Archive for August, 2011

Mike Hulme has an article in the July issue of Nature Climate Change titled “Meet the humanities,”[paywalled] in which he argues that “An introduction needs to be made between the rich cultural knowledge of social studies and the natural sciences.”  Overall, I like this article – Hulme understands the social science side of things, not least through his own research and his work as editor of Global Environmental Change, one of the most influential journals on the human dimensions of global change*.  Critically, he lays out how, even under current efforts to include a wider range of disciplines in major climate assessments, the conversation has been dominated for so long by the biophysical sciences and economics that it is difficult for other voices to break in:

policy discussions have become “improving climate predictions” and “creating new economic policy instruments”; not “learning from the myths of indigenous cultures” or “re-thinking the value of consumption.”

Hulme is not arguing that we are wrong to be trying to improve climate predictions or develop new economic policy instruments – instead, he is subtly asking if these are the right tools for the job of addressing climate change and its impacts.  My entire research agenda is one of unearthing a greater understanding of why people do what they do to make a living, how they decide what to do when their circumstances change, and what the outcomes of those decisions are for their long-term well being.  Like Hulme, I am persistently surprised at the relative dearth of work on this subject – especially because the longer I work on issues of adaptation and livelihoods, the more impressed I am with the capacity of communities to adjust to new circumstances, and the less impressed I am with anyone’s ability to predictably (and productively) intervene in these adjustments.

This point gets me to my motivation for this post.  Hulme could not cover everything in his short commentary, but I felt it important to identify where a qualitative social science perspective can make an immediate impact on how we think about adaptation (which really is about how we think about development, I think).   I remain amazed that so many working in development fail to grasp that there is no such things as a completely apolitical, purely technical intervention. For example, in development we all too often assume that a well is just a well – that it is a technical intervention that delivers water to people.  However, a well is highly political – it reshapes some people’s lives, alters labor regimes, could empower women (or be used as an excuse to extract more of their labor on farms, etc.) – all of this is contextual, and has everything to do with social relations and social power.  So, we can introduce the technology of a well . . . but the idea and meaning of a well cannot be introduced in the same manner – these are produced locally, through local lenses. It is this basic failure of understanding that lies at the heart of so many failed development projects that passed technical review and various compliance reviews: they were envisioned as neutral and technical, and were probably very well designed in those arenas.  However, these project designers gave little concern to the contextual, local social processes that would shape the use and outcomes of the intervention, and the result was lots of “surprise” outcomes.

When we start to approach these issues from a qualitative social scientific standpoint, or even a humanities standpoint (Hulme conflates these in his piece, I have no idea why.  They are not the same), the inherent politics of development become inescapable.  This was the point behind my article “The place of stories in development: creating spaces for participation through narrative analysis.”  In that article, I introduce the story I used to open Delivering Development to illustrate how our lived experience of development often plays out in ways best understood as narratives, “efforts to present information as a sequence of connected events with some sort of structural coherence, transforming ‘the real into an object of desire through a formal coherence and a moral order that the real.”  These narratives emerge in the stories we are told and that we overhear in the course of our fieldwork, but rarely make it into our articles or reports (though they do show up on a few fantastic aid blogs, like Shotgun Shack and Tales from the Hood).  They become local color to personal stories, not sources of information that reveal the politics of our development efforts (though read the two aforementioned blogs for serious counterpoints).

In my article, I demonstrated how using the concept of narrative, drawn from the humanities, has allowed me to identify moments in which I am placed into a plot, a story of development and experience not of my making:

In this narrative [“the white man is so clever,” a phrase I heard a lot during fieldwork], I was cast as the expert, one who had knowledge and resources that could improve their lives if only I would share it with them. [The community] cast themselves in the role of recipients of this knowledge, but not participants in its formation.  This narrative has been noted time and again in development studies (and post-colonial studies), and in the era of participation we are all trained to subvert it when we see it emerge in the work of development agencies, governments, and NGOs. However, we are less trained to look for its construction by those living in the Global South. In short, we are not trained to look for the ways in which others emplot us.

The idea of narrative is useful not only for identifying when weird neocolonial moments crop up, but also for destabilizing those narratives – what I call co-authoring.  For example, when I returned to the site of my dissertation fieldwork a few years later, I found that my new position as a (very junior) professor created a new set of problems:

This new identity greatly hindered my first efforts at fieldwork after taking this job, as several farmers openly expected me to tell them what to plant and how to plant it. I was able to decentre this narrative when, after one farmer suggested that I should be telling him what to plant instead of asking him about his practices, I asked him ‘Do I look like a farmer?’ He paused, admitted that I did not, and then started laughing. This intervention did not completely deconstruct his narrative of white/developed and black/developing, or my emplotment in that narrative. I was still an expert, just not about farming. This created a space for him to speak freely to me about agriculture in the community, while still maintaining a belief in me as the expert.

Certainly, this is not a perfect outcome.  But this is a lot better than the relationship that would have developed without an awareness of this emerging narrative, and my efforts to co-author that narrative.  Long and short, the humanities have a lot to offer both studies of climate change impacts and development – if we can bring ourselves to start taking things like stories seriously as sources of data.  As Hulme notes, this is not going to be an easy thing to do – there is a lot of inertia in both development and climate change studies.  But changes are coming, and I for one plan to leverage them to improve our understandings of what is happening in the world as a result of our development efforts, climate change, global markets, and any number of other factors that impact life along globalization’s shoreline – and to help co-author different, and hopefully better, outcomes than what has come before.

 

*full disclosure: I’ve published in Global Environmental Change, and Hulme was one of the editors in charge of my article.



Marc Bellemare’s blog pointed me to an interesting paper by Pascaline Dupas and Jonathan Robinson titled “Why Don’t the Poor Save More? Evidence from Health Savings Experiments.”  It is an interesting paper, taking a page from the RCT4D literature to test some different tools for savings in four Kenyan villages.  I’m not going to wade into the details of the paper or its findings here (they find some tools to be more effective than others at promoting savings for health expenditures), because they are not what really caught me about this paper.  Instead, what struck me was the absence of a serious consideration of “the social” in the framing of the questions asked and the results.  Dupas and Robinson expected three features to impact health savings: adequate storage facilities/technology, the ability to earmark funds, and the level of social commitment of the participant.  The social context of savings (or, more accurately, barriers to savings) are treated in what I must say is a terribly dismissive way [emphases are mine]:

a secure storage technology can enable individuals to avoid carrying loose cash on their person and thus allow people to keep some physical distance between themselves and their money. This may make it easier to resist temptations, to borrow the terminology in Banerjee and Mullainathan (2010), or unplanned expenditures, as many of our respondents call them. While these unplanned expenditures include luxury items such as treats, another important category among such unplanned expenditures are transfers to others.

A storage technology can increase the mental costs associated with unplanned expenditures, thereby reducing such expenditures. Indeed, if people use the storage technology to save towards a specic goal, such as a health goal in our study, people may consider the money saved as unavailable for purposes other than the specic goal – this is what Thaler (1990) coined mental accounting. By enabling such mental accounting, a designated storage place may give people the strength to resist frivolous expenditures as well as pressure to share with others, including their spouse.

I have seen many cases of unplanned expenditures to others in my fieldwork.  Indeed, my village-based field crews in Ghana used to ask for payment on as infrequent a basis as possible to avoid exactly these sorts of expenditures.  They would plan for large needed purchases, work until they had earned enough for that purchase, then take payment and immediately make the purchase, making their income illiquid before family members could call upon them and ask for loans or handouts.

However, the phrasing of Dupas and Robinson strikes the anthropologist/ geographer in me as dismissive.  These expenses are seen as “frivolous”, things that should be “resisted”.  The authors never consider the social context of these expenditures – why people agree to make them in the first place.  There seems to be an implicit assumption here that people don’t know how to manage their money without the introduction of new tools, and that is not at all what I have seen (albeit in contexts other than Kenya).  Instead, I saw these expenditures as part of a much larger web of social relations that implicates everything from social status to gender roles – in this context, the choice to give out money instead of saving it made much more sense.

In short, it seems to me that Dupas and Robinson are treating these savings technologies as apolitical, purely technical interventions.  However, introducing new forms of savings also intervenes in social relations at scales ranging from the household to the extended family to the community.  Thus, the uptake of these forms of savings will be greatly effected by contextual factors that seem to have been ignored here.  Further, the durability of the behavioral changes documented in this study might be much better predicted and understood – from my perspective, the declining use of these technologies over the 33 month scope of the project was completely predictable (the decline, that is, not the size of the decline).  Just because a new technology enables savings that might result in a greater standard of living for the individual or household does not mean that the technology will be seen as desirable – instead, that standard of living must also work within existing social roles and relations if these new behaviors are to endure.  Therefore, we cannot really explain the declining use of these technologies over time . . . yet development is, to me, about catalyzing enduring change.  While this study shows that the introduction of these technologies has at least a short term transformative effect on savings behavior, I’m not convinced this study does much to advance our understanding of how to catalyze changes that will endure.