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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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…



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.

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