Entries tagged with “hunger”.


If you’ve been following my SDG posts (here and here), you are probably at the point of asking what exactly we should be doing about them. Fair enough. I’ve burned two blog posts and about 2000 words on the problems I see with the new SDGs. As I tell my students, it doesn’t take a lot of talent to dismantle something. You have to tear it down and put something new in its place. So, in this spirit, my suggestions for how to get out of the ditch that the SDGs appear to currently occupy are threefold:

  1. Engage the donors now, not later. Start this process by narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals, and ensuring that the goals are actually achievable
  2. Engage the climate negotiations. The flows of money under the likely climate agreement are huge, and will impact all development goals, therefore impacting the achievement of the SDGs. Further, donors are already engaged on the climate negotiations, so linking the SDGs to those negotiations will likely increase donor interest in the SDG process.
  3. Engage the implementers. If you want to productively reduce the number of indicators, targets, and goals, talk to the people who will have to take the money and achieve those goals. By working with implementers, the SDG process could reduce all of these indicators, targets, and goals (thus driving donors to the table) while ensuring that whatever emerges from the process is actually achievable

1. Engage the donors:

A few caveats from my Wilton Park experience:

1) I know that if we are going to get “beyond aid” and start thinking about innovative partnerships for development, we are going to have to get past the donor-recipient binary. However, refusing to call a spade a spade doesn’t make change happen. The fact is that USAID, DfID, GIZ, JICA, and all the other bilateral organizations are, more or less, donors. So is the World Bank. So we can call them “development partners” all we want, but they will still behave like donors (making plans, issuing edicts, programming on institutional/national interests instead of beneficiary interests, etc.) – behavior change takes a long time. Remember, many bilateral donors already call themselves “Cooperation” organizations (e.g. Spanish Cooperation, Swiss Cooperation)…but they still behave like donors.

2) The flows of development aid are, in many places, already dwarfed by flows of foreign direct investment and other flows of money. In some contexts, remittances may well be as important as formal aid. So we shouldn’t over-privilege donors or their aid funds in this conversation. Indeed, it is the declining power of aid dollars that has spurred the “beyond aid” conversation in the post-2015 agenda.

All that said, much of the politics of development still flow through development donors/partners, and this is not going to change before the SDGs are formalized. I’ve heard a bit of grumbling about traditional donor organizations’ lack of serious engagement with the SDG process. I have little time for this, as nobody should find this lack of engagement surprising. As I said in my first post, a set of goals that allows everyone to evade responsibility, and enables practically everything currently implemented under the heading “development”, is not going to get a response from the donors. If the process won’t have any effect on what they do, why should they care?

Some might see this lack of engagement as a good thing, an opportunity to craft a development agenda outside the agendas of the donors. I disagree with this strongly. The donors will eventually engage, especially if the SDGs move toward formal commitments. Such commitments might create responsibilities and constraints on actions and agendas – at which point, the donors will engage to shape the agenda to their interests. Because the SDG process has churned along without the donors to this point, the current indicators, targets, and goals are likely not well-aligned with donor interests. Without suggesting that donor interests are necessarily good, remember that the politics of development and aid still flow through these organizations, and when they engage they will have one of two effects: they will either heavily reshape the SDGs to their interests, or they will marginalize the entire process to the point of irrelevance. In either case, those running the SDG process will find themselves in a reactive position, and will lose control of the process. If the SDGs are to be more than what donors already want and do, the process must engage the donors now.

How do we engage the donors? One way is to reduce the absurd number of indicators, targets, and goals. Once you start taking away the ability to justify everything, donors are going to have to start looking at these goals and their own portfolios. Where there are mismatches, the donors are likely to engage. Another way is to carefully review the targets and goals and ensure that all could be achieved in the next 15 years with reasonable ambition. This will create a situation where accountability for their achievement becomes important, which likely drives the donors to the table. Getting the donors to the table now means there will be time to negotiate with them to develop a set of workable SDGs. Waiting until the last minute will either subvert what has, to this point, been a very open process as the SDGs are heavily reworked or even shunted into irrelevance at the 11th hour in negotiations.

2. Engage the UNFCCC negotiation process

While the development community has two big processes coming to the fore this year (the Third Conference on Financing for Development and the SDGs), there is a third, and arguably far more important, process coming to a head: the climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. By the Paris Conference of the Parties in December, I fully expect that there will be a deal on the table that discusses transfers of funds from rich to poor countries that will broadly 1) enable adaptation to ongoing climate change impacts and 2) facilitate the development of these countries through low-greenhouse emission pathways. The amounts of money on the table are likely to rival, if not displace, formal development aid, and they will be used to address issues that development aid traditionally covered. Yet the SDGs do not meaningfully engage with the likely outcomes of this process. Yes, proposed SDG 13 demands we “Tackle climate change and its impacts” and that goal recognizes the size of financial flows likely to emerge from the upcoming climate deal ($100 billion per year at a minimum, which would rival all of formal development aid). But simply acknowledging that there will be a climate deal with a lot of money attached doesn’t align the SDGs with that money. These flows of money will likely impact every SDG – indeed, we should expect them to. A climate deal that moves funds to the poorer countries is two things: an acknowledgement that climate change impacts will likely inhibit their efforts to improve the quality of life of their citizens and residents, and a recognition that the climate change impacts of their development could become problems for even the wealthy countries.

Because climate funds will engage development issues and goals, they are going to create attribution problems and therefore further responsibility problems for the SDGs. For example, if exposure to increasingly variable precipitation is a significant challenge for a group of rain-fed agriculturalists who find themselves in a challenging financial situation, and the funds from the climate deal help to provide seasonal forecasts that alleviate some of this stress, will the SDGs get to claim victory for the increased yields and incomes that result? Or will the climate negotiators get to use this case as an example of why a climate deal was a good idea? Worse, if these funds don’t actually result in constructive changes to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, who will be to blame?

Engaging the climate negotiations would also help to bring the donors to the table, as the donors and their national governments are already engaged on the climate negotiation process. Linking the SDGs to this process 1) creates a more realistic view of how these goals will be funded and achieved and 2) will likely drive the donors to the SDG table to ensure the SDGs are aligned with the climate agreement.

3. Engage the implementation community:

It is pretty obvious that these goals were written in a policy context that lacked significant input from anyone who would have to achieve these goals. Nearly all of my critiques in the previous two posts were based in the practical challenges these goals would present for implementation: the lack of responsibility for their achievement, the enabling of a huge range of actions under what masquerades as a focused set of goals, and the creation of goals that potentially undermine each other are all apparent when you’ve spent time building programs to actually achieve these goals, or had to execute the work under those programs. If you want goals that are either aspirational or focusing, you need to incorporate a lot of feedback from the implementation community.

Engaging the implementation community could serve as a means of narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals as I suggested is necessary to get donors to the table. It would kill two birds with one stone – it would get us a set of achievable, interesting SDGs while forcing donors to engage with the process before the 11th hour.

Save the SDGs!

There is still time to break the SDGs out of the multilateral bubble in which they were constructed and make this a proactive process that can bring together the many important trends reshaping development today (climate change negotiations, new flows of investment, etc.) into a coherent program that gives us targets to aim for, and a reasonable focus for development going forward. The three steps above would go a long way toward this end. I hope to see something like this start very soon.

In my last post, I laid out the first of my concerns with the evolving Sustainable Development Goals. As I said, I think most of these goals fall into one of three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Having covered the impossible, I now turn my attention to the remaining two categories and why they are problematic:

The vague:

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

What does it mean to ensure the availability of water and sanitation? That everyone actually gets to use it, or just that the facilities are available where you live? This is an open question, because Goal 6 says availability (water and sanitation is present), not access (you can get water and adequate sanitation, no matter your circumstances). The former requires one set of values with regard to public services (i.e. water as a privatizable commodity that might be subject to efficiency gains if privatized), while the latter evokes a completely different set of concerns (i.e. water as a human right). By using the word availability, Goal 6 enables everything from the free delivery of water to all citizens to the complete privatization of a water system, as long as under both scenarios some form of water delivery is present for all users. Achievement of availability doesn’t speak to pricing or other factors that might enable or constrain the ability to access water. Basically, you can justify both actions as ensuring availability and therefore meeting an SDG even though these actions would likely result in wildly disparate outcomes for the affected population – including reduced access to water, even as it becomes more available.

How, under Goal 12, will we ensure sustainable consumption patterns? For example, are we promoting revolutions in energy production that will lower the cost of recycling, or are we arguing for massive social change in the wealthiest countries that would result in reduced consumption among the world’s rich populations? None of the proposed indicators suggest the latter, but simply cleaning up our energy supply is not going to create a sustainable pattern of consumption in a world that may well already be in ecological overshoot due to a wide range of resource consumption issues.

Vague goals that enable virtually all possible actions, or actions that really don’t do much to address the real problem the goal is meant to address (i.e. ecological overshoot under Goal 12) are not goals. They are slogans that neither motivate action nor focus effort, making the outcomes we want (greater access to necessary water, a planet we can live on indefinitely but in greater prosperity) disappear. This is worse than no goal at all.

 

The “Sounds good, but on second thought…”

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

Reading that I have objections to Goals like 8 and 10, you can be forgiven if (at least momentarily) you think that I am a huge jerk, but hear me out. Personally, I think that promoting decent and productive livelihoods is a critical part of improving the quality of life for people, whether they live in rich or poor countries. And there can be little doubt that high levels of inequality have deleterious effects on economic growth, and raise major issues of justice. But this does not mean that these goals are necessarily great ideas.

First, promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth…is basically impossible under existing energy and resource regimes. As the global economy has grown over the past few decades, and growth has taken off in a number of formerly low-income countries, we’ve seen a colossal expansion in consumption that strains our climate and our resource base. Continued economic growth, at least in the near future, will drive greater greenhouse emissions and increased drawdowns of non-renewable natural resources. In short, Goal 8 sort of fits into my first grouping of SDGs (“the impossible”) but is in some ways even more dangerous because its framing suggests that we can have our cake (economic growth) and eat it too (sustainability). We cannot, at least not right now. Instead, pushing for sustained economic growth that brings full and productive employment and decent work for all will make the achievement of Goal 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all), Goal 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), Goal 12 (Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns), Goal 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts), Goal 14 (Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development), and Goal 15 (Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss) very difficult, if not impossible.

And what of Goal 10? Well, there is a real question to be asked here: when is inequality bad, and when might it help us achieve development goals? At the national scale, it does appear that inequality can become a drag on economic growth (see Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century – and before you ask, yes, I actually read the damn thing). But what of situations at different scales, where inequality might present a temporary path to economic improvement for many? For example, at the scale of a very poor community in the Sahel, actions that enrich a relatively small, already rich portion of the population might enhance inequality in the village. However, if those wealthy members of the community accumulate assets that they are obligated to share under local social expectations (for example, cattle that can be used as traction in farming), such accumulation might improve the agricultural productivity and incomes of many in the community (by enhancing access to animal traction) until such time as those poorer members of the community can accumulate their own assets. If such a pattern were to take hold across a relatively poor country such as Mali or Burkina Faso, it could manifest in national statistics as an increase in economic inequality that, under this goal, should be ended. Until we understand the different causes of inequality, and their consequences, perhaps we should wait to see what it is we are trying to address and when it is appropriate to do so.

In short, the achievement of this last group of goals might serve to blow up our efforts to achieve other goals. Development has a penchant for stovepiping activities into sectors and goals. Further, there is no way any single donor/partner is going to cover all 17 goals under their portfolio. What this means is that individuals working on one goal may not have any idea what their efforts are doing to other goals. Further, if those other goals are owned by different organizations, there may not be any means for or incentives that lead to coordination across these goals. Organizations and individuals will respond to the tasks and measures in front of them first, and worry about the collateral damage later.

In summary, proposing goals that are so vague as to encompass every possible outcome of activities under a broad heading, or creating goals that might, if achieved, undermine other goals, is not moving us into a “beyond aid” world. They are not moving us anywhere except to more of the same work that development and aid have been doing for decades, and which has given us little we might call transformational.

 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

 

Next: What is the way forward?

 

Last week I was fortunate enough to spend a few days at Wisford House for a Wilton Park conference “Beyond aid: innovative governance, financing and partnerships for the post-2015 agenda.” The meeting emphasized thinking beyond aid, to the ways in which aid funds can leverage other, larger flows of money (i.e. private capital) in manners that speed or transform ongoing changes among the world’s poor. In short, it was a meeting that embraced a shift from aid as “fixing things for poor people” to aid as “catalyzing and accelerating what people are already doing to create faster, more impactful outcomes.” The question, of course, is exactly how to shift aid fully into the latter role in the context of the third Conference on Financing for Development coming up in July, and the ongoing development of Sustainable Development Goals that should conclude in 2015.

As the conference kicked off with a discussion of the new SDGs, Charles Kenny serendipitously tweeted out their current structure:

Kenny tweet

Just as I started to freak out (as did Simon Maxwell, who was seated next to me and saw the tweet at about the same time), Charles followed up:

Gross national happiness

So, 303 indicators (several of which are actually unmeasurable in the usual indicator sense) feeding into 169 targets which speak to progress toward 17 goals (Charles was off by one). My first reaction, which I shared with the conference, was that this structure was useless, either as a set of focusing goals or as a set of aspirational targets.

First, these do nothing to focus us. With 303 indicators aimed at 169 targets, any reasonably talented program officer should be able to reverse justify any and all existing programming under this structure. Were I still advising a presidential appointee at USAID, and they asked me about the SDGs, I would tell them not to worry about it as there is nothing in this structure that constrains anything that the Agency does.

Second, these goals don’t feel aspirational – but this is for a variety of reasons that I can lump into three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Over the next few posts, I will lay out what I mean with examples of each category. Today, I focus on…

The impossible

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Let’s just get something on the table right away: None of these goals is going to be achieved by 2030. First, “poverty” is a pretty vague term that means much more than income. While the indicators proposed under Goal 1 certainly recognize a complex understanding of poverty, including income, access to productive resources, social protection, and exposure to shocks and stresses, the ways in which these different factors align to produce “poverty” depends greatly on where you are. As a result, there are many “poverties” in many places. Therefore, it is not clear to me how a broad set of indicators will tell us if we have succeeded in eradicating poverty in a particular place.

Goal 2, ending hunger, is easier to measure as an outcome, but very difficult to measure as a process (as most determinants of food security are social, and we have very weak data on these processes in most parts of the world). The indicators don’t tell us where to intervene, or how we will know when “hunger” has been ended. Given 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households in 2013, it seems extraordinarily unlikely we will be able to meet this goal globally.

And Goal 5… we’re not even close to gender equity here in the United States, but somehow we are going to fix this globally in 15 years? Folks, gender relations and equality are issues that take a minimum of three generations to address – and that would be extraordinarily rapid change. 15 years is about one generation.

It is not that I hate (or even dislike) aspirational goals. However, goals should be achievable and actionable so we can hold people accountable for their achievement. None of these three goals meets either criteria. Can we make significant progress on addressing some components of poverty in the next 15 years? Yes. Can we reduce food insecurity in both rich and poor countries? Yes. Can we make some movement on the status of women and girls in both rich and poor countries? Yes. And we should work toward all three, but with ambitious but achievable targets. If the goals are achievable, then we can hold someone accountable for any shortfalls in 2030. Accountability fosters action. Right now, nobody will be held accountable when we fall short, because in 2030 whoever is still around will (rightly) point out that these were always unachievable, and therefore it is nobody’s fault that we did not meet these goals.

So, I dislike impossible goals because they strip away responsibility for their achievement. If these were ambitious but achievable, it might force those of us in the aid world to think more carefully about how we are going to leverage other sources of funding, other trends already taking place in many parts of the world (declining fertility, rising incomes, etc.), and build on existing knowledge and capacity among the global poor to ensure we reached these goals. In short, impossible goals do nothing to move us beyond aid – they just maintain the status quo.

 

Next up: The Vague and the “Sounds good, but on second thought”

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.

 

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.

 

While I appreciate the overall sentiment behind “World Hunger, the Problem Left Behind”, Tyler Cowen’s op-ed piece in the New York Times earlier this week, in trying to put forth an important message he reinforces really problematic understandings of hunger. Cowen, like so many others, continues to frame food security and hunger issues as a crisis of production and productivity.  Citing Michael Lipton, Cowen writes:

Rwanda and Ghana are gaining, but…most of the continent is not. Production and calorie intake per capita don’t seem to be higher today than they were in the early 1960s. It remains an issue how Africa’s growing population will be fed.

First, production and caloric intake per capita are not necessarily directly linked.  As I have observed elsewhere on this blog (and as Hans Herren and I argued at the New America Foundation/Slate event Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks), there is a massive loss problem in most food systems that more than accounts for most food shortages in the world today.  Considering the absolutely remarkable explosion of the African population since 1960, when it held about 300 million people and today, when it holds 870 million, holding the line on per-capita production means that people effectively tripled the agricultural output of the continent.  But when you lose 40% of that production between the farm gate and market, you are going to get a disjoint between production and caloric intake that has nothing at all to do with the skills of the farmers or their on-farm circumstances.  Are there ways to augment production and improve it?  Probably, but this is not the central problem at the moment, nor is it the low-hanging fruit.  Don’t reengineer the ecosystem, just fix the road!

It would be good to see some serious discussion of food insecurity that did not center on agricultural productivity.  It seems that the urge is to start from the hardest end of the process to fix, perhaps because it is in the fields that food goes from abstract to concrete. It is hard to argue that the biggest problem is loss in the supply chain, because that is harder for people to see.  We need more posters of rotting loads of food on the back of trucks, and less pictures of dusty fields with stunted crops.  Maybe that would start to shift the narrative?