Archive for January, 2011

How Matters has an interesting post about learning to embrace one’s own biases and positionality as an aid/development worker. However, the title of the post, “Confessions of a Recovering Neocolonialist on Martin Luther King Day“, is pretty misleading – it isn’t about neocolonialism at all, as best I can tell. Basically, the post picks up on the idea that aid/development workers are neocolonialists because a Zimbabwean staff member once dropped this blanket label on the expat staff of an aid agency. The problem is that the author of the post takes what might have actually been an interesting, trenchant comment about the role of aid/development, and those of us engaged in it, in the creation and perpetuation of a contemporary  global political economy that results in patterns of advantage and disadvantage that are quite similar to those once seen under colonialism (hence the term neocolonialism – a “new colonialism” enforced by things like trade rules, aid conditionality, etc.) and turns it into a discussion about ethnocentrism and myopia among aid/development workers.

Now, I am not decrying any discussion of either ethnocentrism or myopia in the aid and development community – it is there.  We all know it.  And being reminded of that – and being critically aware of that tendency in ourselves and others – is both important and valuable.  But this post misses the point of the Zimbabwean comment because it does not address how our work in this endeavor perpetuates the relationships of inequality that are often root causes of the symptoms we find ourselves addressing in the field.  This is hard to do – it not only requires self-awareness, but the time, effort and interest to trace the effects, intended and otherwise, that radiate out from our efforts.  This is the only way to discern whether our efforts are neocolonial or not.

Today, I begin an series of posts “live blogging” my reading of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid. I had intended to read the book for some time, and over the weekend I finally was able to pick it up.  I got two chapters deep, felt deeply frustrated, and went back through to figure out why.  If I am frustrated, surely others are too.  So, over a series of posts (this is the first) I will offer my thoughts on Dead Aid as I read it.  Take them for what they are worth – I won’t correct the text, but I will raise concerns where I see them.  I am not doing this to tear anyone down – indeed, I see this exercise as an effort to either shore up the argument in this paper by cleaning up otherwise loose or problematic readings of development history and practice, or provide a clear basis for the rejection of the argument.  To that end, I hope that people will offer their own comments, argue with me, and argue with Moyo from a different perspective than my own . . . hopefully something good will come out of the mess.  So, away we go . . .

Chapter 1: The Myth of Aid

p.3 The book begins with the usual litany of positive developments and remaining challenges for Africa.  Fair enough, I have a bit of this at the outset of my book.  However, she ends this section by arguing that the reason Africa has not yet realized its potential has its roots in aid.  Ok, provocative.

p.7 Yikes, we are headed downhill almost right away, as Moyo defines aid.  She breaks aid into three types:

  • humanitarian/emergency aid (in response to disasters)
  • charity-based aid (disbursed by charitable organizations to people on the ground)
  • systematic aid (payments made directly to governments from other governments or multilateral institutions).

My issue with this typology is simple: it doesn’t clarify our understanding of aid, as the categories she uses overlap heavily: for example, humanitarian aid is often administered by charitable organizations, and may also consist of direct payments to governments.  Further, bilateral aid is often implemented through charitable organizations acting as implementing partners who conduct work on the ground – there does not seem to be any space for this sort of aid in her typology, or her analysis.   So, when Moyo then argues that the book is not concerned with emergency and charity-based aid, she is also (unwittingly) removing from play a lot of bilateral aid – a form of aid that she then reduces to concessional lending/granting. In short, it is not clear to me that Moyo actually understands the mechanics of aid and its implementation, which strikes me as a central part of any argument against it (or for it, for that matter).  We shall see how this plays out . . .

p.8 Ah, we finally come to the myth of aid (I think): a fundamental, pervasive mindset that aid, whatever its form, is a good thing.  Wait, what?  Really?  This strikes me as a very thin straw man, and it is supported by absolutely nothing.  It is a bald assertion about the “western mindset” that strikes me as oddly echoing the really embarrassing overgeneralized assertions about various African ethnicities on the part of early-to-mid 20th century ethnographers.  I’ll spare you the quotes.  Not only is this assertion embarrassing in a horribly ironic way, it is hardly the stuff of the central argument for a book like this.  Of course that attitude toward aid is a myth . . . it doesn’t really exist.  At least not anywhere of which I am aware.  It is really easy to prove something is a myth when nobody believes in it in the first place – which might have something to do with the success of this book: it is telling people something they already knew, which makes the reader feel good about themselves.

The rising price of food has been a subject of many news stories over the past few months, with the intensity of attention ratcheting up recently upon news that the FAO’s food price index has just surpassed its 2008 peak.  Stories about this issue – well, at least the good stories – point out the highly variable way in which this increase in the price of food has played out in different places.  One good example of this sort of reportage is from Saturday’s Washington Post.

This variability, however, tends to be illustrated instead of interrogated, with explanations remaining remarkably shallow (see my earlier complaints about how explanations related to “local specificity” and “cultural difference” tend to obscure important processes and blame the victims of larger processes).  However, a quick examination of the information we have about food prices and their impacts points to the fact that global food prices are not all that useful for understanding the variable food outcomes we see in the Global South.  First, we have to understand that the increase everyone is talking about is in an index of food prices – that is, the price data drawn from a number of different foods.  Though the index is going up, this does not mean that the prices of all foods are rising equally.  As the WaPo and others have noted (and is quite clear in the FAO presentation of the data), when you disaggregate the crops and their prices, the biggest increases globally are in sugar, cooking oils and some fats (there are, of course, local surges in price for particular crops, but those are often independent of the larger global markets).  While cereal prices are increasing, they are not rising as quickly as these other foods, and they remain below 2008 levels.  So who is hit by these prices has a lot to do with who consumes sugar, or products heavily constituted by sugar and oils.  Oils are widely distributed in diets, but sugar is not – the poorest tend to have the least access outside the Global North (ironically, this is reversed in the Global North, as noted by Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me).  Meanwhile, staple crop prices are not rising anywhere near as rapidly.  So the principal drivers of the rising price index are not a huge portion of the diets of those in Global South . . . with one key exception: urban populations.  More on that in a second.

Second, who is hit by these prices has to do with the degree to which producers and consumers are linked to global markets.  Many rural producers are consumers of their own produce, or the produce of their neighbors.  As a result, they are somewhat insulated from shifts in commodity prices.  I’ve seen this at work in Ghana firsthand – it is a disaster for incomes in these areas, but not for food security.  Instead, people just eat the crops they might otherwise have sold at market.  Of course, this comes with other costs, such as in terms of the purchases of needed household goods, and sometimes in terms of children’s education (in places where school fees are still charged).  But in terms of food security, not so much.  FEWS-NET has offered this same interpretation of the impact of rising food prices on the countries in which it operates, arguing that this increase in this index is not as worrying as what we saw in 2008.  This is one of those instances where integration with global markets, long seen as a goal of development programs and a clear pathway to prosperity, can also produce significant new challenges for the global poor . . . or at least that segment of the rural poor whose livelihoods and production are highly integrated with global markets.

So, where people are dependent on global commodities that are internationally sourced for their food or incomes, shifting global food prices are more likely to result in direct shocks to their food security.  While there are certainly rural populations that fit this description, once again it is the urban poor who are most generally and directly exposed to this challenge.  With little food production of their own, they are dependent on purchased food that has passed through one or more middlemen from the source of production.  By definition, their food supply is more commodified, and more connected to global markets, than most of their rural counterparts.

Therefore, there isn’t a whole lot of point to looking at global price indexes to understand the relationship between these prices and food insecurity.  Instead, we have to look at who is affected by these prices, and how – the connections are complex and often involve tracing what appear to be unrelated factors as they radiate out from these price changes.  This is the only way to appropriately design interventions to address these issues . . .

Don’t tell us that the food price index is rising – tell us why it is rising . . . then we can do something about it.

From the comments section, something I had to manually spam:

I am a poor man from the African region, I need money to survive by comment on your blogs / forums or guestbook to make my website appear in search engine. Here are the list of my websites (Vimax, vimax, penis enlargement, penis enlargement pills, bigger penis, penis enlargement pills, penis enlargement, download youtube videos, penis enlargement pills) [URL=]vimax[/URL]
[URL=]bigger penis[/URL]
[URL=]penis enlargement[/URL]
[URL=]penis enlargement pills[/URL]

Now, like most bloggers, I have a spam filter on for my comments . . . so this had to be entered manually by someone able to deal with a captcha code.  This greatly limits the number of comments that could be left in a day . . . so instead, the spammer goes for the “I really need the money” tactic to hopefully raise the return on the limited number of comments.

Interesting how the spammer has mobilized the “help the poor” discourse of many aid agencies, though.  It would be interesting to see if this sort of tactic actually works . . .

My advance copy is here . . . making sure I remember what the hell I wrote!

Buy early! Buy often! All major booksellers – link in the sidebar!

I’ve been going on quite a bit about how we envision the relationship between aid and development – or perhaps more appropriately, how we do not really envision that transition, but assume that it simply happens – quite a bit lately.  But pressing on my mind during my work life is the relationship between climate change and development – how do mitigation and adaptation efforts relate to development?  The answer, of course, is that they relate to development in many different ways.  For example, mitigation efforts include things like land use, which can impact existing agricultural practices, and constrain (or sometimes enable) the options available to the designers of agricultural development projects.  Adaptation efforts emphasize the prevention of negative outcomes, a form of coping, but unless this relationship is explicitly considered they do not necessarily rhyme with development projects that seek to build on existing resources and capacity to improve people’s situations.

(I confess that I am deeply concerned that development is rapidly being subsumed under adaptation in some quarters, which is a real problem as they have two different missions.  To refocus development projects on adaptation is to shift from an effort to improve someone’s situation to an effort to help them hang on to what little they might have.  But this is a post for a different day.)

There is a danger, in this era of enhanced attention and funding toward climate change, of using climate change funds to continue doing the same development work as we were doing before, only under a new label (i.e. calling agricultural development “agricultural adaptation”, then using climate change funds to support that program even though nothing about it has really changed).  It is an annoying habit of people in agencies, who are often cash- and personnel-strapped, to try to use new initiatives to support their existing projects.  There is also a danger, in places where climate change has a greater emphasis than development, that development dollars aimed at particular challenges will be repurposed to the end of addressing climate change, thus negatively impacting the original development goal.  A year ago, Bill Gates wrote warned against just such an outcome in his 2010 Annual Letter as co-chair of the Gates Foundation.  On first read, it is a reasonable argument – and one that I largely agree with.  We live in a world of finite donors, and new dollars to address climate change often have to come from some other pot of money funding another project or issue.  These are difficult choices, and Gates has every right to argue that his pet interest, global health, should not lose funding in favor of climate change related efforts.  However, his argument sets up a needless dichotomy between development/aid (in the form of public health funding) and efforts to address the impacts of climate change:

The final communiqué of the Copenhagen Summit, held last December, talks about mobilizing $10 billion per year in the next three years and $100 billion per year by 2020 for developing countries, which is over three quarters of all foreign aid now given by the richest countries.

I am concerned that some of this money will come from reducing other categories of foreign aid, especially health. If just 1 percent of the $100 billion goal came from vaccine funding, then 700,000 more children could die from preventable diseases. In the long run, not spending on health is a bad deal for the environment because improvements in health, including voluntary family planning, lead people to have smaller families, which in turn reduces the strain on the environment.

Well, sort of.  I could make a pretty brutal counterargument – not spending on health, such as HIV/AIDS leads to a lot of deaths in the productive segment of the population pyramid, leaving a lot of fallow land to recover its nonagricultural ecological functions.  This sort of land use change is actually visible in places like Swaziland, but very hard to quantify because the studies aren’t there yet – nobody wants to be seen as potentially supporting this sort of nightmarish conservation argument.  I certainly don’t – but that is not my point.  My point was that Gates’ argument is pretty thin.

In making a political point, Gates is being a bit selective about the relationship between climate change and health.  What he is completely ignoring is the fact that mitigation efforts might limit the future range of disease vectors for any number of illnesses, thus saving tremendous numbers of lives.  This is especially true for diseases, like malaria, where a vaccine has proven elusive.  Further, he ignores the ways in which coherent, participatory adaptation programs might address health issues (by managing everything from nutrition to sanitation) in an effective manner.  While I am not arguing that mitigation and adaptation efforts could completely address the impacts caused by the loss of $1 billion in vaccination funding, his argument for 700,000 extra deaths* rests upon the assumption that nothing in the climate change portfolio will address the causes of such deaths through other means.  He’s creating an either/or that does not exist.

Again, Gates is making a political point here – which is his right.  But that political point sets up a false dichotomy between aid/development and efforts to address climate change that even Bjorn Lomborg has abandoned at this point.  We can argue in the interest of our agencies and organizations all we want, but the problems we are trying to address are deeply interlinked, and in the end creating these false dichotomies, and claiming that one issue is THE issue that must be addressed, shortchanges the very constituencies we claim to be working with and working for.

*I must admit I loathe this sort of quantification – it is always based on horribly fuzzy math that, at best, is grounded in loose correlations between an action and a health outcome.  I raise this issue and take it apart at length in my book . . .

Rick Rowden wrote an article.

I wrote an 800 word response.

Rick wrote a 1000 word response to my response (the first comment).

I wrote a 1200 word response to Rick’s response (my response is directly below his comment).

It’s like an intellectual arms race, only with really, really tiny stakes.  But I think it is educational for those who wonder where modernization theory went, and why nobody has warmed it over yet.

UPDATE 1-12-11

Rick comes back with 1450 words (second comment).

I respond with 2200 words.

We are starting to agree on a few things, at least.

Stop the madness.

A piece on the Guardian‘s Poverty Matters Blog today sets up one of the oddest, and most pointless, dichotomies I’ve seen in a discussion of development.  To summarize, the post by Rick Rowden argues that a focus on aid effectiveness and poverty reduction

perpetuates a bloated aid industry that doles out millions of dollars each year to legions of contractors and NGOs to carry out projects in dozens of poor countries.

What it does not do, apparently, is work toward any definition of development

In recent decades, earlier notions of development economics have been replaced with meeting the MDGs. But poverty reduction is not development. We seem to have suffered collective amnesia about the history of development, which used to be widely understood as industrialisation – in which poor countries undergo a transformative process out of primary agriculture and extractive industries into manufacturing and services industries with higher value-added over time.

First, this is an absurdly reductionist definition of development.  If Rowden wants to talk down to his readers about the history of development, he’d do well to note that his particular take fell out of currency in the late 1960s because IT DIDN’T WORK.  There is a reason modernization/big push theories fell out of favor (unless you are Jeff Sachs, and then you are forever reviving the corpse of the big push at the community level via the MVP.  Then again, Sachs doesn’t seem to read development history, either).  In short, the borrowing required for industrial ramp-ups almost never paid off with enough revenue to pay off the loans.  To understand why this happened is to understand the country-specific interplay of three key factors.  First, there were (and still are) structural issues in world trade that locked much of the developing world out of key markets.  Second, these policies failed because markets were dominated by large corporate entities operating with very small margins because of their huge economies of scale, basically undercutting any new competitors on price because they had the advantage of a huge head start provided by colonialism.  Third, massive corruption within countries drained the productive capital out of these loans, dooming the projects there were meant to fund.  Countries had to address either two or three of these factors, in varying ratios, at different times.  Modernization theories pushing industrialization had little to offer in addressing them.  This is why we eventually saw the rise of an attention to institutions and governance in development – not just at the level of the state, but also in markets and broader trade arenas.  It is also why so many countries in the Global South found themselves saddled with crushing debt at the end of the last century – many of those debts were the original loans and continued accumulation of interest tied to these failed policies.

The other issue is that industrialization requires resources (to make products) and consumption (to sell them).  At a time when our demand on the natural environment is already beginning to overshoot its capacity to serve our needs, asking countries to take on even more unsustainable activities is an absurdity that will end in failure.  There is nothing sustainable in this pathway – and if you look at the post, you will see that the entire argument is framed in an unlimited world, where the only constraint on development is growth:

If countries are unable to use the industrial policies they will need to transform their domestic industries, diversify their economies and build up their own tax bases over time, how will they ever get off the foreign aid bandwagon? Here the “poverty reduction” discourse is misleading; it neglects to ask how countries are supposed develop without industrialising.

Well, that isn’t totally true unless you take a very, very narrow reading of the poverty reduction discourse.  A lot of us are working in this space to imagine alternatives.  Indeed, there are community level projects that, while not elevating people to the standards of living seen in the Global North, have created sustainable, substantive changes in the quality of residents’ lives.  The examples are out there if people want to look.

Beyond all of this, though, is the larger issue – Rowden clearly has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to development when he dichotomizes poverty reduction and development.  Even if we saw economic growth as the be-all, end-all of development, there is a lot of work out there arguing that endemic poverty is a huge drag on economic growth and therefore has to be addressed as part of a growth package (see the OECD Observer here).  So even in a fairly reductionist view of development, you need poverty reduction . . . and I don’t know anyone who believes that growth adequately addresses poverty.  Not even at USAID.  Really.

So poverty reduction and development are not an either/or proposition, from any reasonable perspective on development.  Rowden’s piece would have been interesting . . . in 1960.  I have no idea what the point was in publishing it today.

A few comments on the blog related to some earlier posts on a Grand Challenge for Development have gotten me thinking a bit about development (the concept and the project) and if it is achievable.  There are those who would argue it is not, that development is an ill-conceived idea that invokes pathways of change that are now closed due to the changing global political economy, and treats life in the advanced economies as the apotheosis of human existence toward which everyone else is (and should be) marching.  To the extent development is taken to mean this sort of change, I agree completely – development is unattainable and meaningless.  There are not enough resources on Earth to allow everyone to live the way we do in the advanced economies, so the idea of a march toward that standard of living as a goal is gone regardless of how one might feel about it morally/ethically/etc.

But that does not mean that change cannot happen, that things cannot improve in a manner that is appreciated by people living in particular places.  Certainly, a shift from a post-subsistence income of $1 a day to $5 a day is a huge change that, in many parts of the world, would enable very different standards of health, education and well-being.  Surely this is worth striving for – and certainly, the people with whom I have worked in Ghana and Malawi would take that kind of a change over no change at all – and they would much rather than kind of change, than endless, pride-killing aid dependence. There is no doubt that this sort of change can be attained in many, if not most places.  Indeed, it has been accomplished.  Further, there are places where life expectancy has risen dramatically, infant mortality has fallen, nutrition and education levels have improved, and by any qualitative measure the quality of life has improved as a direct result of aid interventions (often termed development, but this should only count as development if the changes are sustained after the aid ends).  The real question at hand is not if it can be done, but why the results of our aid/development efforts are so erratic.

You see, for every case of improved life expectancy, there is the falling expectancies in Southern Africa.  For every case of improved nutrition and food availability, there are cases of increasing malnutrition and food insecurity (such that in sub-Saharan Africa, the balance has tipped toward less food availability per capita than two decades ago), and so on.  What works in one place often fails in another.  And the fact is that we don’t understand why this is in a systematic way.  I am a geographer and an anthropologist, so I am quite sympathetic to the argument that the local specificity of culture and society have a lot to do with the efficacy of particular interventions, and therefore explain a lot of the variability we see in project outcomes.  However, “local specificity” isn’t an answer, it is a blanket explanation that isn’t actionable in a specific way.  We persist in this answer because it pushes development (and aid) failure into the realm of the qualitative, the idiosyncratic.  And this attitude absolves us, the development community, from blame when things don’t work out.  Your project failed? Ah, well, who could have known that local land tenure rules would prevent the successful adoption of tree crops by women?  Subtly, we blame the victims with this mentality.

What it comes down to, I think, is a need to admit that we have at best a shaky idea of what works because in many areas (both geographic and technical) we really don’t understand what it is we are trying to transform when we engage in aid and development work.  We are better in some areas (health) because, frankly, they do a better job of gathering data and analyzing it than we do in, say, rural development (hey, don’t take my word for it – read some Robert Chambers, for heaven’s sake!).  But, in the end, we are driven by our myths about how markets and globalization work, how development/aid is linked to change, and how the problems we claim to address through development and aid came about in the first place.  This argument is the heart of my book (Amazon link here) – and I spend the first half using the story of two villages in Ghana to lay out how our assumptions about the world and how it works are mostly wrong, the next quarter explaining why this is a major problem for everything from economics to the environment, and the last quarter thinking about how to change things.

My take is but one take – and a partial one at that.  We need more people to think about our assumptions when we identify development challenges, design programs, and implement projects.  We need to replace assumptions with evidence.  And we need to be a lot more humble about our assumptions AND our evidence – so we stay open to new ideas and evidence as they inevitably flow in.

For any of you who might have spent time in Ghana, you’ve likely heard that shout: “Oh, Ghana!”  It is a good-natured expression of frustration with the everyday annoyances that make life what it is in Ghana.  Power cuts out in the middle of a World Cup match? “Oh, Ghana!”  Traffic completely stops in Cape Coast because the local herd of cattle have gotten into the road? “Oh, Ghana!”  Anyway, you get it.

Well, today’s “Oh, Ghana!” moment comes courtesy of Ghanaian President John Atta Mills, who has taken a particularly depressing stance on the turmoil in Ghana’s neighbor, Cote d’Ivoire:

“Ghana is not taking sides,” he said, pointing out that “We have about one million Ghanaians living in Ivory Coast who could be victims of any military intervention.”

Super, the head of state of the most legitimate democracy in West Africa, and arguably all of sub-Saharan Africa, has decided not to cash in any of that legitimacy to help resolve a fairly clear electoral situation right next door.  Of course, this ignores the fact that there are many millions more Ghanaians living along the border with Cote d’Ivoire that could be affected if things go badly, or that cross-border flows of Ivorians trying to escape conflict could pour into Ghana, which lacks the capacity to adequately address their needs.  Further, Mills’ response to the crisis is . . . prayer.  Prayer is fine, but it is no substitute for working in this world for a solution.  No, Mills’ stance is a depressing bit of hedging one’s bets.

The good news, I suppose, is that there is nothing inherently Ghanaian about this attitude toward the situation in Cote d’Ivoire.  Nana Akufo-Addo, the New Patriot Party’s (NPP) presidential candidate in 2008 (and likely in 2012), issued a statement earlier this week that more or less addressed the absurdity of Mills’ position.

“Much as most of us Ghanaians believe in the efficacy of prayer, prayer cannot be a replacement of or substitute for an active policy of Ghanaian diplomacy and engagement. It is said that heaven helps those who help themselves.”

Amen.  Now go, Ghana.  Do something now.