Friday, January 15, 2010

Washington DC: 1.14.2010

The pillars of our democracy. The pillars of the financial system. A pillar of one's faith. The District of Columbia is full of pillars (though many of the marble ones have been replaced by concrete over the years). In more than one unfortunate case, of course, the pillars are holding up a very porous roof, and, despite the grand show of strength, we all wind up getting soaked by the rain once in a while...

Today's adventure in world affairs, in this case international development and global economics:

In the game of being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing, knowledge is power. And in the seemingly purposely unnavigable corridors of DC's many institutions, making your way through a bureaucracy to find the right information is both an art and a science.


I am currently helping to manage a project in Angola, one of the poorer countries in Africa. Angola only recently emerged from years of horrid conflict, the roots of which might be blamed on the country's unchosen role as a pawn in cold war conflicts. The project focuses on assisting rural farmers (most of the country's workforce is in small scale agriculture, and the food security of the country relies heavily on it) increase their capacity to get bigger yields of higher quality crops.

One huge challenge faced by these farmers is difficulty obtaining quality agricultural inputs. Many of them, fertilizers, seeds, etc need to be imported from other countries. In order to find the best place to get the best products, the project is researching where imports into Angola are currently coming from, and the prices of those commodities. A wonderful resource for information on the global movement of agricultural products and commodities is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), through their Foreign Agricultural Services. The USDA has a contract with the international market research firm GTIS, but the information provided to the Department is proprietary - though they do make it available to certain non profit organizations and cooperatives. My search started with a round of emails to agricultural experts on the ground of Angola, and has thus far led me to a number of economists in an office just down the street from me at the USDA.

Information is yet unobtained... but we are close.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Washington, DC: 1.11.2010

Washington, DC, where a strong January wind forces faces under scarves, pleasing the Northerners and torturing the Southerners. For indeed, The District is a city of immigrants like few others, as people come from all over the country and the world because they feel strongly about an issue, are very good at something, have an agenda, or just want to be a part of decisions that change lives.

The city embraces different arrivals in different ways, and the city they find can be very different for each of them. For every granite pillar, fine restaurant, and marble staircase there is a potholed street, misplaced wisdoms, a hungry family.

The District can be a very manageable Metropolitan area, with one of the nation's most efficient subways that allows for a relatively painless commute from isolated suburbs to off.

Also in Washington is a parallel universe, with those chosen few manipulating the cerebral cortex of many of the most consequential neural flows that alter the path of human history on a daily basis. For them, this city is a city of intrigue, of danger, big gains and big losses. It is, for the best, a chance to make a difference in an issue one cares about. At its worst, one can lose touch with the real life implications of the decisions being made. A sort of intellectual isolation can lead decision makers to a hypothetical world of political gamesmanship.

I exist somewhere in between. Information and money flows through my office on New York Ave, and across my desk, to countries around the globe, though my role is small.