Archive for September, 2011

Ah, that familiar refrain – a mix of love and derision provoked by the vagaries of life in my favorite West African country: the power cuts out randomly in the midst of a big soccer match, “Oh, Ghana!” The new road washes out because of inadequate culverts? “Oh, Ghana!” And now, the country’s economy grows 34% in the second quarter of 2011 – expanding the GDP by 3.4 percent in that quarter alone (h/t to Andy Sumner for pointing this out to me)?

Wait, isn’t that good news?

Well, on its face, yes – this surge in growth suggests there is a lot more money at play in Ghana, and that will hopefully result in new and better jobs, greater revenues for the state, and eventually better services for the population.  But there are two big caveats that really, really worry me here.

  1. The growth was driven mostly by growth in the mining and quarrying sector – of which oil has about a 2/3 share. So the economy has grown, but it is still commodity-dependent.  Admittedly, they now have oil on top of cocoa and gold, but these don’t exactly track independently of one another.  Building your whole economy on three commodities is not a path to a stable, sustainable future.
  2. Ghana does not seem to have a plan to spend all of this new revenue in a manner that will trigger the virtuous process I was describing above.  Without a plan, the possibility of misuse and redirection of funds into private accounts rises dramatically (h/t to Mark Weston).

Oh, Ghana!

Even the oddly good news – agricultural (economic) growth seems to be matching the growth of mining and quarrying – isn’t really that good.  At first glance, this news seems to suggest that ag production is increasing, or that more of that production is getting to market before spoiling, trends that would benefit much of the Ghanaian population.  Maybe not, though – Ghana’s light-crop cocoa crop doubled over the same period last year, suggesting this increase is largely pegged to cocoa.  Worse, a big chunk of this improvement is tied to good weather, which is difficult to gamble on year-to-year.

Oh, Ghana!

I was on a panel at the Organic Trade Association‘s research series at the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore last Friday, discussing the issue of organic farming and the need to feed the world.  As I heard over and over from proponents of organic agriculture, the argument “you can’t feed the world on organic” is something thrown at them all the time.  As I argued, though, this is a production-based argument: that is, organic farming often has somewhat lower levels of productivity than industrial farming (though there are several cases where this does not seem to hold, and a number of confounding factors that make it entirely possible that the productivity difference is actually quite small).  Well, that would be a relevant argument if we were already using our food resources carefully.  Except we aren’t.  Consider:

  • We still produce more than enough food globally to feed everyone a very healthy number of calories, and probably enough that those calories could be accompanied by adequate nutrients.  The current problems of food insecurity are primarily about distribution, not production.
  • Anywhere between 20% and 40% of all food grown globally spoils before it reaches market.  The figures are lower for grains (which tend to travel well) and much higher for vegetables.
  • In the US, we throw away roughly 30% of all food we purchase.
  • Consider those two numbers together: In the US, we probably lose a lot less of the crop between farm and purchase at market, but then throw 30% of it away.  In other places, the food that reaches the table is nearly completely eaten, but we could lose up to 40% of that food before it reaches market.  In other words, no matter where you go on Earth, there is a hell of a lot of waste in the food system.
  • Finally, consider that 33% of all farmland is used for animal feed, one of the less efficient ways of getting calories out of the environment.  It is unclear to me if this 33% includes biofuel crops, but in any case biofuels would only add a few percentage points to this at most.

In short, we have distribution problems and an astonishing amount of waste in our food systems, but it seems that a lot of the food security debate in policy circles is driven by production arguments.  Enhancing production is not a low hanging fruit.  Enhancing production is often used as an excuse for ignoring local knowledge and capacity in favor of reworking entire agroecological systems (which usually ends badly).  Those of us working in development would be well-served to consider all the ways we might address hunger, including waste and distribution, rather than focus myopically on one cause for what might be a phantom problem.  Welcome to another central theme of Delivering Development: misunderstanding/misidentifying the development challenge, and then trying to solve the wrong thing.

One caveat: there are places in the world in absolute production crises – that is, they lack market access to facilitate the movement of needed food, and their agricultural systems are no longer resilient in the face of current challenges.  In these places, waste may be less of an issue, and distribution solutions may be years in the future (good infrastructure and markets require good governance, which is no easy fix), and therefore the application of new agricultural technologies might become the low hanging fruit solution for the time being, until the other challenges can be met. It’s about finding the right tool for the job (and knowing exactly what the job is, too).

Yesterday I posted about a less-than-productive set of comments from at least one reviewer, and some contradictory comments from the other reviewers, related tof a manuscript I have in submission to a major development journal.  This is not at all uncommon – I’ve only had two or three articles ever accepted without revision, and have gone three or more rounds on a few.  However, to manage this sort of thing successfully requires good editorial guidance – i.e. what comments are relevant, whose comments are more appropriate (when there is a conflict in the comments), how much revision is really needed?

Well, my polite-but-firm 1500-word missive to the editors of the journal has resulted in immediate action – from my inbox this morning:

Dear Edward

Thank you for your email. We have an editorial board meeting next week during which I will circulate your comments. I will get back to you shortly thereafter.

Best wishes,


Now, this guarantees nothing . . . however, now my very detailed response and suggested edits will end up in front of the editorial board, and hopefully I will get a sense of what is actually needed to make this publishable.  I also might get some sense of how they plan to review a resubmission . . . I really don’t want this to take another 5-6 months, and I really don’t want Reviewer 1 to ever see this piece again!

More as it happens . . .

Remember the article on livelihoods I referenced in my last post?  The one that has been through 13-odd reviewers over the past 6 months?  Well, it came back this morning with that least satisfying of responses: revise and resubmit.  The reviewers disagreed on the strengths and weaknesses of the paper, but all of them wanted at least some small changes.

Now, this is hardly the first time I’ve had to deal with this.  Happens all the time.  But this review, like a number of others I have encountered in my career, highlights for me the need for strong editors at journals.  The email from the journal read, in part:

By the time of [the editorial board] meeting, we had received the reports of the external referees. You will find copies of their comments in the attached document. The editors feel that the referees have raised some important points and highlighted some shortcomings in the paper, which would need to be addressed through a round of revisions before we could proceed further. Please note that the editors are forwarding these comments as you might find them helpful; individual comments do not necessarily represent the views of the editors, or a consensus regarding the direction of any possible revision. [my emphasis].

Well, that’s just super.  It amounts to “here are some comments, which might or might not be relevant. Good luck!”  This gives the author nothing to work from, especially when some of the comments are contradictory.

So, a quick lesson for all of you budding academics out there.  Letters like this require a response asking for clarification.  I hammered out an email requesting a conversation with the editor.  Yes, that’s right, you can talk to the editors!  My first paragraph:

Thank you for forwarding the reviewer comments on my paper (Manuscript ID DECH-11-094 entitled “Livelihoods as Governmentality: Reframing the Logic of Livelihoods for Development”).  I appreciate the time and effort the reviewers put into the paper, and the consideration the editorial board has given my submission.  I would very much like to revise and resubmit this paper, but I need a bit of guidance if I am to do so in a productive manner.  Ideally, I would like to talk with the editor in charge of this submission to resolve some of my ideas for revision, and some larger concerns before moving forward.  I have summarized them, in a general sense, below:

(Note that this is polite – always be polite! It’s amazing how many people fail to do this.)

I then wrote 1500 words on what I proposed to do – with great specificity.  I hope to speak directly to the editor myself soon.  That way, I will know how s/he plans to treat the manuscript when they receive revisions, and how s/he views my suggestions – this is huge, as it will tell me what I can and cannot skip in the comments.

Oh, and one of the reviewers was a disaster – did not get the paper, wanted it to be the paper they would have written, etc.  I headed this person off with the following paragraph:

The comments of reviewer 1 are external critique – that is, they demand that the paper be something other than what it is, do not acknowledge the stated goals of the paper, or whether or not the paper achieved those goals.  The reviewer clearly did not engage with the core theory of the paper (for example in arguing the lit review was too confusing and should be cut down), instead demanding it be reframed as a gender analysis (which it is not) with relevance to policy (not the goal of this piece, which is more about foundational theory upon which policy statements might be constructed – policy relevance is also not a criteria for Development and Change).  The reviewer appears to be upset because the paper is not the gender and development paper s/he would have written (incidentally, I already wrote a paper closer to what they wanted and published it in World Development about three years ago – this paper is in part an effort to move past the limitations of that analysis), and instead of looking at the literature I am drawing on, they simply demanded I reframe and cite all the things they think are important.  Generally speaking, I try to take responsibility for moments when the reader becomes confused, treating this as a symptom of unclear writing or thinking on my part – I hope this is clear from my responses to the other reviewers’ comments.  However, the complete disengagement of this review with the paper as it was written, coupled with reviewer 3’s assessment of the paper as well-written, suggests to me that this reviewer’s concerns cannot be addressed without writing a completely different paper – and that paper would not make much of a contribution anymore (something they acknowledge). Suggested edits: none

Yep, you can make the case for the removal of reviewers from a revise and resubmit – especially if they will never approve the paper for what it is.

I’ll keep you posted on progress . . .

Marc Bellemare at Duke has been using Delivering Development in his development seminar this semester.  On Friday, he was kind enough to blog a bit about one of the things he found interesting in the book: the finding that women were more productive than men on a per-hectare basis.  As Marc notes, this runs contrary to most assumptions in the agricultural/development economics literature, especially some rather famous work by Chris Udry:

Whereas one would expect men and women to be equally productive on their respective plots within the household, Udry finds that in Burkina Faso, men are more productive than women at the margin when controlling for a host of confounding factors.

This is an important finding, as it speaks to our understanding of inefficiency in household production . . . which, as you might imagine given Udry’s findings, is often assumed to be a problem of men farming too little and women farming a bit too much land.  So Marc was a bit taken aback to read that in coastal Ghana the situation is actually reversed – women are more productive than men per unit area of land, and therefore to achieve optimal distributions of agricultural resources (read:land) in these households we would actually have to shift land out of men’s production into women’s production.

I knew that this finding ran contrary to Udry and some other folks, but I did not think it was that big a deal: Udry worked in the Sahel, which is quite a different environment and agroecology than coastal Ghana.  Further, he worked with folks of a totally different ethnicity engaged with different markets.  In short, I chalked his findings up to the convergence of any number of factors that had played out somewhat differently in my research context.  I certainly don’t see my findings as generalizable much beyond Akan-speaking peoples living in rural parts of Ghana . . .

All of that said, Marc points out that with regard to my findings:

Of course, this would need to be subjected to the proper empirical specification and to a battery of statistical tests . . .

Well, that is an interesting question.  So, a bit of transparency on my data (it is pretty transparent in my refereed pubs, but the book didn’t wade into all of that):


  • The data was gathered during the main rainy season, typically as the harvest was just starting to come in.  This required folks to make some degree of projection about the productivity of their fields at least a month into the future, and often several months into the future
  • The income figures for each crop, and therefore for total agricultural productivity, were self-reported. I was not able to cross-check these reported figures by counting the actual amount of crop coming off each farm.
    • I also gathered information on expenses, and when I totaled up expenses and subtracted them from reported income, every household in the village was running in the red.  I know that is not true, having lived there for some 18 months of my life.
    • There is no doubt in my mind that production figures were underestimated, and expenses overestimated, in my data – this fits into patterns of income reporting among the Akan that are seen elsewhere in the literature.
    • Therefore, you cannot trust the reported figures as accurate absolute measures of farm productivity.


  • The data was replicated across three field seasons.  The first two field seasons, I conducted all data collection with my research assistant.  However, in the final year of data collection, I lead a team of four interviewers from the University of Cape Coast, who worked with local guides to identify farms and farmers to interview – in the last year, we interviewed every willing farmer in the village (nearly 100% of the population).
    • It turns out that my snowball sample of households in the first two years of data collection actually covered the entire universe of households operating under non-exceptional household circumstances (i.e. they are not samples, they are reports on the activities of the population).
      • In other words, you don’t have to ask about my sampling – there was no sampling.  I just described the activities of the entire relevant population in all three years.
      • This removes a lot of concerns people have about the size of my samples – some household strategies only had 7 or 8 households working with them in a given year, which makes statistical work a little tricky 🙂  Well, turns out there is no real need for stats, as this is everyone!
      • The only exception to this: female-headed households.  I grossly underinterviewed them in years 1 and 2 (inadvertently), and the women I did interview do not appear to be representative of all female-headed households.  I therefore can only make very limited claims about trends in these households.
    • Even with completely new interviewers who had no preconceived notions about the data, the income findings came in roughly the same as when I gathered the data. That’s replicability, folks! Well, at least as far as qualitative social science gets in a dynamic situation.
    • Though the data was gathered at only one point in the season, at that point farmers were already seeing how the first wave of the harvest was doing and could make reasonable projections about the rest of the harvest.

I’m probably forgetting other problems and answers . . . Marc will remind me, I’m sure!  In any case, though, Marc asks a really interesting question at the end of his post:

Assuming the finding holds, it would be interesting to compare the two countries given that Burkina Faso and Ghana share a border. Is the change in gender differences due to different institutions? Different crops?

The short answer, for now, has to be a really unsatisfying “I don’t know.”  Delivering Development lays out in relatively simple terms a really complex argument I have building for some time about livelihoods, that they are motivated by and optimized with reference to a lot more than material outcomes.  The book builds a fairly simple explanation for how men balanced the need to remain in charge of their households with the need to feed and shelter those households . . . but I have elaborated on this in a piece in review at the Development and Change.  I will send them an email and figure out where this is in review – they have been struggling mightily with reviewers (last I heard, they had gone through 13!?!) and put up a preprint as soon as I am able.  This is relevant here because I would need a lot more information about the Burkina setting to work through my new livelihoods framework before I could answer Marc’s question.

Stay tuned!


Over at the Guardian, Damian Carrington has a blog post arguing that “Food is the ultimate security need.”  He bases this argument on a map produced by risk analysts Maplecroft, which sounds quite rigorous:

The Maplecroft index [represented on the map], reviewed last year by the World Food Programme, uses 12 types of data to derive a measure of food risk that is based on the UN FAO’s concept. That covers the availability, access and stability of food supplies, as well as the nutritional and health status of populations.

I’m going to leave aside the question of whether we can or should be linking food security to conflict – Marc Bellemare is covering this issue in his research and has a nice short post up that you should be reading.  He also has a link to a longer technical paper where he interrogates this relationship…I am still wading through it, as it involves a somewhat frightening amount of math, but if you are statistically inclined, check it out.

Instead, I would like to quickly raise some questions about this index and the map that results. First, the construction of the index itself is opaque (I assume because it is seen as a proprietary product), so I have no idea what is actually in there.  Given the character of the map, though, it looks like it was constructed from national-level data.  If it was, it is not particularly useful – food insecurity is not only about the amount of food, but access to that food and entitlement to get access to the food, and these are things that tend to be determined locally.  You cannot aggregate entitlement at the national level and get a meaningful understanding of food insecurity – and certainly not actionable information.

Further, you can’t aggregate food markets or prices at the national level and get anything meaningful with regard to food security – let’s compare Maplecroft’s map with FEWS-NETs maps for the immediate future (August-September 2011):

First Maplecroft:


While FEWS-NET does not have global coverage, compare their maps to those of Maplecroft and you see two things: One, FEWS is clearly working at a much finer geographic scale, because they have on-the-ground information about actual markets and access, as well as a deep understanding of climate and livelihoods through which to contextualize their grounded data.  This is what it takes to represent variable vulnerability within a country.  The variability you see on their map illustrates my point about the problems of national-level statistics – clearly food insecurity is a regional-to-local problem in every country, even Somalia.  Two, FEWS is not projecting major risk in the same places as Maplecroft, whose map has painted most of equatorial and dryland Africa as problematic at best.  Now, FEWS-NET’s medium-term projections (October-December 2011):

Again, no real resemblance to the Maplecroft map.

Now, you can argue that the Maplecroft map is aimed at a different goal than the FEWS-NET maps, as Maplecroft is trying to create a risk-assessment picture of food security in the region.  However, Maplecroft’s timescale is unclear (does it cover the next 6 months? 1 year? 5 years?), and its data is so over-aggregated as to be non-actionable.  You can’t build policy or programs from this, and I would argue that you can’t really assess the risk of food insecurity from the map or the underlying index either.  FEWS-NET’s maps are what actionable information looks like . . .

I appreciate the point Carrington is trying to make on his blog – food security is a really important issue.  But if we are to address the challenges of hunger and conflict, we need to build our understanding of the connection between them from meaningful data . . . and probably work from the outstanding material already available via FEWS-NET and others.

OK, a last thought on the development initiatives and markets thread: let’s leave the predictive markets thing aside for the moment, and get to what I think is a more serious question for development initiatives – do we use all the information we might to evaluate the likely impact of our programs?  I think a lot of folks misread the intent of my initial post – I was NOT suggesting we bet on mortality rates and other direct measures of project effectiveness.  That is something I could see as an academic exercise, but is way too morbid for my tastes, even in that setting.

But everyone who lunged in that direction seemed to miss the point that any major development initiative will, if it succeeds, have radiating impacts through different markets.  That is, a successful food security initiative will change harvest sizes of different crops, thereby influencing commodities markets.  A successful public health intervention might increase the size of the workforce, or its efficiency.  And so on.  My simple thought was that any fund investor worth his/her salt should be examining these initiatives and their expected outcomes to decide 1) if the initiative worked, what markets might be affected, how and when and 2) do they think the initiative will actually work.

If there is no movement around these initiatives, it seems to me that these two factors might be important – at the first step in this decision-making, investors might decide that in the event of a successful intervention, the markets affected might not be accessible or profitable, or the timeframe of any movement in the market might be so long as to make immediate response unnecessary.  Thus, we would see no market response to the announcement of an intervention.  At that point, it doesn’t matter if the intervention will work or not – that assessment never comes into the picture.

However, in at least some cases, I have to think that there are initiatives out there (in a world of rising food prices, I am a bit fixated on food security at the moment) that would affect significant markets, and not only at a national scale (where markets might be illiquid or otherwise inaccessible).  Take the case of cocoa and Cote d’Ivoire this past winter: the civil conflict in CIV cut off a significant amount of global supply, and futures markets got skittish over the further constriction of trade, driving cocoa prices upward.  This is a niche crop, heavily produced by only a few countries, but the price movement could have meant big dollars for a fund that correctly anticipated this trend.  Surely there are (or will be) food security initiatives that could similarly affect the overall supplies of and access to particular (perhaps niche) crops for entire regions, or even shift global availability/perception enough to shift commodities prices in much larger, more transparent markets in the short term. Don’t fixate on national markets for these initiatives – what about really big development movers that could affect global supplies of grain in an era where all the slack has been taken out of various global grain markets?  You can’t tell me that everyone at these trading desks is simply ignoring the food security world . . . surely they are at least assessing through step 1) above.  So if there is no market response to these initiatives, either the timeframe of movement is too distant to warrant interest, or the traders simply don’t think these initiatives will succeed enough to significantly influence the markets in which they trade.  Perhaps the price of oil and its impact on transport is much, much more important than increasing harvest size when it comes to shaping food commodities prices . . . in which case, it would probably be good for those designing food security initiatives to know this at the outset and address it in project design (for example by thinking about transportation issues as integral to the initiative).

Of course, there is option 3): traders have no idea what sorts of initiatives are out there, and are operating in ignorance of these potential large drivers.  This is entirely possible, but a bit hard to believe . . .

Lots of comments pouring in via twitter regarding my earlier post on development initiatives and markets.  First, I found it interesting that readers went in two directions – they either took the post to be about prediction markets alone, or they caught the reference to hedge funds and realized that I was talking about “betting” in a much more general sense: that is, in the sense of hedge fund investment, which is really a set of (ideally) well-researched, carefully-hedged bets on the direction of particular stocks, commodities and sometimes whole segments of the market.

For now, let’s take up the issue of predictive markets.  I love Bill Easterly’s response tweet, asking what development initiative I (or anyone else) would bet my own money on.  I think prediction markets are interesting tools.  They are hardly perfect, as like other markets they are subject to bubbles and manipulation, but there is some evidence to suggest that they do yield interesting information under the right conditions.  It would be interesting to set up parallel prediction markets, and populate one with development professionals at agencies and NGOs, one with development academics, and one that blends the two, and then have them start to buy and sell the likelihood of success (as defined by the initiative, both in terms of outcomes and timeframe) for any number of development initiatives.  While I doubt these parallel markets would move in lockstep, I wonder if they would come to radically different assessments of these initiatives.  And we could examine how well they worked as predictive devices.  I’m pretty sure most academics would have started shorting the Millennium Village Project at its inception (academic paper here) . . . so what things would the development blogosphere/twittersphere short today?  What would you go long on (that is, what would you hold in the expectation it would meet expectations and rise in value)?  Have at it in the comments . . .

I’ll address the wider meaning of “betting” that I was also aiming at later . . .

Welcome to a new feature of Open the Echo Chamber, a quick post on something that interests me.  Yes, I am capable of writing less than 1000 words in a post, but most of the time I take on subjects that need a lot of attention.  Going forward, I am going to try to intersperse some “quick thoughts” on the blog for those who lack the 15 minutes and headspace to deal with my longer fare . . .

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about hedge funds lately, and it recently hit me: does anyone in the markets bet for or against development initiatives?  It seems to me that you could – after all, a big initiative from either a multilateral or large bilateral donor will often come with quite a bit of money attached (at least initially), a lot of publicity, and some clearly stated goals that are almost always tied to economic growth or diversification.  So, do investors look at these initiatives and bet for or against them?  I’m not saying they bet directly on an initiative, but on its outcome: for example, do funds look at large food security initiatives in a particular country and bet on the prices of the crops involved in that initiative?

Here is why I care: if nobody is betting on them, it pretty much signals that these initiatives are largely irrelevant.  Either they are not large enough to move any market in the short or long term, or they are not aimed at anything likely to induce a transformation of economy and society through some set of cascading impacts in the long term.  If this is the case, it seems to me we ought to back out of those initiatives right away.  This is not to say that we should not be addressing the needs of the most vulnerable people in the world, but to suggest that an absence of interest in these initiatives might mean that our efforts to address these needs are not likely to come to much.

On the other hand, if we see significant betting on the outcomes of initiatives, it seems to me we might start to look at the direction of this betting (short or long) to get a sense of how things are likely to play out, and start looking for problems/leveraging opportunities as soon as possible.

Just a quick thought . . .

In a comment on my earlier post critiquing the recent ENSO and conflict piece that appeared in nature Nature , Joe pointed out that my argument that the authors of the piece did not understand livelihoods was not necessarily clear to the reader.  I think this is completely fair – I am buried in livelihoods . . . it is a concept at the core of what I have researched for the past 14 years, and therefore what may seem obvious to me is not so obvious to everyone else.

First, to clarify: I think the top-line issue I was shorthanding in my response to Solomon was the causal framework: it is totally unclear to me how they think environmental change is translated into conflict.  It is possible that they had no explicit notion of how this connection is made, but I think that would create an enormous set of problems for the study as it would make it impossible to know what variables to control for in the study (to some extent, I think this is a problem with the study anyway).  However, the study, and Solomon’s response, led me to believe that they did have a very basic framing of this connection, where weather impacts livelihoods which impacts behavior.  In this apparent framing, it seems to me that they treated livelihoods as a straightforward set of activities – and the impact of weather on those activities could be easily and generally understood, and the human outcomes of those impacts could also be easily and generally understood.  If this is true, it is a serious misunderstanding of livelihoods.

There is a lot of stuff I could say about livelihoods – my current intellectual project involves rethinking how we understand livelihoods, because I think current analytical frameworks cannot really engage with actual livelihoods decision-making on the ground.  As a result, a lot of our understandings of what people do, and why they do it, are wide of the mark, and the interventions we design to improve/augment/replace existing means of making a living in particular places are often misguided and prone to “surprise” outcomes.

First, a quick definition of livelihoods as they are treated in the contemporary literature: “the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living” (Chambers and Conway, 1992:7).  As Brent McCusker and I have argued:

this definition of livelihoods moves past income toward a more holistic consideration of the manner in which a person obtains a living. In practice, this definition has resulted in a number of approaches to livelihoods that focus closely on access to various types of assets drawn upon by individuals to make a living. These approaches tend to categorize these assets as one of five types of capital: natural, physical, human, financial and social. Land comes under natural capital, “the natural resource base (land, water, trees) that yields products utilized by human populations for their survival,” though an improved field might come under the heading of physical capital, which generally includes “assets brought into existence by economic production processes.”

My problem with the livelihoods approach that dominates the literature, and subtly undergirds the Nature piece I was critiquing, is not the broad definition of livelihoods.  Instead, the problem lies in the subtle assumption of this approach that, in its focus on the requirements for a means of living, concentrates on material circumstances and outcomes as a metric for the success and viability of particular livelihoods.  As I have demonstrated repeatedly (for example here, and in my book Delivering Development), livelihoods are double-edged: they are aimed at both meeting certain material requirements of life and maintaining the privileges of the powerful.  Above certain very, very low thresholds, the social goals of livelihoods actually trump the material goals.  Therefore, if we want to understand livelihoods decisions and outcomes, we must understand the social context at least as well as we do the material conditions in a particular place.  Using generalized assumptions about human motivations to explain responses to livelihoods shifts will smooth over really significant differences in decision-making, and therefore obscure any possible causal connection between things like environmental change and the incidence of conflict – material maximization/deprivation is only part of the story of human motivations, and a relatively small part at that.

How does this all relate to the Nature piece and my criticism? While the authors never specified the means by which this would happen in the piece, only offering general speculation in their response to my criticism, I found Solomon’s response to my blog post really telling:

The study is trying to understand whether choosing to engage in conflict is a “livelihood decision” that individuals in modern societies select more often when El Nino events occur. Our findings tells us that for some reason, people’s willingness to engage in organized violence changes when the global climate changes. One hypothesis is that perhaps “predation” (i.e. the forceful extraction of property from others) is a form of “adaptation” to climate changes.

It is possible that Solomon’s reference to conflict as a livelihoods decision was simply echoing the terms of my criticism.  However, both the article and his response seems to reflect an implicit framing of the environment-to-conflict connection as somehow passing through livelihoods in a straightforward manner.  Because the authors never actually unpack how the environment impacts livelihoods, and in turn how those impacts are translated into human impacts, they become guilty of the same issue that plagues nearly everyone using the livelihoods framework these days: they implicitly embrace an over-generalized framing of livelihoods decisions that relies too heavily on a relatively minor driver of decision-making (material conditions), and completely ignores the dominant factors that shape the character of particular activities and therefore result in particular outcomes for the well-being of those living under that strategy.  I am sure that predation does occur.  I am also absolutely certain that this is not a general response – it does not happen very often (plenty of empirical studies show other behaviors).  It is not interesting to know that it occurs – we already know that.  What is interesting and important is why it occurs.  Going for “story time” explanations of complex behavior does not contribute to our understanding of human behavior, or the impact of climate change on human well-being.

I am working on a reframing of livelihoods that elevates the social component to its proper place in livelihoods decision-making (in review at the Journal of Development Studies).  The thinking behind this reframing is intensely theoretical and really, really academic (for a taste of what I mean, see this piece I wrote with Brent).  My goal in the forthcoming piece is to take this really esoteric theory and turn it into an approach that can be understood and employed widely.  With any luck it will be accepted and published relatively soon . . . I will put up a pre-print as soon as I am able.  But even with this reframing, we are going to have to work really hard at understanding when large-scale studies such as the one I have been critiquing are appropriate for furthering our understanding of things we really need to know, when they merely illustrate what we already know, and when they present really problematic findings with a misleading level of certainty.