Entries tagged with “development policy”.
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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.
Thu 14 Mar 2013
One of the dangers of acting as a critic is drifting into troll territory, where you are constantly complaining and finding fault, but rarely adding constructive ideas to the conversation. I fear that my concerns with contemporary food security conversations are headed in that direction. And, well, USAID asked on twitter, which probably violates my late father’s first rule of cross-examination: never ask a question for which you don’t want an answer.
So, over the next few blog posts I am going to try something that many academics and critics would never risk: I am going to put some ideas down about how we perhaps should be building food security programs right now. You all can have at these. I can make some changes and edits. We can argue some more. And somewhere in there, maybe something that is both workable and more likely to actually work will emerge.
The major points of how I think we ought to be addressing world hunger look like this:
1) Get over production: it’s rarely about production, and focusing on it draws us away from the real causes of hunger
2) Embrace complexity: sectoral responses are doomed to fail. Please stop programming sectoral responses, and start thinking integration
3) Create exit points: a critical problem in agricultural development is the all-too-rapid march to market integration, without appropriate attention being paid to the new risks such integration creates. In most places where agricultural development takes place, market integration predicated on the simplification of existing agricultural activities to even fewer crops is a recipe for disaster that removes the safety nets that the rural poor have already created.
4) The future is already being fed: while we live in a world of economic and environmental change, these changes are not linear. We’ve already seen extremes of both that represent conditions beyond what we expect to see as the “new normal” in the future. Why not figure out what people did to address those extreme events, and build off of that?
I will elaborate each of these points in its own blog post over coming days. The goal will be to make each point clear and actionable. The other goal is to present a real alternative to what I firmly believe are misguided initiatives dominating the contemporary food security conversation. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
Thu 31 Jan 2013
Bill Gates, in his annual letter, makes a compelling argument for the need to better measure the effectiveness of aid. There is a nice, 1 minute summary video here. This is becoming a louder and louder message in development and aid, having been pushed now by folks ranging from Raj Shah, the Administrator of USAID, to most everyone at the Center for Global Development. There are interesting debates going on about how to shift from a focus on outputs (we bought this much stuff for this many dollars) to a focus on impacts (the stuff we bought did the following good things in the world). Most of these discussions are technical, focused on indicators and methods. What is not discussed is the massively failure-averse institutional culture of development donors, and how this culture is driving most of these debates. As a result, I think that Gates squanders his bully pulpit by arguing that we should be working harder on evaluation. We all know that better evaluation would improve aid and development. Suggesting that this is even a serious debate in development requires a nearly-nonexistent straw man that somehow thinks learning from our programs and projects is bad.
Like most everyone else in the field, I agree with the premise that better measurement (thought very broadly, to include methods and data across the quantitative to qualitative spectrum) can create a learning environment from which we might make better decisions about aid and development. But none of this matters if all of the institutional pressures run against hearing bad news. Right now, donors simply cannot tolerate bad news, even in the name of learning. Certainly, there are lots of people within the donor agencies that are working hard on finding ways to better evaluate and learn from existing and past programs, but these folks are going to be limited in their impact as long as agencies such as USAID answer to legislators that seem ready to declare any misstep a waste of taxpayer money, and therefore a reason to cut the aid budget…so how can they talk about failure?
So, a modest proposal for Bill Gates. Bill (may I call you Bill?), please round up a bunch of venture capitalists. Not the nice socially-responsible ones (who could be dismissed as bleeding-heart lefties or something of the sort), the real red-in-tooth-and-claw types. Bring them over to DC, and parade out these enormously wealthy, successful (by economic standards, at least) people, and have them explain to Congress how they make their money. Have them explain how they got rich failing on eight investments out of ten, because the last two investments more than paid for the cost of the eight failures. Have them explain how failure is a key part of learning, of success, and how sometimes failure isn’t the fault of the investor or donor – sometimes it is just bad luck. Finally, see if anyone is interested in taking a back-of-the-envelope shot at calculating how much impact is lost due to risk-averse programming at USAID (or any other donor, really). You can shame Congress, who might feel comfortable beating up on bureaucrats, but not so much on economically successful businesspeople. You could start to bring about the culture change needed to make serious evaluation a reality. The problem is not that people don’t understand the need for serious evaluation – I honestly don’t know anyone making that argument. The problem is creating a space in which that can happen. This is what you should be doing with your annual letter, and with the clout that your foundation carries.
Failing that (or perhaps alongside that), lead by demonstration – create an environment in your foundation in which failure becomes a tag attached to anything from which we do not learn, instead of a tag attached to a project that does not meet preconceived targets or outcomes. Forget charter cities (no, really, forget them), become the “charter donor” that shows what can be done when this culture is instituted.
The evaluation agenda is getting stale, running aground on the rocky shores of institutional incentives. We need someone to pull it off the rocks. Now.
Wed 28 Nov 2012
While behavioral economics continues to open old questions in development to new scrutiny, I am still having a lot of problems with the very unreflexive approach BE takes toward its own work (see earlier takes on this here and here). Take, for example, Esther Duflo’s recent lectures discussing mistakes the poor make. To discuss the mistakes the poor make, we must first understand what the goals of the poor are. However, I simply don’t see the behavioral economists doing this. There is still a lurking, underlying presumption that in making livelihoods decisions people are trying to maximize income and or the material quality of their lives. This, however, is fundamentally incorrect. In Delivering Development and a number of related publications (for example, here, here, and here) I have laid out how, in the context of livelihoods, material considerations are always bound up in social considerations. If you only evaluate these actions as aimed at material goals, you’ve only got a part of the picture – and not the most important part, in most cases. Instead, what you are left with are a bunch of decisions and outcomes that appear illogical, that can be cast as mistakes. Only most of the time, they are not mistakes – they are conscious choices.
Let me offer an example from Delivering Development and some of my other work – the constraint of women’s farming by their husbands. I have really compelling qualitative evidence from two villages in Ghana’s Central Region that demonstrates that men are constraining their wives’ farm production to the detriment of the overall household income. The chart below shows a plot of the size of a given farm versus its market orientation for the households operating under what I call a “diversified” strategy – where the husband farms for market sale, and the wife for subsistence (a pretty common model in sub-Saharan Africa). As you move up the Y axis, the farm gets more oriented toward market sale (1 on that scale is “eat everything”, 3 is sell and eat equally, and 5 is sell everything). Unsurprisingly, since men’s role requires them to produce for market, the size of their farm has little impact on their orientation. But look at the women’s farms – just a tenth of a hectare produces a marked shift in orientation from subsistence to market production…because women own that surplus beyond subsistence, and sell it. They take the proceeds of these sales, buy small goods, and engage in petty trading, eventually multiplying that small surplus into significant gains in income, nearly equaling their husbands. What is not to like?
Well, from the perspective of those in these villages, here is something: among the Akan, being a “good man” means being in control of the household and out-earning your wife. If you don’t, your fitness as a man gets called into question, which can cost you access to land. For wives, this is bad because they get their land through their husbands. So as a result, being in a household where the woman out-earns her husband is not a viable livelihoods outcome (as far as members of these households are concerned). Even if a man wanted to let his wife earn more money, he would do so at peril of his access to land. So he is not going to do that. What he is going to do is shrink his wife’s farm the next season to ensure she does not out-earn him (and I have three years of data where this is exactly what happens to wives who earn too much). There is a “mistake” here – some of these men underestimated their wives’ production, which is pretty easy to do under rain-fed agriculture in a changing climate. That they are this accurate with regard to land allocation is rather remarkable, really. But the decision to constrain women’s production is not a mistake, per se: it is a choice.
We can agree or disagree with the premises of these choices, and their outcomes, but labeling them as mistakes creates a false sense of simplicity in addressing problematic outcomes – because people only require “correction” to get to the outcomes we all want and need. This, in turn, rests on/reproduces a sense of superiority on the part of the researcher – because s/he knows what is best (see a previous post on this point here). That attitude, applied to the case above, would not result in a productive project design aimed at addressing income or other challenges in these villages.
Yes, people do things against material interest…but there is always a logic behind a decision, and that logic is often deeply entrenched. We would be better off talking about decisions poor people make (for better or worse), and dedicating our time to understanding why they make these decisions before we start deciding who is mistaken, and what to do about it.
I’ve just burned 15,000 words in Third World Quarterly laying out my argument for how to think about livelihoods as more than material outcomes – and how to make that vision implementable, at least via fieldwork that runs in length from days to months. I am happy to send a copy of the preprint to anyone who is interested –and I will post a version to my website shortly.
Fri 9 Nov 2012
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.
Sat 20 Oct 2012
I just witnessed a fascinating twitter exchange that beautifully summarizes the divide I am trying to bridge in my work and career. Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, the head of research at Oxfam GB, after seeing a post on GDP tweeted by Tim Harford (note: not written by Harford), tweeted the following:
To which Harford tweeted back:
This odd standoff between two intelligent, interesting thinkers is easily explained. Bluntly, Harford’s point is academic, and from that perspective mostly true. Contemporary academic thinking on development has more or less moved beyond this question. However, to say that it “never has been” an important question ignores the history of development, where there is little question that in the 50s and 60s there was significant conflation of GDP and well-being.
But at the same time, Harford’s response is deeply naive, at least in the context of development policy and implementation. The academic literature has little to do with the policy and practice of development (sadly). After two years working for a donor, I can assure Tim and anyone else reading this that Ricardo’s point remains deeply relevant. There are plenty of people who are implicitly or explicitly basing policy decisions and program designs on precisely the assumption that GDP growth improves well-being. To dismiss this point is to miss the entire point of why we spend our time thinking about these issues – we can have all the arguments we want amongst ourselves, and turn up our noses at arguments that are clearly passé in our world…but if we ignore the reality of these arguments in the policy and practice world, our thinking and arguing will be of little consequence.
I suppose it is worth noting, in full disclosure, that I found the post Harford tweeted to be a remarkably facile justification for continuing to focus on GDP growth. But it is Saturday morning, and I would rather play with my kids than beat that horse…
Tue 16 Oct 2012
The Guardian recently ran a piece titled “Food scarcity: the timebomb setting nation against nation.” It was retweeted a lot across my social network, enough that I feel the need to respond to it. So, here it goes. The article is yet another example of the remarkably durable narrative of production crisis that dominates discussions of food security today. The article operates from the assumption that we are running out of food, and then selectively interprets quotes from Lester Brown and Oxfam to support this attention-grabbing story. The problem here is that Brown/Oxfam make much more nuanced claims than suggested by the headline, which perpetuates the neo-Malthusian agenda of scarcity that dominates modern food security. In short, I find the very title and tone of the article to be terribly irresponsible – in attempting to bring attention to the very serious issue of global hunger, this article sets back intelligent conversation about the causes of the problem, and therefore its solutions.
It takes little but careful reading to see that the Guardian piece doesn’t actually have the evidence to say that food scarcity is a geopolitical timebomb. Brown never says we have an absolute scarcity of food in the world, just increased levels of pressure on the food system. The issue of increased pressure is not, as the article suggests, about production, per se: it is about a complex global political economy that intersects in complicated ways with the remnants of colonialism, failed development, and environmental change in particular ways in specific places. Sure, US grain production is down 15%…but that isn’t a big deal against the GLOBAL 40% rate of waste in the food system. We can cover the current US shortfall (indeed, more or less any conceivable global shortfall) with ease just by cleaning up some low-hanging fruit in the global supply chain, such as improving the transportation networks from farm to market in the Global South.
The only actual argument for scarcity in the article is buried down the page, in Evan Fraser’s claim:
“For six of the last 11 years the world has consumed more food than it has grown. We do not have any buffer and are running down reserves. Our stocks are very low and if we have a dry winter and a poor rice harvest we could see a major food crisis across the board.”
It seems to me that Fraser is misreading his evidence. It is possible that the world has consumed more food than has been available on agricultural markets…but this is NOT THE SAME THING as the amount of food grown. In each of the last 11 years, humanity grew much more food than it consumed. It’s just that each year we then wasted about 40% of that production as it either rotted on the way to market (a common problem in the Global South) or we threw it away uneaten (a problem in the wealthy countries).
So if there is no global food production crisis, why are we seeing land grabbing that will set “nation against nation”? After all, if there is plenty of agricultural production globally, land-grabbing for food supplies is nonsensical behavior. Prices are where they are because the global food system has significant problems that could be addressed relatively easily and at relatively low cost (when compared to the challenge of completely reengineering an agricultural ecosystem). Anyone analyzing things in a serious way should see this, and recognize that food prices are a bubble that could be popped by a serious infrastructural development push. And, as it happens, they have. If you read the article carefully, you realize that there is no evidence in this article that land grabs are for food as much as they are for biofuels. Oxfam’s report is more to the point – the planting of biofuels has to be taken seriously, as that does take arable land out of local production, which can stress local food systems. But if anyone thought there was a serious global food shortage, they would not buy arable land for biofuels – they would buy it for food itself, as after a certain point food prices become inelastic. The very fact the land grabs are heavily for biofuels tells us all we need to know about the idea of a global food shortage.
Rising food prices in today’s world just signal a stress point on today’s (astonishingly inefficient) food system. Leveraged correctly, these pressures could bring about dramatic changes in global food markets, as saving even half of the food that rots on the way to market in the Global South would more than offset all but the most extreme local food deficits. This is an opportunity to make changes in the food system that are immediate and relatively cost-efficient. For all of the noble intents here, ginning up cries of false scarcity in the name of focusing attention on global hunger drags the policy conversation away from real, achievable solutions.