Stories from the field

Author Nate Jost

Nate Jost – Blog 4: Pieces of the Migration Puzzle (GOV)

I don’t think it’s only because my internship in migration has made me more attentive to the issues; migration is in the limelight across the world in an unprecedented way. Recent statements and subsequent actions from England and America, supported by many of their constituents, have created gut-wrenching, visceral reactions throughout the world. And the world seems to be becoming increasingly polarized on the subject. Some can clearly articulate their position on the issues, others feel the issues passionately but cannot give a well-formed response, and still others are on the fence. Many around the world previously untouched by migration are now being forced to take sides. It has never been more important to have leaders who can present viable, ethical, compassionate, and robust responses to their constituents. For the thoughtful, it seems clear that full-blown nationalism is not the answer, and yet the limitations and naivety of a borderless world are also apparent. We wonder what our duties are to those within our borders versus those outside. If there is a discrepancy in our response, we should be able to provide subsequent explanation and justification.

While I do not seek to articulate a definite answer here, there are a few lines of reasoning that I believe are important when attempting to think rightly about the issues. I will try to explain these here.

Let me begin by stating the obvious. The world did not simply begin with the conflicts, disparities, inequalities, and political systems that currently exist; these were created over millennia, and have progressed due to a myriad of factors. The minority world—or, “the Global North”, “the First World”—did not begin as such. It was built through oppressive structures, and at the expense of (much of what would become) the majority world. Oppression and violence are in part why the world has not grown equitably.

This is important to recognize when thinking about current international standards of development, and the way forward in development.

The development of the minority world is, in some senses, an illusion. It is not based on reality. By this I mean that the amount of economic growth and the scale of consumption in the West does not correspond to what the West gave in exchange for these things. Indeed, the trade was (and is) not fair. When you pay $5 for a t-shirt and recognize how many ‘hands’ the t-shirt went through in order to get to you, you quickly recognize that the money cannot stretch very far down the supply chain; assuredly, not everyone will be paid very well. As such, this kind of system is inequitable.

Not only so, but such a world is unsustainable. At least we hope so. At the same time, this kind of world has existed for a long time, in various manifestations, and so we acknowledge that naming something as unsustainable does not actually ensure its disappearance. At present, the “unsustainability” of cheap labour seems to be in strong supply. The day(s) of reckoning seem to be far off, and even unimaginable at present.

Back to migration. When we consider policies that create jobs or encourage cross-border movement that favours the majority world, it is interesting that any backlash from the minority world usually employs the rhetoric of ‘caring for our own’. This is ironic based on the fact that the minority world has played a significant part in initiating and perpetuating the inequity that currently exists in the first place. And so to pretend that the countries in the minority world now enter into relationship with other countries without any history or baggage, and thus without reponsibility, is blind to history and frankly unjust. In reality, we are already implicit and guilty in the suffering that exists in the majority of the majority world. Additionally, for those who are in favour of policy which promotes industries to move from the minority to the majority world, or creating opportunities for labour migration to the minority world, it is interesting to use the language of compassion. This is akin to an abuser who “compassionately” restores justice to his/her victim; it is a matter of justice, not compassion. Compassion of course is not the problem per se, but it is not the primary issue or driver.

Let’s take this a step further. As armchair economists, we might recognize that the ‘race to the bottom’, while awful and far from ideal, should be taken with a long view, recognizing that in time the middle class will grow across the majority world, and more will be able to pull themselves out of economic poverty. But the same people who might affirm this are often unwilling to apply the same distant reasoning process to making ‘sacrifices’ in the West – or said another way, letting wrongs be righted.

Consider this future possibility: As jobs and opportunities seep out of the West, perhaps Western families will face the reality of having only two out of three adult children able to find work, or all three experiencing more irregular employment. As this happens, families will have to become more dependent on one another to survive. This may begin with more loans, adopting an increasingly simple lifestyle, or families needing to move in with one another. Side note: this would be a welcome step from the earth’s perspective, with Westerners occupying less space in the world, using the world’s scarce resources more appropriately, and reducing their already-unsustainable ecological footprint.

Given the oppressive history of the minority to the majority world, does this not seem to be a welcome change? Is there not something just about this extremely mild and almost insignificant amount of equalizing? It seems that in this situation, the majority world will benefit more than the minority world will suffer. And while balanced scales, and wrongs righted, are distant realities, it is important to affirm that this direction is good and right.

To be sure, this is not a prediction of what will happen. Its purpose is merely a thought experiment to envision how a shift in the world’s economy actually makes sense in terms of global, historical (in)justice. In fact, I recognize that my examples in part buy into the zero-sum rhetoric that inappropriately asserts that jobs is specific instances can either be created in the minority world or in the majority world, but not both. While I am no economist, I recognize this claim as contentious at best. But in my examples, I am speaking less in terms of economics, but more in terms of perceptions of potential economic shifts. Moreover, even as an ideological exercise (and not an economic one!), it is overly and potentially unhelpfully simplistic. But it’s the best I can do at this point, folks.

A side note on economic predictions: It seems ridiculous to so confidently paint a picture of what the future international market will look like, especially for those who are not expert economists. Not to completely give into an elitist world (where only the experts can know anything), but it is nevertheless important to recognize that the complex economic systems that underlie the current system, and will underpin any changes to it, are more often than not far outside the populist reach. Or maybe I do in fact subscribe to an elitist vision of economics.

Returning to the question about duty to those outside versus inside our (constructed) geographical borders. I’ve already mentioned that extreme nationalism and internationalism are both poor options. But what alternatives exist? I think that global and national leaders need to think critically about this question, in order to give options to those who are in search of a more robust framework that can bring about a just, compassionate, realistic, and robust approach to global migration.

Some have stated that in a world dominated by growing extreme nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Canada is one of the last liberal bastions. While there seems to be much good in Canada, it is difficult to not see much of it as extremely naïve. While we have accepted 30,000 refugees from Syria, many European countries have hundreds of thousands of refugees at their door, or already inside. And consider the ‘space to grow’ in Canada versus Europe. So even though the efforts from Canada can be appreciated, we should also recognize that Canada has not had to face the challenges that many other parts of the world have faced. With its geographic isolation from migration origin countries, and the fact that it is less of an apparent target for ideologically-motivated violence, I wonder what could make the global migration issue (what appears to be) an existential threat, as it has become elsewhere in the world? Presumably, the mass acceptance of immigrants and refugees could do this, or the increase in acts of terrorism carried out on Canadian soil. Without such a (perceived) crisis, will those Canadians who hold a naïve approach to migration informed by liberal niceties be able to adapt, retaining a just and compassionate approach to migration? If this kind of response is to happen, Canada will be radically departing from the rightward swing that many other countries—that Canada has followed, and been influenced by in the past—are currently in the midst of.

I close by noting that my reflections on ‘Canada’ are just as reflective as other generalizations about a country as a whole; that is to say, probably not very reflective. This out-of-touch-with-public-opinion was clearly present during the media’s portrayal of the recent US election, where a nationalconstituency that could never have voted in the president did so. Whatever the opinions across Canada are, we need to create more space for discussion on migration issues to occur, and robust frameworks to be provided that will weather the storms of less-than-ideal migration realities and challenges. Thoughtful reflection on migration issues is necessary so that we not only figure out ‘what to believe about migration’, but to think along the ‘right’ lines, thus bringing about a more flexible and thoughtful approach to migration issues for the ever-changing global landscape. 

Nate Jost – Blog 3: Logframes on Steroids (GOV)

Logframes on Steroids

Within the last week I’ve come across several cases where the Logframe has been confused with Theory of Change. I’ve seen it in articles, heard it from friends, experienced it with colleagues, and (subsequently) have started to wonder myself. Duncan Green of Oxfam has cited a development professor who wonders whether Theory of Change has simply (or complexly) become “Logframes on steroids”. Is the Theory of Change doing more of the same thing that the Logframe does, or is it doing another kind of thing? Does it serve an altogether different purpose?

One of my professors once explained that the Logframe (LF) was always intended to be a top-down process, in the sense that an organization starts at the top with their overall goal, and eventually works their way downwards to identify activities that directly serve to support their goal. However, the institutionalization of the LF has (unfortunately) caused this process to become a bottom-up, retroactive justification of the activities that are already being carried out. In other words, organizations are forced by funders to ‘logframe-ize’ their projects, and so they begin with their present activities, unchallenged by whetherthese in fact flow from their overall goal. In so doing, the objective of the LF is missed, and assumptions of why ‘our’ activities are best are reasserted. The top-down approach on the other hand, beginning with the goal (leading to objectives, outputs, then activities), seems to start us off on the right foot; we forget about ourselves for a moment, and think more purely about what will in fact bring about change.

Enter, stage right: Theory of Change. Theory of Change (ToC), as it was explained by my professor, was to avoid the LF’s entanglement in time-restrictions and funder-directed outcomes, and to enable organizations to consider more honestly how change happens in general, with all it’s complexities; our activities are second-order priorities, and are only considered after (and in dependence upon) our analysis (and subsequent theory) of change.

While this sounds like an important corrective to the LF, this does not altogether make ToC a different thing categorically. It seems to be the same thing, but carried out in a different context. Indeed, according to this conception, Theory of Change would be ‘Logframes on steroids’.

This conclusion is confirmed when thinking about the future of ToC, thus defined. For when ToC undergoes an institutionalization, as is currently in progress, it seems that ToC will suffer the same fate, and go the way of the LF in being a bottom-up justification of our activities. Unless of course the ToC is not just an uncorrupted LF, but a different tool in the nonprofit’s workshop (or, a different tool in the funder’s arsenal). 

Below I’ve listed several elements that envision the ToC as a different species than the LF that I hope you will find helpful – please comment with any others if you see something missing, or want to challenge the ones I’ve put forward!

Disclaimer: The definitions and usages of the LF/ToC that I use below are certainly not ubiquitous, but flow from my engagement with them. My conclusions are not universally true, but take on one limited perspective.

ToCs Throw Off the Constraints of Time

The most basic categorical difference is that the LF generally adheres to the project cycle, while the ToC sits above several project cycles. While this is not always the case, it seems as though the ToC is used to bring together all the projects and roles that an organization is engaged in, and put individual projects in the context of the organization’s overall goal, and most likely the organization’s vision statement. This is in contrast to the LF whose goal is specific to the life-cycle of the project. And because the ToC is less time-bound, it is freed up to do different kinds of things…

ToCs’ Measurements and Indicators Are More Cross-Cutting and Meta

While I have seen ToC’s that do not have any indicators included, best practice does attempt to introduce indicators. However, these indicators are of a different kind than in the LF. This is because the ToC, which is a much more flexible organism than the LF, is able to consider more complex, cross-cutting questions that are not as easily discernable in a linear analysis. It can create indicators that engage assumptions made about power (where it comes from and how it is changing), conflict vs cooperation (which is needed to bring about change), optimism vs pessimism (which guides our organization more), bottom up vs top down processes (which we find more effective), and modernization vs tradition (which we value more). [This list was taken from a similar conversation that took place here].

Clearly, this list creates certain kinds of measurements, and thus indicators, that do not usually find themselves on the average LF. ToC is not for clean, easy measurements (although it does seem important to have some indicators that can help to see how the progress indeed happens), but to provisionally chart the progress on higher-level change.

Finally, in ToC we can also track the progress of other actors. As we seek to measure power dynamics, we can consider more honestly who did what, and what that means for who we should work with in the future, and what our role should be. As we’ll see in a later point, ToC increases our ability to strategically discern what kinds of programs we should choose to become engaged in.

Said another way, ToC can assume a more meta approach due to (often) less strict reporting structures and deliverables. As such, it not only considers whether or not an intervention worked, but can engage the higher-level questions of the types of interventions an organization employs, by bringing programs into conversation with one another.

ToCs are Less Vain

ToCs are slower to answer the practical question of what ‘we’ are going to be a part of, and attempt to reflect more honestly on how change happens. Indeed, ToCs can begin to measure realities that do not directly impact our organization, but are important both for our organization’s self-understanding and understanding of the context in which we operate.

ToCs Can Afford to Operate in a Complex World

The classic charge against the LF is that is assumes an overly-simplistic world. While I get this charge, I am sympathetic to the LF because it seems that in order to get certain kinds of things done, and do any level of planning, we need to pretend for a moment that the world is slightly less complex, and more predictable, than we truly believe and experience. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to assume a causal relationship in our LF that we can all understand and get behind, as long as we state our assumptions, then monitor them.

Leaving the LF in a ‘simple world’, the ToC is freed up to plunge into the complexity, and multiple complexities, that mark our true reality, and to hypothesize provisional causations and relationships in hopes of perceiving order out of chaos. This way of thinking seems to do the world more justice than the LF. It is, in some senses, a more natural way of thinking – but certainly less safe and more unruly.

Based on this conception, we find that simplicity and complexity are helpful counterbalances to one another. We recognize the limitations and necessities of each. And the two should always run on separate tracks, while always remaining in vital conversation. Based on this understanding, a LF and a ToC workshop will look worlds apart, because in some senses, they exist in different worlds. And as stated, we need both of these worlds if we are going to continue to thrive as an organization.

ToCs as Lenses

For clarity’s sake, only one LF is submitted to the funder. And sometimes it is better to leave off changes (as good as they may be) in order to avoid the rigmarole of producing a new LF and getting it checked off by your funder. Was that too honest?

While it is not common practice to create multiple ToCs, there is talk of the benefits of doing so. As a Theory of Change, it is important to test the one theory by another(s). As we examine the data with various Theories of Change, we learn our biases and assumptions in the way we collect data, and ways that we are apt to look at the data. Not only do we look back at past data with different theories, which act as lenses, but we switch between our lenses as we experience new data in order to more intentionally experience. We train our minds to interpret new data along our stated theories of change. Remember what I said about meta?

One author wrote that when we reflect back on a story of change, we tend to apply ‘retrospective coherence’ to it. Said another way, we often recall events with a gloss of simplicity, rearrange the power dynamics (in a way that suits ‘us’?), while remembering certain people and forgetting others. This is another reason why a well-considered ToC is so essential: To support anorganization with a more accurate reflection on the data. To be sure, the theory that reflects more accurately on the past, interprets more correctly in the present.

Additionally, multiple ToCs create an opportunity to surface the de facto theories of change that may exist subconsciously in our minds though always ripple out into our actions. This is in part why the ToC is so essential to an organization. Entertaining the idea of multiple ToCs helps an organization hold their theories in tension, rather than letting one dominate the others (even if one is provisionally chosen as the dominant). Remember what I said about process?

ToC, the Critic

While chronologically, an organization produces their LFs before their ToC (mostly because the former are more institutionalized), there seems to be a logical priority to the ToC. For it is from an organization’s ToC that their programs (and adjoining LFs) should flow.

For this reason, it is important that the ToC sit over-top LFs as their critic. If programs say the same thing as the ToC, then either the organization is doing an outstanding job, or (more likely) the organization is not being honest enough in dreaming/analyzing/hypothesizing that makes up a ToC process. A strong organization is one that recognizes the disparity between its ToC and programs, and is taking steps to bring these into alignment.

ToCs Take the Scenic Route

While I am not entirely comfortable writing that ToCs are all about process, and the LF is about results (since both need to be both), it is nonetheless true that ToCs provide an opportunity to engage the question of how change happens without a deadline, without the restrictions of donor requirements, and as a way to keep an organization healthy. To be sure, this rationale for a ToC lends itself to a focus on process rather than results.

One development scholar/practitioner has suggested that we should throw away our complex, marked-up, arrow-filled ToCs after they’ve been created, “lest they terrify”. This is because any late-comer to the conversation will be utterly overwhelmed and/or confused when presented with the diagram. The idea here is that the process of drafting the ToC is in some senses more important and helpful than the diagram itself. 

And if it’s about process, another recommendation that follows is that a ToC should be deliberated over time, with different kinds of global and local thinking exercises, thus milking the process for all it’s worth. All levels of staff need to be engaged in these questions, as it creates buy-in, and brings about a ‘thinking organization’. It’s good for the mind, and encourages innovative thinking. Both components of the Action-Reflection cycle are stronger together than on their own – and I’ve probably understated my case.

Final considerations:

This approach to ToC indeed causes it to be a different kind of beast than the LF. And while the increasing institutionalization of the ToC, as well as the different needs and resources that exist across organizations, make it difficult to practice ToC with the above explanations (that I realize now are more like recommendations), I believe that each of the points brought forward work to create a corrective and partner to the LF that is indispensable if an organization is to remain healthy and innovative. 


The three following blog posts from Oxfam staff, brought into conversation with my experience and thoughts, served as my inspiration for this post.

What is a theory of change and how do we use it? (August 2013)
Theories of change = logframes on steroids? A discussion with DFID (May 2012)
Power and change – how do they fit in development work? (November 2011)

Nathan Jost – Blog 2: “Hail the Maintainers” (GOV)


“Hail the Maintainers”

“Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more”

Don’t worry: this article has nothing to say about economics, but bear with me for a moment.

The above quote is from an essay I came across a few months ago titled “Hail the Maintainers”. In it, co-authors Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel (on behalf of a group self-named “The Maintainers”) seek to downplay the role of innovation and elevate the importance of maintenance in the future of technological development. The gist of it is that innovation is disproportionately emphasized through capitalist structures, even though the majority of innovations are enjoyed only by elites. In reality, the majority of the world would benefit much more from the maintenance of past innovations, and making these more accessible to a wider population.

The article came out around the same time that U.S. productivity scores dropped for what I’m told are a significant period of time (the longest decline since 1979, apparently). Commenting on these productivity trends, Robert Gordon’s book The Rise and Fall of American Growth makes the argument that much of the technological innovations that we think would have made our work more productive, have been reserved for our personal lives. Here, Adam Chandler of The Atlantic quotes Gordon: “Most of it [the U.S. economy] is operating by the same business methods and procedures that have been in place for at least 10 years” (“Why Are Americans Workers Getting Less Productive”). In Gordon’s opinion, it seems as though technological innovation has failed to bring about the productivity growth that was hoped for.

Whether or not Gordon’s commentary on the statistical fall is correct or not (and I am certainly not qualified to speak on such matters), the principle is an interesting one: It seems that innovation is not bringing about the kinds of changes hoped for. Like the argument made by The Maintainers, could it be that we have prioritized innovation over maintenance, and neglected to take seriously the slow and tedious job of making past innovations more accessible and widespread?

More on this later.

When I first arrived to begin my internship with Asian Forum, I quickly found the need to immerse myself in the major policy touchstones that give context to the advocacy work that Asian Forum and other Nepali organizations in the field of labour migration are engaged in.

I found it interesting that while Nepal has not signed or ratified the three key international documents that directly and most comprehensively address labour migration (The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMW), ILO C97 Migration for Employment Convention, and ILO C143 Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions)), stakeholders are still able to draw on earlier and less specific conventions and declarations as they advocate for the rights of migrant workers. And in appealing to these earlier statements, the hope is that the very components present in the three key documents listed above will be brought about indirectly. This is only true because the earlier documents possess the blueprints that the newer documents are using in order to construct.

And so, my fundamental question here is whether we should spend more time developing and revising the original blueprints, or set them aside as we create new ones. Should we focus on maintaining the old, or innovating something new?

While this is a hugely oversimplified binary, I think it introduces a perspective into the conversation that is essential to consider. A perspective that is taught to us by The Maintainers.

Maintaining is not sexy, like innovation – which “Hail the Maintainers” shows has become a buzzword that some CEOs are banning from their workers’ vocabulary. We love the new. We like to launch out into the unknown and restate things unconstrained by formalities and traditions. We want to give it a new title. We don’t want to review old documents; we want to write new ones. And we want to be the ones who say it in our own way.

The problem however is that in the proliferation of new conventions and statements, we risk elevating innovation over maintaining: newer documents do not sufficiently learn from or consider the older ones, and we risk saying the same thing so many ways that our fight for change becomes less effective.

Articulating your stance on a certain issue is one thing, but articulating your stance in relation to another stance is quite another. Context challenges us. Similarly, past conventions and declarations confront us with the disparity between what we said 10 years ago, and where we are today. They force us to recognize our failure, and challenge us to be more honest about what we can really commit to this time around. They also cause us to address our blind spots, as we look back on specifics that we felt so passionately about last committee meeting, but no longer give the same attention to.

If we want to learn what is working and what isn’t, we need to take the work of maintenance seriously by revising old declarations, and situating ourselves in relation to them. When we situate our statements, we show respect to history. And when we show respect to history, we show respect to the present, because we affirm that our present efforts will be reviewed and used to inform the future.

Situating our learning is also a step of humility, by recognizing that your thoughts were not developed in a vacuum, but in dependence upon the conversations you have had. We are far less original than we can possibly understand.

I should be clear. Nowhere would I ever want to discourage writing and articulating anew. The process of learning that happens through collaborative approaches to documents and declarations is invaluable. The result of a cohesive piece of writing that can be signed off by a group of people is encouraging and essential in building a movement to catalyze change.

What I have been saying, then, does not discourage new policy – it simply seeks to situate it. The only question is the context in which the articulating, writing, and discussing happens. Does it start a new conversation, and abandon the past ones? Or does it situate itself in such a way that gives momentum to the old conversation, correcting and clarifying where necessary, adding momentum to an already living organism.

In Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act 2007 and Rules 2008 there is repetition of several of the aspects that come up in the CEDAW, and various ILO Conventions on discrimination, trafficking, and minimum wage and age, that have already been signed and ratified. What’s the point in saying these again? The documents that Nepal produces itself will always carry more weight than an International Treaty, at least in practice. And so articulating something in a specific context is crucial. (Importantly, the Foreign Employment Act is currently being reviewed and revised, which is precisely in line for what I would advocate for. Creating policy that engages that which has come before.)

(Aside: This leads me to question whether it is important to adopt foreign and international standards, or rather to develop the policy that is already in place. For example, is it more effective and/or efficient to reform the Foreign Employment Act to look more like the ICMW, ILO C97 and C143, or is it best practice to simply ratify these conventions themselves? It seems that the scale tips in favour of the former, since using International Treaties come with significantly more responsibility in terms of periodic reporting on implementation, and much more importantly they are harder to adopt since national laws already in place need to be brought to align with them – in short, choosing something context sensitive will be more realistic, even if it is not as idealistic as international standards. Of course, this is certainly not mutually exclusive to using the International Treaties as conversation partners, and even best practices, but the importance becomes writing something sensitive and realistic to country-specific realities.)

Last week, the 2nd National Conference on Migration took place, organized by a number of NGOs and INGOs working across Nepal, and bringing various kinds of government voices, returnee migrants, researchers, and practitioners together for two days to engage one another on current issues in Nepal concerning labour migration. The 1st Conference in 2013 produced a series of 38 recommendations that were signed by all parties, and the plan for he 2nd Conference was to similarly produce another set of recommendations. Some questions that arise from this post are: what was done with the 1st Conference’s recommendations, what will be done with the 2nd Conference’s recommendations, and what is the relationship between the two?

I’m encouraged that the recommendations that came out of the Conference last week will inform the advocacy of the National Network for Safe Migration (NNSM), a joint body that brings together several NGOs working in labour migration in Nepal. This means that there will be a common document that can bolster the work of all these organizations doing great work to make migration safer and more productive for Nepali migrant workers. This is a great success. As we spend the coming weeks debriefing the 2nd Conference, we will need to work to make sure these recommendations and declarations mean something and are followed through on. We need to work hard so that we are not desensitized to declarations.

The work of maintaining is difficult. It is tedious.

As we continue our work, and look for more effective ways to advocate for necessary change to make labour migration more safe and productive, I close with this: Perhaps ourdeclarations need to look more like Talmud, which has commentary written around commentary written around commentary to explain and elucidate that which was written before in order to understand the Torah. The document without such appendages and annotations is safe. It gathers dust, at least in terms of its political and social capital. Let’s have less new declarations and conventions, but cause the older ones to come alive. Amidst innovation that is praised, let us reserve an ever more special place for maintenance. 

Nathan Jost – Blog 1: Introduction Interview

Hello! Here is an interview conducted by my fellow intern Hannah which introduces me and gives some information about my upcoming six months in Nepal with Migrants Centre. Thanks for listening!

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