sustainable development


If you’ve been following my SDG posts (here and here), you are probably at the point of asking what exactly we should be doing about them. Fair enough. I’ve burned two blog posts and about 2000 words on the problems I see with the new SDGs. As I tell my students, it doesn’t take a lot of talent to dismantle something. You have to tear it down and put something new in its place. So, in this spirit, my suggestions for how to get out of the ditch that the SDGs appear to currently occupy are threefold:

  1. Engage the donors now, not later. Start this process by narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals, and ensuring that the goals are actually achievable
  2. Engage the climate negotiations. The flows of money under the likely climate agreement are huge, and will impact all development goals, therefore impacting the achievement of the SDGs. Further, donors are already engaged on the climate negotiations, so linking the SDGs to those negotiations will likely increase donor interest in the SDG process.
  3. Engage the implementers. If you want to productively reduce the number of indicators, targets, and goals, talk to the people who will have to take the money and achieve those goals. By working with implementers, the SDG process could reduce all of these indicators, targets, and goals (thus driving donors to the table) while ensuring that whatever emerges from the process is actually achievable

1. Engage the donors:

A few caveats from my Wilton Park experience:

1) I know that if we are going to get “beyond aid” and start thinking about innovative partnerships for development, we are going to have to get past the donor-recipient binary. However, refusing to call a spade a spade doesn’t make change happen. The fact is that USAID, DfID, GIZ, JICA, and all the other bilateral organizations are, more or less, donors. So is the World Bank. So we can call them “development partners” all we want, but they will still behave like donors (making plans, issuing edicts, programming on institutional/national interests instead of beneficiary interests, etc.) – behavior change takes a long time. Remember, many bilateral donors already call themselves “Cooperation” organizations (e.g. Spanish Cooperation, Swiss Cooperation)…but they still behave like donors.

2) The flows of development aid are, in many places, already dwarfed by flows of foreign direct investment and other flows of money. In some contexts, remittances may well be as important as formal aid. So we shouldn’t over-privilege donors or their aid funds in this conversation. Indeed, it is the declining power of aid dollars that has spurred the “beyond aid” conversation in the post-2015 agenda.

All that said, much of the politics of development still flow through development donors/partners, and this is not going to change before the SDGs are formalized. I’ve heard a bit of grumbling about traditional donor organizations’ lack of serious engagement with the SDG process. I have little time for this, as nobody should find this lack of engagement surprising. As I said in my first post, a set of goals that allows everyone to evade responsibility, and enables practically everything currently implemented under the heading “development”, is not going to get a response from the donors. If the process won’t have any effect on what they do, why should they care?

Some might see this lack of engagement as a good thing, an opportunity to craft a development agenda outside the agendas of the donors. I disagree with this strongly. The donors will eventually engage, especially if the SDGs move toward formal commitments. Such commitments might create responsibilities and constraints on actions and agendas – at which point, the donors will engage to shape the agenda to their interests. Because the SDG process has churned along without the donors to this point, the current indicators, targets, and goals are likely not well-aligned with donor interests. Without suggesting that donor interests are necessarily good, remember that the politics of development and aid still flow through these organizations, and when they engage they will have one of two effects: they will either heavily reshape the SDGs to their interests, or they will marginalize the entire process to the point of irrelevance. In either case, those running the SDG process will find themselves in a reactive position, and will lose control of the process. If the SDGs are to be more than what donors already want and do, the process must engage the donors now.

How do we engage the donors? One way is to reduce the absurd number of indicators, targets, and goals. Once you start taking away the ability to justify everything, donors are going to have to start looking at these goals and their own portfolios. Where there are mismatches, the donors are likely to engage. Another way is to carefully review the targets and goals and ensure that all could be achieved in the next 15 years with reasonable ambition. This will create a situation where accountability for their achievement becomes important, which likely drives the donors to the table. Getting the donors to the table now means there will be time to negotiate with them to develop a set of workable SDGs. Waiting until the last minute will either subvert what has, to this point, been a very open process as the SDGs are heavily reworked or even shunted into irrelevance at the 11th hour in negotiations.

2. Engage the UNFCCC negotiation process

While the development community has two big processes coming to the fore this year (the Third Conference on Financing for Development and the SDGs), there is a third, and arguably far more important, process coming to a head: the climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. By the Paris Conference of the Parties in December, I fully expect that there will be a deal on the table that discusses transfers of funds from rich to poor countries that will broadly 1) enable adaptation to ongoing climate change impacts and 2) facilitate the development of these countries through low-greenhouse emission pathways. The amounts of money on the table are likely to rival, if not displace, formal development aid, and they will be used to address issues that development aid traditionally covered. Yet the SDGs do not meaningfully engage with the likely outcomes of this process. Yes, proposed SDG 13 demands we “Tackle climate change and its impacts” and that goal recognizes the size of financial flows likely to emerge from the upcoming climate deal ($100 billion per year at a minimum, which would rival all of formal development aid). But simply acknowledging that there will be a climate deal with a lot of money attached doesn’t align the SDGs with that money. These flows of money will likely impact every SDG – indeed, we should expect them to. A climate deal that moves funds to the poorer countries is two things: an acknowledgement that climate change impacts will likely inhibit their efforts to improve the quality of life of their citizens and residents, and a recognition that the climate change impacts of their development could become problems for even the wealthy countries.

Because climate funds will engage development issues and goals, they are going to create attribution problems and therefore further responsibility problems for the SDGs. For example, if exposure to increasingly variable precipitation is a significant challenge for a group of rain-fed agriculturalists who find themselves in a challenging financial situation, and the funds from the climate deal help to provide seasonal forecasts that alleviate some of this stress, will the SDGs get to claim victory for the increased yields and incomes that result? Or will the climate negotiators get to use this case as an example of why a climate deal was a good idea? Worse, if these funds don’t actually result in constructive changes to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, who will be to blame?

Engaging the climate negotiations would also help to bring the donors to the table, as the donors and their national governments are already engaged on the climate negotiation process. Linking the SDGs to this process 1) creates a more realistic view of how these goals will be funded and achieved and 2) will likely drive the donors to the SDG table to ensure the SDGs are aligned with the climate agreement.

3. Engage the implementation community:

It is pretty obvious that these goals were written in a policy context that lacked significant input from anyone who would have to achieve these goals. Nearly all of my critiques in the previous two posts were based in the practical challenges these goals would present for implementation: the lack of responsibility for their achievement, the enabling of a huge range of actions under what masquerades as a focused set of goals, and the creation of goals that potentially undermine each other are all apparent when you’ve spent time building programs to actually achieve these goals, or had to execute the work under those programs. If you want goals that are either aspirational or focusing, you need to incorporate a lot of feedback from the implementation community.

Engaging the implementation community could serve as a means of narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals as I suggested is necessary to get donors to the table. It would kill two birds with one stone – it would get us a set of achievable, interesting SDGs while forcing donors to engage with the process before the 11th hour.

Save the SDGs!

There is still time to break the SDGs out of the multilateral bubble in which they were constructed and make this a proactive process that can bring together the many important trends reshaping development today (climate change negotiations, new flows of investment, etc.) into a coherent program that gives us targets to aim for, and a reasonable focus for development going forward. The three steps above would go a long way toward this end. I hope to see something like this start very soon.

In my last post, I laid out the first of my concerns with the evolving Sustainable Development Goals. As I said, I think most of these goals fall into one of three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Having covered the impossible, I now turn my attention to the remaining two categories and why they are problematic:

The vague:

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

What does it mean to ensure the availability of water and sanitation? That everyone actually gets to use it, or just that the facilities are available where you live? This is an open question, because Goal 6 says availability (water and sanitation is present), not access (you can get water and adequate sanitation, no matter your circumstances). The former requires one set of values with regard to public services (i.e. water as a privatizable commodity that might be subject to efficiency gains if privatized), while the latter evokes a completely different set of concerns (i.e. water as a human right). By using the word availability, Goal 6 enables everything from the free delivery of water to all citizens to the complete privatization of a water system, as long as under both scenarios some form of water delivery is present for all users. Achievement of availability doesn’t speak to pricing or other factors that might enable or constrain the ability to access water. Basically, you can justify both actions as ensuring availability and therefore meeting an SDG even though these actions would likely result in wildly disparate outcomes for the affected population – including reduced access to water, even as it becomes more available.

How, under Goal 12, will we ensure sustainable consumption patterns? For example, are we promoting revolutions in energy production that will lower the cost of recycling, or are we arguing for massive social change in the wealthiest countries that would result in reduced consumption among the world’s rich populations? None of the proposed indicators suggest the latter, but simply cleaning up our energy supply is not going to create a sustainable pattern of consumption in a world that may well already be in ecological overshoot due to a wide range of resource consumption issues.

Vague goals that enable virtually all possible actions, or actions that really don’t do much to address the real problem the goal is meant to address (i.e. ecological overshoot under Goal 12) are not goals. They are slogans that neither motivate action nor focus effort, making the outcomes we want (greater access to necessary water, a planet we can live on indefinitely but in greater prosperity) disappear. This is worse than no goal at all.

 

The “Sounds good, but on second thought…”

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

Reading that I have objections to Goals like 8 and 10, you can be forgiven if (at least momentarily) you think that I am a huge jerk, but hear me out. Personally, I think that promoting decent and productive livelihoods is a critical part of improving the quality of life for people, whether they live in rich or poor countries. And there can be little doubt that high levels of inequality have deleterious effects on economic growth, and raise major issues of justice. But this does not mean that these goals are necessarily great ideas.

First, promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth…is basically impossible under existing energy and resource regimes. As the global economy has grown over the past few decades, and growth has taken off in a number of formerly low-income countries, we’ve seen a colossal expansion in consumption that strains our climate and our resource base. Continued economic growth, at least in the near future, will drive greater greenhouse emissions and increased drawdowns of non-renewable natural resources. In short, Goal 8 sort of fits into my first grouping of SDGs (“the impossible”) but is in some ways even more dangerous because its framing suggests that we can have our cake (economic growth) and eat it too (sustainability). We cannot, at least not right now. Instead, pushing for sustained economic growth that brings full and productive employment and decent work for all will make the achievement of Goal 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all), Goal 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), Goal 12 (Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns), Goal 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts), Goal 14 (Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development), and Goal 15 (Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss) very difficult, if not impossible.

And what of Goal 10? Well, there is a real question to be asked here: when is inequality bad, and when might it help us achieve development goals? At the national scale, it does appear that inequality can become a drag on economic growth (see Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century – and before you ask, yes, I actually read the damn thing). But what of situations at different scales, where inequality might present a temporary path to economic improvement for many? For example, at the scale of a very poor community in the Sahel, actions that enrich a relatively small, already rich portion of the population might enhance inequality in the village. However, if those wealthy members of the community accumulate assets that they are obligated to share under local social expectations (for example, cattle that can be used as traction in farming), such accumulation might improve the agricultural productivity and incomes of many in the community (by enhancing access to animal traction) until such time as those poorer members of the community can accumulate their own assets. If such a pattern were to take hold across a relatively poor country such as Mali or Burkina Faso, it could manifest in national statistics as an increase in economic inequality that, under this goal, should be ended. Until we understand the different causes of inequality, and their consequences, perhaps we should wait to see what it is we are trying to address and when it is appropriate to do so.

In short, the achievement of this last group of goals might serve to blow up our efforts to achieve other goals. Development has a penchant for stovepiping activities into sectors and goals. Further, there is no way any single donor/partner is going to cover all 17 goals under their portfolio. What this means is that individuals working on one goal may not have any idea what their efforts are doing to other goals. Further, if those other goals are owned by different organizations, there may not be any means for or incentives that lead to coordination across these goals. Organizations and individuals will respond to the tasks and measures in front of them first, and worry about the collateral damage later.

In summary, proposing goals that are so vague as to encompass every possible outcome of activities under a broad heading, or creating goals that might, if achieved, undermine other goals, is not moving us into a “beyond aid” world. They are not moving us anywhere except to more of the same work that development and aid have been doing for decades, and which has given us little we might call transformational.

 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

 

Next: What is the way forward?

 

Last week I was fortunate enough to spend a few days at Wisford House for a Wilton Park conference “Beyond aid: innovative governance, financing and partnerships for the post-2015 agenda.” The meeting emphasized thinking beyond aid, to the ways in which aid funds can leverage other, larger flows of money (i.e. private capital) in manners that speed or transform ongoing changes among the world’s poor. In short, it was a meeting that embraced a shift from aid as “fixing things for poor people” to aid as “catalyzing and accelerating what people are already doing to create faster, more impactful outcomes.” The question, of course, is exactly how to shift aid fully into the latter role in the context of the third Conference on Financing for Development coming up in July, and the ongoing development of Sustainable Development Goals that should conclude in 2015.

As the conference kicked off with a discussion of the new SDGs, Charles Kenny serendipitously tweeted out their current structure:

Kenny tweet

Just as I started to freak out (as did Simon Maxwell, who was seated next to me and saw the tweet at about the same time), Charles followed up:

Gross national happiness

So, 303 indicators (several of which are actually unmeasurable in the usual indicator sense) feeding into 169 targets which speak to progress toward 17 goals (Charles was off by one). My first reaction, which I shared with the conference, was that this structure was useless, either as a set of focusing goals or as a set of aspirational targets.

First, these do nothing to focus us. With 303 indicators aimed at 169 targets, any reasonably talented program officer should be able to reverse justify any and all existing programming under this structure. Were I still advising a presidential appointee at USAID, and they asked me about the SDGs, I would tell them not to worry about it as there is nothing in this structure that constrains anything that the Agency does.

Second, these goals don’t feel aspirational – but this is for a variety of reasons that I can lump into three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Over the next few posts, I will lay out what I mean with examples of each category. Today, I focus on…

The impossible

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Let’s just get something on the table right away: None of these goals is going to be achieved by 2030. First, “poverty” is a pretty vague term that means much more than income. While the indicators proposed under Goal 1 certainly recognize a complex understanding of poverty, including income, access to productive resources, social protection, and exposure to shocks and stresses, the ways in which these different factors align to produce “poverty” depends greatly on where you are. As a result, there are many “poverties” in many places. Therefore, it is not clear to me how a broad set of indicators will tell us if we have succeeded in eradicating poverty in a particular place.

Goal 2, ending hunger, is easier to measure as an outcome, but very difficult to measure as a process (as most determinants of food security are social, and we have very weak data on these processes in most parts of the world). The indicators don’t tell us where to intervene, or how we will know when “hunger” has been ended. Given 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households in 2013, it seems extraordinarily unlikely we will be able to meet this goal globally.

And Goal 5… we’re not even close to gender equity here in the United States, but somehow we are going to fix this globally in 15 years? Folks, gender relations and equality are issues that take a minimum of three generations to address – and that would be extraordinarily rapid change. 15 years is about one generation.

It is not that I hate (or even dislike) aspirational goals. However, goals should be achievable and actionable so we can hold people accountable for their achievement. None of these three goals meets either criteria. Can we make significant progress on addressing some components of poverty in the next 15 years? Yes. Can we reduce food insecurity in both rich and poor countries? Yes. Can we make some movement on the status of women and girls in both rich and poor countries? Yes. And we should work toward all three, but with ambitious but achievable targets. If the goals are achievable, then we can hold someone accountable for any shortfalls in 2030. Accountability fosters action. Right now, nobody will be held accountable when we fall short, because in 2030 whoever is still around will (rightly) point out that these were always unachievable, and therefore it is nobody’s fault that we did not meet these goals.

So, I dislike impossible goals because they strip away responsibility for their achievement. If these were ambitious but achievable, it might force those of us in the aid world to think more carefully about how we are going to leverage other sources of funding, other trends already taking place in many parts of the world (declining fertility, rising incomes, etc.), and build on existing knowledge and capacity among the global poor to ensure we reached these goals. In short, impossible goals do nothing to move us beyond aid – they just maintain the status quo.

 

Next up: The Vague and the “Sounds good, but on second thought”

I just finished reading Geoff Dabelko’s “The Periphery isn’t Peripheral” on Ensia. In this piece, Geoff diagnoses the problems that beset efforts to address linked environmental and development problems, and offers some thoughts on how to address them. I love his typology of tyrannies that beset efforts to build and implement good, integrative (i.e. cross-sectoral) programs. I agreed with his suggestions on how to make integrative work more acceptable/mainstream in development. And by the end, I was worried about how to make his suggestions reality within the donors and implementers that really need to take on this message.

Geoff’s four tyrannies (Tyranny of the Inbox; Tyranny of Immediate Results; Tyranny of the Single Sector; Tyranny of the Unidimensional Measurement of Success) that he sees crippling environment-and-development programming are dead on. Those of us working in climate change are especially sensitive to tyranny #2, the Tyranny of Immediate Results. How the hell are we supposed to demonstrate results on an adaptation program that is meant to address challenges that are not just happening now, but will intensify over a 30 year horizon? Does our inability to see the future mean that this programming is inherently useless or inefficient? No. But because it is impossible to measure future impact now, adaptation programs are easy to attack…

As a geographer, I love Geoff’s “Tyranny of the Single Sector” – geographers generally cannot help but start integrating things across sectors (that’s what our discipline does, really). In my experiences in the classroom and the donor world, integrative thinking eludes a lot more people than I ever thought possible. Our absurd system of performance measurement in public education is not helping – trust me. But even when you find an integrative thinker, they may not be doing much integrative work. Sometimes people simply can’t see outside their own training and expertise. Sometimes they are victims of tyranny #1 (Tyranny of the Inbox), where they are too busy dealing with immediate challenges within their sector to think across sectors – lord knows, that defined the last 6 months of my life at USAID.

And Geoff’s fourth tyranny speaks right to my post from the other day – the Tyranny of the Unidimensional Measurement of Success. Read Geoff, and then read my post, and you will see why he and I get along so well.

Now, Geoff does not stop with a diagnosis – he suggests that integrative thinking in development will require some changes to how we do our jobs, and provides some illustrations of integrative projects that have produced better results to bolster his argument. While I like all of his suggestions, what concerns me is that these suggestions are easier said than done. For example, Geoff is dead right when he says that:

We must reward, rather than punish, cross-disciplinary or cross-sectoral approaches; define success in a way that encourages, rather than discourages, positive outcomes in multiple arenas; and foster monitoring and evaluation plans that embrace, rather than ignore, different timescales and multiple indicators.”

But how, exactly, are we to do this? What HR levers exist that we can use to make this happen? How much leeway do appointees and other executive-level donor staff have with regard to changing rewards and evaluations? And are the right people in charge to make such changes possible? A lot of people rise through donor organizations by being very good at sectoral work. Why would they reward people for doing things differently?

Similarly, I wonder how we can actually get more long-term thinking built into the practice and implementation of development. How do we really overcome the Tyranny of the Inbox, and the Tyranny of Immediate Results? This is not merely a mindset problem, this is a problem of budget justifications to an often-hostile congress that wants to know what you have done for them lately. Where are our congressional champions to make this sort of change possible?

Asking Geoff to fix all our problems in a single bit of writing is completely unfair. That is the Tyranny of What do We do Now? In the best tradition of academic/policy writing, his piece got me thinking (constructively) about what needs to happen if we are to do a better job of achieving something that looks like sustainable development going forward. For that reason alone it is well worth your time. Go read.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of development programs that claim to work on issues of environmental governance. Most donor-funded environmental governance work stems from concerns about issues like sustainability and climate change at the national to global scale. These are legitimate challenges that require attention. However, such programs often strike me as instances of thinking globally, but implementing locally (and ideally someplace else). You see, there are things that we in the wealthiest countries should be doing to mitigate climate change and make the world a more sustainable place. But they are inconvenient. They might cost us a bit of money. They might make us do a few things differently. So we complain about them, and they get implemented slowly, if ever.

Yet somehow we fail to see how this works in exactly the same manner when we implement programs that are, for example, aimed at the mitigation of climate change in the Global South. These programs tend to take away particular livelihoods activities and resources (such as cutting trees, burning charcoal, or fishing and hunting particular species), which is inconvenient, tends to reduce household access to food and income, and forces changes upon people – all of which they don’t really like. So it is sort of boggling to me that we are surprised when populations resist these programs and projects.

I’m on this topic because, while conducting preliminary fieldwork in Zambia’s Kazungula District last week, I had yet another experience of this problem. In the course of a broad conversation on livelihoods, vulnerabilities, and opportunities in his community, a senior man raised charcoal production as an alternative livelihood in the area (especially in the dry season, when there is little water for gardening/farming and no nearby source of fishing). Noting that charcoal production was strictly limited for purposes of limiting the impacts of climate change*, a rationale whose legitimacy he did not challenge, he complained that addressing the issue of charcoal production is not well understood or accepted by the local population. He argued that much of the governance associated with this effort consisted of agents of the state telling people “it’s an offense” and demanding they stop cutting trees and burning charcoal without explaining why it is an offense. He then pointed to one of his sons and said “how can you tell him ‘don’t cut this tree’? And his fields are flooding [thus destroying his crops, a key source of food and income].” But the quote that pulled it all together…

“Don’t make people be rude or be criminals. Give them a policy that will open them.”

The text is clear here: if you are going to take away a portion of our livelihoods for the sake of the environment, please give us an alternative so we can comply. This is obvious – and yet to this point I think the identification and implementation of alternative livelihoods in the context of environmental governance programs is, at best, uneven.

But the subtext might be more important: If you don’t give us an alternative, you make us into criminals because we will be forced to keep practicing these now-banned activities. And when that happens, we will never view the regulations or those that enforce them as legitimate. In other words, the way we tend to implement environmental governance programming undermines the legitimacy of the governance structures we are trying to put in place.

Oops.

The sad part is that there have been innumerable cases of just the phenomena I encountered last week at other times and in other places. They’ve been documented in reports and refereed publications. Hell, I’ve heard narratives like this in the course of my work in Ghana and Malawi. But environmental governance efforts continue to inadequately explain their rationales to the populations most affected by their implementation. They continue to take away livelihoods activities from those that need them most in the name of a greater good for which others pay no tangible price. And they continue to be surprised when people ignore the tenets of the program, and begin to question the legitimacy of any governance structure that would bring such rules into effect. Environmental governance is never going to work if it is the implementation of a “think globally, implement locally (ideally someplace else)” mentality. It has to be thought, understood, and legitimized in the place it will be implemented, or it will fail.

 

 

* Yes, he really said that, as did a lot of other people. The uniformity of that answer strikes me as the product of some sort of sensitization campaign that, to be honest, is pretty misplaced. There are good local environmental reasons for controlling deforestation, but the contribution of charcoal production to the global emissions budget is hilariously small.

First up on my week up update posts is a re-introduction to my reworked livelihoods approach. As some of you might remember, the formal academic publication laying out the theoretical basis for this approach came out in early 2013. This approach presented in the article is the conceptual foundation for much of the work we are doing in my lab. This pub is now up on my home page, via the link above or through a link on the publications page.

The premise behind this approach, and why I developed it in the first place, is simple. Most livelihoods approaches implicitly assume that the primary motivation for livelihoods decisions is the maximization of some sort of material return on that activity. Unfortunately, in almost all cases this is a massive oversimplification of livelihoods decision-making processes, and in many cases is fundamentally incorrect. Think about the number of livelihoods studies where there are many decisions or behaviors that seem illogical when held up to the logic of material maximization (which would be any good livelihoods study, really). We spend a lot of time trying to explain these decisions away (idiosyncrasy, incomplete information, etc.). But this makes no sense – if you are living on $1.25 a day, and you are illogical or otherwise making decisions against interest, you are likely dead. So there must be a logic behind these decisions, one that we must engage if we are to understand why people do what they do, and if we are to design and implement development interventions that are relevant to the needs of the global poor. My livelihoods approach provides a means of engaging with and explaining these behaviors built on explicit, testable framings of decision-making, locally-appropriate divisions of the population into relevant groupings (i.e. gender, age, class), and the consideration of factors from the local to the global scale.

The article is a straight-ahead academic piece – to be frank, the first half of the article is not that accessible to those without backgrounds in social theory and livelihoods studies. However, the second half of the article is a case study that lays out what the approach allows the user to see and explain, which should be of interest to most everyone who works with livelihoods approaches.

For those who would like a short primer on the approach and what it means in relatively plain English, I’ve put up a “top-line messages” document on the preprints page of my website.

Coming soon is an implementation piece that guides the user through the actual use of the approach. I field-tested the approach in Kaffrine, Senegal with one of my graduate students from May-July 2013. I am about to put the approach to work in a project with the Red Cross in the Zambezi Basin in Zambia next month. In short, this is not just a theoretical pipe dream – it is a real approach that works. In fact, the reason we are working with Red Cross is because Pablo Suarez of Boston University and the Red Cross Climate Centre read the academic piece and immediately grasped what it could do, and then reached out to me to bring me into one of their projects. The implementation piece is already fully drafted, but I am circulating it to a few people in the field to get feedback before I submit it for review or post it to the preprints page. I am hoping to have this up by the end of January.  Once that is out the door, I will look into building a toolkit for those who might be interested in using the approach.

I’m really excited by this approach, and the things that are emerging from it in different places (Mali, Zambia, and Senegal, at the moment). I would love feedback on the concept or its use – I’m not a defensive or possessive person when it comes to ideas, as I think debate and critique tend to make things stronger. The reason I am developing a new livelihoods approach is because the ones we have simply don’t explain the things we need to know, and the other tools of development research that dominate the field at the moment (i.e. RCTs) cannot address the complex, integrative questions that drive outcomes at the community level. So consider all of this a first draft, one that you can help bring to final polished form!

There is a lot of hue and cry about the issue of loss and damage at the current Conference of the Parties (COP-19). For those unfamiliar with the topic, in a nutshell the loss and damage discussion is one of attributing particular events and their impacts on poorer countries to climate variability and change that has, to this point, been largely driven by activities in the wealthier countries. At a basic level, this question makes sense and is, in the end, inevitable. Those who have contributed the most (and by the most, I mean nearly all) to the anthropogenic component of climate change are not experiencing the same level of impact from that climate change – either because they see fewer extreme events, more attenuated long-term trends, or simply have substantially greater capacity to manage individual events and adapt to longer-term changes. This is fundamentally unfair. But it is also a development challenge.

The more I work in this field, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the future of development lies in creating the strong, stable foundations upon which individuals can innovate in locally-appropriate ways. These foundations are often tenuous in poorer countries, and the impacts of climate change and variability (mostly variability right now) certainly do not help. Most agrarian livelihoods systems I have worked with in sub-Saharan Africa are massively overbuilt to manage climate extremes (i.e. flood or drought) that, while infrequent, can be catastrophic. The result: in “good” or “normal” years, farmers are hedging away very significant portions of their agricultural production, through such decisions as the siting of farms, the choice of crops, or the choice of varieties. I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of this cost of hedging in the communities I’ve worked with in Ghana, and the range is between 6% and 22% of total agricultural production each year. That is, some of these farmers are losing 22% of their total production because they are unnecessarily siting their fields in places that will perform poorly in all but the most extreme (dry or wet) years. When you are living on the local equivalent of $1.25/day, this is a massive hit to one’s income, and without question a huge barrier to transformative local innovations. Finding ways to help minimize the cost of hedging, or the need for hedging, is critical to development in many parts of the Global South.

Therefore, a stream of finance attached to loss and damage could be a really big deal for those in the Global South, something perhaps as important as debt relief was to the MDRI countries. We need to sort out loss and damage. But NOT NOW.

Why not? Simply put, we don’t have the faintest idea what we are negotiating right now. The attribution of particular events to anthropogenic climate change and variability is inordinately difficult (it is somewhat easier for long-term trends, but this has its own problem – it takes decades to establish the trend). However, for loss and damage to work, we need this attribution, as it assigns responsibility for particular events and their costs to those who caused those events and costs. Also, we need means of measuring the actual costs of such events and trends – and we don’t have that locked down yet, either. This is both a technical and a political question: what can we measure, and how should we measure it is a technical question that remains unanswered. But what should we measure is a political question – just as certain economic stimuli have multiplier effects through an economy, disasters and long-term degradation have radiating “multipliers” through economies. Where do we stop counting the losses from an event or trend? We don’t have an answer to that, in part because we don’t yet have attribution, nor do we have the tools to measure costs even if we had attribution.

So, negotiating loss and damage now is a terrible idea. Rich countries could find themselves facing very large bills without the empirical evidence to justify the size of the bills or their responsibility for paying them – which will make such bills political nonstarters in rich countries. In short, this process has to deliver a bill that everyone agrees should be paid, and that the rich countries agree can be paid. At the same time, poorer countries need to be careful here – because we don’t have strong attribution or measurements of costs, there is a real risk that they could negotiate for too little – not enough to actually invest in the infrastructure and processes needed to ensure a strong foundation for local innovation. Either outcome would be a disaster. And these are the most likely outcomes of any negotiation conducted in blindly.

I’m glad loss and damage is on the table. I hope that more smart people start looking into it in their research and programs, and that we rapidly build an evidence base for attribution and costing. That, however, will take real investment by the richest countries (who can afford it), and that investment has not been forthcoming.  If we should be negotiating for anything right now, it should be for funds to push the frontiers of our knowledge of attribution and costing so that we can get to the table with evidence as soon as humanly possible.

While many paint the combined impact of climate change and global markets as something new, unpredictable, and unmanageable, they fail to grasp that most situations we are projected to see in the next few decades* have been experienced before in the form of previous extremes.  Take, for example, the figure below:

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This is a graph of the annual rainfall at one rain gauge in Ghana, near where I conducted the research that made up a big part of my book Delivering Development.  The downward trend in rainfall is clear (and representative of the trend in this part of coastal West Africa that, according to my colleagues at IRI, continues to this day and is confirmed by satellite measurements).  There are complex things happening inside these annual figures, including shifting timing of rainfall, but for the purposes of discussion here, it serves to make a point.  While there is indeed a downward trend that continues to this day, there have already been several years where the total precipitation was much lower than the current average precipitation, or the likely annual precipitation for the next few decades.

This means is that the farmers in Dominase and Ponkrum, like so many around the world, have already seen the future – that is, they have already lived through at least one, if not several, seasons like those we expect to become the norm some decades in the future.  These farmers survived those seasons, and learned from them, adjusting their expectations and strategies to account for the possibility of recurrence. These adjustments are likely over- or under-compensating for the likelihood of recurrence right now, as livelihoods strategies in these villages are largely reactive, reflecting last season’s events more than the average season. Further, the year-to-year hedging of farms against climate variability can be a costly practice – the likely “insurance premium” of lost production in a good year (due to planting in less-than-ideal, but precipitation-hedged situations like the tops and bottoms of hills – see my discussion in Chapter 4 of Delivering Development) probably eats up somewhere between 10% and 20% of total potential production.  So these management strategies are not ideal. But they do reflect local capacities to adjust and account for extreme conditions, the extreme rainfall or drought events out along the tails of historical distributions whose unpredictable recurrences characterize a changing climate regime.  Many of these farmers have little or no access to inputs, limited to no access to seasonal forecasts, and live in states without safety nets, yet they have repeatedly survived very difficult seasons.  Clearly, their capacity for survival in an uncertain environment and economy is worthy of our respect.

This is not a phenomenon specific to Ghana.  For example, the farmers in southern Mali with whom I (and many others) have been working to deliver better and more relevant climate services, such as seasonal and short-term forecasts.  Most, if not all, of these farmers are using local indicators, such as the flowering of a particular tree or the emergence of a particular insect, as indicators that help them time various activities in their agricultural cycle. Many trust their local indicators more than the forecasts, perhaps with some reason – their indicators actually seem to work and the forecasts are not yet as accurate as anyone would like.  But these indicators work under current climate regimes, and these regimes are changing. At some point, the tree will start to flower at a different, perhaps less appropriate time, or simply cease to flower. The insect will emerge at a different time, or perhaps be driven away by the emergence of new predators that can now move into the area. If the climate continues to change, local indicators will eventually fail.

I humbly suggest that instead of reengineering entire agroecological systems and their associated economies in the here and now (a fairly high risk enterprise), we should be building upon the capacities that already exist.  For example, we can plan for the eventual failure of local indicators – we can study the indicators to understand under what conditions their behaviors will change, identify likely timeframes in which such changes are likely to occur, and create of new tools and sources of information that will be there for farmers when their current sources of information no longer work. We should be designing these tools and that information with the farmers, answering the questions they have (as opposed to the questions we want to ask).  We should be building on local capacity, not succumbing to crisis narratives that suggest that these farmers have little capacity, either to manage their current environment or to change with the environment.

Farmers in the Global South have already fed the future. Perhaps they did not do it all that well, and all they managed was to stave off catastrophe. But given the absence of safety nets in most places in the Global South (see Theme 3, points 2 and 3), and the limited access so many farmers have to inputs and irrigation, avoiding catastrophe is an accomplishment that warrants study and serious consideration. We should build on that capacity, not blow it up.

The key principals and points:

1)   A future under climate change is not a great unknown for farmers in the Global South. Most farmers have already managed several seasons as difficult, or more difficult, than what we project to be normal in the next few decades. Presuming these farmers are facing a catastrophe they cannot see coming fails to grasp the ways in which these past seasons inform contemporary planning.

2)   Farmers have already developed strategies for addressing extreme seasons (i.e. drought or excessive precipitation). We should start with an understanding of what they already do, and why, before moving in with our interventions, lest we inadvertently undo otherwise functional safety nets.

3)   Existing indigenous strategies for managing climate variability are not perfect. They tend to overestimate or underestimate actual risks of particular weather and climate states, tend to magnify the importance of the previous season (as opposed to historical averages, or current trends) when planning for the next season, and tend to be very costly in terms of lost potential agricultural productivity.

4)   Current indigenous tools for making agricultural decisions, such as local indicators, are likely more robust than any climate product we can deliver right now. Just because this information comes in the form of a plant or animal behavior does not make it any less valid.

5)   Current indigenous tools for making agricultural decisions will likely start to fail as climate regimes change. This fact presents an opportunity for development organizations to start working with farmers to identify useful information and ways of providing it such that this information is available when local indicators fail.

 

 

*Given the propagation of uncertainty in models of the global climate, global water availability, global land cover, the global economy, and global population (all of which, incidentally, impact one another), I don’t pay much attention to model results beyond about 2040, with 2030 being the really outer threshold of information that might usefully inform planning or our understanding of biophysical process.  On the 100-year scale, we may as well be throwing darts at a wall as running models. I have no idea why we bother.

One of the dangers of acting as a critic is drifting into troll territory, where you are constantly complaining and finding fault, but rarely adding constructive ideas to the conversation.  I fear that my concerns with contemporary food security conversations are headed in that direction.  And, well, USAID asked on twitter, which probably violates my late father’s first rule of cross-examination: never ask a question for which you don’t want an answer.

 

USAID Tweet asking for FTF ideas

So, over the next few blog posts I am going to try something that many academics and critics would never risk: I am going to put some ideas down about how we perhaps should be building food security programs right now.  You all can have at these.  I can make some changes and edits.  We can argue some more.  And somewhere in there, maybe something that is both workable and more likely to actually work will emerge.

The major points of how I think we ought to be addressing world hunger look like this:

1)   Get over production: it’s rarely about production, and focusing on it draws us away from the real causes of hunger

2)   Embrace complexity: sectoral responses are doomed to fail. Please stop programming sectoral responses, and start thinking integration

3)   Create exit points: a critical problem in agricultural development is the all-too-rapid march to market integration, without appropriate attention being paid to the new risks such integration creates. In most places where agricultural development takes place, market integration predicated on the simplification of existing agricultural activities to even fewer crops is a recipe for disaster that removes the safety nets that the rural poor have already created.

4)   The future is already being fed: while we live in a world of economic and environmental change, these changes are not linear.  We’ve already seen extremes of both that represent conditions beyond what we expect to see as the “new normal” in the future. Why not figure out what people did to address those extreme events, and build off of that?

I will elaborate each of these points in its own blog post over coming days.  The goal will be to make each point clear and actionable. The other goal is to present a real alternative to what I firmly believe are misguided initiatives dominating the contemporary food security conversation. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

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.

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