I have nothing to say about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial. I’m not a lawyer, I’m not involved in the case, and this country has more than enough marginally-informed people offering opinions.  I’ll not add to that mess.

However, I was deeply moved by this piece by Questlove. In it, he lays out how even a successful, wealthy artist cannot escape the categorizations imposed upon him by the way our society reads his skin and size. His elevator anecdote says it all.  Now, some folks might think his experience is overblown, or maybe unique. I am absolutely certain it is not.

During my third year at the University of Virginia, I went to the Barracks Road Shopping Center with my teammate, Donald Scott.  I think Donald drove. I forget what we were going there to buy, or exactly what store we were in (grocery? department store?).  It was the middle of the day, and both Donald and I were wearing our athletic-department issued sweats (UVa issued really drab gray sweatshirts and sweatpants, totally generic and nondescript) because we were headed to practice later.  Donald was wearing a Raiders jacket over his sweats. Basically, there was nothing on us that indicated we were students, let alone student-athletes, at UVa.

We went into the store, and walked up and down the aisles.  After a couple of minutes, I started to feel…off. Something was weird.  I started looking around, and after a minute or two realized that we were being watched. Not in passing. Rather directly.

As potential shoplifters.

Now, I’d been in this store many times, usually by myself (it was within easy walking distance of our apartment – Donald and I were just being lazy by driving), often dressed more or less as I was that day. Nobody had ever watched me like this. Nobody had ever watched me, as best as I could tell, at all.  Donald was the variable.  In the presence of a 6 foot tall, 185lb black man in a Raiders jacket, I was converted from uninteresting to potential criminal.

For the first time in my life, for just a moment, I realized what Donald must have had to deal with every single day, in any number of settings, and I was horrified.  Yet I say “for just a moment” because, of course, I am white and of an upper middle-class background. I could go home, change into some nicer clothes, and come back without Donald and return to my previously uninteresting self.  I had an escape hatch. Donald had no escape. None of my friends and teammates who looked like Donald had an escape. This was their lives. Every day.

I’ve never gotten over that experience – the very brief window into someone else’s life, and the horribly oppressive feel of that life.  I didn’t know how to talk about this with Donald, with anyone. What can you say to someone – sorry your life is so obviously oppressive because of the social expectations attached to your age, race, and gender?  Reading Questlove’s piece today brought that all back for me. I still don’t know what to say. Except that what Questlove describes is real, and is horrible, and deserves to be taken seriously.

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…

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!

Ok, so that title was meant to goad my fellow anthropologists, but before everyone freaks out, let me explain what I mean. The best anthropology, to quote Marshall Sahlins, “consists of making the apparently wild thought of others logically compelling in their own cultural settings and intellectually revealing of the human condition.” This is, of course, not bound by time. Understanding the thought of others, wherever and whenever it occurs, helps to illuminate the human condition. In that sense, ethnographies are forever.

However, in the context of development and climate change, ethnography has potential value beyond this very broad goal. The understandings of human behavior produced through ethnographic research are critical to the achievement of the most noble and progressive goals of development*. As I have argued time and again, we understand far less about what those in the Global South are doing than we think, and I wrote a book highlighting how our assumptions about life in such places are a) mostly incorrect and b) potentially very dangerous to the long-term well-being of everyone on Earth.  To correct this problem, development research, design, and monitoring and evaluation all need much, much more engagement with qualitative research, including ethnographic work. Such work brings a richness to our understanding of other people, and lives in other places, that is invaluable to the design of progressive programs and projects that meet the actual (as opposed to assumed) needs of the global poor now and in the future.

As I see it, the need for ethnographic work in development presents two significant problems. The first, which I have discussed before, is the dearth of such work in the world. Everyone seems to think the world is crawling with anthropologists and human geographers who do this sort of work, but how many books and dissertations are completed each year? A thousand? Less?  Compare that to the two billion (or more) poor people living in low-income countries (and that leaves aside the billion or so very poor that Andy Sumner has identified as living in middle-income countries).  A thousand books for at least two billion people? No problem, it just means that each book or dissertation has to cover the detailed experiences, motivations, and emotions of two million people. I mean, sure, the typical ethnography addresses an N that ranges from a half dozen to communities of a few hundred, but surely we can just adjust the scale…

Er…

Crap.

OK, so there is a huge shortage of this work, and we need much, much more of it. Well, the good new is that people have been doing this sort of work for a long time. Granted, the underlying assumptions about other people have shifted over time (“scientific racism” was pretty much the norm back in the first half of the 20th Century), but surely the observations of human behavior and thought might serve to fill the gaps from which we currently suffer, right. After all, if a thousand people a year knocked out a book or dissertation over the past hundred years, surely our coverage will improve.  Right?

Well, maybe not. Ethnographies describe a place and a time, and most of the Global South is changing very, very rapidly. Indeed, it has been changing for a while, but of late the pace of change seems to be accelerating (again, see Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion). Things change so quickly, and can change so pervasively, that I wonder how long it takes for many of the fundamental observations about life and thought that populate ethnographies to become historical relics that tell us a great deal about a bygone era, but do not reflect present realities.  For example, in my work in Ghana, I drew upon some of the very few ethnographies of the Akan, written during the colonial era. These were useful for the archaeological component of my work, as they helped me to contextualize artifacts I was recovering from the time of those ethnographies. But their descriptions of economic practice, local politics, social roles, and livelihoods really had very little to do with life in Ghana’s Central Region in the late 1990s.  In terms of their utility for interpreting contemporary life among the Akan, they had, for all intents and purposes, expired.

So, the questions I pose here:

1)    How do we know when an ethnography has expired?  Is it expired when any aspect of the ethnography is no longer true, or when a majority of its observations no longer hold?

2)    Whatever standard we might hold them to, how long does it take to reach that standard? Five years? Ten years? Thus far, my work from 2001 in Ghana seems to be holding, but things are wobbling a bit.  It is possible that a permanent shift in livelihoods took place in 2006 (I need to examine this), which would invalidate the utility of my earlier work for project design in this area.

These are questions worth debating. If we are to bring more qualitative, ethnographic work to the table in development, we have to find ways to improve our coverage of the world and our ability to assess the resources from which we might draw.

 

 

*I know some people think that “noble” and “progressive” are terms that cannot be applied to development. I’m not going to take up that debate here.

I’m late to this show – I was traveling last week when the whole Gates/Moyo throwdown happened. I was going to let it go, but I have received enough prodding from others to offer my thoughts – probably because I have offered extended critiques of Moyo’s Dead Aid (links below), while also noting that Gates’ understandings of the problems of aid and development are a bit myopic. So, here we go…

Bill Gates finally voiced what has been implicit in much of his approach to development – he sees aid and development critics as highly problematic people who slow down progress (or whatever Bill thinks passes for progress).  Honestly, this is thoroughly unsurprising to anyone who has paid any attention to what Bill has said all along, or indeed anything the Gates Foundation does.  There just isn’t much room for meta-criticism at the foundation or its work – sure, they evaluate their programs, but there isn’t much evaluation/consideration of whether or not the guiding principals behind those programs make much sense.  There is an assumption that Gates’ goals are somehow self-evident, and therefore critics are just problems to be solved.

Let’s just start with this part of what Gates said. To me, his comments represent a profound misunderstanding of the place of aid and development criticism – his comments represent critics as annoyances to be brushed away, implying that criticism is an end unto itself. I do not know a single aid/development critic for whom criticism is the end. Critical thinking, and any resultant criticism, is a means to the end of changing the world. Simply put, without critical thinkers to constantly evaluate, challenge, and push the thinking of those in the world of development policy and implementation, where would we be? Take gender, for example. Today, nobody questions the need to consider the gender of the beneficiary when we think about policies or programs, but in the late 1960s those who first raised this issue were critics, often viewed as “annoyances” who slowed down the process of designing and implementing projects with their silly concerns about the needs of women. Gates does his foundation, and the entire enterprise/discipline of development a disservice in this rather sad misrepresentation of the aid critic.

Had Gates simply said what he did about aid critics in the abstract, I think it would have passed without much comment. But he didn’t. Instead, he singled out Dambisa Moyo as an archetype of aid criticism. As a result, he gave a platform to someone who clearly loves the attention. I fear he also somehow made her the archetype for the aid critic, validating a writer whose “critical” arguments are rife with errors and problems (I detailed these in an extended review of her book here, here, here, here, and here). In short, Gates was rather clever here: he picked the contemporary aid critic with the greatest conceptual shortcomings and held her up as the problem, as if the rest of the critical thinkers shared her thinking, shallow arguments, and factual problems. Further, he (apparently rightly, given the reaction of twitter and the blogosphere) seems to have assumed that such critics should and would rally to her support.

Well, not me.

I am without question a critical thinker when it comes to development and aid. I have a hell of a paper trail to prove it. But I do not see myself as a colleague or contemporary of Dambisa Moyo. I’d prefer to be a colleague of Bill Easterly, Arturo Escobar, James Ferguson, James Scott, and Timothy Mitchell (all more senior than me), and I see myself as a colleague of Katharine McKinnon, Kat O’Reilly, Mara Goldman, and Farhana Sultana (all friends or colleagues of my generation).  All of these scholars have conducted extensive scholarly work on the problems of development, and backed up their work with evidence. I don’t think any of these scholars is perfect, and some have produced pieces of work that I see as deeply flawed, but all hold their work to a much higher standard than that I saw in Dead Aid.

The fact is that Gates was right: Moyo doesn’t know much about aid and what it is doing – Dead Aid made this rather clear (seriously, read my review of the book). On her webpage, she argues that she “dedicated many years to economic study up to the Ph.D. level, to analyze and understand the inherent weaknesses of aid, and why aid policies have consistently failed to deliver on economic growth and poverty alleviation.” First, a Ph.D. is no guarantee of knowing anything – and I say that as someone who holds two Ph.D.s! I have seen absolutely no scholarly output from Moyo’s Ph.D. work that supports any sense that she developed a rigorous understanding of aid at all. Indeed, her very phrasing – she sought to analyze and understand the inherent weakness of aid – suggests that her work is not analytical, but political. And after two years in D.C., one thing I have learned is that the political has very little to do with facts or evidence. In that regard, I can safely say that Dead Aid is a political book.

Second, being born and raised in a poor country does not mean that one understands the experiences of everyone in that country. Zambia is a culturally, economically, and environmentally diverse country, home to many different experiences.  Just as I cannot make any claim to understand the experiences of all Americans just because I was born here, majored in American Studies, and have lived in five states and a federal colony (D.C.), Moyo’s implicit claim that being born in Zambia allows her to speak for all those living in countries that receive aid, let alone all Zambians, is absurd.

Finally, she argues that she has served as a consultant at the World Bank, implicitly suggesting this gives her great purchase on development thought. It does not. As I have argued elsewhere, working as a consultant for a donor is not the same thing as working as an employee of a donor. I too have been a consultant at the World Bank. Technically, I am currently a consultant for USAID. These are very different roles from those I occupied while employed at USAID. Consultants are not privy to the internal conversations and machinations of development donors, and have at best partial understandings of what drives decisions about development policy and implementation.  Moyo has no practical experience at all with the realities of development donors, a fact that comes through in Dead Aid.

So let’s divorce the two things that Bill Gates did in his comments. He completely misrepresented aid critics in two ways: first, in failing to recognize the contributions of aid criticism to the improvement of aid and development programs, and second in lumping aid critics into the same basket as Dambisa Moyo.  This lumping is pretty egregious, and the overall characterization represents a significant flaw in Gates’ thinking about development that is likely to come back to bite his foundation in the ass in the near future – without criticism of the overall ideas behind the foundation, it’s programs will wither and die.  We can separate this first problem from Gates critique of Dambisa Moyo, which aside from characterizing her as doing evil (which is just going too far, really), pretty much got the assessment of her thinking right.

In short, let’s push back against Bill’s thinking on development criticism, but not valorize Moyo’s crap arguments in the process.

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.

I am in Tromsø, Norway for a workshop on gender and adaptation. The conversation has been very interesting, with a lot of different people bringing different ideas/concerns to the table.  As you might imagine, a lot of it has been fodder for thought. But today a comment by Torjer Andreas Olsen, of the Centre for Sami Studies (SESAM) at the University of Tromsø, really stuck with me. In a conversation about business and innovation, he suggested that we face a challenge in the use of the term “innovation” when we talk about indigenous peoples such as the Sami. Because most business discussions of innovation are focused on technological change, they fail to see the development of new forms of knowledge and information as innovation.  Therefore, while indigenous peoples (and I would extend this argument to most of the global poor) have the capacity to produce important information and knowledge about the world, this often does not come attached to technological change and therefore goes unacknowledged.

I think Torjer is dead right, and I think I can extend his argument a bit here. By failing to acknowledge the production of knowledge and information as itself an innovation, we basically allow ourselves to write off the global poor as lacking innovation. This enables our usual narratives of development – of a helpless global poor waiting for someone to come save them from their routinized ways. This is enhanced by climate change, as this narrative, run to its logical end, suggests that the global poor have pretty much nothing to contribute in their own efforts to adapt, and therefore require massive interventions from the “innovative north”.

This is a major problem for development, especially as major donor start embracing the idea of innovation.  While at USAID, I looked up at the wrong time in a meeting and was tasked with identifying the Agency definition of innovation.  My friend and colleague Mike Hanowski kindly threw himself under the bus and volunteered to help me. What followed was a fairly hilarious afternoon where Mike and I called various people in the Agency to obtain this definition. Every person we called passed us to another person, until we were passed back to the first person we had called.  Really.  So, no formal definition of innovation (maybe this has changed, but I doubt much of the Agency would know if even if it had).

Now, I am a fan of the Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) folks at USAID (a group that was started after the aforementioned story). They do promote interesting, relatively edgy ideas within the Agency. But look at what DIV does – every project amounts to the use of a technology to address a “big challenge” for development.  In and of itself, this is fine…but in this focus, DIV (inadvertently) reinforces the trope of the helpless global poor, waiting for the “innovative north” (or ideally an “innovative southerner”, presented as an outlier who can lead the helpless poor in his/her country or community to a brighter future). Even as we find interesting solutions to development challenges, we are reinforcing the idea that such solutions are the Global North’s to give to those in the Global South. As long as this is the case, we will continue to miss the interesting opportunities to address these and other challenges that exist in the minds and practices of the global poor.

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.

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