Entries tagged with “agriculture”.
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Fri 6 Mar 2015
If you’ve been following my SDG posts (here and here), you are probably at the point of asking what exactly we should be doing about them. Fair enough. I’ve burned two blog posts and about 2000 words on the problems I see with the new SDGs. As I tell my students, it doesn’t take a lot of talent to dismantle something. You have to tear it down and put something new in its place. So, in this spirit, my suggestions for how to get out of the ditch that the SDGs appear to currently occupy are threefold:
- Engage the donors now, not later. Start this process by narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals, and ensuring that the goals are actually achievable
- Engage the climate negotiations. The flows of money under the likely climate agreement are huge, and will impact all development goals, therefore impacting the achievement of the SDGs. Further, donors are already engaged on the climate negotiations, so linking the SDGs to those negotiations will likely increase donor interest in the SDG process.
- Engage the implementers. If you want to productively reduce the number of indicators, targets, and goals, talk to the people who will have to take the money and achieve those goals. By working with implementers, the SDG process could reduce all of these indicators, targets, and goals (thus driving donors to the table) while ensuring that whatever emerges from the process is actually achievable
1. Engage the donors:
A few caveats from my Wilton Park experience:
1) I know that if we are going to get “beyond aid” and start thinking about innovative partnerships for development, we are going to have to get past the donor-recipient binary. However, refusing to call a spade a spade doesn’t make change happen. The fact is that USAID, DfID, GIZ, JICA, and all the other bilateral organizations are, more or less, donors. So is the World Bank. So we can call them “development partners” all we want, but they will still behave like donors (making plans, issuing edicts, programming on institutional/national interests instead of beneficiary interests, etc.) – behavior change takes a long time. Remember, many bilateral donors already call themselves “Cooperation” organizations (e.g. Spanish Cooperation, Swiss Cooperation)…but they still behave like donors.
2) The flows of development aid are, in many places, already dwarfed by flows of foreign direct investment and other flows of money. In some contexts, remittances may well be as important as formal aid. So we shouldn’t over-privilege donors or their aid funds in this conversation. Indeed, it is the declining power of aid dollars that has spurred the “beyond aid” conversation in the post-2015 agenda.
All that said, much of the politics of development still flow through development donors/partners, and this is not going to change before the SDGs are formalized. I’ve heard a bit of grumbling about traditional donor organizations’ lack of serious engagement with the SDG process. I have little time for this, as nobody should find this lack of engagement surprising. As I said in my first post, a set of goals that allows everyone to evade responsibility, and enables practically everything currently implemented under the heading “development”, is not going to get a response from the donors. If the process won’t have any effect on what they do, why should they care?
Some might see this lack of engagement as a good thing, an opportunity to craft a development agenda outside the agendas of the donors. I disagree with this strongly. The donors will eventually engage, especially if the SDGs move toward formal commitments. Such commitments might create responsibilities and constraints on actions and agendas – at which point, the donors will engage to shape the agenda to their interests. Because the SDG process has churned along without the donors to this point, the current indicators, targets, and goals are likely not well-aligned with donor interests. Without suggesting that donor interests are necessarily good, remember that the politics of development and aid still flow through these organizations, and when they engage they will have one of two effects: they will either heavily reshape the SDGs to their interests, or they will marginalize the entire process to the point of irrelevance. In either case, those running the SDG process will find themselves in a reactive position, and will lose control of the process. If the SDGs are to be more than what donors already want and do, the process must engage the donors now.
How do we engage the donors? One way is to reduce the absurd number of indicators, targets, and goals. Once you start taking away the ability to justify everything, donors are going to have to start looking at these goals and their own portfolios. Where there are mismatches, the donors are likely to engage. Another way is to carefully review the targets and goals and ensure that all could be achieved in the next 15 years with reasonable ambition. This will create a situation where accountability for their achievement becomes important, which likely drives the donors to the table. Getting the donors to the table now means there will be time to negotiate with them to develop a set of workable SDGs. Waiting until the last minute will either subvert what has, to this point, been a very open process as the SDGs are heavily reworked or even shunted into irrelevance at the 11th hour in negotiations.
2. Engage the UNFCCC negotiation process
While the development community has two big processes coming to the fore this year (the Third Conference on Financing for Development and the SDGs), there is a third, and arguably far more important, process coming to a head: the climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. By the Paris Conference of the Parties in December, I fully expect that there will be a deal on the table that discusses transfers of funds from rich to poor countries that will broadly 1) enable adaptation to ongoing climate change impacts and 2) facilitate the development of these countries through low-greenhouse emission pathways. The amounts of money on the table are likely to rival, if not displace, formal development aid, and they will be used to address issues that development aid traditionally covered. Yet the SDGs do not meaningfully engage with the likely outcomes of this process. Yes, proposed SDG 13 demands we “Tackle climate change and its impacts” and that goal recognizes the size of financial flows likely to emerge from the upcoming climate deal ($100 billion per year at a minimum, which would rival all of formal development aid). But simply acknowledging that there will be a climate deal with a lot of money attached doesn’t align the SDGs with that money. These flows of money will likely impact every SDG – indeed, we should expect them to. A climate deal that moves funds to the poorer countries is two things: an acknowledgement that climate change impacts will likely inhibit their efforts to improve the quality of life of their citizens and residents, and a recognition that the climate change impacts of their development could become problems for even the wealthy countries.
Because climate funds will engage development issues and goals, they are going to create attribution problems and therefore further responsibility problems for the SDGs. For example, if exposure to increasingly variable precipitation is a significant challenge for a group of rain-fed agriculturalists who find themselves in a challenging financial situation, and the funds from the climate deal help to provide seasonal forecasts that alleviate some of this stress, will the SDGs get to claim victory for the increased yields and incomes that result? Or will the climate negotiators get to use this case as an example of why a climate deal was a good idea? Worse, if these funds don’t actually result in constructive changes to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, who will be to blame?
Engaging the climate negotiations would also help to bring the donors to the table, as the donors and their national governments are already engaged on the climate negotiation process. Linking the SDGs to this process 1) creates a more realistic view of how these goals will be funded and achieved and 2) will likely drive the donors to the SDG table to ensure the SDGs are aligned with the climate agreement.
3. Engage the implementation community:
It is pretty obvious that these goals were written in a policy context that lacked significant input from anyone who would have to achieve these goals. Nearly all of my critiques in the previous two posts were based in the practical challenges these goals would present for implementation: the lack of responsibility for their achievement, the enabling of a huge range of actions under what masquerades as a focused set of goals, and the creation of goals that potentially undermine each other are all apparent when you’ve spent time building programs to actually achieve these goals, or had to execute the work under those programs. If you want goals that are either aspirational or focusing, you need to incorporate a lot of feedback from the implementation community.
Engaging the implementation community could serve as a means of narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals as I suggested is necessary to get donors to the table. It would kill two birds with one stone – it would get us a set of achievable, interesting SDGs while forcing donors to engage with the process before the 11th hour.
Save the SDGs!
There is still time to break the SDGs out of the multilateral bubble in which they were constructed and make this a proactive process that can bring together the many important trends reshaping development today (climate change negotiations, new flows of investment, etc.) into a coherent program that gives us targets to aim for, and a reasonable focus for development going forward. The three steps above would go a long way toward this end. I hope to see something like this start very soon.
Tue 3 Mar 2015
In my last post, I laid out the first of my concerns with the evolving Sustainable Development Goals. As I said, I think most of these goals fall into one of three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Having covered the impossible, I now turn my attention to the remaining two categories and why they are problematic:
Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
What does it mean to ensure the availability of water and sanitation? That everyone actually gets to use it, or just that the facilities are available where you live? This is an open question, because Goal 6 says availability (water and sanitation is present), not access (you can get water and adequate sanitation, no matter your circumstances). The former requires one set of values with regard to public services (i.e. water as a privatizable commodity that might be subject to efficiency gains if privatized), while the latter evokes a completely different set of concerns (i.e. water as a human right). By using the word availability, Goal 6 enables everything from the free delivery of water to all citizens to the complete privatization of a water system, as long as under both scenarios some form of water delivery is present for all users. Achievement of availability doesn’t speak to pricing or other factors that might enable or constrain the ability to access water. Basically, you can justify both actions as ensuring availability and therefore meeting an SDG even though these actions would likely result in wildly disparate outcomes for the affected population – including reduced access to water, even as it becomes more available.
How, under Goal 12, will we ensure sustainable consumption patterns? For example, are we promoting revolutions in energy production that will lower the cost of recycling, or are we arguing for massive social change in the wealthiest countries that would result in reduced consumption among the world’s rich populations? None of the proposed indicators suggest the latter, but simply cleaning up our energy supply is not going to create a sustainable pattern of consumption in a world that may well already be in ecological overshoot due to a wide range of resource consumption issues.
Vague goals that enable virtually all possible actions, or actions that really don’t do much to address the real problem the goal is meant to address (i.e. ecological overshoot under Goal 12) are not goals. They are slogans that neither motivate action nor focus effort, making the outcomes we want (greater access to necessary water, a planet we can live on indefinitely but in greater prosperity) disappear. This is worse than no goal at all.
The “Sounds good, but on second thought…”
Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
Reading that I have objections to Goals like 8 and 10, you can be forgiven if (at least momentarily) you think that I am a huge jerk, but hear me out. Personally, I think that promoting decent and productive livelihoods is a critical part of improving the quality of life for people, whether they live in rich or poor countries. And there can be little doubt that high levels of inequality have deleterious effects on economic growth, and raise major issues of justice. But this does not mean that these goals are necessarily great ideas.
First, promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth…is basically impossible under existing energy and resource regimes. As the global economy has grown over the past few decades, and growth has taken off in a number of formerly low-income countries, we’ve seen a colossal expansion in consumption that strains our climate and our resource base. Continued economic growth, at least in the near future, will drive greater greenhouse emissions and increased drawdowns of non-renewable natural resources. In short, Goal 8 sort of fits into my first grouping of SDGs (“the impossible”) but is in some ways even more dangerous because its framing suggests that we can have our cake (economic growth) and eat it too (sustainability). We cannot, at least not right now. Instead, pushing for sustained economic growth that brings full and productive employment and decent work for all will make the achievement of Goal 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all), Goal 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), Goal 12 (Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns), Goal 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts), Goal 14 (Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development), and Goal 15 (Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss) very difficult, if not impossible.
And what of Goal 10? Well, there is a real question to be asked here: when is inequality bad, and when might it help us achieve development goals? At the national scale, it does appear that inequality can become a drag on economic growth (see Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century – and before you ask, yes, I actually read the damn thing). But what of situations at different scales, where inequality might present a temporary path to economic improvement for many? For example, at the scale of a very poor community in the Sahel, actions that enrich a relatively small, already rich portion of the population might enhance inequality in the village. However, if those wealthy members of the community accumulate assets that they are obligated to share under local social expectations (for example, cattle that can be used as traction in farming), such accumulation might improve the agricultural productivity and incomes of many in the community (by enhancing access to animal traction) until such time as those poorer members of the community can accumulate their own assets. If such a pattern were to take hold across a relatively poor country such as Mali or Burkina Faso, it could manifest in national statistics as an increase in economic inequality that, under this goal, should be ended. Until we understand the different causes of inequality, and their consequences, perhaps we should wait to see what it is we are trying to address and when it is appropriate to do so.
In short, the achievement of this last group of goals might serve to blow up our efforts to achieve other goals. Development has a penchant for stovepiping activities into sectors and goals. Further, there is no way any single donor/partner is going to cover all 17 goals under their portfolio. What this means is that individuals working on one goal may not have any idea what their efforts are doing to other goals. Further, if those other goals are owned by different organizations, there may not be any means for or incentives that lead to coordination across these goals. Organizations and individuals will respond to the tasks and measures in front of them first, and worry about the collateral damage later.
In summary, proposing goals that are so vague as to encompass every possible outcome of activities under a broad heading, or creating goals that might, if achieved, undermine other goals, is not moving us into a “beyond aid” world. They are not moving us anywhere except to more of the same work that development and aid have been doing for decades, and which has given us little we might call transformational.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Next: What is the way forward?
Sun 1 Mar 2015
Last week I was fortunate enough to spend a few days at Wisford House for a Wilton Park conference “Beyond aid: innovative governance, financing and partnerships for the post-2015 agenda.” The meeting emphasized thinking beyond aid, to the ways in which aid funds can leverage other, larger flows of money (i.e. private capital) in manners that speed or transform ongoing changes among the world’s poor. In short, it was a meeting that embraced a shift from aid as “fixing things for poor people” to aid as “catalyzing and accelerating what people are already doing to create faster, more impactful outcomes.” The question, of course, is exactly how to shift aid fully into the latter role in the context of the third Conference on Financing for Development coming up in July, and the ongoing development of Sustainable Development Goals that should conclude in 2015.
As the conference kicked off with a discussion of the new SDGs, Charles Kenny serendipitously tweeted out their current structure:
Just as I started to freak out (as did Simon Maxwell, who was seated next to me and saw the tweet at about the same time), Charles followed up:
So, 303 indicators (several of which are actually unmeasurable in the usual indicator sense) feeding into 169 targets which speak to progress toward 17 goals (Charles was off by one). My first reaction, which I shared with the conference, was that this structure was useless, either as a set of focusing goals or as a set of aspirational targets.
First, these do nothing to focus us. With 303 indicators aimed at 169 targets, any reasonably talented program officer should be able to reverse justify any and all existing programming under this structure. Were I still advising a presidential appointee at USAID, and they asked me about the SDGs, I would tell them not to worry about it as there is nothing in this structure that constrains anything that the Agency does.
Second, these goals don’t feel aspirational – but this is for a variety of reasons that I can lump into three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Over the next few posts, I will lay out what I mean with examples of each category. Today, I focus on…
Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Let’s just get something on the table right away: None of these goals is going to be achieved by 2030. First, “poverty” is a pretty vague term that means much more than income. While the indicators proposed under Goal 1 certainly recognize a complex understanding of poverty, including income, access to productive resources, social protection, and exposure to shocks and stresses, the ways in which these different factors align to produce “poverty” depends greatly on where you are. As a result, there are many “poverties” in many places. Therefore, it is not clear to me how a broad set of indicators will tell us if we have succeeded in eradicating poverty in a particular place.
Goal 2, ending hunger, is easier to measure as an outcome, but very difficult to measure as a process (as most determinants of food security are social, and we have very weak data on these processes in most parts of the world). The indicators don’t tell us where to intervene, or how we will know when “hunger” has been ended. Given 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households in 2013, it seems extraordinarily unlikely we will be able to meet this goal globally.
And Goal 5… we’re not even close to gender equity here in the United States, but somehow we are going to fix this globally in 15 years? Folks, gender relations and equality are issues that take a minimum of three generations to address – and that would be extraordinarily rapid change. 15 years is about one generation.
It is not that I hate (or even dislike) aspirational goals. However, goals should be achievable and actionable so we can hold people accountable for their achievement. None of these three goals meets either criteria. Can we make significant progress on addressing some components of poverty in the next 15 years? Yes. Can we reduce food insecurity in both rich and poor countries? Yes. Can we make some movement on the status of women and girls in both rich and poor countries? Yes. And we should work toward all three, but with ambitious but achievable targets. If the goals are achievable, then we can hold someone accountable for any shortfalls in 2030. Accountability fosters action. Right now, nobody will be held accountable when we fall short, because in 2030 whoever is still around will (rightly) point out that these were always unachievable, and therefore it is nobody’s fault that we did not meet these goals.
So, I dislike impossible goals because they strip away responsibility for their achievement. If these were ambitious but achievable, it might force those of us in the aid world to think more carefully about how we are going to leverage other sources of funding, other trends already taking place in many parts of the world (declining fertility, rising incomes, etc.), and build on existing knowledge and capacity among the global poor to ensure we reached these goals. In short, impossible goals do nothing to move us beyond aid – they just maintain the status quo.
Next up: The Vague and the “Sounds good, but on second thought”
Fri 12 Oct 2012
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, development, Development Institutions, environment, Food Security, Higher Education, Livelihoods, research, sustainable development
Comments Off on Wanna get a Ph.D. with Ed?
Man, has there ever been a less enticing blog post title? But it pays to be direct – so there it is. I have funding for a Ph.D. student, starting in January, to help me on my USAID-funded work on climate services for development. So, without further ado, the ad:
Graduate Student Opportunity for January 2013
University of South Carolina, Department of Geography
Ed Carr is seeking a Ph.D. student to support ongoing work on climate services for development in sub-Saharan Africa and develop an independent research program in this broad area of inquiry. The funding for this position is attached to USAID’s Climate Change Resilient Development (CCRD) program, and the candidate will have specific responsibilities supporting the the development of field methods and the analysis of preliminary data, as well as conducting extensive fieldwork in one or more Malian communities in May-July 2013 as part of the project “An Assessment of Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Program.”
- Candidates will have to be admitted to the geography graduate program at the University of South Carolina
- Candidates should be from a country in which USAID operates. Preference will be given to candidates from West Africa, then other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as this is the current target region for the project.
- Candidates should have experience in one or more of the following: climate change adaptation, rural/community development, rural agriculture, climate science
- The bulk of initial project work will focus on community-level information needs, and therefore preference will be given to those candidates with experience conducting qualitative research in rural settings.
- Candidates should hold a Masters degree in Geography, Anthropology, Planning or another closely related field
- Excellent written and spoken English. French language ability is preferred.
The duration of funding is January-July 2013, with likely continuation through July 2014. The candidate will receive tuition, a living stipend, and salary/research support for work to be conducted in May-July 2013. Candidates who meet departmental expectations of progress and excellence will be eligible for additional semesters of support to complete their degrees.
Please note the very short lead time for this opportunity – viable candidates will likely have to have a visa in hand if they are to start in January 2013. Candidates who cannot make this deadline, or who are not selected in this round, should stay tuned – I am hoping to open up a few more slots in the fall.
Prospective candidates are encouraged to contact Ed Carr at email@example.com. Applications are due on 1 November, 2012 via the instructions on the departmental web page: http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/geog/academics/admissions.html
Mon 26 Sep 2011
I was on a panel at the Organic Trade Association‘s research series at the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore last Friday, discussing the issue of organic farming and the need to feed the world. As I heard over and over from proponents of organic agriculture, the argument “you can’t feed the world on organic” is something thrown at them all the time. As I argued, though, this is a production-based argument: that is, organic farming often has somewhat lower levels of productivity than industrial farming (though there are several cases where this does not seem to hold, and a number of confounding factors that make it entirely possible that the productivity difference is actually quite small). Well, that would be a relevant argument if we were already using our food resources carefully. Except we aren’t. Consider:
- We still produce more than enough food globally to feed everyone a very healthy number of calories, and probably enough that those calories could be accompanied by adequate nutrients. The current problems of food insecurity are primarily about distribution, not production.
- Anywhere between 20% and 40% of all food grown globally spoils before it reaches market. The figures are lower for grains (which tend to travel well) and much higher for vegetables.
- In the US, we throw away roughly 30% of all food we purchase.
- Consider those two numbers together: In the US, we probably lose a lot less of the crop between farm and purchase at market, but then throw 30% of it away. In other places, the food that reaches the table is nearly completely eaten, but we could lose up to 40% of that food before it reaches market. In other words, no matter where you go on Earth, there is a hell of a lot of waste in the food system.
- Finally, consider that 33% of all farmland is used for animal feed, one of the less efficient ways of getting calories out of the environment. It is unclear to me if this 33% includes biofuel crops, but in any case biofuels would only add a few percentage points to this at most.
In short, we have distribution problems and an astonishing amount of waste in our food systems, but it seems that a lot of the food security debate in policy circles is driven by production arguments. Enhancing production is not a low hanging fruit. Enhancing production is often used as an excuse for ignoring local knowledge and capacity in favor of reworking entire agroecological systems (which usually ends badly). Those of us working in development would be well-served to consider all the ways we might address hunger, including waste and distribution, rather than focus myopically on one cause for what might be a phantom problem. Welcome to another central theme of Delivering Development: misunderstanding/misidentifying the development challenge, and then trying to solve the wrong thing.
One caveat: there are places in the world in absolute production crises – that is, they lack market access to facilitate the movement of needed food, and their agricultural systems are no longer resilient in the face of current challenges. In these places, waste may be less of an issue, and distribution solutions may be years in the future (good infrastructure and markets require good governance, which is no easy fix), and therefore the application of new agricultural technologies might become the low hanging fruit solution for the time being, until the other challenges can be met. It’s about finding the right tool for the job (and knowing exactly what the job is, too).
Mon 22 Aug 2011
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, Delivering Development, development, environment, Livelihoods, policy, research, sustainable development
Comments Off on Why should the aid/relief/development community care about global environmental change (Pt. 3)?
OK, ok, you say: I get it, global environmental change matters to development/aid/relief. But aside from thinking about project-specific intersections between the environment and development/aid/relief, what sort of overarching challenges does global environmental change pose to the development community? Simply put, I think that the inevitability of various forms of environmental change (a level of climate change cannot be stopped now, certain fisheries are probably beyond recovery, etc.) over the next 50 or so years forces the field of development to start thinking very differently about the design and evaluation of policies, programs, and projects . . . and this, in turn, calls into question the value of things like randomized control trials for development.
In aid/development we tend to be oriented to relatively short funding windows in which we are supposed to accomplish particular tasks (which we measure through output indicators, like the number of judges trained) that, ideally, change the world in some constructive manner (outcome indicators, like a better-functioning judicial system). Outputs are easier to deliver and measure than outcomes, and they tend to operate on much shorter timescales – which makes them perfect for end-of-project reporting even though they often bear little on the achievement of the desired outcomes that motivated the project in the first place (does training X judges actually result in a better functioning judicial system? What if the judges were not the problem?). While there is a serious push in the development community to move past outputs to outcomes (which I generally see as a very positive trend), I do not see a serious conversation about the different timescales on which these two sorts of indicators operate. Outputs are very short-term. Outcomes can take generations. Obviously this presents significant practical challenges to those who do development work, and must justify their expenditures on an annual basis.
This has tremendous implications, I think, for development practice in the here and now – especially in development research. For example, I think this pressure to move to outcomes but deliver them on the same timescale as outputs has contributed to the popularity of the randomized control trials for development (RCT4D) movement. RCT4D work gathers data in a very rigorous manner, and subjects it to interesting forms of quantitative analysis to determine the impact of a particular intervention on a particular population. As my colleague Marc Bellemare says, RCTs establish “whether something works, not how it works.”
The vast majority of RCT4D studies are conducted across a few months to years, directly after the project is implemented. Thus, the results seem to move past outputs to impacts without forcing everyone to wait a very long time to see how things played out. This, to me, is both a strength and a weakness of the approach . . . though I never hear anyone talking about it as a weakness. The RCT4D approach seems to suggest that the evaluation of project outcomes can be effectively done almost immediately, without need for long-term follow-up. This sense implicitly rests on the forms of interpretation and explanation that undergird the RCT4D approach – basically, what I see as an appallingly thin approach to the interpretation of otherwise interesting and rigorously gathered data. My sense of this interpretation is best captured by Andrew Gelman’s (quoting Fung) use of the term “story time”, which he defines as a “pivot from the quantitative finding to the speculative explanation.” It seems that many practitioners of RCT4D seem to think that story time is unavoidable . . . which to me reflects a deep ignorance of the concerns for rigor and validity that have existed in the qualitative research community for decades. Feel free to check the methods section of any of my empirically-based articles (i.e. here and here): they address who I interviewed, why I interviewed them, how I developed interview questions, and how I knew that my sample size had grown large enough to feel confident that it was representative of the various phenomena I was trying to understand. Toward the end of my most recent work in Ghana, I even ran focus groups where I offered my interpretations of what was going on back to various sets of community members, and worked with them to strengthen what I had right and correct what I had wrong. As a result, I have what I believe is a rigorous, highly nuanced understanding of the social causes of the livelihoods decisions and outcomes that I can measure in various ways, qualitative and quantitative, but I do not have a “story time” moment in there.
The point here is that “story time”, as a form of explanation, rests on uncritical assumptions about the motivations for human behavior that can make particular decisions or behaviors appear intelligible but leave the door open for significant misinterpretations of events on the ground. Further, the very framing of what “works” in the RCT4D approach is externally defined by the person doing the evaluation/designing the project, and is rarely revised in the face of field realities . . . principally because when a particular intervention does not achieve some externally-defined outcome, it is deemed “not to have worked.” That really tends to shut down continued exploration of alternative outcomes that “worked” in perhaps unpredictable ways for unexpected beneficiaries. In short, the RCT4D approach tends to reinforce the idea that development is really about delivering apolitical, technical interventions to people to address particular material needs.
The challenge global environmental change poses to the RCT4D randomista crowd is that of the “through ball” metaphor I raised in my previous post. Simply put, identifying “what works” without rigorously establishing why it worked is broadly useful if you make two pretty gigantic assumptions: First, you have to assume that the causal factors that led to something “working” are aspects of universal biophysical and social processes that are translatable across contexts. If this is not true, an RCT only gives you what works for a particular group of people in a particular place . . . which is not really that much more useful than just going and reading good qualitative ethnographies. If RCTs are nothing more than highly quantified case studies, they suffer from the same problem as ethnography – they are hard to aggregate into anything meaningful at a broader scale. And yes, there are really rigorous qualitative ethnographies out there . . .
Second, you have to assume that the current context of the trial is going to hold pretty much constant going forward. Except, of course, global environmental change more or less chucks that idea for the entire planet. In part, this is because global environmental change portends large, inevitable biophysical changes in the world. Just because something works for improving rain-fed agricultural outputs today does not mean that the same intervention will work when the enabling environmental conditions, such as rainfall and temperature, change over the next few decades. More importantly, though, these biophysical changes will play out in particular social contexts to create particular impacts on populations, who will in turn develop efforts to address those impacts. Simply put, when we introduce a new crop today and it is taken up and boosts yields, we know that it “worked” by the usual standards of agricultural development and extension. But the take-up of new crops is not a function of agricultural ecology – there are many things that will grow in many places, but various social factors ranging from the historical (what crops were introduced via colonialism) to gender (who grows what crops and why) are what lead to particular farm compositions. For example, while tree crops (oil palm, coconut, various citrus, acacia for charcoal) are common on farms around the villages in which I have worked in Ghana, almost none of these trees are found on women’s farms. The reasons for this are complex, and link land tenure, gender roles, and household power relations into livelihoods strategies that balance material needs with social imperatives (for extended discussions, see here and here, or read my book).
Unless we know why that crop was taken up, we cannot understand if the conditions of success now will exist in the future . . . we cannot tell if what we are doing will have a durable impact. Thus, under the most reliable current scenario for climate change in my Ghanaian research context, we might expect the gradual decline in annual precipitation, and the loss of the minor rainy season, to make tree crops (which tend to be quite resilient in the face of fluctuating precipitation) more and more attractive. However, tree crops challenge the local communal land tenure system by taking land out of clan-level recirculation, and allowing women to plant them would further challenge land tenure by granting them direct control over access to land (which they currently lack). Altering the land tenure system would, without question, set off a cascade of unpredictable social changes that would be seen in everything from gender roles to the composition of farms. There is no way to be sure that any development intervention that is appropriate to the current context will be even functional in that future context. Yet any intervention we put into place today should be helping to catalyze long-term changes . . .
Simply put: Global environmental change makes clear the limitations of our current thinking on aid/development (of which RCT4D is merely symptomatic). Just like RCTs, our general framing of development does not move us any closer to understanding the long-term impact of our interventions. Further, the results of RCTs are not generalizable past the local context (which most good randomistas already know), limiting their ability to help us transform how we do development. In a world of global environmental change, our current approaches to development just replicate our existing challenges: they don’t really tell us if what we are doing will be of any lasting benefit, or even teach us general lessons about how to deliver short-term benefits in a rigorous manner.
Next up: The Final Chapter – Fixing It