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

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

1. Engage the donors:

A few caveats from my Wilton Park experience:

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

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

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

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

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

2. Engage the UNFCCC negotiation process

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

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

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

3. Engage the implementation community:

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

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

Save the SDGs!

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

So, climate change and conflict is back in the media, seemingly with the strength of science behind it.  I’ve been a rather direct, harsh critic of some work on this connection before, at least in part because I am deeply concerned that work on this subject (which remains preliminary) might disproportionately influence policy decisions in unproductive or even problematic directions (i.e. by contributing to the unnecessary militarization of development aid and humanitarian assistance).  So, when CNN, the Guardian, and other media outlets jumped on a new paper in Science (sorry, paywalled) last week, and one of the authors was responsible for the paper I critiqued so harshly before, I felt compelled to read it – especially after seeing Keith Kloor’s great post on the issue. After reading it, I feel compelled to comment on it.

My response is lengthy, so for those on a time budget, I offer some takeaway points. The main post, with details, follows.

Takeaway points

  • The Hsaing, et al paper in Science makes claims that are much more nuanced than what is represented either in the press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, or in many of the media stories (especially the big outlets) about them.
    • The actual findings of the paper simply reiterate long-held understandings of the connection between climate change and conflict
    • These findings are, in summary:
      • The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
      • Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
      • Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
      • Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future
    • We already knew all of this
      • The authors’ claims (as stated in this press release from Princeton) that this study was necessary to establish a causal relationship between changing climate conditions and conflict is based on a straw man of “people” who have been skeptical of “an individual study here or there.”
      • Much of the literature, and those working on this issue, have long accepted the idea of a complex link between changing climate/weather conditions and conflict. The real question is that of how climate variability and change contribute to rates of conflict.
      • The paper does not answer this question
  • The quantification of increased risk of conflict in the paper is problematic, as the authors appear to assume a constant relationship, year-to-year or season-to-season, between climate conditions and their influence on various drivers of conflict.
    • This assumption has long been discarded in studies of food security and famine
    • This assumption likely introduces significant margins of error to the findings of this paper regarding increased risk of conflict associated with climate change
  • The paper does not address the real research frontier in the study of conflict and climate change because it does not further our understanding of how climate variability and change result in increased risk of conflict
    • To the author’s credit, the paper does not purport to explain how observed climate variability and change are translated into conflict
    • The paper merely summarizes existing literature exploring this issue
    • The findings of the paper do not present an opportunity to adjust policy, programs, or diplomacy to avoid future conflicts, as they do not identify specific issues that should be addressed by such efforts.
    • To some extent, this makes the critique under #2 above irrelevant – the “risk of conflict” figures were never actionable anyway
  • Media coverage of this paper amounts to much ado about nothing new


Main Post

The Hsaing, et al paper bears little resemblance to the media stories written about it. It makes very measured, fairly contained claims about climate change and conflict that, if represented accurately in the media, probably would not have made for interesting stories. That said, the article deserves critical attention on its own terms so we can understand what, if any, new information is here.

First, I want to start with the good in this paper. This is a substantially more careful paper than the one I critiqued before, both with regard to its attention to existing work on the subject and to the claims it makes about the connections between climate change and conflict. The authors deserve credit for noting the long history of qualitative work on conflict and the environment, a literature often ignored by those conducting large, more quantitative studies. They also should be commended for their caution in identifying causal relationships, instead of basic correlations.

In my opinion, this much more measured approach to thinking about climate change and conflict has resulted in more nuanced claims. First, as the authors note:

“Social conflicts at all scales and levels of organization appear susceptible to climatic influence, and multiple dimensions of the climate system are capable of influencing these various outcomes.”

But later in the paper, the authors temper this point:

“However, it is not true that all types of climatic events influence all forms of human conflict or that climatic conditions are the sole determinant of human conflict. The influence of climate is detectable across contexts, but we strongly emphasize that it is only one of many factors that contribute to conflict.”

And in the end, the big summary (my emphasis):

“The above evidence makes a prima facie case that future anthropogenic climate change could worsen conflict outcomes across the globe in comparison to a future with no climatic changes, given the large expected increase in global surface temperatures and the likely increase in variability of precipitation across many regions over coming decades”

Every bit of this is fine with me. Indeed, had the reporting on this paper been as nuanced as the claims it actually makes…there probably wouldn’t have been any reporting on the paper. The hook “the climate affects a lot of things, and some of those things could affect rates of conflict, so climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future” isn’t exactly exciting.

And this is where I have to critique the article. My critique has two sides, one intellectual and one from a policy perspective. They are closely linked and blend into one another, and so I present them both below.

Intellectually, I fundamentally question the contribution of this paper. In a nutshell, there is almost nothing new here. Yes, there appear to be some new quantifications of the risk of conflict under different climate situations, and I will return to those in a minute. But overall, the claims made in this paper are exactly the claims that have been made by many others, in many other venues, for a while. For example, the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at USAID put out a report back in 2009 (yes, four years ago) that reviewed the existing literature on the subject and came to more or less the same conclusions as this “new” article.  So I was a little bothered by the Princeton press release for this paper in which quoted lead author Solomon Hsaing several times, because I think his justification for the paper is based on a straw man:

“We think that by collecting all the research together now, we’re pretty clearly establishing that there is a causal relationship between the climate and human conflict,” Hsiang said. “People have been skeptical up to now of an individual study here or there. But considering the body of work together, we can now show that these patterns are extremely general. It’s more of the rule than the exception.

I’d love to know who the “people” are who think there is no relationship between climate conditions and human conflict. Critiques of the study of this connection (at least credible critiques) have not so much argued that there is no connection, but that the connections are very complex and not well-captured in large-scale studies using quantitative tools.  So, when Hsaing goes on to say:

“Whether there is a relationship between climate and conflict is not the question anymore. We now want to understand what’s causing it,” Hsiang said. “Once we understand what causes this correlation we can think about designing effective policies or institutions to manage or interrupt the link between climate and conflict.”

…he’s really making a rather grand claim for an article that just tells us what we already knew – that there is a connection between climate conditions and human conflict. And he is burying the real lede here…that the contribution we need, now, is to understand how these causal relationships come to be. This argument for “where we should go next” is also a bit grand, seeing as everyone from academics to USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation have been conducting detailed, qualitative studies of these relationships for some time now because we already knew a) that there were relationships between climate and conflict and b) we needed to establish what caused those relationships.

Second, I feel this article suffers from a critical methodological flaw, in that the authors never address the variable coupling of climate outcomes and changes in even those drivers of conflict identified in the literature. For example, it is not at all uncommon to have market shifts take place seasonally, in a manner that can be either coupled or uncoupled with shifts in climate: that is, sometimes a bad rainy season damages local harvests and drives market prices for food up, while other times it could be a great rainy season and a very productive harvest, but factors on regional or global markets could still generate price spikes that end up limiting people’s access to food. In both situations, the people in question would experience a food stress, one closely linked to climate variability, and the other experience a food stress uncoupled from climate. This is why, as I argued back during the Horn of Africa Famine, drought does not equal famine. Famines are far more highly correlated to market conditions than climate conditions. Sometimes climate events like a failed rainy season can trigger a famine by pushing markets and other factors over key thresholds. However, we’ve also had famines in times of normal or even favorable climatic conditions for agriculture.

Simply put, the authors appear to assume a constant relationship between a conflict driver like access to food and the local/regional/global climate. To be fair, this seems to be a pretty prevalent assumption in the literature.  But to the point, this is a bad bet. As best I can tell, the authors have not managed to address the intermittent coupling of conflict drivers like access to food and markets with climatic conditions in their analysis. This, to me, casts significant doubt on their findings that risk of inter-group conflict will rise 14% at one standard deviation of temperature rise – in short, this is far too precise a claim for a study with such large margins for error built into its design.  My suspicion here is that the margin of error introduced by this problem is probably larger than their analytical findings, rendering them somewhere between weak and meaningless. And this, to be honest, was the only really original contribution in the paper.

Third (as I begin to pivot from intellectual to policy critique), while the authors claim to have focused on causal relationships (a claim I think should be tempered by my methodological concerns above), they cannot explain those relationships. I’ve made this point before: in the social sciences, causality is not explanation. Even if we accept that the authors have indeed established causal relationships between climate variability and change and the risk of conflict/rates of conflict, they do not know exactly how these changes in climate actually create these outcomes. This is clear in the section of the paper titled “Plausible Mechanisms”, in which the authors conduct a review of the existing literature (much of which is qualitative) to lay out a set of potential pathways by which their observed relationships might be explained. But nothing in this study allows the authors to choose between any of these explanations…which means that all the authors have really accomplished here is to establish, by different means, exactly what the qualitative literature has known for a long time. To repeat:

  1. The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
  2. Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
  3. Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
  4. Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future

We already knew all of this.

At this point, allow me to pivot fully to my fourth critique, which comes from a policy perspective. People tend to see me as an academic, and forget that I served as the first climate change coordinator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) at USAID. I was Nancy Lindborg’s first climate advisor – indeed, it was in this role that I found myself first dealing with issues of conflict and climate change, as I was responsible both for briefing my Bureau’s leadership on these issues and guiding the programming of the Bureau’s dedicated climate change budget (some of which I directed into more research on this topic). In short, I do know something about policymaking and the policy environment. And what I know is this: this paper gives us nothing actionable to address. Even if I accept the finding of 14% greater risk of intergroup conflict at one standard deviation of temperature increase, what am I supposed to do about it? Without an explanation for how this temperature rise produces this greater risk, I have no means of targeting programs, diplomacy, or other resources to address the things that create this greater risk. In short, this paper tells me what I already knew (that climate variability and change can contribute to conflict risk) without giving me anything concrete I can work on. If I were still briefing Nancy, my summary of this paper would be:

  1. There is nothing new in this paper. Its key findings are those of CMM’s (four-year-old) report, and are already well-established in the literature
  2. The paper does not provide any new information about how climate change and variability might contribute to increased conflict risk, and therefore presents nothing new that might serve to guide future policy, programs, or diplomacy
  3. I have methodological concerns with the paper that lead me to believe that the rates of increased risk of conflict reported in this paper are likely stated with too much confidence. These rates of heightened risk should not be cited until put under significant scrutiny by the academic and policy community*.

In summary, the supportable parts of this paper are nothing new – it is a reasonable summary of the issues with establishing a connection between climate change and conflict, and a decent (if truncated) review of the existing literature on the subject (I’d suggest that a real review article of this subject would have to go wider and look at the conflict and environment literature more broadly). But it doesn’t say anything new that really bears up to scrutiny, and even if the “risk of conflict” figures are correct, the paper provides no information that might guide policy, programs, or diplomacy in a manner that could avoid such conflicts. For that information, we have to return to the qualitative research community, which has long espoused the same general findings as those in this paper.

The press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, and the more hyped of the media coverage we’ve seen around this paper (likely driven by those press releases) is much ado about nothing new.



*In my third point I am indeed taking issue with the peer review process that brought this paper to publication. I believe that Science wanted this paper for the same reason Nature wanted the last one: headlines. Let’s see how the findings here stand up to serious scrutiny.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on South Carolina politics, and never on this blog (I had some op-eds in The State and the Sun News out of Myrtle Beach).  But there is an ongoing dustup in South Carolina politics that pretty much aligns with one line of my work in development – thinking about governance.  Development is plagued with people and programs that operate under the assumption there is a simple, straight line between democracy and good governance, or worse conflate the means (democracy) with the ends (responsive, transparent government).  This has led to many hilarious (read: sad) cases where development-donor sponsored work on environmental governance has focused on state-level capacity to write legislation and regulations on the use of the environment in places where a) the state has no capacity to actually enforce laws or regulations and b) where actual political legitimacy that might make such regulations work tends to rest at the local level, in the control of those who shape access to agricultural land.  And people keep wondering why all that work doesn’t seem to amount to much change on the ground?

Well, here in South Carolina we could learn a bit about our own governance issues from these various failures. The Speaker of the House here in SC, Bobby Harrell, has been under a cloud for some time regarding his use of campaign funds.  Jody Barr, an investigative reporter for local NBC affiliate WIS-10, had the temerity to actually start digging through records, asking for interviews, and then…wait for it…actually reported on the story.  And a bunch of people are shocked, yes shocked, that…Jody Barr would dare ask such questions.  Even if the Speaker’s spending patterns are really, really problematic. Like spending $54,812 of campaign money for memberships, dues, meals and receptions to two Columbia private dinner clubs. Or $54,834 on cell phones between 2008 and 2012.

Why, how dare anyone wonder how the Speaker ran up monthly campaign-related $1000 cell phone bills for four straight years? Or mention that the State Law Enforcement Division is, in fact, investigating this issue? That’s just so…impolite. Or something.

Now, the fact is that neither I nor anyone reading this (unless the speaker is reading) actually knows if any of these expenses are indeed fraudulent, or even pushing the boundaries of the letter/spirit of the law. It sure looks bad, but until SLED comes back with something, we all have to wait and see. Perhaps Mr. Harrell is just tarred by the brush of South Carolina’s painful, ongoing history of politicians who managed to enrich themselves, their families, or their friends via their office. Amazingly, quite often these actions were legal (see Haley, Nikki and nepotism), because for a very long time the state had very weak conflict of interest rules and laws (see Haley, Nikki – what do you mean I had to disclose my consulting work for a hospital, payday lenders, and an engineering firm with interests before the state? Nobody else does it, so why should I?*), and because governance in the State of South Carolina is staggeringly opaque.  This, it seems to me, is the point everyone here is missing, and it became clear to me today in a twitter exchange with State Representative Leon Stavrinakis (D-SC119). I don’t know Representative Stavrinakis personally, and I don’t have any personal issue with him.  But he popped up in my twitter feed when I noted that South Carolina has a remarkably opaque government at nearly all levels:

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My response, in which I was trying to point out that televising the end product of a long, informal process isn’t really transparency:

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And Representative Stavrinakis replied:

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Which totally misses the point, and worries me greatly. If elected representatives don’t understand the difference between the structures of government and the actual process of governance, who does?  Look, governance isn’t only about the formal votes. A lot of stuff happens before those meetings and votes, including the drafting of bills, that are shaped by various informal meetings and conversations. This is the informal structure by which representative democracy really works. Not every representative can know everything about every subject. Here in SC, they don’t have the staff support to become fully informed, either (this is a major problem at the federal level as well).  So a lot of their decisions are going to be based on the opinions and ideas pushed through this informal structure.

This is not a problem in and of itself – James Scott (among others) has observed that basically all large formal structures rest on lots of unacknowledged informal structures – but in representative democracy this becomes an issue because not every citizen has access to this informal structure (leaving aside the attempted use of absurd voting fraud laws to exclude part of the citizenry from the formal structure). This means that not everyone can exert the same influence on their representatives, and not everyone who is represented can understand the motivations of their elected representatives and therefore make an informed choice at the ballot box in the next election.  So, when you say you are making things transparent by televising votes, you are just televising the end product of a long, opaque process.

That’s not transparency. That’s theater.

Now, there is no easy fix for this. But a very nice first step would be to require full disclosure of all meetings that our elected representatives take during the day: who did they meet with, and about what? This would include “incidental contact” at private, non-governmental events, because this is where a lot of the work of the informal network happens. Yes, that’s right, if Representative X runs into a registered lobbyist at a wedding, and discusses a legislative issue with that lobbyist at the reception, the Representative should disclose that. If the Representative runs into the officers of a company with business before the State, and they discuss that business, the Representative should disclose that. Some might see this as intrusive. I see it as the price of admission to representing constituents in a representative democracy. This disclosure rule needs to have teeth to punish those who “forget” to do this, and it all needs to be posted publicly.

Second, representatives need to publish full lists of their donors IN REAL TIME, again in a public place. And again, give the damn rules some teeth, as a lot of our representatives are skirting this requirement with no real consequences. Third, representatives should have to disclose absolutely all of their business and investment interests. If you don’t like it, don’t run for office. I’d accept blind trusts for investments, actually, but that doesn’t work for businesses.  And all three of these public documents should be easily searchable, so constituents can quickly find out to whom their representative is talking, and from whom they are taking money and earning a living. Constituents deserve to know exactly how different votes might affect their representative’s personal interests, and be able to weigh a voting record to see if the representative is acting in self-interest, or the interest of his/her constituents.

Now, these first two steps would serve to push responsibility back to the voter for who they elect. Sure, in theory the responsibility sits with them now, but how responsible can anyone be when it is impossible to actually figure out what motivates the people running for office? Of course, just creating a situation where the voter might finally know what, exactly, he or she is voting for doesn’t guarantee they will pick good people to serve.  But at least the electorate could only blame itself.**

There is a third step that is needed here, however: do something about self-policing. Until this gets sorted out, voters will continue to grow cynical and apathetic in the face of problematic behavior in the government. You cannot have each branch of the government responsible for self-policing, as the incentives generally run against actually punishing anyone (because nobody wants to be retaliated against later by having their legislation or projects blocked. See Haley, Nikki – entire legislative career***). Yes, I do understand the concept of separation of powers. But checks and balances are key to the functioning of American-style representative democracy, and self-policing is not a check on much of anything. Court officers do have to answer to the bar, and while that is a fraught process in and of itself, the fact is that South Carolina has a branch of government accountable to someone or something other than itself, and the world has not ended.  This suggests that the legislature and executive could probably survive a similar structure.  Actually, each branch needs this to rebuild its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. At this point, very few people expect the legislature to do anything about the behavior of its own members (and don’t bother parading one or two high-profile examples out to argue with me, those are sacrificial tokens and everyone knows it).  And this is because the government has failed at governance.  The citizenry is getting frustrated, because the government neither responsive nor transparent.

A final point: this is not a “size of government” issue. There is no necessary connection between opacity and size of government. You can have a very small, opaque government (I’ve seen this at work in towns back in New Hampshire) and you can certainly have big, transparent, and responsive government (most of Scandinavia, for example, though I’ve recently heard rumors about the Norwegian oil industry working to suppress government environmental impact studies that they don’t like through opaque means).  What I am arguing for here is agnostic about the size of government – transparency and responsiveness are the goals of a governmental structure, regardless of its size. Just continuing to shrink the state won’t fix any of this.  All that effort does is slowly reduce state capacity, which means that sooner or later we are one of those countries in the Global South with a government that no longer has the capacity to enforce its laws and regulations (or provide water, roads, healthcare, fire departments, or policing).  I’ve worked in such places for my entire professional life. Most of the people living in them either wish to see reforms that make the state more capable, transparent, and responsive, or are working, as we speak, to to these ends. Why are we trying so hard to trade places with them?




*No, really, that was the crux of her defense. And it worked.

**This is a depressingly likely outcome. After all, Mark Sanford (R-Appalachian Trail) is back in Congress.

***I bet you thought I had nothing good to say about Haley. See, I’m full of surprises!

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.

Colleague Ben Neimark at ODU recently asked me a tough question: “What makes for good (helpful to get published, strengthened,  intellectually creativity, etc.) peer review?”  I figured this might be of wider interest to academic colleagues, as well as those who see the entire academic publishing world as somewhat opaque.  So . . .

I think the challenge in producing a good peer review is to balance its dual imperative .  There is the part of peer review that ensures quality and offers constructive criticism (and I have received some in the case of my current livelihoods work – see here, here and here -, and have had some reviewers offer great stuff in the past).  Then there is the disciplinary policing that goes on through peer review, where reviewers don’t examine the quality of the data or argument, but simply argue against it because it challenges convention (which the reviewer likely belongs to or established) – see my comments about reviewer 1 at the bottom of this post.  This second function makes innovation very challenging unless you are very, very hardheaded (which I am).

In a nutshell, though, I think good peer review is that which looks at a paper for its stated aims and evaluates

  1. are those stated aims actually new and interesting and
  2. did the paper achieve the stated aims.

If standard 1) is not met, a good peer reviewer should be able to suggest where the real contribution of the paper lies – i.e. by suggesting literatures into which the author should place the manuscript.  If standard 2) is not met, the reviewer should explain exactly how and why this happened, and what sorts of remedial steps might solve the problem(s).  That is my minimum take . . .

I’m happy to hear the opinions of others . . .

David Reiff has a great piece on ForeignPolicy.com called “Millions May Die . . . Or Not.”  It is hard to read, in some ways, because nobody really wants to criticize folks whose hearts are in the right place.  At the same time, couching pleas for aid in ever escalating “worst disaster ever” claims, is risking the long-term viability of charitable contributions:

By continually upping the rhetorical ante, relief agencies, whatever their intentions, are sowing the seeds of future cynicism, raising the bar of compassion to the point where any disaster in which the death toll cannot be counted in the hundreds of thousands, that cannot be described as the worst since World War II or as being of biblical proportions, is almost certainly condemned to seem not all that bad by comparison.

I see this as akin to blizzard predictions – what one of my friends long ago started calling the “Storm of the Century of the Week” problem.  I cannot take an apocalyptic blizzard prediction seriously anymore, because they are all apocalyptic.  One day this will bite me in the ass, I know . . . well, unless I stay in DC and/or South Carolina.

But there was one thing left unexamined in the article that I wonder about – Reiff notes, quite rightly, that:

All relief agencies know that, where disasters are concerned, not only the media but the public as a whole practices a species of serial monogamy, focusing on one crisis to the exclusion of all others until what is sometimes called “compassion fatigue” sets in. Then, attention shifts to the next emergency.

Reiff does not tell us the origins of this syndrome – and the article seems to suggest that it “just exists,” a cause of the ever-escalating claims about the scale and scope of a given disaster.  I wonder, however, if he has overlooked something important here – that perhaps the escalating claims are the very thing that has created this “serial charity/aid monogamy” by overwhelming our capacity to address the wide range of needs that exist in the world.

In short, has the competition for relief dollars created a cycle in which claims about the magnitude of the crisis will continue to inflate, further focusing the attention of the public and media into shorter and shorter cycles until it completely evaporates?  Are we looking at a midpoint to the creative destruction of the relief industry?  And what have the policy implications of this narrowing been – is there space to back up and think more holistically, and with greater perspective, to do a better job of assessing need and capabilities of meeting it?

Those following this blog (or my twitter feed) know that I have some issues with RCT4D work.  I’m actually working on a serious treatment of the issues I see in this work (i.e. journal article), but I am not above crowdsourcing some of my ideas to see how people respond.  Also, as many of my readers know, I have a propensity for really long posts.  I’m going to try to avoid that here by breaking this topic into two parts.  So, this is part 1 of 2.

To me, RCT4D work is interesting because of its emphasis on rigorous data collection – certainly, this has long been a problem in development research, and I have no doubt that the data they are gathering is valid.  However, part of the reason I feel confident in this data is because, as I raised in an earlier post,  it is replicating findings from the qualitative literature . . . findings that are, in many cases, long-established with rigorously-gathered, verifiable data.  More on that in part 2 of this series.

One of the things that worries me about the RCT4D movement is the (at least implicit, often overt) suggestion that other forms of development data collection lack rigor and validity.  However, in the qualitative realm we spend a lot of time thinking about rigor and validity, and how we might achieve both – and there are tools we use to this end, ranging from discursive analysis to cross-checking interviews with focus groups and other forms of data.  Certainly, these are different means of establishing rigor and validity, but they are still there.

Without rigor and validity, qualitative research falls into bad journalism.  As I see it, good journalism captures a story or an important issue, and illustrates that issue through examples.  These examples are not meant to rigorously explain the issue at hand, but to clarify it or ground it for the reader.  When journalists attempt to move to explanation via these same few examples (as far too often columnists like Kristof and Friedman do), they start making unsubstantiated claims that generally fall apart under scrutiny.  People mistake this sort of work for qualitative social science all the time, but it is not.  Certainly there is some really bad social science out there that slips from illustration to explanation in just the manner I have described, but this is hardly the majority of the work found in the literature.  Instead, rigorous qualitative social science recognizes the need to gather valid data, and therefore requires conducting dozens, if not hundreds, of interviews to establish understandings of the events and processes at hand.

This understanding of qualitative research stands in stark contrast to what is in evidence in the RCT4D movement.  For all of the effort devoted to data collection under these efforts, there is stunningly little time and energy devoted to explanation of the patterns seen in the data.  In short, RCT4D often reverts to bad journalism when it comes time for explanation.  Patterns gleaned from meticulously gathered data are explained in an offhand manner.  For example, in her (otherwise quite well-done) presentation to USAID yesterday, Esther Duflo suggested that some problematic development outcomes could be explained by a combination of “the three I s”: ideology, ignorance and inertia.  This is a boggling oversimplification of why people do what they do – ideology is basically nondiagnostic (you need to define and interrogate it before you can do anything about it), and ignorance and inertia are (probably unintentionally) deeply patronizing assumptions about people living in the Global South that have been disproven time and again (my own work in Ghana has demonstrated that people operate with really fine-grained information about incomes and gender roles, and know exactly what they are doing when they act in a manner that limits their household incomes – see here, here and here).  Development has claimed to be overcoming ignorance and inertia since . . . well, since we called it colonialism.  Sorry, but that’s the truth.

Worse, this offhand approach to explanation is often “validated” through reference to a single qualitative case that may or may not be representative of the situation at hand – this is horribly ironic for an approach that is trying to move development research past the anecdotal.  This is not merely external observation – I have heard from people working inside J-PAL projects that the overall program puts little effort into serious qualitative work, and has little understanding of what rigor and validity might mean in the context of qualitative methods or explanation.  In short, the bulk of explanation for these interesting patterns of behavior that emerges from these studies resorts to uninterrogated assumptions about human behavior that do not hold up to empirical reality.  What RCT4D has identified are patterns, not explanations – explanation requires a contextual understanding of the social.

Coming soon: Part 2 – Qualitative research and the interpretation of empirical data

I was at a talk today where folks from Michigan State were presenting research and policy recommendations to guide the Feed the Future initiative.  I greatly appreciate this sort of presentation – it is good to get real research in the building, and to see USAID staff that have so little time turn out in large numbers to engage.  Once again, folks, its not that people in the agencies aren’t interested or don’t care, its a question of time and access.

In the course of one of the presentations, however, I saw a moment of “explanation” for observed behavior that nicely captures a larger issue that has been eating at me as the randomized control trials for development (RCT4D) movement gains speed . . . there isn’t a lot of explanation there.  There is really interesting data, rigorously collected, but explanation is another thing entirely.

In the course of the presentation, the presenter put up a slide that showed a wide dispersion of prices around the average price received by farmers for their maize crops around a single market area (near where I happen to do work in Malawi).  Nothing too shocking there, as this happens in Malawi, and indeed in many places.  However, from a policy and programming perspective, it’s important to know that the average price is NOT the same thing as what a given household is taking home.  But then the presenter explained this dispersion by noting (in passing) that some farmers were more price-savvy than others.

1) there is no evidence at all to support this claim, either in his data or in the data I have from an independent research project nearby

2) this offhand explanation has serious policy ramifications.

This explanation is a gross oversimplification of what is actually going on here – in Mulanje (near the Luchenza market area analyzed in the presentation), price information is very well communicated in villages.  Thus, while some farmers might indeed be more savvy than others, the prices they are able to get are communicated throughout the village, thus distributing that information.  So the dispersion of prices is the product of other factors.  Certainly desperation selling is probably part of the issue (another offhand explanation offered later in the presentation).  However, what we really need, if we want a rigorous understanding of the causes of this dispersion and how to address it, is a serious effort to grasp the social component of agriculture in this area – how gender roles, for example, shape household power dynamics, farm roles, and the prices people will sell at (this is a social consideration that exceeds explanation via markets), or how social networks connect particular farmers to particular purchasers in a manner that facilitates or inhibits price maximization at market.  These considerations are both causal of the phenomena that the presenter described, and the points of leverage on which policy might act to actually change outcomes.  If farmers aren’t “price savvy”, this suggests the need for a very different sort of intervention than what would be needed to address gendered patterns of agricultural strategy tied to long-standing gender roles and expectations.

This is a microcosm of what I am seeing in the RCT4D world right now – really rigorous data collection, followed by really thin interpretations of the data.  It is not enough to just point out interesting patterns, and then start throwing explanations out there – we must turn from rigorous quantitative identification of significant patterns of behavior to the qualitative exploration of the causes of those patterns and their endurance over time.  I’ve been wrestling with these issues in Ghana for more than a decade now, an effort that has most recently led me to a complete reconceptualization of livelihoods (shifting from understanding livelihoods as a means of addressing material conditions to a means of governing behaviors through particular ways of addressing material conditions – the article is in review at Development and Change).  However, the empirical tests of this approach (with admittedly tiny-n size samples in Ghana, and very preliminary looks at the Malawi data) suggest that I have a better explanatory resolution for explained behaviors than possible through existing livelihoods approaches (which would end up dismissing a lot of choices as illogical or the products of incomplete information) – and therefore I have a better foundation for policy recommendations than available without this careful consideration of the social.

See, for example, this article I wrote on how we approach gender in development (also a good overview of the current state of gender and development, if I do say so myself).  I empirically demonstrate that a serious consideration of how gender is constructed in particular places has large material outcomes on whose experiences we can understand, and therefore the sorts of interventions we might program to address particular challenges.  We need more rigorous wrestling with “the social” if we are going to learn anything meaningful from our data.  Period.

In summary, explanation is hard.  Harder, in many ways, than rigorous data collection.  Until we start spending at least as much effort on the explanation side as we do on the collection side, we will not really change much of anything in development.

There is a great post up at Good on “Pretending to be Poor” experiments, where participants try to live on tiny sums of money (i.e. $1.50/day) to better understand the plight of the global poor.  Cord Jefferson refers to this sort of thing as “playing poor”, at least in part because participants don’t really live on $1.50 a day . . . after all, they are probably not abandoning their secure homes, and probably not working the sort of dangerous, difficult job that pays such a tiny amount.  Consuming $1.50/day is one thing.  Living on it is entirely another.  (h/t to Michael Kirkpatrick at Independent Global Citizen for pointing out the post).

This, for me, brings up another issue – the “authenticity” of the experiences many of us have had while doing fieldwork (or working in field programs), an issue that has been amplified by what seems to be the recent discovery of fieldwork by the RCT trials for development crowd (I still can’t get over the idea that they think living among the poor is a revolutionary idea).  The whole point of participant observation is to better understand what people do and why they do it by experiencing, to some extent, their context – I find it inordinately difficult to understand how people even begin to meaningfully parse social data without this sort of grounding.  In a concrete way, having malaria while in a village does help one come to grips with the challenges this might pose to making a living via agriculture in a rather visceral way.  So too, living in a village during a drought that decimated a portion of the harvest, by putting me in a position where I had to go a couple of (intermittent) days without food, and with inadequate food for quite a few more, helped me to come to grips with both the capacity and the limitations of the livelihoods strategies in the villages I write about in Delivering Development, and at least a limited understanding of the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that can arise when things go wrong in rural Africa, even as livelihoods strategies work to prevent the worst outcomes.

But the key part of that last sentence was “at least a limited understanding.”  Being there is not the same thing as sharing the experience of poverty, development, or disaster.  When I had malaria, I knew what clinics to go to, and I knew that I could afford the best care available in Cape Coast (and that care was very good) – I was not a happy guy on the morning I woke up with my first case, but I also knew where to go, and that the doctor there would treat me comprehensively and I would be fine.  So too with the drought – the villages I was living in were, at most, about 5 miles (8km) from a service station with a food mart attached.  Even as I went without food for a day, and went a bit hungry for many more, I knew in the back of my mind that if things turned dire, I could walk that distance and purchase all of the food I needed.  In other words, I was not really experiencing life in these villages because I couldn’t, unless I was willing to throw away my credit card, empty my bank account, and renounce all of my upper-class and government colleagues and friends.  Only then would I have been thrown back on only what I could earn in a day in the villages and the (mostly appalling) care available in the rural clinic north of Eguafo.  I was always critically aware of this fact, both in the moment and when writing and speaking about it since.  Without that critical awareness, and a willingness to downplay our own (or other’s) desire to frame our work as a heroic narrative, there is a real risk in creating our own versions of “playing poor” as we conduct fieldwork.

A letter to the editor in today’s Washington Post (scroll down to the second letter on this page) infuriated me beyond words.  People have a right to offer their opinion, however ill-informed, in a democracy.  Nobody, however, has a right to basically lie outright.  Yet James L. Henry, chairman of USA Maritime managed to get a letter to the editor published that did just that.

Henry was responding to the column “5 Myths About Foreign Aid” in which the author, John Norris, the executive director of the sustainable security program at the Center for American Progress quite rightly noted:

Congress mandates that 75 percent of all U.S. international food aid be shipped aboard U.S. flagged vessels — ships registered in the United States. A study by several researchers at Cornell University concluded that this subsidy of elite U.S. shipping companies cost American taxpayers $140 million in unnecessary transportation costs during 2006 alone.

The Government Accountability Office noted that between 2006 and 2008, U.S. food aid funding increased by nearly 53 percent, but the amount of food delivered actually decreased by 5 percent. Why? Because our food aid policies are swayed by an agribusiness lobby that stresses buying American, not buying cheaply.

Both of these points are well-documented.  But Henry, chair of the interest group that protects the US shipping industry from competition in the delivery of food aid, really doesn’t want you to know this.  Instead, he argues:

The reality is that cargo preference adds no additional cost to foreign aid programs and should be credited with sustaining an essential national defense sealift capability.

Cargo preference does not divert one dollar away from food aid programs. To the extent that cargo preference increases costs, the difference has been reimbursed by the Transportation Department. For example, reimbursements resulted in a $128 million net increase in available food aid funding in 2006. The Transportation Department reimburses these costs because a reliable U.S.-flag commercial fleet provides essential sealift capacity in times of war or national emergencies.

The language here is very careful – technically, he is not lying.  But by no means is his explanation meant to help the reader understand what is going on.  In arguing that “cargo preference does not divert one dollar away from food aid programs,” he fails to point out that the cost of cargo preference is built into existing budgets . . . it is part of existing food aid programs, and therefore technically does not divert money from them.  But this, of course, is not what Norris meant in his “5 myths” piece, nor is it what most people care about.  The simple fact of the matter is that more of the food aid budget could go to procuring food if the cargo preference requirement was dropped.  Period.

Second, if we read these two paragraphs carefully, we find that Henry is engaged in one of the more carefully phrased but entertainingly contradictory bits of writing I have ever seen.  Pay attention, now: in the first paragraph, he argues that “cargo preference adds no additional cost to foreign aid programs.”  In the second, he notes “To the extent that cargo preference increases costs, the difference has been reimbursed by the Transportation Department.” OK, first, let’s note that he just admitted that cargo preference does increase costs.  Second, he is technically correct – the burden of those costs is shifted outside foreign aid programs . . . to the Transportation Department.  Which is funded by the same tax dollars as foreign aid.  Basically, he is arguing that their taxpayer-funded subsidy/reimbursement should not be seen as having any impact on taxpayer-funded foreign relief operations.  Even though these are the same tax dollars, in the end.

Technically all true.  Clearly intended to deceive.  So, WaPo, how do you feel about publishing letters from poverty/disaster profiteers?

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