Livelihoods


CGD has an interesting short essay up, written by Matthew Darling, Saugato Datta, and Sendhil Mullainathan, entitled “The Nature of the BEast: What Behavioral Economics Is Not.” The piece aims to dispel a few myths about behavioral economics, while offering a quick summary of what this field is, and what its goals are. I’ve been looking around for a good short primer on BE, and so I had high hopes for this piece…unfortunately, for two reasons the piece did not live up to expectations.

First, the authors tie themselves in a strange knot as they try to argue that behavioral economics is not about controlling behavior. While they note that BE studies and tools could be used to nudge human behavior in particular directions, they argue that “What distinguishes the behavioral toolset [from those of marketers, for example], however, is that so many of the tools are about helping people to make the choices that they themselves want to make.” This claim sidesteps a very important question: how do we know what choices they want to make? What we see as problematic livelihoods outcomes might not, in fact, be all that problematic to those living those outcomes, and indeed might have local rationales that are quite reasonable. While this might seem an obvious point, most BE work that I have seen seems to rest on a near-total lack of understanding of why those under investigation engage in the behaviors that “require explanation”. Therefore, the claim that BE helps people make the choices they want to make is, in fact, rather patriarchal in that the determination of what choices people want to make does not rest with those people, but with the behavioral economist. Sadly, this is a fairly accurate representation of much work done under the heading of BE. It would have been better if the authors had simply pointed out that BE is no more obsessed with incentives than any other part of economics, and if people are worried about behavioral control, they’d best have a look at the US (or their own national) tax code and focus their anxiety there.

Second, the authors argue “Behavioral economics differs from standard economics in that it uses a more realistic (and more complicated) model for people [and their decisions].” Honestly, I have seen no evidence for a coherent model of humans or their behavior in BE. What I have seen is a lot of rigorous data collection, the results of which are then shoehorned into some sort of implicit explanatory framework laden with unexamined assumptions that generally do not hold in the real world. Rigorously identifying when particular stimuli result in different behaviors is not the same thing as explaining how those stimuli bring about those behaviors. BE is rather good at the former, and not very good at all at the latter. The authors are right – we need more realistic and complicated models of human decision-making, and there are some out there (for example, see here and here – email me if you need a copy of either .pdf). BE would do well to actually read something outside of economics if it is serious about this goal. There are a couple of disciplines out there (for example, anthropology, geography, some aspects of sociology and social history) that have long operated with complex framings of human behavior, and have already derived many of the lessons that BE is just now (re)discovering. In this light, then, this short paper does show us what BE isn’t: it isn’t anthropology, geography, or any other social science that has already engaged the same questions as BE, but with more complex framings of human behavior and more rigorous interpretations of observed outcomes. And if it isn’t that, what exactly is the point of this field of inquiry?

I’ve been off the blog for a while now. OK, about two months, which is too long. The new semester, and a really large number of projects, has landed on me like an avalanche. I have a small lab that I now manage (the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab, HURDL), and while I am fortunate to have a bunch of really good students in that lab, I’ve never run a lab before (nor have I ever worked in someone else’s lab before). So figuring out how best to manage projects and personnel is a new challenge that eats up time. As I told my students, this is not a fully operational, efficient program that they have joined. It’s more like a car that has stalled, and every day I am pushing it along screaming “pop the clutch” at whoever is in the driver’s seat.  To follow the metaphor, there are a lot of fits and starts right now, but things are coming together.  Among them:

  • A report on gender and adaptation in agrarian settings for USAID’s Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and the Office of Global Climate Change which, through both literature review and empirical example, is a first step toward thinking about and implementing much more complex ideas about gender in project design and evaluation. This report will spawn several related journal articles. Watch this space for both activities and publications.
  • A long-awaited report offering a detailed, if preliminary, assessment of the Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Advisory Program. I started this project before I left USAID, but it is finally coming together. Again, a set of journal articles will come from this – our empirical basis alone is absurd (720 interviews, 144 focus groups, 36 villages covering most of Southern Mali).  There are going to be a lot of interesting lessons for those interested in providing weather and climate information to farmers in this report…
  • A white paper/refereed article laying out how to implement the Livelihoods as Governmentality (LAG) approach that I presented in this article earlier this year. It is one thing to present a reframing of livelihoods decision-making and the livelihoods approach, and another to make it implementable. One of my students and I piloted this approach over the summer in Senegal, and we are pulling it together for publication now.  This will become the core of some trainings that we are likely to be doing in 2014 as we start building capacity in various countries to conduct detailed livelihoods analyses that might inform project design.

Then there is work in Zambia with the Red Cross on anticipatory humanitarian assistance (focused on hydrometeorological hazards), and a new project as part of a rather huge consortium looking at migration as an adaptation strategy in deltas in several parts of the world.

Did I mention that it’s a small lab – me and three other students working on all of this? Yeah, we’re a little short-staffed. I’m supposed to have a postdoc/research associate on board to help as well, but there have been some contract challenges that have prevented me from advertising the position. I hope to have that out some time in the next month or two, ideally to bring someone on for a year, extendable if the funding comes through.  So if you are interested in gender and some combination of development, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction/humanitarian assistance, and want to join a really outstanding group of people wired in to a lot of donors and partners, and working on projects that bring critical scholarship to the ground, let me know…

So that’s where I’ve been hiding. I am crawling out from under the rock, and hope to rejoin the blogosphere in a more active capacity in coming weeks. Thanks for your patience…

Development and humanitarian assistance have, over their respective histories, attracted rather substantial literatures. The percentage of that literature I might call “accessible” to the general public is quite small, and much of that popular literature does very little to convey the experience of working in these fields (indeed, very little of the literature in general accomplishes this)*. In 2010, after 13 years of studying development and development issues as an academic, I joined USAID in a policy position. It took only a few days for me to realize that I had no idea what was going on, what motivated decisions within the Agency, and what it actually meant to do development and humanitarian assistance. Nothing in my reading (and I am an academic, so it was a lot of reading) had prepared me for this experience.

In retrospect, it is too bad Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit had not yet been written before I went to USAID, but I suspect that even if it had been I would not have read it (academic snobbery and all). This would have been a mistake.  MMMM presents a compelling, accurate feel for what it is to be a part of the development and humanitarian assistance industry.  While J’s attention to detail is striking (for those of us in the industry, this accuracy can draw us in but also make us grumpy, as more than once I found myself muttering something about a particular meeting or document described in MMMM), he works in a lot of real material into an interesting, compelling read. In short, this book accomplishes something remarkable: I can recommend it to not only to anyone who thinks that humanitarian assistance or development looks like a good career path, but also to anyone who needs a good beach read this summer. Take that, Jeff Sachs, et. al.…

Set in Bur Amina, Ethiopia, MMMM traces J’s protagonist, Mary-Ann, through the twists and turns of delivering humanitarian assistance to refugees near the Ethiopia/Somalia border.  The plot moves Mary-Ann through different positions in her small NGO, accurately conveying how abruptly one’s life and position can change in this world…and also (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrates one of the most important lessons of any career: competence is in much shorter supply than most people realize, and if you are good at your job people will notice. At the same time, J lays out the jockeying of assistance organizations in the context of a humanitarian crisis, and the challenges of balancing the goal of helping the world’s most vulnerable with the institutional imperatives of budgeting, fundraising, and surviving.  Even the most careerist and craven of the characters in MMMM is understandable and relatable – the reader can understand why they are pushing for a particular project or outcome, even as the reader loathes them for it.  Perhaps this is why Soledad Muñiz Nautiyal, in her review of the book, noted “the book presents ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the aid industry without ever adopting a cynical perspective, and merely acts as an observer of a complex picture”.  This perspective, which permeates MMMM, makes the world of compromise that is humanitarian assistance palatable.  As the book so effectively conveys, too much idealism can render you irrelevant and ineffective.  Some readers may hate this lesson and perspective. If so, you will probably hate the real world of humanitarian assistance.

The reliability of even J’s loathsome characters leads to my next major point about MMMM.  In this book, J addresses my principal critique of his first effort, Disastrous Passion.  In Disastrous Passion, I felt that J created well-rounded, interesting humanitarian assistance characters, but many of the ancillary characters felt like caricatures.  This, perhaps, was a product of J failing to live by the first rule of so many writers: write what you know. In Disastrous Passion, I felt like I knew the characters that worked for the various donors and agencies in Haiti, but the ancillary characters felt a bit like unwanted interlopers.  In MMMM, even the ancillary characters are better-rounded, and I was drawn in by them. I had exactly one moment in the book that I felt was too shallow – when the protagonist has to address a problematic personnel issue (trying to avoid spoilers here), J never explains the motivations of the problematic person. Now, on one had I must say that this reflect reality – sometimes people do things that are inexplicable. It is a frustration the real world hands us. But somehow, in the context of MMMM, this made that character feel a bit shallow – like a plot device that allowed us to see another stressor in Mary-Ann’s life.  And while I did note that the character of Jon is, in many ways, the oracle of J in the narrative, unlike Dave Algoso I did not find this intrusive or slow reading. Instead, I thought these passages tended to crystallize the many plotlines J traces at various points in the book without having to abandon the narrative

I really enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, and one that I found difficult to put down. It was interesting, the plot very believable, the characters relatable, and the lessons (both overt and subtle) worthwhile. Whether or not you want to go into development or humanitarian assistance as a career, if you care about global poverty and want to better understand just how difficult this work really is – and you want to understand the real reasons why it is so difficult – then go get your copy of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. It is well worth the read.

 

Buy it here:

Find a set of pictures that inspired details from MMMM on the book’s Facebook page here.

 

 

 

 

*I feel compelled here to note that John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is just awful. I can’t speak to the veracity of his firsthand accounts, but his reading of institutional motivations and processes is beyond poor. Seriously, don’t waste your time…

I’ve just spent nearly three weeks in Senegal, working on the design, monitoring, and evaluation of a CCAFS/ANACIM climate services project in the Kaffrine Region. It was a fantastic time – I spent a good bit of time out in three villages in Kaffrine implementing my livelihoods as governmentality approach (for now called the LAG approach) to gather data that can inform our understanding of what information will impact which behaviors for different members of these communities.

This work also included a week-long team effort to build an approach to monitoring and evaluation for this project that might also yield broader recommendations for M&E of climate services projects in other contexts.  The conversations ranged from fascinating to frustrating, but in the process I learned an enormous amount and, I think, gained some clarity on my own thinking about project design, monitoring, and evaluation. For the purposes of this blog, I want to elaborate on one of my long-standing issues in development – the use of panel surveys, or even broad baseline surveys, to design policies and programs.

At best, people seem to assume that the big survey instrument helps us to identify the interesting things that should be explained through detailed work. At worst, people use these instruments to identify issues to be addressed, without any context through which to interpret the patterns in the data. Neither case is actually all that good. Generally, I often find the data from these surveys to be disaggregated/aggregated in inappropriate manners, aimed at the wrong issues, and rife with assumptions about the meaning of the patterns in the data that have little to do with what is going on in the real world (see, for example, my article on gendered crops, which was inspired by a total misreading of Ghanaian panel survey data in the literature). This should be of little surprise: the vast bulk of these tools are designed in the abstract – without any prior reference to what is happening on the ground.

What I am arguing here is simple: panel surveys, and indeed any sort of baseline survey, are not an objective, inductive data-gathering process. They are informed by assumptions we all carry with us about causes and effects, and the motivations for human behavior. As I have said time and again (and demonstrated in my book Delivering Development), in the world of development these assumptions are more often than not incorrect. As a result, we are designing broad survey instruments that ask the wrong questions of the wrong people. The data from these instruments is then interpreted through often-inappropriate lenses. The outcome is serious misunderstandings and misrepresentations of life on globalization’s shoreline. These misunderstandings, however, carry the hallmarks of (social) scientific rigor even as they produce spectacular misrepresentations of the decisions, events, and processes we must understand if we are to understand, let alone address, the challenges facing the global poor.  And we wonder why so many projects and policies produce “surprise” results contrary to expectations and design? These are only surprising because the assumptions that informed them were spectacularly wrong.

This problem is easily addressed, and we are in the process of demonstrating how to do it in Kaffrine. There are baseline surveys of Kaffrine, as well as ongoing surveys of agricultural production by the Senegalese agricultural staff in the region. But none of these is actually tied to any sort of behavioral model for livelihoods or agricultural decision-making. As a result, we can’t rigorously interpret any patterns we might find in the data.  So what we are doing in Kaffrine (following the approach I used in my previous work in Ghana) is spending a few weeks establishing a basic understanding of the decision-making of the target population for this particular intervention. We will then refine this understanding by the end of August through a full application of the LAG approach, which we will use to build a coherent, complex understanding of livelihoods decision-making that will define potential pathways of project impact. This, in turn, will shape the design of this program in future communities as it scales out, make sense of the patterns in the existing baseline data and the various agricultural services surveys taking places in the region, and enable us to build simple monitoring tools to check on/measure these pathways of impact as the project moves forward. In short, by putting in two months of serious fieldwork up front, we will design a rigorous project based on evidence for behavioral and livelihoods outcomes. While this will not rule out surprise outcomes (African farmers are some pretty innovative people who always seem to find a new way to use information or tools), I believe that five years from now any surprises will be minor ones within the framework of the project, as opposed to shocks that result in project failure.

Incidentally, the agricultural staff in Kaffrine agrees with my reading of the value of their surveys, and is very excited to see what we can add to the interpretation of their data. They are interested enough to provide in-town housing for my graduate student, Tshibangu Kalala, who will be running the LAG approach in Kaffrine until mid-July. Ideally, he’ll break it at its weak points, and by late July or early August we’ll have something implementable, and by the end of September we should have a working understanding of farmer decision-making that will help us make sense of existing data while informing the design of project scale up.

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.

In the world of food security and agricultural development there is a tendency to see market integration as a panacea for problems of hunger (see Theme 2, point 4). There is ample evidence that market integration creates opportunities for farmers by connecting them to the vast sums of money at play in the global food markets. But there is equally ample evidence pointing to the fact that markets are never just a solution – negotiating global markets from the position of a small producer presents significant challenges such as the management of commodity price instability (without meaningful market leverage).  The academic side, and much of the implementation side, of the food security world already recognizes this issue, driven by (repeated) studies/experiences of food insecurity and famine showing that markets are nearly always the most important driver of this stress on the global poor. Planning for the benefits of market integration without serious thought about how to manage the potential downsides of markets is a recipe for disaster.

For example, simplifying one’s farm to focus on only a few key crops for which there is “comparative advantage”, and then using the proceeds to buy food, clothing, shelter and other necessities, works great when the market for those crops is strong. But what happens when the food you need to buy becomes more dear than the crops you are growing, for example through food price spikes or a shift in markets that leave one’s farm worth only a fraction of what is needed to feed and clothe one’s family? In the world’s poorest countries, where most food security and agricultural development work takes place, there is little capacity to provide safety nets to vulnerable citizens that might address such outcomes.

This is not a call for the provision of these safety nets (microinsurance is very interesting, but a long way from implementation).  While useful and, in some contexts, critical, they are, in the end, band-aids for a larger conceptual problem – the framing of market engagement as a panacea for the problems of agricultural development and food security.  Often, such programs also presume a lack of existing safety nets at the community or household level – a sort of “we can’t make things worse” mentality that marks much development thought. However, farmers in these countries have long operated without a state-level safety net. They hedge against all kinds of uncertainties, from the weather to markets.  For example, one form of hedging I have seen in my own work is an emphasis on growing a mix of crops that can be sold or eaten, depending on market and weather conditions.  If, in coastal Ghana, you are growing maize and cassava as your principal crops, you can sell both in years where the market is good, and you can eat both in years where the market turns on you. I have referred to opting out of markets as temporary deglobalization, where people opt in and out of markets as they gauge their risks and opportunities.

Forcing farmers away from this model, toward one that focuses on enhancing the economic efficiency of agricultural production by reducing the focus of a country and its farmers to a few crops that are their “comparative advantage”, and which they should sell to purchase the rest of their dietary needs, removes the option of turning away from markets and eating the crops in conditions of years where the markets are not favorable.  This is even more true when some of that newly reduced crop mix only takes value from sale on global markets (i.e. cocoa) and/or which cannot be eaten (i.e. cotton). In short, such restructuring in the name of economic efficiency makes people dependent on the political structures of the state that govern the markets in which they participate.  Most of our work takes place in the Global South, where the state rarely has the capacity to step in and help in times of crisis.  It is pretty easy to do the math here: done wrong, food security programs principally framed around ideas of economic efficiency can enhance state capacity to extract value from farmers without a comparable improvement in the delivery of services or safety nets.  This is an acceptable outcome if you are trying to compel people to submit to the state and the markets the state regulates, which is one way to boost measurable GDP and state revenue. However, it is really bad if you are actually trying to improve people’s food security.

The key points and principals here:

1)   Are you addressing food insecurity or strengthening the state’s capacity to raise revenue and measure economic activity? These are not the same thing – generally, they are at odds with one another, as making agricultural practice easier to see and measure only serves to improve the capacity to extract revenues from farmers, without any guarantee of improved services proceeding from those revenues.

2)   Economic efficiency is a desirable characteristic of agricultural livelihoods, but in the absence of safety nets cannot be the organizing principal of food security interventions. All else being equal, it is better when farmers use their scarce resources as efficiently as possible. However, the measurement of efficiency must take place within an assessment of the various risks currently managed through “inefficiencies” – as many such inefficiencies are in fact parts of robust, community- and household-level safety nets.

3)   Food security programming should be able to identify the difference between an inefficiency and a critical part of a community- or household-level safety net.  Regardless of the consequences for economic efficiency, programs and projects should not destabilize these until such time as new, reliable safety nets exist to take their place.

4)   Opting out is OK. Farmers should be allowed to structure their farms such that they can opt out of markets if things turn bad, even if this limits their total incomes in “good”/optimal years. This should not be assessed in terms of the average outcome, when best and worst cases are averaged.  Your best case is some more money. Your worst case is severe deprivation and death. These are not equal. Averting the latter is more important than achieving the former.

If food insecurity is not about global food shortages, what is it?  Following the a vast body of literature and experience addressing food insecurity, it is the outcome of a complex interplay between:

  • locally-accessible food production
  • local livelihoods options that might provide sufficient, reliable income or sources of food
  • local social relations (which mobilize and create social divisions by gender, class, age, etc.) which shape access to both livelihoods opportunities and available food within communities and even households
  • structures of governance and markets in which that production takes place
  • global markets for food and other commodities that can impinge on local pricing.

Changes in the natural environment play into this mix in that they generally impinge upon locally-accessible production and on global markets. The experience of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) provides evidence to this effect.  FEWS-NET builds its forecasts through a consideration of all of these factors, and as it has gained resolution on things like local livelihoods activities and market pricing and functions, its predictive resolution has increased.

Despite decades of literature and body of experience to the contrary, it seems that the policy world, and indeed much development implementation, continues to view issues of hunger as the relatively straightforward outcome of production shortfalls that can be addressed through equally straightforward technical fixes ranging from changed farming techniques to new agricultural technologies such as GMOs.  This view is frustrating, given its persistence in the face of roughly five decades of project failures and ephemeral results that evaporated at the end of “successful” projects. More nuanced work has started to think about issues of production in concert with the distribution function of markets.  However, the bulk of policy and implementation along these lines couples the simplistic “technical fix” mentality of earlier work on food security with a sort of naïve market triumphalism that tends to focus on the possible benefits of market engagement with little mention or reasonable understanding of likely problematic outcomes.  Put another way, most of this thinking can be reduced to:

increased agricultural production = increased economic productivity = increased food security and decreased poverty

The problem with this equation is that the connection between agricultural productivity and economic growth is pretty variable/shaky in most places, and the connection between economic growth and any specific development outcome is shaky/nonexistent pretty much everywhere unless there has been careful work done to make sure that new income is mobilized in a specific manner that addresses the challenge at hand.  Most of the time, the food security via economic growth crowd has not done this last bit of legwork. In short, the mantra of “better technology and more markets” as currently manifest in policy circles is unlikely to advance the cause of food security and address global hunger any more effectively than prior interventions based on a version of the same mantra.

These issues present us with several key points about the problem we are trying to solve that should shape a general approach to food insecurity:

1)   Because food insecurity is the outcome of the complex interplay of many factors, sectoral approaches are doomed to failure.  At best, they will address a necessary but insufficient cause of the particular food insecurity issue at hand.  However, in leaving other key causes unaddressed, these partial solutions nearly always succumb to problems in the unaddressed causes.

2)   Production-led solutions will rarely, if ever, address enough significant causes of food insecurity to succeed.  Simply put, while production is a necessary part of understanding food insecurity, it is insufficient for explaining the causes of particular food insecurity situations, or identifying appropriate solutions for those situations.

3)   Increased production is not guaranteed to lead to economic growth. The crops at hand, who consumes them, the infrastructure for their transport, and national/global market conditions all shape this particular outcome, which can shift from season to season.

4)   Economic growth does not solve things magically. Even if you can generate economic growth through increased agricultural production, this does not mean you will be addressing food insecurity. Programs must think carefully about where the proceeds from this new economic growth will go in the economy and society at hand, and if/how those pathways will result in greater opportunity for the food insecurity.

5)   Embrace the fact complexity takes different forms in different places. In some places, markets will be a major cause of insecurity. In other places, environmental degradation might play this role. In still other places, failed governance will be the biggest issue driving food outcomes.  In nearly all cases, though, all three of these factors will be present, and accompanied by others.  Further, the form this insecurity takes will be highly variable within countries, provinces, districts, communities and even households, depending on the roles people play and the places in which they play them.  There is no good template in which to fit a particular case of food insecurity, just a lot of causal factors that require extensive teasing out if one hopes to explain food outcomes and therefore address the problem.

There is no global crisis of food production.  There is no neo-Malthusian reality that we are just now crashing into.  Every year, the Earth produces roughly twice the calories needed to feed every single human being.  This is why food insecurity and famine are such horrible tragedies, and indeed stains on humanity.  There is no unavoidable global shortage that creates famine and hunger.

Nor, in fact, are we likely to be looking at a global food shortage any time soon.  There is no doubt that climate change will present challenges to our food system.  The combination of changing temperatures and precipitation regimes will challenge existing crops in many parts of the world, and benefit the crops in other parts of the world.  Further, the global markets for food have created substantially tighter interconnections between places than ever before, and there is less excess marketable supply than ever before.  Note that there is less excess marketable supply – this is the amount of food we produce that actually reaches market, not the total amount of food grown and raised each year.  As I will discuss later (point 4: The Future is Already Being Fed), these trends are not as terrifying as some might paint them.  The simple point here is that these trends are manageable if we can get over the idea of food security as a question of production.

The idea of scarcity is perhaps the biggest challenge we face in addressing the world’s food needs.  As long as food security policy and programs remain focused on solving scarcity, food security will remain focused on technical fixes for hunger: greater technology, greater inputs, greater efficiency.  This narrative of scarcity has trumped any reasonable effort to measure actual levels of production in the world today, the return on greater technological inputs versus solving the causes of waste in existing systems, and even served as a useful foil through which to obscure the deepening unsustainability of the very agricultural systems that are often treated as a model, those here in the United States and Europe.

Simply put, it is cheaper and easier to enhance agricultural extension to improve local food storage techniques, build and maintain good roads, and improve electrical grids and other parts of the cold chain that preserves produce from farm to market than it is to completely reengineer an agricultural ecology.  It makes far more sense to make basic infrastructural investments than it does to tether ever more farmers to inputs that require finite fossil fuel and mineral resources.  It makes more sense to better train farmers in storing what they already produce in a manner that preserves more of the harvest than it does to invest billions in the modification of crops, especially when the bulk of genetic modification in agriculture these days is defensive – that is, guarding against future yield loss, not enhancing yields in the present.

This is not to say that there is no place for agricultural research or technology in achieving food security.  There are places in the world where the state cannot provide services, or maintain the basic order necessary for functional markets, that would enable the movement of food are reasonable prices, and where the local environmental conditions are such that new and innovative technologies will be required to make them productive.  Here, new agricultural technologies might have a place.  But these places are few and far between, and so we should put the push for ever-more agricultural technology into its place as but one of many possible solutions for food insecurity.  When a problem has many causes, it requires many solutions.  But this requires understanding that the problem has many causes.

This points to several key points/principals:

1)   When confronted with an instance of food insecurity, program/project/policy folks must suspend all assumptions about food supply until they can be validated by empirical evidence.

2)   Any initial arguments that define the causes of a given situation as scarcity should be assessed in terms of understanding why this has come to be the explanation.  Since scarcity is rarely the actual cause of food insecurity, explanations that hinge on scarcity alone are deeply suspect and should be critically evaluated before they are used to shape responses. For example, are there local misperceptions of markets at play, or are there those with vested interests in particular solutions trying to drive the response?

3)   Any assessment of the food security of a population should account not only for the amount of food they can access and are entitled to, but also the total food produced both by that population and within that population’s market-shed.  This allows for a greater understanding of the causes of food insecurity, such as waste caused by insufficient infrastructural quality or inappropriate on-farm practices, or the failure of the state to provide the necessary structures for functional markets.  There is little point to bringing new genetically-modified crops to populations whose real problem is not production, but an inability to get their existing harvest to market.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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