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Sat 23 Nov 2013
There is a lot of hue and cry about the issue of loss and damage at the current Conference of the Parties (COP-19). For those unfamiliar with the topic, in a nutshell the loss and damage discussion is one of attributing particular events and their impacts on poorer countries to climate variability and change that has, to this point, been largely driven by activities in the wealthier countries. At a basic level, this question makes sense and is, in the end, inevitable. Those who have contributed the most (and by the most, I mean nearly all) to the anthropogenic component of climate change are not experiencing the same level of impact from that climate change – either because they see fewer extreme events, more attenuated long-term trends, or simply have substantially greater capacity to manage individual events and adapt to longer-term changes. This is fundamentally unfair. But it is also a development challenge.
The more I work in this field, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the future of development lies in creating the strong, stable foundations upon which individuals can innovate in locally-appropriate ways. These foundations are often tenuous in poorer countries, and the impacts of climate change and variability (mostly variability right now) certainly do not help. Most agrarian livelihoods systems I have worked with in sub-Saharan Africa are massively overbuilt to manage climate extremes (i.e. flood or drought) that, while infrequent, can be catastrophic. The result: in “good” or “normal” years, farmers are hedging away very significant portions of their agricultural production, through such decisions as the siting of farms, the choice of crops, or the choice of varieties. I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of this cost of hedging in the communities I’ve worked with in Ghana, and the range is between 6% and 22% of total agricultural production each year. That is, some of these farmers are losing 22% of their total production because they are unnecessarily siting their fields in places that will perform poorly in all but the most extreme (dry or wet) years. When you are living on the local equivalent of $1.25/day, this is a massive hit to one’s income, and without question a huge barrier to transformative local innovations. Finding ways to help minimize the cost of hedging, or the need for hedging, is critical to development in many parts of the Global South.
Therefore, a stream of finance attached to loss and damage could be a really big deal for those in the Global South, something perhaps as important as debt relief was to the MDRI countries. We need to sort out loss and damage. But NOT NOW.
Why not? Simply put, we don’t have the faintest idea what we are negotiating right now. The attribution of particular events to anthropogenic climate change and variability is inordinately difficult (it is somewhat easier for long-term trends, but this has its own problem – it takes decades to establish the trend). However, for loss and damage to work, we need this attribution, as it assigns responsibility for particular events and their costs to those who caused those events and costs. Also, we need means of measuring the actual costs of such events and trends – and we don’t have that locked down yet, either. This is both a technical and a political question: what can we measure, and how should we measure it is a technical question that remains unanswered. But what should we measure is a political question – just as certain economic stimuli have multiplier effects through an economy, disasters and long-term degradation have radiating “multipliers” through economies. Where do we stop counting the losses from an event or trend? We don’t have an answer to that, in part because we don’t yet have attribution, nor do we have the tools to measure costs even if we had attribution.
So, negotiating loss and damage now is a terrible idea. Rich countries could find themselves facing very large bills without the empirical evidence to justify the size of the bills or their responsibility for paying them – which will make such bills political nonstarters in rich countries. In short, this process has to deliver a bill that everyone agrees should be paid, and that the rich countries agree can be paid. At the same time, poorer countries need to be careful here – because we don’t have strong attribution or measurements of costs, there is a real risk that they could negotiate for too little – not enough to actually invest in the infrastructure and processes needed to ensure a strong foundation for local innovation. Either outcome would be a disaster. And these are the most likely outcomes of any negotiation conducted in blindly.
I’m glad loss and damage is on the table. I hope that more smart people start looking into it in their research and programs, and that we rapidly build an evidence base for attribution and costing. That, however, will take real investment by the richest countries (who can afford it), and that investment has not been forthcoming. If we should be negotiating for anything right now, it should be for funds to push the frontiers of our knowledge of attribution and costing so that we can get to the table with evidence as soon as humanly possible.
Mon 21 Oct 2013
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?
Wed 28 Nov 2012
While behavioral economics continues to open old questions in development to new scrutiny, I am still having a lot of problems with the very unreflexive approach BE takes toward its own work (see earlier takes on this here and here). Take, for example, Esther Duflo’s recent lectures discussing mistakes the poor make. To discuss the mistakes the poor make, we must first understand what the goals of the poor are. However, I simply don’t see the behavioral economists doing this. There is still a lurking, underlying presumption that in making livelihoods decisions people are trying to maximize income and or the material quality of their lives. This, however, is fundamentally incorrect. In Delivering Development and a number of related publications (for example, here, here, and here) I have laid out how, in the context of livelihoods, material considerations are always bound up in social considerations. If you only evaluate these actions as aimed at material goals, you’ve only got a part of the picture – and not the most important part, in most cases. Instead, what you are left with are a bunch of decisions and outcomes that appear illogical, that can be cast as mistakes. Only most of the time, they are not mistakes – they are conscious choices.
Let me offer an example from Delivering Development and some of my other work – the constraint of women’s farming by their husbands. I have really compelling qualitative evidence from two villages in Ghana’s Central Region that demonstrates that men are constraining their wives’ farm production to the detriment of the overall household income. The chart below shows a plot of the size of a given farm versus its market orientation for the households operating under what I call a “diversified” strategy – where the husband farms for market sale, and the wife for subsistence (a pretty common model in sub-Saharan Africa). As you move up the Y axis, the farm gets more oriented toward market sale (1 on that scale is “eat everything”, 3 is sell and eat equally, and 5 is sell everything). Unsurprisingly, since men’s role requires them to produce for market, the size of their farm has little impact on their orientation. But look at the women’s farms – just a tenth of a hectare produces a marked shift in orientation from subsistence to market production…because women own that surplus beyond subsistence, and sell it. They take the proceeds of these sales, buy small goods, and engage in petty trading, eventually multiplying that small surplus into significant gains in income, nearly equaling their husbands. What is not to like?
Well, from the perspective of those in these villages, here is something: among the Akan, being a “good man” means being in control of the household and out-earning your wife. If you don’t, your fitness as a man gets called into question, which can cost you access to land. For wives, this is bad because they get their land through their husbands. So as a result, being in a household where the woman out-earns her husband is not a viable livelihoods outcome (as far as members of these households are concerned). Even if a man wanted to let his wife earn more money, he would do so at peril of his access to land. So he is not going to do that. What he is going to do is shrink his wife’s farm the next season to ensure she does not out-earn him (and I have three years of data where this is exactly what happens to wives who earn too much). There is a “mistake” here – some of these men underestimated their wives’ production, which is pretty easy to do under rain-fed agriculture in a changing climate. That they are this accurate with regard to land allocation is rather remarkable, really. But the decision to constrain women’s production is not a mistake, per se: it is a choice.
We can agree or disagree with the premises of these choices, and their outcomes, but labeling them as mistakes creates a false sense of simplicity in addressing problematic outcomes – because people only require “correction” to get to the outcomes we all want and need. This, in turn, rests on/reproduces a sense of superiority on the part of the researcher – because s/he knows what is best (see a previous post on this point here). That attitude, applied to the case above, would not result in a productive project design aimed at addressing income or other challenges in these villages.
Yes, people do things against material interest…but there is always a logic behind a decision, and that logic is often deeply entrenched. We would be better off talking about decisions poor people make (for better or worse), and dedicating our time to understanding why they make these decisions before we start deciding who is mistaken, and what to do about it.
I’ve just burned 15,000 words in Third World Quarterly laying out my argument for how to think about livelihoods as more than material outcomes – and how to make that vision implementable, at least via fieldwork that runs in length from days to months. I am happy to send a copy of the preprint to anyone who is interested –and I will post a version to my website shortly.
Sat 20 Oct 2012
I just witnessed a fascinating twitter exchange that beautifully summarizes the divide I am trying to bridge in my work and career. Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, the head of research at Oxfam GB, after seeing a post on GDP tweeted by Tim Harford (note: not written by Harford), tweeted the following:
To which Harford tweeted back:
This odd standoff between two intelligent, interesting thinkers is easily explained. Bluntly, Harford’s point is academic, and from that perspective mostly true. Contemporary academic thinking on development has more or less moved beyond this question. However, to say that it “never has been” an important question ignores the history of development, where there is little question that in the 50s and 60s there was significant conflation of GDP and well-being.
But at the same time, Harford’s response is deeply naive, at least in the context of development policy and implementation. The academic literature has little to do with the policy and practice of development (sadly). After two years working for a donor, I can assure Tim and anyone else reading this that Ricardo’s point remains deeply relevant. There are plenty of people who are implicitly or explicitly basing policy decisions and program designs on precisely the assumption that GDP growth improves well-being. To dismiss this point is to miss the entire point of why we spend our time thinking about these issues – we can have all the arguments we want amongst ourselves, and turn up our noses at arguments that are clearly passé in our world…but if we ignore the reality of these arguments in the policy and practice world, our thinking and arguing will be of little consequence.
I suppose it is worth noting, in full disclosure, that I found the post Harford tweeted to be a remarkably facile justification for continuing to focus on GDP growth. But it is Saturday morning, and I would rather play with my kids than beat that horse…
Wed 15 Aug 2012
Alright, last post I laid out an institutional problem with M&E in development – the conflict of interest between achieving results to protect one’s budget and staff, and the need to learn why things do/do not work to improve our effectiveness. This post takes on a problem in the second part of that equation – assuming we all agree that we need to know why things do/do not work, how do we go about doing it?
As long-time readers of this blog (a small, but dedicated, fanbase) know, I have some issues with over-focusing on quantitative data and approaches for M&E. I’ve made this clear in various reactions to the RCT craze (see here, here, here and here). Because I framed my reactions in terms of RCTs, I think some folks think I have an “RCT issue.” In fact, I have a wider concern – the emerging aggressive push for quantifiable data above all else as new, more rigorous implementation policies come into effect. The RCT is a manifestation of this push, but really is a reflection of a current fad in the wider field. My concern is that the quantification of results, while valuable in certain ways, cannot get us to causation – it gets us to really, really rigorously established correlations between intervention and effect in a particular place and time (thoughtful users of RCTs know this). This alone is not generalizable – we need to know how and why that result occurred in that place, to understand the underlying processes that might make that result replicable (or not) in the future, or under different conditions.
As of right now, the M&E world is not doing a very good job of identifying how and why things happen. What tends to happen after rigorous correlation is established is what a number of economists call “story time”, where explanation (as opposed to analysis) suddenly goes completely non-rigorous, with researchers “supposing” that the measured result was caused by social/political/cultural factor X or Y, without any follow on research to figure out if in fact X or Y even makes sense in that context, let alone whether or not X or Y actually was causal. This is where I fear various institutional pushes for rigorous evaluation might fall down. Simply put, you can measure impact quantitatively – no doubt about it. But you will not be able to rigorously say why that impact occurred unless someone gets in there and gets seriously qualitative and experiential, working with the community/household/what have you to understand the processes by which the measured outcome occurred. Without understanding these processes, we won’t have learned what makes these projects and programs scalable (or what prevents them from being scaled) – all we will know is that it worked/did not work in a particular place at a particular time.
So, we don’t need to get rid of quantitative evaluation. We just need to build a strong complementary set of qualitative tools to help interpret that quantitative data. So the next question to you, my readers: how are we going to build in the space, time, and funding for this sort of complementary work? I find most development institutions to be very skeptical as soon as you say the words qualitative…mostly because it sounds “too much like research” and not enough like implementation. Any ideas on how to overcome this perception gap?
(One interesting opportunity exists in climate change – a lot of pilot projects are currently piloting new M&E approaches, as evaluating impacts of climate change programming requires very long-term horizons. In at least one M&E effort I know of, there is talk of running both quantitative and qualitative project evaluations to see what each method can and cannot answer, and how they might fit together. Such a demonstration might catalyze further efforts…but this outcome is years away)
Tue 5 Jun 2012
I continue my musings on the recent emergence of development studies in the American academy . . .
The rise of development studies presents two interesting opportunities for development in general – a chance to start treating development as a discipline, and the chance to bring interdisciplinary (or, in the parlance of the donor and implementation world, integrated) thinking to the fore in development.
What do I mean by treating development as a discipline? Various social scientists have demonstrated that development is not just a set of activities, it is a body of thought. This is what I meant in Delivering Development when I said that
“contemporary development is not the product of a single organizational mission, a single theory, or a particular set of practices. It is the congealed outcome of more than six decades of often-uncoordinated administrative decisions, monitoring reports, economic theories, academic studies, and local responses. These ideas, such as the value of free trade and global markets for the global poor, are repeated so often and in so many venues that they seem to lack a single author or source. For the contemporary development practitioner, they seem to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The same assumption is repeated over and over in development documents until, for example, it is impossible to talk about development in the absence of markets. The results are practices and ideas that seem both universal and eternal.” (p. 7-8)
If people come into development from narrow, technical backgrounds, they are unlikely to know the history of ideas into which they have waded. They may not know the history of interventions that have been tried in the past. Understanding the ideas to which one is responding or building on with a particular program or project, and knowing the previous history of similar efforts, seems to me to be critical to achieving any development goals. For such a knowledge base to become common in the field, development cannot just be an object of study for other academic disciplines – it has to be recognized as its own discipline to which new students must be introduced.
Academia has, for essentially my entire academic life since I entered undergrad, argued for greater interdisciplinary collaboration. As best I can tell, very little of academia has actually shifted academic incentives such that interdisciplinary work might actually emerge and flourish. The emergence of development studies presents an opportunity to create such incentives within an academic discipline*. Any program of development studies that considers not only theory and thought, but also the history of development interventions, will necessarily engage the fact that development is an inherently interdisciplinary undertaking. While economists have long held sway over the (informal) discipline of development, they are hardly the final answer for most questions that anyone engaged in development might face on a day-to-day basis (market failure around the environment, anyone?). As the same time, the climate scientist is probably not going to have a lot of answers for how we might foster the emergence of local markets better able to address the predicted/modeled challenges of future climate change. Technical expertise is critical to achieving development goals, but narrow disciplinary expertise is likely to reproduce stovepipes of information, funding and programming that make it difficult to address the suite of issues arising around most development challenges. In the rise of development studies, we have the chance to break down these stovepipes under the rubric of a single discipline, thus creating a home for interdisciplinary work within a discipline (yes, that is contradictory), as it were. At the same time, graduates of such programs would already think “integratively,” perhaps one of the biggest challenges I have seen for implementation.
Much of this opportunity could be realized even in the course of a Masters degree – which is critical to most programs, as they are Masters-terminal. However, if development studies is to realize these potentials, it will require Ph.D.-level engagement by students and faculty to build literature, journals, and approaches requisite of an academic discipline. This, however, must take shape in the context of an extended and varied engagement with donors and implementers that can only really be had if we move more people between academia and the donor/implementer world. Creating the incentives for such movement is an entirely different question . . .
*Note: as a geographer, I have to point out that my discipline displays all of the characteristics of an interdisciplinary endeavor – most departments contain everything from qualitative social scientists to soil or atmospheric scientists to experts in the GISciences, and we are rewarded for collaborating with one another. Of course, we are collaborating within geography, and publishing in journals accepted by geography, which makes things much easier. But working across the various academic divides (quant/qual, human/environment, etc.) has already been modeled . . .
Disclaimer: This post is my personal work, and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of any of my current or past employers.
Sun 3 Jun 2012
As I prepare to return to life as a full-time academic, I have become acutely aware of the explosion of development studies programs in the United States over the past 4-5 years. A mere 10 years ago, if you wanted a development studies degree most of your options were in the UK, not the US…and to be honest, most of your best options were outside the US as well. Otherwise, you picked a discipline like economics, anthropology or geography, and focused on development topics as a part of your disciplinary focus (this was my route). This is no longer true – today there are development studies masters programs all over the US. For the first time in the US, we are seeing the mass professionalization of “development studies” on a scale that reminiscent of various colonial administrations more than 100 years ago, something that should probably give everyone pause.
But what is development studies for, aside from generating tuition dollars for cash-strapped universities? Is development studies a professional degree, an academic discipline, or something in between? I am not sure I have a clear answer to this question, but I do know that I am concerned by some recent conversations that suggest that development studies programs should be about what the practitioners/implementers/donors want and need. The logic here is one of professionalization: those seeking development studies degrees ostensibly want jobs, and therefore they should be trained to do the sorts of things that their future employers want them to do. However, this is a narrow and shortsighted view of what development studies is and should be, even as a professional degree – and to some extent it represents a narrow and boring view of what academia might bring to the table.
Development is a constantly evolving field. We learn more about how the world works each day, and identify new challenges all the time. Further, in an ever-more interlinked economic world experiencing unprecedented environmental change, new challenges and opportunities emerge all the time. If we mean to train people to be effective across their careers, we cannot be focused on what is important/trendy now, but what the persistent challenges are most likely to be over time…and where the emergent challenges are most likely to spring up.
More than that, though, it is a mistake to assume that demand-driven programs will actually train people in a manner that makes them true assets to their future employers. Certainly there is great expertise and experience on the practitioner side of development, but that is no guarantee that what people think they need from a development studies graduate is, in fact, what they need from an employee. Take, for example, gender and development. There is no question at all that gender is an absolutely critical part of the social processes that influence/are influenced by development interventions. Without a solid understanding of such things as gender roles and power relations in the places where we do our work, we are likely to overlook important dynamics that will influence the outcomes of our projects and programs. So, development studies programs should incorporate gender and development training into their programs. That said, development studies programs should not simply reproduce in their students the same sorts of analytic approaches and capacities as seen in much current development practice – because much of that work is employing seriously outdated approaches to gender that actually obscure tremendously important social processes and relations. For example, in my work in Ghana, I have demonstrated that the feminist empiricist approach that dominates most contemporary gender and development work over-homogenizes women, even at the village level, such that we can lose sight of the particular challenges faced by the poorest women (in Ghana, it was about the poorest 40% that were hard to see – article here). So it is not our job to simply train people to existing standards – it is to train people in the most current thinking.
But even this is not enough – a good development studies program must also teach its newly trained professionals how to bring the latest and best thinking on development subjects to their employers in a manner that is implementable. This requires a significant effort, and expertise that most academic institutions lack. Simply put, you need people in the program with experience in both academia and in the world of implementation, and who speak the languages of both worlds. Contrary to what most development studies academics think, academia has little clue how implementers and donors actually work and think. This is why so little academic work has an impact in the donor/implementer world. The best training on the latest thinking is useless if the trained cannot actually make use of what they know once they are employed.
The answer, then, is perhaps not a demand-driven degree, but instead an academic program that engages and cultivates relationships across the implementation world to remain responsive to need and demand, while at the same time helping to shape that demand through research, writing and a flow of well-trained students into development practice. This will require a very different sort of staffing than most new programs have on hand – it will require identifying not only talented academics, but also those willing to leave the world of implementation to teach (or development studies is going to have to cultivate a lot more people like me with experience in both worlds). Once the staffing problem is sorted out, there will be a cultural problem – how to build rapport between critical academics and thoroughly modernist practitioners such that the program has intellectual coherence (it doesn’t go very well when faculty contradict one another course to course) and might actually generate new and exciting research and teaching. It will be interesting to watch the new programs, as they emerge, negotiate these issues . . .
Disclaimer: This post is my personal work, and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of any of my current or past employers.
Sun 27 Mar 2011
Posted by Ed under policy, Random Musing, research
No, the title is not meant to invoke the idea that I am going to sell all my worldly possessions and seek some sort of enlightenment – nor is it a suggestion that you should do so. Nah, this post is more tricky than that . . . it’s about thinking through who we are, and who we want to be in the world.
This has been at the front of my mind for a lot of reasons of late. At a personal level, the wife of a very close friend of mine is about to pass away from cancer – she’s 41, and will leave behind her husband and a 6-year-old son. This sort of thing really tends to put life and its trials in perspective. And so, with that framing, I’ve also been wrestling with what I am going to do career-wise. The fellowship I am on required that I declare if I intended to renew by late last week. This was not a difficult decision – however, I also had to decide if I wanted to continue in my current position, or take up a new one. For many in my agency, this decision would have been easy – keep the slot I currently occupy. I have a direct line to my Assistant Administrator (which at AID is very, very far up the food chain), who has a real interest in climate change and really listens to me when I advise her. I sit in a program office, where I have the capacity to shape the direction of climate change programming for an entire Bureau with a multi-billion dollar budget. In the bureaucratic world, I have landed in a remarkably influential position . . .
And I have decided to give it up.
Here is the thing: I have about 14 years of experience working on issues of development, principally from the research end of things. I’ve had the good fortune to become engaged in several global environmental assessments, which have broadened my perspectives and my expertise/experience. I know where we have significant holes in our understanding of how the world works that are impeding our ability to address the challenges so many face in the world today, and will serve as roadblocks along any path toward a sustainable future on this planet. I am working to fill those knowledge gaps with my research . . . but in my current slot, I don’t really use what I know – either what I know to be true from my research experience, or what I know we don’t know. In seven months, I feel like I have really gone to the intellectual well once – in a briefing to my Assistant Administrator last week. The rest of the time, a reasonably competent manager with a general awareness of climate change and humanitarian assistance could have done my job. I cannot tell you the number of days I have left the office without a clue of what I accomplished, deeply frustrated and unsatisfied.
My agency is a contracting agency – we write scopes of work for other people to do our research and thinking. So I am expected to scope papers and projects for other people, who are significantly less qualified than I am, to execute. This . . . is . . . maddening. It is also reality.
So, what does it all mean? First, it means I am going back to academia at the end of this fellowship: if all of the thinking is done externally, and I feel like I am well qualified to do that thinking, I had better get outside of the agency so that I can actually do it. And if I am going to leave the agency, I need to start building up my contacts with the people who get what I do and what I know so they will come to me in the future for these tasks. I am currently in a humanitarian relief bureau, but I am not a relief person – I am a development person by training, research and inclination. Yes, that is a false dichotomy, but in terms of policy and programming, it is a very real institutional divide here. So I need to sit with the development people, with those who understand how my efforts to rethink livelihoods (first article in a series is in review), and to rethink the connection between land use change and livelihoods change (here and here), might become crucial contributions to their programs and policy. So in year two, I am shifting to a new Bureau, and to a relatively minor slot in a line office, to work in detail on issues of adaptation to climate change. Many people would see this as a demotion – as me giving away access and all its advantages. I see it as the only way to keep what I have, and to have a much longer-term impact.
You cannot imagine my relief.
Ian Brown was right: Keep what ya got, by giving it all away.
Tue 26 Oct 2010
So, today I was challenged by an old friend, and a very well-known senior scholar in my field, about working for USAID. He did so on two of the largest listservs in my field – admittedly, because I had just posted an offhand follow-up to some AID job postings to the list inviting people to apply. Ben is great guy, and one of the founders of what might be thought of as hazards research – he’s also got his own political positions (which are evident below). I like him a lot – he pushes me all the time, which I find very, very productive (and that is his intent). I think his challenge, and my reply, help articulate why more people ought to be straddling the academic and practice worlds in development.
I am sure all of us involved in Africa specialty group as well as the CAPE discussion list would benefit by hearing more detail about why you feel that the land tenure team at USAID has “an outstanding reputation” and why you believe “USAID is dead serious about its goal of becoming an intellectual leader in development…”. Furthermore, if you are correct about the agency’s dead seriousness, what are the constraints and obstacles that have to be overcome?
From my point of view, until USAID is removed from its current position within the Department of State and made an independent agency like DFID in the UK or GTZ in Germany, everything done in the development field by anyone, alas, even you dear comrade, falls under the shadow of US geopolitical special interest. There is also a case one could make that, in particular, all research on issues of resource access, land tenure falling into this category, needs to be free of ALL national and international development assistance agencies because of their usual commitment to what UNDP calls “alignment with host country interests.” So, for example, to follow up on the World Bank’s recent report on land grabbing, it is doubtful if any development assistance partner (USAID, DFID, GTZ, UNDP, FAO, etc.) would criticize the corrupt practices in many countries leading to land grabbing.
Those seem to me to be macro and meso challenges to your optimism and jolly invitation to join you. Finally, at the micro scale, it would seem, a fortiori, that those of us who work in the mode of participatory action research, something as you well know from your excellent past work demands a great deal of trust, can ask our friends and informants in various parts of rural Africa to put aside generations of mistrust of the great powers that ravaged their continent with surrogate conflicts during the Cold War and which continue to prop up corrupt regimes with development assistance.
Your scholarly credentials and intelligence are so obvious to those who know you, I am sure you must have good reasons for your sojourn at USAID and for your widely disseminated invitation to others to join you there. Please share them with us.
All the best,
Dr. Ben Wisner
Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, University College London, UK
Environmental Studies Program, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, USA
And my reply:
Hi Ben (and all):
One of the things I love most about Ben is his ability to pin me down – whether arguing about the modeling community or agreeing about the tragedy that was the Spanish anarchists in Catalunya during the Spanish Civil War. There’s no such thing as an offhand invitation! So I am happy to elaborate, at least as much as I can in a generally-circulated email – and please note, I am speaking for myself here. No official agency messages coming from my mouth . . .
First, I am at USAID out of a serious desire to bridge the absurd and growing gulf between the academic and practitioner communities in development – we all know that the practitioner community is not reading the academic lit (and indeed they are not, though the reasons for this are complex, and include the fact that the agencies do not have subscriptions to the journals because they have difficulty justifying the expense [yes, this is absurd]), but the academic community does not spend a heck of a lot of time reading the practitioner stuff either – except mostly to throw (intellectual) stones without actually understanding the institutional context of the various documents they are critiquing. Let’s be honest, the number of development geographers out there that have actually worked in a development agency (not just consulting, but actually in the organization) is tiny, which means that most of us (including me, at least until about 6 weeks ago) are critiquing something we understand very poorly, at best. The result: two parallel literatures, and very little productive interplay. So I am learning about how to translate between these communities to facilitate greater communication and cooperation. It seems there is tremendous mistrust on both sides of this divide, for good reason and for not so good reasons. I suppose I am trying to parse through those reasons as well.
That said, you certainly can call the “authenticity” of my experience into question. I occupy a unique space here at USAID. I am a fellow, which gives me freedom to move around beyond my obvious job description and to challenge things that I see as problematic. Further, I am on leave from South Carolina – I did not surrender my position or my tenure. So, I have a lot of security – I don’t worry about speaking up in a meeting (or responding to an email) in a manner that might have repercussions for my career – the worst that can happen to me is to be sacked before my fellowship is up and sent back to my tenured position. So I cannot say that I fully understand the pressures that some of my colleagues must feel on a day-to-day basis. Then again, I know my positionality and, trained as a poststructuralist, I’ve long thought that authenticity was sort of crap, anyway . . .
At another level, I fear that I (and perhaps many on this list share this feeling) was at risk of becoming the new extractive industry. Speaking for myself, I found that I was going to various places in the world, doing serious fieldwork, writing it up and trying to push the literature forward . . . only to watch that work gain no traction at all in the policy and practice world. The same mistakes just kept happening. So, all that my research really did was get me promotions and pay raises. Going to a place in the Global South, gathering a resource (in this case knowledge and information), and then redistributing that resource in the Global North to my financial benefit? Sounds like extraction/expropriation to me . . . I found that untenable, and I am actively looking for ways to make my research “do something”. Yes, this is fraught and intellectually dangerous territory. But I found the alternative unacceptable.
Second, your critique of USAID’s position vis a vis US foreign policy is to the point – we are absolutely constrained by State’s vision for the world, and this does limit us somewhat. That said, there is a lot of critical awareness of these limitations at USAID (much, much more than I’d expected), and significant efforts to push back and shift the views that are seen as problematic. For example, there is excellent work on environment-conflict connections coming out of my bureau that aggressively challenges the absurd “water wars” mentality that seems to drive some corners of our foreign policy, referencing really good academic work on the nuanced, difficult connections between environmental change/resources and conflict. Hell, they have Homer-Dixon thoroughly beaten.
At the same time, I don’t want to fall into the position of arguing from one end of a continuum (“thoroughly compromised”?), with academic research implicitly at the “free and untainted” other end. There are a hell of a lot of unacknowledged politics in academic research (though I know from our conversations you are quite aware) – for example, NSF sets priorities all the time which are shaped by Congressional funding and partnerships with various agencies in the executive branch (CNH sound familiar, there CAPE-ers?), and we all run off to apply for these funds as if they were apolitical – a terribly naive position. Put another way, one could argue that it is much easier to be critically aware of one’s position, role and influences when they are clearly articulated in a memo.
To answer fully, and with illustrations, your concerns for issues like land grabbing and “alignment with host country interests” is impossible in a public forum. First, I don’t speak for the Agency. Second, examples would invoke countries, and that is a bad idea when you can be seen (incorrectly, in my case) as speaking for US foreign policy. Third, there are really good people here in the Agency who are actively working to address the very things you are worried about in a lot of different ways . . . many quite subtle. It is not fair for me to place them in the spotlight without their consent. You will have to trust me on this – which is hardly evidence in and of itself, but you do know me well.
The desire to become an intellectual leader in development seems sincere. Sure, broad public statements may or may not have much meaning. However, I have been struck by the pride folks have in the mission of this organization – and the rage they feel over the ways in which the Agency was downsized and stripped of many of its best thinkers over its recent history. This is not merely a front office “feel good” thing – I see this as a feeling that permeates the agency, from the administrator down to the line offices and the field missions. To that end, they are staffing up – and they seem sincere about bringing highly qualified people in to develop cutting-edge programming. How this will play out if those highly qualified people start pushing back against existing programs and policy, I have no idea. But this agency is not a monolith, and a lot of people I interact with are very open to criticism and respond very quickly and positively to it – again, to an extent I have found surprising.
And it is from this that I issued the invitation – either to apply for these jobs, or to consider taking an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, or for you more senior types (am I more senior? Nah) a Jefferson Science Fellowship, and serve a sabbatical or leave year at AID. They want good people. Most of the folks I work with want to be challenged constructively. And if those of us who have the training, experience and critical faculties don’t apply for these opportunities, we cede the field to a bunch of people with MAs in Political Science who for their research likely ran massive regressions on the relationship between conflict and natural resources without bothering to contextualize either the type of conflict or the natural resource in question (yes, I have actually seen this very project proposal – structured because they could not get a large enough N to regress if they parsed by natural resource. Mercifully, the researcher in question is not here at AID).
Finally, your point on addressing generations of mistrust is an excellent one, and one that I have no good answer for. USAID is particularly challenged in this regard because it implements so little of its own programming – basically, most of the agency’s programs are contracted out, and AID staff are generally limited to monitoring the contractors and their products. This creates a major problem for the agency – I think there is a real gap between what people in the agency know about what is really happening in the world, even at the level of the field missions, and actual events in the world. This was a central point of my book <<plug alert>> (Delivering Development – forthcoming from Palgrave MacMillan in February, available for preorder at all major booksellers now!) and it seems to be borne out by my experiences thus far. But given budgetary constraints, likely to be tightened starting roughly a week from today, USAID will never be allowed to staff up to levels necessary to implement its own programs, and therefore get that handle on what really happens in the world. I will be interacting with country missions quite a bit over the next several months, and I suspect I might pick up some insights along the way . . . or at least I hope so.
I’ve spent way too much time on this response, and anyone still reading at this point probably wants the last 10 minutes of their lives back. Ben, I am genuinely thankful for you and the challenges you pose – you make me a better thinker and person. And one with less sleep, dammit.