Africa


So, given the twitter/blog/social media/whatever response to my post expressing shock at my students’ lack of awareness of the Horn of Africa drought, I did a little follow-up with them today.  This was the first day of real lecture content in the class, and as it happens one of the first examples I hit on (while trying to demonstrate the concept of interdependence – how every part of the world is inextricably linked to other parts of the world, for better or for worse) was the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011 (and the imminent spike coming this fall as a result of the drought that has devastated the US maize crop).  Since we were on food insecurity, I pivoted a bit and decided to just talk to them directly.  A summary, for those of you interested in how the hell a bunch of college students/college-bound high school students could have missed a crisis of this size:

1)   The crisis was horribly branded: I think talking about the Horn of Africa confused the few people who did know something had happened.  When I started casting about (around this time last year, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, starving African babies…) a few students did remember seeing something on the news.  As one student put it, he saw it on a major network, but the anchor wasn’t reporting.  I suspect more of the students were briefly aware of the crisis at the time, but it has since been lost to time because of the sheer volume of calls for help/mentions of crisis to which they are exposed (see point #2).

2)   In general, the students disliked most current “disaster messaging.”  Yes, it grabs their attention…and then it overwhelms them.  First, there are a lot of bad things that happen, and therefore a lot of news stories/PSAs/etc. coming down the line all the time.  They become hard to differentiate, such that students just tune out the PSAs entirely.  Second, the messaging largely seems to be a competition to horrify people even more…but the explanations for the problem are simplistic or, worse, nonexistent.  The students don’t understand why the crisis is happening, and they are turned off by “solutions” that amount to “send me $5 and I will fix it.”  These are young, idealistic, energetic people – this particular constituency has a greater interest in acting directly than many others.  To summarize: screaming “IT’S A DISASTER!!! SEND ME MONEY TO FIX IT!!!” is rarely going to generate deep interest and engagement (and we need both, for a lot of reasons – see below).  Most messaging around the Horn was of this genre, and as a result it quickly receded into the daily noise of news feeds and celebrity weddings.

3)   Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame.  In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis.  Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off.  Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged.  Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work.  So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase.  If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc.  In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms.  After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand.  Why?

  • Crowdsourcing: folks, there is a big world outside the aid and development community, and some of those people actually have interesting ideas.  Maybe those ideas can only address part of one of the many causes of the crisis (i.e. adjusting a market’s function for one commodity in one part of the world), but with a lot of people acting in this manner, it becomes possible to identify a wide range of potential options to address a given crisis/prevent its recurrence.
  • Politics: not one person in my classroom, or really any person anywhere who has a clean bill of mental health, wants to see 100,000 people die for any reason.  I believe that the vast majority of them would support spending tax dollars to prevent this from happening.  But when we fail to explain what needs to be done, in all its complexity, we are turning off a key constituency that can be mobilized and can make its voice heard – they have something that all politicians want. Votes. I can’t guarantee that my students would use those votes to shape policy, but they can’t do this until someone gives them a reasonable, actionable explanation for the events in the world that we would all like to address.

4)   Message management is anathema to social media: let me state the obvious – in the social media era, controlling the message is only possible if the message is so insipid that nobody cares about it at all.  A lot of the Horn messaging was about controlling the message, which is the equivalent of lecturing people via social media.  Ugh.  One student who wrote to me after class argued, more or less, that our role should be a catalyst for social media – we light the fire, but count on the fire to catch and build in its own way once it is started.  Social media that tries to message top-down, instead of evolving with a viral situation, will fail…it will be ignored.  I just realized what I am going to assign my students to do in my absence next week – I am going to make them follow a few official twitter feeds and critique them…oh, the horror!  This will be fun…

5)   Explain why the crisis at hand is important to their self-interest.  Yes, this sounds crass, but self-interest is a broad thing that can be mobilized with decent messages.  To pull an example from my own work, I can sell using development dollars on forest conservation because it has an important impact on the functioning of ecosystems that limit the pace of climate change – climate change that is raising sea levels along the South Carolina coast and producing drought across the state, and eventually will negatively impact the tourism industry in South Carolina (one of the few sectors here that is going well).  The students got that right away.  But nobody really did this for the Horn.  Which is pathetic. Hell, I did an off-the-cuff 2 minute explanation of why they care about the failed state in Somalia in terms of piracy in class today, by referencing the various ways in which piracy is raising shipping costs and therefore commodity prices…which hits their pocketbooks, impacts job growth, etc.  From there, it is easy to get into a reasoned conversation about the relative cost of the development and aid work that could change things in Somalia and end piracy as a viable livelihood versus doing nothing and bearing the cost of piracy.  It is all about entry points and catalysts, folks.

There were several other points that the students made – the one that sticks with me now is one student’s observation there is real experiential distance between their lives and what is happening in a famine that limits their engagement.  While we cannot bring students to a food crisis, we need to start thinking about how to create this experiential engagement.  For me, this happened when I became a parent…I will never again be able to objectively stomach an infant mortality statistic, because I flash to one or more of my children lying dead on the ground and I start to get the shakes.  I’m not sure what would do that for an 18-22 year old, but that sort of visceral connection spurs action.

To summarize: I think I was right in my initial post.  My students’ failure to recall the Horn of Africa crisis was not really their fault.  The messaging went awry in all sorts of ways because it assumed a lot about the audience (they had no interest in the issue, and only wanted simple stories with simple solutions) that was simply wrong.  Not everyone is going to care about every crisis – everyone has limited bandwidth – and so bad messaging just fell back into the everyday noise of social and old media, another data point among many, but nothing new or engaging.  Good messaging won’t make everyone care about every crisis, but it could engage enough of the right people each time to get us different outcomes, and fewer crises in the future.  That alone should make the effort worthwhile – so I guess I am disagreeing with J over at AidSource. Or the hopelessly realistic optimist in me is just winning out again…

So, I’m finally back in academia, with some time to start writing again…and able to do so without worrying about who I might annoy.  Ah, the joys of tenure.  Actually, I shouldn’t make that sound so glib – the fact is, this is what tenure is for: it allows people like me to argue about important ideas and take politically challenging positions without having to worry about our incomes.

Quickly, then, I would like to make a point about a Nick Kristof column that appeared back in early July (but I had to shut up about at the time).  In it, he talks about some USAID-funded food security programs that work “with local farmers to promote new crops and methods so that farmers don’t have to worry about starving in the first place.”  Nothing wrong with that – this just makes good sense, really, given the dramatic economic and environmental changes that so many folks must address in their everyday lives and livelihoods.  But then Kristof describes the program via an anecdote:

Jonas Kabudula is a local farmer whose corn crop completely failed, and he said that normally he and his family would now be starving. But, with the help of a U.S.A.I.D. program, he and other farmers also planted chilies, a nontraditional crop that doesn’t need much rain.

“Other crops wither, and the chilies survive,” Kabudula told me. What’s more, each bag of chilies is worth about five bags of corn, so he and other villagers have been able to sell the chilies and buy all the food they need.

“If it weren’t for the chilies,” said another farmer, Staford Phereni, “we would have no food.”

Er, this is not resilience.  Sure, it is a different crop, with different biophysical needs than maize…but they still have to sell it to get the money to eat.  Chilies are, in the end, seasoning – in economic terms, there is a lot of price elasticity in there, as people can just choose not to season their food if they run out of money.  So, when all hell breaks loose in a country, such as when a drought compromises the principal food crop, a large percentage of the people who would buy chilies (other farmers) cannot do so, depressing the price and lowering the relative value of the chilies versus needed food items (the prices of which are likely rising as demand for alternatives to maize kick in) – in short, your cash crop buys you less food than it did under good conditions.  You end up just as screwed as everyone else, albeit a few weeks later.  Further, this all presumes that markets are functioning at anything like regular levels, which is a bad bet when things really get stressed.  Basically, this program gets resilience wrong because it fails to capture all of the things that people are vulnerable to: it isn’t just the climate, it is also the market.  Yes, you’ve addressed at least some of the climate vulnerability…by pushing people onto a precarious market likely to be upset by the very climate conditions you are trying to address in the first place.  Oops.  More income is not necessarily more resilience if that income can be destabilized by the very thing it was meant to help address.

Given all of this, it seems to me that Kristof has missed the really important issue here: if this actually worked for this farmer, we need to know why it worked given all that could go wrong, and build on that.  However, he doesn’t dive into that, at least in part because I think he sees the project success in this case as an expected outcome, the sort of thing that “should happen” because more income means more resilience and therefore less vulnerability to climate change and food insecurity.  And that has everything to do with how we in development talk and think about vulnerability and resilience.  While Kristof does not use these terms, they are implicit in his thinking about how this program helped this farmer – the farmer had other options that allowed him to address a climate-related challenge by increasing his income (or at least holding the line in bad situations), making him more resilient/less vulnerable than his neighbors in the face of this challenge.  However, this example in this column is an argument for why we should be worried about the ways in which development has started slinging these terms around of late.  It is unclear to me how this program can really address vulnerability or build resilience because it seems that it does not really address some significant factors shaping local vulnerability, nor has it really identified why those who display resilience in the face of a climate/food security challenge really are having better outcomes.

Granted, I am griping about one part of the program (the others actually sound quite interesting and reasonable), but this part just trips my vulnerability/resilience switch…

It comes down to this bit of bad news: until we come to grips with how we understand and define vulnerability and resilience, and do a better job of grounding these concepts in place, we will continue to design programs and projects that just trade one risk/vulnerability for another.  That’s no way to get our job done.

OK folks, yesterday I pointed to my friend Keith Bratton’s kickstarter effort to fund a photodocumentary study of the impacts of climate change on life in Ghana’s Central Region.  Please go to the page and check it out – Keith is a great photographer, and will produce really stunning stuff (some of which you can have, for a very low pledge!).  He’s crawling toward what he needs for the project, so all donations are important.

But to up the ante, I want to point out another “reward” option that Keith is now putting up.  The case he wants to document is a fantastic example of the complex challenge that climate change presents to the achievement of development goals – it raises issues of cross-sectoral work, the connections between people and the natural world, and how climate change creates unexpected challenges that, if unaddressed, can compromise the things you are focusing on.  It is, in short, a perfect case from which we can learn about why we must integrate climate sensitivity into development work, and the ways in which such sensitivity makes us “think differently” about development.

To whet your appetite, an example from my own work in Ghana that I talk about in my public speaking on the book: in 2005, I suddenly noticed that there were flocks of toucans flying around the villages in which I had been working from some 8 years.  I had never seen toucans before, and their sudden presence puzzled me.  It took me a while to piece together what was going on – you see, the Gulf of Guinea large marine ecosystem has been collapsing due to an intersection of overfishing (itself driven by a combination of local overfishing to feed a growing population, and the presence of large international trawlers overfishing the territorial waters of Ghana and other countries, largely with impunity) and climate change (which has changed the upwellings of cold water in July-September and December such that there are fewer fish riding those upwellings into the local fisheries).  With less fish to eat, communities in the coastal hinterland had started hunting aggressively, wiping out most terrestrial animals in the process – along with them, rodents…who must have eaten toucan eggs.  Hence the explosion of toucans, who are likely wiping out some other species they like to eat, etc., etc..  The toucan is just a manifestation of a complex ecological change taking place along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea that is poorly understood, but presenting real challenges for people’s food security and incomes.  Achieving development goals in this region, then, requires understanding climate change and its impacts, as well as the complex and seemingly-distant outcomes of these impacts.

That is a remarkably simplified version of what I see happening in Ghana – and it can be told more eloquently, and with more grounding in the human experience of these changes, in the work Keith proposes.  So, beyond seeing him work toward publishing this important story, I have suggested to him that he offer, at the $1000 pledge level, to put together a training module for your organization, using his pictures and findings, to help train your people up on the importance of climate change to development, and on how to think about climate change in the context of development.  Further, because I believe in Keith’s project but lack the wherewithal to back it out of my own pocket, I have offered to work with Keith to build this module should anyone order it.  So, in return for supporting Keith’s work, you get his photos and experiences, as well as my expertise – 14 years in university classrooms, over two years of living in villages in sub-Saharan Africa, lots of refereed publications addressing the climate change/development connection, and work on the donor side examining the climate change/development connection – all wrapped up in a training module that you can plug in to your own training program.

For those of you outside the development implementation world, this might seem like an insanely high price – but everyone in that world knows that this is a steal.  Were I a training consultant, I would be charging an order of magnitude more for such a service, at least.  And my illustrations would not be as nice as what you will get from Keith.  Again, Keith will produce the module, and I will help him do it – but I will not be paid to do this.  I have no financial stake in this project at all.  This is my in-kind backing of what I think is a significant project.  So if your organization needs the training, here is a great opportunity.

 

I will be speaking about my book and research at the University of Florida on Friday as part of the Glen R. Anderson Visiting Lectureship.  Poster here:

Hope to see folks there!

I’ll be running my mouth about the book again at Chatham University on December 2nd.  Chatham has some very cool stuff going in sustainability and the environment (a new school!), including a new Eden Hall Campus in Richland Township, PA.  My talk will actually be out on that campus, and not in the Shadyside campus . . . directions are here.

The flyer (they’ve done a nice job on it):

Hope to see some of you there . . .

Chris Albon copied me on a retweet today from World Concern that said:

A beautiful sight: things growing in #Somalia. This is what’s possible in the #HornofAfricatwitpic.com/7c8y24

For those not inclined to click the link, it went to this picture:

I have mixed feelings about this tweet and this picture.  On one hand, it expresses what I am sure is genuine relief from an organization that is concerned with the well-being of people living in the Horn of Africa.  On the other hand, the phrase “this is what is possible” suggests that this does not usually happen . . . except, of course, now we are in the Dayr, the October to December rainy season.  Though the Dayr is the shortest rainy season in this part of the world, wet fields and new growth do in fact usually happen right about now.  Further, the phrase “things growing in Somalia” suggests that nothing was growing before.  This was not the case – things have been growing, even in famine-struck parts of southern Somalia.  Not enough has been growing in some places, and this shortage has been compounded by all sorts of political challenges that have created a widespread problem.  Finally, there is a bit of tone to this – as if we are out of the woods in the Horn.  Well, maybe – but it will be months until a real harvest comes in, and much longer than that before accountable governance and functioning markets return, so we have a ways to go.  And given that this famine was not caused by drought (the drought exacerbated other underlying factors), the fact that we are having trouble addressing those underlying factors means the next drought (and there will be another one relatively soon) may create a very similar set of circumstances and challenges.

In summary, I believe in hope.  That is why I call myself an optimist.  But at the same time, we have to be careful about conflating hope with triumph . . . which is why I call myself a hopelessly realistic optimist.

 

 

 

So, it seems I have been challenged/called out/what-have-you by the folks at Imagine There Is No . . . over what I would do (as opposed to critique) about development.  At least I think that is what is going on, given that I received this tweet from them:

@edwardrcarr what would You do with 1 Billion $ for #developmentbit.ly/rQrUOd #The.1.Bill.$.Question

In general, I think this is a fair question.  Critique is nice, but at the end of the day I strive to build something from my critiques.  As I tell my grad students, I can train a monkey to take something apart – there isn’t much talent to that.  On the other hand, rebuilding something from whatever you just dismantled actually requires talent.  I admit to being a bit concerned about calling what I build “better”, mostly because such judgments gloss over the fact that any development intervention produces winners and losers, and therefore even a “better” intervention will probably not be better for someone.  I prefer to think about doing things differently, with an eye toward resolving some of the issues that I critique.

So, I will endeavor to answer – but first I must point out that asking someone what s/he would do for development with $1 billion is a very naive question.  I appreciate its spirit, but there isn’t much point to laying down a challenge that has little alignment with how the world works.  I think this is worth pointing out in light of the post on Imagine There Is No . . ., as they seem to be tweaking Bill Easterly for not having a good answer to their question.  However, for anyone who has ever worked for a development agency, the question “on what would you spend a billion dollars” comes off as a gotcha question because it is sort of nonsensical.  While the question might be phrased to make us think about an ideal world, those of us engaged in the doing of development who take its critique and rethinking seriously immediately start thinking about the sorts of things that would have to happen to make spending $1 billion possible and practical.  Those problems are legion . . . and pretty much any answer you give to the question is open to a lot of critique, either from a practical standpoint (great idea that is totally impractical) or from the critique side (and idea that is just replicating existing problems).  When caught in a no-win situation, the best option is not to answer at all.  Sure, we should imagine a perfect world (after all, according to A World Of Difference, I am “something of a radical thinker”), but we do not work in that world – and people live in the Global South right now, so anything we do necessarily must engage with the imperfections of the now even as we try to transcend them.

Given all of this, I offer the following important caveats to my answer:

1) I am presuming that I will receive this money as individual and not as part of any existing organization, as organizations have structures, mandates and histories that greatly shape what they can do.

2) I am presuming that I have my own organization, and that it already has sufficient staff to program $1 billion dollars – so a lot of contracting officers and lawyers are in place.  Spending money is a lot harder than you’d think.

3) I am presuming that I answer only to myself and the folks in the Global South.  Monitoring and evaluation are some of the biggest constraints on how we do development today.  As I said in my talk at SAIS a little while ago, it is all well and good to argue that development merely catalyzes change in complex systems, which makes its outcomes inherently unpredictable.  It is entirely another to program against that understanding – if the possible outcomes of a given intervention are hard to predict, how do you know which indicators to choose?  How can you build an evaluation system that allows you to capture unintended positive and negative outcomes as the project matures without looking like you are fudging the numbers?  This sounds like constrained thinking, but it is reality for anyone working in a big donor agency, and for all of the folks who implement the work of those agencies.

4) I am presuming there are enough qualified staff out there willing to quit what they are doing and come work for this project . . . and I am going to need a hell of a lot of staff.

5) I am presuming that I am expected to accomplish something in the relatively short term – i.e. 3-5 years, as well as trigger transformative changes in the Global South over the long haul.  If you don’t produce some results relatively soon, people will bail out on you.

All of these, except for 5), are giant caveats that basically divorce the question and its answer from reality.  I just need to point that out.  Because of these caveats, my answer here cannot be interpreted as a critique of my current employer, or indeed any other development organization – an answer that would also serve as a critique of those institutions would have to engage with their realities, blowing out a lot of my caveats above . . . sorry, but that’s reality, and it is really important to acknowledge the limits of any answer to such a loaded question.

So, here goes.  If I had $1 billion, I would spend it 1) figuring out what people really do to manage the challenges they face day-to-day, 2) identifying which of these activities are most effective at addressing those challenges and why, 3) evaluating whether any of these activities can be brought to scale or introduced to new places, and 4) bringing these ideas to scale.

Basically, I would spend $1 billion dollars on the argument “the new big idea is no more big ideas.”

Why would I do this, and do it this way?  Well, I believe that in a general way those of us working in development have very poor information about what is actually happening in the Global South, in the places where the challenges to human well-being are most acute.  We have a lot of assumptions about what is happening and why, but these are very often wrong.  I wrote a whole book making this point – rather convincingly, if some of the reviews are to be believed.  Because we don’t know what is happening, and our assumptions are wide of the mark, a lot of the interventions we design and implement are irrelevant (at best) or inappropriate (at worst) to the intended beneficiaries.  Basically, the claim (a la Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project) that there are proven development interventions is crap.  If we had known, proven interventions WE WOULD BE USING THEM.  To assume otherwise is to basically slander the bulk of people working on development as either insufficiently motivated (if we weren’t so damn lazy, and we really cared about poor people, we could fix all of the problems in the world with these proven interventions) or to argue that there simply needs to be more money spent on these interventions to fix everything (except in many cases there is little evidence that funding is the principal cause of project failure).  Of course, this is exactly what Sachs argues when asking for more support for the MVP, or when he is attacking anyone who dares critique the project.

The only way to really know what is happening is to get out there and talk to people.  When you do, what you find is that the folks we classify as the “global poor” are hardly helpless.  They are remarkably capable people who make livings under very difficult circumstances with very little resource and limited fallback options.  They know their environments, their economy, and their society far better than anyone from the outside ever will.  They are, in short, remarkable resources that should be treated as treasured repositories of human knowledge, not as a bunch of children who can’t work things out for themselves.  $1 billion would get us a lot of people in a lot of places doing a lot of learning . . . and this sort of thing can be programmed to run over 6 months to a year to run fieldwork, do some data analysis, and start producing tailored understandings of what works and why in different places . . . which then makes it relatively easy to start identifying opportunities for scale-up.  Actually, the scale-up could be done really easily, and could be very responsive to local needs, if we would just set up a means of letting communities speak to one another in a free and open manner – a network that let people in the Global South ask each other questions, and offer their answers and solutions, to one another.  Members of this project from the Global North, from the Universities and from development organizations, could work with communities to convey the lessons the project has gleaned from various activities in various places to help transfer ideas and technology in a manner that facilitates their productive introduction in new contexts.  So I suppose I would have to carve part of the $1 billion off for that network, but it would come in under the scale-up component of my project.  Eventually, I suspect this sort of network would also become a means of learning about what is happening in the Global South as well . . .

With any luck at all, by year 3 we would see the cross-fertilization of all kinds of locally-appropriate ideas and technology happening around the world and the establishment of a nascent network that could build on this momentum to yield even more information about what people are already doing, and what challenges they really face.  We would have started a process that has immediate impacts, but can work in tandem with the generational timescales of social change that are necessary to bring about major changes in any place.  We would have started a process that likely could not be stopped.  How it would play out is anyone’s guess . . . but it would sure look different than whatever we are doing now.

Yep, no sooner do I post on failure and how we account for it and learn from it, then I come upon a big fail of my own.  That I can learn from. Irony, anyone?

As many of you know, I have been working in Ghana since 1997.  I’ve spent some 20 months there, though it has been a while since I was last on the ground (I need to change that) – basically, the last meaningful research trip I took was in the summer of 2006.  That work, along with the fieldwork that came before it, was so rich that I am still working through what it all means – and it has led me down the path of a book about why development doesn’t work as we expect, and now a (much more academic) complete rethinking of the livelihoods framework that many in development use to assess how people make a living.

One of my big findings (at least according to some of my more senior colleagues) is that inequality and (depending on how you look at it) injustice are not accidental products of “bad information” or “false consciousness” in livelihoods strategies, but integral parts of how people make a living (article to this effect here, with related work here and here, as well as a long discussion in Delivering Development).  One constraint specific to the livelihoods in the villages in which I have been working is the need to balance the material needs of the household with the social requirement that men make more money than their wives.  I have rich empirical data demonstrating this to be true, and illustrating how it plays out in agricultural practice (which makes up about 65% of most household incomes).

In other words, I know damn well that men get very itchy about anything that allows women to become more productive, as this calls one of the two goals of existing livelihoods strategies into question.  Granted, I figured this out for the first time around 2007, and have only very recently (i.e. articles in review) been able to get at this systematically, but still, I knew this.

And I completely overlooked it when trying to implement the one village improvement project with which I have been involved.  Yep, I totally failed to apply my own lessons to myself.

What happened?  Well, to put it simply, I had some money available after the 2006 fieldwork for a village improvement project, which I wanted the residents of Dominase and Ponkrum to identify and, to the extent possible, design for themselves.  We had several community meetings that meandered (as they do) and generally seemed to reflect the dominant voices of men.  However, at the end of one of these meetings, one of my extraordinarily talented Ghanaian colleagues from the University of Cape Coast had the experience and the awareness to quietly wander off to a group of women and chat with them.  I noticed this but did not say anything.  A few minutes later, he strolled by, and as he did he said to me “we need to build a nursery.”  Kofi had managed to elicit the womens’ childcare needs, which were much more practical and actionable than any other plans we had heard.  At the next community meeting we raised this, and nobody objected – we just got into wrangling over details.  I left at the end of the field season, confident we could get this nursery built and staffed.

Five years later, nothing has happened.  They formed the earth blocks, but nobody cleared the agreed-upon area for the nursery.  It was never a question of money, and my colleagues at the University of Cape Coast checked in regularly.  Each time, they left with promises that something would get going, and nothing ever did.  I don’t fault the UCC team – the community needed to mobilize some labor so they would have buy-in for the project, and would take responsibility for the long-term maintenance of the structure. This is on the community – they just never built it.

And it wasn’t until yesterday, when talking about this with a colleague, that I suddenly realized why – childcare would lessen one demand on women that limits their agricultural productivity and incomes.  Thus, with a nursery in place women’s incomes would surely rise . . . and men have no interest in that, as this is not the sort of intervention that would drive a parallel increase in their own incomes.  I have very robust data that demonstrates that men move to control any increase in their wives incomes that might threaten the social order of the household, even if that decreases overall household income and access to food.

So why, oh why, did I ever think that men would allow this nursery to be built?  Of course they wouldn’t.

I can excuse myself between 2006-2008 for missing this, as I was still working through what was going on in these livelihoods.  But for the last three years I knew about this fundamental component of livelihoods, and how robust this aspect of livelihoods decision-making really is, even under conditions of change such as road construction.  I have been looking at how others misinterpret livelihoods and design/implement bad interventions for years, all the while doing that very thing myself.

Healer, heal thyself.



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!



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):

Weaknesses:

  • 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.

Strengths:

  • 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!

 

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