Going on vacation, and thinking aloud about work

Tomorrow, for the first time in several years, I’m taking off for a full two weeks of vacation. I’m looking forward to a recharge and the perspective that comes with it.

There’s a lot to reflect on; it’s been a remarkable year so far, and I’ve been posting a lot about it here and elsewhere.

  • In December, I visited Cuba for the first time in 13 years.
  • In January, we put together a 150-participant conference on Colombia’s peace process.
  • In February, I spent 12 days at the Mexico-Guatemala border.
  • In March, I spent 10 days in Chocó and Bogotá, Colombia.
  • In April, I published a big report on peace in Colombia.
  • In May, I did border security research in San Diego and spoke at the Latin American Studies Association congress in Chicago.
  • In June, we published a big report on Mexico’s southern border region.
  • In July, I went to Bogotá to research Colombia’s post-conflict challenges.
  • And I’m just back from a quick trip to the U.S.-Mexico border with a member of Congress.

This fall we’ve got a big report on Chocó, Colombia coming out. We’ll re-visit the Texas-Mexico border and report on that. And we’re putting on a closed-door conference in Europe to discuss donor priorities for a possible post-conflict Colombia.

Whew.

This is a good year, and there’ll be a lot to reflect on while walking in the woods of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks with my family over the next two weeks.

One important reflection, though, is how much improvement I still need to make, in my own work. Constantly. Simply, to be better at it than I am now.

As I write out my e-mail autoreply and clean my office, these are the things I think I need to ask:

  • How doggedly am I investigating, trying to dig up and put new information into the public domain? Analysis and recommendations based on information that’s already out there are useful, especially if they makes connections that nobody else is making. But they’re easy compared to shedding light on things that the public should know, but doesn’t. This means finding documents from governments. It means omnivorously reading trusted journalistic and NGO reports from all over Latin America, especially those that don’t make it into English. It means meeting with government and legislative officials to hear what they’re excited or concerned about. And it means going into the field and seeing things firsthand. I do a lot of this, but there’s always another level to dig to, and huge unexplored areas. (Defense Department assistance, drone proliferation in the Americas, and the impact of current U.S. military/police aid to Central America spring immediately to mind.) Investigation is the very core of this kind of work, and it deserves more time than I’ve been giving it.

  • On the other end is communications, which are a perennial challenge. This blog, which I use to work out a lot of ideas, is a good example. It’s uneven. One day there’ll be three posts, and then as much as three weeks of nothing. Fixing this means going back to the original purpose of a weblog: to journal what I’ve been doing, to place markers of things I’ve found interesting and want to come back to, to respond rapidly to what’s happening in the region and in my field, and to put in words the first drafts of complicated ideas. Not a day should go by without me posting something that makes this blog a worthwhile place to come back to—or at least posting a reflection on why that wasn’t possible that day.

  • Those posts should include regular features, like a weekly links post. I enjoy doing those, and they force me to read and digest even during the most intense weeks.

  • So does the WOLA Podcast, which has been the very definition of “uneven” (if not “moribund”) this year. I think my other work suffers when I don’t go through the weekly exercise of recording these. It’s such a plainly great idea to record conversations with people who have new things to say, and to zoom in for a close look at a topic. It’s the best way to understand them, and learn to talk about them. And the audio of a conversation takes less time to produce and distribute than a memo of half as many words. The “Week Ahead” updates I was doing last year, though, were too scripted: it took at least five hours to put together a 20-minute show. Most weeks, I don’t have five hours to spare. I still haven’t figured out how to make this format work, but it’s one of the main things I’ll be thinking about how to do over the next two weeks, in order to reboot the WOLA Podcast this fall.

So that’s what I’ve come up with. Dig harder in my investigative work, and be more regular in my short-form and audio communications. (Notice I’m not saying “more meetings and events” or “more emails to answer.” But those are subjects for another post.)

Now, I’ve got 2 weeks of tranquility in the wilderness to think about what all that might look like. I look forward to making it happen when I get back.

Have a great two weeks.

While on my visit to McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico on Sunday and Monday, I made a deliberate effort to record audio: ambient noise, bits of conversations. I’ve stitched them together, with narration, into this 26-minute report.

Here’s the blurb at the WOLA Podcast web page:

WOLA Senior Associate Adam Isacson joined Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) on an August 3-4 visit to the U.S.-Mexico border at McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico. More than 42,000 unaccompanied Central American children have crossed the border in this region since October.

With numerous audio samples, Adam talks about the humanitarian crisis and the ways that authorities and citizens have responded to it. But this part of the border faces other humanitarian challenges, too. The podcast visits a migrant shelter on the Mexican side of the border, and talks to activists working to prevent dozens of migrants from dying of dehydration on the U.S. side of the border each year.

Download 07-08-2014 (14.86 MB)

Duration: 25:54 m - Filetype: mp3 - Bitrate: 80 KBPS - Frequency: 44100 HZ

Some of the organizations mentioned here could use your support.

Couldn’t sleep. So I looked up the World Bank’s estimates of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the size of everything made, bought, and sold in a country in a year) for Latin America, in current 2013 dollars. Then, for each country, I found the closest U.S. state or metropolitan area GDP, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

So here’s a map showing which U.S. jurisdiction’s economy is closest in size to each Latin American country. At least, according to what I’m sure is an econometrically unsound analysis that was fun to do in the middle of the night.

Oh right, the box office data (for Belize) comes from Box Office Mojo.

Couldn’t sleep. So I looked up the World Bank’s estimates of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the size of everything made, bought, and sold in a country in a year) for Latin America, in current 2013 dollars. Then, for each country, I found the closest U.S. state or metropolitan area GDP, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

So here’s a map showing which U.S. jurisdiction’s economy is closest in size to each Latin American country. At least, according to what I’m sure is an econometrically unsound analysis that was fun to do in the middle of the night.

Oh right, the box office data (for Belize) comes from Box Office Mojo.

Earlier this evening, at the “Senda de Vida” migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico. I’m second from right at the table, next to Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). We’re in the south Texas border zone for a quick visit.

Earlier this evening, at the “Senda de Vida” migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico. I’m second from right at the table, next to Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). We’re in the south Texas border zone for a quick visit.

Call Off the National Guard: Unaccompanied children are no reason to send troops to the border

New analysis posted yesterday to wola.org.

Deploying the National Guard is expensive, disruptive to Guardsmen’s families and employers, and—especially when done in an open-ended way—damaging to U.S. civil-military relations. This is absolutely the wrong way to go.
There was a cleaning out of the military and other structures of government that never happened in … Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Nicaragua-based journalist Judy Butler, in an excellent piece by Jill Replogle for San Diego public television explaining why Nicaragua is not suffering from the sort of violence that is expelling thousands of children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. (Nicaragua’s homicide rate is one-eighth that of Honduras.)
Every official U.S. government document on national security strategy. I realized a couple of years ago that these documents are for chumps. Dirty little Pentagon secret: No one who runs the country reads them. Mid-level bureaucrats write these for each other to cite.

The House Republicans' proposed border funding bill

This will be debated and voted tomorrow, before Congress leaves town for a six-week recess.

What a nasty piece of legislation.

  • It adds $35 million to deploy the National Guard at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • It gives $197 million for refugee assistance to care for unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border. This is a small fraction of the $1.8 billion that the White House had requested. All $197 million would be paid for with a cut from U.S. economic aid to foreign countries.
  • It only provides $40 million in assistance to Central America (the White House requested $295 million), all of it for resettlement of deportees. Nothing for violence reduction. Still, it guts human rights conditions in current law that hold up some military aid to Guatemala and Honduras.
  • It amends the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection law in a way that would enormously speed up the deportation of threatened children. It would be up to Border Patrol agents, not immigration judges, to decide—within seven days, with no counsel representing the child—whether a child faces a credible threat of violence if deported. Thousands could end up sent back to their threatening situation.
The UN Development Program takes indicators like life expectancy, education, and income and turns it into a “Human Development Index.”

In a 2011 report, UNDP assigned “violence and income concentration-adjusted” human development indices to most of Colombia’s departments (provinces - see the table on page 411 of this PDF).

Each department is labeled with the name of one of the countries whose current Human Development Index it most closely resembles.

The disparities are broad, ranging from the Czech Republic (Bogotá) to Botswana (Chocó).

The UN Development Program takes indicators like life expectancy, education, and income and turns it into a “Human Development Index.”

In a 2011 report, UNDP assigned “violence and income concentration-adjusted” human development indices to most of Colombia’s departments (provinces - see the table on page 411 of this PDF).

Each department is labeled with the name of one of the countries whose current Human Development Index it most closely resembles.

The disparities are broad, ranging from the Czech Republic (Bogotá) to Botswana (Chocó).

ICYMI

I’ve written five pieces over the past 2 weeks. Three of them were first-drafted on flights back from Bogotá a week ago Thursday.

I don’t know why all but one have titles ending in a question mark. Got to work on that.

Are unaccompanied minors fleeing violence, or just poverty, in Central America?

Over at “Border Fact Check,” my Intern Lesley Wellener slaps back claims, from people like Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico), that most Central American children aren’t threatened, but are instead coming here for economic reasons.

Over at “Border Fact Check,” I try to remind people that Central America’s criminal gangs are not the ones moving tons of cocaine to the United States. Those who recommend increasing military aid for drug interdiction won’t be having much effect on the violence causing the current wave of Central American migration.

Over at “Border Fact Check,” I try to remind people that Central America’s criminal gangs are not the ones moving tons of cocaine to the United States. Those who recommend increasing military aid for drug interdiction won’t be having much effect on the violence causing the current wave of Central American migration.

If the FARC and Colombian government reach an accord, the international community will have a large role to play. In perhaps a year, donor countries, UN agencies, and multilateral bodies will be compelled to shift gears, increasing and reorienting their aid packages. Are they ready to do that? Is the Colombian government helping them to prepare? What will the most urgent needs be?
In a memo at wola.org, I report back on my 3-day visit to Bogotá last week. I sought to get a sense of how prepared the international community is to assist an increasingly likely “post-conflict Colombia.” The troubling answer I got back is, “not very.”

On Wall Street Journal Live, talking about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s poor decision to send 1,000 National Guard troops to the Mexico border.