Archive for March, 2011

On Global Dashboard Alex Evans discusses a report he wrote for ActionAid on critical uncertainties for development between the present and 2020.  Given Alex got to distill a bunch of futures studies, scenarios and outlooks into this report, I have to say this: I want his job.

The list he produces is quite interesting.  In distilled form, they are:

1. What is the global balance of power in 2020?

2. Will job creation keep pace with demographic change to 2020?

3. Is there serious global monetary reform by 2020?

4. Who will benefit from the projected ‘avalanche of technology’ by 2020?

5. Will the world face up to the equity questions that come with a world of limits by 2020?

6. Is global trade in decline by 2020?

7. How has the nature of political influence changed by 2020?

8. What will the major global shocks be between now and 2020?

All are fair questions.  And, in general, I like his 10 recommendations for addressing these challenges:

1. Be ready (because shocks will be the key drivers of change)

2. Talk about resilience (because the poor are in the firing line)

3. Put your members in charge (because they can bypass you)

4. Talk about fair shares (because limits change everything)

5. Specialise in coalitions (and not just of civil society organisations)

6. Take on the emerging economies (including from within)

7. Brings news from elsewhere (because innovation will come from the edges)

8. Expect failure (and look for the silver lining)

9. Work for poor people, not poor countries (as most of the former are outside the latter)

10. Be a storyteller (because stories create worldviews)

I particularly like #10 here, as it was exactly this idea that motivated me to write Delivering Development.  And #7 is more or less the political challenge I lay out in the last 1/4 of the book.  #9 is a clear reference to Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion, which everyone should be looking at right now.  In short, Alex and I are on the same page here.

I have two bits of constructive criticism to offer that I think would strengthen this report – and would be easy edits.  First, I think Alex has made a bit of a mistake in limiting his concern for environmental shocks to climate shocks.  These sorts of shocks are, of course, critical (hell, welcome to my current job), but there are other shocks out there that are perhaps not best captured as climate shocks on such a short timescale.  For example, ecological collapse from overuse/misuse of ecosystem resources (see the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) may have nothing at all to do with climate change – overfishing is currently crushing most major global fisheries, and the connection between this behavior and climate change is somewhat distant, at best.  We’ve been driving several ecosystems off cliffs for some time now, and one wonders when resilience will fail and a state change will set in.  It is near-impossible to know what the new state of a stressed ecosystem will be after a state change, so this is really a radical uncertainty we need to be thinking about.

Second, I am concerned that Stevens’ claim about the collapse of globalization bringing about “savage” negative impacts on the developing world.  Such a claim strikes me as overgeneralized and therefore missing the complexity of the challenge such a collapse might bring – and it is a bit ironic, given his admonition to “talk about resilience” above.  I think that some people (urban dwellers in particular) would likely be very hard hit – indeed, the term savage might actually apply to those who are heavily integrated into global markets simply by the fact they are living in large cities whose economies are driven by global linkages.  And certainly those in marginal rural environments who are already subject to crop failure and other challenges will likely suffer greatly from the loss of market opportunities and perhaps humanitarian assistance (look at contemporary inland Somalia for an illustration of what I am talking about here).  However, others (the bulk of rural farmers with significant subsistence components to their agricultural activities, or the option to convert activities to subsistence) have the option to pull back from market engagement and still make a stable living.  Opportunity will certainly dry up for these people, at least for a while, as this is usually a strategy for managing temporary economic fluctuations.  This is certainly a negative impact, for if development does nothing else, it must provide opportunities for people.  However, this sort of negative impact doesn’t rise to “savage” – which to me implies famine, infant mortality, etc.  I think we make all-to-easy connections between the failure of globalization/development (I’m not sure they are all that different, really, a point I discuss in Delivering Development).  Indeed, a sustained loss of global connection might, in the long run, create a space for local innovations and market development that could lead to a more robust future.

So to “be ready” requires, I think, a bit of a broadening of our environmental concerns, and a major effort to engage the complexity of engagement with the global economy among the rural poor in the world.  Both are quite doable – and are really minor edits to a very nice report (which I still wish I wrote).

Alertnet has a post on climate change and the poor that opened with one of my least favorite narrative techniques – surprise about local capacity and knowledge for adaptation.

I was struck by the local community’s scientific knowledge about climate change. I’d often heard that such communities know a tremendous amount about changing weather patterns – and can easily tell a good year from a bad one in terms of droughts or floods – but that they don’t know much about ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ or ‘climate change’.

Not so in Manikganj District. The community performed a drama for us and it was clear that they knew exactly what these relatively western scientific terms mean both in theory and in practice.

I was also struck by how the community – supported by the local nongovernmental organisation, GSK – has developed a range of strategies and activities to cope with longer floods, higher floodwater levels and the erosion that each year washes away more and more of their crop and homestead land into the nearby Padma River. There was no drama here. And I was deeply affected by the industrious positive way the people of Manikganj District meet these challenges and carry on with daily life.

I confess to a bit of fatigue at the continued voicing of surprise at finding out that those in the Global South who are dealing with the impacts of climate change actually have ideas, and often successful strategies, for managing those impacts.  Implicitly, every time we do this we back our readers up to a place of comfort (“those poor/dark people don’t know much”) and then get to act surprised when it turns out they do actually have knowledge and capabilities.  I’d like to think that the first half of my book flips this script, arguing consistently that the people I have been working with are staggeringly capable, and therefore it is the breakdown of livelihoods and adaptation that is interesting, not its existence.

To be fair, though, I blame myself and my colleagues working on adaptation and livelihoods for the persistence of this narrative technique.  Once we get past that all-to-common intro, the post gets into concrete discussions of how people are adapting – good, useful grounded description.  But what I long for, and what I am working on (articles in review and in prep, folks) is moving beyond the descriptive case toward a more systematic understanding of adaptation and livelihoods decision-making that enables some level of generalization and systematization. Indeed, by failing to approach livelihoods and adaptation decision-making in this manner, we enable the very frustrating lead-in technique I described above – every case becomes unique, and every effort to manage the impacts of climate change is therefore an isolated surprise.  If, in fact, it is not at all surprising that people have at least some knowledge and capacity for addressing climate change (and this is really not surprising at all, dammit), we need to get past simple description to capturing processes that might be leveraged into better early warning, better programming, and better understandings of what people are experiencing on the ground.

I sat through an outstanding FEWS-NET briefing today at work – some of the material falls under the heading of sensitive but unclassified (SBU), which basically means I can’t give details on it here. However, the publicly-available information from the briefing (link here – click on the near-term and medium-term tabs) makes it clear that there are really bad things taking place in parts of the Horn of Africa right now that are likely to result in large areas being extremely food insecure, which FEWS-NET defines as:

Households face substantial or prolonged shortfalls in their ability to meet basic food requirements. Reduced food intake is widespread, resulting in significantly increased rates of acute malnutrition and increasing mortality. Significant erosion of assets is occurring, and households are gradually moving towards destitution.

To summarize, people are dying due to food insecurity in the Horn of Africa right now, and it is going to get a whole lot worse for the next 6 or so months.

The briefing was very well run and presented, and the question session afterward was generally quite informative.  FEWS-NET is a remarkable tool – I think it is probably the best food insecurity assessment tool in the world right now – and I am engaged with thinking about how to make their assessments and projections even more accurate.  So I had a sort of technical disconnect from the meaning of the data during the briefing – to me, the numbers were data points that could be parsed differently to better understand what was actually taking place.

I returned to my desk, head buzzing with ways to reframe some of the analysis, but before I could get to writing anything down, an email came in telling me that the wife of one of my closest friends had passed away from ovarian cancer.  She was 41, and leaves behind my friend and their very young son.  For some reason, in that moment all of my data points became people, tens of thousands of mothers, fathers and children whose loss was beyond tragic.

That was it for me. I logged out, walked out of the office, and went to get my oldest daughter out of preschool an hour early.  Somebody needs to parse the data, to reframe and retheorize what we see happening in places like the Horn of Africa so we can respond better and reduce the occurrence and impact of future events.  But not me, not today.

Tomorrow, maybe.

No, the title is not meant to invoke the idea that I am going to sell all my worldly possessions and seek some sort of enlightenment – nor is it a suggestion that you should do so.  Nah, this post is more tricky than that . . . it’s about thinking through who we are, and who we want to be in the world.

This has been at the front of my mind for a lot of reasons of late.  At a personal level, the wife of a very close friend of mine is about to pass away from cancer – she’s 41, and will leave behind her husband and a 6-year-old son.  This sort of thing really tends to put life and its trials in perspective.  And so, with that framing, I’ve also been wrestling with what I am going to do career-wise.  The fellowship I am on required that I declare if I intended to renew by late last week.  This was not a difficult decision – however, I also had to decide if I wanted to continue in my current position, or take up a new one.  For many in my agency, this decision would have been easy – keep the slot I currently occupy.  I have a direct line to my Assistant Administrator (which at AID is very, very far up the food chain), who has a real interest in climate change and really listens to me when I advise her.  I sit in a program office, where I have the capacity to shape the direction of climate change programming for an entire Bureau with a multi-billion dollar budget.  In the bureaucratic world, I have landed in a remarkably influential position . . .

And I have decided to give it up.

Wait, what?

Here is the thing: I have about 14 years of experience working on issues of development, principally from the research end of things.  I’ve had the good fortune to become engaged in several global environmental assessments, which have broadened my perspectives and my expertise/experience.  I know where we have significant holes in our understanding of how the world works that are impeding our ability to address the challenges so many face in the world today, and will serve as roadblocks along any path toward a sustainable future on this planet.  I am working to fill those knowledge gaps with my research . . . but in my current slot, I don’t really use what I know – either what I know to be true from my research experience, or what I know we don’t know.  In seven months, I feel like I have really gone to the intellectual well once – in a briefing to my Assistant Administrator last week.  The rest of the time, a reasonably competent manager with a general awareness of climate change and humanitarian assistance could have done my job.  I cannot tell you the number of days I have left the office without a clue of what I accomplished, deeply frustrated and unsatisfied.

My agency is a contracting agency – we write scopes of work for other people to do our research and thinking.  So I am expected to scope papers and projects for other people, who are significantly less qualified than I am, to execute.  This . . . is . . . maddening.  It is also reality.

So, what does it all mean?  First, it means I am going back to academia at the end of this fellowship: if all of the thinking is done externally, and I feel like I am well qualified to do that thinking, I had better get outside of the agency so that I can actually do it.  And if I am going to leave the agency, I need to start building up my contacts with the people who get what I do and what I know so they will come to me in the future for these tasks.  I am currently in a humanitarian relief bureau, but I am not a relief person – I am a development person by training, research and inclination.  Yes, that is a false dichotomy, but in terms of policy and programming, it is a very real institutional divide here.  So I need to sit with the development people, with those who understand how my efforts to rethink livelihoods (first article in a series is in review), and to rethink the connection between land use change and livelihoods change (here and here), might become crucial contributions to their programs and policy.  So in year two, I am shifting to a new Bureau, and to a relatively minor slot in a line office, to work in detail on issues of adaptation to climate change.  Many people would see this as a demotion – as me giving away access and all its advantages.  I see it as the only way to keep what I have, and to have a much longer-term impact.

You cannot imagine my relief.

Ian Brown was right: Keep what ya got, by giving it all away.

but damn, there are days I am glad I went with a commercial publisher – and one of the big ones, at that.  Yesterday, I came home to a small envelope from Palgrave Macmillan in my mailbox.  I had no idea what it was, since I was not expecting anything from them.  I opened it up, and inside was this:



(Incidentally, I have a promo code that instructors can use for a free inspection copy – if you are an instructor of a course that might adopt this text, send me an email and let me know the course you teach, and I can pass the code along.  They will force you to register and they tend to verify courses, though, so don’t bother bluffing . . .)

Obviously, this is the publicity flyer they are circulating to get my book some visibility in academia.  It’s pretty nice – I like it.  But what really struck me was the post-it attached – unsigned, with only one sentence: “1000 copies mailed out March 2011 to courses in Economic Development”.  Uh . . .

Holy crap.

If 1% of the instructors who receive this mailing adopt, I will sell more copies of my book in the first year than most academic titles ever sell.  There is no way I could have done this anywhere near as effectively by myself. And it is a nice reinforcement of the message I’ve been receiving from my publisher and agent that my editor is heavily invested in this book, and is planning a concerted push to get it out there.

Now, friends and colleagues in the blogosphere/twitterverse, I am awaiting your reviews.  No, really . . . I actually want the feedback.  Yes, I would love to see a bunch of glowing reviews show up telling everyone that my book is the be-all, end-all, but I know that it is not – I want to see what people think, where the book works and where it doesn’t.  That is the only way I can shape my message effectively, and shape the next book (yes, one is already lurking) to engage the development/aid community productively.

Philip Auerswald has a guest insight on the Washington Post‘s website discussing the challenges to the current higher education model posed by both economic reality (rising tuitions + fewer loan dollars = major constraints) and the challengers to the traditional model (i.e. University of Phoenix).  Overall, his assessment of the current landscape was reasonable.  But there were two things that worried me about this piece.

First, there is no discussion of how we got here (except for a mention of the credit crunch).  Yes, higher ed costs are skyrocketing, if you evaluate tuition bills.  But I am unclear on the change in the cost of education when a) adjusted for inflation over time and b) when one factors into the equation the massive withdrawal of state support for public universities in recent years.  In other words, rising tuition bills reflect both inflation (to some extent) and the transfer of cost from taxes to tuition.  So has anyone out there done the math to figure out how much the cost of education has really risen over the past few decades, versus how much tuition has risen in this endgame of a strategy to shift education from a public good to a private responsibility?  Why am I asking?  Because I know from experience that somewhere at or above 85% of most public universities’ operating costs are generated by salaries and benefits.  But I also know that my inflation-adjusted salary (which is reasonably good) is not really any higher than that of my senior colleagues at similar stages of their careers in the 1970s.  So where the hell is the supposed rising cost of education coming from?  Had I time and inclination, I would crack open a bunch of university budgets from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and now and look at the patterns of expense, and the inflation-adjusted amounts of expense, to figure out if costs are really rising.

Second, I found the following conclusion chilling:

New entrants in the market for collegiate education will be weakly branded relative to those of powerful incumbents…say those with teams that have played in the Final Four. As a consequence, the successful ones will focus on competencies rather than credentials. They’ll have data and evaluation to support their claims of quality.

When higher ed becomes mainly about competencies, critical thinking and analysis die – this is not, of course, what Auerswald is suggesting should happen.  I’m simply pointing out that we have seen this show before – it’s called No Child Left Behind, and I have watched the changes this godforsaken law and its associated obsession with evaluation, data and competencies has wrought upon the average undergrad.  The average score on a map quiz (memorization exercise) in my large classes has skyrocketed over the past decade, as the rote memorization skills that have become so important pre-college translate into the universities.  However, more and more often my students cannot think critically, and cannot link disparate bits of information unless it is done explicitly for them.  For example, I often teach my students that in many parts of Africa, the soils are not ideal for agriculture and therefore are not as naturally productive as in other parts of the world.  I also teach them that the majority of Africans draw their livelihoods from some form of agricultural activity.  The vast majority (typically in the 80-90% range) will answer questions about those two points correctly on a test.  However, if I ask them how the soil quality of Africa might impact African livelihoods, the correct response rate plunges into the 60%.  They can regurgitate.  But they can’t work with information anymore.

This is what a focus on data, competencies and evaluation will turn universities into – because there is no good evaluative tool for capturing critical thinking, and because this sort of thinking has become greatly undervalued by a lot of society.  But we are slowly killing our democracy by gutting this fundamental underpinning of what it means to be a citizen – the right to express oneself doesn’t mean much if you have nothing interesting or important to say.  The right to hear others speak, and to read nearly whatever author you might want, doesn’t mean much if you cannot sit down and parse out the messages conveyed and decide how best to evaluate and use them.  If this is where we are headed, we are in serious trouble.

Let’s figure out where the real changes in cost are coming from, assess their magnitude, and publicize both bits of information as much as possible.  Let’s make sure legislatures are forced to accept the blame for rising tuitions when those tuitions are rising to make up for lost state revenues – at the University of South Carolina, the bookstore is now a more important source of revenue than the state (really), yet the legislature gets away with blaming the university and some form of phantom costs for rising tuitions.  The public needs to understand that a public good is being turned into a private responsibility, and the very functioning of our society is at stake.

RealClimate had an interesting post the other day about adaptation – specifically, how we bring together models that operate at the global-to-regional scales with an understanding of current and future impacts of climate change, which we feel at the local scale. This post was written from a climate science perspective – and so focuses on modeling capabilities and needs as related to the biophysical world.  In doing so, I think that one key uncertainty in our use of downscaled models for adaptation planning is huge – the likely pathways of human response to changes in the climate over the next several decades.  In places like sub-Saharan Africa, how people respond to climate change will have impacts on land use decisions, and therefore land cover . . . and land cover is a key component of local climate.  In other words, as we downscale climate models, we need to start adding new types of data to them – social data on adaptation decision-making, so that we might project plausible future pathways and build them into these downscaled models.

For example, many modeling exercises currently suggest that a combination of temperature increases and changes in the amount and pattern of rainfall in parts of southern Africa will make it very difficult to raise maize there over the next few decades.  This is a major problem, as maize is a staple of the region.  So, what will people do?  Will they continue to grow maize that is less hardy and takes up less CO2 and water as it grows, will they switch to a crop that takes up more CO2 than maize ever did, or will they begin to abandon the land and migrate to cities, creating pockets of fallow land and/or opening a frontier for mechanized agriculture (both outcomes likely to have significant impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and water cycling, among other things)?  Simply put, we don’t really know.  But we need to know, and we need to know with reasonably high resolution.  That is, it is not enough to simply say “they will stop planting maize and plant X.”  We need to know when this transition will take place.  We need to know if it will happen suddenly or gradually.  We need to know if that transition will itself be sustainable going forward, or if other changes will be needed in the near future.  All of this information needs to be part of iterative model runs that capture land cover changes and biogeochemical cycling changes associated with these decisions to better understand future local pathways of climate change impacts and the associated likely adaptation pathways that these populations will occupy.

The good news* is that I am on this – along with my colleague Brent McCusker at West Virginia University (see pubs here and here).  Between the two of us, we’ve developed a pretty solid understanding of adaptation and livelihoods decision-making, and have spent a good bit of time theorizing the link between land use change and livelihoods change to enable the examination of the issues I have raised above.  We have a bit of money from NSF to run a pilot this summer (Brent will manage this while I am a government employee), and I plan to spend next year working on how to integrate this research program into the global climate change programming of my current employer.

Long and short: climate modelers, you need us social scientists, now more than ever.  We’re here to work with you . . .

*Calling this good news presumes that you see me as competent, or at least that you see Brent as competent enough to make up for my incompetence.

Adrian Fenton, writing on the website of IIED (whose work I generally like), seems to be pushing the idea that community-based adaptation (that is, adaptation that builds upon/strengthens strategies employed at the local scale) and microfinance go hand-in-hand. I am not so sure this is a good idea – I feel like IIED has missed a fundamental point here – for most of the developing world, livelihoods are about avoiding and managing risks and challenges – and then capitalizing on any surplus that might come about after managing those risks.  As many have noted, this largely risk-averse approach to making a living hugely constrains opportunity because you cannot employ all of your resources in an effort to engage in markets/work off the farm/what have you – you have to effectively waste a bunch of them guarding against events that often don’t happen. One way in which this happens, which I lay out in my book and have discussed on this blog, is when people set up their livelihoods in a manner that allows them to temporarily deglobalize when markets turn against them.  This effectively requires holding back resources from market sale in case you have to rely on them directly.  For example, farmers who keep the deglobalization option open in their livelihoods hold back a portion of their labor from market engagement as they dedicate time to planting and raising food crops that might be used for subsistence purposes if the markets turn.

Given this fundamental characteristic of so many livelihoods that we see in the Global South, it seems to me that coupling adaptation (current community- and household-level livelihoods are, in effect, adaptation efforts that go on continuously) with microfinance applies the wrong medicine to the problem – people don’t need more capital, they need a way to free up the various resources they already have from the necessary conservativism of their current livelihoods strategies.  Adding loans, even small loans, to the current livelihoods mix simply increases risk without necessarily providing benefits that offset that risk.

Instead, it seems to me we ought to be shifting our focus toward microinsurance and away from microfinance – microinsurance provides the safety net that enables risk-taking at the household and community level, and therefore empowers people to use their existing resources in the manner they best see fit.  In short, it allows us to meet some of the financial requirements for adaptation without having to create new financial vehicles, and new forms of risk in already-stressed livelihoods.  This is a much more direct means of addressing the challenges to local livelihoods posed by climate change impacts and raising the capital needed to address future risks, rather than offering seed capital, hoping the business/effort works out with enough profit to pay back the loan and provide a large surplus that might then be employed to address climate change.

This strikes me as the adaptation and development version of Occam’s razor – when evaluating plans for future adaptation efforts, select the one that requires the fewest new institutions and steps to raise the capital/resources necessary to meet future challenges.

The other day I posted on the need to reorient how we think about relief work, especially disaster risk reduction (DRR), if we are to connect relief to development, and DRR to adaptation.  Well, for those who share my concerns, I have good news.  I’m on the US Government review panel for the IPCC’s Special Report on Extreme Weather Events (SREX), which means I just got four second order drafts of chapters for the report.  They are brutally long and detailed . . . and they are fantastic.  They are an amazing effort to link disaster risk reduction (DRR) and the way that relief folks think about the world to adaptation and the way development people think.  I can’t excerpt the report yet (not for circulation, and besides, not yet out of the review process), but I think it is safe to say I can shelve the report I thought I was going to have to co-author with a colleague at work about the DRR-to-adaptation link.  We’ll just condense this into a few pages and make it something the agency and missions can wrap their heads around.

Seriously, those in academia will be able to teach from this report – and to be honest, it should be required reading for anyone employed by one of the large agencies that does both development and relief – and that includes all of those who work for “implementing partners.”  How often can you say that about an assessment report?

I’ll post when the document goes public – I have no idea what the timeline is, except that we are managing the comments on the second order draft, which typically means we are getting down to the end of the process.

I’ve not posted a lot on globalization, per se, on this blog of late . . . but I was really taken by Steven Pearlstein’s review of Dani Rodrik’s The Globalization Paradox in last Sunday’s Washington Post.  I have not read Rodrik’s book, but if Pearlstein’s review is accurate, I think I find myself in his camp on the subject.  There were a few passages in this review that I really liked, if for no other reason than they sound a lot like what I wrote in my book.  But I particularly liked this bit of Pearlstein on Rodrik:

Globalization, by its very nature, is disruptive—it rearranges where and how work is done and where and how profits are made. Things that are disruptive, of course, are destabilizing and create large pools of winners and losers.

Now, from chapter 1 of Delivering Development:

The integration of local economies, politics, and society into global networks is not the unmitigated boon to human well- being presented by many authors. Those living along the shores of globalization deal with significant challenges in their lives, such as degrading environments, social inequality that limits opportunity for significant portions of society, and inadequate medical care. The integration of these places into a global economy does not necessarily solve these problems. In the best cases such integration provides new sources of income that might be used to address some of these challenges. In nearly all cases, however, such integration also brings new challenges and uncertainties that come at a cost to people’s incomes and well- being.

This is some interesting thinking in parallel – anyone got Rodrik’s email?  I need to get a copy of the book, and the hours needed to read it.