Archive for July, 2011

Andy Sumner and Charles Kenny (disclosure – Andy and Charles are friends of mine, and I need to write up my review of Charles’ book Getting Better . . . in a nutshell, you should buy it) have a post on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog addressing the two most recent challenges to the idea of the “poverty trap”: Ghana and Zambia’s recent elevations to middle-income status (per capita GNIs of between $1,006 and $3,975) by the World Bank.

Quick background for those less versed in development terminology: GNI (Gross National Income) is the value of all goods and services produced in a country, as well as all overseas investments and remittances (money sent home from abroad).  Per capita GNI divides this huge number by the population to get a sense of the per-person income of the country (there is a loose assumption that the value of goods and services will be paid in the form of wages).  So, loosely speaking, a per capita GNI of $1006 is roughly equivalent to $2.75/day.  Obviously $2.75 buys a lot more in rural Africa than it does basically anywhere inside the US, but this is still a pretty low bar at which to start “Middle Income.”

I do not want to engage an argument about where Middle Income should start in this post – Andy and Charles take this up near the end of their post, and nicely lay out the issues.  The important point that they are making, though, is that the idea that there are a lot of countries out there mired in situations that make an escape from food insecurity, material deprivation, absence of basic healthcare, and lack of opportunity (situations often called “poverty traps”) is being challenged by the ever-expanding pool of countries that seem to be increasing economic productivity rapidly and significantly.  The whole point of a “poverty trap”, as popularized by Paul Collier’s book on The Bottom Billion and Jeffrey Sach’s various writings, is that it cannot be escaped without substantial outside aid interventions (a la Sachs) or may not be escapable at all.  Well, Ghana certainly has received a lot of aid, but its massive growth is not the product of a new “big push”, a massive infusion of aid across sectors to get the country up into this new income category.  Turns out the poorest people in the world might not need us to come riding to their rescue, at least not in the manner that Sachs envisions in his Millennium Villages Project.

That said, I’ve told Andy that I am deeply concerned about fragility – that is, I am thrilled to see things changing in places like Ghana, but how robust are those changes?  At least in Ghana, a lot of the shift has been driven by the service sector, as opposed to recent oil finds (though these will undoubtedly swell the GNI figure in years to come) – this suggests a broader base to change in Ghana than, say, Equatorial Guinea . . . where GNI growth is all about oil, which is controlled by the country’s . . . problematic . . . leader (just read the Wikipedia post).  But even in Ghana, things like climate change could present significant future challenges.  The loss of the minor rainy season, for example, could have huge impacts on staple crop production and food security in the country, which in turn could hurt the workforce, exacerbate class/ethnic/rural-urban tensions, and generally hurt social cohesion in what is today a rather robust democracy.  Yes, things have gotten better in Ghana . . . but this is no time to assume, a la Rostow, that a largely irreversible takeoff to economic growth has occurred.  Aid and development are important and still needed in an increasingly middle-income world, but a different aid and development that supports existing indigenous efforts and consolidates development gains.


Pat Michaels has a rather astonishing blog called Climate of Fear at  Too bad for Forbes – they are providing a platform for a serious climate crank who I think is far too well-educated and smart to misunderstand the things he misrepresents in his public statements and writing.  His recent post on climate change and food security is a classic of the genre – and fits very well into the strategies that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway so brilliantly lay out in Merchants of Doubt (which, if you want to understand the professional climate change denial camp, you absolutely must read).  It requires debunking.  Hell, the man’s blog requires debunking, post by post.

So, what does Michaels have to say about climate change and food security?  Well, in a nutshell he doesn’t see how climate change is a problem for agriculture – indeed, he seems to suggest that climate change will do good things for agriculture.  However, a careful read of the article for what it does and does not actually say, and what evidence it draws on (mostly tangential), demonstrates that this is a piece of misdirection that, in my opinion, is criminal: insofar as it causes anyone to doubt the severity of the challenge in front of us, it will cost lives.  Lots of lives.

Michaels begins with a classic of the denial genre – he goes after a New York Times article not on its merits (indeed, he never addresses any of the article’s content), but by lumping it in with every previous warning of what he calls “environmental apocalypse.”  Except, of course, that the only call he actually cites is the now legendary “global cooling” fear of the 1970s – a fringe belief that was never embraced by the majority of scientists (no matter how hard the denial crowd wants you to believe it). That concern was based on patterns of natural cycles of heating and cooling that some felt were timed to push us back toward another ice age, but it was not the consensus view of scientists at the time.  Michaels knows this.  Either that, or he was a very, very bad graduate student, as he claims to have recieved his doctorate on the wings of “global cooling.”

Then Michaels moves to a false correlation (or non-correlation) – temperatures rose by .75 degrees C over the 20th Century (about 1.35 degrees Farenheit), but Michaels argues that since “U.S. corn yields quintupled.  Life expectancy doubled.  People got fat” clearly there is nothing to worry about.  Except, of course, that temperature/CO2 has relatively little to do with these results – biotech and improved farming techniques were much, much more important – and one could argue that these techniques and biotech have persevered in the face of conditions that might have, in many parts of the world, led to declining yields.  Hell, it is well known that the increases in per-capita food availability worldwide are not evenly distributed – According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in sub-Saharan Africa there is less food per person than there was thirty years ago.  Either Michaels has a distressingly flawed understanding of correlation and no real understanding of agricultural development over the past 100 years, or he is willfully misdirecting the reader.  Either case should disqualify him from writing this article.

Besides, temperature is only one concern (it is possible that some parts of the globe will warm several degrees Celsius, pushing some current staple crops out of the temperature bands in which they can germinate) – Michaels makes no mention of precipitation, except to basically trot out the old “CO2 is plant food” argument by saying “greenhouse warming takes place more in the winter, which lengthens growing seasons. With adequate water, plants then fix and yield more carbohydrate.”  This is almost hilarious, as one of the biggest problems we face is finding adequate water. Rising atmospheric temperatures have driven changes in wind patterns and atmospheric moisture content which, in turn, have shifted rainfall patterns over the past century or more.  Today CO2 is not able to serve as plant food in many parts of the world that most need it because the very injection of more CO2 into the atmosphere is creating declines in the rain needed to make that CO2 useful to plants.  Unless Michaels is willing to argue that rainfall patterns have not shifted, and therefore is willing to ignore rain gauge data from around the world, he has just offered the reader another misleading argument.

To address these empirically-documented challenges, farmers have adopted new crops, some biotech and improved irrigation tech has helped (though in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a region in which most agriculture is rain-fed, farmers are getting hammered by precipitation change) , but we are moving into an era where the vast bulk of work on GMOs is “defensive” – that is, trying to hold the line on yields as environmental conditions deteriorate.  This is not a recipe for continued rising yields in the future – which makes a few of his later claims really, really embarrassing – if he had shame, that is.  His claim that the continued increase in per capita grain production is going up means that climate change has had no effect is a logical fallacy – he is not factoring in how much production we have lost because of climate effects (and we are losing production – Southern Africa is one example).  His claims about rising wheat production in the future, even in a world free of wheat rust, presume either current environmental conditions will hold or that there will be significant technological advances that boost yields – but these are assumptions, not facts that can be stated with certainty.

In short, Michael’s alignment of temperature change and improving human conditions are basically unrelated . . . unless one wants to (rightly) note that many of the things that allowed us to live longer and get fatter required manufacturing processes and transport mechanisms that burned fossil fuels, thus warming the atmosphere – in other words, causality runs the other way.  We live longer and better, which is in part causing the warming of the atmosphere.  But Michaels can’t even consider that direction of causality . . .

I do agree with Michaels that using food crops for ethanol is and was stupid.  Of course, I was saying this (along with a lot of other colleagues) at author meetings of UNEP’s Fourth Global Environment Outlook in 2005.  The decision to push biofuels was political, not scientific.  Welcome to the party, Pat – we’ve already been here for a while, but there might still be some beer in the keg . . .

So, to summarize – Michaels has created a post that relies on false correlation, logical fallacy and misdirection to create the idea that climate change might not be a problem for agriculture, and that it might even be good for global production.  But he does not cite the vast bulk of the science out there – and ignores the empirical literature (not theory, not conjecture – measured changes) to create a very deceptive picture that minimizes the slowly intensifying challenges facing people living in many parts of the Global South.  I invite Dr. Michaels to look at the FEWS-NET data – not just contemporary, but historical – on the East African/Horn of Africa climate.  Empirical observation (again, measured, verified observations, not projections) tells us it is drying out* . . . and has been, for some time, massively compromising both crops and livestock, the backbone of livelihoods in Southern Ethiopia, Somalia and Northeastern Kenya.  As all hell breaks loose in that region, and the US Government considers using the term famine for the first time in a decade to describe the situation on the ground, it seems to me that Michaels’ efforts at misdirection rise beyond nuisance to a real question of ethics that Forbes would do well to consider before publishing such mendacious material again.


*very important note: FEWS-NET is agnostic as to the causes of the drying out – at this time, they do not care what causes it, they need to document it to better organize US Government and multilateral food aid delivery.  They would have jobs even if climate change did not exist, as the weather does vary from year to year no matter what, and therefore food insecurity would vary year by year.

In part 1, I argued that most academics who study development and aid have a very weak understanding of the processes they critique and seek to influence . . . and the only real way to build that understanding is to engage more seriously with development agencies.  Why, then, have so few academics in the social sciences sought out such engagement – that is, why do so few academics work in development agencies as part of their training/research/practice?  I think it has something to do with an unachievable desire to alter development practice and outcomes without unsettling ourselves.  For example, many academics limit themselves to the critique of development practice to preserve some distance between themselves and the messy world of practice and policy.  However, limiting oneself to critique still invokes an ethics of engagement, for if these critiques come too late to be acted upon, or do not speak to the institutional context from which these practices spring, the end result will be writing accessible only by other academics that has little if any benefit to those with whom we work in the Global South.  This de facto extractive knowledge industry can hardly be seen as progressive, and its existence should upset us.

At the same time, holding ourselves apart from development practice out of a concern for being co-opted by (or used to legitimize) problematic political-economic agendas only makes sense if we treat development organizations as largely unchanging monoliths.  This is a terribly ironic failure for a body of critical scholarship that otherwise spends so much time identifying and celebrating difference.  Development agencies are not monoliths.  For example, within these agencies are individuals deeply concerned about the rights of those affected by new forest carbon programmes, who object to the framing of development objectives in terms of economic growth, and who lament and struggle against the historical amnesia that marks the cyclical re-emergence of problematic and failed development initiatives.  When we see development organizations as sites of contestation, unsettling questions arise.  What is the point of critically-informed scholarship if not to provide support to individuals in their struggles to reshape policy, budget and programming into something more productive?  What good will the most progressive, community-level effort come to if it can be plowed under by a single bad Country Development Cooperative Strategy (USAID) or Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (World Bank)?  What is the point of studying development, if not to intervene?

We cannot alter development without unsettling ourselves, as development requires us to think about the ideas of change and progress, and our role in both.  I wrestle with this when I find myself arguing that the application of critical social theory to ‘development challenges’ can result in different and arguably more productive empirical understandings of events in the world (see here, here, here and here).  This struggle helps me evaluate of my own positionality, motivations and expectations for such interventions.  It is not a struggle that will come to a neat resolution.  If indeed the path of the critical development geographer is between the equally untenable poles of uncritical self-justifying judgement and self-promoting intellectual resource extraction, then it is a path that is constantly fraught with tension.  If you are unsettled, it means you are paying attention to this tension and trying to address it.  If you are uncomfortable, you are probably doing it right.

Back in April, I participated in a session on the role of geographers (and indeed academics more broadly) in development agencies.  Though many outside of academia do not seem to know this, engagement with development agencies by those of us working in geography, anthropology and sociology tends to provoke both strong feelings and some controversy.  Given geography’s and anthropology’s historical connection to colonialism, many academics fear that engagement with these agencies risks a return to these old relationships, where the work of academics serves to legitimize or even further neocolonial efforts.  I thought the session was outstanding – the discussion was probably the most spirited I’d seen at an AAG, but it never degenerated into name-calling or other unproductive behavior.

Due to the success of and interest in the session, the participants in my panel decided to put together a forum of brief position pieces to be published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, hopefully later this year (screaming fast by academic standards).  In my short piece, I took up the argument that we should be engaging with agencies more (probably not that surprising, considering where I work these days) – a position I supported in a distressingly well-read email exchange on a few big listservs this past fall (see a related blog post here).  Before I submitted it, I had to get it cleared by Legislative and Public Affairs (LPA), which led to several people reading it.  It was cleared without comment, which I believe only serves to support Bill Easterly’s claim (made in the context of the World Bank) that nobody really cares what we write in the academic journals, because they don’t think anyone reads them.

Along the way, though, my office director read it.  Or, more to the point, he read it three times, because, as he put it, it was “impenetrable.”  He did not say this dismissively, but instead to point out that the jargon in which I engaged in the piece (and I fully admit that my piece is very, very jargon-laden) made it nearly impossible to follow for the non-academic.  To his credit, he read it three times to get my point . . . how many people do you know who are willing to do that?

So, in the spirit of his intervention, I offer a translation of my piece, in two parts.  This is part 1.

Engagement with international development is fraught with tension.  On one side lies a belief in improvement that carries with it judgment of the lives of others.  At its worst, this judgment can become a justification for the lifestyles and foreign policy of “the developed” by placing both at the top of a pyramid of human progress to which everyone should aspire.  On the other side is the peril of an extractive intellectual industry.  When academic research and writing on development has no impact on policy and practice, it serves only to further the career of the researcher who gains from those s/he researches.  It is not possible for an academic to engage development and remain unsullied by one, the other, or both.  I see the job of the academic in development as walking between these extremes, balancing the risks of each. Therefore it is incumbent upon each of us to evaluate critically the path we walk between them.

It is very difficult for the contemporary academic to make such a critical evaluation.  Critical development studies are often based upon a surprisingly thin understanding of the object of research.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the development geographers who have worked in a development agency (receiving a contract from a development agency as a consultant or subcontractor does not count, as in that case one is only seeing the end product of a long process of policy building, budgeting, programming and contracting). Yet without an understanding of mundane bureaucratic moments such as budgeting, contracting and monitoring and evaluation it is simply impossible to understand why agencies do what they do, or reliably to identify points of intervention that might change practice in the world.

Though it was a book that brought me to critical development studies, Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine is exemplary of this problem.  Ferguson’s analysis of the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) Thaba-Tseka project is constrained largely to the reports and field programmes that are the outputs of this complex process.  There is no doubt that he is correct about the ways in which CIDA’s representation of Lesotho and its challenges bore little resemblance to events on the ground.  However, without a link to the institutional practices and structures that are inextricably bound up with these (mis)representations, Ferguson’s explanation for development failure comes to rest on a vague sense that language/representations (largely reflected in documents related to development projects and agencies) shape action.  But this language, and these representations, are produced and reproduced in the often-byzantine interplay of policy, budget, programme and contracting that currently happens outside the scope of analysis for the bulk of academics.  Pointing out the problematic character of CIDA’s representations of Lesotho is not in itself a productive intervention – we must know when this construction was put into play, by whom, and to what end.  This information cannot be inferred from an organizational chart or a history of organizational actions.  Instead, it requires ethnographic attention in its own right.

A very large proportion of critical development studies rests on this sort of incomplete analysis, resulting in critiques and questions that often have limited relevance to the experience of development practice.  The mismatch of the products of such analysis with the experiences of those who occupy positions in development institutions is a source of the widening gulf between academic studies of development and the work of the development agencies we criticize and seek to influence.  This suggests that productive critical interventions require greater direct engagement with development agencies.

Next up, Part 2: Why does this failure of understanding prevent serious engagement?

It appears that the World Bank, at long last, is going to really make a huge portion of its data publicly available.  The New York Times has a story that outlines some of the trials and tribulations that brought us to this point, some of which will probably seem arcane to the development outsider.  However, as a development researcher/practitioner hybrid, I cannot tell you how exciting or important this is – the Bank is sitting on a giant pile of interesting data.  Not all of it is going to be high quality (a lot of data from the Global South is not – see chapter 9 of Delivering Development or a parallel discussion in Charles Kenny’s Getting Better).  But until very recently the data you could easily access from the Bank was worthy of a lower-division undergraduate project – and getting to the really interesting stuff was brutally difficult.  The new datasets are more detailed and comprehensive, but still not everything the Bank has.  Andy Sumner has been trying to get at the Bank’s core data to refine and test his ideas about the New Bottom Billion (which you should all be reading, by the way), with little success because of security requirements.

I really like a quote, at the end of the NY Times piece, from Bitange Ndemo, Kenya’s permanent secretary for information.  When asked if there would be resistance to public dissemination of government data, he argued that transparency was inevitable because:

Information is valuable, he says, and people will find a way to get it: “This is one of those things, like mobile phones and the Internet, that you cannot control.”