions: who am I working with, where am I working, and how am I working. Organizational climate is what makes it possible for you to give the best of yourself to your work. Another participant compared organizational climate to the weather – sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad, but it is what each one makes it. For my part, I see a good work climate as one in which each one of us is part of a larger community of support and friendship that enables us to grow and do our best work.

Orazio Belletini, a co-founder and the current director of Grupo FARO, talked a little bit about how the organization has grown since its beginning in 2004. It began as a few people with an idea, discussing how to turn it into a reality over lunch in a Quito café. Today, the organization counts almost thirty full-time staff members. Orazio discussed the challenge of bureaucratizing certain processes to better manage a growing organization while also maintaining the essence of the think tank. It was in large part due to the motivation and dedication of its young staff that Grupo FARO was able to come so far. While organizations often focus on candidates’ education, experience, and professionalism, oftentimes such factors as attitude and vision are just as important.

Daniel Dávalos, general manager of the headhunting firm Selecta, was kind enough to give a presentation on human capital and a study he had done of Grupo FARO’s organizational climate as well as its directors’ leadership skills. He presented two interesting graphics. The first was a sort of diamond graph with four axes that measured Grupo FARO’s staff’s impressions of the work atmosphere. Unfortunately I don’t remember what these four axes were. However, Mr. Dávalos pointed out two trends: (a) that staff members rated their area’s work climate on the whole better than the larger organization’s work climate, indicating that there is some disconnect between Grupo FARO’s various arms and (b) that at both the area and organizational levels, respect was the most deficient quality.

The second graphic was based on a narrower personality study of the think tank’s four (?) area directors. It showed where each had placed in terms of risk-taking, propensity to stick to norms, extroversion, patience, and self-control. Mr. Dávalos discussed that while there is no “right” or “wrong” personality type, certain character traits are perhaps more conducive to certain types of work. What’s more, he discussed why it’s important for leaders to know these things about themselves, though it may be difficult to face one’s faults. “It’s like seeing yourself disheveled hair” he said, mentioning that he had literally taken photographs of each of the directors with their hair all in a mess in order to help them confront this reality. “Once you see what you look like from another’s eyes, you can begin to be conscientious of your personality and how it affects the way you work.” Only once you are aware of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses can you fully harness and maximize their intellectual power.

The meeting ended with Orazio reviewing the efforts that are currently being made to fortify Grupo FARO’s human resources. The initiatives included strengthening leaders, clarifying norms and job expectations, and internally promoting Grupo FARO’s values.

It was fascinating to take a look at – and be a part of – one of Grupo FARO’s more intimate processes. In order to continue growing and improving, it is important for young think tanks like Grupo FARO to regularly reaffirm its commitment to its personnel and its .values


Speaking of which…

20 June 2012

And while we’re on the topic of think tanks, I’d like to share the work of a fellow Dickinsonian. Isaiah Mohammed, a writer for the blog The Residuum, is one of the minds behind the idea Communities Think. “The goal is to unite the physical and virtual into a community think tank” where L.A. residents can collectively come up with innovative solutions to their city’s and community’s most urgent problems.  It’s one of many awesome ideas competing to participate in Mobilize.org‘s 2012 Millenial Civic Engagement Summit.

Vote for it!

 

Mobilize_ca


One comic’s take on think tanks

20 June 2012

A gaggle of geese – or a think tank. By Genevieve Shapiro.


Guess who’s now on Twitter & TTIX12 updates

19 June 2012

Yes, I am almost embarrassed to say that I’ve created my very own Twitter account (@jcmuller91). Grupo FARO’s head coordinator Alexandra Rivadeneira is always coming into our office with some groundbreaking news that she’s read on Twitter and I blame her for planting the idea in my head. I’ve come to tentatively embrace what before I saw as nothing more than a virtual archive of triviality. While there’s still that element to it, it’s also widely acknowledged that Twitter and other such social media outlets can be great for those organizations – think tanks, for example – who use them right. It’s cheap, easy, and quick publicity. And as always, think tank guru Enrique Mendizabal has something to say about it all. Also see Michael Harris’s blog post on how think tanks can make better use of Twitter and social media.

For the moment I’m going to stick to following others’ twitters, but perhaps I’ll begin tweeting if tweeter fever gets me…

Also, some updates on the TTI Exchange 2012!

I posted a link to the conference website in a previous post, but in case you missed it here’s a part of that site that explains TTI In Brief. There’s also a Twitter thread (@TTIX2012) for the event if you’re interested in getting live updates.

And of course, my obsession Enrique Mendizabal is attending and speaking at the event. He’s writing up tidbits about the confrerence on his blog. For a preliminary reflection, see this post.

UPDATE: For more on how think tanks use social media and internet technology to enhance their operations, see Nick Scott’s Prezi presentation and blog post about the workshop he gave at the TTIX12 on On Think Tanks.

Pacman on Twitter. By Scott Hampson.


About Grupo FARO

19 June 2012

Below is the flyer Andrea will be giving out at the TTI Exchange 2012. It’s got some information about Grupo FARO that I haven’t shared with readers yet and is a good introduction to our work. I also helped write and edit the text, it’s part of the work I do here :-)

(Click on the images to enlarge them)


TTI Exchange 2012

15 June 2012

As I mentioned in the previous post, my boss Andrea is on her way to Cape Town, South Africa today for the IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative Exchange 2012, where she will meet with representatives of twelve think tanks from three different continents to discuss how think tanks influence policy. Grupo FARO acted as the coordinating entity of a project, compiling, analyzing, and comparing the twelve organizations’ stories. As we wrap up the report – a project which I have been lucky enough to participate in since its beginning – I’ve been trying to reflect on the process in order to better understand how think tanks do what they do.

First, a recap of the project. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is a Canadian foreign aid body committed to supporting research in developing countries. Through the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), IDRC supports, both financially and technically, forty-nine independent research institutions in twenty-two countries. Unlike most international donors, who usually fund specific projects, the IDRC provides general budget support to improve research organizations’ institutional capacities. That is, IDRC seeks to help think tanks do what they do better by giving them the freedom to use their funds as they see fit. In a world where money always seems to come with strings attached – all too often to the detriment of a think tank’s institutional integrity – this distinct approach to funding is an interesting alternative model for international development aid.

Think tanks participating in TTI Exchange 2012.

The program also involves bringing together TTI grantees to share their knowledge and experiences. The TTI Exchange 2012 is part of this. The project began when the IDRC selected Grupo FARO as coordinator. I met Andrea shortly afterwards at the launch of one of FARO’s publications on transparency in forest management, after which I joined the team.

We started by contacting the partner think tanks through email to introduce ourselves. It’s fascinating how the Internet can facilitate dialogue between people working across the globe from each other. Email and Skype were two essential tools to our work. We also read each organization’s expression of interest, essentially a one-page summary of the story they would share. These helped us get an idea of what they would be talking about. We set deadlines for both the contributing organizations and ourselves. As Andrea’s assistant, I spent a good chunk of time contacting organizations through email to set up Skype dates, send documents and reminder emails, and nudge those organizations behind deadlines. It was a good exercise in writing professional emails.

As the full-length stories started coming in, I was also responsible for revising the documents and making preliminary edits. I did quite a bit of background research on the think tanks and the political contexts in which they work, which was also very interesting as I learned about countries that I knew very little about. The Dickinson College Library’s databases were also a huge help.

We amassed and reviewed the stories and started to get a sense of important themes, Andrea began developing a theoretical framework in which to analyze the cases. This involved reviewing relevant literature and working closely with experts in the field, including several of the authors we would eventually cite in the final document.

The framework is based on the premise that think tanks adjust their strategies according to the political contexts that they work in. It borrowed largely from Matthijs Hisschemöller and Robert Hoppe, who divide policy problems into structured, moderately structured, and unstructured programs. Moderately structured problems are those in which there is agreement on relevant knowledge or agreement on the values and norms behind a problem. Structured problems are those in which both knowledge and value agreement exist, whereas unstructured problems are those in which both are absent.

Hisschemöller and Hoppe's classification of policy problems.

An illustrative example of a semi-structured problem in which there is knowledge certainty is the episode presented by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS) in New Delhi, India. Structural adjustments implemented by the Government of India in the 1990s resulted in the extensive privatization of public entities. This led to a significant decrease in the number of public sector jobs subject to an affirmative action policy meant to benefit two of India’s most widely-discriminated groups. Since its founding in 2003, the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS) has worked to instate an affirmative action policy for the private sector to ensure fairness in the hiring process. Despite widespread recognition of inequality (knowledge certainty), private businesses, which value meritocracy and efficiency, opposed a mandatory affirmative action policy to help correct that inequality (lack of value and norm agreement). After considerable research and open dialogue with stakeholders, IIDS proposed a compulsory, quota-based affirmative action policy. While the policy eventually adopted by the government was not legally-mandated, IIDS’s years of work did result in the implementation of a voluntary affirmative action policy for the private sector by which employers are accountable to the government for implementing the agreed-upon policy. This is just one example of the kinds of cases we analyzed.

The final phase of the project was three-fold. We worked with an editor in Seattle who revised eight of the twelve stories. Andrea wrote up the report and made some profound conclusions about think tanks and policy influence. And finally, we prepared the materials and presentation she would be giving at the conference. I felt very much like an intern (in a good way) when we found a mistake in one of the printed documents and I had to go to the Xerox to make new copies.

The process is very much like that of writing a paper for class, probably because it is also an academic paper. You think, you research, you write, you revise. And revise, and revise, and revise. One of the most important components was the peer-review process, which was key to improving good ideas, cutting out bad ones, working out kinks, making language more clear and understandable. My hope is, having seen how the steps of the writing process were applied here, that I can apply them to my own work in my last year of college. I’ve often struggled with writing papers due to my rather poor time management skills. Perhaps seeing how things work in the professional world will be an inspiration to work harder and create better products.


A glimpse into life at FARO

31 May 2012