Archive for December, 2010

An interesting post at Blood and Milk yesterday led a commenter to note that we shouldn’t use the terms “international development” and “aid” interchangeably – that the “real big story about development is exactly that it is NOT all about aid, but about domestic elites establishing pro-growth rules.”

For me, this raises two issues – the first is about the relationship between aid and development, and the second about the character of development itself.  Alanna Shaikh, who writes the Blood and Milk blog, added a new post today that addressed the first.  In this post, Shaikh argues “You can, and do, get development without aid. I’m pretty sure you don’t get it without economic growth.”  Well, sort of.  I currently work in one of the world’s largest development/aid organizations.  I am the climate change coordinator for the Bureau most directly responsible for our aid activities (as opposed to our development activities).  This puts me in something of an odd position – I am a development/environment person tasked with thinking and program-building for the long-term in an aid organization that is often reactive in its programming and its mandate.  Why, then, did I take this position?  Because of the need to better connect aid to development (and vice versa).  Right now, aid and development exist in very different worlds – even in the same building, there is little communication or coordination between these two missions.  This galls people on both sides of the divide, from leadership down the line.  The vision of an agency like mine is that aid should transition to development, ideally seamlessly (though at this point we would take any sort of transition).  Adaptation to climate change is one area where such transitions can be created out of existing programs – our aid teams work on hydrometeorological disaster risk reduction (DRR), and our development side works on adaptation to climate change.  These are very similar areas of work, differentiated largely by timeframe.  One of my jobs over the next few years will be to better connect our hydromet DRR and adaptation programming to build one connection between aid and development – a thread that we might use to close other aid/development gulfs (such as in food aid and agricultural development).

Aid may not be the same thing as development, but it should not be seen completely separately from development – my Bureau sees its constituency as that component of the population that is largely left behind by economic growth programming.  Nobody debates that a significant percentage of the population slips through the cracks of economic development programming – our job is to ensure that those who slip through the cracks do not remain there, but have an opportunity to recover and participate in society, politics and the economy.  So, when I hear someone argue that there can be development without aid, I strongly disagree – at least at the national scale (communities are a different issue).  At the national scale, you cannot have socially or environmentally sustainable development that abandons a significant portion of society to its fate.  Aid is critical to development – or it should be, if only we could better coordinate aid and development efforts.

Second, I am deeply concerned by the continued connection of development to economic growth.  The linkages between human well-being and economic growth are shaky at best (most correlations can be readily challenged and dismantled) – largely because development, globalization and growth do not really work the way people seem to think they do (my book is an exploration of this point).  Further, economic growth cannot be eternal.  3% growth per year for everyone forever is simply beyond the physical capacity of the planet.  I’m pretty sure that development is going to have to detach itself from economic growth (ironically, this would mostly entail simply acknowledging the reality of what’s been happening around the world for the last 60 years) if it is ever to accomplish its end goal – the improvement of the human condition in this world.

Finally, a thought on the two metastories of development that Shaikh raises at the end of her post.  I agree that development is neither all success or all failure – it plays out differently in different places, and we have better understandings of why in some areas (health, for example) than in others (transportation development, for example).  I would argue that this is a symptom of a larger problem – we really don’t understand what is happening in the Global South most of the time, and as a result we are often measuring and analyzing the wrong things when we do project scoping or evaluation work.  Our assumptions about how the world works shape the way we frame our questions about the world, and the data we gather to answer those questions.  The problem, simply put, is that we are often asking the wrong question.  Sure, every once in a while our assumptions align with events on the ground, and a project works.  But the rest of the time, our assumptions do not align with reality, and we run into difficulty understanding what is happening in particular places, and why particular projects fail.  The end result?  A seeming random set of project outcomes, where things work in one place but not another for reasons that seem hard to discern.  There are more fundamental metanarratives of development out there than success or failure – they are narratives about how globalization works and how development works that shape our very ability to assess success or failure.  And those narratives actually misinform many of our best efforts.

The subtle airbrushing of market manipulation out of the public consciousness continues apace.  Despite clear evidence from IFPRI that market manipulation is creating the conditions of uncertainty that are driving up global food prices, nobody seems to want to address this in a forceful manner – and heaven forbid you raise this in any food security discussions in a development agency.  People will blindly argue that there is no evidence (except, of course, there is), and then when confronted with the IFPRI study will make absurd arguments like the uncertainty is creating the appearance of manipulation because, you know, IFPRI wouldn’t bother to make sure they had the causality going in the right direction before they published.*  So, we will just keep plugging away at the issues of supply to address global food issues, because why address the only factor that IFPRI could identify as having a causal effect on the rising food prices in 2008?

And now we see the same blindness spreading into our discussions of the financial markets.  In the January issue of Wired Felix Salmon and Jon Stokes return to the Flash Crash, the sudden near-600 point drop in the Dow that occurred back in May.  The regulatory agencies assigned to policing market manipulation more or less abdicated their responsibilities and absolved everyone of blame in their report.  This was absurd, and doesn’t hold up to the slightest bit of logic.  Now Wired is on board, running a “blame the algorithms” story that uses the flash crash as exhibit A.  They argue that Waddell and Reed (the managers of the mutual fund that made the trade)

used an algorithm to hedge its stock market position.  The trade was executed in just 20 minutes – an extremely aggressive time frame, which triggered a market plunge as other algorithms reacted, first to the sale and then to one another’s behavior

Sure – this is exactly how it played out.  But the issue here is not that the algorithms themselves were to blame.  Someone had the PROGRAM THE ALGORITHM FOR THE FIRST TRADE.  The algorithm did not decide to dump all of those futures contracts in 20 minutes.  The person who designed the algorithm (or, more likely, his/her employer) made that decision.  Once set in motion, I have no doubt that this trade cascaded through other, more conventionally designed algorithms, triggering all sorts of “irrational” behavior as they tried to adjust to the rapidly-changing market conditions.  I also have no doubt that whoever set up the original algorithm had some idea that this is exactly the sort of chaos that would ensure from their insane trade.  Everyone is now focused on events after the initial trade, and how trading algorithms might need more controls or oversight.  I think that is a reasonable position, but it does nothing to address the behavior of individuals willing to initiate market chaos by setting up insane trades.

Incidentally, nobody in their right mind would set up an insane trade for no reason.  I wonder if the SEC spent any time looking into who was short on the Dow that day and made out big (including people who made out huge before a bunch of trades later in the crash were invalidated), and then examined the connections those folks might have had to Waddell and Reed.  Then again, it seems few folks in major development agencies want to seriously examine market manipulation and its impact on food security.

At what point does willful obliviousness turn into criminal negligence?

*these were actual arguments raised when a colleague of mine attempted to address the issue of market manipulation at a meeting in one of our major development agencies.  Really.  How the hell, exactly, does uncertainty create the appearance of manipulation?

Hmm, the last month of cocoa pricing, via the International Cocoa Organization

Prices are only up 7%?  Despite everything going on in Cote d’Ivoire?  I can only assume there is a massive oversupply out there cushioning this market . . .

The US has finally imposed sanctions on the Gbagbo government in Ivory Coast.  This won’t accomplish anything.  Take the response of the Ivorian Interior Minister (via

A top adviser to Gbagbo has said the sanctions are “a threat” to Cote d’Ivoire and his interior minister told RFI the measures “make me smile.”

Of course they do – this is just what Gbagbo and his people wanted – now they have evidence of “outside interference” in Ivorian affairs which they can mobilize as a rallying point for patriotism – and in so doing, relegitimize Gbagbo as the defender of the country.

While it is interesting that Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs William Fitzgerald is leaving military intervention on the table as an option, note that he has effectively ruled out US military engagement:

He said it was unlikely that U.S. troops would participate if that option was taken and that it was more likely to be an African force.

This is not a threat.  ECOMOG, the armed monitoring group of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), was able to retake Freetown in Sierra Leone during that civil war, but could do little else.  And that was a relatively successful intervention in a much smaller country.  This is like threatening to hit someone, but only with a nerf bat – annoying, but not really terrifying.

This has gone too far down the road now – someone is going to have to commit real troops to this conflict, and quickly – the UN peacekeepers won’t be able to hold the line much longer.

Ah, The Leaks that Shall Not Be Named (if you work for the US Government, at least) seem to have some amusing data on one of our banks here in the US.  This is not new news – Assange mentioned this last month.  But I like this piece on DealBook on who really is freaked out by this . . . turns out it is the government, again.  I agree completely with the author – pretty much nothing that is dumped would surprise me or much of the public anymore.  We know we got screwed . . . well, at least some of us have figured this out.  The rest of the population seems to be preoccupied by . . . well, honestly I have no idea what the hell people are looking at anymore.  Where is the collective rage?  Why hasn’t Congress rammed serious regulation of the financial industry through in fear of a pitchfork-wielding constituency?  Oh, right, Simon Johnson covered that . . .

All that aside, as the piece in DealBook points out this new dump of documents might shed some light on just how close the relationship between the financial industry and the government really is.  If, as Johnson claims, the financial industry has more or less captured the government in a sort of quiet coup, there may well be evidence of this – such as clear instances of regulators ignoring evidence of illegal acts, or warning institutions to change their behaviors before the regulators were forced to act.

Who knows what is in the documents . . . but given the remarkable Officer Barbrady impression pulled by the SEC in the “flash crash” case, I have a feeling something ugly is in there.  I just don’t believe the regulators are that blind, or that stupid . . .

But here’s what I am wondering – and I’ve not seen it raised yet: what if these documents contain evidence of the conscious manipulation of wheat pricing that triggered the 2008 global food price spike, and appears to be behind at least some of the current food price increases we are seeing.  It is one thing to screw around with financial instruments until you collapse the economy . . . but it is entirely another to quite literally starve people to death for profit.  It would be interesting to see if such behavior qualified as a crime against humanity.  It damn well should.

This strikes me as especially pertinent because the document dump, by placing the documents in the public realm, makes them usable by various governments (including our own) in prosecutions of criminal acts.  While the documents were illegally obtained, they were not obtained at the behest of the government (I think we can all agree that Assange and the US Government are not colluding on much of anything these days) and therefore may not be “fruit of the poisoned tree.”  Would regulators/the Justice Department dare ignore evidence there for all to see?  Would the ICC get involved?  And how ugly would this get, if indeed there was evidence of collusion between the regulators and the financial institutions?  Are the regulators liable for actions in commodities markets if they allowed manipulation to take place?

Todd Moss at the Center for Global Development has a post about Ghana and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).  Overall, he makes some good points about the purpose of MCC compacts, and whether or not it makes sense to re-up with Ghana in 2012 for a second compact.  While Moss makes a number of good points in his post (including the fact that Ghana has a lot of capital incoming from oil, and a ready market for its debt, both of which seem to negate the need for continued grants), I was brought up short by one stunning statement:

Ghana is (suddenly) just barely “low income”.  A recent rebasing of its GDP found the country was 63% richer than everyone thought.  Ghana might still technically qualify for the MCC but the rationale for another huge compact drops pretty significantly.

Now, to be fair to Moss, he has an excellent post here on the implications of such rebasing.  Importantly, the second lesson he takes away from this sudden revaluation of Ghana’s economy is:

Boy, we really don’t know anything. Over the past thirty years Ghana has been one of the most scrutinized, measured, studied, picked-over economies in Africa. (yes, I too did my PhD on Ghana…) Yet, we were all taking as gospel a number that was off by a tremendous margin. If we are nearly two-thirds wrong on Ghana’s GDP, what hope can we possibly have in stats for Chad? Everyone knows that data is dubious, but this seems to add a whole new level of doubt.

His fourth point is closely related:

I’m still confused… but it probably doesn’t matter. The Reuters article quotes the government statistician as estimating GDP per capita at $1318 instead of $753. This doesn’t add up to the total GDP figures also given since this implies a 75% increase. If the $1318 is correct, then that either implies that the government thinks there are only 19.4 million people instead of the normal estimates of about 24 million. Or, if the total GDP number of $25.6 billion is right, then per capita GDP is really $1067 per capita. (I think I’m already violating my lesson from #2.)

I have a chapter in my book dedicated to understanding why our measurements of the economy and environment in the Global South are mostly crap, and even when the data is firm it often does not capture the dynamics we think it does.  I then spend a few chapters suggesting what to do about it (including respatializing data/data collection so that it can be organized into spatial units that have social, economic, and ecological meaning, and using basic crowdsourcing techniques to both collect data and ground truth of existing statistics).  Even better, this is rooted in a discussion of Ghana’s economy.  I give Moss credit for being willing to point out the confusing numbers, and acknowledge that they confuse him.  They should.

But Moss gets it totally wrong here:

Ghana has long aspired to be a middle-income country by 2020, and this now seems like it will happen many years early. Accra certainly feels like a middle-income city.

This statement explains how he can label Ghana “barely low-income”, even after he has called the very statistics that make such a claim possible into question: he’s focused on Accra.  Accra has very little to do with how the bulk of the Ghanaian population lives – and most of that population is very, very poor.  Ghana is not barely low income – it is still quite low income, with some pockets of extreme wealth starting to distort the national statistics.  It doesn’t matter how Accra feels – that city is home to at best 10% of the population.  Kumasi is home to between 5-8% more.  Generously including Tamale and Takoradi in the middle-income city categories (this is very generous) nets you probably 25% of the population – nobody else is living in a middle income country.  Like Moss, I did my dissertation work in Ghana.  I still work there.  The difference is that I did my work in rural villages, and still do.  $1 a day beyond subsistence is a common income in the rural areas of the Central Region, even now – and the Central Region has a lot more infrastructure than most of the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions.  This population remains poorly educated – failed by poor rural schools.  They cannot support a transformation of the Ghanaian economy.  Most of Ghana is still a very low income country, not ready for any sort of sustained economic growth.  The country has seen enormous success in recent years – I am stunned by what I have seen in the past 13 years – but the fruits of that success are not distributed evenly.  While the cities have boomed, the villages are nearly unchanged.  This is Ghana’s new challenge – to spread this new wealth out and foster a diverse, resilient economy.

This is not to say that an MCC compact is the right tool to foster this, or that Ghana is the best place to be putting MCC money.  However, declaring “success” too soon creates its own set of risks – let’s use some nuance when considering how a country is doing, so we can identify the real challenges to overcome and successes to build on moving forward.

I’ve had a post or two referencing the role of celebrity in development recently, triggered by Bill Easterly’s recent Washington Post op-ed.  I was surprised to see Easterly take such heat for pointing out that celebrity engagement with development can be problematic – most of the folks I know largely agree with the op-ed.  My only intervention was to suggest that Easterly (and others who raise issues with celebrity and development) focus more on the people who feed the celebs their ideas and talking points.  Sometimes really well-meaning people can be led astray by one loud voice . . .

Having watched/been part of this conversation for a few days, though, I see the need for an intervention.  On his twitter feed, Bill Easterly has promoted a commenter who felt s/he had to remove a post critical of Bono because “Bono gives big money to my organization, and they thought that pissing off Bono could cause another Sunday Bloody Sunday.”  At first glance, this paints Bono as terribly thin-skinned, and suggests that he is unwilling to take on criticism of his efforts.  Perhaps this is true, but I see little evidence for it here – basically, you have an overly-cautious organization afraid of pissing off a celebrity, but no suggestion that Bono demanded its removal.

More telling, though, is the URL the “censored” poster left at the end of their comment – Oh look, let’s take a bunch of random pictures of Bono in Africa, divorce them from all context, and then stick snarky comments after them.  How clever!  And juvenile, boring, etc.  All this does is suggest to me that the commenter has a larger issue with Bono, and has used Easterly’s blog as a platform to promote them.

I pride myself on taking my work very seriously, without taking myself very seriously.  I have my foibles (too numerous to list here), and I am well aware that at least some of my grad students can do a credible impression of me (which I actually take as something of a warped complement) – but I find this sort of thing funny.  Hell, we can play the snark game with any number of pictures of me:

“Community meetings would be easier without the community”

“This garland is way outside of my color wheel”

“They told me there would be bourbon.  This . . . is not bourbon”

See, now wasn’t that fun?

The point here is that criticism really needs to be constructive, and anchored in something.  I’ve been known to lose my temper – for example at the end of the post here – but even my rants are anchored in solid analysis.  My extended frustration with Sachs is well-documented, even in the peer-reviewed literature.  I have substantive issues with his theories, and how they lead to inappropriate interventions.  I sat through what I can best describe as a horribly embarrassing lecture by Sachs at the 2008 Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Boston, where he evoked a total lack of awareness of geography, the fact anyone else in the world addresses development issues, and revived the long-buried corpse of environmental determinism – all around me there were hundreds of geographers staring at him in open-mouthed shock.  The man is a disaster for development.  However, I can train a monkey to rip something down – as I tell my students, if you want to impress me, put it back together in an interesting way.  In my writing on the Millennium Village Project I have offered alternatives and suggestions.  I do the same in my forthcoming book.  Snark does nothing constructive, and makes it hard for the criticized to see through the personal attack to the useful ideas that might lead to more productive engagement.

Focus on substance, and being constructive, people.  To modify the old adage about teaching . . . Those who can’t, snark.

So, I heard a new and depressing phrase today – “the gigaton gap”.  UNEP published a technical report, just before the Cancun COP, on the gap between likely emissions under any global agreement, and our best scientific understanding of what our emissions levels need to be to prevent warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius over the next 90 years.  The findings were stunning (but sadly not all that surprising)

  • To get on a path likely to keep us at or below 2° C of warming, we would need to hold ourselves to emissions levels of  44 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (this includes all CO2 emissions, as well as emissions of other greenhouse gases normalized to CO2 by converting their impact to the amount of CO2 required to create that same impact).

Yeah, it is a huge number, so big as to be meaningless – but don’t worry about the huge number – worry about how this number stacks up the next set of numbers

  • If we just keep doing what we are doing, projections have us at 56 GtCO2e in 2020, leaving a gap of 12 GtCO2e.  That is a big, big gap.  Horrifically huge.  Hell, we have a gap equal to 21% total emissions!
  • Low ambition pledges are not that much better.  Lenient implementation of such pledges would lower emissions to around 53 GtCO2e, leaving a gap of 9 GtCO2e.

But this really gets depressing when we look at the “good” scenario:

  • Even under a best case scenario for the agreement, emissions would only drop to about 49 GtCO2e, STILL LEAVING A GAP of 5 GtCO2e.

“But 5 is much better than 12 or 9, right?” you say.  Well, it is better.  But 5 GtCO2e is approximately equal to the annual global emissions from all the world’s cars, buses and transport in 2005.  ALL OF THEM.  So 5 GtCO2e is not good news.

Summary: In Cancun, we kicked any real action down the road a year, making things harder to achieve under any circumstances.  We already knew this.  But, even under the good scenarios, we were going to come up short of what was needed – something many have long suspected, but after Copenhagen and Cancun, we now have numbers people are likely to commit to, so the analysis becomes a lot more read.  Ladies and gentlemen, ditch the global agreement – we can do this other ways.

The role of the military in development is a terribly fraught issue – and it has been with us for a very, very long time.  In my book, I argue that globalization and development turned into each other long ago – insofar as development has largely been reduced to a means by which we connect different parts of the world into a global market and political economy.  This is not because development is some sort of militaristic economic movement (though, of course, sometimes it has been used as such), but because one of the dominant assumptions in development is that free markets and a globalized political economy are the best ways to bring about improvements in human well-being (my book is an extended, empirically-based critique of this assumption).  If you accept this definition of development, colonialism was really the first phase of “development” as we understand it today.  Military force was an important part of colonial efforts to open new territories to these markets (often couched in terms of peoples “own good”), thus creating a remarkably negative association with the military in development circles.

Today, the military has largely taken on a very different role – it is a critical means by which relief supplies are delivered to disaster-stricken areas. And, in conflict zones like Iraq, the military has been forced to take on development work, despite the fact that its personnel are not trained for that mission (something most folks in the military are well aware of, and would like to see changed).  Underdevelopment has been viewed as a national security issue (such as the very poorly substantiated assumption that poverty breeds terrorism), especially in the context of climate changes which are presumed to negatively impact the poorest and most vulnerable such that they will threaten state stability in many parts of the world.  Engagement with the military is something that is nearly impossible to avoid if one works for a major agency.

I’ll be frank, here – I’ve never been comfortable with the military’s engagement with development.  As I mentioned above, they are at best highly disciplined amateurs who have little experience and no real knowledge base when conducting “aid work”, which as we all know can make anyone more dangerous than helpful.  I also think it is unfair to ask people trained for one mission to go out and conduct another for which they are not prepared – it’s never good to set someone up for failure.  But the New York Times ran a story today that really gets to the heart of my issues with the militarization of development – it makes it impossible for anyone to do good development work.  When development work is conducted alongside military operations, especially as conscious parts of a hearts-and-minds campaign, development becomes a tool of war.  This makes the practitioners combatants, at least in the eyes of the opponent.  I am in no way justifying the kidnapping or killing of those who work in development in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, but I think we have to be honest about why otherwise unarmed civilians working on projects that are intended to have a community benefit might end up becoming targets.  It is not because “the enemy” is utterly depraved and indifferent – indeed many on the other side might see the use of development as a tool of war as itself depraved, a sort of holding people’s well-being hostage to larger geopolitical ends.

This post is not, in the end, a critique of the military – I certainly wish we lived in a world where they were not needed.  I imagine many of those serving in the military feel the same way.  But that is not the world we live in.  We live in a world where the military is doing development because someone has told them they have to.  This is not their fault.  However, I would ask that the military step back and think carefully about using development as part of larger combat campaigns – the association with conflict and combat gives our entire endeavor a bad name.

Yeah, most of twitter is mindless crap.  But there are a number of really smart, well-connected folks out there who are posting info in real time . . . which  is a great way to stay abreast of events and conversations relevant to one’s field.  And then there are the funny feeds.  I am currently losing my mind at bill_westerly.  Basically, the feed plays off of development economist Bill Easterly (who, interestingly, follows the feed) – but it takes on a sort of bizarro Easterly, if Bill Easterly was an Austrian-bodybuilder-governor-of-California.  For example:

  • broder @bill_easterly. let us swing duh axes togedder und bring doom to der army uff churnalists und girlymen egonomists dat oppose us?
  • hur hur hur. u call yurself egonomist? war gif der axellent market penetration @mattbish War is obsolete, you end up bombing your customers!

There is a lot of hidden insight in these tweets.  Then there is a whole series, linked to an extended discussion of expat aid worker behavior that is passing under the hashtag #stuffexpataidworkerslike

  • Monitorin der urban program in “der field” cos yur naad even vun hour from Florida club und Jomo Kenyatta
  • like jargon. luff akronyms uff dat jargon more…
  • gettin der intern to write cluster minutes so yoo gots time for snark bloggin bout volnteerz in aid
  • Kipling. #stuffexpataidworkerslike Akshully reading der Kipling#stuffexpataidworkersdontlike

And then there is the just completely random

  • mebbe is time fur twitter karaokes to build der courage und appetite to fight der turkeysaurus……..

Yeah, I find this funny.  Cope.