Collective Effort versus Collectivism

I have been reading the new George Kennan bio, which is reminding me of the horrors of the communist/Nazi varieties of collectivism. On the other side, I am just reading about “crowd funding” where small investors support artistic endeavors. I understood that we often operate under a false paradigm of individual v collective effort. We are implicitly accepting the flawed concepts of 19th century economists who really didn’t know what they were talking about and/or analysis should have been left in its historical context.  

I don’t need to describe the horrors that communism, Nazism and other collectivist theories brought to the 20th Century. The people who used these benighted concepts to oppress vast populations hid behind the idea of collectivism. They claimed they would use this to create a better society, something approaching heaven on earth with prosperity and justice for all “the people,” properly defined and purged of their undesirable elements. Of course, to get to this heaven, leaders like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao need to pull the people through hell.

We Americans fought hot and cold wars against these guy and defeated both of them. We were also infected by less virulent forms of both diseases, which created conflicts within the U.S. One of the collateral victims of this was the concept of collective effort. It came to be identified with the left side of the argument and came to be defined in an erroneous way. Collective behavior came to be seen – on both left and right – as the kind of thing practiced by the collectivists in communist/nazi places, i.e. organized from top-down and usually in some sort of “struggle,” most commonly a kind of class struggle in the Marxist sense. This obscured the truth.

The truth is that the free market, people working in voluntary association, is the most effective way devised by mankind to engage in collective effort. A firm channels the collective efforts of many people with diverse skills and interest into a common end. The market mechanism organizes the efforts of people who may have never met or even know of each other’s existence into cooperative supply chains so subtle and sublime that no planner of group of planners could ever imagine, much less organize.

Collectivism as practiced by the planners was a sickly and anemic shadow of the effective organization done by the free market. An ordinary swing manager at McDonald’s was more skilled and had access to better sources of information than the head of the Soviet planning groups. He could use the collective knowledge, skills and functioning supply chains to produce hamburgers hot, fresh, inexpensive and on schedule, and he could do it day after day -something no Soviet planner ever succeeded in achieving. The magnitude of this discrepancy was so great and so shocking that we just missed it. I suppose it is like the person on the airplane traveling hundreds of miles an hour who just doesn’t feel the movement.

It has been nearly sixty year since the fall of the Nazi’s and more than twenty years since the collapse of communism. In consequence, we have the advantages and disadvantages of looking from a distance. Some have forgotten or rationalized the horrors of communism. What we should remember is that their style of collectivism was not only immoral, but also hopelessly inefficient.

This makes sense if you stop to think about it. Collective effort is effective to the extent that it employs the imaginations and aspirations of the individual participants. If you just make people do things with the threat of force, they do as much as they need to in order to placate their masters, but no more. It is not a collective activity. It is a collectivist activity. The people have been collected and used until they are used up.

Being connected with Internet makes voluntary collective activity much easier. It also makes the functioning of dispersed effort and intelligence more transparent. In the recent past, we knew that markets worked, but the mechanisms were a mystery. Today we can chart networks of connections that can show the movements of information.

For a long time most of us have assumed that the scope of government would increase as countries developed. As our societies became more crowded and complex, the idea went, we would need more government to sort out the relationships and resources. This seemed to go with an increasing centralization of firms. They were getting bigger. We had big government, big business, big labor and big coordination problems. This began to change in the 1970s and accelerated ever since.

As communications improved, the advantages of centralization decreased. Henry Ford owned or controlled many factors of production. He controlled forests and mines to produce the raw material. His plants fashioned these things into cars. It was integrated. Today a business doesn’t need or want to control all aspects of the production chain. It is much more efficient to coordinate with others through networks. The command and control has been replaced by voluntary associations that can change rapidly. It is much MORE a collective effort than before, but it is not controlled by a single plan, sometimes really by no plan at all. The factors of production do not receive instructions. Instead they get market signals, incentives that move them to supply goods or services for people they have not met or may not know even exist.

Our ideas of government have not caught up with this innovative and networked world. Government is not especially relaxed about innovation but is exceedingly comfortable with hierarchy. Government, after all, is hierarchical by nature because its main function is to determine who is in charge with the power to set priories and limit options. If you don’t believe me, think of why we have laws, rules and regulations and what institution is the final legitimate authority in creating and enforcing them.

In the past, we needed big government to balance big business and big labor. We also needed it to manage many of the interactions among people and organizations. As modern communications allow us more and more to become self-organizing, we might have to think of new and different roles for government. IMO, this will lead to LESS government, although I hope it is better targeted and more effective.

We conservatives should stop defining ourselves as against government and start thinking of ourselves as FOR more effective and better targeted government. If government says “no” to peripheral tasks, it can be more effective on those it says “yes.” We need to reform government to adapt to the networked world.

In some ways this is back to the future. The pre-industrial age was a more networked and less standardized place. It was backward and inefficient because of the primitive level of technology. (By technology, BTW, I mean more than physical tech. There are technologies of the mind (such as calculus, statistics or economic analysis) that were unavailable to people 300 years ago as well as technologies of organization. These are less obviously apparent, but perhaps more important.) But it was human scale and human run. The industrial age brought standardizing and “mass” everything. Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were both producers and products of this. Individuals mattered not at all to them. But now we have the chance to reclaim some of the humanity we may have lost and at the same time keep and expand the prosperity we got from industrialization. An interesting world indeed.


PS – Few people believe in Marx anymore, but Marxist analysis still pervades our thinking. Marx was an idiot/savant. If we understand that, we can more easily deal with his legacy. He was a savant with his flashed of genius, especially in the poetic sense of creating images. He was an idiot when it came to assembling these into a coherent social-economic theory. We should appreciate him as a literary figure and reject him as an economist or social theorist. Unfortunately, his followers usually did the opposite.

Sao Paulo July 2012

Espen and I are in São Paulo. I am here for a meeting with a delegation of school principals.  He is here to visit São Paulo.  Some of his friends told him that Brasília was not the “real Brazil”.  My belief is that no place is the real Brazil any more than any particular place is the real America.  There are lots of different realities.  However, more Brazilians live in São Paulo than in any other place and lots of other big Brazilian cities have similar characteristics, so this is as real as it gets.  There are almost twenty million people in the metro area and São Paulo state produces about a third of the Brazilian GDP.

Our hotel is in Jardim Paulista, one of the nicest areas of the city.  I always stay in Marriott when possible. They are usually in nice places and have consistent quality.  We are near Avenida Paulista, the main commercial street. We walked around the downtown a bit and you can see some pictures.  We even absorbed a little culture at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP).  Espen and I discussed why it is sometimes better to go in person than to look at the art in books or on increasingly high definition computer screens.  Besides seeing the real thing, there is the important social aspect of actually showing up at an art exhibit with other people.

I like to visit São Paulo, but I would be unenthusiastic about living here.  When I visit, I can live in Jardim and walk around in relative comfort and safety.  I would not be able to live in Jardim if I was living here and I would get stuck in that traffic every day.  In Brasília I can ride my bike to work and driving takes only about seven minutes from home to work.  So I have the perfect balance.  I can live in Brasília and frequently visit other parts of the country.

Above – that car must have hit the truck just right to flip it over like that.  I really cannot imagine how it happened and with relatively little damage to the car. 


I am not sure you could call SESI (Serviço Social da Indústria) an NGO, since it has a mandatory contribution, was established by government fiat back in 1946 and the president of SESI is nominated by the president of Brazil. On the other hand, SESI is private and non-profit.  SESI is supported by contributions by industry and not open to all Brazilians. SESIs are a membership organization. Only workers in the covered industries and their families are eligible to participate in SESI programs.  There are similar organizations for commerce SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio) and transport SEST (Serviço Social do Transporte). SESI and SESC were established in 1946; SEST came only in 1993. I was already familiar with SESC, as I have visited a couple in São Paulo. 

SESC, SESI & SEST evidently work in similar fashion, so I describe SESI with the stipulation that the others resemble it. 

Each Brazilian state and the DF have their own SESI and there is significant autonomy and diversity among them, not least because their budgets come from local industrial contributions.  

We don’t have anything exactly like SESI in the U.S.   They are sort of like a YMCA on steroids.  They provide social services, health, education, leisure and cultural activities as well as programs to promote good citizenship.  They have swimming pools, gyms & theaters.  The mandate seems fairly flexible.  Our English-coaching I mentioned in Salvador was done under the ambit of the educational mandate.

Federal institutes of science and technology

Brazilian Federal institutes of science and technology are in some ways like American community colleges, in other ways have a mission similar to American land grant colleges and in many ways are completely Brazilian.  They are already part of the Science w/o Borders program and a potentially a source of great partners in English teaching, science and community college exchanges. 

In Portuguese they are called Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia (IFECT).  The network was an initiative of former president Lula, established in 2008. At that time there were thirty-eight. There are now 354 and the goal is to add another 208 by the end of Dilma’s term. Rapid expansion was possible because most of the “new” institutions are former technical schools put into the new program.    

The network reflects the schools on which it was based and the quality of schools is inconsistent.  But they are ubiquitous and share a few characteristics. All are funded by the Federal government, they are present in all the states plus the Federal district and they are all tuition free.  The goal in creating the network of IFECTs was to make education and technical training more easily accessible to underserved populations and to help create a workforce adapted to the needs of modern Brazil.   

Like an American community college, course offering vary depending on the perceived need of the location.  In a place like rural Goiás there would be courses in plant biology or animal husbandry that you might not find in central São Paulo. Enrollment is mostly open, but particular courses might require special qualifications and/or limit enrollment to those most suited to the study or most in need.  IFECTs resemble American land grant colleges in their mission to develop useful arts and sciences and work within the needs of the community.  Ideally, the IFECTs will bridge the gap between academic research and practical applications, as with the land grant universities original mission, making the whole state their laboratory and classroom.  

A related program is O Programa Nacional de Acesso ao Ensino Técnico e Emprego (Pronatec), signed into law by President Dilma in October 2011. This will work through the IFECTs – but also in cooperation with SENAI and SENAC, to bring mostly technical education to underserved Brazilians. The goal is to enroll 8 million Brazilian by 2014. They also are implementing distance learning courses. They currently offer more than 400 courses. 

For courses not offered in public systems, qualified students can get to help to pay for private options, Fundo de Financiamento Estudantil (FIES) which gives students loans at subsidized interest rates below inflation, i.e. negative real rates.  The loans can be used to pay for studies at private institutions approved by MEC or those tied to Sistemas Nacionais de Aprendizagem (the “S” system: SENAC, SESC, SENAI, SESI, SENAT, SEST) .  There is also a scholarship program called Bolsa-Formação, with a strong emphasis on helping students who would not otherwise be able to attend training and a special program to encourage women called Mulheres Mil. 

 An inclusive and well-funded system like this may help Brazil achieve its workforce goals.  I have worked with IFECTs on several occasions but not yet visited one; they are now on my list of must see places.

U.S. – Brazil connecting people

This entry is a little out of order – We are in Salvador to meet American students from Houston Community College. They came to Brazil to work with Brazilian partners. The connection is bigger and more promising than I thought.   U.S. –Brazil Connect, which I mentioned on earlier occasions, established a working relationship with SESI in Salvador, Bahia.  The first act in this new friendship was to send 20 students from the respective community colleges to SESI in Salvador to coach English. I use the word coach instead of teach because these are not English teachers per se, but rather coaches to a small group of Brazilians. 

Each American had a group of ten Brazilians. They made contact via Facebook before coming to Brazil, so they were cyber buddies before meeting in person. IMO, this is a superb use of the electronic- human relationship.  They were able to make many of the preliminary introductions and exchange online, but then the cemented the cyber relationship with actual human contact.

The Americans spent four weeks in Salvador. I attended the closing ceremony and it was clear that the groups had bonded. Several of the kids told me that this was the best experience of their lives. We can discount a little because of youthful enthusiasm, but they were clearly moved. Other comments were about meeting Americans and changing their points of view. They all hope to remain in touch and with the wonders of Internet this may be more than an empty aspiration. This truly is the kind of people-to-people exchanges we want to make happen. 

We can facilitate these exchanges and they are getting bigger. While at the meetings at SESI Salvador, I met representatives from SESIs in Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina & Rio de Janeiro, who have agreed to expand the program to their states.  Pernambuco and Alagoas are also in. This will expand the number of participating states to six, which will mean 120 Americans will be coaching 1200 Brazilians. This is something big.  

Centro Nacional de Pesquisa em Engergia e Materiais (CNPEM)

The Fulbright meeting was held at the Centro Nacional de Pesquisa em Engergia e Materiais (CNPEM) and one of the collateral benefits was that we got a tour of the place. The center is located in several buildings on a big campus with lots of green space. On the campus are included o Laboratório Nacional de Luz Síncrotron (LNLS), o Laboratório Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia do Bioetanol (CTBE) e o Laboratório Nacional de Biociências. 

Most of the budget comes from the Federal government with about 15% coming from private firms.  Academic researchers can use the facilities, but they bring their own equipment. The analogy is that the Federal government pays for the car and the users put in their own gas. I saw all kinds of research going on in biotechnology and biofuels. Foreign researchers are welcome and many come from other parts of Latin America. There are fewer visiting researchers from other parts of the world, but our Brazilian friends are hopeful.

I have to admit that I don’t really know what I am looking at. I see lots of bottles and machines. They tell me that they are crystallizing proteins. I believe that is true, although I am not sure what that means. I did see a fish that glows in the dark. That was cool. It has to do with its trans-genetic nature. At least that is what they told me.

Another big and impressive thing is the Synchrotron.  I took a picture. This was the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.  It is a type of particle accelerator. They told me that it had a wide range of uses in research. I can appreciate that it is a good thing. There is a TV series I sometimes watch called “the Big Bang Theory”. Visiting this place and talking to the people there reminded me of that show.

Meeting Alumni in Campinas

We held our alumni event at the Dan Hotel, which was convenient and not very expensive.  Only three of the six invitees could actually make it, but it was good to talk to people who had been affected by our programs.  They almost all say the same thing.  They almost always tell me that their program was a life-changing experience and this makes them friends forever of the U.S.

I met the guy who went on a Community College Initiative exchange in 2009.  He spoke to me in fluent English, which he attributed to his time in the U.S.  The Community College Initiative is an ECA program that sends participants to study in fields like agriculture, applied engineering, business management and administration, allied health care, information technology, media, and tourism and hospitality management. Fulbright administers the program in Brazil and participants are recruited from historically underserved populations.  Ronaldo studied information science.   He said that is still maintaining friendships he made in the U.S., but also worldwide with other participants he met in the U.S.  In this world of networks, I wonder what role our program participants play.   

As I was talking to Ronaldo, I have to admit that my mind wandered to how we measure success in public affairs. It was not because he was uninteresting. On the contrary, it was exactly his enthusiasm that led me to this related related topic. Here was an articulate and promising young man who was my immediate friend because he was a friend of the United States. We helped him become successful and put him into an international network.  He told me that much of what he becomes will be thanks to us. I don’t know if all of that is true, but some is. How will we measure this? How will we measure the thousands of contacts he might make and deeply influence? We are too stuck on numbers and metrics, which usually measure superficial “reach”. Is reaching 100,000 people with a 140 character message on twitter worth more or less than this one kid?

I also thought about the Pygmalion effect.  That is the idea that you create success by your idea that the person is or will be successful.  Do we find successful people or do we help create them?  Some of both are at work in a complex interaction.  It was fortuitous that in walked another of our guests, a psychologist who had been on an exchange program in 2009.  One of Ricardo’s specialties was how to measure the interaction between training and selection.  We talked about a study of applicants to Ivy League universities that compared those who were accepted and actually attended them to those who were accepted but did not enroll.  After several years, their outcomes were very similar. To a large extend, a great university like Harvard produces great results because it is able to start with great raw material.  Returning to the Community College paradigm, perhaps the Community Colleges actually produce a greater value added. They take kids who otherwise might not be successful and make them better.  Of course, the other permutation is how hard it to add value.  The better you get, the harder it is to make each additional percentage point of improvement.  The discussion will never be resolved.   

The last guy to show up was a recent IVLP.  Luiz studied alternative power in the U.S. and is working to apply what he learned in Brazil.   Like all the others, Luiz praised the connections he made in the U.S.  This is a persistent theme.  The program might last a month or year, but the contacts are forever.  My thoughts returned to measuring results.  The measuring paradigm, IMO, is inadequate.  We are using a physical-mechanical model to measure what works more like a biological system. Let me explain.   

In a physical-mechanical system, you can measure and predict results from inputs.  It may be very complicated, but it is not very complex.   For example, a mechanical watch is complicated, but not complex.  It won’t change its mind and it won’t reach to changes around it, except maybe to break.  A watch will not grow any bigger or get any smaller if you change its environment. In contrast, a biological system is complex, with various parts changing based on changes in other parts of the system.  A little seed can grow into an enormous tree and in the course of its grow will affect everything around it.

My three friends hold potential for growth much beyond the inputs and outputs that we can measure.  Their actions will affect the ideas of others in ways that we cannot predict. Maybe my belief in the efficacy of public affairs is faith based.  I have faith that good programs will produce good results in ways that I cannot explain, much as I have faith that good seeds will produce good plants and fruit in ways I also cannot explain.   My judgment tells me that we did a good job with these exchanges and I have faith that taking time to meet with them in the evening in Campinas was worth the time. 

7 Habits of Highly Effective People

I read the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” back in 1990 and it helped change my life. You could say that the advice is just obvious and you are right. But the greatest truths are usually simple things that “everybody knows” but doesn’t seem to appreciate. In many ways, it is like a diet & exercise program. Everybody knows how to lose weight and get in better shape, but not many people do it right.   

You are only really changed by the people you meet and the books you read and then only if you think about them. Reading the 7 Habits made me think about my priorities in life. I was reading a lot of similar things at that time. I did the usual Peter Drucker and Tom Peters books popular at the time and read a lot about organizational theory in general. Covey’s book was certainly not the only influence on me and I am not attributing to the book magical powers, but it helped me. For example, that the book helped me work less and get more done. At the time, I consciously and specifically thought about my work life in relation to the 7 habits. I used to work a lot but not always highly effectively. I often would put in 16-hour days when I was building my career. It was not working well for my health, my family and even for my career. After reading the book, I felt I had a defensible reason to work less, work smarter and put more balance in my life. I started to “start with the end in mind” which made me quit doing a lot of things that were not very useful and avoid lots of meetings. I still don’t think that you can expect to be successful if you work only eight hours a day, but on most days 9-10 hours is enough if you do them right. Covey’s practical time management techniques made my shorter hours possible and his principles gave me reason to do it.

Even before reading the book, I believed in the idea that you should “serve the principle, not the master.” This made me unpopular with some of my bosses in the short term, but a life where you make decisions based on principles is better than one where you are pushed around by expedients or pulled along by your ephemeral desires. Good people recognize this as do good bosses and you really should not care about the opinions of others. Stephen Covey talked about a principle centered life and that made sense to me. He was right. In fact, I can trace almost all my mistakes and regrets to instances when I cut corners or did not act in clear accordance with my principles. You really cannot be happy if you violate your principles and you don’t deserve to be.

The other thing that the book confirmed for me was to be proactive. Don’t cry about your problems or become a victim; figure out what to do to change the situations you don’t like and then do those things.

Critics of Covey say that his ideas were simplistic. Life is indeed complex, but the basic structure of our responses really can be simple. They must be simple if we are to make them work. It worked for me for more than twenty years. I think that the “secret” of life is indeed the simplicity of thinking through and adhering to strong principles. Of course, simple solutions are not always easy ones.

Stephen Covey is dead. We should not mourn for the life well led, but I feel a loss. I met him only once in person and we talked for only a few minutes, but I felt I knew him from the work he shared. You can know people through their work and I am a better person for having known Stephen Covey. He left a legacy. 

Distance, real and imaginary

I flew Azul to Campinas.  There are lots of flights there because Campinas is the hub for Azul Airlines.  I could catch a 5:58 am flight and avoid the trouble and expense of an additional night in Campinas, while still having the whole workday on Thursday.  By the logic of travel time and maybe even expense, Campinas is often closer to Brasília than it is to São Paulo.  You can fly to the Campinas airport of Viracopos in a little over an hour at the cost of less than $100 if you plan ahead and get a promotional ticket.  Driving from São Paulo in the usual traffic will take longer and cost you more if you have to hire a car. The trip to the airport from my house in Brasília takes only fifteen minutes and the taxi cost just $15.  I think my colleague in São Paulo had to wake up earlier to meet me.  It makes you reconsider the concept of distance. The real measure of distance should be the time, money and discomfort required to arrive. 

That is why distance is something that can change, something we can change and adapt.  When a new road opens or a new airline connects, distance changes in a practical sense.  Brazil is a big country.  Measured in square miles, it is about the size of the U.S.; measured in practical distance, it is much larger.  It takes longer and costs more to move yourself of your stuff from one point to another.  Because of our great freight rail and generally good system of highways, right down to county truck roads that bring are paved with asphalt right to gates of most farms, our products move relatively efficiently.  We don’t appreciate that because it is largely unseen and we take it for granted.   We can also move around our country easily by air and road. Although we often complain about these things, we are very well served.  Brazil needs to build infrastructure, especially freight rail and improved water transport.   This is what is really holding back complete development and has been a problem since the beginning.  When you solve infrastructure problems, most other things fall into place and until you do all you have is growth in fits and starts.  The only real way to increase prosperity is to increase productivity.  Good infrastructure does that. 

In effect, Azul has moved Brasília closer to Campinas, just as the overcrowded highways around São Paulo has moved it farther from São Paulo.  Of course, you have to take into account the time you have to hang around in airports.  All the various security checks have added many hundreds of miles of virtual distance to most trips. It would be interesting to see a distance/time/trouble map with the relationships among places. 

Azul in Brazil was founded in 2008 by David Neeleman, the same guy who founded JetBlue in the U.S.  By a quirk of fortune, he was born in São Paulo and is a citizen of Brazil as well as of the United States.  Azul has a fairly efficient system with low cost flights, using Campinas as a hub.  There are two things I didn’t like.  One was that you have to leave from Terminal 2 in Brasília.  This is much less comfortable than the main terminal.  They also use planes that have very little overhead space.  I travel very light, but not everybody else does and it was hard to find space for my backpack.    

The picture above is self-explanatory. It is another step on the road to declaring everything a disability.  I am not sure I would like this if I was a fat person. Look at that symbol. It kind of resembles a fat person, but it certainly is not flattering.  This is the first time I have seen an extra-wide seat.

BNC in Campinas

I had fun talking to these Brazilian English teachers featured in the photo above. They were taking part in a workshop at the Campinas BNC. They said that they don’t get many opportunities to talk with real native speakers. As a poor speaker of several languages not my own, I sympathized when they said that it was easier to understand each other than a native speaker. Learners of English as a second language are more careful than native English speakers and Brazilians can appreciate the accents of their fellows. These teachers were in Campinas for training partially supported by one of our grants. One of my jobs is to evaluate grants. This one is working. 

I asked them why they wanted to learn & teach English. They all answered in similar ways, saying that it opened the world for them.  One man mentioned his trip to Istanbul, where English was his key to communicating with the Turks. They were all enthusiastic about the program. 

Actually, I think I should revise that statement about “language not my own” that I made above. My “other” languages are really more mine, since I had to buy them with a lot more hard work. I recall an old news clip of John Wayne talking to a hostile group of hippies during the 1960s.  One of the kids asked derisively if John Wayne had his own hair. Wayne, who was bald, tipped his toupee and said, “it better be mine; I paid for it.”  As a former classical scholar, I also recall the line quoted in “I Claudius” that I learned in 9th grade Latin class – The golden hair that Gala wears is hers/Who would have thought it?/She swears it’s hers, and true she swears/For I know where she bought it! I wish I had such a good memory for things that were useful.

 The BNC in Campinas has around 1800 students. They are rebuilding from a low of 1400 a couple of years ago.  The BNC is the gold standard of English teaching. It supplies a more complete cultural experience than its rivals, but the rivals promise faster results. BNC leaders also say they lost lots of customers when former President Lula said or implied that English wasn’t very important. I don’t know much about this incident, but it seems to have been memorable to English teachers. 

I was surprised to find that English was not more common in Campinas. But I understood that it is not as much an international center as I thought it was. After all, UNICAMP is a major university and there is the research lab and PUC Campinas.  The presence of these made me expect more English. The particular thing that brought the problem to my attention was the local failure of our “English cubed” program.  

In cooperation with the Coligação of BNCs, we created a program to bring Brazilian science students up to the level needed to study in the U.S. in the Science w/o Borders program. The BNC in Campinas was one of the institutions given scholarships to execute the program. They had to give back the money (which was redeployed to other centers) because they couldn’t find ten kids with the necessary proficiency that were also qualified and interested in the Science w/o Borders program.  I am glad that the BNC leaders were honest and self aware enough to make the right decision.

If I can digress a bit, I have been coming up again and again against problems of scalability and absorption capacity. We have so many opportunities in Brazil, or at least it looks that way. But we seem to be scaling up faster than the system will bear. This includes our own staff, which has remained the same size with higher workloads, but also with our “customers.” This problem is exacerbated by our laudable (I think) desire to reach into previously under served communities. It is almost a tautology. Those who have been “under served” are generally under prepared and we (the U.S. Mission) do not have the resources to change this, at least over the short term.

Our biggest bottleneck is English capacity. Participation in our programs often requires reasonable English proficiency. It takes years to learn English and it requires a commitment of time and resources. I mistakenly presumed that there was a much larger pool of high intermediate and advanced English speakers.  

But it makes sense if you think in terms of conditional probabilities. Think about the potential Science w/o Borders applicants. Start with proficient English speakers, not including those who have already signed up for Science w/o Borders with sufficient English scores. Now subtract all those not currently enrolled in college, minus those in their first or their last years. Next subtract all those who are not studying sciences. Among those left, we now have to count only those who want study outside Brazil and then move to the even smaller group who choose to study in the U.S.  and want to do it this year. Suddenly, the massive numbers are not so massive. All this means that the potential customer base in Brazil is not very big and the customer base in any particular city might be too small to support the program. I have to think about ways to expand the market or find other avenues.