Wednesday, September 30, 2015

EvalStory: Focus on whether global environmental programs are really making a difference

Discussing evaluation contributions to the global environment, including the need to focus on the big picture instead of individual interventions.

My video interview

Published on Sep 6, 2015
In September 2015 the UN General Assembly will endorse the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are universal, integrated, comprehensive, and have a particular focus on social equity and gender equality. SDGs will shape development strategies at global, regional and national levels for the next 15 years. We believe that the evaluation community must work together to ensure that evaluation remains relevant and is fit for purpose in the world where development will be guided by the SDGs. This is why EvalPartners is leading a participatory consultative process to define the 2016-2020 Global Evaluation Agenda. During the 2015 International Year of evaluation, thousands of evaluators are contributing their voices and thinking through an online consultation and face-to-face discussions in 74 events all over the world.

EvalPartners has teamed up with Universalia, a Canadian management consulting firm established in 1980, to launch the EvalStory campaign.  Starting Monday, 24th August, EvalStory will release two videos per week (see schedule below) presenting messages from top evaluation influencers and members of the wider evaluation community to ensure that the voices of evaluation advocates are heard.

We hope you enjoy their messages, wisdom and experience! Please share this announcement with your networks to ensure their voices are heard globally!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Rikuzentakata July 2015 - Reconstruction from the Tsunami

The earthworks are simply mind blowing. 24-7, the conveyor belts bring earth from the nearby mountains and pile it on the coastal zone to raise the level of the low-lying land by at least 10 meters. It’s more than four years since the tsunami leveled the Sanriku coast and killed more than 15,000 people and made 230,000 homeless on Japan’s Pacific coast. This rehabilitation work that shows virtually no end is a demonstration of Japanese spirit and tenacity.

I traveled back to the Sanriku coast together with Abetake-sensei to see the progress in reconstruction. We did our first jointtrip here in March 2012, just a year after the great east Japan earthquake and tsunami had laid waste to the most unexpecting part of Japan. Abetake-sensei is my wife’s high school geography teacher in Mizusawa, in Iwate Prefecture.

Mizusawa is luckily some 60 km inland and higher up in elevation from the coast. Although the earthquake affected my family’s area, the tsunami did not reach even close.

Abetake-sensei picked me up in Mizusawa this rainy morning and we crossed the coastal mountain range to reach the Sanriku coast. The rather high limestone mountains have all their steep slopes covered in thick forest. In odd flat locations one can suddenly see perfectly maintained rice paddies on terraces where the terrain has allowed adequate space. At this time of the year, their green is so bright as to shine amongst the dark hills. The rainy season – tsuyu – is supposed to be over but the rain has been heavy since last night.

We stopped at Daitoo, a town about half way to the coast for a rest stop and a cigarette for my host. Daitoo is in a beautiful spot in a valley protected from all sides by mountains. We continued onwards driving through the village of Ohara, a small agricultural congregation by the Satetsugawa river, a tributary to the Kitagamigawa river that flows from the north to the south traversing Mizusawa. We were still on the western side of the watershed, meaning that the river flows inland towards the more major Kitagamikawa river.

Having soon crossed the next range – through some distinctly impressive bridges and tunnels above and through mountains – we started descending to the coastal plain. At this stage the road followed Kesengawa, a charming if not a major river known for its Ayu fisheries (ayu or sweetfish caught in rivers and often grilled or fried is one of the delicacies of the Tohoku region). The Kesengawa drains into the Pacific Ocean and when the tsunami struck, its flow was reversed bringing the devastating flood waters as far as 7 km inland.

Descending onto the coastal plain past the sea terraces, the landscape had changed so much that it was difficult to get one’s bearings. On both sides of the road there were huge mounds of earth leveled by bulldozers while enormous conveyer belts transported more earth to the piles from the nearby mountains. It seemed that the goal was to raise the level of the entire coastal plain by 10 meters. For what purpose, was not imminently clear. Hundreds of men and machines were at work now more than four years after the tragedy.

Access to the coastline was blocked from the main area of the former town. We drove south towards Kesennuma and found a road that led to the fishing port. Even there men were at work establishing seawalls. Still, I was able to get to the waterfront to observe the bay where boats were again active.

The legendary lone pine – Ippon Matsu – that became the symbol of resilience after the tsunami is long gone. It was one in many tall pines that lined the coast and miraculously survived the tidal wave – but despite the efforts of the city officials, scientists and the public, it died because of the salinization of the soil and groundwater after the intrusion of the sea. It lives on in numerous flags and posters and a monument is being established for it, I was told although it was impossible to reach the location. Many Japanese people – including school groups – were strolling around the area with their cameras.

The work will continue for years. It begs the question, though, what for? This is not the first time the Sanriku coast has been hit by a tsunami and it won’t be the last either.  This time the destruction and death toll were huge, mostly because of the coastal development and population concentrations on the waterfront. So why spend all the trillions of yen and years of civil works only so that the coast could be rebuilt and people could reestablish themselves in the hazard zone? Unfortunately, this seems to be an expression of the Japanese attitude, a downside of the tenacity: Engineering and civil works to tame the nature – and at the same time do irrevocable damage to the surrounding mountain environments. Here this seems even more futile because the coast has already been depopulated and virtually all people left for the cities and towns further inland, many with no intent on returning. Some of the old folks may want to return to their home areas but even they would likely not want to live right on the coast where their old neighborhoods were destroyed and friends died.  Most likely, the official approach will be to provide homogenous housing, which will be convenient but not appealing.

Naturally, Rikuzentakata is not the only community on the Sanriku coast that is struggling with recovery. The central government is paying for the efforts but it is the local governments that decide on how the money should be spent. In fact, the central government has been criticized for not spending enough of the allocated funds, so massive civil works like those here are welcome, so that large amounts of funds can be disbursed. The local governments have a wish to make the communities livable again. The trouble is that nobody knows who and how many people would eventually return.

The tsunami disaster had a profound impact on the coastal communities, not only in a physical sense. The very fabric of the communities was torn apart. As my friend, Prof. Mikiyasu Nakayama of Tokyo University, has found in his research, many younger people who used to live with the grandparents in three generation households – especially young women dominated by the mothers-in-law – have found it liberating to move away and establish a new life on their own in the urban areas. Even others have realized that modern life in the city with all its amenities is convenient. There is no going back.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Does Evaluation Advance Environment and Sustainable Development?

Global environmental challenges in the post-2015 era and the role of evaluation

The whole world talks about sustainable development. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are now coming to an end to be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we know, the concept of sustainable development is supposed to denote development today that doesn’t compromise the ability of the future generations to develop their own world. Well, it’s now 23 years since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit and the world is still struggling with the notion of sustainable development, how to reach there, and how to measure progress.

Blog written for the United Nations Evaluation Group

Friday, April 3, 2015

Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne ShorterFootprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter by Michelle Mercer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wayne Shorter is one of the greatest innovators in the music that is broadly defined as jazz. He is a most influential saxophonist whose tenor playing builds upon the foundations laid by earlier masters from Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young to Coltrane. On soprano, he was the foremost pioneer since the late 1960s. Most importantly, he is an extraordinary composer with an amazing breadth of knowledge and influences from Western classical to Brazilian music. Born in 1933, Shorter is also one of the last of the generation that revolutionized jazz who is left with us. The biography by Michelle Mercer is, thus, a must read for everyone interested in the evolution of music and the role of this giant in it.

‘Footsteps’ that takes its name from one of Shorter’s most famous compositions follows him from his early days in Newark, NJ, until almost today. Mercer has spent plenty of time with the man himself, as well as those close to him, gleaning tremendous amounts of information and an obvious love and admiration for him. The biography takes us through the major bands with which Shorter was affiliated throughout the 1960s to 1980s, all of them central to the development of contemporary music. First there was Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in which young Wayne soon assumed the role of a prominent composer and musical director. Then came Miles Davis’ Quintet, which to me personally was arguably the best combo ever, with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams completing the roundup of geniuses. Wayne stayed with Miles to innovate with the new electric experiments on ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro,' ‘In a Silent Way’ and 'Bitches Brew,' turning to the soprano.

To the larger audience, Shorter is probably most known as a founding member and co-leader, with Joe Zawinul, of Weather Report. The band was active from 1971 to 1986 and achieved unprecedented commercial success for a “jazz” outfit. This was largely due to Zawinul’s directions that took the band from its early free electronic avant-garde increasingly towards funky beats and catchy vamps (think, ‘Birdland’ from the 1977 album ‘Heavy Weather’). When the super-bassist Jaco Pastorius joined Weather Report in 1976, he and Zawinul formed a powerful axis in the band’s music. In the later years, Shorter’s role in the band was audibly diminished, which has led many to speculate about the reasons. Given the centrality of Weather Report to Shorter’s career over a decade and a half, Mercer spends a significant portion of the book exploring the period providing many interesting insights.

It is also interesting to read about Shorter’s ventures crossing over to rock, and his thoughts about them. He had a long-term and very productive relationship with Joni Mitchell producing some beautiful music together. He also collaborated with Carlos Santana whose appreciation of jazz and musical inclinations coincided with those of Shorter, despite their different points of departure. Both, for examples, admire Coltrane. Arguably the best saxophone solo ever on a rock record (the only one competing I can think of is Fred Lipsius’ alto solo on ‘God Bless the Child’ by Blood, Sweat & Tears) was by Shorter on the title song of Steely Dan’s extraordinary 1977 album ‘Aja.’ It was very interesting to learn that it was constructed of fragments of several solos improvised by Wayne. Shorter would have had much demand as a session player for rock stars, but hesitated to sell out and declined almost all offers. The fact that he did collaborate with Mitchell, Santana and Steely Dan is testimony to the latter artists' musical sensibilities.

Throughout the years Shorter has made his own recordings, starting with ‘Introducing Wayne Shorter’ in 1959. His discography thus far contains some 25 titles under his own name as leader, the latest being ‘Without a Net’ (2013) with his permanent quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Many critics and fans welcomed the quartet when it was formed in 2000 as the first fully acoustic group that Shorter played with in a long while. He himself appears extremely satisfied with the group of younger but by now established musicians each with their own credentials as leaders.

‘Footprints’ is an intimate book with a close look at Wayne Shorter’s personal life. He has had his share of hardships, including the illness and death at 14 of his daughter Iska with his beloved second wife Ana Maria with whom he spent nearly three decades until she perished on the TWA flight 800 that exploded off Long Island in 1996. Over long periods of time, Shorter also struggled with creativity as a composer, only to find that it would always come back propelling him to write ever more inspired and complex music. In 1999, Shorter remarried and appears to be at peace with himself. He is a practicing Nichiren Buddhist and active member of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai (alongside many other artists, such as his close friends Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner). Here one would have wished the biographer take a bit more distance and not reporting everything about Soka Gakkai in such gushing terms. An interesting insight from the biography is also how films have provided important inspiration to the composer.

Reading the book made me go back and listen again to many of Wayne Shorter’s recordings from the celebrated old favorites ‘JuJu’ (1964) and ‘Speak No Evil’ (1965) to his latest with the new quartet. In between I rediscovered the ethereal beauty of ‘Odyssey of Iska’ (1970). The near magical wonder of ‘Native Dancer’ (1974) featuring Milton Nascimento’s unique and haunting singing I have been lucky never to lose in these intervening years. Like for many others, the following productions in the mid-1980s following a decade with no records under his own name had always left me somewhat cold, although I do remember hearing the Wayne Shorter band live in Rome, Italy, soon after the release of ‘Atlantis’ in 1985 and raving about it. I am yet to go back to that and other records from the period, which sit on my shelf waiting for me to gather the courage.

I did go back to listen to Weather Report. Not the all too familiar funk albums but the early ones that had been overshadowed by the later, flashier productions. The original eponymous album from 1971 rekindled the magic with its sparkles and lightness. With the third founding member, Miroslav Vitous (with whom the band would later break acrimoniously to follow Zawinul’s vision for a heavier, funkier sound) played a key role, as did the percussionists Alphonse Mouzon and Airto Moreira. There still were no synthesizers, with the Fender Rhodes and the occasional bass guitar as the only electric instruments. The subsequent albums – ‘I Sing the Body Electric,’ ‘Sweetnighter,’ ‘Mysterious Traveller’ – that appeared annually after the first album continued in the footsteps of the original. I am not saying that the later Weather Report productions were bad – on the contrary – but I personally miss the free-flowing mysticism of the early ones.

Amazing beauty and creativity can also be heard on one of Wayne Shorter’s newer recordings, ‘Alegria’ (2003), which contains the master’s compositions featuring, in addition to his regular quartet, a large orchestra with horns, woodwinds and strings, and additional guests, such as Brad Mehldau, Terri Lyne Carrington and the Weather Report alumnus Alex Acuña.

Wayne Shorter has had a long, varied and incredibly productive career. He has been, deservedly, recognized by the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz with a Lifetime Achievement Award (2013) and with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2014). We must be grateful to Michelle Mercer for bringing us a biography that is well-researched, intimate and provides the readers and listeners a look into the life and mind of this creative genius.

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