Entries tagged with “famine”.


So, climate change and conflict is back in the media, seemingly with the strength of science behind it.  I’ve been a rather direct, harsh critic of some work on this connection before, at least in part because I am deeply concerned that work on this subject (which remains preliminary) might disproportionately influence policy decisions in unproductive or even problematic directions (i.e. by contributing to the unnecessary militarization of development aid and humanitarian assistance).  So, when CNN, the Guardian, and other media outlets jumped on a new paper in Science (sorry, paywalled) last week, and one of the authors was responsible for the paper I critiqued so harshly before, I felt compelled to read it – especially after seeing Keith Kloor’s great post on the issue. After reading it, I feel compelled to comment on it.

My response is lengthy, so for those on a time budget, I offer some takeaway points. The main post, with details, follows.

Takeaway points

  • The Hsaing, et al paper in Science makes claims that are much more nuanced than what is represented either in the press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, or in many of the media stories (especially the big outlets) about them.
    • The actual findings of the paper simply reiterate long-held understandings of the connection between climate change and conflict
    • These findings are, in summary:
      • The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
      • Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
      • Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
      • Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future
    • We already knew all of this
      • The authors’ claims (as stated in this press release from Princeton) that this study was necessary to establish a causal relationship between changing climate conditions and conflict is based on a straw man of “people” who have been skeptical of “an individual study here or there.”
      • Much of the literature, and those working on this issue, have long accepted the idea of a complex link between changing climate/weather conditions and conflict. The real question is that of how climate variability and change contribute to rates of conflict.
      • The paper does not answer this question
  • The quantification of increased risk of conflict in the paper is problematic, as the authors appear to assume a constant relationship, year-to-year or season-to-season, between climate conditions and their influence on various drivers of conflict.
    • This assumption has long been discarded in studies of food security and famine
    • This assumption likely introduces significant margins of error to the findings of this paper regarding increased risk of conflict associated with climate change
  • The paper does not address the real research frontier in the study of conflict and climate change because it does not further our understanding of how climate variability and change result in increased risk of conflict
    • To the author’s credit, the paper does not purport to explain how observed climate variability and change are translated into conflict
    • The paper merely summarizes existing literature exploring this issue
    • The findings of the paper do not present an opportunity to adjust policy, programs, or diplomacy to avoid future conflicts, as they do not identify specific issues that should be addressed by such efforts.
    • To some extent, this makes the critique under #2 above irrelevant – the “risk of conflict” figures were never actionable anyway
  • Media coverage of this paper amounts to much ado about nothing new

 

Main Post

The Hsaing, et al paper bears little resemblance to the media stories written about it. It makes very measured, fairly contained claims about climate change and conflict that, if represented accurately in the media, probably would not have made for interesting stories. That said, the article deserves critical attention on its own terms so we can understand what, if any, new information is here.

First, I want to start with the good in this paper. This is a substantially more careful paper than the one I critiqued before, both with regard to its attention to existing work on the subject and to the claims it makes about the connections between climate change and conflict. The authors deserve credit for noting the long history of qualitative work on conflict and the environment, a literature often ignored by those conducting large, more quantitative studies. They also should be commended for their caution in identifying causal relationships, instead of basic correlations.

In my opinion, this much more measured approach to thinking about climate change and conflict has resulted in more nuanced claims. First, as the authors note:

“Social conflicts at all scales and levels of organization appear susceptible to climatic influence, and multiple dimensions of the climate system are capable of influencing these various outcomes.”

But later in the paper, the authors temper this point:

“However, it is not true that all types of climatic events influence all forms of human conflict or that climatic conditions are the sole determinant of human conflict. The influence of climate is detectable across contexts, but we strongly emphasize that it is only one of many factors that contribute to conflict.”

And in the end, the big summary (my emphasis):

“The above evidence makes a prima facie case that future anthropogenic climate change could worsen conflict outcomes across the globe in comparison to a future with no climatic changes, given the large expected increase in global surface temperatures and the likely increase in variability of precipitation across many regions over coming decades”

Every bit of this is fine with me. Indeed, had the reporting on this paper been as nuanced as the claims it actually makes…there probably wouldn’t have been any reporting on the paper. The hook “the climate affects a lot of things, and some of those things could affect rates of conflict, so climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future” isn’t exactly exciting.

And this is where I have to critique the article. My critique has two sides, one intellectual and one from a policy perspective. They are closely linked and blend into one another, and so I present them both below.

Intellectually, I fundamentally question the contribution of this paper. In a nutshell, there is almost nothing new here. Yes, there appear to be some new quantifications of the risk of conflict under different climate situations, and I will return to those in a minute. But overall, the claims made in this paper are exactly the claims that have been made by many others, in many other venues, for a while. For example, the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at USAID put out a report back in 2009 (yes, four years ago) that reviewed the existing literature on the subject and came to more or less the same conclusions as this “new” article.  So I was a little bothered by the Princeton press release for this paper in which quoted lead author Solomon Hsaing several times, because I think his justification for the paper is based on a straw man:

“We think that by collecting all the research together now, we’re pretty clearly establishing that there is a causal relationship between the climate and human conflict,” Hsiang said. “People have been skeptical up to now of an individual study here or there. But considering the body of work together, we can now show that these patterns are extremely general. It’s more of the rule than the exception.

I’d love to know who the “people” are who think there is no relationship between climate conditions and human conflict. Critiques of the study of this connection (at least credible critiques) have not so much argued that there is no connection, but that the connections are very complex and not well-captured in large-scale studies using quantitative tools.  So, when Hsaing goes on to say:

“Whether there is a relationship between climate and conflict is not the question anymore. We now want to understand what’s causing it,” Hsiang said. “Once we understand what causes this correlation we can think about designing effective policies or institutions to manage or interrupt the link between climate and conflict.”

…he’s really making a rather grand claim for an article that just tells us what we already knew – that there is a connection between climate conditions and human conflict. And he is burying the real lede here…that the contribution we need, now, is to understand how these causal relationships come to be. This argument for “where we should go next” is also a bit grand, seeing as everyone from academics to USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation have been conducting detailed, qualitative studies of these relationships for some time now because we already knew a) that there were relationships between climate and conflict and b) we needed to establish what caused those relationships.

Second, I feel this article suffers from a critical methodological flaw, in that the authors never address the variable coupling of climate outcomes and changes in even those drivers of conflict identified in the literature. For example, it is not at all uncommon to have market shifts take place seasonally, in a manner that can be either coupled or uncoupled with shifts in climate: that is, sometimes a bad rainy season damages local harvests and drives market prices for food up, while other times it could be a great rainy season and a very productive harvest, but factors on regional or global markets could still generate price spikes that end up limiting people’s access to food. In both situations, the people in question would experience a food stress, one closely linked to climate variability, and the other experience a food stress uncoupled from climate. This is why, as I argued back during the Horn of Africa Famine, drought does not equal famine. Famines are far more highly correlated to market conditions than climate conditions. Sometimes climate events like a failed rainy season can trigger a famine by pushing markets and other factors over key thresholds. However, we’ve also had famines in times of normal or even favorable climatic conditions for agriculture.

Simply put, the authors appear to assume a constant relationship between a conflict driver like access to food and the local/regional/global climate. To be fair, this seems to be a pretty prevalent assumption in the literature.  But to the point, this is a bad bet. As best I can tell, the authors have not managed to address the intermittent coupling of conflict drivers like access to food and markets with climatic conditions in their analysis. This, to me, casts significant doubt on their findings that risk of inter-group conflict will rise 14% at one standard deviation of temperature rise – in short, this is far too precise a claim for a study with such large margins for error built into its design.  My suspicion here is that the margin of error introduced by this problem is probably larger than their analytical findings, rendering them somewhere between weak and meaningless. And this, to be honest, was the only really original contribution in the paper.

Third (as I begin to pivot from intellectual to policy critique), while the authors claim to have focused on causal relationships (a claim I think should be tempered by my methodological concerns above), they cannot explain those relationships. I’ve made this point before: in the social sciences, causality is not explanation. Even if we accept that the authors have indeed established causal relationships between climate variability and change and the risk of conflict/rates of conflict, they do not know exactly how these changes in climate actually create these outcomes. This is clear in the section of the paper titled “Plausible Mechanisms”, in which the authors conduct a review of the existing literature (much of which is qualitative) to lay out a set of potential pathways by which their observed relationships might be explained. But nothing in this study allows the authors to choose between any of these explanations…which means that all the authors have really accomplished here is to establish, by different means, exactly what the qualitative literature has known for a long time. To repeat:

  1. The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
  2. Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
  3. Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
  4. Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future

We already knew all of this.

At this point, allow me to pivot fully to my fourth critique, which comes from a policy perspective. People tend to see me as an academic, and forget that I served as the first climate change coordinator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) at USAID. I was Nancy Lindborg’s first climate advisor – indeed, it was in this role that I found myself first dealing with issues of conflict and climate change, as I was responsible both for briefing my Bureau’s leadership on these issues and guiding the programming of the Bureau’s dedicated climate change budget (some of which I directed into more research on this topic). In short, I do know something about policymaking and the policy environment. And what I know is this: this paper gives us nothing actionable to address. Even if I accept the finding of 14% greater risk of intergroup conflict at one standard deviation of temperature increase, what am I supposed to do about it? Without an explanation for how this temperature rise produces this greater risk, I have no means of targeting programs, diplomacy, or other resources to address the things that create this greater risk. In short, this paper tells me what I already knew (that climate variability and change can contribute to conflict risk) without giving me anything concrete I can work on. If I were still briefing Nancy, my summary of this paper would be:

  1. There is nothing new in this paper. Its key findings are those of CMM’s (four-year-old) report, and are already well-established in the literature
  2. The paper does not provide any new information about how climate change and variability might contribute to increased conflict risk, and therefore presents nothing new that might serve to guide future policy, programs, or diplomacy
  3. I have methodological concerns with the paper that lead me to believe that the rates of increased risk of conflict reported in this paper are likely stated with too much confidence. These rates of heightened risk should not be cited until put under significant scrutiny by the academic and policy community*.

In summary, the supportable parts of this paper are nothing new – it is a reasonable summary of the issues with establishing a connection between climate change and conflict, and a decent (if truncated) review of the existing literature on the subject (I’d suggest that a real review article of this subject would have to go wider and look at the conflict and environment literature more broadly). But it doesn’t say anything new that really bears up to scrutiny, and even if the “risk of conflict” figures are correct, the paper provides no information that might guide policy, programs, or diplomacy in a manner that could avoid such conflicts. For that information, we have to return to the qualitative research community, which has long espoused the same general findings as those in this paper.

The press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, and the more hyped of the media coverage we’ve seen around this paper (likely driven by those press releases) is much ado about nothing new.

 

 

*In my third point I am indeed taking issue with the peer review process that brought this paper to publication. I believe that Science wanted this paper for the same reason Nature wanted the last one: headlines. Let’s see how the findings here stand up to serious scrutiny.

Development and humanitarian assistance have, over their respective histories, attracted rather substantial literatures. The percentage of that literature I might call “accessible” to the general public is quite small, and much of that popular literature does very little to convey the experience of working in these fields (indeed, very little of the literature in general accomplishes this)*. In 2010, after 13 years of studying development and development issues as an academic, I joined USAID in a policy position. It took only a few days for me to realize that I had no idea what was going on, what motivated decisions within the Agency, and what it actually meant to do development and humanitarian assistance. Nothing in my reading (and I am an academic, so it was a lot of reading) had prepared me for this experience.

In retrospect, it is too bad Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit had not yet been written before I went to USAID, but I suspect that even if it had been I would not have read it (academic snobbery and all). This would have been a mistake.  MMMM presents a compelling, accurate feel for what it is to be a part of the development and humanitarian assistance industry.  While J’s attention to detail is striking (for those of us in the industry, this accuracy can draw us in but also make us grumpy, as more than once I found myself muttering something about a particular meeting or document described in MMMM), he works in a lot of real material into an interesting, compelling read. In short, this book accomplishes something remarkable: I can recommend it to not only to anyone who thinks that humanitarian assistance or development looks like a good career path, but also to anyone who needs a good beach read this summer. Take that, Jeff Sachs, et. al.…

Set in Bur Amina, Ethiopia, MMMM traces J’s protagonist, Mary-Ann, through the twists and turns of delivering humanitarian assistance to refugees near the Ethiopia/Somalia border.  The plot moves Mary-Ann through different positions in her small NGO, accurately conveying how abruptly one’s life and position can change in this world…and also (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrates one of the most important lessons of any career: competence is in much shorter supply than most people realize, and if you are good at your job people will notice. At the same time, J lays out the jockeying of assistance organizations in the context of a humanitarian crisis, and the challenges of balancing the goal of helping the world’s most vulnerable with the institutional imperatives of budgeting, fundraising, and surviving.  Even the most careerist and craven of the characters in MMMM is understandable and relatable – the reader can understand why they are pushing for a particular project or outcome, even as the reader loathes them for it.  Perhaps this is why Soledad Muñiz Nautiyal, in her review of the book, noted “the book presents ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the aid industry without ever adopting a cynical perspective, and merely acts as an observer of a complex picture”.  This perspective, which permeates MMMM, makes the world of compromise that is humanitarian assistance palatable.  As the book so effectively conveys, too much idealism can render you irrelevant and ineffective.  Some readers may hate this lesson and perspective. If so, you will probably hate the real world of humanitarian assistance.

The reliability of even J’s loathsome characters leads to my next major point about MMMM.  In this book, J addresses my principal critique of his first effort, Disastrous Passion.  In Disastrous Passion, I felt that J created well-rounded, interesting humanitarian assistance characters, but many of the ancillary characters felt like caricatures.  This, perhaps, was a product of J failing to live by the first rule of so many writers: write what you know. In Disastrous Passion, I felt like I knew the characters that worked for the various donors and agencies in Haiti, but the ancillary characters felt a bit like unwanted interlopers.  In MMMM, even the ancillary characters are better-rounded, and I was drawn in by them. I had exactly one moment in the book that I felt was too shallow – when the protagonist has to address a problematic personnel issue (trying to avoid spoilers here), J never explains the motivations of the problematic person. Now, on one had I must say that this reflect reality – sometimes people do things that are inexplicable. It is a frustration the real world hands us. But somehow, in the context of MMMM, this made that character feel a bit shallow – like a plot device that allowed us to see another stressor in Mary-Ann’s life.  And while I did note that the character of Jon is, in many ways, the oracle of J in the narrative, unlike Dave Algoso I did not find this intrusive or slow reading. Instead, I thought these passages tended to crystallize the many plotlines J traces at various points in the book without having to abandon the narrative

I really enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, and one that I found difficult to put down. It was interesting, the plot very believable, the characters relatable, and the lessons (both overt and subtle) worthwhile. Whether or not you want to go into development or humanitarian assistance as a career, if you care about global poverty and want to better understand just how difficult this work really is – and you want to understand the real reasons why it is so difficult – then go get your copy of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. It is well worth the read.

 

Buy it here:

Find a set of pictures that inspired details from MMMM on the book’s Facebook page here.

 

 

 

 

*I feel compelled here to note that John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is just awful. I can’t speak to the veracity of his firsthand accounts, but his reading of institutional motivations and processes is beyond poor. Seriously, don’t waste your time…

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:

Untitled

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Friend/colleague/journalist Keith Kloor has a very interesting piece about the problematic character of some research that recently purported to cast doubt on the health safety of GMOs.  The piece is an excellent effort to push back against crap science and crap evidence in the GMO debate, and stands as an interesting example of a general need to critically evaluate “scientific” claims about any number of issues from the harmful character of vaccines to those would deny anthropogenic climate change.  However, the piece, in making a strenuous argument for evidence, overreaches in its conclusions and too-quickly dismisses the ecological issues associated with GMOs – exactly the opposite outcome Keith was seeking.

In general, I agree with Keith that the screaming about the health impacts of GMOs has greatly outstripped the evidence, but I take issue with the idea that GMOs have been largely proven safe all around.  There remain significant questions about ecological impacts that have not attracted a solid scientific consensus (i.e the impact/cost/tradeoffs of gene flow between GMOs and the surrounding ecology, pest resistance, etc. –.  The evidence base in this area is pretty small, and ecological systems are very diverse and complex, so the levels of uncertainty here are fairly epic (Pamela Ronald, whose article Keith references approvingly, even notes that the ecological impacts of GMOs are still an open issue).  Honestly, Keith is too dismissive of this challenge:

Some of these folks are worried about new genes being introduced into plant and animal species. But humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals pretty much since we moved out of caves, manipulating their genes all the while. The process was just slower before biotechnology came along.

Modern genetic engineering does not have all that much to do with selective breeding.  We are doing things in GMOs that could not occur in nature, which is rather different then applying what amounts to a modified evolutionary force (human selection of seeds to plant the next season or animals to breed) in the selection of traits within certain crops.

Another big concern that has been widely reported is the “rapid growth of tenacious super weeds” that now defy Monsanto’s trademark Roundup herbicide. That has led farmers to spray their fields with an increasing amount of the chemical weed-killer. Additionally, some research suggests that other pests are evolving a resistance to GMO crops. But these problems are not unique to genetic engineering. The history of agriculture is one of a never-ending battle between humans and pests.

Again, this is a bit off to one side.  Yes, agriculture has always been about the radical simplification and management of ecosystems in a complex world, and therefore is indeed an endless battle for control between farmer and surrounding ecology.  What this elides, though, is the fact that some of these GMOs have made things harder for us in the long run.  It is hard to sell this as a good, or even neutral, outcome.

I raise this issue because of its implications for conversations about food security. People (some, but not all) working in food security tend to be a bit dismissive of the ecological concerns surrounding GMOs, loosely equating them with the human consumption concerns that have largely been disproven at this point.  The response to insistent questioning about ecological impacts is the argument that, on balance, GMOs have done more good than harm and/or that GMOs are necessary for global food security going forward.  The “more harm than good” argument seems to me based on evidence that is hardly complete, and often references a glowing, startlingly unproblematic vision of the Green Revolution.  The “we need GMOs” is a crisis narrative of food production that drives current and future claims about their value.  At the moment, much of the food security world is arguing that there is a dire food production crisis either coming or just arrived (embodied in the 2008 and 2011 food price spikes), and therefore we cannot wait for the burden of proof surrounding any issue associated with GMOs – we must act now!  This crisis narrative effectively reduces anyone who raises objections to an all-out push for more production to some sort of monster who would rather let innocents starve than engage with the messiness of the real world. Basically, precaution is conflated with timidity, making those who show concern over the ecological impacts of GMOs into the food security equivalents of Neville Chamberlain.

This would perhaps be true…if, in fact there were a global production crisis and we needed GMOs to feed everyone. This is a much harder thing to sell, however, when one realizes that the world produces roughly twice as much food as needed to feed everyone adequately each year.  There isn’t a global production crisis (though there are local production crises that arise from complex causes and need to be addressed in locally-specific ways). I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: globally, there is plenty of food. Now, and likely for quite some time. Period.

In the twitter conversations that emerged around Keith’s article, Robert Wilson, a mathematical ecologist, argued for “an adjusted precautionary principle where we consider the risks of inaction, as well as action.”  This strikes me as both reasonable and necessary when discussing food security policy and programs these days.  If we did this, though, I think we would find that the risks of inaction are, in fact, substantially smaller than the risks of action – this is not to say there are necessarily huge risks to action, just that when you are producing twice the calories needed already, the risk from doing nothing is, at least in the short term, pretty small.  There is time to test more crops, more widely, under more conditions, before we arrive at any production crunch.  There is no need to rush.

In short, we need to be sure that our efforts to push back against crap science (which is really what Keith was doing in his article) don’t overreach and inadvertently empower narratives and arguments that are not supported by the evidence – exactly the opposite outcome Keith sought.

 

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I am working through James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (my endorsement is in the linked post).  In the course of my reading, I have been thinking about what Scott calls the State Accessible Product, which he sets in contrast to the Gross Domestic Product.  To Scott’s thinking, the states/kingdoms he is discussing in Southeast Asia were motivated not to maximize the value of all goods and services in their realms, as such maximization might include the production of goods that could not be transported/taxed/otherwise used to enrich the state.  Instead, it was in the state’s interest to maximize the production of things it could see, count and move – in other words, to push the growth of a State Accessible Product.  Two things resonate for me about this idea:

1) It scales. Just as states pushed for the production of SAP, so too the households I I discuss in Delivering Development tend to divide up livelihoods roles and activities in a manner that maximizes not individual well-being, but activities that only make sense when bundled with the activities of other members of the household – a sort of Household Accessible Product.  In an uncertain economy and environment, it makes no sense to focus one’s entire agricultural production on market sale, or to focus entirely on subsistence reproduction of the household.  Yet this is just what we see men (playing the former role) and women (playing the latter) doing in some of the households I examined in Ghana.  They do this for a lot of complex reasons, but certainly there is something to the idea that these roles force the members of the household into the production of a HAP that certainly does not maximize all possible production and income, but does a lot to reproduce social roles and social stability.

2) It explains why my argument that a lot of farmers on globalization’s shoreline strategically deglobalize was both surprising and, at least to some people, threatening: the opting in and out of global markets is exactly the sort of thing states fear, as it means that the production of these farmers goes in and out of legibility from year to year – making it hard to extract value from that production. In short, there is a GDP that is not coterminus with an SAP along most of globalization’s shoreline – and that non SAP production is critical to the well-being of those engaged in those activities.

It strikes me that a key question here is whether or not our focus on governance in development has led us to inadvertently emphasize activities, projects and programs that render greater and greater percentages of GDP as SAP – certainly, without access to the financial resources produced by the control of a SAP, states are in a weak position.  But if many of the activities that actually keep people alive on a day-to-day basis are non-SAP activities, what are we to do?  Are we to wipe out/make legible these activities so the state can profit from them?  If we do, are we going to enhance the vulnerability of the populations whose livelihoods we alter?  Is the enhancement of vulnerability an appropriate trade-off for the creation of a state-legible economy?  Can addressing vulnerability and building a strong state be made to rhyme at all?

In my previous post, I objected to the way in which Tyler Cowen’s recent NYT blog post pushed the dominant “crisis of production” narrative in discussions of food security.  In my opinion, the recurrence of this problematic claim in various popular outlets has a lot to do with people’s relatively surficial understanding of food security and the causes of hunger in the Global South.  For some reason, development seems to lend itself to dilettantism…at least in part, I suspect, because people assume that the global poor are so bad off that any new ideas would be an improvement on what is there.  Of course, there is also the subtle, durable assumption that poor people (especially of darker skin tones) somehow (re)produce their problems because they don’t think rationally/clearly/etc*.  Such arguments fall apart when they are tested with actual evidence, but most op-eds and policies have nothing to do with evidence…

This problem extends beyond how we talk about the poor themselves to how we think about the governments under which they live.  While governance (not the same as government, folks – please try to remember this) is really important to development outcomes, it is not everything…and government (as in the formal rules and structures of governance in a particular place) can be even less important, as many of the global poor live beyond the reach of the state.  So blaming the state and its policies for hunger can be a pretty tricky proposition. When Cowen, in an offhand way, wades into the role of the Malawian government as an illustration of how his presumed production shortfalls are exacerbated by problematic government policies, his lack of understanding of the African context becomes clear:

many African nations have unhelpful policies toward agriculture. Malawi, for instance, subjects corn to periodic export and import restrictions as well as to price controls, all of which thwart development of a well-functioning market. When market speculators save corn in anticipation of greater scarcity, they may be punished by law. These restrictions of market incentives exacerbate the basic supply problems.

First, Cowen cherry-picks Malawian government actions to make this point.  While price controls and import/export restrictions have been used, there is another side to Malawian intervention in the markets: the subsidization of inputs to boost overall farm productivity.  As a result, he ignores the near-perfect correlation between the years when the government intervenes in input markets – effectively, when the Malawian government subsidizes fertilizers – and the years when Malawi is a net food exporter to the extent that it can pay for the entire subsidy several times over (this correlation has proven very durable and very vexatious to some of the more theologically-inclined free marketeers out there).  In the case of Malawi, some market intervention, however distortionary, actually does work to ensure adequate food production within the country each year. Which gets to a much larger point: the Malawian government is doing this not out of ignorance or irrationality, but because it is being responsive to citizens whose short term needs are so dire that to take a long-term only view would result in mass morbidity, if not mortality, in the short run.

For example, in a priori assuming that Malawi’s decision to punish market speculators when they “save corn in anticipation of greater scarcity” (one person’s “saving” is another’s “hoarding”), Cowen fails to parse between the needs of an efficient market (a means of transmitting future price situations into current pricing decisions) with human needs (a means of obtaining adequate food such that members of the household do not die) – in most places I work, there is a large disjoint between the two.  It is this disjoint that the government of Malawi, and indeed many governments around the world must negotiate.  It is this disjoint, and its attendant reality, that is Cowen’s second major problem, as he doesn’t really understand it.  This reality has two parts:

1) Yes, in the long run markets can transmit information about pricing and preferences that can lead to more productive and useful decisions, but in contexts where people are living on a dollar a day, their margins for error are small and their ability to wait for markets to work things out is limited.

2) There is a presumption that the anticipatory price signal will result in actions to address the problem before the shortage actually hits.  However, the causes of shortage generally extend well beyond the management capacity of any single state.  In short, transmitting shortage signals into the present only serves to prolong the challenges that the Malawian poor are going to face, without producing any effective policy or market response because there is no government capacity to respond.  In short, why transmit the emergency into the present when you are going to need help to address it now or in the future?  This is why many African states punish hoarding…though they could be looked upon as comprising a de facto futures market, hoarders transmit not just information, but shortage into the market and onto very vulnerable populations earlier than would otherwise be the case, undermining safety and security sooner and to no good end.  Given the option of an efficient market populated by a lot of dead people and an inefficient, or even broken market populated by live people, most African states are going with the latter.  Until someone sorts out how to set up functioning markets near-instantly, builds enough financial resilience into African livelihoods to weather this sort of market behavior, or builds the financial and infrastructural capacity of African states to a point they can manage this short of shock without external assistance (or some combination of the three), states will continue to be forced into this sort of decision, and will make the same choice.  I am not convinced that the manipulation/corruption of markets Cowen describes is a cause of hunger as much as a symptom of a hugely problematic global political economy that no one small country can effectively manage.

In short, the situation in Malawi is very common in sub-Saharan Africa.  For most countries, the issues I raise above have been in play since independence.  The typical African country is dealing with a set of pressures that make straightforward economic decision-making nearly impossible – from state-building to market-building, these countries cannot just make economic decisions, they must make political-economic decisions that reflect the immediate reality around them.  Government is easy…until you actually have to govern.

 

 

*This is not to absolve all poor people of all responsibility for their situations. The global poor, like everyone else, are human – they are subject to emotions, biases, prejudices, etc. that sometimes do cause major problems for their well-being.  However, it has been my experience that this is not a dominant cause of the problems of poverty…mainly because if these problems were exacerbated more than they were helped by the efforts of the global poor, we’d have a lot fewer poor people because they would mostly have died. The global poor make fantastically difficult decisions about the allocation of scarce resources every day with a shocking degree of success…something we overlook at our peril.