Archive for November, 2010

Well, this is interesting, to say the least.  Someone decided to get cute and leak the draft of the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review – yeah, the one marked NODIS (No Distribution).  State runs a tight ship, so my guess is that someone on the Hill leaked this.  Hard to say why, exactly.  But it is very interesting reading, both from the perspective of someone in one of the agencies in question, but also from the perspective of development studies in general.

Well, now it is out there, so go here to have a look.

I will refrain from offering my comments – I think that probably steps over a line given my current official position – but have a look and see what you think.  I do think that Josh Rogin’s story on this has a very interesting set of comments from Todd Shelton at InterAction.  I will note, though, that we heard informal messages from the upper reaches of the Agency that this document is a draft, and by no means finalized . . . though one wonders what impact this leak will have on the editing process.

OK, page proofs are done.  Index is mostly done . . . well, it is out of my hands, anyway.  Jacket copy approved.  Happy blurbs from Mickey Glantz and Andrew Rice secured for the jacket.  Nice author photo for the jacket taken (by Scott).  Yep, pretty much done here . . . which means I can now get back to hassling the internet.  Wheeeee!

To celebrate, I bring you a completely unfair piece of insanity.  I know I come to this late, but this is so nuts I simply could not let it go.  Well, that and this may have a direct impact on my work life in the very near future . . . that’s right, it’s the battle for leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee!  And why, you ask, does a fairly esoteric battle for what seems to be a marginal committee (it’s not) rise to my attention?  Because one of the candidates, John Shimkus, is arguing that while climate change is real, we don’t have to do anything about it because, and I quote:

“I do believe in the Bible as the final word of God,” Shimkus said. “And I do believe that God said the Earth would not be destroyed by a flood” (via Politico)

By flood, I presume he means sea-level rise.  And by Earth, I can only presume he means his great state of Illinois, which is a hell of a long way from the nearest ocean (though Great Lakes rise could cause serious problems for Chicago).  I suspect there are a bunch of people in low-lying parts of Bangladesh and Vietnam, as well as a number of island states like Tuvalu, who are pretty much looking down the barrel of the world being destroyed by flood who might take issue with this particular mashup of climate science and the Bible, regardless of their religious background.

Holy crap.

This is old Bjorn Lomborg read through Genesis (new Bjorn Lomborg has reconsidered the math, and now thinks we should do something, though it is mostly adaptation) . . . and Rep. Shimkus might have some influence over the use of federal aid dollars for climate change work.

Look, it is one thing to debate those parts of the science that are not settled (a relatively small amount), and further to debate what to do about the impacts of what is already happening, and what is very likely to happen . . . but it is entirely another to announce that we don’t have to worry about such impacts at all because, even though climate change is real, God will save us.  History is littered with the bodies of people who waited for God to save them.  God helps those who help themselves – not those who sit around waiting for miracles . . . but it seems Rep. Shimkus’ reading of the Bible didn’t quite make it to the New Testament.

are killing me.  But, the book is here, and I am cleaning it up.  I hate page proofs.  Deeply.  This is the sort of detail work I loathe – combing back through 90,000 words looking for misspellings and erroneous punctuation.  It is taking days, because you can only focus that hard for so long.  And at the same time, I am cleaning up the index.

Oh, and that is on top of the article that was due back in today – I worked with two of my Ph.D. students, Mary Thompson and Manali Baruah, to produce a paper that examines how REDD+ functions as a form of unacknowledged environmental governance (defining legitimate terms and actors within debates over how to implement terrestrial carbon sequestration projects in forest areas).  We’ll see how it does in this round of peer review.

And then there is the talk I am supposed to be giving at UNC – Chapel Hill on Friday.  I’ll be discussing how we think about livelihoods in development, how current framings might have carried us as far as they are going to, and what a new framing might look like.  Yeah, it is coming together, but not as quickly as I’d hoped.

But, without further ado, the first few hundred words of Delivering Development:

New Scientist has an interview with the authors of a recent report that blames food price shifts on financial market manipulation and speculation.  Worth reading – they are quite clear in their argument.

Is this another crisis like the one we had in 2008?

Not quite. Maximo Torero of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC notes that oil, the real driver of food prices and of the 2008 crisis, is relatively cheap, at around $75 a barrel, not over $100 as it was in 2008.

In 2008, both immediate grain prices, and the prices offered for future grain purchases in commodities markets, climbed steadily for months, whereas now they are spiking and dipping more unpredictably, which economists call volatility.

“The market fundamentals – supply and demand – do not warrant the price increases we have seen,” says Torero. Not all harvests have been bad, and after 2008 countries rebuilt grain stocks. “There are enough stocks in the US alone to cover the expected losses in Russia.”

The food riots in Mozambique were not due to world grain prices, he says, but because Mozambique devalued its currency, making imported food more expensive.

So what has been happening this year?

Markets are responding nervously to incomplete information. First there was a series of shocks: Russia’s export ban, lower maize forecasts, then, days later, a US ruling to allow more bioethanol in fuel which seemed likely to further reduce the maize – the main source of bioethanol – available for food. Meanwhile there was no reliable information about grain stocks, which is strategic information that most countries keep secret.

The result was nervous bidding and sporadically surging prices in commodity markets. And that attracted the real problem: investors wielding gargantuan sums of speculative capital and hoping to make a killing. When speculation exacerbated the price crisis of 2008, Joachim von Braun of the University of Bonn, Germany, then head of IFPRI, predicted that it would continue causing problems. “We saw that one coming and it came,” he says. “Food markets have new design flaws, with their inter-linkages to financial markets.”

Volatility also makes it harder to solve the long-term, underlying problem –inadequate food production – by making farmers and banks reluctant to invest in improved agricultural technology as they are unsure of what returns they will get. “Investment in more production alone will not solve the problem,” says von Braun. As long as extreme speculation causes constant price bubbles and crashes, either farmers will not get good enough returns to continue investing in production, or consumers will not be able to afford the food.

“Without action to curb excessive speculation, we will see further increases in these volatilities,” he says.

h/t to Resilience Science

This is very interesting, but what I found intriguing about this article was the researchers’ suggestion for how to address this uncertainty – transparency and information about supplies via remote sensing:

All the major producers already use remote sensing technology to watch each other’s fields. If countries would reveal just once what stocks they hold, says Torero, the satellite images can be used to calculate whether those stocks have risen or fallen, as growing conditions change. “All we need to know is the baseline,” he says. Reliable information about stocks could offset unwarranted jitters about crop failures, such as the ones that are contributing to the current market volatility.

Von Braun goes farther: he says there should be a global technical organisation that keeps track of world grain stocks and production, and which decides, using complex computerised models of world food markets, what range of grain prices are actually warranted by real supply and demand. Then if speculation starts to drive prices up out of this band, countries could intervene on markets, buying and selling just enough to counter speculative pressure. “This doesn’t stop speculation, just extreme speculation,” he says.

He thinks it would take a fund of $20-$30 billion to do the trick. In September the World Bank extended a $2 billion fund to respond to food price crises, but that is aimed at helping the poorest survive price spikes rather than intervening to stop them happening.

You may or not like the idea of a global organization or fund, but the idea of actually monitoring the supplies of the commodities to examine if pricing reflects actual market dynamics (supply/demand controlled for expected future conditions) is fantastic and already possible.  The only people who would lose here are those whose only skill set is in exploiting the uncertainty and lack of information in the market for their own profit – especially those willing to exacerbate uncertainty and opacity to generate larger profits.

UNDP has launched its 20th anniversary edition of the Human Development Report.  In the report, they argue that development is working better than we realize – and use this to argue that aid is therefore working better than people think.  However, there is an important caveat in the report which calls this general claim into question.  As the BBC reports “There has been most progress in the areas of health and education, sectors which have received most focus in development assistance.”

This is a huge caveat.  These are the sectors that are easiest to measure – at least through traditional indicators.  Development programs have been designing programs around clear indicators and pumping money into achieving those indicators for some time – the same indicators used by the human development report.  Of course literacy rates are up.  Of course life expectancy is up.  These are low-hanging fruit.  But what does this really mean for the quality of life of people living in the Global South?  Are they living better, happier lives?  Or are they living longer, in greater misery than ever before?  Are any of these gains sustainable, or are they predicated on continual flows of aid?  There is no answer here – and it is an answer we need to obtain not through indicators, but by getting out there and talking to those we intend to help with development.  Get on your boots, and get out of the SUV/Mission Office!

I do, however, like that this report is trying to make an evidence-based case for the persistence of market failures around public goods.  We have seen, time and again, that when governments fail to provide security, access to healthcare, and education for their populations, the markets DO NOT step in to fill the gap.  A lot of poor, vulnerable people get left behind.  (Given recent trends and this week’s election results, it is entirely likely that South Carolina will empirically demonstrate this  can happen even here in the US, at least in the area of education, over the next four years).

Sorry folks, I am swamped.  I am going through the page proofs of the book, finishing an article with some students of mine just before its deadline, worrying about how I have done absolutely nothing to prepare for my upcoming talk at UNC-Chapel Hill and trying to prepare a briefing on the climate change initiative in my bureau for my new Assistant Administrator.  Oh, and I do have a day job with its attendant duties.  And a family that likes to see me sometimes.  All of that needs to come together in a pretty quick stretch, with deadlines cascading out starting Thursday morning and ending on Monday the 15th.  I’m sure I will post in there, but lord knows how . . .

especially when they sound half crazy, but I still largely agree with them: Kick it over manifesto

Mostly it’s an overwrought rant against neoclassical economics (though it could be applied much more widely to the discipline of economics), but I do love this:

You claim to work in a pure science of formula and law, but yours is a social science, with all the fragility and uncertainty that this entails. We accuse you of pretending to be what you are not.

Oh, so true, so true.  I’m on the same page with them . . . here . . . and here . . . and here, etc.

Perhaps this manifesto answers the question I asked at the end of this post.