Entries tagged with “geography”.


CGD has an interesting short essay up, written by Matthew Darling, Saugato Datta, and Sendhil Mullainathan, entitled “The Nature of the BEast: What Behavioral Economics Is Not.” The piece aims to dispel a few myths about behavioral economics, while offering a quick summary of what this field is, and what its goals are. I’ve been looking around for a good short primer on BE, and so I had high hopes for this piece…unfortunately, for two reasons the piece did not live up to expectations.

First, the authors tie themselves in a strange knot as they try to argue that behavioral economics is not about controlling behavior. While they note that BE studies and tools could be used to nudge human behavior in particular directions, they argue that “What distinguishes the behavioral toolset [from those of marketers, for example], however, is that so many of the tools are about helping people to make the choices that they themselves want to make.” This claim sidesteps a very important question: how do we know what choices they want to make? What we see as problematic livelihoods outcomes might not, in fact, be all that problematic to those living those outcomes, and indeed might have local rationales that are quite reasonable. While this might seem an obvious point, most BE work that I have seen seems to rest on a near-total lack of understanding of why those under investigation engage in the behaviors that “require explanation”. Therefore, the claim that BE helps people make the choices they want to make is, in fact, rather patriarchal in that the determination of what choices people want to make does not rest with those people, but with the behavioral economist. Sadly, this is a fairly accurate representation of much work done under the heading of BE. It would have been better if the authors had simply pointed out that BE is no more obsessed with incentives than any other part of economics, and if people are worried about behavioral control, they’d best have a look at the US (or their own national) tax code and focus their anxiety there.

Second, the authors argue “Behavioral economics differs from standard economics in that it uses a more realistic (and more complicated) model for people [and their decisions].” Honestly, I have seen no evidence for a coherent model of humans or their behavior in BE. What I have seen is a lot of rigorous data collection, the results of which are then shoehorned into some sort of implicit explanatory framework laden with unexamined assumptions that generally do not hold in the real world. Rigorously identifying when particular stimuli result in different behaviors is not the same thing as explaining how those stimuli bring about those behaviors. BE is rather good at the former, and not very good at all at the latter. The authors are right – we need more realistic and complicated models of human decision-making, and there are some out there (for example, see here and here – email me if you need a copy of either .pdf). BE would do well to actually read something outside of economics if it is serious about this goal. There are a couple of disciplines out there (for example, anthropology, geography, some aspects of sociology and social history) that have long operated with complex framings of human behavior, and have already derived many of the lessons that BE is just now (re)discovering. In this light, then, this short paper does show us what BE isn’t: it isn’t anthropology, geography, or any other social science that has already engaged the same questions as BE, but with more complex framings of human behavior and more rigorous interpretations of observed outcomes. And if it isn’t that, what exactly is the point of this field of inquiry?

Update: 11/22: So, after seeing Tom Murphy’s Storify of the twitter exchange, it is now clear that Sachs was on fire – the man was engaged in several conversations at once along the lines below…and he seems to have been responding to all of them pretty coherently, and in real time. I admit to being impressed (No, seriously, click on the Storify link there and just scroll. It is boggling). So recognize that what you see below is what I saw in my feed (his other conversations were with people I don’t follow, so I didn’t realize they were ongoing). Still, glad to get geography’s foot back in the door…

So, quite by surprise, I found myself on the end of an extended twitter exchange with Jeff Sachs.  I’ve hassled him via twitter before, and never had a response. So, I was a bit taken aback to see my feed light up about 30 seconds after I tweeted with @JeffDSachs at the front end! To give Sachs credit, he stayed quite engaged and did seem to be taking on some of my points. Granted, 140 characters is hardly enough to really convey the issues at hand, but I did the best I could to represent contemporary human geography. Y’all be the judge – this is the feed, slightly rejiggered to clarify that at times Sachs and I were crossing each other’s messages – he was clearly responding to a previous message sometimes when he tweeted back after one of my tweets. Also, Samuel Danthine was also on the conversation, and I kept him in the timeline as it seems he and I were coming from the same place:

There has mixed response to my posts on disaster awareness among college students (well, the Horn of Africa drought among my current students) – see posts here and here.  Some see something hopeful and interesting in the idea that the students want more complex explanations for the problems they see.  Others are significantly more negative, suggesting that people such as my students are just symptomatic of a larger societal, if not species-level, lack of empathy for distant others.  I fall on the optimistic side of things, perhaps because I am a geographer.  Let me explain…

Geography, as a discipline, spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about how places are created and maintained.  Places are not locations (folks get this mixed up all the time) – places are our experiences of particular locations – at least this is how I choose to think about it.  And when you think of it that way, it becomes impossible to see life in a particular place as independent from events in other places.  The experience of living in Columbia, South Carolina is shaped by the weather, the cost of living, the infrastructure, the schools (I am a parent), etc.  But each of these is in turn shaped by other factors that transcend Columbia.  The cost of living and state of the infrastructure are intimately tied to the history of the state of South Carolina within the United States (where the South has historically been the underdeveloped agrarian other of the industrialized Northeast), but are also tied to the global economy. South Carolina is now the last stopping point for large-scale manufacturing before it heads out of the US to find the most favorable conditions of production possible.  The overseas shift of the textile industry wrought devastation on the state’s economy…and relatively few in the state seem able to come to grips with the fact they were ground up in the jaws of a new global economy that has already spit them out.  Even the weather is being reshaped by global factors that drive climate change, as a new regime of reduced rainfall seems to be settling in.  At what point do you stop calling a prolonged rainfall deficit a drought and start calling it the new normal?  Turns out about three decades. We are about 20 years into a significant decline in precipitation, so we are getting there.  Thus, the policy decisions (regarding industrial policy and emissions policy) of actors in China and India drive shifts in the economy and environment of the State of South Carolina.  We are thoroughly tied up in larger global forces here.  To understand South Carolina today, we have to understand the larger world today – there is simply no way around this.

As soon as this lesson settles in (and it can take a while), it becomes obvious that these forces flow both ways – that is, as Columbia, SC is constituted by global forces, so too what we do here in Columbia contributes to global forces that play out in other places.  Thus, when we vote for federal lawmakers who keep absurd ethanol subsidies in place no matter what the price/maize production conditions, we create a driver of food price increases that can radiate around the world.  And while we in Columbia feel those increases, when the price of a loaf of bread goes up by a dollar, most of us are inconvenienced and annoyed.  For someone who was already living on less than $2/day, this same price increase blows up their capacity to feed themselves.

All of this then goes back to my earlier point about what the students wanted – complex explanations.  The kids already get it, folks – they already understand an interconnected world (to some extent), and they mistrust oversimplified explanations.  When you feed them simple explanations, you often have to root out the interconnections that connect us to events in other parts of the world – the very things that students would grab on to.  In short, by oversimplifying things, we are making it harder for people to feel connected to the places in which things like famine happen.

The lesson: find yourself a geographer, work with them to tell the damn story in all its complex glory, and get out of the way.  The kids are waiting…

So, given the twitter/blog/social media/whatever response to my post expressing shock at my students’ lack of awareness of the Horn of Africa drought, I did a little follow-up with them today.  This was the first day of real lecture content in the class, and as it happens one of the first examples I hit on (while trying to demonstrate the concept of interdependence – how every part of the world is inextricably linked to other parts of the world, for better or for worse) was the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011 (and the imminent spike coming this fall as a result of the drought that has devastated the US maize crop).  Since we were on food insecurity, I pivoted a bit and decided to just talk to them directly.  A summary, for those of you interested in how the hell a bunch of college students/college-bound high school students could have missed a crisis of this size:

1)   The crisis was horribly branded: I think talking about the Horn of Africa confused the few people who did know something had happened.  When I started casting about (around this time last year, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, starving African babies…) a few students did remember seeing something on the news.  As one student put it, he saw it on a major network, but the anchor wasn’t reporting.  I suspect more of the students were briefly aware of the crisis at the time, but it has since been lost to time because of the sheer volume of calls for help/mentions of crisis to which they are exposed (see point #2).

2)   In general, the students disliked most current “disaster messaging.”  Yes, it grabs their attention…and then it overwhelms them.  First, there are a lot of bad things that happen, and therefore a lot of news stories/PSAs/etc. coming down the line all the time.  They become hard to differentiate, such that students just tune out the PSAs entirely.  Second, the messaging largely seems to be a competition to horrify people even more…but the explanations for the problem are simplistic or, worse, nonexistent.  The students don’t understand why the crisis is happening, and they are turned off by “solutions” that amount to “send me $5 and I will fix it.”  These are young, idealistic, energetic people – this particular constituency has a greater interest in acting directly than many others.  To summarize: screaming “IT’S A DISASTER!!! SEND ME MONEY TO FIX IT!!!” is rarely going to generate deep interest and engagement (and we need both, for a lot of reasons – see below).  Most messaging around the Horn was of this genre, and as a result it quickly receded into the daily noise of news feeds and celebrity weddings.

3)   Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame.  In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis.  Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off.  Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged.  Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work.  So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase.  If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc.  In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms.  After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand.  Why?

  • Crowdsourcing: folks, there is a big world outside the aid and development community, and some of those people actually have interesting ideas.  Maybe those ideas can only address part of one of the many causes of the crisis (i.e. adjusting a market’s function for one commodity in one part of the world), but with a lot of people acting in this manner, it becomes possible to identify a wide range of potential options to address a given crisis/prevent its recurrence.
  • Politics: not one person in my classroom, or really any person anywhere who has a clean bill of mental health, wants to see 100,000 people die for any reason.  I believe that the vast majority of them would support spending tax dollars to prevent this from happening.  But when we fail to explain what needs to be done, in all its complexity, we are turning off a key constituency that can be mobilized and can make its voice heard – they have something that all politicians want. Votes. I can’t guarantee that my students would use those votes to shape policy, but they can’t do this until someone gives them a reasonable, actionable explanation for the events in the world that we would all like to address.

4)   Message management is anathema to social media: let me state the obvious – in the social media era, controlling the message is only possible if the message is so insipid that nobody cares about it at all.  A lot of the Horn messaging was about controlling the message, which is the equivalent of lecturing people via social media.  Ugh.  One student who wrote to me after class argued, more or less, that our role should be a catalyst for social media – we light the fire, but count on the fire to catch and build in its own way once it is started.  Social media that tries to message top-down, instead of evolving with a viral situation, will fail…it will be ignored.  I just realized what I am going to assign my students to do in my absence next week – I am going to make them follow a few official twitter feeds and critique them…oh, the horror!  This will be fun…

5)   Explain why the crisis at hand is important to their self-interest.  Yes, this sounds crass, but self-interest is a broad thing that can be mobilized with decent messages.  To pull an example from my own work, I can sell using development dollars on forest conservation because it has an important impact on the functioning of ecosystems that limit the pace of climate change – climate change that is raising sea levels along the South Carolina coast and producing drought across the state, and eventually will negatively impact the tourism industry in South Carolina (one of the few sectors here that is going well).  The students got that right away.  But nobody really did this for the Horn.  Which is pathetic. Hell, I did an off-the-cuff 2 minute explanation of why they care about the failed state in Somalia in terms of piracy in class today, by referencing the various ways in which piracy is raising shipping costs and therefore commodity prices…which hits their pocketbooks, impacts job growth, etc.  From there, it is easy to get into a reasoned conversation about the relative cost of the development and aid work that could change things in Somalia and end piracy as a viable livelihood versus doing nothing and bearing the cost of piracy.  It is all about entry points and catalysts, folks.

There were several other points that the students made – the one that sticks with me now is one student’s observation there is real experiential distance between their lives and what is happening in a famine that limits their engagement.  While we cannot bring students to a food crisis, we need to start thinking about how to create this experiential engagement.  For me, this happened when I became a parent…I will never again be able to objectively stomach an infant mortality statistic, because I flash to one or more of my children lying dead on the ground and I start to get the shakes.  I’m not sure what would do that for an 18-22 year old, but that sort of visceral connection spurs action.

To summarize: I think I was right in my initial post.  My students’ failure to recall the Horn of Africa crisis was not really their fault.  The messaging went awry in all sorts of ways because it assumed a lot about the audience (they had no interest in the issue, and only wanted simple stories with simple solutions) that was simply wrong.  Not everyone is going to care about every crisis – everyone has limited bandwidth – and so bad messaging just fell back into the everyday noise of social and old media, another data point among many, but nothing new or engaging.  Good messaging won’t make everyone care about every crisis, but it could engage enough of the right people each time to get us different outcomes, and fewer crises in the future.  That alone should make the effort worthwhile – so I guess I am disagreeing with J over at AidSource. Or the hopelessly realistic optimist in me is just winning out again…

Today, I reentered the classroom for the first time in two years.  That’s not completely accurate, actually – I lectured at the Foreign Service Institute several times while I was in DC, and I have a number of lectures, so I am not totally out of practice.  And after you’ve spent over 1000 hours (!!!) in front of a classroom, it really is like riding a bike…

Despite my classroom experience, I was seriously thrown by a moment in class today – I was discussing the different climates we see in East Africa, and mentioned the Horn of Africa famine in an offhand way…then realized there were too many blank stares.  So I asked the class directly how many of them were aware of the famine.  Not a single hand went up – 70 students, no hands.  Now, maybe someone put up a hand in that half-shrug, uncomfortable sort of way and I missed it.  And perhaps a few people had heard of the famine, but had not heard of it as something going on in the Horn of Africa.  But…at best, that is a few people.  Out of 70.

HOW THE HELL COULD THIS HAPPEN?  Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine – actually, that is a very low estimate, given that we were looking at 20,000-30,000 under-5 deaths in August 2011, and things stayed bad for quite a while after.  This is probably the single biggest human catastrophe since the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 (that killed 230,000 people).

I don’t blame the students.  Honestly.  They are wired in – they get all kinds of media all day long.  The simple fact is that the story of this famine was never sold very well, or very widely.  I thought the PSA campaign around the famine was terrible – a bunch of B-list celebrities, at best, in really dull clips (more on that in a later post).  Media coverage was confused.  Most could not separate drought from famine (which led me to write my most-viewed post ever), attributing the causes completely to the weather.  Others played up the Somalia terrorism angle with al-Shabab, a heterogenous and not terribly effective fundamentalist group in Somalia that decided to turn itself into drone bait by aligning with al-Qaeda.  But the whole story was much more than could be compressed into 2 minutes on the nightly news.

That these students didn’t know about the famine is a lost opportunity – an opportunity to illustrate how complex the world is, how climate change compromises development efforts, how relief work is very hard, and very political, and how there are a hell of a lot of really heroic people doing amazing work that probably saved as many lives as were lost, if not many, many more.  These are the people who will become educated voters, who will shape America’s place in the world through who they elect and what sorts of priorities they express – and they have no idea that America has a tool like FEWS-NET, which now can predict when and where famine will break out months in advance in several African countries…this is an astonishing accomplishment, and the envy of the world.  And if the foreign aid cutters in Congress get their way, it could go away.

Maybe many more people paid attention to the famine on other campuses, in other states…but somehow, I have a feeling that my class was not all that much of an anomaly.  Simply put, we in the relief and development community suck at messaging.  Between the frantic and often disingenuous fundraising that imprint television viewers with the belief that the situation is hopeless, the confused media reporting as everyone looks for their unique angle, and the near-total failure of messaging from the donor institutions, it is no wonder my students were clueless – hell, they almost certainly knew about the famine, at least in passing, but the completely disjointed storytelling probably prevented any meaningful understanding of the causes of the events or how to address these causes and their impacts.

I have no idea how to fix this, but somebody has to fix this. It is too important to be lamented and then ignored in favor of “doing the work” of development and relief.  Messaging is the work of development and relief – telling the story of what we do, why it needs to be done, and how we could do less of it in the future if we just addressed some root causes now is fundamental to getting the societal buy-in we need to do our jobs right.  Somebody do this right.  I can only reach 70 people at a time…

Yesterday, I took the relief community to task for not spending more time seriously thinking about global environmental change.  To be clear, this is not because that community pays no attention, or is unaware of the trend toward increasing climate variability and extreme weather events in many parts of the world that seems to be driving ever-greater needs for intervention.  That part of the deal is pretty well covered by the humanitarian world, though some folks are a bit late to the party (and it would be good to see a bit more open, informal discussion of this – most of what I have seen is in very formal reports and presentations).  I am more concerned that the humanitarian community gives little or no thought to the environmental implications of its interventions – in the immediate rush to save lives, we are implementing projects and conducting activities that have a long-term impact on the environment at scales ranging from the community to the globe.  We are not, however, measuring these impacts in really meaningful ways, and therefore run the risk of creating future problems through our current interventions.  This is not a desirable outcome for anyone.

But what of the development community, those of us thinking not in terms of immediate, acute needs as much as we are concerned with durable transformations in quality of life that will only be achieved on a generational timescale?  You’d think that this community (of which I count myself a part) would be able to grasp the impact of climate change on people’s long-term well-being, as both global environmental changes (such as climate change and ecosystem collapse) and development gains unfold over multidecadal timescales.  Yet the integration of global environmental change into development programs and research remains preliminary and tentative – and there is great resistance to such integration from many people in this community.

Sometimes people genuinely don’t get it – they either don’t think that things like climate change are real problems, or fail to grasp how it impacts their programs.  These are the folks who would lose at the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game – I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: global environmental change is development’s Kevin Bacon: I can link environmental change to any development challenge in three steps or less.  Sometimes the impacts are really indirect, which can make this hard to see.  For example, take education: in some places, climate change will alter growing seasons such that farm productivity will be reduced, forcing families to use more labor to get adequate food and income, which might lead parents to pull their kids from school to get that labor.  Yep, at least some education programs are impacted by climate change, an aspect of global environmental change.

Other times, though, I think that the resistance comes from a very legitimate place: many working in this field are totally overtaxed as it is.  They know that various aspects of global environmental change are problems in the contexts in which they work, but lack the human and financial resources to accomplish most of their existing tasks. Suddenly they hear that they will have to take something like climate change into account as they do their work, which means new responsibilities that will entail new training, but often come without new personnel or money.  It is therefore understandable when these folks, faced with these circumstances, greet the demand for the integration of global environmental change considerations into their programs with massive resistance.

I think the first problem contributes to the second – it is difficult to prioritize people and funding for a challenge that is poorly understood in the development community, and whose impacts on the project or initiative at hand might be difficult to see.  But we must do this – various forms of global environmental change are altering the future world at which we are aiming with our development programs and projects.  While an intervention appropriate to a community’s current needs may result in improvements to human well-being in the short term, the changes brought on by that intervention may be maladaptive in ten or twenty years and end up costing the community much more than it gained initially.

Global environmental change requires us to think about development like a fade route in football (American), or the through ball in soccer (the other football).  In both cases, the key is to put the ball where the target (the receiver of the pass) is going to be, not where they are now.  Those who can do this have great success.  Those that cannot have short careers.  Development needs to start working on its timing routes, and thinking about where our target communities are going to be ten and twenty years from now as we design our programs and projects.

So, how do we start putting our projects through on goal?  One place to start would be by addressing two big barriers: the persistence of treating global environmental change as a development sector like any other, and the failure of economics to properly cost the impacts of these changes.

First, global environmental change is not a sector.  It is not something you can cover in a section of your project plan or report, as it impacts virtually all development sectors.  Climate change alters the range and number of vectors for diseases like malaria.  Overfishing to meet the demands of consumers in the Global North can crush the food security of poor coastal populations in the Global South.  Deforestation can intensify climate change, lead to soil degradation that compromises food security, and even distort economic policy (you can log tropical hardwoods really quickly and temporarily boost GNP in a sort of “timber bubble”, but eventually you run out of trees and those 200-500 year regrowth times means that the bubble will pop and a GNP downturn is the inevitable outcome of such a policy).  If global environmental change is development’s Kevin Bacon, it is pretty much omnipresent in our programs and projects – we need to be accounting for it now.  That, in turn, requires us to start thinking much longer term – we cannot design projects with three to five year horizons – that is really the relief-to-recovery horizon (see part 1 for my discussion of global environmental change in that context).  Global environmental change means thinking about our goals on a much longer timescale, and at a much more general (and perhaps ambitious) scale.  The uncertainty bars on the outcomes of our work get really, really huge on these timescales . . . which to me is another argument for treating development as a catalyst aimed at triggering changes in society by facilitating the efforts of those with innovative, locally-appropriate ideas, as opposed to imposing and managing change in an effort to achieve a narrow set of measurable goals at all costs.  My book lays out the institutional challenges to such a transformation, such as rethinking participation in development, which we will have to address if this is ever to work.

Second, development economics needs to catch up to everyone else on the environment.  There are environmental economists, but not that many – and there are virtually no development economists that are trained in environmental economics.  As a result, most economic efforts to address environmental change in the context of development are based on very limited understandings of the environmental issues at hand – and this, in turn, creates a situation where much work in development economics either ignores or, in its problematic framings of the issue, misrepresents the importance of this challenge to the development project writ large. Until development economists are rewarded for really working on the environment, in all its messiness and uncertainty (and that may be a long way off, given how marginal environmental economists are to the discipline), I seriously doubt we are going to see enough good economic work linking development and the environment to serve as a foundation for a new kind of thinking about development that results in durable, meaningful outcomes for the global poor.  In the meantime, it seems to me that there is a huge space for geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, new cultural historians, and others to step up and engage this issue in rich, meaningful ways that both drive how we do work now and slowly force new conversations on both economics and the practice of development.

I do admit, though, that my expanding circle of economics colleagues (many of which I connected to via this blog and twitter) have given me entrée into a community of talented people that give me hope – they are interested and remarkably capable, and I hope they continue to engage me and my projects as they go forward . . . I think there is a mutual benefit there.

Let me be clear: the continuing disconnect between development studies and environmental studies is closing, and there are many, many opportunities to continue building connections between these worlds.  This blog is but one tiny effort in a sea of efforts, which gives me hope – with lots of people at work on this issue, someone is bound to succeed.

In part three, I will take up why global environmental change means that we have to rethink the RCT4D work currently undertaken in development – specifically, why we need much, much better efforts at explanation if this body of work is to give us meaningful, long-term results.



Back in April, I participated in a session on the role of geographers (and indeed academics more broadly) in development agencies.  Though many outside of academia do not seem to know this, engagement with development agencies by those of us working in geography, anthropology and sociology tends to provoke both strong feelings and some controversy.  Given geography’s and anthropology’s historical connection to colonialism, many academics fear that engagement with these agencies risks a return to these old relationships, where the work of academics serves to legitimize or even further neocolonial efforts.  I thought the session was outstanding – the discussion was probably the most spirited I’d seen at an AAG, but it never degenerated into name-calling or other unproductive behavior.

Due to the success of and interest in the session, the participants in my panel decided to put together a forum of brief position pieces to be published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, hopefully later this year (screaming fast by academic standards).  In my short piece, I took up the argument that we should be engaging with agencies more (probably not that surprising, considering where I work these days) – a position I supported in a distressingly well-read email exchange on a few big listservs this past fall (see a related blog post here).  Before I submitted it, I had to get it cleared by Legislative and Public Affairs (LPA), which led to several people reading it.  It was cleared without comment, which I believe only serves to support Bill Easterly’s claim (made in the context of the World Bank) that nobody really cares what we write in the academic journals, because they don’t think anyone reads them.

Along the way, though, my office director read it.  Or, more to the point, he read it three times, because, as he put it, it was “impenetrable.”  He did not say this dismissively, but instead to point out that the jargon in which I engaged in the piece (and I fully admit that my piece is very, very jargon-laden) made it nearly impossible to follow for the non-academic.  To his credit, he read it three times to get my point . . . how many people do you know who are willing to do that?

So, in the spirit of his intervention, I offer a translation of my piece, in two parts.  This is part 1.

Engagement with international development is fraught with tension.  On one side lies a belief in improvement that carries with it judgment of the lives of others.  At its worst, this judgment can become a justification for the lifestyles and foreign policy of “the developed” by placing both at the top of a pyramid of human progress to which everyone should aspire.  On the other side is the peril of an extractive intellectual industry.  When academic research and writing on development has no impact on policy and practice, it serves only to further the career of the researcher who gains from those s/he researches.  It is not possible for an academic to engage development and remain unsullied by one, the other, or both.  I see the job of the academic in development as walking between these extremes, balancing the risks of each. Therefore it is incumbent upon each of us to evaluate critically the path we walk between them.

It is very difficult for the contemporary academic to make such a critical evaluation.  Critical development studies are often based upon a surprisingly thin understanding of the object of research.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the development geographers who have worked in a development agency (receiving a contract from a development agency as a consultant or subcontractor does not count, as in that case one is only seeing the end product of a long process of policy building, budgeting, programming and contracting). Yet without an understanding of mundane bureaucratic moments such as budgeting, contracting and monitoring and evaluation it is simply impossible to understand why agencies do what they do, or reliably to identify points of intervention that might change practice in the world.

Though it was a book that brought me to critical development studies, Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine is exemplary of this problem.  Ferguson’s analysis of the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) Thaba-Tseka project is constrained largely to the reports and field programmes that are the outputs of this complex process.  There is no doubt that he is correct about the ways in which CIDA’s representation of Lesotho and its challenges bore little resemblance to events on the ground.  However, without a link to the institutional practices and structures that are inextricably bound up with these (mis)representations, Ferguson’s explanation for development failure comes to rest on a vague sense that language/representations (largely reflected in documents related to development projects and agencies) shape action.  But this language, and these representations, are produced and reproduced in the often-byzantine interplay of policy, budget, programme and contracting that currently happens outside the scope of analysis for the bulk of academics.  Pointing out the problematic character of CIDA’s representations of Lesotho is not in itself a productive intervention – we must know when this construction was put into play, by whom, and to what end.  This information cannot be inferred from an organizational chart or a history of organizational actions.  Instead, it requires ethnographic attention in its own right.

A very large proportion of critical development studies rests on this sort of incomplete analysis, resulting in critiques and questions that often have limited relevance to the experience of development practice.  The mismatch of the products of such analysis with the experiences of those who occupy positions in development institutions is a source of the widening gulf between academic studies of development and the work of the development agencies we criticize and seek to influence.  This suggests that productive critical interventions require greater direct engagement with development agencies.

Next up, Part 2: Why does this failure of understanding prevent serious engagement?

You know, qualitative social scientists of various stripes have long complained of their marginalization in development.  Examples abound of anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists complaining about the influence of the quantitatively-driven economists (and to a lesser extent, some political scientists) over development theory and policy.  While I am not much for whining, these complaints are often on the mark – quantitative data (of the sort employed by economists, and currently all the rage in political science) tends to carry the day over qualitative data, and the nuanced lessons of ethnographic research are dismissed as unimplementable, ideosyncratic/place-specific, without general value, etc.  This is not to say that I have an issue with quantitative data – I believe we should employ the right tool for the job at hand.  Sadly, most people only have either qualitative or quantitative skills, making the selection of appropriate tools pretty difficult . . .

But what is interesting, of late, is what appears to be a turn toward the lessons of the qualitative social sciences in development . . . only without actually referencing or reading those qualitative literatures.  Indeed, the former quantitative masters of the development universe are now starting to figure out and explore . . . the very things that the qualitative community has known for decades. What is really frustrating and galling is that these “new” studies are being lauded as groundbreaking and getting great play in the development world, despite the fact they are reinventing the qualitative wheel, and without much of the nuance of the current qualitative literature and its several decades of nuance.

What brings me to today’s post is the new piece on hunger in Foreign Policy by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  On one hand, this is great news – good to see development rising to the fore in an outlet like Foreign Policy.  I also largely agree with their conclusions – that the poverty trap/governance debate in development is oversimplified, that food security outcomes are not explicable through a single theory, etc.  On the other hand, from the perspective of a qualitative researcher looking at development, there is nothing new in this article.  Indeed, the implicit premise of the article is galling: When they argue that to address poverty, “In practical terms, that meant we’d have to start understanding how the poor really live their lives,” the implication is that nobody has been doing this.  But what of the tens of thousands of anthropologists, geographers and sociologists (as well as representatives of other cool, hybridized fields like new cultural historians and ethnoarchaeologists).  Hell, what of the Peace Corps?

Whether intentional or not, this article wipes the qualitative research slate clean, allowing the authors to present their work in a methodological and intellectual vacuum.  This is the first of my problems with this article – not so much with its findings, but with its appearance of method.  While I am sure that there is more to their research than presented in the article, the way their piece is structured, the case studies look like evidence/data for a new framing of food security.  They are not – they are illustrations of the larger conceptual points that Banerjee and Duflo are making.  I am sure that Banerjee and Duflo know this, but the reader does not – instead, most readers will think this represents some sort of qualitative research, or a mixed method approach that takes “hard numbers” and mixes it in with the loose suppositions that Banerjee and Duflo offer by way of explanation for the “surprising” outcomes they present.  But loose supposition is not qualitative research – at best, it is journalism. Bad journalism. My work, and the work of many, many colleagues, is based on rigorous methods of observation and analysis that produce validatable data on social phenomena.  The work that led to Delivering Development and many of my refereed publications took nearly two years of on-the-ground observation and interviewing, including follow-ups, focus groups and even the use of archaeology and remotely-sensed data on land use to cross-check and validate both my data and my analyses.

The result of all that work was a deep humility in the face of the challenges that those living in places like Coastal Ghana or Southern Malawi manage on a day-to-day basis . . . and deep humility when addressing the idea of explanation.  This is an experience I share with countless colleagues who have spent a lot of time on the ground in communities, ministries and aid organizations, a coming to grips with the fact that massively generalizable solutions simply don’t exist in the way we want them to, and that singular interventions will never address the challenges facing those living in the Global South.

So, I find it frustrating when Banerjee and Duflo present this observation as in any way unique:

What we’ve found is that the story of hunger, and of poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn’t necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice.

For anyone working in food security – that is, anyone who has been reading the literature coming out of anthropology, geography, sociology, and even some areas of ag econ, this is not a revelation – this is standard knowledge.  A few years ago I spent a lot of time and ink on an article in Food Policy that tried to loosely frame a schematic of local decision-making that leads to food security outcomes – an effort to systematize an approach to the highly complex sets of processes and decisions that produce hunger in particular places because there is really no way to get a single, generalized statistic or finding that will explain hunger outcomes everywhere.

In other words: We know.  So what do you have to tell us?

The answer, unfortunately, is not very much . . . because in the end they don’t really dive into the social processes that lead to the sorts of decisions that they see as interesting or counterintuitive.  This is where the heat is in development research – there are a few of us working down at this level, trying to come up with new framings of social process that move us past a reliance solely on the blunt tool of economistic rationality (which can help explain some behaviors and decisions) toward a more nuanced framing of how those rationalities are constructed by, and mobilize, much larger social processes like gender identification.  The theories in which we are dealing are very complex, but they do work (at least I think my work with governmentality is working – but the reviewers at Development and Change might not agree).

And maybe, just maybe, there is an opening to get this sort of work out into the mainstream, to get it applied – we’re going to try to do this at work, pulling together resources and interests across two Bureaus and three offices to see if a reframing of livelihoods around Foucault’s idea of governmentality can, in fact, get us better resolution on livelihoods and food security outcomes than current livelihoods models (which mostly assume that decisionmaking is driven by an effort to maximize material returns on investment and effort). Perhaps I rest too much faith on the idea of evidence, but if we can implement this idea and demonstrate that it works better, perhaps we will have a lever with which to push oversimplified economistic assumptions out of the way, while still doing justice to the complexity of social process and explanation in development.

Thank you, xkcd.  Thank you.