Archive for November, 2012

While behavioral economics continues to open old questions in development to new scrutiny, I am still having a lot of problems with the very unreflexive approach BE takes toward its own work (see earlier takes on this here and here).  Take, for example, Esther Duflo’s recent lectures discussing mistakes the poor make.  To discuss the mistakes the poor make, we must first understand what the goals of the poor are.  However, I simply don’t see the behavioral economists doing this.  There is still a lurking, underlying presumption that in making livelihoods decisions people are trying to maximize income and or the material quality of their lives.  This, however, is fundamentally incorrect.  In Delivering Development and a number of related publications (for example, here, here, and here) I have laid out how, in the context of livelihoods, material considerations are always bound up in social considerations.  If you only evaluate these actions as aimed at material goals, you’ve only got a part of the picture – and not the most important part, in most cases.  Instead, what you are left with are a bunch of decisions and outcomes that appear illogical, that can be cast as mistakes.  Only most of the time, they are not mistakes – they are conscious choices.

Let me offer an example from Delivering Development and some of my other work – the constraint of women’s farming by their husbands.  I have really compelling qualitative evidence from two villages in Ghana’s Central Region that demonstrates that men are constraining their wives’ farm production to the detriment of the overall household income.  The chart below shows a plot of the size of a given farm versus its market orientation for the households operating under what I call a “diversified” strategy – where the husband farms for market sale, and the wife for subsistence (a pretty common model in sub-Saharan Africa).  As you move up the Y axis, the farm gets more oriented toward market sale (1 on that scale is “eat everything”, 3 is sell and eat equally, and 5 is sell everything).  Unsurprisingly, since men’s role requires them to produce for market, the size of their farm has little impact on their orientation.  But look at the women’s farms – just a tenth of a hectare produces a marked shift in orientation from subsistence to market production…because women own that surplus beyond subsistence, and sell it.  They take the proceeds of these sales, buy small goods, and engage in petty trading, eventually multiplying that small surplus into significant gains in income, nearly equaling their husbands.  What is not to like?

Well, from the perspective of those in these villages, here is something: among the Akan, being a “good man” means being in control of the household and out-earning your wife.  If you don’t, your fitness as a man gets called into question, which can cost you access to land.  For wives, this is bad because they get their land through their husbands.  So as a result, being in a household where the woman out-earns her husband is not a viable livelihoods outcome (as far as members of these households are concerned).  Even if a man wanted to let his wife earn more money, he would do so at peril of his access to land. So he is not going to do that.  What he is going to do is shrink his wife’s farm the next season to ensure she does not out-earn him (and I have three years of data where this is exactly what happens to wives who earn too much).  There is a “mistake” here – some of these men underestimated their wives’ production, which is pretty easy to do under rain-fed agriculture in a changing climate.  That they are this accurate with regard to land allocation is rather remarkable, really.  But the decision to constrain women’s production is not a mistake, per se: it is a choice.

We can agree or disagree with the premises of these choices, and their outcomes, but labeling them as mistakes creates a false sense of simplicity in addressing problematic outcomes – because people only require “correction” to get to the outcomes we all want and need.  This, in turn, rests on/reproduces a sense of superiority on the part of the researcher – because s/he knows what is best (see a previous post on this point here).  That attitude, applied to the case above, would not result in a productive project design aimed at addressing income or other challenges in these villages.

Yes, people do things against material interest…but there is always a logic behind a decision, and that logic is often deeply entrenched.  We would be better off talking about decisions poor people make (for better or worse), and dedicating our time to understanding why they make these decisions before we start deciding who is mistaken, and what to do about it.

I’ve just burned 15,000 words in Third World Quarterly laying out my argument for how to think about livelihoods as more than material outcomes – and how to make that vision implementable, at least via fieldwork that runs in length from days to months.  I am happy to send a copy of the preprint to anyone who is interested –and I will post a version to my website shortly.

While all the current screaming in Washington is about the fiscal cliff, an aspect of USAID’s aid efforts has already slipped off its own precipice, and is hanging by the roots of a dried-out shrub.  The farm bill is stalled – some analysts don’t expect any movement until April 2013.  Given all of the fiscal challenges the country faces, this might sound reasonable – but within the aid and development world, the deferral of the farm bill is setting up a trainwreck.  The Office of Food for Peace’s (FFP) Title II programs are authorized by the farm bill.  In the absence of a new bill, a number of FFP’s authorities expired at the end of the fiscal year (September 30th).  The rest of Title II’s new awards, which are authorized by the farm bill, will expire at the end of the calendar year.

What is Title II?  According to the Foreign Agricultural Service of the USDA:

Title II provides for the donation of U.S. agricultural commodities by the U.S. government to meet humanitarian food needs in foreign countries. Commodities may be provided to meet emergency needs under government-to-government agreements, through public and private agencies, including intergovernmental organizations such as the World Food Program, and other multilateral organizations. Non-emergency assistance may be provided through private voluntary organizations, cooperatives, and intergovernmental organizations. Commodities requested may be furnished from the Commodity Credit Corporation’s (CCC’s) inventory acquired under price support programs or purchased from private stocks. The CCC also finances the costs of ocean transportation to ports of entry, or to points of entry other than ports in the case of landlocked countries, or when the use of a point of entry other than port would result in substantial savings in costs or time. The CCC may also pay transportation costs from designated ports of entry or points of entry abroad to storage and distribution sites, and associated storage and distribution costs for commodities, including pre-positioned commodities, made available to meet urgent or extraordinary relief requirements.

Who cares?  Title II funds authorize a huge chunk of the FFP program each year.  There are some limited community development funds, and similarly limited emergency food security funds.  In fiscal year 2009, this was a $2.6 billion program.  Billion, with a B.  For FY 2012, the appropriated amount was $1.466 billion, down significantly but still a huge share of the global food aid budget.  Note that this is the aid that the United States moves through various NGOs and intergovernmental organizations like WFP, so if Title II grinds to a halt, these organizations and their work will be severely compromised.

We might get away with this without a total disaster.  For example, FEWS-NET shows a lot of stress in the horn of Africa right now, but projects improving situations over the next few months.  But if Title II grinds to a halt, and any major food crisis hits (which could include food price spikes), FFP will little capacity to do anything about it.

Congress cannot agree on much these days, but I suspect there are few in that august body that think it is OK to leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to their fates because they can’t get their legislative act together.  Let’s hope they figure this out.  Soon.

Update: 11/22: So, after seeing Tom Murphy’s Storify of the twitter exchange, it is now clear that Sachs was on fire – the man was engaged in several conversations at once along the lines below…and he seems to have been responding to all of them pretty coherently, and in real time. I admit to being impressed (No, seriously, click on the Storify link there and just scroll. It is boggling). So recognize that what you see below is what I saw in my feed (his other conversations were with people I don’t follow, so I didn’t realize they were ongoing). Still, glad to get geography’s foot back in the door…

So, quite by surprise, I found myself on the end of an extended twitter exchange with Jeff Sachs.  I’ve hassled him via twitter before, and never had a response. So, I was a bit taken aback to see my feed light up about 30 seconds after I tweeted with @JeffDSachs at the front end! To give Sachs credit, he stayed quite engaged and did seem to be taking on some of my points. Granted, 140 characters is hardly enough to really convey the issues at hand, but I did the best I could to represent contemporary human geography. Y’all be the judge – this is the feed, slightly rejiggered to clarify that at times Sachs and I were crossing each other’s messages – he was clearly responding to a previous message sometimes when he tweeted back after one of my tweets. Also, Samuel Danthine was also on the conversation, and I kept him in the timeline as it seems he and I were coming from the same place:

I’ve long hated the term “poverty traps,” development shorthand for conditions in which poverty becomes self-reinforcing and therefore inescapable without some sort of external intervention.  They made no analytic sense (nobody ever defined poverty clearly across this literature, for example), and generally the idea of the poverty trap was hitched to a revival of “big push” development efforts that had failed in the 1950s and 1960s.  Further, it was always clear to me that the very idea of a poverty trap cast those living in difficult circumstances as helpless without the intervention of benevolent outsiders.  This did not align at all with my experiences on the ground in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as structural inequality in the world – the running head start enjoyed by the Global North in terms of economic development has created significant barriers to the economic development of those residing in the Global South.  These barriers, perhaps most critically the absurd and damaging regime of subsidies that massively distorts global agricultural markets, must be addressed, and soon.  Such barriers generally result in perverse outcomes that impact even those in the Global North (anyone who thinks the American food system makes any sense at all really needs to read more.  Start with Fast Food Nation, move to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and work out from there. And don’t get me going on the potential climate impacts of structural inequality).

But this enduring focus on structural problems in the global economy has had the effect of reducing those in the Global South to a bunch of helpless children in need of salvation by the best and most noble of those in the Global North, who were to bring justice, opportunity, and a better future to all.  If this isn’t the 21st Century version of the White Man’s Burden, then I don’t know what is.  Bill Easterly makes a very similar point very eloquently, and at much greater length, here.

I am a social scientist*, and I believe that the weight of evidence eventually wins arguments.  And today it occurred to me that in this case, this long line of arguing that those who insisted on talking about poverty traps were a) generally misrepresenting the world and b) inappropriately infantilizing those living in the Global South now has that weight of evidence behind it.  Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion basically blows up the idea of the poverty trap – he demonstrates that since the 1990s, a lot of people that were thought to be living in poverty traps have improved their incomes such that many have moved out of poverty (at least if one defines poverty on the basis of income).  People who were thought to be trapped by structural inequality have been defying expectations and improving their circumstances without clear correlations to aid or development efforts, let alone the “big push” arguments of Sachs and others.  In short, it looks like we don’t really understand what people are doing at the margins of the Global South, and that the global poor are a lot more capable than development seems to think.  Poor people attached to the anchor of structural inequality are dragging it to improved incomes and well-being in thousands of small, innovative ways that are adding up to a massive aggregate change in the geography and structure of global poverty.

In short, the Global South never needed the most enlightened of the Global North to clear the path and push them up the ladder of development (if you want to get all Rostow about it).  Instead, what is clearly needed is a new, substantial effort to better understand what is happening out on Globalization’s Shoreline, and to work with the global poor to examine these efforts, identify innovative, locally-appropriate, and locally-owned means of transforming their quality of life, and find means of bringing those ideas to (appropriate) scale.  Anything else is just hubris at best, and subtle class/race bigotry at worst.

The data is speaking. Anyone ready to listen?





*Well, I am a qualitative social scientist which means my work is more generative and humanities/arts flavored than is typical in the sciences, which generally value the reporting of observations in the framework of already-established biophysical processes.

In order to vote on Tuesday, I stood in line for nearly 2 1/2 hours, mostly because the folks in charge of elections in Richland County, South Carolina cannot seem to figure out 1) how to allocate machines to precincts appropriately/according to the law and 2) how to fix the machines when they (inevitably) fail.  If Cheryl Goodwin, Richland County’s Election Systems Coordinator, is correct, there were the same number of voting machines at work Tuesday as there were in 2008.  Yet somehow my precinct went from five machines in 2008 to three in 2012.  There were, according to news accounts, 18 technicians in the field working on Tuesday.  Yet they could not address the breakdown of machines across the county, nor the breakdown of machines in my precinct.  Precinct workers told me they called for help around 8am as one of the machines broke down.  By the time I left, around 11:15, no technicians had shown up.  The debacle actually continues…it seems they still cannot get all of the absentee ballots counted, and several local/state races and ballot initiatives are still in play.

As I tweeted yesterday, there are two kinds of problems: there are the unforeseeable/very low probability problems. If a meteor hits a polling station, I’m willing to give people a pass on that one.  Then there are the problems related to being poorly prepared or just unprepared.  You know, like the problems caused by misallocating voting machines and then failing to respond to calls for help from precinct workers for over 3 hours.  THESE ARE NOT THE SAME. The first type of problem is understandable and excusable.  The second demands that someone be held to account.  Not that anyone is going to stand up and take the blame here, though…

OK, so Richland County was a debacle.  But it’s not like people were still voting at 11pm.  Oh, wait…

But the thing that infuriates me the most is the way in which so many in the media excused this debacle – several times I heard folks on TV say things like “person X had their voting card torn up in the 50s, so standing in line for a while is really a small sacrifice.”  This is complete garbage.  All of those people who sacrificed to ensure that women/minorities/non-white-male-property-owners could vote did not struggle just so that those who came later could be subjected to voting conditions that would be embarrassing in many precincts in GHANA.  The whole point of that struggle was to enable those who followed them to vote easily and freely.  The simple fact is that a five hour line…or a three hour line…or a two hour line can effectively disenfranchise someone who cannot afford to take half a day or more off from work, or who does not have childcare at home that enables them to stand in line until after 11pm to vote.

So media, let’s be clear: nobody suffered or struggled in the past so that you could give Richland County Election Commission a pass on this shambles of an election.  The ghosts of those people are shaking their fists in rage at your invocation of them to excuse the effective disenfranchisement of many in the electorate.  Someone had best be held to account for this debacle.  The cause of the problems has to be explained and resolved. Only then will we be honoring those whose struggles brought us the diverse electorate we have today.

It is a sad commentary on the state of the media when student newspapers become a critical source of investigative reporting on the finances of the university, but that said, thank you Daily Gamecock!  It is about time someone put a spotlight on the administration-heavy structure of the university (I have colleagues from other institutions who are stunned by our administrative structure, especially the sheer number of associate deans) and the shocking pay of administrators.  The story is here.  The administration’s defense of these salaries is weak, at best…mostly because a lot of these pay packages aren’t really defensible given faculty and staff pay rates.  Find me a VP of anything that is worth three times what I am to the university…yeah, show me how you can quantify that.

But one word of caution to the Daily Gamecock.  Not all “bonuses” are created equal…or are actually bonuses.  The research supplements you all reported on are not what you think they are.  First, most faculty at the university are on nine-month contracts.  Yep, we get paid only 9 months a year.  When we get a grant or contract, we can pay ourselves salary for the summer (at the same rate as our monthly pay during the contract period).  Further, with special approval, we can do contract work during the year and be paid up to 30% on top of our base pay.  These are not bonuses, these are salaries that we earn through our work.  The money does not come from the state or the university (via tuition), it comes from the organization providing the grant or contract.  Further, you probably don’t want less of these, as the university charges overhead on those salaries.  45%, to be exact.  So if I get summer salary worth $20,000, the university is making $9,000 from that salary.  In short, you want more research “bonuses”, because they raise faculty salaries without costing the state (or students, in terms of tuition) anything, and they bring revenue to the university.

So please do keep reporting on the administrative structure and pay rates at the University. It is an important story that needs more attention.  But do be careful how you characterize pay and bonuses – a bunch of the stuff you were decrying doesn’t cost students or taxpayers a cent – it is the outcome of hard work on the part of the faculty, and it adds to the University’s coffers.