Archive for July, 2010

PRI’s The World (can you tell what I listen to regularly?) ran a nice story on the efforts of some Islamic scholars to emphasize the religion’s emphasis on conservation.  This runs parallel to similar efforts among Catholics and the American evangelical community.  I’ve often pointed out to my students that I cannot identify a major religion that encourages its adherents to crap on the poor.  Seems I can extend that argument to say that most religions, in some way or other, encourage their adherents to use the world wisely*.

*There are significant objections to environmentalism in some parts of the evangelical community, but most of these objections are not pitched against the idea that we should use the environment wisely.  Instead, they are political arguments concerned that a focus on environmental issues will draw people away from an attention to core theological ideas.

PRI’s The World ran a story today about the boom in renewable energy in the developing world.  The story itself is fine – but I’m tired of reading stories that hang their angle on how amazing/interesting it is that the global poor can be so innovative, and so capable to taking up new technologies – this angle is misguided and condescending, and does a lot to keep us trapped in the development echo chamber that tells us how the global poor would be lost without our help.

The World, like all media, has to draw the reader/listener in with unusual and topical stories.  But this story is not all that unusual – it runs parallel to the explosive growth of mobile phones in the developing world.  When I first started working in Ghana, back in 1997, barely anyone had cell phones.  Landlines were also rare, and nearly impossible to get because the switchboards in places like Cape Coast were maxed out – basically, you had to wait for someone to move or die, which would free up a land line.  The waits for land lines ranged into years.  I could make outbound calls from the Ghana Telecom building in Cape Coast, but I had no means of receiving phone calls.  When I went out to a village to do fieldwork, I effectively disappeared – there was no means of reaching me except word-of-mouth messages passed by people going to and from the village on various errands (though that method was surprisingly effective – I could get a message in well under a day in that manner).

Fast forward to 2004 -when I arrived in Ghana, I borrowed a cell phone from a colleague of mine at the University of Ghana, went out and bought a SIM and some minutes for around $15, and had a phone number within a few hours of touching down in the country.  People could call me, and I could call out, nearly all the time.  Coverage did not extend into the villages in which I was working, but if I climbed a very tall hill behind my house, I could get a wobbly signal.  In 2005, the signal was much stronger.  Since 2006, it has been possible to make and receive calls from the village itself, without having to climb the hill.  And people have adopted the phone as these advances have taken place, to the extent that while these villages do not have electrical service, I have heard a farmer take a call on a mobile phone in his field (the phones are charged on car batteries).

Why the rapid advances in mobile phone technology?  People wanted the service (badly), but the dominant technology of the late 1990s (land lines) was too expensive to extend to everyone who wanted it.  Mobile phones filled the gap . . . and now we see all kinds of innovation in mobile technology starting to emerge from Africa – such as the unique talent pool of low-bandwidth phone app programmers in Kenya.

Given all of this, I am forced to ask why anyone would find the adoption of alternative energy sources by those living in the developing world surprising.  People want and need power, but the infrastructure to bring it to them is very expensive.  Dominase and Ponkrum, the two villages in which I have focused much of my research in Ghana, are less than five kilometers from huge high tension lines carrying electricity from the Akosombo Dam to coastal cities like Takoradi to the West.  Yet they have no electricity themselves, and little hope of seeing the grid extended to them any time soon.  As the story notes:

“One reason why renewable energy is expanding is because of the inadequacy of the power supply in much of the world. Conventional power grids simply don’t reach many people. And when the price of oil goes up, people who use diesel generators start searching for other ways to get power.”

I agree that situations like this one drive innovation (the villagers can run almost anything off of a car battery), but the emergence of alternative energy as one set of innovations is therefore completely unsurprising.

The real story here, as I see it, is the rate of change.  What we are seeing is a remarkable rate of innovation in the developing world around emerging technologies.  Further, this is not all the result of development projects, education, or other capacity-building efforts supplied by advanced economies.  Instead, such as in the case of the Kenyan programmers, these innovations are local phenomenon that illustrate just how capable the people living in the Global South really are.

Perhaps we need to stop writing stories that express surprise and interest in the emergence of new technologies among the global poor, and refocus to carefully explore why some technologies emerge and others do not.  Any time we see a useful, innovative technology hit the Global South without making a major impact, or without people picking it up, we need to explore what is preventing this sort of innovation and impact.  The only reason we don’t, I fear, is because we assume that the global poor are generally incapable of such innovation without outside help.  This is a bad assumption that empowers development projects that are probably not needed or misguided – efforts that could be better spent identifying and removing the barriers to adoption so that these local innovations can flourish.

What does it say that it took the appearance of my forthcoming book on Amazon’s website to make the whole thing seem real?

Mickey Glantz has a new post on the Fragileecologies Blog comparing our societal response to the gulf oil spill and the near total lack of response to a much more serious, long-term threat to the gulf, the ever-growing “dead zone” that spills out from the mouth of the Mississippi.  This despite the fact the dead zone has been a known issue for some time:

“Back in 1974, Dr. R. Eugene Turner, Director of Coastal Ecology Institute at Louisiana State University, discovered a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The dead zone is the result of runoff from cities, farmlands, feedlots and factories into the mighty Mississippi River. This River basin drains about 40% of the continental United States. Herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers among other chemicals are released on a routine basis throughout the basin. In the springtime they accumulate of the Gulf Coast forming an 8000+ square mile region, which adversely affects all living marine resources.”

Mickey has an interesting comparison chart for the two problems that begins to point toward why we responded so quickly to an oil spill, while largely ignoring a much larger ecological disaster that compromises the Gulf economy and the health of the population that lives along the lower reaches of the Mississippi and along the Gulf coast.

What do you think of Mickey’s list?  Is there anything he’s missed?


Scientific American has posted a news and commentary piece on a study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that links climate change to increased migration from Mexco to the US.  The author, David Biello, sent me an embargoed copy of the study a few days ago and asked for my comments – which he was kind enough to draw from at length in his article.

In a general way, I am very supportive of work that examines the connection between climate change/environmental change and migration – mostly because so little work has been done on the topic, and the assumptions about the connections between migration and environment that drive policy are so often wildly incorrect.  However, I am a bit leery of this study, as I feel like it is making a classic mistake in environment-migration studies: it is trying to identify the portion of the migration decision that is about environmental change.  As I have argued elsewhere, there is little point in trying to isolate environmental factors from all of the factors that contribute to migration.  Biello quoted me quite accurately:

“Migration decisions, like all livelihood decisions, are about much more than material quality of life,” argues geographer Edward Carr of the University of South Carolina, who studies human migration in countries such as Ghana and was not involved in the Mexico emigration research. “What I am seeing in sub-Saharan Africa are very complex patterns in which environmental change is but one of several causal factors.”

What I am worried about here is a sort of intellectual ambulance-chasing, where the research is driven by a sexy topic (the intersection of climate change and Latino migration, which is sure to bring out the crazies on all sides) regardless of whether or not the fundamental research question is all that sound.  The fact that several researchers quoted in the piece (myself included) were able to quickly poke significant holes in the study suggests that this publication falls into this problematic category.  First, the migration pattern examined and emphasized in this project is likely to be very, very small relative to other kinds of movement.

“Most often international migration is not an option and rural residents migrate to urban areas, contributing to urbanization and urban poverty in developing countries,” says sociologist Elizabeth Fussell of Washington State University.

That is certainly the case in Mexico, according to population and migration researcher Haydea Izazola of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco, also not part of Oppenheimer’s team for the new study. “The great majority of the rural population who grow maize—rain-fed agriculture—for their own consumption are the poorest of the poor and lack the means to invest in the very expensive and risky migration venture.”

Further, the very models that predicted the impact of climate change on Mexican agriculture were not applied to the economy of the US, where the migrants are supposed to be headed.

Crop yields in the U.S. will likely suffer as well. “People do not move blindly; they move to greater opportunity,” Carr notes. “So we should probably be using [these economic and climate] models to examine the impact of future climate change on various migrant-employing sectors of the southwestern U.S. economy.”

While the research team that published this study intends to examine this issue, it calls into question even this preliminary study.  I’m honestly surprised this got through peer review . . . except, perhaps that it was too sexy to pass up.

UPDATE: I wrote this late last night, and so was a bit spacey – as a friend of mine reminded me, there is another huge problem with the study – a lot of the “Mexican” migration that people are talking about in the popular media, and indeed in this study, is in fact Latino migration from Central America more broadly.  As these areas were not modeled in this study, we have yet another gaping hole to address.  I repeat: how did this get though peer review?

UPDATE: Well, people are jumping all over this article.  Pielke’s site has a review with a similar take to my own . . .


PRI ran a story on the global asbestos trade that is worth the read – it is a story that runs parallel to that of DDT, long-banned in the US, but still in common use elsewhere.  The DDT issue is quite contentious today, as there are many who argue that removing it from use would do more harm than good, as the number of people impacted by a rise in the mosquito population might be greater than the number of people impacted by contact with DDT.  What I find interesting about this argument, though, is that practically nobody who makes that argument suggests we should start spraying it here in the US again.  This logical inconsistency, I think, has its roots in the differential valuation of human life that operates under a lot of economic assessments of development policy.

The article on asbestos hints at this logic when it quotes John Hoskins, a scientist with The Crysotile Institute (a pro-asbestos organization).  Hoskins

believes that the health dangers are negligible. In fact, he told the CPI that “the people who would like to ban chrysotile asbestos are actually committing economic damage” especially to people in the developing world.

In other words, the cost of other insulators is so much higher that it offsets the cost in human health and mortality incurred by its use.  This, implicitly, raises the question of what a human life is worth – and implicitly suggests that we can ascribe an economic value to that life.  Of course, we do this all the time here in the US – courts routinely decide how much money to award those who have lost loved ones through negligence or other acts, in part making an assessment of what the lost life was worth.  However, when we start talking about using materials in the developing world that we would not dream of using here in the US (i.e. asbestos and DDT), we are implicitly suggesting that human lives here have greater value – for under the logic that not using these products in the developing world is more costly than using them and paying the human cost, if we are not using them here it must mean that the human cost is higher here, thus making these products unacceptable.  Suddenly, we have an economic argument for valuing the lives of the global poor less than our own . . . and we have done so in a manner that seems apolitical and logical.

Larry Summers laid this logic bare back when he was working as the Chief Economist at the World Bank.  In 1991 he wrote (or one of his staff wrote, depending on who you believe) a memo about the location of polluting industries and the value of human life.  It is worth quoting at length:

DATE: December 12, 1991
TO: Distribution
FR: Lawrence H. Summers
Subject: GEP

‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Least Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:

1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate[sic] cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate[sic] cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.

Now, this memo has been the subject of a lot of controversy, with some arguing that Summers was effectively a sociopath masking his tendencies in the language of economics.  And on first read, way back when I was in grad school, I had a similar thought.  However, many years down the road, and having seen Summers intentionally provoke controversy time and again (such that he managed to get sacked from Harvard), I have little doubt that Summers wrote (or signed) this with any other intent than to provoke the economists at the Bank who were making less obvious, but equally egregious, assessments of the impacts of structural adjustment.  I mean, honestly, do you really think a man like Summers would ever have WRITTEN THIS DOWN if he meant it?  It screams “leak me!”  He’s not that dumb – he wanted to provoke, and he might have wanted the leak so as to publicly embarrass some of these economists.  Sadly, most people seem to have missed the point.

Salient to this post – Summers is making the same argument about pollution and development, via sarcasm, that I am making about asbestos (and DDT).  If someone is going to suggest that people elsewhere should “be allowed” to use materials that we have banned here for reasons of public health, then they should also have to address the implicit valuation of human life that makes such a political statement appear “logical” and apolitical.

Now to see if the folks at Environmental Economics let me have it over this . . . they are, after all, real economists.

UPDATE: They did not let me have it – and I am almost disappointed.  But I think John ended up agreeing with me that we are indeed valuing human lives differentially in the “developed” and “developing” worlds – further demonstrating Nullius in Verba’s point (in the comments below) that we run into problems when we start using “universal” measures like money in realms where the moral is pretty important.

Blogger Ansel has written a wonderful post that will probably get attention for the pointed way in which it lays out the formulaic, and therefore ultimately useless, character of the vast majority of reporting on post-earthquake Haiti.  I find it interesting because it screams out for one of my pet projects – the need to connect the global poor to one another and to those in wealthier countries in an unfiltered manner.  Nearly-useless journalism is a huge problem if it is the only source of information emerging from a given place.  The impact of this same problematic journalism, however, can be greatly lessened by the presence of many voices reporting from many angles on the same subject.  At this time, despite the various platitudes about the wonders of mobile phone technology and the internet that are repeated in development circles, the enormous potential of these tools has yet to be realized.  We need to be more honest about this, lest it sound like the technology is there and the only problem is the backward people who won’t use it.

I wonder, though, how comfortable the development industry will be with the gradual, inevitable emergence of many voices through these technologies.  What will we do when the people in whose names we are ostensibly working start telling us no and begin to call out our failures – and do so in a public forum?

but has anyone else noticed that the show Leverage is nothing more than an A-Team for the new millennium?  For the love of god, the Nathan Ford character (played by Timothy Hutton) is so clearly Hannible that the writers actually had him mutter “I love it when a plan comes together” in an episode.

Well, kudos to the writers for their (subtle) honesty . . .

And I thought development had a problem with recycling old ideas that didn’t work very well the first time.

In the news, recently, was the IMF’s decision to forgive its portion of Haiti’s debt  – a substantial $268 million (BBC, CNN)  However, it should be noted that this is hardly complete debt relief.  According to the World Bank, Haiti owed $1,935,265,000 in 2008.  So this relief really just lowers the debt from $1.9 billion to $1.67 billion – not a particularly huge thing, in the grand scheme of things.  This outstanding chart from the World Bank shows who holds Haiti’s debt, and makes clear what a tiny sliver the IMF held (see the bottom of page 2).  Certainly, the IMF was right to do this – but it won’t matter all that much to Haiti.

There are some who would argue that debt relief raises the specter of “moral hazard”, that much-discussed issue in the wake of the financial bailout in late 2008.  However, applying this argument to debt relief in general is a terrible mistake resting on a faulty understanding of the sources of debt.  On Wall Street, the bailout raised the issue of moral hazard because the money went to the very people who made the bad investments and created the problematic investment vehicles – in short, encouraging these people to take risks in the future, knowing that if they failed again the government would step in, rather than letting the economy tank completely (For an outstanding take on this, see Simon Johnston and James Kwak’s 13 Bankers – link below).  This, I think, does raise a significant issue about who has to absorb risk when people take big chances with their (and other people’s) money – the bailouts we have seen, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, risk has been outsourced to taxpayers, many of whom did not benefit from (hell, they suffered greatly from) the very investments that they are now being asked to bail out.

Debt relief, by and large, is something entirely different – there are a lot of reasons why we should drop the debts of countries in the developing world, not least of which being that these debts are anchors that will never allow these economies to rise on the global economic tide.  For example, in the late 1990s, Ghana was sending roughly half of its annual revenues overseas to service its totally unsustainable debt.  In simple terms, this meant that every year, $500 million worth of schools, hospitals, roads and electrical grid could not be constructed because that money was being hovered out of the country to pay for a debt incurred before much of the population had ever been born.

This, to me, is why we need to drop many countries’ debts – including that of Haiti.  These debts were not accrued in the name of the people of these countries, but in the name of particular leaders who often misused the funds.  If you need an example, Google Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) – the United States (and the international community, at the behest of the US) dumped money into Mobutu’s hands in the form of development loans, knowing he was both stealing this money and killing a tremendous proportion of his own population, because we did not want him turning to the Soviets.  So it takes a lot of gall to demand that the current population of the DRC pay back the debts incurred by Mobutu (who managed to die of cancer in 1997 before he could answer for any of this).  There is no moral hazard in offering debt relief here – the current population of the DRC had little or nothing to do with accruing this debt, and the lenders always knew the loans were really bribes.  Haiti is really not all that different from the DRC – Haiti too has a history of problematic leaders propped up by “loans” from the developed world.  However, here there is a wider guilt, as a good portion of why the country is so poor is because the US has forced its economy to open to global markets where small Haitian farmers cannot compete with the economies of scale of large, multinational agribusinesses.

It shouldn’t have taken an earthquake to put debt relief on the table for Haiti.  There are many other countries, equally deserving of relief, who wait.  It shouldn’t take an equivalent disaster for them to make it happen.

Via Mashable: How Mobile Technology is a Game Changer for Developing Africa.

There are a lot of initiatives out there that engage with mobile phones for development.  The most impressive I have seen is Lifelines India, in part coordinated by some friends and colleagues at Development Alternatives.  Volunteers bring the phones to villages, and for a small fee they can call a number and record their questions. Each farmer receives a reference number for the query and can call back in a day and use that reference number to access the reply. The project promised and delivered rapid replies to queries (less than twenty-four hours) and provided information of great value to farmers.  Today it reaches around 150,000 farmers in four Indian states.

This is but one of many initiatives.  The Global Adaptation Information Network project I have been part of for the past four years is heavily predicated on using mobile phones to connect communities throughout the Global South.  And Mickey Glantz has toyed with the idea of expanding Sparetime University to mobile platforms to expand access,

What this article failed to recognize, though, is the interesting boom in cell phone app development in Africa right now – app developers in Kenya are recognized as some of the best in the world at designing lightweight apps for low bandwidth networks.  For those who are fed up with lazy, bloated coding of software here in the US (why your programs run so slowly, even on new computers and fast internet connections), it may be that Africa is the future . . .