Entries tagged with “Andy Sumner”.

I’ve long hated the term “poverty traps,” development shorthand for conditions in which poverty becomes self-reinforcing and therefore inescapable without some sort of external intervention.  They made no analytic sense (nobody ever defined poverty clearly across this literature, for example), and generally the idea of the poverty trap was hitched to a revival of “big push” development efforts that had failed in the 1950s and 1960s.  Further, it was always clear to me that the very idea of a poverty trap cast those living in difficult circumstances as helpless without the intervention of benevolent outsiders.  This did not align at all with my experiences on the ground in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as structural inequality in the world – the running head start enjoyed by the Global North in terms of economic development has created significant barriers to the economic development of those residing in the Global South.  These barriers, perhaps most critically the absurd and damaging regime of subsidies that massively distorts global agricultural markets, must be addressed, and soon.  Such barriers generally result in perverse outcomes that impact even those in the Global North (anyone who thinks the American food system makes any sense at all really needs to read more.  Start with Fast Food Nation, move to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and work out from there. And don’t get me going on the potential climate impacts of structural inequality).

But this enduring focus on structural problems in the global economy has had the effect of reducing those in the Global South to a bunch of helpless children in need of salvation by the best and most noble of those in the Global North, who were to bring justice, opportunity, and a better future to all.  If this isn’t the 21st Century version of the White Man’s Burden, then I don’t know what is.  Bill Easterly makes a very similar point very eloquently, and at much greater length, here.

I am a social scientist*, and I believe that the weight of evidence eventually wins arguments.  And today it occurred to me that in this case, this long line of arguing that those who insisted on talking about poverty traps were a) generally misrepresenting the world and b) inappropriately infantilizing those living in the Global South now has that weight of evidence behind it.  Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion basically blows up the idea of the poverty trap – he demonstrates that since the 1990s, a lot of people that were thought to be living in poverty traps have improved their incomes such that many have moved out of poverty (at least if one defines poverty on the basis of income).  People who were thought to be trapped by structural inequality have been defying expectations and improving their circumstances without clear correlations to aid or development efforts, let alone the “big push” arguments of Sachs and others.  In short, it looks like we don’t really understand what people are doing at the margins of the Global South, and that the global poor are a lot more capable than development seems to think.  Poor people attached to the anchor of structural inequality are dragging it to improved incomes and well-being in thousands of small, innovative ways that are adding up to a massive aggregate change in the geography and structure of global poverty.

In short, the Global South never needed the most enlightened of the Global North to clear the path and push them up the ladder of development (if you want to get all Rostow about it).  Instead, what is clearly needed is a new, substantial effort to better understand what is happening out on Globalization’s Shoreline, and to work with the global poor to examine these efforts, identify innovative, locally-appropriate, and locally-owned means of transforming their quality of life, and find means of bringing those ideas to (appropriate) scale.  Anything else is just hubris at best, and subtle class/race bigotry at worst.

The data is speaking. Anyone ready to listen?





*Well, I am a qualitative social scientist which means my work is more generative and humanities/arts flavored than is typical in the sciences, which generally value the reporting of observations in the framework of already-established biophysical processes.

So, it seems I have been challenged/called out/what-have-you by the folks at Imagine There Is No . . . over what I would do (as opposed to critique) about development.  At least I think that is what is going on, given that I received this tweet from them:

@edwardrcarr what would You do with 1 Billion $ for #developmentbit.ly/rQrUOd #The.1.Bill.$.Question

In general, I think this is a fair question.  Critique is nice, but at the end of the day I strive to build something from my critiques.  As I tell my grad students, I can train a monkey to take something apart – there isn’t much talent to that.  On the other hand, rebuilding something from whatever you just dismantled actually requires talent.  I admit to being a bit concerned about calling what I build “better”, mostly because such judgments gloss over the fact that any development intervention produces winners and losers, and therefore even a “better” intervention will probably not be better for someone.  I prefer to think about doing things differently, with an eye toward resolving some of the issues that I critique.

So, I will endeavor to answer – but first I must point out that asking someone what s/he would do for development with $1 billion is a very naive question.  I appreciate its spirit, but there isn’t much point to laying down a challenge that has little alignment with how the world works.  I think this is worth pointing out in light of the post on Imagine There Is No . . ., as they seem to be tweaking Bill Easterly for not having a good answer to their question.  However, for anyone who has ever worked for a development agency, the question “on what would you spend a billion dollars” comes off as a gotcha question because it is sort of nonsensical.  While the question might be phrased to make us think about an ideal world, those of us engaged in the doing of development who take its critique and rethinking seriously immediately start thinking about the sorts of things that would have to happen to make spending $1 billion possible and practical.  Those problems are legion . . . and pretty much any answer you give to the question is open to a lot of critique, either from a practical standpoint (great idea that is totally impractical) or from the critique side (and idea that is just replicating existing problems).  When caught in a no-win situation, the best option is not to answer at all.  Sure, we should imagine a perfect world (after all, according to A World Of Difference, I am “something of a radical thinker”), but we do not work in that world – and people live in the Global South right now, so anything we do necessarily must engage with the imperfections of the now even as we try to transcend them.

Given all of this, I offer the following important caveats to my answer:

1) I am presuming that I will receive this money as individual and not as part of any existing organization, as organizations have structures, mandates and histories that greatly shape what they can do.

2) I am presuming that I have my own organization, and that it already has sufficient staff to program $1 billion dollars – so a lot of contracting officers and lawyers are in place.  Spending money is a lot harder than you’d think.

3) I am presuming that I answer only to myself and the folks in the Global South.  Monitoring and evaluation are some of the biggest constraints on how we do development today.  As I said in my talk at SAIS a little while ago, it is all well and good to argue that development merely catalyzes change in complex systems, which makes its outcomes inherently unpredictable.  It is entirely another to program against that understanding – if the possible outcomes of a given intervention are hard to predict, how do you know which indicators to choose?  How can you build an evaluation system that allows you to capture unintended positive and negative outcomes as the project matures without looking like you are fudging the numbers?  This sounds like constrained thinking, but it is reality for anyone working in a big donor agency, and for all of the folks who implement the work of those agencies.

4) I am presuming there are enough qualified staff out there willing to quit what they are doing and come work for this project . . . and I am going to need a hell of a lot of staff.

5) I am presuming that I am expected to accomplish something in the relatively short term – i.e. 3-5 years, as well as trigger transformative changes in the Global South over the long haul.  If you don’t produce some results relatively soon, people will bail out on you.

All of these, except for 5), are giant caveats that basically divorce the question and its answer from reality.  I just need to point that out.  Because of these caveats, my answer here cannot be interpreted as a critique of my current employer, or indeed any other development organization – an answer that would also serve as a critique of those institutions would have to engage with their realities, blowing out a lot of my caveats above . . . sorry, but that’s reality, and it is really important to acknowledge the limits of any answer to such a loaded question.

So, here goes.  If I had $1 billion, I would spend it 1) figuring out what people really do to manage the challenges they face day-to-day, 2) identifying which of these activities are most effective at addressing those challenges and why, 3) evaluating whether any of these activities can be brought to scale or introduced to new places, and 4) bringing these ideas to scale.

Basically, I would spend $1 billion dollars on the argument “the new big idea is no more big ideas.”

Why would I do this, and do it this way?  Well, I believe that in a general way those of us working in development have very poor information about what is actually happening in the Global South, in the places where the challenges to human well-being are most acute.  We have a lot of assumptions about what is happening and why, but these are very often wrong.  I wrote a whole book making this point – rather convincingly, if some of the reviews are to be believed.  Because we don’t know what is happening, and our assumptions are wide of the mark, a lot of the interventions we design and implement are irrelevant (at best) or inappropriate (at worst) to the intended beneficiaries.  Basically, the claim (a la Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project) that there are proven development interventions is crap.  If we had known, proven interventions WE WOULD BE USING THEM.  To assume otherwise is to basically slander the bulk of people working on development as either insufficiently motivated (if we weren’t so damn lazy, and we really cared about poor people, we could fix all of the problems in the world with these proven interventions) or to argue that there simply needs to be more money spent on these interventions to fix everything (except in many cases there is little evidence that funding is the principal cause of project failure).  Of course, this is exactly what Sachs argues when asking for more support for the MVP, or when he is attacking anyone who dares critique the project.

The only way to really know what is happening is to get out there and talk to people.  When you do, what you find is that the folks we classify as the “global poor” are hardly helpless.  They are remarkably capable people who make livings under very difficult circumstances with very little resource and limited fallback options.  They know their environments, their economy, and their society far better than anyone from the outside ever will.  They are, in short, remarkable resources that should be treated as treasured repositories of human knowledge, not as a bunch of children who can’t work things out for themselves.  $1 billion would get us a lot of people in a lot of places doing a lot of learning . . . and this sort of thing can be programmed to run over 6 months to a year to run fieldwork, do some data analysis, and start producing tailored understandings of what works and why in different places . . . which then makes it relatively easy to start identifying opportunities for scale-up.  Actually, the scale-up could be done really easily, and could be very responsive to local needs, if we would just set up a means of letting communities speak to one another in a free and open manner – a network that let people in the Global South ask each other questions, and offer their answers and solutions, to one another.  Members of this project from the Global North, from the Universities and from development organizations, could work with communities to convey the lessons the project has gleaned from various activities in various places to help transfer ideas and technology in a manner that facilitates their productive introduction in new contexts.  So I suppose I would have to carve part of the $1 billion off for that network, but it would come in under the scale-up component of my project.  Eventually, I suspect this sort of network would also become a means of learning about what is happening in the Global South as well . . .

With any luck at all, by year 3 we would see the cross-fertilization of all kinds of locally-appropriate ideas and technology happening around the world and the establishment of a nascent network that could build on this momentum to yield even more information about what people are already doing, and what challenges they really face.  We would have started a process that has immediate impacts, but can work in tandem with the generational timescales of social change that are necessary to bring about major changes in any place.  We would have started a process that likely could not be stopped.  How it would play out is anyone’s guess . . . but it would sure look different than whatever we are doing now.

Whenever you write something, you hope that other people will like it . . . or perhaps hate it so much it spurs them to do something useful in response.  In any case, you want feedback.  A vast, echoey silence just sucks.  I have a weird version of this with my own academic work.  More often than not, I write things that land in the literature with a huge thud.  One or two people notice, read and cite it in the first two or so years it is out . . . and then all of a sudden lots of people start citing it in all kinds of places, ranging from academic journals to UN Reports.  This has become a pretty regular pattern for me, which to some extent reflects the fact that I have a habit of writing stuff on the edges of my discipline(s), and also reflects how long it takes new ideas to get into people’s work and show up in print (generally speaking, it takes between 9 months and a year, at least, from the acceptance of an article to its appearance in print – so any new idea has to be read, processed and incorporated into a new article, which takes a few months.  Then the article has to be accepted, and review typically takes 3-6 months.  Finally, after it is accepted, another 9-12 month wait.  Add it up, and you realize that it takes anywhere from 14-24 months for the first people who read a new idea to start responding in print).

Delivering Development has been a little different, as it is being reviewed in different kinds of venues – a lot of blog attention, for example.  I also had the good fortune of having two people review the piece for the back cover, so I got some feedback before the book even came out.  In any case, the reviews are now starting to flow in, and overall they are really kind.  Best of all, they seem to get what I was trying to do with the book – which are the best kind of reviews one can get as an author.  The reviews (with links to full reviews):

Back Cover

Carr’s concern is that development and globalization, as currently pursued, are creating more poverty than they solve, needlessly producing economic and environmental challenges that put everyone on Earth at risk. Confronting this paradoxical outcome head-on, Carr questions the “wisdom” of the traditional development-via-globalization strategy, a sort of connect-the-development-dots, by arguing that in order to connect the dots one must first see the dots. By failing to do so, agencies do not understand what they are connecting and why. This fundamental questioning of Post WWII development strategies, grounded in life along “Globalization’s Shoreline,” sets his approach to development in the age of globalization apart from much of the contemporary development literature.

— Michael H. Glantz, Director, CCB (Consortium for Capacity Building), INSTAAR, University of Colorado

Over the fifty years since the end of the colonial era, rich nations have granted Africa billions of dollars in development aid—the equivalent of six Marshall Plans—and yet, today, much of the continent is as desperate as ever for help. In Delivering Development, Edward Carr delves into the question of why the aid system has failed to deliver on its promises, and offers a provocative thesis: that economic development, at least as international donors define it, is not necessarily equal to advancement. Unlike many combatants in the debate over the causes of global poverty, who jet in and out of these countries and offer the view from 10,000 feet, Carr takes a novel approach to the problem. He examines the aid system as it is actually experienced by poor Africans.Delivering Development focuses on a pair of Ghanaian villages, which despite their poverty by statistical measures have nonetheless managed to construct sophisticated systems of agricultural cultivation and risk management. Carr doesn’t argue that these places hold the secret to ending poverty. On the contrary, his point is that there are no overarching solutions, that each community holds a unique set of keys to its own future. By delving into development at the grassroots, Carr reveals the rich and bedeviling complexity of a problem that, all too often, is reduced to simplistic ideological platitudes.”

— Andrew Rice, author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda

Summaries of Recent Reviews (with links to full reviews)

The book is a riveting read, horizon broadening and . . . takes a somewhat unusual path towards challenging the dominant paradigm that complements other, parallel efforts . . . All-in-all, a must read for aid wonks everywhere.

— Andy Sumner, Global Dashboard

Development often fails. This is not a new premise. Many have written about it. But Edward Carr offers a fascinating perspective on why he believes this is true in Delivering Development.”

— Robin Pendoley, Thinking Beyond Borders

This book makes an important contribution to critical literatures on globalization and development . . . [providing] an often overlooked perspective within critical development literature: the real possibility for positive change and for a more active role of development’s target population to participate and shape the direction of change in their communities.

— Kelsey Hanrahan, Africa Today

Andy Sumner and Charles Kenny (disclosure – Andy and Charles are friends of mine, and I need to write up my review of Charles’ book Getting Better . . . in a nutshell, you should buy it) have a post on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog addressing the two most recent challenges to the idea of the “poverty trap”: Ghana and Zambia’s recent elevations to middle-income status (per capita GNIs of between $1,006 and $3,975) by the World Bank.

Quick background for those less versed in development terminology: GNI (Gross National Income) is the value of all goods and services produced in a country, as well as all overseas investments and remittances (money sent home from abroad).  Per capita GNI divides this huge number by the population to get a sense of the per-person income of the country (there is a loose assumption that the value of goods and services will be paid in the form of wages).  So, loosely speaking, a per capita GNI of $1006 is roughly equivalent to $2.75/day.  Obviously $2.75 buys a lot more in rural Africa than it does basically anywhere inside the US, but this is still a pretty low bar at which to start “Middle Income.”

I do not want to engage an argument about where Middle Income should start in this post – Andy and Charles take this up near the end of their post, and nicely lay out the issues.  The important point that they are making, though, is that the idea that there are a lot of countries out there mired in situations that make an escape from food insecurity, material deprivation, absence of basic healthcare, and lack of opportunity (situations often called “poverty traps”) is being challenged by the ever-expanding pool of countries that seem to be increasing economic productivity rapidly and significantly.  The whole point of a “poverty trap”, as popularized by Paul Collier’s book on The Bottom Billion and Jeffrey Sach’s various writings, is that it cannot be escaped without substantial outside aid interventions (a la Sachs) or may not be escapable at all.  Well, Ghana certainly has received a lot of aid, but its massive growth is not the product of a new “big push”, a massive infusion of aid across sectors to get the country up into this new income category.  Turns out the poorest people in the world might not need us to come riding to their rescue, at least not in the manner that Sachs envisions in his Millennium Villages Project.

That said, I’ve told Andy that I am deeply concerned about fragility – that is, I am thrilled to see things changing in places like Ghana, but how robust are those changes?  At least in Ghana, a lot of the shift has been driven by the service sector, as opposed to recent oil finds (though these will undoubtedly swell the GNI figure in years to come) – this suggests a broader base to change in Ghana than, say, Equatorial Guinea . . . where GNI growth is all about oil, which is controlled by the country’s . . . problematic . . . leader (just read the Wikipedia post).  But even in Ghana, things like climate change could present significant future challenges.  The loss of the minor rainy season, for example, could have huge impacts on staple crop production and food security in the country, which in turn could hurt the workforce, exacerbate class/ethnic/rural-urban tensions, and generally hurt social cohesion in what is today a rather robust democracy.  Yes, things have gotten better in Ghana . . . but this is no time to assume, a la Rostow, that a largely irreversible takeoff to economic growth has occurred.  Aid and development are important and still needed in an increasingly middle-income world, but a different aid and development that supports existing indigenous efforts and consolidates development gains.


It appears that the World Bank, at long last, is going to really make a huge portion of its data publicly available.  The New York Times has a story that outlines some of the trials and tribulations that brought us to this point, some of which will probably seem arcane to the development outsider.  However, as a development researcher/practitioner hybrid, I cannot tell you how exciting or important this is – the Bank is sitting on a giant pile of interesting data.  Not all of it is going to be high quality (a lot of data from the Global South is not – see chapter 9 of Delivering Development or a parallel discussion in Charles Kenny’s Getting Better).  But until very recently the data you could easily access from the Bank was worthy of a lower-division undergraduate project – and getting to the really interesting stuff was brutally difficult.  The new datasets are more detailed and comprehensive, but still not everything the Bank has.  Andy Sumner has been trying to get at the Bank’s core data to refine and test his ideas about the New Bottom Billion (which you should all be reading, by the way), with little success because of security requirements.

I really like a quote, at the end of the NY Times piece, from Bitange Ndemo, Kenya’s permanent secretary for information.  When asked if there would be resistance to public dissemination of government data, he argued that transparency was inevitable because:

Information is valuable, he says, and people will find a way to get it: “This is one of those things, like mobile phones and the Internet, that you cannot control.”

I had the good fortune to be invited to a presentation by Andy Sumner at the Center for Global Development on Thursday – a senior staff lunch presentation, actually.  So CGD was very kind in having me along.  I really enjoyed the atmosphere – it was nice to be back around a room full of very smart people who spend a lot of time thinking about the issue of development, and who clearly enjoy pushing each other and the ideas in the room.  Andy had a small novel’s worth of comments to consider by the end, but it was a really constructive pile of ideas.

Andy has come to a bit of fame recently for pointing out that what Collier called The Bottom Billion, really poor people more or less trapped in a few dozen very poor countries, no longer really works to describe the world (his paper is here).  If that bottom billion existed in the late 1990s when Collier was writing, today it seems that there is a new bottom billion, living in middle income countries (MICs) – indeed, the majority of the very poor globally are found in MICs.  The discussion around the presentation focused on everything from issues of data and method that led to this conclusion to wider policy concerns about whether or not this shift signals the end of grant-based aid because it will be politically infeasible to give (as opposed to lend) money to middle income countries (some of which have large cash reserves) for poverty alleviation – that aid to the very poor will have to shift to market-based lending.

I walked away from the presentation and discussion struck by something else: the term Middle Income Country is pointless.  If Angola is a middle income country, and Ghana is about to be reclassified as such because of its new oil revenues, we might as well just chuck the typology.  While GINI data (a measure of income inequality within a country) is tough to come by right now, it seems to me that a lot of the countries that have recently made the jump to middle income, yet still house a tremendous number of the “bottom billion” (i.e. India, China, Nigeria, and Indonesia), are clearly making that jump by enhancing inequality within their borders.  This means that the basis for this shift in classification is not widespread through the country or its population – which opens up another question that is analytically crucial to understanding the likely future for aid to the poorest of the poor: on what basis did these countries make the jump to middle income status, what is the current structure of the economy, and to what is that jump, and the current economy, vulnerable.  The impetus for aid grants disappears only if we assume that the gains made by these countries are widespread through the population and robust enough to withstand pressures and shocks that might push them back to low income status.  I have my serious doubts that many places making the jump and becoming MICs can say either with confidence – climate change and a tightly interlinked global economy will challenge many of these economies in significant ways that will compromise their abilities to address the needs of the poorest within their borders.  However, without addressing the needs of this portion of the population these countries will put their social, economic and environmental futures at risk.  Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to be focused on fostering safety and certainty for the world’s most vulnerable, to ensure that a country making the jump to MIC status has achieved something meaningful and durable.