Tag Archives: Brazil

The MacGyver Principle

MacGyverToday we continue with the theme of continuity in program implementation. Last time I explained continuity in terms of Duplos. Today we’ll come at the same idea from an different angle.

Members of my generation don’t need to have actually watched MacGyver to know about the show’s trope of assembling creative contraptions out of odds and ends in order to get out of a tricky situation. Indeed, it has even become a verb, as in “to MacGyver something.”

While thinking about program design and implementation after my time in the field, I thought about expressing one of my dissertation’s arguments as “The MacGyver principle”: make what you need out of what you have (if you Google the phrase you’ll find many others have already used it, and with several different meanings; but many are along the same lines as this post). No jack to lift fallen debris and set people free? Use a fire hose as a makeshift hydraulic. No sealant for the leaking tank of acid? Use bars of chocolate. Continue reading

Policy continuity illustrated with Duplos

duplo-blocksA while back I wrapped up a series of posts about complexity and program implementation. Now its time to move on to continuity.

My fieldwork in Brasília overlapped with both rounds of Brazil’s 2010 election, so I got to see a lot of campaign ads on TV. This ad was my favorite, and inspired one of the central arguments in my dissertation. It’s by Agnelo Queiroz, who was the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate for Governor of the Federal District. (He won the election). I think that the images communicate a lot even without understanding Portuguese. My translation, after the break.

Complexity Posts, In Chronological Order

Blogs, by their very nature, organize posts in reverse chronological order. As I’ve been writing this series of blog posts about complexity, I’ve been linking back to the earlier ones. To make things easier to read them in order, I’ve set up a page called Blog Series with the posts listed that way. I’ll use it for future series, too. For your convenience, here they are:

The politics of complexity in program implementation

This post will wrap up my series on complexity and program implementation, though I’m sure I’ll return to the topic. In When Things Break I presented the idea of asking  what happens when one part of a system breaks. In The Broken ATM I discussed experiences during fieldwork in rural Brazil that got me thinking along these lines. Then in Wiring Government Programs in Series or Parallel I summarized Pressman and Wildavsky’s argument that the more “clearances” a program needs the more likely it is to fail.  Criticism of the complexity argument and Criticism of the complexity argument, continued summarized some responses to this approach. This post looks what practical knowledge we can take away from all this.

There’s an old joke about every academic title needing  a colon (my titles generally conform to this convention…). Not to be outdone, Pressman and Wildavsky’s title has a semi-colon, too:

Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland; Or Why It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All, This being a Saga of the Economic Development Administration as Told by Two Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Build Morals on a Foundation of Ruined Hopes 

This hints at some of the political implications of their work. To understand this we need to look at what was going on around the time they published the book and how their argument could be used to support the anti-government backlash of the 1980’s. In spite of this, I think we can still take something away from their insight about complexity. Once we take into account criticisms like those surveyed earlier, I’d argue that instead of conceding that “It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All,” we are left with one consideration for how to make government programs work better. Continue reading

Wiring government programs in series or parallel

Well, this series of posts on policy implementation is taking longer than I expected. Which is more than a little bit appropriate, I suppose…

What happens if I break?

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

In When Things Break I presented the basic idea of looking at what happens to a system if one component breaks. In The Broken ATM I talked about the experience during fieldwork in Paiuí that got me thinking along these lines and talked about how a “micro veto player” can undermine a policy without totally stopping it.

So, I’m on a long bus ride mulling this over and the image that came to me was Christmas lights. I’m not sure if I grew up with the old-fashioned series lights or just heard stories about them, but in case you’re not familiar with the phenomena here’s how the old ones worked. If one bulb went out the whole string went out because they were wired in a series where one dead bulb broke the circuit. So people had to spend inordinate amounts of time taking a good bulb and using it to test each socket to find the bad bulb. With parallel wiring each bulb has an independent connection to the circuit, so if one goes out the others go along their merry way. For a more detailed explanation this BBC piece explains things in plain language with good illustrations. It also makes this comment, which sums the point I’m trying to make:

Parallel circuits are useful if you want everything to work, even if one component has failed. This is why our homes are wired up with parallel circuits.

Continue reading

The Broken ATM

In my post When Things Break I mentioned thinking a lot about a broken ATM in Piauí, Brazil. I should back up. I was in Brazil the 2010-2011 academic year doing research for my dissertation on Brazil’s Zero Hunger. During that time I lived in Brasília, where I improved my Portuguese and interviewed people working for the federal government and NGOs.


Photo credit: The Express Tribune.

When Brazil’s President Lula (2003-2010) first launched Zero Hunger in 2003, the Ministry for Food Security and the Fight Against Hunger (MESA) selected two pilot municipalities in Piauí. The idea was to use these as policy laboratories and then scale programs across the country. I knew I couldn’t just get the perspective of people in the capital; I needed to talk to people in the Northeast and hear about their experiences during Lula’s government. So, in June 2011, with my Portuguese much improved from living with three Brazilians, I headed to Piauí. Continue reading

Poem About Being Robbed at Gunpoint in Brazil After a Soccer Game

In 2008 I went to Salvador, Brazil to study Portuguese on a summer program put on by The University of Iowa. My host mom and host cousin thought it would be a good experience to attend a soccer game (Vitória). While it was interesting to see my host cousin transform from a soft-spoken PhD student in sociology to an angry soccer fanatic, the event that will stick with me most was getting robbed after the game as we were trying to get out of the traffic congestion to catch a cab. (Seriously? A two-lane road through a neighborhood as the only way to get to the stadium?)

I don’t normally write poetry, unless you count songs (and in recent years I haven’t been writing many of those either), but I processed the experience with this poem, Salvador da Bahia, which I’ve posted to my writing page.