Interviews – Conflict Creation and Resolution

Last night I was writing a blog post when this friend of mine signed in to MSN. She said ‘Hi’ and then asked me to read a paragraph from her term paper in history. It was something convoluted about ‘how Pakistan is an islamic ideological state involved in a war against muslims and whether I thought that this involvement is hypocritical or in line with the islamic ideology.’ I asked her what she meant by ‘islamic ideology’. This set of terms can be interpretted differently by different people. I honestly did not understand what she meant by the term and told her that she needed to clarify what components this ideology had. Only then I could make a comment on it. For some reason, that offended her. She felt that the word ‘ideology’ was self explanatory, while I felt that I had no clue what that entailed. She stormed away. This is the sort of communication breakdown that we will be discussing in this blog post, with special emphasis on interviews for the Fulbright scholarship.

The opinions expressed in this post are based on my understanding of conflict resolution through workshops and courses on the subject. Based on educational experiences, and their real life implications, I believe that the two general principles of conflict resolution that I am going to talk about here, especially, being clear and reasonable with statements and asking questions are key skills to interview success.

All intelligent people have opinions. They see life around them and make conclusions about how the world works both at macro and micro levels. Some of those opinions are extreme and ingrained in us. Religious and political opinions tend to fall in this classification. Professional negotiators will tell you that the ideal situation regarding opinions, is not to have one. The best way is to see everything neutrally. However, few people are capable of truly seeing everything from a neutral point of veiw. We all tend to gravitate towards having a certain opinion about things that matter to us in life.

When we go for an interview, or for that matter, when we are in a discussion of any kind, what is considered civil is that we express your opinion and then let others express theirs. We may or may not agree to, or even like what other people are saying, but listening with an open mind is what is expected of us. Remember, the key words are ‘listening with an open mind’.  Now add another layer to it. It’s called ‘respecting someone else’s opinion’. So, now it is ‘listening’ and respecting’. We all know that, and that’s really simple stuff? Right? So why did I feel the need to highlight this? It is because I have seen people being rejected in the interview because they thought they had it all figured out. I remember this one guy who was very much against abolishing the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. He never made it past the first five minutes. It was not because the interviewers cared what he thought about the blasphemy laws. The interviewers did not care. That is why the scholarship program is there, so that people from different backgrounds and different ideas go and see how things are done and laws are made in other parts of the world, outside Pakistan, and then reconsider their opinions. The interviewers raise controvertial issues, not because they care what the candidate thinks about them. The interviewers are always going to play devil’s advocate here and try and negate the candidate, only to see how he or she reacts to a challenge. This gentleman who I was talking about earlier took the challenge very badly. He was very defiant. He was repeatedly asked if he thought there was no right answer other than his own, and he claimed that there wasn’t.  That in my opinion, is asking for trouble. The interviewers don’t really care what you believe in, as long as it is within the boundries of normal human ethics and rights. If the aforementioned gentleman had chosen to listen to what the interviewers were telling him, which was essentially the view of the interviewers, he would have a good chance. He got rejected because one needs a certain amount of flexibility to survive in a new culture. He did not have that flexibility and understanding, in our humble opinion. I hope that you would not face such a situation, but if you unintentionally get into such, keep your cool and back off. Be diplomatic. Try and understand what the interviewers are saying. The people called for interviews are all bright and intelligent. Chances are that you will find reason to relate to what the interviewers are saying, who usually have a few years, if not a few decades of experince over you. In the end, what will matter is how reasonable you are and how well you understand what others are saying, even when you don’t agree to it.

The second thing that I would like to emphasize is clarity of statements. Ambguity lies at the root of most conflicts. If you are saying things that are ambigous, then the exact meaning that you may have in your mind may not be the exact meaning that I am going to understand. Let’s consider the opening example of this post. I was afraid to give an opinion, because the word ‘ideology’ sounded amorphous to me. Wikipedia defines an ideology as ” a set of ideas that discusses one’s goals, expectations, and actions.” So what are those ideas? I needed to know what those ideas were before I give my opinion on the effects of something on those ideas.  I might be talking about the effect on the religious right-wing ideology, while she might be thinking that I was talking about a liberal left-wing mindset in the name of ‘ideology’. That’s why clarity of statements is important in interviews.

This brings us to the third part. What if what you are saying is clear but you suspect that you really don’t follow what the interviewer is saying or asking. What do you do then? This is also a potentially conflict generating situation. You must, and I repeat you must ask from the interviewers what they mean, or to clarify the statement. Please do not confuse this with understanding and respecting and opinion. You can only understand and respect an opinion when you know it clearly. What usually happens is, that an interviewer asks a question that the candidate does not understand well. However, the candidate answers it to the best of his or her ability. The interviewer either cuts him short or lets him complete the answer, then rephrases the question to make it clearer for the candidate to answer. When I was being interviewed, I found it better to ask the interviewers outright about the part of the question that I did not understand well. They were very happy to tell me what they meant, and I am very happy to explain when I am on the asking end of the table. Lesson: Always make sure you understand what the question is asking. If you are un-sure, ask the interviewer to clarify, or rephrase the question in your own words and ask the interviewer if that is what they wanted to know. The interview is more of a discussion and less of an interview and I personally am happier when a candidate is communicating well and clearing things up while he is being interviewed.

Good luck.

Disclaimer: The author is a Fulbright alumnus. He is not affiliated with the Fulbright program in any other capacity. He is also not affiliated with the US Education Foundation, Pakistan. The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not represent the views of any of the aforementioned agencies and programs.


Fulbright – Applicants who want to study public health

Public health is a high priority area for the Fulbright masters program in Pakistan. Usually there are fewer well qualified and motivated candidates who end up being interviewed because so few apply.
This guideline is primarily intended for candidates who would like to apply to this priority field, but do not have experience in public health in Pakistan.
Masters degrees in public health are of several types. The most common and well known is the Master of Public Health (MPH), other degrees are Master of Science (MS or MSc), Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) and a number of other masters degrees. I mainly know in depth about two of these degrees, MPH and MS/MSc., because these were the ones offered at my public health school, and I am going to talk primarily about these.
MPH is a terminal degree for public health professionals who want to work in the field. This means that very few people people go on to pursue a doctoral degree (PhD and all the degrees with a ‘D’ in them are doctoral degrees e.g. DrPH, ScD, MD, DEd). MPH is a practical degree, that teaches you a broad based view of public health. Core course requirements for MPH usually includes ethics, management, epidemiology, biostatistics. This is as opposed to MS/MSc which are academic degrees. The focus of these degrees is more theoretical than MPH. They are also more focussed on one subject area, for example, core course requirements for an MS in Epidemiology would be lots of courses in Epidemiology and biostatistics, but none in ethics, management etc. These degrees are not terminal degrees and recipients are expected to go on to pursue a doctoral degree, for example a PhD or an ScD in the relevant subject. So summarizing this paragraph, if you want to get a degree that will allow you to be a public health practitioner in the field, go for an MPH. If you are an academic and want to pursue public health as an academic/research career, go for an MS/MSc.
Different public health schools give different names to degrees in public health other than MPH. For example, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) has MS degrees and MSPH degrees. Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) offers a degree called MHCM (Masters in Healthcare management) for mid career healthcare professionals. Please research the focus of the degree that you plan to apply to before you actually put down one as your choice on the application.

Master of Public Health (MPH)
The MPH is the most popular public health degree among health professionals. Ideally, to pursue an MPH, you would need to have some experience in Public health or at the very least, a very thorough knowledge of public health problems in Pakistan and in the developing world.
For those interested in applying to the Fulbright Masters scholarship to do an MPH, I would recommend reading up the following items which are from HSPH, but are fairly typical of most US public health schools. Unlike Pakistan, where MPH is usually a single course of study, in the US, it has various concentrations, which means that the course of study for the MPH degree is not the same for all the students and you can choose a specialization that best matches you interests and abilities. Please read up material on this page and the links provided here at the Harvard School of Public Health. HERE is a good description of the MPH program at HSPH.

THIS is the link to concentrations. I would recommend that you read through all of them, and see if any descriptions interest you:

THIS is the core curriculum for the MPH program (PDF file). It is a long (50+ page) document, and much of it is administrative details. I would strongly advise you to read through all of this material. Try and see if there is a concentration that interests you. Take a look at the whole curriculum, even if something doesnt make complete sense, just keep reading so that you read through all the documents and webpages that I have listed here.

Critical issues that clinicians (medicine/dentistry) need to know about while applying for the scholarship in public health and to public health schools in the US
Understanding of public health and an aptitude for it: Public health is NOT clinical medicine or dentistry. It is not even remotely similar. It is a whole different subject area where your clinical knowledge may be useful in some courses addressing management and prevention of clinical diseases in the public at large, but it is radically different from the individual patient approach that you learnt in medical/dental school. You have to be able to see problems from a population’s perspective. Let me give you an example. I recently accompanied a medical team to a flood affected village in Charsadda district. While a lady doctor was seeing patients, I worked on a community survey to understand where the people of the village were getting their drinking water from, what were the living conditions of their houses and what were their losses and vulnerabilities in floods. As I was with a supportive team, I was provided full support to look at the community’s problems with regard to water, sanitation and hygiene. A week later, another medical team invited me to go with them to another flood affected area. I told them that I would go on the pre-condition that I would be provided logistical support to do another survey in that area. I was not going to see patients. The team flatly refused. Their argument, “You trained as a doctor, you must see patients because that is what doctors do.No need for surveying.” This stance completely ignores the utility of public health, instead categorizing health into treating individual patients. If you believe that medicine and healthcare is all about treating individual patients, then I would not encourage you to consider pursuing a degree in public health.
Public health is NOT community medicine: Most people mistake public health studies in the US with what is taught in courses of community medicine at medical schools in Pakistan. These two things are not the same. Teaching of community medicine in Pakistan is a train wreck. There are very few teachers who are well qualified, or motivated to teach principles and practice of public health. Most are part time teachers who have a day job as lecturers or faculty at medical schools and a ‘regular’ job as a general practitioner in the evenings. There are very, very few specialists of public health who have experience of any aspect of public health. So it is not wonder that Community medicine and public health is consistently considered one of the worst subjects that exist in medical education curriculum. Adding insult to injury, the course content is extremely outdated, based on books written by Indian and Pakistani authors that seem to address basic problems of public health in Pakistan quite well, but in excruciating detail. Why would anyone want a fourth year medical student to know each and every detail about designing septic tanks and sewer systems? What are reference books for if everything has to be memorized, vomited out in the final exam, and forgotten immediately afterwards? This is not how it is in the US.
At good public health schools, the intructors are world experts in their fields, and the course content is very intellectual, interesting and challenging. It is not at all dull or boring. You need to take a course at any good university to understand what I am talking about.
You NEED experience in public health: Courses at good public health universities are taught with a problem solving approach. How are you going to solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is?
Experience of working in public health, or at the very least a very deep understanding of one particular public health problem or field is necessary for successful scholarship bids. The experience depends upon the specialty of public health that you are choosing. For MPH in quanititative methods, or MPH or MS degrees in epidemiology and biostatistics, experience gained while doing research and planning studies even if you have not graduated from medical/dental school is valuable. These are probably the only disciplines in public health where you can get experience while you are still a student. For health policy and management, unless you have done quite a bit of research and published papers while in medical/dental school, it is unlikely that you would have enough knowledge of the field when you graduate. Therefore, practical work experience related to healthcare management or policy is required before you can get the scholarship and go pursue a degree in the US. An exception to it would probably be a maverick who has read every existing paper on health policy and/or management in Pakistan and can talk authoratatively on these issues. Again, that is a rarity. The same rule of experience apply to specialties such as International Health/Global Health and Population, and the field of Society, Human Development and Health.
Please note this and I am repeating it again and again. Lets say that you tell me that you originally belong to a low resource area with bad healthcare, lets say, Interior sindh. You graduated from Chandka Medical College, Hyderabad, and have been working at the teaching hospitals of the medical colleges for the least two years since your graduation, and write that you want to get an MPH because you want to radically improve healthcare facilities in interior sindh, I, as an evaluator, would tell you that you have no clue what you are talking about. If you have not actually worked for a while in the healthcare system in interior sindh, you don’t know what the problems on the ground are, and there is no way that you will be able to solve those problems if you don’t know what they are. So know the problems, before you claim to want to study and solve them. The only real ways to know them is to work where they exist or know extensively about current evidence on the issue.

Pakistan’s Epic Floods – Aid Part II: So Who Should YOU Donate to?

In this post, I am going to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of various channels for directing aid to people affected by the recent floods in Pakistan. This would allow both Pakistani and foreign individual donors to better decide who their hard earned aid money goes to.

The experience to write this post comes from my work with small international NGOs, participation in strategic and policy negotiations with large international NGOs, direct interaction and work with small and large local NGOs, government of Pakistan and law enforcement agencies. If I miss a major category of aid agencies or characteristic, please do let me know and I will add it.

I will evaluate each mode of contribution on the basis of the following characteristics:
– Ability to reach the neediest
– Value for money
– Personal satisfaction

1. Government of Pakistan
Ability to reach the neediest: 10/10
Government of Pakistan has unmatched ability to reach every single nook and corner of the country. If they want to get something to someone somewhere, they will get it done, no matter what. They have the organizations and the machinery to do it. The government has all the law enforcement support that it needs, so no matter what the security situation is, they can get there and do their job.

Value for money: 6/10
Government of Pakistan has achieved worldwide notoriety for mis-appropriation of aid funding. Does anyone remember the Qarz-utaro-mulk-sanwaro (Return the loans, bless the country) program? Government of Pakistan has huge bureaucratic costs due to the tediousness of the process and the lack of initiative. That said, most of the money does get to the people through institutions such as Pakistan Bait ul Mal, among others. Money does get eaten up, but the system does work out rather satisfactorily for the poorest.

Personal satisfaction: 5/10
The government is not bells and whistles. It works through its own distribution networks. So you really have no idea who is getting the benefits of your donation.

2. Large international NGOs (UN agencies, Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières etc.)
Ability to reach the neediest: 7/10
With their huge networks, staff at their disposal, and extreme amounts of international experience with similar situations, international NGOs are quite good at reaching the poorest and the weakest. What does impair their reach is the fact that they are not permanent fixtures of the local landscapes like the Pakistan government. They usually have to move in when a disaster occurs and that decreases their effectiveness as they have to progressively find out and cater to the local needs. The speed of their response depends on their previous presence in the area, and/or previous knowledge of the situation in the area and its effective solutions.
The presence of expatriates and certain policies of the international NGOs create hindrance in their penetration. In areas where militant activity is high, NGO vehicles are frequently escorted by the Pakistan army, the rangers, or the police. Certain NGOs have a set policy that they will not use an escort or work with military. On paper this is a complete roadblock to their work, however, they frequently have local NGOs as their sub-contractors on projects, who have no problems with the military. So the equation ends up being almost the same.
The aforementioned description applies to large international NGOs that are operating in Pakistan for a while. There are smaller international NGOs that have specific aims and objectives, are addressing some specific problems in a specific area, and their real penetration to the needy may not be good at all. They might not be very useful in disasters like this because many of them are not structured to be flexible to changing situations.

Value for money: 6/10
There is no doubt that every dollar or rupee that you send to these organizations is accounted for. They are most certainly honest. The problem is that each and every one of them is not spent on the needy. These organizations have very high operational costs, which may reach up to 60% of their available budget; international consultants and fleets of 4 x 4 vehicles don’t come cheap.

Personal satisfaction: 6/10
You know that you are giving money to an organization with a good, professional track record of honest funds management. You don’t give packets of food away to the poor with your own hands, but if you send money to the UNICEF’s flood appeal, you know that they money will somehow help children affected by flood in Pakistan.

3. Large Pakistani NGOs (Organizations with no political affiliations: Edhi Foundation, etc.)

Ability to reach the neediest: 8/10
They may not be in each and every nook and corner in Pakistan, but wherever they are, Edhi foundation are the cornerstone of public service. They have the reach into the poorest of poor areas and are known to cater to those who no one else would dare touch. Where they serve, they need no escort. With devastation in urban areas or Pakistan which are served by Edhi Foundation, they may be a good choice as far as penetration to the poorest is concerned.

Value for money: 8/10
Good fiscal control, professional accounting practices and all local staff means that a large part of what you give to Edhi foundation actually goes to the needy.

Personal satisfaction: 8/10
You are unlikely to know the last detail of where your money went, but with Edhi’s outstanding reputation and ubiquitous ambulances to remind you that they are hard at work, this is as close as it gets to actually handing aid to the affectees themselves.

4. Large Pakistani NGOs (with political affiliations: Al Khidmat Foundation, Khidmat e Khalq Foundation etc.)
Unless you believe in the political ideology of their parent political organization, I would suggest that you should avoid supporting them.

5. Small NGOs/personal efforts for collection and transport of donations
Ability to reach the neediest: 2/10
There is a really huge issue with small NGOs and personal efforts that impairs their penetration: you have to trust someone for local knowledge of the disaster area and to ensure a secure environment for aid distribution. Small NGOs and individuals usually prefer to stay close to the beaten path and built roads, which are usually areas where aid is already aplenty. The poorest and the weakest don’t live in secure places or those that can be easily secured, and chances are that you are going to end up serving your advisor’s interests and not necessarily your own best humanitarian interests. If they are lucky, experienced, curious, very tough skinned, have very good knowledge of the situation and can plan the effort well, they might find the people who need their help the most. Usually it is not the case and the advisor’s yes-men go home very happy.

Value for money: 10/10
Every rupee that you are spending is being spent on the people. It’s either the goods or transport costs. No middle men, no aid agency employees.

Personal satisfaction: 10/10
Nothing beats the personal satisfaction of handing aid from your own hands.

I would greatly appreciate your input and feedback on this guideline.

Pakistan’s Epic Floods – Aid Part I: In Depth Views from Charsadda

I just came back from a village near Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK) province in Pakistan. I did a house to house survey of the damage in the village, and also worked as a doctor prescribing and distributing medicines among the people there.
In this post, I will describe my experience in Charsadda, in the next following one, I will talk about pros and cons of various approaches to helping the affectees.
I joined my mother, a medical doctor, on a day trip to the area. It was in collaboration with a group who had raised funds to buy substantial amounts of food, clothing, general household goods and medicines. I went along for my own research agenda. In brief, I wanted to study the damage caused to individual households within the area.

Here are my observations from the trip.

At around midnight on 27th July, the area was inundated by muddy flood water. In higher areas it rose to about three feet height, in lower lying houses, to about five feet. The marks on the walls of the houses bore testament to that. The water stayed there for 34 hours. When it receded, everything was covered in mud. In that area, the usual method of construction of houses is that they use proper baked bricks, but don’t use cement to join them, they use mud. So, walls in most houses are made of bricks and mud. Imagine what happened when there was an initial torrent of water, and later the water decided that it was going to stay around for a while. It washed out the mud binding the bricks. In most cases, the walls stayed upright because the water took away some of the mud, leaving a bit back. I also saw some houses with their walls supported by beams, as the walls were at risk for tumbling. A few houses were not so fortunate, and their walls completely crumbled into heaps. However, by far, most houses remained upright.
A relatively more common problem was roofing collapse. In this area the roofs are built with slender tree trunks, about 4 inches in diameter. They serve as beams and layers of thinner twigs, a grass like plant and mud goes over that. Frequently, there is also a layer of polyethene between the bottom layer of beams and the overlying layers of twigs, grass and mud. The apparent problem with this arrangement is that it is designed for stability in minor to moderate rainfall. In torrential rains, it risks collapse probably because the water accumulates over the poly ethylene layers and if it does not dry out quickly in sunny days following rains, the whole structure collapses in a few days under the persistent load of water logged wood and the accumulation of water and mud above. So in many houses, roofs collapses, leaving the walls intact.
But even that is not the most common problem of people in the area as well. It is mud! Mud, mud and more mud; caked mud, wet mud, dry mud, you name it! There was more mud than you can ever imagine. There was tons of it inside each and every house. The mud settled there when the water was moving through, and now many families were walking through ankle deep or even deeper mud to move around in their own houses. Some of them had cleaned up their houses, while other had not.
Complaints of electronics becoming useless as a result of flooding were quite frequent. One man told me that he had kept his TV set out in the yard today (which was full of mud as well) to dry as it had gotten water in it. Later, I sat in a tiny shop in one of the streets which had copy-cat biscuits, other eatables and general use items. Life was going on pretty much as usual. A consistent complaint was that bedding had gotten ruined. The bedding and pillows had gotten soaked with mud and when it dried, they had become as heavy and hard as rocks.
Most households had no major damage to life. Only one man had died in the 243 house village. Some had lost a head of cattle or two. Most of those who kept chickens at home lost a few of those (a three foot flood is likely to drown chickens but not much else). Although later in the evening, a man told me that one man in a nearby area was sleeping when the flood came, and later had to be dug out of one foot of mud, I strongly believe that the story is a myth. Unless one is dead already, one cannot sleep through a flood, drown and get buried by the mud on the bed, especially in a flood that is three feet high.

On the way to the village, Charsadda city showed no signs of flooding at all. Life was going on as usual, other than some tents erected the main road. As soon as the people living in the tents saw a large car or a truck go by, they would come on the road and practically start begging for aid. In the areas around Charsadda, we saw little signs of life being disrupted. The sugarcane crop was standing tall, in fact the fertile mud the flood brought with it had deposited in the fields.
We were by far not the first help to reach the target village. While I was there, two water tankers, bearing marks of different departments of the provincial government came along and people filled up on drinking water supplies. In the interviews I discovered that for drinking water, the village folk were using water purification tablets provided to everyone in the village by an NGO. This practice started after the flood, when the organization provided them with tablets free of cost. While I was there, their local water supply, consisting of a tube well and a water storage tank also came online, which had been rendered useless by the flood because of a burst pipe.
The organization that arranged the aid distribution had links with some people who originally belonged to the area. That way, it was decided that adequate security arrangements could be made for peaceful distribution of aid items, and the place was surveyed in advance by people originally belonging to the area. The perceived threats were bandits along the way, ordinary folk attacking the aid items carrying truck along the way to take away things, and mayhem at the site of aid distribution.
I only caught glimpses of the actual distribution because early on I was out asking about damage, and later on I started seeing patients. From what I saw and later heard from the organizers, it went well. It was a large crowd of people, about 400 or so if I was to make a guesstimate. There weren’t many patients for me to see, and most of the ones who turned up were the sort who are mildly sick at worst, and come around because a doctor is available and not because the illness demands it. It was an underwhelming experience. Mostly I saw skin diseases. The work was marred by a devastating continuous lack of proper communication due to a language barrier. Almost 90% of the people in that area did not know Urdu at all, or just knew as much as I know their language, Pushto, which is, a few basic words. I did not have the assistance of a good interpreter and that made my job almost impossible. Some patients who knew some Urdu helped out for other patients but overall, it was a frustrating experience.

What I saw for myself in the houses and by interviewing the heads of the households as to what the ground situation was in the area, did not fit well with what we imagined we would see and the nature of the aid that we had brought for the people. We expected flattened villages and families rendered homeless. However, life had gone back to getting along fine by a village’s standard. The KPK provincial government and the National Disaster Management Authority had provided tents and water, and perhaps other things which I did not get to know about, and aid agencies had put up camp there many a time. There was no sign of homeless people in the village.
In my opinion, the people of the Charsadda district of KPK province that was affected by floods, are getting a lot of attention. This shows the success of aid campaigns in helping these folks. Government and aid agencies have come together to help people out in this moment of need. I cannot talk authoritatively about Mardan and Nowshera districts but if the aid activities of the NGOs that I am following through various channels are anything to go by, there is a lot of aid money and goods pouring into these districts from Peshawar and other parts of northern Pakistan. The ease of working in KPK, especially these districts, is that the road network is intact and thus, villages are easy to reach. We travelled on roads which were excellent by Pakistani standards. In contrast, in other areas of Pakistan which suffered floods and where the humanitarian situation is still desparate, namely: Swat, southern Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, roads and bridges have been washed away and populated areas have been turned into islands sitting in muddy lakes.
Those hard to access places are where the situation is still catastrophic and there are people without aid. With KPK showing healthy signs of recovery, I believe that it is time that small NGOs started targetting aid towards the recent and large-scale affectees of the floods in Swat, Shangla, Muzaffargarh division in the Punjab province and all of Sindh that lies next to the river Indus. That, in my opinion, would be the most cost effective use of humanitarian aid and hard earned money of the donors.
Please read PART TWO of this series where I talk about available options to reach the neediest in these difficult times.

Village street showing water level on walls

Child stands on the collapsed gate of his house

Communication 101 – Getting Information from the Internet? Avoid the Traps

There is a video on YouTube which shows an interview. An American television anchor is discussing the 9/11 tragedy with two ‘experts’. One of them is Umar Al-Farook, a representative of Al Qaeda, while the other one is William Gerard, an author and a conspiracy theorist. In the video, Umar Al-Farook tries to convince the conspiracy theorist that Al Qaeda was indeed responsible for 9/11, and thus get the credit (blame) for it, while the conspiracy theorist is steadfast in his belief that the US Government was responsible for the tragedy that happened on 9/11. I would invite you to read the comments under the video. There is a war going on down there, with folks getting very emotional, condemning and abusing the anchor for inviting an Al Qaeda operative on a TV show. Then there are folks who are making fun of these folks, and for good reason. The video is a clip produced by the pseudo news portal, Onion News Network. Onion News Network publishes sarcastic and humorous news items, audio clips and videos that it produces, for the purposes of entertainment. The video in discussion was a joke, and most people realized that, knowing what Onion News is all about but some did not, and a flaming war ensued. You can find the video here HERE
You might be thinking, those people who took it literally must go get their heads checked, right? Well, there is nothing wrong with their heads, let me tell you. At one time or another, all of us have fallen in the trap of believing something that we find on the internet is authentic, when it was not.
Internet is an open space, where anyone and everyone can say whatever they like. Anyone can make a website, upload a video or write a blog post stating some ‘fact’ that they just made up. This is of special relevance to our culture, in Pakistan, where analytical reasoning and critical thought are suppressed. We are raised not to think, not to criticize facts presented to us, not to challenge those who we perceive as authoritative figures. A telling example would be our educational system where quietly listening, hanging on to, and memorizing every word that the teacher says is the name of the game. Questioning the teacher’s words, even with logical reasoning, equates to blasphemy. Logical reasoning is not taught at any level in the educational system. In this social setting, non-sense information passes off as facts. A month ago someone whom I met at a seminar called me to inform me of some evidence about the existence and functioning of a shadowy organization called the ‘Illumnati’ that he believes controls the world and is the cause of all our ills. The ‘evidence’ was a bunch of badly made videos where some gentlemen of dubious qualifications talk charismatically about conspiracy theories. I found them hilarious, but the gentleman who sent them to me believes steadfast in them and no amount of reasoning and point out of non-existent cause-and-effect relationships would convince him.
So what do we do? Are we as a society condemned to believe in myths told on well scripted websites and videos on YouTube by noble looking, middle aged gentlemen in suits, and authors of three previous books on how the world is ruled by the Mafia/Free Masons/Illumnati/frogs/my pet lizard?
No, I would argue. We do have recourse. By following some simple rules, we can sort out non-sense from facts and use the internet as a very effective tool for gathering information not just on evil world ruling organizations, but on all other, more sane aspects of our lives. So here are the rules:
Rule number 1: Does the information make sense from what you already know about the issue?
Rule number 2: Is the information verifiable? Can you find the same information from multiple, reputable sources for example a reputable organization, government agency or university?
Rule number 3: Who is it that provided the information? What is that person or organization’s credentials? Do their qualifications or experience allow them to reasonably comment on the issue?
Rule number 4: Does the individual or organization have any interests or bias that would lead them to post the information on the web?
Rule number 5: Is the information a neutral view of the situation, or is the author or published taking sides?
Rule number 6: Is the information current and up to date? Is the version that you are reading the most current version?
If there is any doubt in your mind that the information you are looking at is accurate, objective, reliable or up to date, do not consider it any further. Look for a source that leaves no reasonable doubts in your mind. Finding information and not falling into the traps of mis-information is a key life skill in the digital age, and it can be learnt at any part of life. It is something that changed my life, and I promise you, that it will change yours as well.

Fulbright Scholarship – Fulbright Information on Applying – by Amreena Diwan

Guest blogger Ms. Amreena Diwan, a Fulbright scholarship grantee, gives valueable tips to potential applicants of the Fulbright Scholarship Program, briefly reviewing all parts of the application, interview and further selection process.

The process for applying for the Fulbright in my opinion is a Four Step process. It is as follows:

Step 1: Giving the GRE and accumulating all the required documents

This test is a requirement for the application whether you are applying for an MBA or an Arts Degree. My advice would be to study from Anees Hussains material or take tuitions at his centre. The material is good and the fee is not that high. It is advisable to study 2 months in advance. Registration for the GRE is on the ETS website.
It is important to go on the USEFP website and check documents required. Mostly they ask for your transcripts, degrees, any awards or certificates you may have received.

Step 2: Writing the essays and requesting recommendations:

Essays: There are two types of essays contained in the Fulbright application, a personal statement and study objectives (ie why you have chosen the field you have chosen, what your future plans are and how will you make an impact in your country). Personal statements are like your life story, where you started from, where are you now. What are the events that shaped your life. There are lots of examples online on how to write one. It is advisable to read them and shape your own.

Recommendations: I wrote most of my recommendations myself. It is Ok to write them yourself as long as you research appropriate formats for writing one. Lots of formats are available online. Most people ask you to write a draft and make appropriate changes. It is always better to get recommendations from people who have worked closely with you (in school/university or on the job) rather than someone senior. It is not important who is writing the recommendation but rather what they are saying about you.

Step 3: Waiting for the interview call and preparation:

The hard part is over. If you have gotten a call it means they like you and are already impressed with your application. It is important to keep in mind two things in the interview:

Honesty is the best policy: Please do not lie about anything. Be honest about your future goals. Be true with regards to the changes you would like to see in your country.
They always ask, “Why should we select you? What difference are you going to make?”. The answer to this question is not complicated. In my opinion it is not a list of things that you will do. Frankly the answer is simple, you tell them where you will apply the knowledge you have acquired i.e. which organizations you will apply to and why. You tell them that you will start with a small step. The answer to this question should be practical.

Step 4: Getting the Fulbright:

Once you get it (Congratulations) you will be informed via email and assigned a Program Officer. S/he will over the course of 8-9 months request documentation, information and correspond with you regarding any matter. Fulbright applies to universities on you r behalf, they may also not apply to some of your choices. It is advisable to give them a list of 4 universities as stated in the application and not more. Keep at least one back up school. If you want you can also apply yourself to any university and if you get in, you can convince Fulbright to fund it. Lots of students have done this. The benefit of this is you will be corresponding with the university and not USEFP. Moreover if you have already gotten into a university and have a deferred admission, upon receiving the Fulbright you can request them to fund you for the particular university. It makes life easier for them as well.

The whole process is approx. a year long.

Disclaimer: The author is a Fulbright grantee. She is not affiliated with the Fulbright program in any other capacity. She is also not affiliated with the US Education Foundation, Pakistan. The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not represent the views of any of the aforementioned agencies and programs.

Communication 101: Amygdala in Control: Fight, Flee or Freeze

I have a story for you. It’s a beautiful sunny day. You are walking along a wooded path, and you accidentally step on something. It’s just a touch, not a squash. You look down and find a large snake. He looks up at you with his beady eyes and says, “Excuse me sir, but you almost stepped on me. I know you did it by accident so no worries. Good day to you.”
Isn’t this story stupid in so many ways? Even if snakes could talk, what would the usual response of a snake be when it gets startled by you stepping on it? Would it thank you and lie there, basking in the sun? No! When you walk by and actually step on it, it feels threatened. You are 50 times larger than it is. It can bite you. Or it can just slither away. Contrary to popular belief, snakes don’t bite people because they like to, they do it to defend themselves, to fight off danger. Frequently, they just take flight. All animals, even the smallest invertebrates flee instinctively upon feeling threatened or bite or sting. ‘Doe in the headlights’ is a cliché for the freeze reaction.
So are those circuits there in humans? Do we instinctively do things when we are threatened?
Of course! Through millions of years, humans evolved from lower animals with whom they share this set of responses. Early humans lived in caves and hunted for food. In jungles full of predators, fleeing without thought would be a frequent life saver for our early ancestors. You don’t stand and argue about the merits of elk meat versus deer meat when you meet a Saber toothed tiger, you run! Simple.
The part of that controls these essential survival instincts is one of the most primitive among the various divisions of our brain. It is called Amygdala, and is a part of the limbic system of the brain. When we sense danger through our eyes, ears or skin, the brain goes into an urgency to protect life and limb. It shifts from higher processing and thought centers in the cerebral cortex, to the default survival mode. It hands over control of the body to the amygdala. The amygdala knows only three actions. So, in the face of a threat, the default actions are to fight, to take flight, or to freeze in place.
These critical survival skills are not useless even in the present day and time. Let’s say you are crossing the road and a car appears out of nowhere. You don’t just stand there and cerebrate: calculating the velocity of the car and conditional probability of it not hitting you, given that the driver has seen you. Your limbic system takes over and you either try to protect yourself by standing there and putting your arms in front of your face (fight), or best, jump out of the way (flight). Unfortunately some people may freeze in place, but by and large, the system works well to protect us in a myriad of dangers of daily life.
This system is good in most cases but many-a-time, it goes horribly wrong. Let me give you a few examples of that happening. A friend asked me recently if as a presenter or speaker, it is acceptable to attack back, when an audience member attacks us verbally. The answer is obviously ‘No, it is not acceptable’. However, all too often we see presenters attacking back. With equal, if not greater frequency, we see presenters turning red, fidgety and perspiring profusely in the Question and Answer session following a confident presentation. A close friend once told me that by the time he reaches the middle of his presentation, he starts thinking that he is wasting the audience’s time and that they are waiting for him to get over with it; starts sweating profusely and has an overbearing urge to end the presentation abruptly and flee the stage. Ever felt stage fright yourself? I have, and I am sure pretty much everyone who reads this knows well what that is.
So what is going on here?!?!? Abuse in response to abuse? Fighting? Turning red and sweaty on a confrontational question during the question answer setting? Stuttering and going blank on stage? Freezing? Wanting to leave the stage abruptly? Fleeing?
The answer is really simple. We perceive a threat. In case of abusive feedback and confrontational questioning that threat is from a hostile audience member, and in case of the presenter wanting to run away mid-presentation, from the combined energy that the audience is beaming at him. As soon as we perceive a threat, our brain shifts to default mode and hands over control to the amygdala. We respond to abuse with abuse (fight) without thinking what the consequences would be for our image that the audience takes home. Our sympathetic nervous system, designed to aid us in fleeing from a threat, causes massive release of adrenaline from our adrenal glands. We breathe faster and shallower; the hearts starts beating faster, and our muscles tense up. Legs can feel like jelly and hands can spontaneously start fidgety movements. We start stuttering. This whole series of physical responses would be very appropriate if we were facing a lion in the jungle, but now we are not. We are facing an audience, and our body is acting as if we were facing a lion. This is really not going well, right? And the worst part is, these things have happened to all of us during public performances at some point in our lives. We have all attacked critical audience members and later regretted what we had done. The problem is, this is all drastically wrong and we know the cause now. Can we do something about it? Yes, of course we can.
Once you understand that what your body is doing in such a circumstance is perfectly natural, only misdirected, then you can go about managing it. The objective of such management is to wrestle control of the body from the amygdala to the cerebral cortex. All our conscious thinking, analysis, cognition, interpreting spoken and written words, and fine motor skills (including speech) are controlled by the cerebral cortex and we want those back!
The first step in management is to recognize that you are shifting into the default fight, flight, freeze mode. This most often happens when we are facing a new situation, that the brain is not familiar with. A question we were not expecting, destructive feedback that was uncalled for, an uncomfortable audience reaction such as yawning.
The second step is to slow things down. Take a deep breath. Really deep! You have to take a full five seconds to inhale, and five to exhale. Now take another one. You are purposefully trying to give yourself time to recover from the default mode, as well as providing more oxygen to the brain, which had run out of it as a result of the shallow breathing.
When you have regained control of your body, then start analyzing the situation and rationally answer the unexpected question, or respond to the criticism in a civil and friendly manner. With full control, you can joke about the situation or simply choose to ignore the question and move to the next one.
If you are fearful about stopping in the middle of a presentation to breathe, consider this. In my personal experience, by the end of a 10-20 minutes presentation, the audience never remembers if a presenter stopped in the middle of the presentation to re-gain composure. They just don’t care as long as the content is interesting. I would suggest that it is much better to stop for 30 seconds in the middle and switch out of the default mode than continue the presentation with a face progressively turning red and legs wanting to quit.
Imagine, if the snake that I mentioned in the start of the post could think from his hitherto non-existent higher brain centers, he would probably thank you for the back scratching or at least tried to understand that you accidentally touched it and didn’t mean to harm him. Sadly, he couldn’t do all that so he followed the natural response and bit you. Please don’t act like the snake: don’t fight, freeze or run away. Analyze the situation and continue logically and reasonably.
In summary, humans, like all other animals, have a set of default physical responses of fight, flight or freeze that are vital for protection of life and limb. Frequently, these responses kick-in when we are presenting or performing in front of people. We need to recognize them, take our time to regain composure, and then continue, with our body’s functions firmly in control of the higher brain centers of the cerebral cortex, allowing us to think and act rationally and amicably.