Entries tagged with “Africa”.
Did you find what you wanted?
Thu 28 Apr 2016
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Climate Change, development, environment, Food Security, policy
Comments Off on He’s not a weatherman, and the rapper is not the star
As many of you know, I tend to post when provoked to rage by something in the press/literature/world. These days, I am massively overtasked, which means I need special levels of rage to post. So hooray to Tom Friedman, who in his utterly frustrating column yesterday actually managed to get me there.
I’m going to set aside my issues with the Friedman-standard reductionist crap in the column. Ken Opalo killed it anyway, so just read his post. Instead, I want to spend a few words excoriating Friedman for his lazy, stereotypical portrayal of my friend and colleague Ousmane Ndiaye in that column. First, as has been noted a few times, Ousmane is a climatologist with a Ph.D. This is NOT THE SAME THING AS A WEATHERMAN. Just Google the two, for heaven’s sake. What Ousmane is trained in is high-end physical science, and he is good at it. Really good at it.
But what is really remarkable about Ousmane, and totally elided in Friedman’s lazy, lazy writing, is that he is no office-bound monotonic weatherman. First, Ousmane is really, really funny. I’ve never seen him not funny, ever – even in serious meetings. Which makes me wonder how hard Friedman, who writes “”His voice is a monotone,” is working to fit Ousmane into the box of “scientist” as Friedman understands it.
Second, Ousmane does remarkable work engaging farmers across Senegal. I have seen him in farmer meetings, talking about seasonal forecasts. He cares deeply about these farmers, and how well he is able to communicate forecasts to them. I’ve also seen him at Columbia University, in scientific meetings, moving between professors and development donors, talking about new ideas and new challenges that need to be addressed. He moves between these worlds easily, a skill far too lacking in the climate change community.
What I am saying here is simple: Friedman missed the fact that he had the star right in front of him, clicking away at the computer. He needed a counterpoint for his rapper, and a sad caricature of Ousmane became that counterpoint. And because of the need to present Ousmane as the boring scientist, Friedman totally missed how unbelievably apocalyptic the figures he was hearing really are, especially for rain-fed agriculturalists in Senegal. A 2C rise in temperature over the last 60 or so years means that, almost certainly, some varieties of important cereals are no longer germinating, or having trouble germinating. The fact Senegal is currently 5C over normal temperature is unholy – and were this to hold up, would totally crush this year’s harvest (planting starts in about a month, so keep an eye on this) because very little would germinate properly at that level.
Ousmane was describing the apocalypse, and Friedman was fixated on a clicking mouse. Friedman owes Ousmane an apology for this pathetic caricature, and he owes the rest of us an apology for the ways in which his lazy plot and the characters he needed to occupy it resulted in a complete burial of the lede: climate change is already reaching crisis levels in some parts of the world.
P.S., if you want to see some of the work that has started to emerge from working alongside Ousmane, check out this and this.
Tue 16 Oct 2012
The Guardian recently ran a piece titled “Food scarcity: the timebomb setting nation against nation.” It was retweeted a lot across my social network, enough that I feel the need to respond to it. So, here it goes. The article is yet another example of the remarkably durable narrative of production crisis that dominates discussions of food security today. The article operates from the assumption that we are running out of food, and then selectively interprets quotes from Lester Brown and Oxfam to support this attention-grabbing story. The problem here is that Brown/Oxfam make much more nuanced claims than suggested by the headline, which perpetuates the neo-Malthusian agenda of scarcity that dominates modern food security. In short, I find the very title and tone of the article to be terribly irresponsible – in attempting to bring attention to the very serious issue of global hunger, this article sets back intelligent conversation about the causes of the problem, and therefore its solutions.
It takes little but careful reading to see that the Guardian piece doesn’t actually have the evidence to say that food scarcity is a geopolitical timebomb. Brown never says we have an absolute scarcity of food in the world, just increased levels of pressure on the food system. The issue of increased pressure is not, as the article suggests, about production, per se: it is about a complex global political economy that intersects in complicated ways with the remnants of colonialism, failed development, and environmental change in particular ways in specific places. Sure, US grain production is down 15%…but that isn’t a big deal against the GLOBAL 40% rate of waste in the food system. We can cover the current US shortfall (indeed, more or less any conceivable global shortfall) with ease just by cleaning up some low-hanging fruit in the global supply chain, such as improving the transportation networks from farm to market in the Global South.
The only actual argument for scarcity in the article is buried down the page, in Evan Fraser’s claim:
“For six of the last 11 years the world has consumed more food than it has grown. We do not have any buffer and are running down reserves. Our stocks are very low and if we have a dry winter and a poor rice harvest we could see a major food crisis across the board.”
It seems to me that Fraser is misreading his evidence. It is possible that the world has consumed more food than has been available on agricultural markets…but this is NOT THE SAME THING as the amount of food grown. In each of the last 11 years, humanity grew much more food than it consumed. It’s just that each year we then wasted about 40% of that production as it either rotted on the way to market (a common problem in the Global South) or we threw it away uneaten (a problem in the wealthy countries).
So if there is no global food production crisis, why are we seeing land grabbing that will set “nation against nation”? After all, if there is plenty of agricultural production globally, land-grabbing for food supplies is nonsensical behavior. Prices are where they are because the global food system has significant problems that could be addressed relatively easily and at relatively low cost (when compared to the challenge of completely reengineering an agricultural ecosystem). Anyone analyzing things in a serious way should see this, and recognize that food prices are a bubble that could be popped by a serious infrastructural development push. And, as it happens, they have. If you read the article carefully, you realize that there is no evidence in this article that land grabs are for food as much as they are for biofuels. Oxfam’s report is more to the point – the planting of biofuels has to be taken seriously, as that does take arable land out of local production, which can stress local food systems. But if anyone thought there was a serious global food shortage, they would not buy arable land for biofuels – they would buy it for food itself, as after a certain point food prices become inelastic. The very fact the land grabs are heavily for biofuels tells us all we need to know about the idea of a global food shortage.
Rising food prices in today’s world just signal a stress point on today’s (astonishingly inefficient) food system. Leveraged correctly, these pressures could bring about dramatic changes in global food markets, as saving even half of the food that rots on the way to market in the Global South would more than offset all but the most extreme local food deficits. This is an opportunity to make changes in the food system that are immediate and relatively cost-efficient. For all of the noble intents here, ginning up cries of false scarcity in the name of focusing attention on global hunger drags the policy conversation away from real, achievable solutions.
Thu 9 Aug 2012
So, I’m finally back in academia, with some time to start writing again…and able to do so without worrying about who I might annoy. Ah, the joys of tenure. Actually, I shouldn’t make that sound so glib – the fact is, this is what tenure is for: it allows people like me to argue about important ideas and take politically challenging positions without having to worry about our incomes.
Quickly, then, I would like to make a point about a Nick Kristof column that appeared back in early July (but I had to shut up about at the time). In it, he talks about some USAID-funded food security programs that work “with local farmers to promote new crops and methods so that farmers don’t have to worry about starving in the first place.” Nothing wrong with that – this just makes good sense, really, given the dramatic economic and environmental changes that so many folks must address in their everyday lives and livelihoods. But then Kristof describes the program via an anecdote:
Jonas Kabudula is a local farmer whose corn crop completely failed, and he said that normally he and his family would now be starving. But, with the help of a U.S.A.I.D. program, he and other farmers also planted chilies, a nontraditional crop that doesn’t need much rain.
“Other crops wither, and the chilies survive,” Kabudula told me. What’s more, each bag of chilies is worth about five bags of corn, so he and other villagers have been able to sell the chilies and buy all the food they need.
“If it weren’t for the chilies,” said another farmer, Staford Phereni, “we would have no food.”
Er, this is not resilience. Sure, it is a different crop, with different biophysical needs than maize…but they still have to sell it to get the money to eat. Chilies are, in the end, seasoning – in economic terms, there is a lot of price elasticity in there, as people can just choose not to season their food if they run out of money. So, when all hell breaks loose in a country, such as when a drought compromises the principal food crop, a large percentage of the people who would buy chilies (other farmers) cannot do so, depressing the price and lowering the relative value of the chilies versus needed food items (the prices of which are likely rising as demand for alternatives to maize kick in) – in short, your cash crop buys you less food than it did under good conditions. You end up just as screwed as everyone else, albeit a few weeks later. Further, this all presumes that markets are functioning at anything like regular levels, which is a bad bet when things really get stressed. Basically, this program gets resilience wrong because it fails to capture all of the things that people are vulnerable to: it isn’t just the climate, it is also the market. Yes, you’ve addressed at least some of the climate vulnerability…by pushing people onto a precarious market likely to be upset by the very climate conditions you are trying to address in the first place. Oops. More income is not necessarily more resilience if that income can be destabilized by the very thing it was meant to help address.
Given all of this, it seems to me that Kristof has missed the really important issue here: if this actually worked for this farmer, we need to know why it worked given all that could go wrong, and build on that. However, he doesn’t dive into that, at least in part because I think he sees the project success in this case as an expected outcome, the sort of thing that “should happen” because more income means more resilience and therefore less vulnerability to climate change and food insecurity. And that has everything to do with how we in development talk and think about vulnerability and resilience. While Kristof does not use these terms, they are implicit in his thinking about how this program helped this farmer – the farmer had other options that allowed him to address a climate-related challenge by increasing his income (or at least holding the line in bad situations), making him more resilient/less vulnerable than his neighbors in the face of this challenge. However, this example in this column is an argument for why we should be worried about the ways in which development has started slinging these terms around of late. It is unclear to me how this program can really address vulnerability or build resilience because it seems that it does not really address some significant factors shaping local vulnerability, nor has it really identified why those who display resilience in the face of a climate/food security challenge really are having better outcomes.
Granted, I am griping about one part of the program (the others actually sound quite interesting and reasonable), but this part just trips my vulnerability/resilience switch…
It comes down to this bit of bad news: until we come to grips with how we understand and define vulnerability and resilience, and do a better job of grounding these concepts in place, we will continue to design programs and projects that just trade one risk/vulnerability for another. That’s no way to get our job done.
Mon 16 Apr 2012
Posted by Ed under Academia, Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, Delivering Development, development, environment, globalization, Livelihoods, policy, research
Comments Off on Another talk – Gainsville, anyone?
I will be speaking about my book and research at the University of Florida on Friday as part of the Glen R. Anderson Visiting Lectureship. Poster here:
Hope to see folks there!
Mon 2 Apr 2012
So, a while back I decided to talk about how I negotiate peer review, semi-liveblogging my response to a revise and resubmit request from a pretty big development journal (see part 1, part 2 and part 3). Well, I now have a response to my resubmission . . .
No. To quote: “after much deliberation, the editors have reached a rather difficult decision. [The editors] feel that they cannot accept your revised paper.”
Yep, I have gone from revise and resubmit to outright reject. This is . . . unusual, to be honest. More unusual, however, is the rationale for the rejection. To quote from the decision:
What makes this difficult is that [the editors] recognize that you have in fact taken account of what the referees said, and have tried to accommodate their comments, but the editors feel that what has emerged from the revision process is not an appropriate paper for Development and Change.
Translation: you did what we asked, and addressed the referee comments, but in doing so you ended up with a paper that we think belongs at another journal. Well, fair enough, this happens. But why it is not appropriate is a little odd:
While they still believe that there is an interesting idea at the core of your paper, they don’t feel that the revisions have solved the initial problems, and they are not convinced that further rounds of revision would be any more successful. The intended contribution of the paper appears to be theoretical, but the paper hasn’t managed to work out that contribution in a way that will be accessible / comprehensible to our readers.
Soooo . . . I have an interesting paper, but the editors more or less think their readership can’t deal with the complexity of the argument. [Note: I am disregarding the assessment that my revisons have not solved the initial problems, since they already have said that I took account of the referees’ issues – this is a contradiction I am just going to leave aside. That, and they did not show me any reviewer comments, so I have no idea what I did not resolve] One of my colleagues has called this the oddest rejection he has ever seen.
Now, I want to be clear – the folks at the journal with whom I interacted throughout this process were very responsive and polite, and were kind even in their rejection (they were quite apologetic, actually). I would submit to this journal again, though I admit to wondering exactly what aspect of my work might fit here, as I am confused by what they believe the capacity of their readers to be.
This, folks, is the nature of peer review – sometimes, you just have no idea what happened. I am not privy to the internal conversations of the editorial board, and will not pretend to know exactly what happened here. What makes this hard is that I did not receive any substantive comments on this second round of review, so I have no guidance at all on edits. I am rereading the paper, adding a citation I had missed earlier, and making minor tweaks to the argument (the article I missed before actually strengthens the case for what I am doing in the manuscript). I’ve sent it off to a trusted senior colleague to have a look, and to see where he thinks it might go next. I will probably sound out the next editor in advance, just to make sure that s/he thinks the paper is appropriate before starting a long review process again . . .
Two years and counting, folks, since my initial submission.
Any editors out there interested? Anybody?
Wed 9 Nov 2011
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, Delivering Development, development, environment, globalization, Livelihoods, migration, research, sustainable development
Comments Off on Upcoming Talk
I’ll be running my mouth about the book again at Chatham University on December 2nd. Chatham has some very cool stuff going in sustainability and the environment (a new school!), including a new Eden Hall Campus in Richland Township, PA. My talk will actually be out on that campus, and not in the Shadyside campus . . . directions are here.
The flyer (they’ve done a nice job on it):
Hope to see some of you there . . .
Wed 9 Nov 2011
Chris Albon copied me on a retweet today from World Concern that said:
A beautiful sight: things growing in #Somalia. This is what’s possible in the #HornofAfrica. twitpic.com/7c8y24
For those not inclined to click the link, it went to this picture:
I have mixed feelings about this tweet and this picture. On one hand, it expresses what I am sure is genuine relief from an organization that is concerned with the well-being of people living in the Horn of Africa. On the other hand, the phrase “this is what is possible” suggests that this does not usually happen . . . except, of course, now we are in the Dayr, the October to December rainy season. Though the Dayr is the shortest rainy season in this part of the world, wet fields and new growth do in fact usually happen right about now. Further, the phrase “things growing in Somalia” suggests that nothing was growing before. This was not the case – things have been growing, even in famine-struck parts of southern Somalia. Not enough has been growing in some places, and this shortage has been compounded by all sorts of political challenges that have created a widespread problem. Finally, there is a bit of tone to this – as if we are out of the woods in the Horn. Well, maybe – but it will be months until a real harvest comes in, and much longer than that before accountable governance and functioning markets return, so we have a ways to go. And given that this famine was not caused by drought (the drought exacerbated other underlying factors), the fact that we are having trouble addressing those underlying factors means the next drought (and there will be another one relatively soon) may create a very similar set of circumstances and challenges.
In summary, I believe in hope. That is why I call myself an optimist. But at the same time, we have to be careful about conflating hope with triumph . . . which is why I call myself a hopelessly realistic optimist.
Thu 13 Oct 2011
Yep, no sooner do I post on failure and how we account for it and learn from it, then I come upon a big fail of my own. That I can learn from. Irony, anyone?
As many of you know, I have been working in Ghana since 1997. I’ve spent some 20 months there, though it has been a while since I was last on the ground (I need to change that) – basically, the last meaningful research trip I took was in the summer of 2006. That work, along with the fieldwork that came before it, was so rich that I am still working through what it all means – and it has led me down the path of a book about why development doesn’t work as we expect, and now a (much more academic) complete rethinking of the livelihoods framework that many in development use to assess how people make a living.
One of my big findings (at least according to some of my more senior colleagues) is that inequality and (depending on how you look at it) injustice are not accidental products of “bad information” or “false consciousness” in livelihoods strategies, but integral parts of how people make a living (article to this effect here, with related work here and here, as well as a long discussion in Delivering Development). One constraint specific to the livelihoods in the villages in which I have been working is the need to balance the material needs of the household with the social requirement that men make more money than their wives. I have rich empirical data demonstrating this to be true, and illustrating how it plays out in agricultural practice (which makes up about 65% of most household incomes).
In other words, I know damn well that men get very itchy about anything that allows women to become more productive, as this calls one of the two goals of existing livelihoods strategies into question. Granted, I figured this out for the first time around 2007, and have only very recently (i.e. articles in review) been able to get at this systematically, but still, I knew this.
And I completely overlooked it when trying to implement the one village improvement project with which I have been involved. Yep, I totally failed to apply my own lessons to myself.
What happened? Well, to put it simply, I had some money available after the 2006 fieldwork for a village improvement project, which I wanted the residents of Dominase and Ponkrum to identify and, to the extent possible, design for themselves. We had several community meetings that meandered (as they do) and generally seemed to reflect the dominant voices of men. However, at the end of one of these meetings, one of my extraordinarily talented Ghanaian colleagues from the University of Cape Coast had the experience and the awareness to quietly wander off to a group of women and chat with them. I noticed this but did not say anything. A few minutes later, he strolled by, and as he did he said to me “we need to build a nursery.” Kofi had managed to elicit the womens’ childcare needs, which were much more practical and actionable than any other plans we had heard. At the next community meeting we raised this, and nobody objected – we just got into wrangling over details. I left at the end of the field season, confident we could get this nursery built and staffed.
Five years later, nothing has happened. They formed the earth blocks, but nobody cleared the agreed-upon area for the nursery. It was never a question of money, and my colleagues at the University of Cape Coast checked in regularly. Each time, they left with promises that something would get going, and nothing ever did. I don’t fault the UCC team – the community needed to mobilize some labor so they would have buy-in for the project, and would take responsibility for the long-term maintenance of the structure. This is on the community – they just never built it.
And it wasn’t until yesterday, when talking about this with a colleague, that I suddenly realized why – childcare would lessen one demand on women that limits their agricultural productivity and incomes. Thus, with a nursery in place women’s incomes would surely rise . . . and men have no interest in that, as this is not the sort of intervention that would drive a parallel increase in their own incomes. I have very robust data that demonstrates that men move to control any increase in their wives incomes that might threaten the social order of the household, even if that decreases overall household income and access to food.
So why, oh why, did I ever think that men would allow this nursery to be built? Of course they wouldn’t.
I can excuse myself between 2006-2008 for missing this, as I was still working through what was going on in these livelihoods. But for the last three years I knew about this fundamental component of livelihoods, and how robust this aspect of livelihoods decision-making really is, even under conditions of change such as road construction. I have been looking at how others misinterpret livelihoods and design/implement bad interventions for years, all the while doing that very thing myself.
Healer, heal thyself.
Wed 28 Sep 2011
Ah, that familiar refrain – a mix of love and derision provoked by the vagaries of life in my favorite West African country: the power cuts out randomly in the midst of a big soccer match, “Oh, Ghana!” The new road washes out because of inadequate culverts? “Oh, Ghana!” And now, the country’s economy grows 34% in the second quarter of 2011 – expanding the GDP by 3.4 percent in that quarter alone (h/t to Andy Sumner for pointing this out to me)?
Wait, isn’t that good news?
Well, on its face, yes – this surge in growth suggests there is a lot more money at play in Ghana, and that will hopefully result in new and better jobs, greater revenues for the state, and eventually better services for the population. But there are two big caveats that really, really worry me here.
- The growth was driven mostly by growth in the mining and quarrying sector – of which oil has about a 2/3 share. So the economy has grown, but it is still commodity-dependent. Admittedly, they now have oil on top of cocoa and gold, but these don’t exactly track independently of one another. Building your whole economy on three commodities is not a path to a stable, sustainable future.
- Ghana does not seem to have a plan to spend all of this new revenue in a manner that will trigger the virtuous process I was describing above. Without a plan, the possibility of misuse and redirection of funds into private accounts rises dramatically (h/t to Mark Weston).
Even the oddly good news – agricultural (economic) growth seems to be matching the growth of mining and quarrying – isn’t really that good. At first glance, this news seems to suggest that ag production is increasing, or that more of that production is getting to market before spoiling, trends that would benefit much of the Ghanaian population. Maybe not, though – Ghana’s light-crop cocoa crop doubled over the same period last year, suggesting this increase is largely pegged to cocoa. Worse, a big chunk of this improvement is tied to good weather, which is difficult to gamble on year-to-year.
Mon 19 Sep 2011
Remember the article on livelihoods I referenced in my last post? The one that has been through 13-odd reviewers over the past 6 months? Well, it came back this morning with that least satisfying of responses: revise and resubmit. The reviewers disagreed on the strengths and weaknesses of the paper, but all of them wanted at least some small changes.
Now, this is hardly the first time I’ve had to deal with this. Happens all the time. But this review, like a number of others I have encountered in my career, highlights for me the need for strong editors at journals. The email from the journal read, in part:
By the time of [the editorial board] meeting, we had received the reports of the external referees. You will find copies of their comments in the attached document. The editors feel that the referees have raised some important points and highlighted some shortcomings in the paper, which would need to be addressed through a round of revisions before we could proceed further. Please note that the editors are forwarding these comments as you might find them helpful; individual comments do not necessarily represent the views of the editors, or a consensus regarding the direction of any possible revision. [my emphasis].
Well, that’s just super. It amounts to “here are some comments, which might or might not be relevant. Good luck!” This gives the author nothing to work from, especially when some of the comments are contradictory.
So, a quick lesson for all of you budding academics out there. Letters like this require a response asking for clarification. I hammered out an email requesting a conversation with the editor. Yes, that’s right, you can talk to the editors! My first paragraph:
Thank you for forwarding the reviewer comments on my paper (Manuscript ID DECH-11-094 entitled “Livelihoods as Governmentality: Reframing the Logic of Livelihoods for Development”). I appreciate the time and effort the reviewers put into the paper, and the consideration the editorial board has given my submission. I would very much like to revise and resubmit this paper, but I need a bit of guidance if I am to do so in a productive manner. Ideally, I would like to talk with the editor in charge of this submission to resolve some of my ideas for revision, and some larger concerns before moving forward. I have summarized them, in a general sense, below:
(Note that this is polite – always be polite! It’s amazing how many people fail to do this.)
I then wrote 1500 words on what I proposed to do – with great specificity. I hope to speak directly to the editor myself soon. That way, I will know how s/he plans to treat the manuscript when they receive revisions, and how s/he views my suggestions – this is huge, as it will tell me what I can and cannot skip in the comments.
Oh, and one of the reviewers was a disaster – did not get the paper, wanted it to be the paper they would have written, etc. I headed this person off with the following paragraph:
The comments of reviewer 1 are external critique – that is, they demand that the paper be something other than what it is, do not acknowledge the stated goals of the paper, or whether or not the paper achieved those goals. The reviewer clearly did not engage with the core theory of the paper (for example in arguing the lit review was too confusing and should be cut down), instead demanding it be reframed as a gender analysis (which it is not) with relevance to policy (not the goal of this piece, which is more about foundational theory upon which policy statements might be constructed – policy relevance is also not a criteria for Development and Change). The reviewer appears to be upset because the paper is not the gender and development paper s/he would have written (incidentally, I already wrote a paper closer to what they wanted and published it in World Development about three years ago – this paper is in part an effort to move past the limitations of that analysis), and instead of looking at the literature I am drawing on, they simply demanded I reframe and cite all the things they think are important. Generally speaking, I try to take responsibility for moments when the reader becomes confused, treating this as a symptom of unclear writing or thinking on my part – I hope this is clear from my responses to the other reviewers’ comments. However, the complete disengagement of this review with the paper as it was written, coupled with reviewer 3’s assessment of the paper as well-written, suggests to me that this reviewer’s concerns cannot be addressed without writing a completely different paper – and that paper would not make much of a contribution anymore (something they acknowledge). Suggested edits: none
Yep, you can make the case for the removal of reviewers from a revise and resubmit – especially if they will never approve the paper for what it is.
I’ll keep you posted on progress . . .