globalization


Yesterday, I took the relief community to task for not spending more time seriously thinking about global environmental change.  To be clear, this is not because that community pays no attention, or is unaware of the trend toward increasing climate variability and extreme weather events in many parts of the world that seems to be driving ever-greater needs for intervention.  That part of the deal is pretty well covered by the humanitarian world, though some folks are a bit late to the party (and it would be good to see a bit more open, informal discussion of this – most of what I have seen is in very formal reports and presentations).  I am more concerned that the humanitarian community gives little or no thought to the environmental implications of its interventions – in the immediate rush to save lives, we are implementing projects and conducting activities that have a long-term impact on the environment at scales ranging from the community to the globe.  We are not, however, measuring these impacts in really meaningful ways, and therefore run the risk of creating future problems through our current interventions.  This is not a desirable outcome for anyone.

But what of the development community, those of us thinking not in terms of immediate, acute needs as much as we are concerned with durable transformations in quality of life that will only be achieved on a generational timescale?  You’d think that this community (of which I count myself a part) would be able to grasp the impact of climate change on people’s long-term well-being, as both global environmental changes (such as climate change and ecosystem collapse) and development gains unfold over multidecadal timescales.  Yet the integration of global environmental change into development programs and research remains preliminary and tentative – and there is great resistance to such integration from many people in this community.

Sometimes people genuinely don’t get it – they either don’t think that things like climate change are real problems, or fail to grasp how it impacts their programs.  These are the folks who would lose at the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game – I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: global environmental change is development’s Kevin Bacon: I can link environmental change to any development challenge in three steps or less.  Sometimes the impacts are really indirect, which can make this hard to see.  For example, take education: in some places, climate change will alter growing seasons such that farm productivity will be reduced, forcing families to use more labor to get adequate food and income, which might lead parents to pull their kids from school to get that labor.  Yep, at least some education programs are impacted by climate change, an aspect of global environmental change.

Other times, though, I think that the resistance comes from a very legitimate place: many working in this field are totally overtaxed as it is.  They know that various aspects of global environmental change are problems in the contexts in which they work, but lack the human and financial resources to accomplish most of their existing tasks. Suddenly they hear that they will have to take something like climate change into account as they do their work, which means new responsibilities that will entail new training, but often come without new personnel or money.  It is therefore understandable when these folks, faced with these circumstances, greet the demand for the integration of global environmental change considerations into their programs with massive resistance.

I think the first problem contributes to the second – it is difficult to prioritize people and funding for a challenge that is poorly understood in the development community, and whose impacts on the project or initiative at hand might be difficult to see.  But we must do this – various forms of global environmental change are altering the future world at which we are aiming with our development programs and projects.  While an intervention appropriate to a community’s current needs may result in improvements to human well-being in the short term, the changes brought on by that intervention may be maladaptive in ten or twenty years and end up costing the community much more than it gained initially.

Global environmental change requires us to think about development like a fade route in football (American), or the through ball in soccer (the other football).  In both cases, the key is to put the ball where the target (the receiver of the pass) is going to be, not where they are now.  Those who can do this have great success.  Those that cannot have short careers.  Development needs to start working on its timing routes, and thinking about where our target communities are going to be ten and twenty years from now as we design our programs and projects.

So, how do we start putting our projects through on goal?  One place to start would be by addressing two big barriers: the persistence of treating global environmental change as a development sector like any other, and the failure of economics to properly cost the impacts of these changes.

First, global environmental change is not a sector.  It is not something you can cover in a section of your project plan or report, as it impacts virtually all development sectors.  Climate change alters the range and number of vectors for diseases like malaria.  Overfishing to meet the demands of consumers in the Global North can crush the food security of poor coastal populations in the Global South.  Deforestation can intensify climate change, lead to soil degradation that compromises food security, and even distort economic policy (you can log tropical hardwoods really quickly and temporarily boost GNP in a sort of “timber bubble”, but eventually you run out of trees and those 200-500 year regrowth times means that the bubble will pop and a GNP downturn is the inevitable outcome of such a policy).  If global environmental change is development’s Kevin Bacon, it is pretty much omnipresent in our programs and projects – we need to be accounting for it now.  That, in turn, requires us to start thinking much longer term – we cannot design projects with three to five year horizons – that is really the relief-to-recovery horizon (see part 1 for my discussion of global environmental change in that context).  Global environmental change means thinking about our goals on a much longer timescale, and at a much more general (and perhaps ambitious) scale.  The uncertainty bars on the outcomes of our work get really, really huge on these timescales . . . which to me is another argument for treating development as a catalyst aimed at triggering changes in society by facilitating the efforts of those with innovative, locally-appropriate ideas, as opposed to imposing and managing change in an effort to achieve a narrow set of measurable goals at all costs.  My book lays out the institutional challenges to such a transformation, such as rethinking participation in development, which we will have to address if this is ever to work.

Second, development economics needs to catch up to everyone else on the environment.  There are environmental economists, but not that many – and there are virtually no development economists that are trained in environmental economics.  As a result, most economic efforts to address environmental change in the context of development are based on very limited understandings of the environmental issues at hand – and this, in turn, creates a situation where much work in development economics either ignores or, in its problematic framings of the issue, misrepresents the importance of this challenge to the development project writ large. Until development economists are rewarded for really working on the environment, in all its messiness and uncertainty (and that may be a long way off, given how marginal environmental economists are to the discipline), I seriously doubt we are going to see enough good economic work linking development and the environment to serve as a foundation for a new kind of thinking about development that results in durable, meaningful outcomes for the global poor.  In the meantime, it seems to me that there is a huge space for geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, new cultural historians, and others to step up and engage this issue in rich, meaningful ways that both drive how we do work now and slowly force new conversations on both economics and the practice of development.

I do admit, though, that my expanding circle of economics colleagues (many of which I connected to via this blog and twitter) have given me entrée into a community of talented people that give me hope – they are interested and remarkably capable, and I hope they continue to engage me and my projects as they go forward . . . I think there is a mutual benefit there.

Let me be clear: the continuing disconnect between development studies and environmental studies is closing, and there are many, many opportunities to continue building connections between these worlds.  This blog is but one tiny effort in a sea of efforts, which gives me hope – with lots of people at work on this issue, someone is bound to succeed.

In part three, I will take up why global environmental change means that we have to rethink the RCT4D work currently undertaken in development – specifically, why we need much, much better efforts at explanation if this body of work is to give us meaningful, long-term results.



Mike Hulme has an article in the July issue of Nature Climate Change titled “Meet the humanities,”[paywalled] in which he argues that “An introduction needs to be made between the rich cultural knowledge of social studies and the natural sciences.”  Overall, I like this article – Hulme understands the social science side of things, not least through his own research and his work as editor of Global Environmental Change, one of the most influential journals on the human dimensions of global change*.  Critically, he lays out how, even under current efforts to include a wider range of disciplines in major climate assessments, the conversation has been dominated for so long by the biophysical sciences and economics that it is difficult for other voices to break in:

policy discussions have become “improving climate predictions” and “creating new economic policy instruments”; not “learning from the myths of indigenous cultures” or “re-thinking the value of consumption.”

Hulme is not arguing that we are wrong to be trying to improve climate predictions or develop new economic policy instruments – instead, he is subtly asking if these are the right tools for the job of addressing climate change and its impacts.  My entire research agenda is one of unearthing a greater understanding of why people do what they do to make a living, how they decide what to do when their circumstances change, and what the outcomes of those decisions are for their long-term well being.  Like Hulme, I am persistently surprised at the relative dearth of work on this subject – especially because the longer I work on issues of adaptation and livelihoods, the more impressed I am with the capacity of communities to adjust to new circumstances, and the less impressed I am with anyone’s ability to predictably (and productively) intervene in these adjustments.

This point gets me to my motivation for this post.  Hulme could not cover everything in his short commentary, but I felt it important to identify where a qualitative social science perspective can make an immediate impact on how we think about adaptation (which really is about how we think about development, I think).   I remain amazed that so many working in development fail to grasp that there is no such things as a completely apolitical, purely technical intervention. For example, in development we all too often assume that a well is just a well – that it is a technical intervention that delivers water to people.  However, a well is highly political – it reshapes some people’s lives, alters labor regimes, could empower women (or be used as an excuse to extract more of their labor on farms, etc.) – all of this is contextual, and has everything to do with social relations and social power.  So, we can introduce the technology of a well . . . but the idea and meaning of a well cannot be introduced in the same manner – these are produced locally, through local lenses. It is this basic failure of understanding that lies at the heart of so many failed development projects that passed technical review and various compliance reviews: they were envisioned as neutral and technical, and were probably very well designed in those arenas.  However, these project designers gave little concern to the contextual, local social processes that would shape the use and outcomes of the intervention, and the result was lots of “surprise” outcomes.

When we start to approach these issues from a qualitative social scientific standpoint, or even a humanities standpoint (Hulme conflates these in his piece, I have no idea why.  They are not the same), the inherent politics of development become inescapable.  This was the point behind my article “The place of stories in development: creating spaces for participation through narrative analysis.”  In that article, I introduce the story I used to open Delivering Development to illustrate how our lived experience of development often plays out in ways best understood as narratives, “efforts to present information as a sequence of connected events with some sort of structural coherence, transforming ‘the real into an object of desire through a formal coherence and a moral order that the real.”  These narratives emerge in the stories we are told and that we overhear in the course of our fieldwork, but rarely make it into our articles or reports (though they do show up on a few fantastic aid blogs, like Shotgun Shack and Tales from the Hood).  They become local color to personal stories, not sources of information that reveal the politics of our development efforts (though read the two aforementioned blogs for serious counterpoints).

In my article, I demonstrated how using the concept of narrative, drawn from the humanities, has allowed me to identify moments in which I am placed into a plot, a story of development and experience not of my making:

In this narrative [“the white man is so clever,” a phrase I heard a lot during fieldwork], I was cast as the expert, one who had knowledge and resources that could improve their lives if only I would share it with them. [The community] cast themselves in the role of recipients of this knowledge, but not participants in its formation.  This narrative has been noted time and again in development studies (and post-colonial studies), and in the era of participation we are all trained to subvert it when we see it emerge in the work of development agencies, governments, and NGOs. However, we are less trained to look for its construction by those living in the Global South. In short, we are not trained to look for the ways in which others emplot us.

The idea of narrative is useful not only for identifying when weird neocolonial moments crop up, but also for destabilizing those narratives – what I call co-authoring.  For example, when I returned to the site of my dissertation fieldwork a few years later, I found that my new position as a (very junior) professor created a new set of problems:

This new identity greatly hindered my first efforts at fieldwork after taking this job, as several farmers openly expected me to tell them what to plant and how to plant it. I was able to decentre this narrative when, after one farmer suggested that I should be telling him what to plant instead of asking him about his practices, I asked him ‘Do I look like a farmer?’ He paused, admitted that I did not, and then started laughing. This intervention did not completely deconstruct his narrative of white/developed and black/developing, or my emplotment in that narrative. I was still an expert, just not about farming. This created a space for him to speak freely to me about agriculture in the community, while still maintaining a belief in me as the expert.

Certainly, this is not a perfect outcome.  But this is a lot better than the relationship that would have developed without an awareness of this emerging narrative, and my efforts to co-author that narrative.  Long and short, the humanities have a lot to offer both studies of climate change impacts and development – if we can bring ourselves to start taking things like stories seriously as sources of data.  As Hulme notes, this is not going to be an easy thing to do – there is a lot of inertia in both development and climate change studies.  But changes are coming, and I for one plan to leverage them to improve our understandings of what is happening in the world as a result of our development efforts, climate change, global markets, and any number of other factors that impact life along globalization’s shoreline – and to help co-author different, and hopefully better, outcomes than what has come before.

 

*full disclosure: I’ve published in Global Environmental Change, and Hulme was one of the editors in charge of my article.



A number of folks have contacted me asking for a post that discusses how we might address the rapidly worsening famine in the Horn of Africa. In short, folks want to know what is being done, and what they can do, both in terms of the immediate famine and to prevent this from happening again.

First, in addressing the acute situation right now: please understand that aid agencies are moving as fast as they possibly can where they possibly can. There are a lot of challenges in southern Somalia, and these political-logistical hurdles matter greatly because the only remedy for the immediate situation is massive relief efforts to address the acute food insecurity in the area. There are complex logistics behind where those supplies might come from. That said, agencies are already moving to preposition aid materials as best they can.

If you want to help with the immediate relief effort, send money. Yes, money. Don’t send clothes, shoes, or any other stuff. It’s hard and expensive to deliver, and usually the donation of material goods just screws up local economies, making recovery from the crisis much harder and prolonged. Look into the groups, such as the Red Cross and the World Food Program, that are on the ground delivering aid. Examine their philosophies and programs, and donate to those you can agree with. There is a world of advice on donating to aid organizations out there on the blogs and twitter, so do a little research before donating. Oh, and please, please stay the hell out of the Horn of Africa, as you’ll just get in the way of highly trained, experienced people who are working under enough strain. I will make an exception for those with experience in emergency relief work – feel free to work through your networks to see if you are needed. If you don’t have a network to work through, you shouldn’t be going. It’s really that simple.

The question of how we will prevent the next famine is an open one. In my personal opinion (which, incidentally, counts for exactly nothing right now), addressing the causes of this famine, and the continuing sources of insecurity in this region, are going to require a rather different approach to development than that we have taken to this point. In my book (Delivering Development – hence the title of the post) I argue that part of the reason that development programs don’t end up solving the challenges that lead to things like famine is because we fundamentally misunderstand how development and globalization work. We are going to have to step back and move beyond technical fixes to particular challenges, and start to think about development as a catalyst for change. This means thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region, and how our resources might be used to initiate processes that bring those changes about. As I keep telling my students, there is no such thing as a purely technical, apolitical development intervention. Even putting a borehole in a village invokes local politics – who gathered the water before? Who gathers it now? Who can access the borehole, and who cannot? If the borehole has resulted in the creation of free time for whoever is responsible for water collection, what do they do with that free time? The answers to these questions and dozens of others will vary from place to place, but they shape the outcome of that borehole.

At the same time, such a process requires redefining the “we” in the sentence “thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region . . .,” because it really doesn’t matter what people, living in the United States or anywhere else outside the Horn of Africa, want to see in the region. It’s not their region. Instead, this “we” is going to have to emerge from a real partnership between those who live in the Horn of Africa, their governments, and the aid agencies with the resources to make particular programs and projects happen. For example, we are going to have to use our considerable science and technology capacity to really explore the potential of mobile communications as a source of rapidly-updated, geolocatable information about conditions on the ground to which people are responding with their livelihoods strategies. However, this technology and data will only be useful if it is interpreted into programs in concert with the sources of that data: people who are already managing tremendous challenges with few resources. Information about rainfall is just a data point, until we place it into social context – whose crops are most impacted by the absence/overabundance of water? Whose boreholes will dry up first? Whose cattle will be the first to die off? You can see how even changes in rainfall are nothing more than catalysts for local social process, as the answers to these latter questions will vary dramatically, but in the context of trying to understand how things will play out, they are far, far more important than simple biophysical measures of the environment (or quantitative analyses of the economy, for that matter).

In other words, I think that any effort to really address the next famine before it happens is going to be long and extraordinarily involved – and is going to require the help of agencies, implementing partners, academics, affected governments, and the people on the ground living through these challenges. It sounds utopian . . . but it is not. It is necessary. To end up doing the Horn of Africa famine dance again in a few years for lack of ambition, or because of an unwillingness to take a hard look at how we think about development and how it does not work, is an outcome I cannot accept. We will be judged by history for how we respond (if you have doubts, feel free to read Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts and look at how the British come off).



After reading a lot of news and blog posts on the situation in the Horn of Africa, I feel the need to make something clear: the drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia.  We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause . . . which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.

First, I recommend that anyone interested in this situation – or indeed in food security and famine more generally, to read Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts.  It is a very readable account of massive famines in the Victorian era that lays out the necessary intersection of weather, markets and politics to create tragedy – and also makes clear the point that rainfall alone is poorly correlated to famine.  For those who want a deeper dive, have a look at the lit review (pages 15-18) of my article “Postmodern Conceptualizations, Modernist Applications: Rethinking the Role of Society in Food Security” to get a sense of where we are in contemporary thinking on food security.  The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies.  The HoA situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).

For those who doubt this, look at the FEWS NET maps I put in previous posts (here and here).  Famine stops at the Somali border.  I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have.  Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.  Rainfall is not the controlling variable for this differential outcome, because rainfall is not really variable across these borders where Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet.

This is not to say that rainfall doesn’t matter – it certainly does.  But it is not the most important thing.  However, when we focus on rainfall variability exclusively, we end up in discussions and arguments that detract from understanding what went wrong here, and what we might do going forward.  Yes, the drought reflects a climate extreme . . . but this extreme is not that stunningly anomalous in this part of the world – we are getting similar (but not quite as bad) results quite often these days.  Indeed, these results seem to be coming more frequently, and appear to be tied to a shift in the climate of the region – and while it is a bit soon to say this definitively, this climate shift is very likely is a product of anthropogenic climate change.  So, one could indirectly argue that the climate change (mostly driven by big emitters in the Global North) is having a terrible impact on the poorest and weakest in the Global South.  It will take a while to make this a firm argument, though.

On the other hand, it is clear that politics and markets have failed the people of Somalia – and the rainfall just pushed a very bad situation over the precipice into crisis.  Thus, this is a human crisis first and foremost, whatever you think of anthropogenic climate change.  Politics and markets are human inventions, and the decisions that drive them are also human.  We can’t blame this famine on the weather – we need to be looking at everything from local and national politics that shape access and entitlements to food to global food markets that have driven the price of needed staples up across the world, thus curtailing access for the poorest.  The bad news: Humans caused this.  The good news: If we caused it, we can prevent the next one.



We continue to scramble here – believe me, we are scrambling – the sheer volume of work taking place is staggering.  In the meantime, please understand that as bad as things are at the moment, the relief effort MUST be done right because a) things are about to get much worse and b) they will stay worse, at least until December.  We are trying not to sacrifice productive efforts to address the next 3-5 months in this region.  To illustrate, two maps.  The first is a map of current conditions:

As you can see, the two affected areas in southern Somalia (the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle) are highlighted.  These are currently the only places where we have hit levels of suffering high enough to be labeled famine.  Everywhere labeled “emergency” is pretty dire, but not a famine.  Unfortunately, this situation has acquired momentum – as FEWS-NET summarizes:

The total failure of the October-December Deyr rains (secondary season) and the poor performance of the April-June Gu rains (primary season) have resulted in crop failure, reduced labor demand, poor livestock body conditions, and excess animal mortality.  The resulting decline in cereal availability and ongoing trade restrictions have subsequently pushed local cereal prices to record levels and substantially reduced household purchasing power in all livelihood zones.

In other words, there is little local food available, no real jobs to earn money to buy imported food, and the livestock are dying, meaning livestock owners cannot sell them off for food (and they are not so great for eating once they get emaciated enough to die).  This means that the resources people normally use to address challenges such as we are seeing in Somalia right now are being drawn down very, very rapidly – they are running out of things to sell, and therefore things to eat.  On top of all of this, we cannot get in to these areas with our aid – so we cannot do anything, at the moment, to stop this backslide.  The result is reflected in this map:

This reflects FEWS-NET’s projections for the outcomes of this backslide in August/September.  As you can see, all of southern Somalia will soon fall into famine conditions.  If we cannot get in there before then, our interventions will not be as effective as they could be . . . it is much easier to fight a small fire than to put out a burning house.

An interesting thing to note from these maps (I will post on this at length soon) – they show the importance of development.  Where we could do development work (Ethiopia and Kenya), we do not have famine.  Yes, things are dire, but nowhere near as dire as in Somalia, where we have not been able to work for two decades.  The fact that things are dire in Kenya and Ethiopia means that development doesn’t work well enough . . . but it does work, at least a little.



An interesting review of Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion and Wars, Guns and Votes by Yale Anthropologist Mike McGovern has gotten a little bit of attention recently in development circles, speaking as it does to ongoing debates about the role of statistical analysis, what counts as explanation, and where qualitative research fits into all of this.  I will take up McGovern’s good (but incomplete, in my opinion) review in another post.  Here, I needed to respond to a blog entry about this review.

On the Descriptive Statistics, Causal Inference and Social Science blog, Andrew Gelman discusses McGovern’s review.  While there is a lot going on in this post, one issue caught my attention in particular.  In his review, McGovern argues that “Much of the intellectual heavy lifting in these books is in fact done at the level of implication or commonsense guessing,” what Gelman (quoting Fung) calls “story time”, the “pivot from the quantitative finding to the speculative explanation.”  However, despite the seemingly dismissive term for this sort of explanation, in his blog post Gelman argues “story time can’t be avoided.” His point:

On one hand, there are real questions to be answered and real decisions to be made in development economics (and elsewhere), and researchers and policymakers can’t simply sit still and say they can’t do anything because the data aren’t fully persuasive. (Remember the first principle of decision analysis: Not making a decision is itself a decision.)

From the other direction, once you have an interesting quantitative finding,of course you want to understand it, and it makes sense to use all your storytelling skills here. The challenge is to go back and forth between the storytelling and the data. You find some interesting result (perhaps an observational data summary, perhaps an analysis of an experiment or natural experiment), this motivates a story, which in turn suggests some new hypotheses to be studied.

Now, on one hand I take his point – research is iterative, and answering one set of questions (or one set of new data) often raises new questions which can be interrogated.  But Gelman seems to presume that explanation only comes from more statistical analysis, without considering what I saw as McGovern’s subtle point: qualitative social scientists look at explanation, and do not revert to story time to do so (good luck getting published if you do).  We spend a hell of a lot of time fleshing out the causal processes behind our observations, including establishing rigor and validity for our data and conclusions, before we present stories.  This is not to say that our explanations are immediately complete or perfect, nor is it to suggest that our explanations do not raise new questions to pursue.  However, there is no excuse for the sort of “story time” analysis that McGovern is pointing out in Collier’s work – indeed, I would suggest that is why the practice is given a clearly derisive title.  That is just guessing, vaguely informed by data, often without even thinking through alternative explanations for the patterns at hand (let alone presenting those alternatives).

I agree with Gelman’s point, late in the post – this is not a failing of statistics, really.  It is a failure to use them intelligently, or to use appropriate frameworks to interpret statistical findings.  It would be nice, however, if we could have a discussion between quant and qual on how to avoid these outcomes before they happen . . . because story time is most certainly avoidable.

Andy Sumner and Charles Kenny (disclosure – Andy and Charles are friends of mine, and I need to write up my review of Charles’ book Getting Better . . . in a nutshell, you should buy it) have a post on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog addressing the two most recent challenges to the idea of the “poverty trap”: Ghana and Zambia’s recent elevations to middle-income status (per capita GNIs of between $1,006 and $3,975) by the World Bank.

Quick background for those less versed in development terminology: GNI (Gross National Income) is the value of all goods and services produced in a country, as well as all overseas investments and remittances (money sent home from abroad).  Per capita GNI divides this huge number by the population to get a sense of the per-person income of the country (there is a loose assumption that the value of goods and services will be paid in the form of wages).  So, loosely speaking, a per capita GNI of $1006 is roughly equivalent to $2.75/day.  Obviously $2.75 buys a lot more in rural Africa than it does basically anywhere inside the US, but this is still a pretty low bar at which to start “Middle Income.”

I do not want to engage an argument about where Middle Income should start in this post – Andy and Charles take this up near the end of their post, and nicely lay out the issues.  The important point that they are making, though, is that the idea that there are a lot of countries out there mired in situations that make an escape from food insecurity, material deprivation, absence of basic healthcare, and lack of opportunity (situations often called “poverty traps”) is being challenged by the ever-expanding pool of countries that seem to be increasing economic productivity rapidly and significantly.  The whole point of a “poverty trap”, as popularized by Paul Collier’s book on The Bottom Billion and Jeffrey Sach’s various writings, is that it cannot be escaped without substantial outside aid interventions (a la Sachs) or may not be escapable at all.  Well, Ghana certainly has received a lot of aid, but its massive growth is not the product of a new “big push”, a massive infusion of aid across sectors to get the country up into this new income category.  Turns out the poorest people in the world might not need us to come riding to their rescue, at least not in the manner that Sachs envisions in his Millennium Villages Project.

That said, I’ve told Andy that I am deeply concerned about fragility – that is, I am thrilled to see things changing in places like Ghana, but how robust are those changes?  At least in Ghana, a lot of the shift has been driven by the service sector, as opposed to recent oil finds (though these will undoubtedly swell the GNI figure in years to come) – this suggests a broader base to change in Ghana than, say, Equatorial Guinea . . . where GNI growth is all about oil, which is controlled by the country’s . . . problematic . . . leader (just read the Wikipedia post).  But even in Ghana, things like climate change could present significant future challenges.  The loss of the minor rainy season, for example, could have huge impacts on staple crop production and food security in the country, which in turn could hurt the workforce, exacerbate class/ethnic/rural-urban tensions, and generally hurt social cohesion in what is today a rather robust democracy.  Yes, things have gotten better in Ghana . . . but this is no time to assume, a la Rostow, that a largely irreversible takeoff to economic growth has occurred.  Aid and development are important and still needed in an increasingly middle-income world, but a different aid and development that supports existing indigenous efforts and consolidates development gains.

 

The AP is running a story on food prices – and it is heavily focused on the problem of commodities speculation.  Actually, it is heavily focused on French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments on the causes of the food price increases.  While Sarkozy acknowledged the importance of issues like climate change, he quickly moved past these causes:

Sarkozy said the difficulties go far beyond the whims of nature. He said financial market specialists — instead of agricultural trading houses — had taken over the global farm market and called for change.

“Take the Chicago market,” said Sarkozy, listing how the derivatives exchange totals 46 times the annual U.S. wheat production and 24 times that of corn. He said 85 percent of the contracts on commodities futures markets are held by purely financial players “with no link to the commodity itself.”

“The example shows to what extent our world has lost a sense of value, a sense of reality, a sense of capitalism to serve the development and happiness of people,” Sarkozy said.

It is worth noting that Sarkozy is no leftist . . . though he will likely be painted as one for that last sentence.  Then again, anyone who notes that markets might have negative as well as positive effects will be painted as  anti-capitalist/naive/out-of-place ideologue (see the comments on Dot Earth’s mention of my concerns over climate change communication).

Let me note that Sarkozy is not demonizing all speculation – nor do I.  As I discussed in an earlier post, speculation plays an important economic role that can distribute the stresses that lead to future price spikes over time, thus ameliorating future crisis.  However, this is not to say that speculation should just run unregulated – basic regulation that keeps speculation within productive parameters would likely enhance its value in the food security arena.  (See this IFPRI forum for more on the role of speculation in world food markets)

However, more information for these markets would probably help as well.  While the USDA and other organizations offer estimates of global and sometimes national-level agricultural production, it would be good to have concrete, sub-national datasets on ag production updated in real time – this would remove some of the uncertainty in commodities markets that can then be leveraged into arbitragable price instability . . . and that alone might start to clean out the more problematic players in agricultural commodities markets.

A while back, I had a blog post on a report for ActionAid, written by Alex Evans, on critical uncertainties for development between the present and 2020.  One of the big uncertainties Alex identified were environmental shocks, though in that version of the report he limited these shocks to climate-driven environmental shocks.  In my post, I suggested to Alex that he widen his scope, for environmental shocks might also include ecosystem collapse, such as in major global fisheries – such environmental shocks are not really related to climate change, but are still of great importance.  The collapse of the Gulf of Guinea large marine ecosystem (largely due to commercial overfishing from places other than Africa) has devastated local fish hauls, lowering the availability of protein in the diets of coastal areas and driving enormous pressure on terrestrial fauna as these populations seek to make up for the lost protein.  Alex was quite generous with my comments, and agreed with this observation wholeheartedly.

And then today, I stumbled on this – a simple visualization of Atlantic Fisheries in 1900 and 2000, by fish haul.  The image is striking (click to expand):

Now, I have no access to the datasets used to construct this visualization, and therefore I can make no comments on its accuracy (the blog post on the Guardian site is not very illuminating).  However, this map could be off by quite a bit in terms of how good hauls were in 1900, and how bad they are now, and the picture would still be very, very chilling.  As I keep telling my students, all those new, “exotic” fish showing up in restaurants are not delicacies – they are just all that is left in these fisheries.

This is obviously a development problem, as it compromises livelihoods and food supplies.  Yet I don’t see anyone addressing it directly, even aid organizations engaged with countries on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, where this impact is most pronounced.  And how long until even the rich really start to feel the pinch?

Go here to see more visualizations – including one of the reach of the Spanish fishing fleet that makes clear where the pressure on the Gulf of Guinea is coming from.

Updated 7 June 2011: I can find no evidence that any of my TIAA-CREF funds are holding Glencore.  So far, so good . . .

aaannnnddd

No Glencore in my Vanguard 2025 Fund (kid’s college fund).  Sadly, though, there is Gazprom.  And probably a hell of a lot of other problematic stuff . . . nobody is clean, I tell you.

 

 

As a geographer, I spend a lot of time thinking about interconnections – how events and processes in one place influence events and processes in other places.  I use these interconnections as a teaching tool in my courses, to help students understand how, for example, our levels of consumption here in the US preclude similar levels of consumption for the rest of the world (not enough resource out there to make that happen).  I am always careful to make sure that the students understand that I am as bound up in these linkages as they are – I certainly do not live off the grid, walking/riding a bike everywhere and eating only food I grow (or that is grown locally).  But it still hurts every time a find a new way in which I am bound to, and therefore a cause of, some of the processes I find most frustrating in the world.  So, this excellent post on FairPensions was a bit tough.  Simply put, Glencore, a well-known problem company that trades heavily in the food commodities markets (and appears to be making those markets, as it were, to its own advantage) has been fast-tracked into the FTSE 100, and therefore is now likely part of a lot of the mutual funds and pension plans to which we all make contributions.  I’m going to have to check on this, and pray that TIAA-CREF has some sense, but . . . dammit.

For an earlier discussions of food insecurity and the commodities markets, see here, here and here.

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