Entries tagged with “Climate Change”.
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Wed 27 Mar 2013
While many paint the combined impact of climate change and global markets as something new, unpredictable, and unmanageable, they fail to grasp that most situations we are projected to see in the next few decades* have been experienced before in the form of previous extremes. Take, for example, the figure below:
This is a graph of the annual rainfall at one rain gauge in Ghana, near where I conducted the research that made up a big part of my book Delivering Development. The downward trend in rainfall is clear (and representative of the trend in this part of coastal West Africa that, according to my colleagues at IRI, continues to this day and is confirmed by satellite measurements). There are complex things happening inside these annual figures, including shifting timing of rainfall, but for the purposes of discussion here, it serves to make a point. While there is indeed a downward trend that continues to this day, there have already been several years where the total precipitation was much lower than the current average precipitation, or the likely annual precipitation for the next few decades.
This means is that the farmers in Dominase and Ponkrum, like so many around the world, have already seen the future – that is, they have already lived through at least one, if not several, seasons like those we expect to become the norm some decades in the future. These farmers survived those seasons, and learned from them, adjusting their expectations and strategies to account for the possibility of recurrence. These adjustments are likely over- or under-compensating for the likelihood of recurrence right now, as livelihoods strategies in these villages are largely reactive, reflecting last season’s events more than the average season. Further, the year-to-year hedging of farms against climate variability can be a costly practice – the likely “insurance premium” of lost production in a good year (due to planting in less-than-ideal, but precipitation-hedged situations like the tops and bottoms of hills – see my discussion in Chapter 4 of Delivering Development) probably eats up somewhere between 10% and 20% of total potential production. So these management strategies are not ideal. But they do reflect local capacities to adjust and account for extreme conditions, the extreme rainfall or drought events out along the tails of historical distributions whose unpredictable recurrences characterize a changing climate regime. Many of these farmers have little or no access to inputs, limited to no access to seasonal forecasts, and live in states without safety nets, yet they have repeatedly survived very difficult seasons. Clearly, their capacity for survival in an uncertain environment and economy is worthy of our respect.
This is not a phenomenon specific to Ghana. For example, the farmers in southern Mali with whom I (and many others) have been working to deliver better and more relevant climate services, such as seasonal and short-term forecasts. Most, if not all, of these farmers are using local indicators, such as the flowering of a particular tree or the emergence of a particular insect, as indicators that help them time various activities in their agricultural cycle. Many trust their local indicators more than the forecasts, perhaps with some reason – their indicators actually seem to work and the forecasts are not yet as accurate as anyone would like. But these indicators work under current climate regimes, and these regimes are changing. At some point, the tree will start to flower at a different, perhaps less appropriate time, or simply cease to flower. The insect will emerge at a different time, or perhaps be driven away by the emergence of new predators that can now move into the area. If the climate continues to change, local indicators will eventually fail.
I humbly suggest that instead of reengineering entire agroecological systems and their associated economies in the here and now (a fairly high risk enterprise), we should be building upon the capacities that already exist. For example, we can plan for the eventual failure of local indicators – we can study the indicators to understand under what conditions their behaviors will change, identify likely timeframes in which such changes are likely to occur, and create of new tools and sources of information that will be there for farmers when their current sources of information no longer work. We should be designing these tools and that information with the farmers, answering the questions they have (as opposed to the questions we want to ask). We should be building on local capacity, not succumbing to crisis narratives that suggest that these farmers have little capacity, either to manage their current environment or to change with the environment.
Farmers in the Global South have already fed the future. Perhaps they did not do it all that well, and all they managed was to stave off catastrophe. But given the absence of safety nets in most places in the Global South (see Theme 3, points 2 and 3), and the limited access so many farmers have to inputs and irrigation, avoiding catastrophe is an accomplishment that warrants study and serious consideration. We should build on that capacity, not blow it up.
The key principals and points:
1) A future under climate change is not a great unknown for farmers in the Global South. Most farmers have already managed several seasons as difficult, or more difficult, than what we project to be normal in the next few decades. Presuming these farmers are facing a catastrophe they cannot see coming fails to grasp the ways in which these past seasons inform contemporary planning.
2) Farmers have already developed strategies for addressing extreme seasons (i.e. drought or excessive precipitation). We should start with an understanding of what they already do, and why, before moving in with our interventions, lest we inadvertently undo otherwise functional safety nets.
3) Existing indigenous strategies for managing climate variability are not perfect. They tend to overestimate or underestimate actual risks of particular weather and climate states, tend to magnify the importance of the previous season (as opposed to historical averages, or current trends) when planning for the next season, and tend to be very costly in terms of lost potential agricultural productivity.
4) Current indigenous tools for making agricultural decisions, such as local indicators, are likely more robust than any climate product we can deliver right now. Just because this information comes in the form of a plant or animal behavior does not make it any less valid.
5) Current indigenous tools for making agricultural decisions will likely start to fail as climate regimes change. This fact presents an opportunity for development organizations to start working with farmers to identify useful information and ways of providing it such that this information is available when local indicators fail.
*Given the propagation of uncertainty in models of the global climate, global water availability, global land cover, the global economy, and global population (all of which, incidentally, impact one another), I don’t pay much attention to model results beyond about 2040, with 2030 being the really outer threshold of information that might usefully inform planning or our understanding of biophysical process. On the 100-year scale, we may as well be throwing darts at a wall as running models. I have no idea why we bother.
Sun 24 Mar 2013
In the world of food security and agricultural development there is a tendency to see market integration as a panacea for problems of hunger (see Theme 2, point 4). There is ample evidence that market integration creates opportunities for farmers by connecting them to the vast sums of money at play in the global food markets. But there is equally ample evidence pointing to the fact that markets are never just a solution – negotiating global markets from the position of a small producer presents significant challenges such as the management of commodity price instability (without meaningful market leverage). The academic side, and much of the implementation side, of the food security world already recognizes this issue, driven by (repeated) studies/experiences of food insecurity and famine showing that markets are nearly always the most important driver of this stress on the global poor. Planning for the benefits of market integration without serious thought about how to manage the potential downsides of markets is a recipe for disaster.
For example, simplifying one’s farm to focus on only a few key crops for which there is “comparative advantage”, and then using the proceeds to buy food, clothing, shelter and other necessities, works great when the market for those crops is strong. But what happens when the food you need to buy becomes more dear than the crops you are growing, for example through food price spikes or a shift in markets that leave one’s farm worth only a fraction of what is needed to feed and clothe one’s family? In the world’s poorest countries, where most food security and agricultural development work takes place, there is little capacity to provide safety nets to vulnerable citizens that might address such outcomes.
This is not a call for the provision of these safety nets (microinsurance is very interesting, but a long way from implementation). While useful and, in some contexts, critical, they are, in the end, band-aids for a larger conceptual problem – the framing of market engagement as a panacea for the problems of agricultural development and food security. Often, such programs also presume a lack of existing safety nets at the community or household level – a sort of “we can’t make things worse” mentality that marks much development thought. However, farmers in these countries have long operated without a state-level safety net. They hedge against all kinds of uncertainties, from the weather to markets. For example, one form of hedging I have seen in my own work is an emphasis on growing a mix of crops that can be sold or eaten, depending on market and weather conditions. If, in coastal Ghana, you are growing maize and cassava as your principal crops, you can sell both in years where the market is good, and you can eat both in years where the market turns on you. I have referred to opting out of markets as temporary deglobalization, where people opt in and out of markets as they gauge their risks and opportunities.
Forcing farmers away from this model, toward one that focuses on enhancing the economic efficiency of agricultural production by reducing the focus of a country and its farmers to a few crops that are their “comparative advantage”, and which they should sell to purchase the rest of their dietary needs, removes the option of turning away from markets and eating the crops in conditions of years where the markets are not favorable. This is even more true when some of that newly reduced crop mix only takes value from sale on global markets (i.e. cocoa) and/or which cannot be eaten (i.e. cotton). In short, such restructuring in the name of economic efficiency makes people dependent on the political structures of the state that govern the markets in which they participate. Most of our work takes place in the Global South, where the state rarely has the capacity to step in and help in times of crisis. It is pretty easy to do the math here: done wrong, food security programs principally framed around ideas of economic efficiency can enhance state capacity to extract value from farmers without a comparable improvement in the delivery of services or safety nets. This is an acceptable outcome if you are trying to compel people to submit to the state and the markets the state regulates, which is one way to boost measurable GDP and state revenue. However, it is really bad if you are actually trying to improve people’s food security.
The key points and principals here:
1) Are you addressing food insecurity or strengthening the state’s capacity to raise revenue and measure economic activity? These are not the same thing – generally, they are at odds with one another, as making agricultural practice easier to see and measure only serves to improve the capacity to extract revenues from farmers, without any guarantee of improved services proceeding from those revenues.
2) Economic efficiency is a desirable characteristic of agricultural livelihoods, but in the absence of safety nets cannot be the organizing principal of food security interventions. All else being equal, it is better when farmers use their scarce resources as efficiently as possible. However, the measurement of efficiency must take place within an assessment of the various risks currently managed through “inefficiencies” – as many such inefficiencies are in fact parts of robust, community- and household-level safety nets.
3) Food security programming should be able to identify the difference between an inefficiency and a critical part of a community- or household-level safety net. Regardless of the consequences for economic efficiency, programs and projects should not destabilize these until such time as new, reliable safety nets exist to take their place.
4) Opting out is OK. Farmers should be allowed to structure their farms such that they can opt out of markets if things turn bad, even if this limits their total incomes in “good”/optimal years. This should not be assessed in terms of the average outcome, when best and worst cases are averaged. Your best case is some more money. Your worst case is severe deprivation and death. These are not equal. Averting the latter is more important than achieving the former.
Tue 19 Mar 2013
If food insecurity is not about global food shortages, what is it? Following the a vast body of literature and experience addressing food insecurity, it is the outcome of a complex interplay between:
- locally-accessible food production
- local livelihoods options that might provide sufficient, reliable income or sources of food
- local social relations (which mobilize and create social divisions by gender, class, age, etc.) which shape access to both livelihoods opportunities and available food within communities and even households
- structures of governance and markets in which that production takes place
- global markets for food and other commodities that can impinge on local pricing.
Changes in the natural environment play into this mix in that they generally impinge upon locally-accessible production and on global markets. The experience of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) provides evidence to this effect. FEWS-NET builds its forecasts through a consideration of all of these factors, and as it has gained resolution on things like local livelihoods activities and market pricing and functions, its predictive resolution has increased.
Despite decades of literature and body of experience to the contrary, it seems that the policy world, and indeed much development implementation, continues to view issues of hunger as the relatively straightforward outcome of production shortfalls that can be addressed through equally straightforward technical fixes ranging from changed farming techniques to new agricultural technologies such as GMOs. This view is frustrating, given its persistence in the face of roughly five decades of project failures and ephemeral results that evaporated at the end of “successful” projects. More nuanced work has started to think about issues of production in concert with the distribution function of markets. However, the bulk of policy and implementation along these lines couples the simplistic “technical fix” mentality of earlier work on food security with a sort of naïve market triumphalism that tends to focus on the possible benefits of market engagement with little mention or reasonable understanding of likely problematic outcomes. Put another way, most of this thinking can be reduced to:
increased agricultural production = increased economic productivity = increased food security and decreased poverty
The problem with this equation is that the connection between agricultural productivity and economic growth is pretty variable/shaky in most places, and the connection between economic growth and any specific development outcome is shaky/nonexistent pretty much everywhere unless there has been careful work done to make sure that new income is mobilized in a specific manner that addresses the challenge at hand. Most of the time, the food security via economic growth crowd has not done this last bit of legwork. In short, the mantra of “better technology and more markets” as currently manifest in policy circles is unlikely to advance the cause of food security and address global hunger any more effectively than prior interventions based on a version of the same mantra.
These issues present us with several key points about the problem we are trying to solve that should shape a general approach to food insecurity:
1) Because food insecurity is the outcome of the complex interplay of many factors, sectoral approaches are doomed to failure. At best, they will address a necessary but insufficient cause of the particular food insecurity issue at hand. However, in leaving other key causes unaddressed, these partial solutions nearly always succumb to problems in the unaddressed causes.
2) Production-led solutions will rarely, if ever, address enough significant causes of food insecurity to succeed. Simply put, while production is a necessary part of understanding food insecurity, it is insufficient for explaining the causes of particular food insecurity situations, or identifying appropriate solutions for those situations.
3) Increased production is not guaranteed to lead to economic growth. The crops at hand, who consumes them, the infrastructure for their transport, and national/global market conditions all shape this particular outcome, which can shift from season to season.
4) Economic growth does not solve things magically. Even if you can generate economic growth through increased agricultural production, this does not mean you will be addressing food insecurity. Programs must think carefully about where the proceeds from this new economic growth will go in the economy and society at hand, and if/how those pathways will result in greater opportunity for the food insecurity.
5) Embrace the fact complexity takes different forms in different places. In some places, markets will be a major cause of insecurity. In other places, environmental degradation might play this role. In still other places, failed governance will be the biggest issue driving food outcomes. In nearly all cases, though, all three of these factors will be present, and accompanied by others. Further, the form this insecurity takes will be highly variable within countries, provinces, districts, communities and even households, depending on the roles people play and the places in which they play them. There is no good template in which to fit a particular case of food insecurity, just a lot of causal factors that require extensive teasing out if one hopes to explain food outcomes and therefore address the problem.
Sun 17 Mar 2013
There is no global crisis of food production. There is no neo-Malthusian reality that we are just now crashing into. Every year, the Earth produces roughly twice the calories needed to feed every single human being. This is why food insecurity and famine are such horrible tragedies, and indeed stains on humanity. There is no unavoidable global shortage that creates famine and hunger.
Nor, in fact, are we likely to be looking at a global food shortage any time soon. There is no doubt that climate change will present challenges to our food system. The combination of changing temperatures and precipitation regimes will challenge existing crops in many parts of the world, and benefit the crops in other parts of the world. Further, the global markets for food have created substantially tighter interconnections between places than ever before, and there is less excess marketable supply than ever before. Note that there is less excess marketable supply – this is the amount of food we produce that actually reaches market, not the total amount of food grown and raised each year. As I will discuss later (point 4: The Future is Already Being Fed), these trends are not as terrifying as some might paint them. The simple point here is that these trends are manageable if we can get over the idea of food security as a question of production.
The idea of scarcity is perhaps the biggest challenge we face in addressing the world’s food needs. As long as food security policy and programs remain focused on solving scarcity, food security will remain focused on technical fixes for hunger: greater technology, greater inputs, greater efficiency. This narrative of scarcity has trumped any reasonable effort to measure actual levels of production in the world today, the return on greater technological inputs versus solving the causes of waste in existing systems, and even served as a useful foil through which to obscure the deepening unsustainability of the very agricultural systems that are often treated as a model, those here in the United States and Europe.
Simply put, it is cheaper and easier to enhance agricultural extension to improve local food storage techniques, build and maintain good roads, and improve electrical grids and other parts of the cold chain that preserves produce from farm to market than it is to completely reengineer an agricultural ecology. It makes far more sense to make basic infrastructural investments than it does to tether ever more farmers to inputs that require finite fossil fuel and mineral resources. It makes more sense to better train farmers in storing what they already produce in a manner that preserves more of the harvest than it does to invest billions in the modification of crops, especially when the bulk of genetic modification in agriculture these days is defensive – that is, guarding against future yield loss, not enhancing yields in the present.
This is not to say that there is no place for agricultural research or technology in achieving food security. There are places in the world where the state cannot provide services, or maintain the basic order necessary for functional markets, that would enable the movement of food are reasonable prices, and where the local environmental conditions are such that new and innovative technologies will be required to make them productive. Here, new agricultural technologies might have a place. But these places are few and far between, and so we should put the push for ever-more agricultural technology into its place as but one of many possible solutions for food insecurity. When a problem has many causes, it requires many solutions. But this requires understanding that the problem has many causes.
This points to several key points/principals:
1) When confronted with an instance of food insecurity, program/project/policy folks must suspend all assumptions about food supply until they can be validated by empirical evidence.
2) Any initial arguments that define the causes of a given situation as scarcity should be assessed in terms of understanding why this has come to be the explanation. Since scarcity is rarely the actual cause of food insecurity, explanations that hinge on scarcity alone are deeply suspect and should be critically evaluated before they are used to shape responses. For example, are there local misperceptions of markets at play, or are there those with vested interests in particular solutions trying to drive the response?
3) Any assessment of the food security of a population should account not only for the amount of food they can access and are entitled to, but also the total food produced both by that population and within that population’s market-shed. This allows for a greater understanding of the causes of food insecurity, such as waste caused by insufficient infrastructural quality or inappropriate on-farm practices, or the failure of the state to provide the necessary structures for functional markets. There is little point to bringing new genetically-modified crops to populations whose real problem is not production, but an inability to get their existing harvest to market.
Fri 12 Oct 2012
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, development, Development Institutions, environment, Food Security, Higher Education, Livelihoods, research, sustainable development
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 27 Aug 2012
Today, I reentered the classroom for the first time in two years. That’s not completely accurate, actually – I lectured at the Foreign Service Institute several times while I was in DC, and I have a number of lectures, so I am not totally out of practice. And after you’ve spent over 1000 hours (!!!) in front of a classroom, it really is like riding a bike…
Despite my classroom experience, I was seriously thrown by a moment in class today – I was discussing the different climates we see in East Africa, and mentioned the Horn of Africa famine in an offhand way…then realized there were too many blank stares. So I asked the class directly how many of them were aware of the famine. Not a single hand went up – 70 students, no hands. Now, maybe someone put up a hand in that half-shrug, uncomfortable sort of way and I missed it. And perhaps a few people had heard of the famine, but had not heard of it as something going on in the Horn of Africa. But…at best, that is a few people. Out of 70.
HOW THE HELL COULD THIS HAPPEN? Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine – actually, that is a very low estimate, given that we were looking at 20,000-30,000 under-5 deaths in August 2011, and things stayed bad for quite a while after. This is probably the single biggest human catastrophe since the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 (that killed 230,000 people).
I don’t blame the students. Honestly. They are wired in – they get all kinds of media all day long. The simple fact is that the story of this famine was never sold very well, or very widely. I thought the PSA campaign around the famine was terrible – a bunch of B-list celebrities, at best, in really dull clips (more on that in a later post). Media coverage was confused. Most could not separate drought from famine (which led me to write my most-viewed post ever), attributing the causes completely to the weather. Others played up the Somalia terrorism angle with al-Shabab, a heterogenous and not terribly effective fundamentalist group in Somalia that decided to turn itself into drone bait by aligning with al-Qaeda. But the whole story was much more than could be compressed into 2 minutes on the nightly news.
That these students didn’t know about the famine is a lost opportunity – an opportunity to illustrate how complex the world is, how climate change compromises development efforts, how relief work is very hard, and very political, and how there are a hell of a lot of really heroic people doing amazing work that probably saved as many lives as were lost, if not many, many more. These are the people who will become educated voters, who will shape America’s place in the world through who they elect and what sorts of priorities they express – and they have no idea that America has a tool like FEWS-NET, which now can predict when and where famine will break out months in advance in several African countries…this is an astonishing accomplishment, and the envy of the world. And if the foreign aid cutters in Congress get their way, it could go away.
Maybe many more people paid attention to the famine on other campuses, in other states…but somehow, I have a feeling that my class was not all that much of an anomaly. Simply put, we in the relief and development community suck at messaging. Between the frantic and often disingenuous fundraising that imprint television viewers with the belief that the situation is hopeless, the confused media reporting as everyone looks for their unique angle, and the near-total failure of messaging from the donor institutions, it is no wonder my students were clueless – hell, they almost certainly knew about the famine, at least in passing, but the completely disjointed storytelling probably prevented any meaningful understanding of the causes of the events or how to address these causes and their impacts.
I have no idea how to fix this, but somebody has to fix this. It is too important to be lamented and then ignored in favor of “doing the work” of development and relief. Messaging is the work of development and relief – telling the story of what we do, why it needs to be done, and how we could do less of it in the future if we just addressed some root causes now is fundamental to getting the societal buy-in we need to do our jobs right. Somebody do this right. I can only reach 70 people at a time…
Sat 11 Aug 2012
Ah, I have to play catch up…the things I have heard that I wanted to comment on but could not over the past few months…
Back in June, USAID hosted the Frontiers in Development Conference. I was fortunate to attend the conference as an author of a chapter in the associated conference publication. Overall, it was an interesting but worthwhile couple of days.
That said, the opening day was marked by what I saw as a really troubling comment by Senator Dick Lugar, who generally speaking is a big supporter of foreign aid and USAID.
While foreign assistance investments often require significant time before demonstrating impacts, funding should flow to programs that demonstrate results. I raise this point, because a percentage of foreign assistance funding to some countries is moving away from traditional purposes — including education, food security, and disease prevention — toward climate change.
I have expressed concerns about individual USAID climate change projects and the growing share of these projects within our development budget . . . My concern simply is that climate change projects are among the least likely to offer measurable development results and the most likely to be politically motivated.
Here is the problem – Senator Lugar’s comments fundamentally misconstrue what climate change funding does in development. It is not funding “in place of” existing programs, nor is climate change programming meant to be stand-alone. Climate change programs ensure the enduring impact of the work that USAID and other development organizations are doing – for example, there is little point to building a road between a food surplus and a food deficit area to facilitate trade if the food surplus area is likely to stop producing a surplus in the near future. Climate change programs and projects are new, and mostly focused on learning about how to integrate climate sensitivity into development programs and projects – but again, these are not meant to be stand-alone programs and projects.
So how could Senator Lugar come to the conclusion that climate change programs were somehow supplanting other development activities, aside from an overly-brief reading of the USAID budget request? There are two options: either the Senator, who is retiring and therefore does not need to worry much about what his constituency thinks, has decided to pander to the climate-skeptical in his state (not terribly likely), or organizations like USAID are doing an absolutely terrible job messaging their climate change work to the legislative branch. The evidence points toward the latter, which is horrible – it is an easy sell, even to fiscal conservatives, when you can demonstrate how climate sensitivity makes programs and projects more effective, and increase the duration of the impact of the dollars that are spent in the foreign aid budget.
(Incidentally, this sort of work is going on at every major donor right now, so if USAID doesn’t have great examples to pull from yet – most programs and projects are very, very new – there are plenty out there from other donors that could make this point).
C’mon, folks, let’s get the messaging right. Or at least better. We shouldn’t be in a place where a supporter of foreign aid and development is questioning these budgets.
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.
Wed 27 Jun 2012
OK folks, yesterday I pointed to my friend Keith Bratton’s kickstarter effort to fund a photodocumentary study of the impacts of climate change on life in Ghana’s Central Region. Please go to the page and check it out – Keith is a great photographer, and will produce really stunning stuff (some of which you can have, for a very low pledge!). He’s crawling toward what he needs for the project, so all donations are important.
But to up the ante, I want to point out another “reward” option that Keith is now putting up. The case he wants to document is a fantastic example of the complex challenge that climate change presents to the achievement of development goals – it raises issues of cross-sectoral work, the connections between people and the natural world, and how climate change creates unexpected challenges that, if unaddressed, can compromise the things you are focusing on. It is, in short, a perfect case from which we can learn about why we must integrate climate sensitivity into development work, and the ways in which such sensitivity makes us “think differently” about development.
To whet your appetite, an example from my own work in Ghana that I talk about in my public speaking on the book: in 2005, I suddenly noticed that there were flocks of toucans flying around the villages in which I had been working from some 8 years. I had never seen toucans before, and their sudden presence puzzled me. It took me a while to piece together what was going on – you see, the Gulf of Guinea large marine ecosystem has been collapsing due to an intersection of overfishing (itself driven by a combination of local overfishing to feed a growing population, and the presence of large international trawlers overfishing the territorial waters of Ghana and other countries, largely with impunity) and climate change (which has changed the upwellings of cold water in July-September and December such that there are fewer fish riding those upwellings into the local fisheries). With less fish to eat, communities in the coastal hinterland had started hunting aggressively, wiping out most terrestrial animals in the process – along with them, rodents…who must have eaten toucan eggs. Hence the explosion of toucans, who are likely wiping out some other species they like to eat, etc., etc.. The toucan is just a manifestation of a complex ecological change taking place along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea that is poorly understood, but presenting real challenges for people’s food security and incomes. Achieving development goals in this region, then, requires understanding climate change and its impacts, as well as the complex and seemingly-distant outcomes of these impacts.
That is a remarkably simplified version of what I see happening in Ghana – and it can be told more eloquently, and with more grounding in the human experience of these changes, in the work Keith proposes. So, beyond seeing him work toward publishing this important story, I have suggested to him that he offer, at the $1000 pledge level, to put together a training module for your organization, using his pictures and findings, to help train your people up on the importance of climate change to development, and on how to think about climate change in the context of development. Further, because I believe in Keith’s project but lack the wherewithal to back it out of my own pocket, I have offered to work with Keith to build this module should anyone order it. So, in return for supporting Keith’s work, you get his photos and experiences, as well as my expertise – 14 years in university classrooms, over two years of living in villages in sub-Saharan Africa, lots of refereed publications addressing the climate change/development connection, and work on the donor side examining the climate change/development connection – all wrapped up in a training module that you can plug in to your own training program.
For those of you outside the development implementation world, this might seem like an insanely high price – but everyone in that world knows that this is a steal. Were I a training consultant, I would be charging an order of magnitude more for such a service, at least. And my illustrations would not be as nice as what you will get from Keith. Again, Keith will produce the module, and I will help him do it – but I will not be paid to do this. I have no financial stake in this project at all. This is my in-kind backing of what I think is a significant project. So if your organization needs the training, here is a great opportunity.
Mon 25 Jun 2012
OK folks, I have never done plugs on the blog, but I am about to do one here. A friend of mine from back in my Syracuse/Ph.D. fieldwork days named Keith Bratton is trying to get funding for a photodocumentary project that explores the complex impacts of climate change in coastal Ghana. Keith knows this area well – he was there during my fieldwork (and took some of the photos of my site and artifacts that I still use to this day), and has been back since. He is a remarkable photographer – his previous work from Ghana is here.
The project he is trying to get funded seems to have emerged from a combination of his own experiences in Ghana and (in part) his reading of my book and its discussion of the complex ways in which the collapse of the Gulf of Guinea fishery is radiating into various onshore ecological and economic impacts. Just as I wrote my book to reach a wider audience, Keith wants to do this project as another means of telling this story. Not only do I think this work has the potential to be picked up by media outlets, I suspect that in telling the complex story of how climate change becomes a development challenge, there will be many in the donor and implementer world who might find this work, or versions of it, useful for training – something that I think is really critical if we are ever to mainstream thinking about climate change and its impacts into development.
He’s trying to do this on a shoestring – he wants to raise $4000. The plane ticket will eat $1200 of it. This is a huge bang-for-the-buck potential operation here, so if you can find a buck…or two, or ten, please think about pledging it to Keith and this project.
His kickstarter page is here.
Full disclosure: While I have offered Keith advice and feedback on the project, I am not a part of it, nor will I profit from it in any way. Further, this project is not, in any way, connected to any of my employers. It’s just a good idea that deserves support.