Archive for September, 2012

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I am working through James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (my endorsement is in the linked post).  In the course of my reading, I have been thinking about what Scott calls the State Accessible Product, which he sets in contrast to the Gross Domestic Product.  To Scott’s thinking, the states/kingdoms he is discussing in Southeast Asia were motivated not to maximize the value of all goods and services in their realms, as such maximization might include the production of goods that could not be transported/taxed/otherwise used to enrich the state.  Instead, it was in the state’s interest to maximize the production of things it could see, count and move – in other words, to push the growth of a State Accessible Product.  Two things resonate for me about this idea:

1) It scales. Just as states pushed for the production of SAP, so too the households I I discuss in Delivering Development tend to divide up livelihoods roles and activities in a manner that maximizes not individual well-being, but activities that only make sense when bundled with the activities of other members of the household – a sort of Household Accessible Product.  In an uncertain economy and environment, it makes no sense to focus one’s entire agricultural production on market sale, or to focus entirely on subsistence reproduction of the household.  Yet this is just what we see men (playing the former role) and women (playing the latter) doing in some of the households I examined in Ghana.  They do this for a lot of complex reasons, but certainly there is something to the idea that these roles force the members of the household into the production of a HAP that certainly does not maximize all possible production and income, but does a lot to reproduce social roles and social stability.

2) It explains why my argument that a lot of farmers on globalization’s shoreline strategically deglobalize was both surprising and, at least to some people, threatening: the opting in and out of global markets is exactly the sort of thing states fear, as it means that the production of these farmers goes in and out of legibility from year to year – making it hard to extract value from that production. In short, there is a GDP that is not coterminus with an SAP along most of globalization’s shoreline – and that non SAP production is critical to the well-being of those engaged in those activities.

It strikes me that a key question here is whether or not our focus on governance in development has led us to inadvertently emphasize activities, projects and programs that render greater and greater percentages of GDP as SAP – certainly, without access to the financial resources produced by the control of a SAP, states are in a weak position.  But if many of the activities that actually keep people alive on a day-to-day basis are non-SAP activities, what are we to do?  Are we to wipe out/make legible these activities so the state can profit from them?  If we do, are we going to enhance the vulnerability of the populations whose livelihoods we alter?  Is the enhancement of vulnerability an appropriate trade-off for the creation of a state-legible economy?  Can addressing vulnerability and building a strong state be made to rhyme at all?

In my previous post, I objected to the way in which Tyler Cowen’s recent NYT blog post pushed the dominant “crisis of production” narrative in discussions of food security.  In my opinion, the recurrence of this problematic claim in various popular outlets has a lot to do with people’s relatively surficial understanding of food security and the causes of hunger in the Global South.  For some reason, development seems to lend itself to dilettantism…at least in part, I suspect, because people assume that the global poor are so bad off that any new ideas would be an improvement on what is there.  Of course, there is also the subtle, durable assumption that poor people (especially of darker skin tones) somehow (re)produce their problems because they don’t think rationally/clearly/etc*.  Such arguments fall apart when they are tested with actual evidence, but most op-eds and policies have nothing to do with evidence…

This problem extends beyond how we talk about the poor themselves to how we think about the governments under which they live.  While governance (not the same as government, folks – please try to remember this) is really important to development outcomes, it is not everything…and government (as in the formal rules and structures of governance in a particular place) can be even less important, as many of the global poor live beyond the reach of the state.  So blaming the state and its policies for hunger can be a pretty tricky proposition. When Cowen, in an offhand way, wades into the role of the Malawian government as an illustration of how his presumed production shortfalls are exacerbated by problematic government policies, his lack of understanding of the African context becomes clear:

many African nations have unhelpful policies toward agriculture. Malawi, for instance, subjects corn to periodic export and import restrictions as well as to price controls, all of which thwart development of a well-functioning market. When market speculators save corn in anticipation of greater scarcity, they may be punished by law. These restrictions of market incentives exacerbate the basic supply problems.

First, Cowen cherry-picks Malawian government actions to make this point.  While price controls and import/export restrictions have been used, there is another side to Malawian intervention in the markets: the subsidization of inputs to boost overall farm productivity.  As a result, he ignores the near-perfect correlation between the years when the government intervenes in input markets – effectively, when the Malawian government subsidizes fertilizers – and the years when Malawi is a net food exporter to the extent that it can pay for the entire subsidy several times over (this correlation has proven very durable and very vexatious to some of the more theologically-inclined free marketeers out there).  In the case of Malawi, some market intervention, however distortionary, actually does work to ensure adequate food production within the country each year. Which gets to a much larger point: the Malawian government is doing this not out of ignorance or irrationality, but because it is being responsive to citizens whose short term needs are so dire that to take a long-term only view would result in mass morbidity, if not mortality, in the short run.

For example, in a priori assuming that Malawi’s decision to punish market speculators when they “save corn in anticipation of greater scarcity” (one person’s “saving” is another’s “hoarding”), Cowen fails to parse between the needs of an efficient market (a means of transmitting future price situations into current pricing decisions) with human needs (a means of obtaining adequate food such that members of the household do not die) – in most places I work, there is a large disjoint between the two.  It is this disjoint that the government of Malawi, and indeed many governments around the world must negotiate.  It is this disjoint, and its attendant reality, that is Cowen’s second major problem, as he doesn’t really understand it.  This reality has two parts:

1) Yes, in the long run markets can transmit information about pricing and preferences that can lead to more productive and useful decisions, but in contexts where people are living on a dollar a day, their margins for error are small and their ability to wait for markets to work things out is limited.

2) There is a presumption that the anticipatory price signal will result in actions to address the problem before the shortage actually hits.  However, the causes of shortage generally extend well beyond the management capacity of any single state.  In short, transmitting shortage signals into the present only serves to prolong the challenges that the Malawian poor are going to face, without producing any effective policy or market response because there is no government capacity to respond.  In short, why transmit the emergency into the present when you are going to need help to address it now or in the future?  This is why many African states punish hoarding…though they could be looked upon as comprising a de facto futures market, hoarders transmit not just information, but shortage into the market and onto very vulnerable populations earlier than would otherwise be the case, undermining safety and security sooner and to no good end.  Given the option of an efficient market populated by a lot of dead people and an inefficient, or even broken market populated by live people, most African states are going with the latter.  Until someone sorts out how to set up functioning markets near-instantly, builds enough financial resilience into African livelihoods to weather this sort of market behavior, or builds the financial and infrastructural capacity of African states to a point they can manage this short of shock without external assistance (or some combination of the three), states will continue to be forced into this sort of decision, and will make the same choice.  I am not convinced that the manipulation/corruption of markets Cowen describes is a cause of hunger as much as a symptom of a hugely problematic global political economy that no one small country can effectively manage.

In short, the situation in Malawi is very common in sub-Saharan Africa.  For most countries, the issues I raise above have been in play since independence.  The typical African country is dealing with a set of pressures that make straightforward economic decision-making nearly impossible – from state-building to market-building, these countries cannot just make economic decisions, they must make political-economic decisions that reflect the immediate reality around them.  Government is easy…until you actually have to govern.

 

 

*This is not to absolve all poor people of all responsibility for their situations. The global poor, like everyone else, are human – they are subject to emotions, biases, prejudices, etc. that sometimes do cause major problems for their well-being.  However, it has been my experience that this is not a dominant cause of the problems of poverty…mainly because if these problems were exacerbated more than they were helped by the efforts of the global poor, we’d have a lot fewer poor people because they would mostly have died. The global poor make fantastically difficult decisions about the allocation of scarce resources every day with a shocking degree of success…something we overlook at our peril.

 

While I appreciate the overall sentiment behind “World Hunger, the Problem Left Behind”, Tyler Cowen’s op-ed piece in the New York Times earlier this week, in trying to put forth an important message he reinforces really problematic understandings of hunger. Cowen, like so many others, continues to frame food security and hunger issues as a crisis of production and productivity.  Citing Michael Lipton, Cowen writes:

Rwanda and Ghana are gaining, but…most of the continent is not. Production and calorie intake per capita don’t seem to be higher today than they were in the early 1960s. It remains an issue how Africa’s growing population will be fed.

First, production and caloric intake per capita are not necessarily directly linked.  As I have observed elsewhere on this blog (and as Hans Herren and I argued at the New America Foundation/Slate event Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks), there is a massive loss problem in most food systems that more than accounts for most food shortages in the world today.  Considering the absolutely remarkable explosion of the African population since 1960, when it held about 300 million people and today, when it holds 870 million, holding the line on per-capita production means that people effectively tripled the agricultural output of the continent.  But when you lose 40% of that production between the farm gate and market, you are going to get a disjoint between production and caloric intake that has nothing at all to do with the skills of the farmers or their on-farm circumstances.  Are there ways to augment production and improve it?  Probably, but this is not the central problem at the moment, nor is it the low-hanging fruit.  Don’t reengineer the ecosystem, just fix the road!

It would be good to see some serious discussion of food insecurity that did not center on agricultural productivity.  It seems that the urge is to start from the hardest end of the process to fix, perhaps because it is in the fields that food goes from abstract to concrete. It is hard to argue that the biggest problem is loss in the supply chain, because that is harder for people to see.  We need more posters of rotting loads of food on the back of trucks, and less pictures of dusty fields with stunted crops.  Maybe that would start to shift the narrative?

Ben Leo at ONE.org (formerly of CGD) put forth an intriguing proposal recently on Huffington Post Impact: It’s Time to Ask the World’s Poor What They Really Want.  In short, Ben is trying to argue that the current top-down definition of development goals, no matter how well-intentioned, is unlikely to reflect the views of the people these development goals are meant to benefit.

Hear, hear.  I made a similar point in Delivering Development. Actually, that sort of was one of the main points of the book.  See also my articles here and here.

But I am concerned that Leo is representing this effort a little too idealistically.  Just because we decide to ask people what they want doesn’t mean that we will really find out what they want.  Getting to this sort of information has everything to do with asking the right questions in the right way – there is no silver bullet for participation that will ensure that everyone’s voices will be heard.  To that end, what worries me here is that Ben does not explain exactly how ONE plans to develop the standardized survey they will put out there, or how exactly they will administer this survey.  So, here are a few preliminary questions for Ben and the ONE team:

1)   Does a standardized survey make sense? Given the very different challenges that people face around the world, and the highly variable capacity of people to deal with those challenges, it seems to me that going standardized is going to result in one of two outcomes: either you ask focused questions that only partially capture the challenges facing most people, or you ask really general questions that basically capture the suite of challenges we see globally, but do so in a manner that is so vague as to be unactionable.  How will ONE thread this needle?

2)   Who is designing the survey? To my point above, what questions are asked determine who will answer, and therefore determines what you will learn.  While the information gleaned from this sort of survey is likely to be very interesting, it is not the same thing as an open participatory process – full participation includes defining the questions, not just the answers.  Indeed, I would suggest that ONE needs to ditch the term participatory here, as in the end I fear it will be misleading.

3)   How will you administer the survey? Going out with enumerators takes a lot of time and money, and is subject to “investigator bias” – that is, the simple problem that some enumerators will do their job in a different manner than others, thus getting you different kinds/qualities of answers to the same questions.  On the other hand, if you are reliant on mobile technology, how will you incentivize those rural populations with mobile handsets to participate?  If you can’t do this, you will end up with a highly unrepresentative sample, making the results far less useful.

This is not to dismiss the effort Ben is spearheading – indeed, it is fantastic to see a visible organization make this argument and take concrete steps to actually get the voices of the global poor into the agenda-setting exercises.  However, this is not a participatory process – it is, instead, an information-driven process (which is good) that is largely shaped by the folks at ONE in the name of the global poor.  If ONE wants this to be more than information-driven, it needs to think about how it is going to let a representative sample of the global poor define the questions as well as the answers.  That is no easy task.

In all sincerity, I am happy to talk this through with anyone who is interested – I do think it is a good idea in principle, but execution is everything if you want it to be more than a publicity stunt…

18 September, 11:55pm Update: It seems I overlooked David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times today – all credit to him for picking up, rather explicitly, I think, on the themes below.  Even more credit to the center-right Brooks for eschewing politics to express his disturbance over Romney’s comments. Too bad the rest of the media seems to be ignoring the issues here.

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In the roar over Mitt Romney’s astonishingly impolitic (let’s just leave it at that for now) comments, it seems to me that the media, twitter…basically everyone has ignored one part of his statement:

All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. (my emphasis).

Look, do we have entitlement issues in the United States?  Sure – hell, we have giant agricultural subsidies that are screwing up global markets, but heaven forbid anyone try to get rid of them.  And is it totally unreasonable to phase in a retirement age a year or two later over the next several decades, given rising life expectancies?  But this is one set of debates.  When you bring food, shelter and basic healthcare into play, you are not talking about the same issues.

I’m sorry, but is anyone in this country seriously arguing that having enough food to eat is not a right?  That access to shelter is not a right? That the hippocratic oath, and all that goes with it, is out the window? It is a national shame that anyone starves inside the boarders of this country.  It is an embarrassment that people die of exposure in this country. It is humiliating to have a higher infant mortality rate than CUBA. Politics aside, shouldn’t we, as members of the world’s largest economy, all agree that this sort of thing simply should not happen, and that it is our societal responsibility to prevent it from happening?

What religious creed, what political affiliation, what socially-acceptable philosophy argues that we should crap on the poor? None. There is no excuse for this sort of statement, this sort of argument – it is just wrong.  And the fact that everyone seems to be letting it slide because they are myopically focused on “the 47%” is equally inexcusable.  Given these comments, someone damn well better ask candidate Romney where he stands on social safety nets…

There has mixed response to my posts on disaster awareness among college students (well, the Horn of Africa drought among my current students) – see posts here and here.  Some see something hopeful and interesting in the idea that the students want more complex explanations for the problems they see.  Others are significantly more negative, suggesting that people such as my students are just symptomatic of a larger societal, if not species-level, lack of empathy for distant others.  I fall on the optimistic side of things, perhaps because I am a geographer.  Let me explain…

Geography, as a discipline, spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about how places are created and maintained.  Places are not locations (folks get this mixed up all the time) – places are our experiences of particular locations – at least this is how I choose to think about it.  And when you think of it that way, it becomes impossible to see life in a particular place as independent from events in other places.  The experience of living in Columbia, South Carolina is shaped by the weather, the cost of living, the infrastructure, the schools (I am a parent), etc.  But each of these is in turn shaped by other factors that transcend Columbia.  The cost of living and state of the infrastructure are intimately tied to the history of the state of South Carolina within the United States (where the South has historically been the underdeveloped agrarian other of the industrialized Northeast), but are also tied to the global economy. South Carolina is now the last stopping point for large-scale manufacturing before it heads out of the US to find the most favorable conditions of production possible.  The overseas shift of the textile industry wrought devastation on the state’s economy…and relatively few in the state seem able to come to grips with the fact they were ground up in the jaws of a new global economy that has already spit them out.  Even the weather is being reshaped by global factors that drive climate change, as a new regime of reduced rainfall seems to be settling in.  At what point do you stop calling a prolonged rainfall deficit a drought and start calling it the new normal?  Turns out about three decades. We are about 20 years into a significant decline in precipitation, so we are getting there.  Thus, the policy decisions (regarding industrial policy and emissions policy) of actors in China and India drive shifts in the economy and environment of the State of South Carolina.  We are thoroughly tied up in larger global forces here.  To understand South Carolina today, we have to understand the larger world today – there is simply no way around this.

As soon as this lesson settles in (and it can take a while), it becomes obvious that these forces flow both ways – that is, as Columbia, SC is constituted by global forces, so too what we do here in Columbia contributes to global forces that play out in other places.  Thus, when we vote for federal lawmakers who keep absurd ethanol subsidies in place no matter what the price/maize production conditions, we create a driver of food price increases that can radiate around the world.  And while we in Columbia feel those increases, when the price of a loaf of bread goes up by a dollar, most of us are inconvenienced and annoyed.  For someone who was already living on less than $2/day, this same price increase blows up their capacity to feed themselves.

All of this then goes back to my earlier point about what the students wanted – complex explanations.  The kids already get it, folks – they already understand an interconnected world (to some extent), and they mistrust oversimplified explanations.  When you feed them simple explanations, you often have to root out the interconnections that connect us to events in other parts of the world – the very things that students would grab on to.  In short, by oversimplifying things, we are making it harder for people to feel connected to the places in which things like famine happen.

The lesson: find yourself a geographer, work with them to tell the damn story in all its complex glory, and get out of the way.  The kids are waiting…

I am in the midst of (finally) reading James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed.  The book is a fascinating exercise in anarchist political geography – basically, examining how state power was limited by/shaped by various geographic factors in upland Southeast Asia.  As with many Scott books, it is a readably huge, sweeping view of a long timespan and a lot of diverse people, but thus far it hangs together well.

I was struck by a particular passage in chapter 3 that speaks rather directly to a lot of food security/agricultural development work being done in the world today, not least under Feed the Future.  The passage comes in a section where Scott is reviewing the historical efforts of various tenuous states to consolidate their control over the surrounding population, but contains an important message for those who are pushing the newest era of agricultural modernization (I call it part II, but there are compelling arguments for this being part III, or IV, depending on how you parse the history of development):

At about the same time as the Peloponnesian War, the early Chinese state was doing everything in its power to prevent the dispersal of population. Manuals of statecraft urged the king to prohibit subsistence activities in the mountains and wetlands “in order to increase the involvement of the people in the production of grain.” . . . The objective of this policy was, it seems, to starve the population into grain farming and subjecthood by separating them from the open commons.

There is no leap at all from this ancient Chinese case to what the inadvertent outcomes of much of our “efficiency-driven” food security and agricultural development work might do.  By compelling greater and greater market integration, and doing so through a focus on fewer and fewer crops, we are effectively closing the commons and prohibiting/constraining subsistence activities among the affected populations.  The result, in the best case, is improved agricultural outcomes and incomes that translate into improved well-being for all involved.  The worst case is a scenario where various marginal populations who have developed some expertise in managing the uncertainty of their particular contexts lose adaptive capacity, making them much more vulnerable to state violence and control.  Critically, these are not mutually exclusive scenarios – what works in one year or season to improve the quality of life for rural farmers might, in another year or season with different market and weather conditions, work to extend state control over marginal populations who already receive little for their status as citizens. I am sure that nobody who works on the donor side wants to be part of a campaign of state violence (at the worst) or part of a project that results in the further marginalization of poor, marginal populations (in the better to middle-case scenarios).  So, at least for Feed the Future, perhaps now would be a good time to call the Democracy, Human Rights and Governance folks (they’re just one floor up!) and have them take a look at this?

Not everyone wants a resilient population, folks.

The larger message here: incorporating people into agricultural markets is about much more than economic efficiency – there are much broader considerations, from state-level political economic issues to sub-household gender roles, that come into play when we radically rework existing agricultural systems and the livelihoods that go with them.  I seriously doubt we are doing enough to capture the wide suite of challenges that comes along with market engagement to ensure that our agricultural development programs are not enhancing vulnerability and stripping resilience from some of the most marginal people we are working with.  Output per hectare is not the only relevant metric. It’s probably not even the most relevant metric, given the fact we are not suffering from a production crisis at the global scale (despite what you hear from various outlets).

Incidentally, if you are at all interested in rural development, you should buy every book James Scott has ever written and get to reading.  Now.  Links below.

Weapons of the Weak is a classic – shame on you if you do rural development/community-based development and are not familiar with it. Or, shame on the people who taught you…

The Moral Economy of the Peasant is Scott’s most underrated text.

Domination and the Arts of Resistance is Scott’s first “meta” text – huge topic, giant sweep, really interesting.

Seeing Like A State shows up on everyone’s must read list…pretty much because you should read it.