Entries tagged with “Malawi”.
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Sun 23 Sep 2012
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.
Thu 9 Aug 2012
So, I’m finally back in academia, with some time to start writing again…and able to do so without worrying about who I might annoy. Ah, the joys of tenure. Actually, I shouldn’t make that sound so glib – the fact is, this is what tenure is for: it allows people like me to argue about important ideas and take politically challenging positions without having to worry about our incomes.
Quickly, then, I would like to make a point about a Nick Kristof column that appeared back in early July (but I had to shut up about at the time). In it, he talks about some USAID-funded food security programs that work “with local farmers to promote new crops and methods so that farmers don’t have to worry about starving in the first place.” Nothing wrong with that – this just makes good sense, really, given the dramatic economic and environmental changes that so many folks must address in their everyday lives and livelihoods. But then Kristof describes the program via an anecdote:
Jonas Kabudula is a local farmer whose corn crop completely failed, and he said that normally he and his family would now be starving. But, with the help of a U.S.A.I.D. program, he and other farmers also planted chilies, a nontraditional crop that doesn’t need much rain.
“Other crops wither, and the chilies survive,” Kabudula told me. What’s more, each bag of chilies is worth about five bags of corn, so he and other villagers have been able to sell the chilies and buy all the food they need.
“If it weren’t for the chilies,” said another farmer, Staford Phereni, “we would have no food.”
Er, this is not resilience. Sure, it is a different crop, with different biophysical needs than maize…but they still have to sell it to get the money to eat. Chilies are, in the end, seasoning – in economic terms, there is a lot of price elasticity in there, as people can just choose not to season their food if they run out of money. So, when all hell breaks loose in a country, such as when a drought compromises the principal food crop, a large percentage of the people who would buy chilies (other farmers) cannot do so, depressing the price and lowering the relative value of the chilies versus needed food items (the prices of which are likely rising as demand for alternatives to maize kick in) – in short, your cash crop buys you less food than it did under good conditions. You end up just as screwed as everyone else, albeit a few weeks later. Further, this all presumes that markets are functioning at anything like regular levels, which is a bad bet when things really get stressed. Basically, this program gets resilience wrong because it fails to capture all of the things that people are vulnerable to: it isn’t just the climate, it is also the market. Yes, you’ve addressed at least some of the climate vulnerability…by pushing people onto a precarious market likely to be upset by the very climate conditions you are trying to address in the first place. Oops. More income is not necessarily more resilience if that income can be destabilized by the very thing it was meant to help address.
Given all of this, it seems to me that Kristof has missed the really important issue here: if this actually worked for this farmer, we need to know why it worked given all that could go wrong, and build on that. However, he doesn’t dive into that, at least in part because I think he sees the project success in this case as an expected outcome, the sort of thing that “should happen” because more income means more resilience and therefore less vulnerability to climate change and food insecurity. And that has everything to do with how we in development talk and think about vulnerability and resilience. While Kristof does not use these terms, they are implicit in his thinking about how this program helped this farmer – the farmer had other options that allowed him to address a climate-related challenge by increasing his income (or at least holding the line in bad situations), making him more resilient/less vulnerable than his neighbors in the face of this challenge. However, this example in this column is an argument for why we should be worried about the ways in which development has started slinging these terms around of late. It is unclear to me how this program can really address vulnerability or build resilience because it seems that it does not really address some significant factors shaping local vulnerability, nor has it really identified why those who display resilience in the face of a climate/food security challenge really are having better outcomes.
Granted, I am griping about one part of the program (the others actually sound quite interesting and reasonable), but this part just trips my vulnerability/resilience switch…
It comes down to this bit of bad news: until we come to grips with how we understand and define vulnerability and resilience, and do a better job of grounding these concepts in place, we will continue to design programs and projects that just trade one risk/vulnerability for another. That’s no way to get our job done.
Fri 20 May 2011
I was at a talk today where folks from Michigan State were presenting research and policy recommendations to guide the Feed the Future initiative. I greatly appreciate this sort of presentation – it is good to get real research in the building, and to see USAID staff that have so little time turn out in large numbers to engage. Once again, folks, its not that people in the agencies aren’t interested or don’t care, its a question of time and access.
In the course of one of the presentations, however, I saw a moment of “explanation” for observed behavior that nicely captures a larger issue that has been eating at me as the randomized control trials for development (RCT4D) movement gains speed . . . there isn’t a lot of explanation there. There is really interesting data, rigorously collected, but explanation is another thing entirely.
In the course of the presentation, the presenter put up a slide that showed a wide dispersion of prices around the average price received by farmers for their maize crops around a single market area (near where I happen to do work in Malawi). Nothing too shocking there, as this happens in Malawi, and indeed in many places. However, from a policy and programming perspective, it’s important to know that the average price is NOT the same thing as what a given household is taking home. But then the presenter explained this dispersion by noting (in passing) that some farmers were more price-savvy than others.
1) there is no evidence at all to support this claim, either in his data or in the data I have from an independent research project nearby
2) this offhand explanation has serious policy ramifications.
This explanation is a gross oversimplification of what is actually going on here – in Mulanje (near the Luchenza market area analyzed in the presentation), price information is very well communicated in villages. Thus, while some farmers might indeed be more savvy than others, the prices they are able to get are communicated throughout the village, thus distributing that information. So the dispersion of prices is the product of other factors. Certainly desperation selling is probably part of the issue (another offhand explanation offered later in the presentation). However, what we really need, if we want a rigorous understanding of the causes of this dispersion and how to address it, is a serious effort to grasp the social component of agriculture in this area – how gender roles, for example, shape household power dynamics, farm roles, and the prices people will sell at (this is a social consideration that exceeds explanation via markets), or how social networks connect particular farmers to particular purchasers in a manner that facilitates or inhibits price maximization at market. These considerations are both causal of the phenomena that the presenter described, and the points of leverage on which policy might act to actually change outcomes. If farmers aren’t “price savvy”, this suggests the need for a very different sort of intervention than what would be needed to address gendered patterns of agricultural strategy tied to long-standing gender roles and expectations.
This is a microcosm of what I am seeing in the RCT4D world right now – really rigorous data collection, followed by really thin interpretations of the data. It is not enough to just point out interesting patterns, and then start throwing explanations out there – we must turn from rigorous quantitative identification of significant patterns of behavior to the qualitative exploration of the causes of those patterns and their endurance over time. I’ve been wrestling with these issues in Ghana for more than a decade now, an effort that has most recently led me to a complete reconceptualization of livelihoods (shifting from understanding livelihoods as a means of addressing material conditions to a means of governing behaviors through particular ways of addressing material conditions – the article is in review at Development and Change). However, the empirical tests of this approach (with admittedly tiny-n size samples in Ghana, and very preliminary looks at the Malawi data) suggest that I have a better explanatory resolution for explained behaviors than possible through existing livelihoods approaches (which would end up dismissing a lot of choices as illogical or the products of incomplete information) – and therefore I have a better foundation for policy recommendations than available without this careful consideration of the social.
See, for example, this article I wrote on how we approach gender in development (also a good overview of the current state of gender and development, if I do say so myself). I empirically demonstrate that a serious consideration of how gender is constructed in particular places has large material outcomes on whose experiences we can understand, and therefore the sorts of interventions we might program to address particular challenges. We need more rigorous wrestling with “the social” if we are going to learn anything meaningful from our data. Period.
In summary, explanation is hard. Harder, in many ways, than rigorous data collection. Until we start spending at least as much effort on the explanation side as we do on the collection side, we will not really change much of anything in development.
Tue 8 Feb 2011
**Update** NASA tentatively identifies the metal as from an Indian launch
Sorry for the slow posts – it is a very busy week. And the coffee maker broke this morning. And my wife got lost on the way to the mall to buy a new one. Tomorrow morning is going to be less than fun.
Anyway, to keep my work-and-caffeine related whining in perspective, I bring you METAL FROM THE SKY. Mary Thompson, one of my Ph.D. students (you may remember her from hits such as this) is currently in Malawi, working around the Mt. Mulanje Forest Reserve to assess the use of the reserve by surrounding communities and the impact of a growing fortress conservation mentality on local livelihoods. It’s a great project, and we have built into it some serious efforts to assess forest impact via transect walk sampling and some fun work with satellite imagery.
So Mary just posted to her Facebook page (<<in grumpy old man voice>> in my day, we didn’t have Facebook . . . we had nonfunctioning landlines that we could reach once every two weeks . . .) an amusing story and picture.
So, last night at about 11pm there was this loud rumbling noise coming from somewhere. I kept thinking that if this was thunder it is the longest lasting thunder I’ve ever heard. And it was clear out. So eventually it stopped and didn’t happen again and I went to sleep. So this morning the people who work here said they think it was probably a small earthquake on the mountain or somewhere. Rare but not totally uncommon. I thought that was pretty cool and didn’t give it too much thought aside from giving my research assistants a lesson on how earthquakes work.
Then, we were leaving Monjomo village and passed a man that we knew from Likhubula on his bike and stopped him to ask the quickest way back on our bikes. He told us, and then said that he had just been to Chambe (a few miles up the road from where I live) where last night something metal had fallen from the sky and made the big noise everyone had heard and there was a rumor that another piece had been found at another village some distance away. So, of course we had to go check it out. we got there and there were hundreds of people hanging out for the excitement. This is very rural Sub-Saharan Africa, excitement here can be a little hard to come by. The police were there and had roped off a section of someone’s maize field (that had been flattened by all the people). In the center was a piece of metal a little longer than my arm that clearly belonged to some sort of machinery at some point. Since I’m a visitor (aka since I’m white and had a camera) they let me go under the rope barrier to take pictures. VIP UFO treatment for sure.
The chief of the neighboring village where I had been working for the past three months said she heard the loud noise and then her house was rattling and she thought it was a landslide from rocks on the mountain but she went outside and everything was lit up like electric lights (which they definitely don’t have) and she got scared and went back in the house.
I’ve never seen a plane over this area (doesn’t mean they don’t pass over from time to time), so who knows…
So, here is a picture of what fell from the sky:
OK gang, WTF is that? I can see a hinge at top left, and what looks like shearing on the part of the object nearest to us in the picture. The metal looks alloy, but what the hell do I know? Ideas? Anyone?
**Update 9 February**
Mary just sent me a message:
So, I emailed NASA’s Orbital Debris Program’s chief scientist and he said that the description and time fit well with an Indian rocket body that had been launched on the 2nd of Feb and reentered near this area on Feb 7th. I may change careers to UFO investigator.
Sat 4 Sep 2010
but I told you so. Remember this post? Well, the New York Times has finally caught up to the story, and its not good news. The UN is finally starting to make official their concerns for global food prices. Now, you can argue that it is in the UN’s interest to raise this issue and make it a big deal, as the organization’s funding relies on donor countries who often are reticent to contribute except in times of crisis. However, the main person downplaying this potential crisis in the NYT story is Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) economist Abdolreza Abbassian:
“If you look at the numbers globally, the Americans, the Europeans and the Australians can make up the supply,” Mr. Abbassian said of the wheat harvest, playing down the chances of repeating the 2008 crisis. “There is no reason for this hype, but once the psychological thing sets in it is hard to change that perception, especially if Russia keeps sending bad news.”
There are a few important things to note here. First, while Abbassian downplays the idea of real shortages driving market prices, he is acknowledging that the uncertainty in the market is likely to drive price instability – the end result being unpredictable, and likely rising, food prices. Second, Abbassian must not be looking at the data that is trickling in from around the world. For example, I have firsthand information from Southern Malawi about the failure of the maize crop there – not as bad as a few years ago, but bad enough that it might compromise Malawi’s status as a maize exporter. Without wheat, people will start to press other grains, which are now themselves starting to get tight.
This is problematic globally, but I am very, very concerned for the situation in Southern Africa. Mozambique is already starting to see significant civil unrest related, at least in part, to rising food prices. Basically, this seems to have been the match that finally set off significant civil discontent with a problematic government. The last time Mozambique fell apart, refugees flooded places like southern Malawi, stressing land availability and people’s livelihoods – sort of exporting the problems to surrounding countries. The convergence of climatic variability and a highly interlinked global food market could be setting this region up for a really serious disaster in the immediate future . . . and we will feel the disaster here at the supermarket. Not good. Not good at all.