Entries tagged with “New Bottom Billion”.


Ok, so that title was meant to goad my fellow anthropologists, but before everyone freaks out, let me explain what I mean. The best anthropology, to quote Marshall Sahlins, “consists of making the apparently wild thought of others logically compelling in their own cultural settings and intellectually revealing of the human condition.” This is, of course, not bound by time. Understanding the thought of others, wherever and whenever it occurs, helps to illuminate the human condition. In that sense, ethnographies are forever.

However, in the context of development and climate change, ethnography has potential value beyond this very broad goal. The understandings of human behavior produced through ethnographic research are critical to the achievement of the most noble and progressive goals of development*. As I have argued time and again, we understand far less about what those in the Global South are doing than we think, and I wrote a book highlighting how our assumptions about life in such places are a) mostly incorrect and b) potentially very dangerous to the long-term well-being of everyone on Earth.  To correct this problem, development research, design, and monitoring and evaluation all need much, much more engagement with qualitative research, including ethnographic work. Such work brings a richness to our understanding of other people, and lives in other places, that is invaluable to the design of progressive programs and projects that meet the actual (as opposed to assumed) needs of the global poor now and in the future.

As I see it, the need for ethnographic work in development presents two significant problems. The first, which I have discussed before, is the dearth of such work in the world. Everyone seems to think the world is crawling with anthropologists and human geographers who do this sort of work, but how many books and dissertations are completed each year? A thousand? Less?  Compare that to the two billion (or more) poor people living in low-income countries (and that leaves aside the billion or so very poor that Andy Sumner has identified as living in middle-income countries).  A thousand books for at least two billion people? No problem, it just means that each book or dissertation has to cover the detailed experiences, motivations, and emotions of two million people. I mean, sure, the typical ethnography addresses an N that ranges from a half dozen to communities of a few hundred, but surely we can just adjust the scale…

Er…

Crap.

OK, so there is a huge shortage of this work, and we need much, much more of it. Well, the good new is that people have been doing this sort of work for a long time. Granted, the underlying assumptions about other people have shifted over time (“scientific racism” was pretty much the norm back in the first half of the 20th Century), but surely the observations of human behavior and thought might serve to fill the gaps from which we currently suffer, right. After all, if a thousand people a year knocked out a book or dissertation over the past hundred years, surely our coverage will improve.  Right?

Well, maybe not. Ethnographies describe a place and a time, and most of the Global South is changing very, very rapidly. Indeed, it has been changing for a while, but of late the pace of change seems to be accelerating (again, see Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion). Things change so quickly, and can change so pervasively, that I wonder how long it takes for many of the fundamental observations about life and thought that populate ethnographies to become historical relics that tell us a great deal about a bygone era, but do not reflect present realities.  For example, in my work in Ghana, I drew upon some of the very few ethnographies of the Akan, written during the colonial era. These were useful for the archaeological component of my work, as they helped me to contextualize artifacts I was recovering from the time of those ethnographies. But their descriptions of economic practice, local politics, social roles, and livelihoods really had very little to do with life in Ghana’s Central Region in the late 1990s.  In terms of their utility for interpreting contemporary life among the Akan, they had, for all intents and purposes, expired.

So, the questions I pose here:

1)    How do we know when an ethnography has expired?  Is it expired when any aspect of the ethnography is no longer true, or when a majority of its observations no longer hold?

2)    Whatever standard we might hold them to, how long does it take to reach that standard? Five years? Ten years? Thus far, my work from 2001 in Ghana seems to be holding, but things are wobbling a bit.  It is possible that a permanent shift in livelihoods took place in 2006 (I need to examine this), which would invalidate the utility of my earlier work for project design in this area.

These are questions worth debating. If we are to bring more qualitative, ethnographic work to the table in development, we have to find ways to improve our coverage of the world and our ability to assess the resources from which we might draw.

 

 

*I know some people think that “noble” and “progressive” are terms that cannot be applied to development. I’m not going to take up that debate here.

I’ve long hated the term “poverty traps,” development shorthand for conditions in which poverty becomes self-reinforcing and therefore inescapable without some sort of external intervention.  They made no analytic sense (nobody ever defined poverty clearly across this literature, for example), and generally the idea of the poverty trap was hitched to a revival of “big push” development efforts that had failed in the 1950s and 1960s.  Further, it was always clear to me that the very idea of a poverty trap cast those living in difficult circumstances as helpless without the intervention of benevolent outsiders.  This did not align at all with my experiences on the ground in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as structural inequality in the world – the running head start enjoyed by the Global North in terms of economic development has created significant barriers to the economic development of those residing in the Global South.  These barriers, perhaps most critically the absurd and damaging regime of subsidies that massively distorts global agricultural markets, must be addressed, and soon.  Such barriers generally result in perverse outcomes that impact even those in the Global North (anyone who thinks the American food system makes any sense at all really needs to read more.  Start with Fast Food Nation, move to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and work out from there. And don’t get me going on the potential climate impacts of structural inequality).

But this enduring focus on structural problems in the global economy has had the effect of reducing those in the Global South to a bunch of helpless children in need of salvation by the best and most noble of those in the Global North, who were to bring justice, opportunity, and a better future to all.  If this isn’t the 21st Century version of the White Man’s Burden, then I don’t know what is.  Bill Easterly makes a very similar point very eloquently, and at much greater length, here.

I am a social scientist*, and I believe that the weight of evidence eventually wins arguments.  And today it occurred to me that in this case, this long line of arguing that those who insisted on talking about poverty traps were a) generally misrepresenting the world and b) inappropriately infantilizing those living in the Global South now has that weight of evidence behind it.  Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion basically blows up the idea of the poverty trap – he demonstrates that since the 1990s, a lot of people that were thought to be living in poverty traps have improved their incomes such that many have moved out of poverty (at least if one defines poverty on the basis of income).  People who were thought to be trapped by structural inequality have been defying expectations and improving their circumstances without clear correlations to aid or development efforts, let alone the “big push” arguments of Sachs and others.  In short, it looks like we don’t really understand what people are doing at the margins of the Global South, and that the global poor are a lot more capable than development seems to think.  Poor people attached to the anchor of structural inequality are dragging it to improved incomes and well-being in thousands of small, innovative ways that are adding up to a massive aggregate change in the geography and structure of global poverty.

In short, the Global South never needed the most enlightened of the Global North to clear the path and push them up the ladder of development (if you want to get all Rostow about it).  Instead, what is clearly needed is a new, substantial effort to better understand what is happening out on Globalization’s Shoreline, and to work with the global poor to examine these efforts, identify innovative, locally-appropriate, and locally-owned means of transforming their quality of life, and find means of bringing those ideas to (appropriate) scale.  Anything else is just hubris at best, and subtle class/race bigotry at worst.

The data is speaking. Anyone ready to listen?

 

 

 

 

*Well, I am a qualitative social scientist which means my work is more generative and humanities/arts flavored than is typical in the sciences, which generally value the reporting of observations in the framework of already-established biophysical processes.

A while back, I was musing about the end of IDA, especially given the interesting work of Andy Sumner on the “New Bottom Billion” and the increasing rate of country “graduation” from IDA eligibility.  For those unfamiliar with the term, IDA is the International Development Association, a branch of the World Bank Group focused on assistance for the world’s poorest countries.  Countries eligible to receive support from IDA have access to low- or no-interest loans that can be paid back over long periods of time – this is justified by the assumption that IDA-eligible countries will not have access to other forms of credit on reasonable terms, mostly because of conditions in the country that would drive away commercial lenders and other sources of credit.  Of course, IDA loans often came with significant conditionality – terms that recipients had to agree to in order to receive the funds, ideally intended to remedy the problems that kept traditional creditors away.  While these conditions were meant to help recipient countries, they often proved disastrous (structural adjustment had a lot of collateral damage among the people it was meant to help) and certainly challenged recipient country’s sovereignty, as the conditions effectively moved economic policy decision-making out of the national government and into multilateral donor organizations.  Both situations created a lot of tension between the multilaterals and the IDA-eligible countries.

Today, for a lot of reasons, it seems that IDA might be coming to a close in much of the world.  Countries are moving beyond the GNI per capita thresholds between low-income and middle-income status all the time (Ghana recently did so), and thus losing eligibility for IDA loans.  Further, ever-cheaper sources of capital have been extended to nearly every country in the world, a process that seems to have accelerated since the recession in the Global North (I surmise this has something to do with the fact that the giant pool of global money that no longer resides in real estate speculation needs somewhere else to go).  In any case, for most low income countries IDA is no longer the only credit game in town, and considering other sources of credit, especially the Chinese, put very few conditions on their loans, IDA is less attractive all the time.  There is still a need for IDA, for a very few countries, but it seems that the tide has turned against it.  This is good news – after all, in development our job should be to put ourselves out of business.  I think there is significant debate about whether IDA put itself out of business (considering attribution of graduation to IDA assistance is weak, at best), but at least we are seeing a situation where a development institution might finally be losing its purpose because good things have happened in the world.

Having worked for USAID, and now working with the World Bank, I have had the chance to sound out a lot of people in the donor world about this shift.  Most people I talk to who have given it any thought recognize that this is part of a much broader shift, one in which the days of “development as financial assistance” (IDA or otherwise) are coming to an end.  Going forward, it is clear that development assistance will increasingly be about technical assistance and less about lending (the Obama administration’s pick of Jim Kim as head of the World Bank is a clear signal that they see the World Bank of the future as a technical assistance organization, not a lending organization).  It is a fascinating transformation that, among other things, is going to obviate a lot of traditional critiques of aid, which revolved around the economic imperialism that aid dollars allowed – the conditionalities of lending that enabled structural adjustment and its many disastrous outcomes.

But the question of graduation is, of course, a tricky one.  Andy’s work, at least when I have been present for his presentations, has drawn questions about what seems to be the arbitrary nature of the lines between low-income and middle-income countries – that is, the movement to “middle income status” might represent a real shift in economic activity, but not a significant change in people’s lives.  I’ve expressed concerns about the robustness of “graduation”, as what appears to be a positive income trend in many countries might not have the strongest of foundations, or might be compromised by the impacts of climate change going forward.

So how can we productively track this change in the world’s financial needs and ensure that development takes a relevant shape as we seek to address the evolving needs of the world’s poor (wherever they might be)?  Perhaps another, more productive way to think about “graduation” is to examine the point at which investment dollars provided by donors is swamped by private investment such that the aid dollars are no longer effective means of leveraging change.  One million dollars can effectively leverage 10 million dollars of investment, but can 1 million dollars leverage 100 million dollars?  In most cases, probably not.  It would be interesting to look at various countries where aid dollars are of declining importance (Ghana, Zambia, etc.) and determine a) if their situation vis a vis aid investment has shifted such that donor dollars no longer effectively leverage other investments and b) when and under what conditions that shift occurred.  It seems to me that this would be a more effective marker in terms of thinking of transitioning from aid as investment to aid as technical assistance, as opposed to a largely arbitrary line in the GNI sand, one subject to rather large margins of error in its calculation.   Further, understanding the conditions of a transition from dependence on donor investment to stand-alone FDI recipient would be a key lesson for transitioning other countries out from aid dependence.

This is a rough sketch, but it seems to me this could be done.  It would require a bit of research in a couple of key places, but organizations like the World Bank are well-positioned to conduct such research and disseminate the findings.  Academia stands ready to help…

It appears that the World Bank, at long last, is going to really make a huge portion of its data publicly available.  The New York Times has a story that outlines some of the trials and tribulations that brought us to this point, some of which will probably seem arcane to the development outsider.  However, as a development researcher/practitioner hybrid, I cannot tell you how exciting or important this is – the Bank is sitting on a giant pile of interesting data.  Not all of it is going to be high quality (a lot of data from the Global South is not – see chapter 9 of Delivering Development or a parallel discussion in Charles Kenny’s Getting Better).  But until very recently the data you could easily access from the Bank was worthy of a lower-division undergraduate project – and getting to the really interesting stuff was brutally difficult.  The new datasets are more detailed and comprehensive, but still not everything the Bank has.  Andy Sumner has been trying to get at the Bank’s core data to refine and test his ideas about the New Bottom Billion (which you should all be reading, by the way), with little success because of security requirements.

I really like a quote, at the end of the NY Times piece, from Bitange Ndemo, Kenya’s permanent secretary for information.  When asked if there would be resistance to public dissemination of government data, he argued that transparency was inevitable because:

Information is valuable, he says, and people will find a way to get it: “This is one of those things, like mobile phones and the Internet, that you cannot control.”