Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Battle in Haiti

Last night, I was listening to the Joseph story and came to the part where Joseph is thrown into prison after Potiphar's wife falsely accuses him of attacking her.  I was struck by the next verse: "But while Joseph was there in prison, the Lord was with him" (Gen 39:20-21).  By earthly standards, it certainly didn't seem like God was favoring Joseph---falsely accused, innocent yet imprisoned.  We might think that if God saw Joseph in his plight and cared for him, He would break him out of prison and vindicate him before his accusers.  However, Joseph remained in prison for some time longer than two years, and yet "the Lord was with him."

A few days ago, Ben (a newlywed who moved to Haiti with his wife last fall to work at a school, and who has been swept up unexpectedly into relief efforts) was asked if he thought the devil knew he was defeated in Haiti.  Ben thought, "This woman clearly has not seen enough dead bodies, food riots, looting and general devastation to know that right now evil is alive and well in Haiti."  The devil certainly does seem to be having a heyday.

I heard it said a number of years ago that Haiti was one of the darkest nations in the world, spiritually speaking.  As I was going to bed, I spent a moment praying for Haiti, and asked God that many of the relief workers flooding into the country would be Christians who would shine the light of Christ into Haiti's darkness---when suddenly I recalled the end of Joseph's story: After Jacob's death, Joseph's brothers fear he'll take vengeance for their mistreatment of him; but, Joseph tells them, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Gen 50:20).

From a human perspective, it feels like the devil is winning in Haiti---hunger and suffering are rampant, death and destruction are at every turn, and it's possible (likely?) everything will get worse before it gets any better.  But, I wonder if from an eternal perspective things look a little different:  Could the earthquake signal the beginning of a last great battle for Haiti, as Christ (through His body, the Church) comes galloping in to unseat forever the powers of darkness that have held Haiti in their grasp?  The devil surely meant the quake for evil, but perhaps God means it for good.  And in the midst of the turmoil, we can take courage (John 16:33), for the victor is the same one who said, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matt 28:20).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Planning First: A Novelty?

From Al Jazeera:

The conference in the Canadian city of Montreal was not intended to bring specific aid promises but to assess immediate needs and begin charting Haiti's long-term recovery from the January 12 earthquake.

"We're trying to do this in the correct order. Sometimes people have pledging conferences and pledge money and they don't have any idea what they are going to do with it," Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said at a closing news conference. ...

"We actually think it's a novel idea to do the needs assessment first, and then the planning, and then the pledging," Clinton said.

It certainly is a sad truth that all too often people in development act before they plan, and decide what to do before figuring out what needs to be done or thinking about the long-term implications of one strategy over another. But, really, is doing needs assessment before planning before acting really a "novel" idea?!

I hope, for the people of Haiti's sake and that of all those in regions in need of development, that the key players in Haiti's reconstruction can pull off the process of conducting needs assessment and careful planning before rushing into action in a spectacular fashion, serving as a model for all development work, particularly if they can integrate evaluation of the redevelopment's implementation and effectiveness into the plan.

Incidentally, I wonder if having a sound redevelopment plan from the outset could help alleviate donor fatigue. It might not have much effect on individual donors, but big foundations/NGOs/governments might find it easier to "stay the course" if they knew where exactly they were headed and how far they had come.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Investor's Manifesto: Prudence Before Riches

The Investor's Manifesto: preparing for prosperity, Armageddon, and everything in between, by William Bernstein. Rating: 4/5.

A good description of basic investment strategy, written in a familiar, mildly humorous style. Bernstein's approach draws heavily on an investment version of Pascal's wager: Financial ruin in retirement if markets turn south is worse than living modestly (now and in retirement) even if markets are booming. Bernstein advocates for simple, unglamorous investing:
"The name of the game is not to get rich, but rather to avoid dying poor. In fact, if you follow the advice in this book, I can guarantee you that you will not get fabulously wealthy. Rather, I've striven to simultaneously maximize your chances of a comfortable retirement and minimize your chances of living out your final years in poverty. I know of no more laudable or more worthy investment goal." (183)

As a starting point, Bernstein cites the "age rule" for asset allocation: The percentage of bonds in your portfolio should be roughly the same as your age. This percentage should be increased or decreased up to 20 percentage points depending on your risk tolerance. Then, Bernstein recommends between 60-80% domestic stocks and 20-40% foreign stocks, and suggests that money should be placed in low-expense index or passively managed mutual funds. "Does this portfolio seem overly simplistic, even amateurish?" Bernstein asks---"Get over it. Over the next few decades, the overwhelming majority of all professional investors will not be able to beat it" (89). Investors interested in a more complex allocation could divide the stocks into small and large, value and market companies; but, Bernstein indicates that growth companies should be avoided, as they have a small dividend stream relative to stock price, and the dividend growth rate is a better predictor of future performance than growth of stock price.

Chapter 1, "A Brief History of Financial Time," gives an overview of the history of financial markets and lays down a number of important principles of how markets work that undergird Bernstein's investment philosophy. Chapter 2, "The Nature of the Beast," describes the core of the philosophy. Chapter 3, "The Nature of the Portfolio," applies Bernstein's philosophy to creation of a portfolio. Chapter 4, "The Enemy in the Mirror," presents a number of neuro-psychological effects and common mistakes that investors make that derail them from their investing goals. Chapter 5, "Muggers and Worse," warns against brokerage houses and the like. Chapter 6, "Building Your Portfolio," introduces dollar cost averaging and value averaging, and provides four example scenarios of prototypical investors. Finally, chapter 7, "The Nature of the Game," provides a summary of the principal lessons from the book, suitable for sticking to the refrigerator for frequent review.

The book is approachable for beginning investors, though some experience with investment vocabulary is helpful. Important points are placed in call-out boxes, and mathematical details are relegated to sidebars that can be skipped or skimmed without losing the overall message. Each chapter has a bullet-point summary of the most important topics for review.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Augustine on Science and the Bible

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, ... and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a nonbeliever to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

-- Augustine (354-430), On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, I.19 (translated by John Hammond Taylor)
How true. If only this wisdom given to Augustine were not covered in centuries of dust, but were read and considered by more Christians today. How sad it is when some Christians get so caught up in testifying to their faith that they forget that how they act may be at cross-purposes with sharing that faith with others.