Entries tagged with “research”.
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Sun 24 Jul 2016
Unsolicited publishing advice/reviewing rant to follow. Brace yourselves.
When writing an article based on the quantitative analysis of a phenomena, whatever it may be and however novel your analysis, you are not absolved from reading/understanding the conceptual literature (however qualitative) addressing that phenomena. Sure, you might be using a larger dataset than ever used before. Certainly, the previous literature might have been case-study based, and therefore difficult to generalize. But that doesn’t give you a pass to just ignore that existing literature.
- That literature establishes the meanings of the concepts you are measuring/testing
- That literature captures the current state of knowledge on those concepts
- Often, that literature (if qualitative, especially if ethnographic) can get at explanations for the phenomena that cannot be had through qualitative methods alone
If you ignore this literature:
- You’ll just ask questions that have already been answered. Everybody hates that, especially time-constrained reviewers who already know the answers to your questions because they actually have read/contributed to the literature you ignored.
- You’ll likely end up with results that don’t make sense, and with no means of explaining or even addressing them. Editors and reviewers hate that, too.
- Your results, even if they appear to be statistically significant, will be crap. I don’t care how sophisticated your quantitative analysis is, or how innovative your tools might be, you are shoving crap into a very innovative, sophisticated tool, which means that all you’ll get out the other end is crap. Reviewers hate crap. Editors hate crap. And your crap is probably not actionable (and really shouldn’t be), so nobody outside academia will like your crap.
Please don’t generate more crap. There is plenty around.
Finally, a note on professionalism and your career: Citing around people who have worked on the phenomena you are investigating because you are trying to capture a particular field of knowledge is awful intellectual practice that, beyond needlessly slowing the pace of innovation in the field in question, will never work…because editors will send the people you are not citing the article for review. And they will wreck you.
Sun 8 Mar 2015
I’ve been writing here on Open the Echo Chamber since July of 2010. Good lord, that is a long time. I’ve cranked out well over 250,000 words on the site (plus or minus 30 articles, or about three books, worth of writing). And for all of that effort, I have received exactly no credit at all for this in my academic job. In my annual reviews and promotion packets, I can shove this work under “service”, but 1) most of my colleagues probably wouldn’t agree with that categorization and 2) nobody in academia gets much of anything for their service contributions unless they are a full-on administrator. I don’t blog for my academic career, I blog as a means of getting ideas outside the rigidity of the peer-review publishing world, the ways it gates off knowledge from those that might use it, and the ways it can police away innovative new thought that challenges existing powers. So, when I recently stumbled across The Winnower, I got excited. “Publish my posts with review and a DOI?” I thought. “Make my posts citable in major journals and technical reports?” I chortled. “Further blur the lines between my academic publishing and the stuff I do on this blog?” I fairly giggled. Yeah, I need to give this a try.
Let me explain:
According to the lovely people at Google Analytics, in that time nearly 50,000 users have committed to over 100,000 pageviews. For a blog that is home to some long, wonky posts, that is pretty amazing. Readership comes from all over the world, with the top 10 countries looking like this:
- United States 37,530(52.18%)
- United Kingdom 7,990(11.11%)
- Canada 4,186(5.82%)
- Australia 1,949(2.71%)
- India 1,339(1.86%)
- Germany 1,019(1.42%)
- Netherlands 834(1.16%)
- Kenya 773(1.07%)
- Philippines 722 (1.00%)
- France 695 (.97%)
It is remarkable that Google lists visitors from 192 different countries and territories. And when you drill down to cities, it gets pretty cool as well:
- Washington 5,023(6.98%)
- London 3,419(4.75%)
- New York 2,965(4.12%)
- Columbia 2,326(3.23%)
- Irmo 1,273(1.77%)
- Toronto 769(1.07%)
- Seattle 713(0.99%)
- Fonthill 676(0.94%)
- Melbourne 642(0.89%)
- Nairobi 604(0.84%)
- Sydney 532(0.74%)
- Cambridge MA 517(0.72%)
- Oxford 500(0.70%)
- Ottawa 466(0.65%)
- San Francisco 459(0.64%)
- Arlington 457(0.64%)
- Chicago 429(0.60%)
- Durham 393(0.55%)
- Boston 367(0.51%)
- Montreal 364(0.51%)
I’ve known who I was reaching for a while – I get informal notes and phone calls from people at various institutions letting me know they liked (mostly) or disliked/had issues with (sometimes) things I have written. Compared to many blogs, I don’t get that many readers. But my readers are my target audience – they are the folks who work in development and climate change. Well, that, and my students here at the University of South Carolina (hence the Columbia and Irmo numbers).
The one big problem for me, and this blog, has been the level of effort it requires, and the ways in which it could (and could not) be used in my primary sectors of employment, academia and development consulting. Though the world is changing fast, the fact is most people still will not take a blog post as seriously as an academic article. That is probably a good thing – there is a lot of crap out on blogs. At the same time, there are really good blogs out there, some of which produce better work/scholarship than you find in the peer-reviewed literature. Finding ways to help people sort out what is good and what is crap, and finding ways to make social media/blog posts viable sources for academic and consulting work, is important to me.
So, starting today, I have linked this blog to The Winnower. When I produce a post with enough intellectual content, I will cross-post it to the Winnower, where it will be subject to a review process, after which it will receive a DOI, making it a real publication in the eyes of many journals and other sources (hell, it will fit under “other academic contributions” on my CV, so there). I’m excited about what The Winnower is trying to do (as you might already know I find academic publishing structures deeply frustrating: just look here, here, here, and here), and if my work serves to further their mission, and their efforts serve to further blur the lines between the ways in which I disseminate my work, I’m happy to give it a go.
Here is my author page at The Winnower. I’ve currently got six old posts up for review – six posts that were viewed by an average of well over a thousand readers each. So I know you all care about these posts and topics. Go ahead and review them, comment on them, help me make them better…and help The Winnower succeed.
Welcome to the future. Maybe.
Tue 2 Dec 2014
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Climate Change, Livelihoods, research
Comments Off on Co-production: The next “participation”?
Those of you who’ve read this blog before know that I have a lot of issues with “technology-will-fix-it” approaches to development program and project design (what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism”). My main issue is that such approaches generally don’t work. Despite a very, very long history of such interventions and their outcomes demonstrating this point, the solutionist camp in development seems to grow stronger all the time. If I hear one more person tell me that mobile phones are going to fix [insert development challenge here], I am going to scream. And don’t even get me started about “apps for development,” which is really just a modified incarnation of “mobile phones will fix it” predicated on the proliferation of smartphones around the world. Both arguments, by the way, were on full display at the Conference on the Gender Dimensions of Weather and Climate Services I attended at the WMO last month. Then again, so were really outdated framings of gender. Perhaps this convergence of solutionism and reductionist framings of social difference means something about both sets of ideas, no?
At the moment I’m particularly concerned about the solutionist tendency in weather and climate services for development. At this point, I don’t think there is anything controversial in arguing that the bulk of services in play today were designed by climate scientists/information providers who operated with the assumption that information – any information – is at least somewhat useful to whoever gets it, and must be better than leaving people without any information. With this sort of an assumption guiding service development, it is understandable that nobody would have thought to engage the presumptive users of the service. First, it’s easy to see how some might have argued that the science of the climate is the science of the climate – so citizen engagement cannot contribute much to that. Second, while few people might want to admit this openly, the fact is that climate-related work in the Global South, like much development work, carries with it an implicit bias against the capabilities and intelligence of the (often rural and poor) populations they are meant to serve. The good news is that I have seen a major turn in this field over the past four years, as more and more people working in this area have come to realize that the simple creation and provision of information is not enough to ensure any sort of impact on the lives of presumptive end-users of the information – the report I edited on the Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Advisory Program is Exhibit A at the moment.
So, for the first time, I see climate service providers trying to pay serious attention to the needs of the populations they are targeting with their programs. One of the potentially important ideas I see emerging in this vein is that of “co-production”: the design and implementation of climate services that involves the engagement of both providers and a wide range of users, including the presumptive end users of the services. The idea is simple: if a meteorological service wants to provide information that might meet the needs of some/all of the citizens it serves, that service should engage those citizens – both as individuals and via the various civil society organizations to which they might belong – in the process of identifying what information is needed, and how it might best be delivered.
So what’s the problem? Simple: While I think that most people calling for the co-production of climate services recognize that this will be a complex, fraught process, there is a serious risk that co-production could be picked up by less-informed actors and used as a means of pushing aside the need for serious social scientific work on the presumptive users of these services. It’s pretty easy to argue that if we are incorporating their views and ideas into the design of climate services, there is really no need for serious social scientific engagement with these populations, as co-production cuts out the social-science middleman and gets us the unmitigated, unfiltered voice of the user.
If this sounds insanely naïve to you, it is*. But it is also going to be very, very attractive to at least some in the climate services world. Good social science takes time and money (though nowhere near as much time or money as most people think). And cutting time and cost out of project design, including M&E design, speeds implementation. The pressure to cut out serious field research is, and will remain, strong. Further, the bulk of the climate services community is on the provider side. They’ve not spent much, if any, time engaging with end users, and generally have no training at all in social science. All of those lessons that the social sciences have learned about participatory development and its pitfalls (for a fantastic overview, read this) have not yet become common conversation in climate services. Instead, co-production sounds like a wonderful tweak to the solutionist mentality that dominates climate services, a change that does not challenge the current framings of the use and utility of information, or the ways in which most providers do business. Instead, you keep doing what you do, but you talk to the end users while you do it, which will result in better project outcomes.
But for co-production to replace the need for deep social scientific engagement with the users of climate services, certain conditions must be met. First of all, you have to figure out how, exactly you are going to actually incorporate user information, knowledge, and needs into the design and delivery of a climate service. This isn’t just a matter of a few workshops – how, exactly, are those operating in a nomothetic scientific paradigm supposed to engage and meaningfully incorporate knowledge from very different epistemological framings of the world? This issue, by itself, is generating significant literature…which mostly suggests this sort of engagement is really hard. So, until we’ve worked out that issue, co-production looks a bit like this:
Climate science + end user input => Then a miracle happens => successful project
That, folks, is no way to design a project. Oh, but it gets better. You see, the equation above presumes there is a “generic user” out there that can be engaged in a straightforward manner, and for whom information works in the same manner. Of course, there is no such thing – even within a household, there are often many potential users of climate information in their decision-making. They may undertake different livelihoods activities that are differently vulnerable to particular impacts of climate variability and change. They may have very different capacities to act on information – after all, when you don’t own a plow or have the right to use the family plow, it is very difficult to act on a seasonal agricultural advisory that tells you to plant right away. Climate services need serious social science, and social scientists, to figure out who the end users are – to move past presumption to empirical analysis – and what their different needs might be. Without such work, the above equation really looks more like:
Climate science => Then a miracle happens => you identify appropriate end users => end user input => Then another miracle happens => successful project
Yep, two miracles have to happen if you want to use co-production to replace serious social scientific engagement with the intended users of climate services. So, who wants to take a flyer with some funding and see how that goes? Feel free to read the Mali report referenced above if you’d like to find out**.
Co-production is a great idea – and one I strongly support. But it will be very hard, and it will not speed up the process of climate service design or implementation, nor will it allow for the cutting of corners in other parts of the design process. Co-production will only work in the context of deep understandings of the targeted users of a given service, to understand who we should be co-producing with, and for what purpose. HURDL continues to work on this issue in Mali, Senegal, and Zambia – watch this space in the months ahead.
*Actually, it doesn’t matter how it sounds: this is a very naïve assumption regardless.
** Spoiler: not so well. To be fair to the folks in Mali, their program was designed as an emergency measure, not a research or development program, and so they rushed things out to the field making a lot of assumptions under pressure.
Wed 11 Jun 2014
So, DfID paid London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) more than $1 million to answer a pretty important question: Whether or not Fairtrade certification improves growers’ lives. As has shown up in the media (see here and here)
and around the development blogosphere (here), the headline finding of the report was unexpected: wage workers on Fairtrade-certified sites made less than those working on regular farms. Admittedly, this is a pretty shocking finding, as it undermines the basic premise of Fairtrade.
Edit 12 June: As Matt Collin notes in a comment below, this reading of the study is flawed, as it was not set up to capture the wage effects of Fairtrade. There were no baselines, and without baselines it is impossible to tell if there were improvements in Fairtrade sites – in short, the differences seen in the report could just be pre-existing differences, not a failure of Fairtrade. See the CGDev blog post on this here. So the press’ reading of this report is pretty problematic.
At the same time, this whole discussion completely misses the point. Fairtrade doesn’t work as a development tool because, in the end, Fairtrade does absolutely nothing to address the structural inequalities faced by those in the primary sector of the global economy relative to basically everyone else. Paying an African farmer a higher wage/better price means they are now a slightly wealthier farmer. They are still exposed to environmental shocks like drought and flooding, still tied to shocks and trends in global commodities markets over which they have almost no leverage at all, often still producing commodities (like coffee and cocoa) for which demand is very, very elastic, and in the end still living in states without safety nets to help them weather these economic and environmental shocks. Yes, I think African farmers are stunningly resilient, intelligent people (I write about this a lot). But the convergence of the challenges I just listed means that most farmers in the Global South are addressing one or more of them almost all the time, and the cost of managing these challenges is high (both in terms of hedging and coping). Incremental changes in agricultural incomes will be absorbed, by and large, by these costs – this is not a transformative development pathway.
So why is everyone freaking out at the $1 million dollar finding – even if that finding misrepresents the actual findings of the report? Because it brutally rips the Fairtrade band-aid off the global economy, and strips away any feeling of “doing our part” from those who purchase Fairtrade products. But of course, those of us who purchase Fairtrade products were never doing our part. If anything, we were allowing the shiny idea of better incomes and prices to obscure the structural problems that would always limit the impact of Fairtrade in the lives of the poor.
Thu 6 Mar 2014
Andy Sumner was kind enough to invite me to provide a blog entry/chapter for his forthcoming e-book The Donors’ Dilemma: Emergence, Convergence and the Future of Aid. I decided to use the platform as an opportunity to expand on some of my thoughts on the future of food aid and food security in the context of a changing climate.
My central point:
By failing to understand existing agricultural practices as time-tested parts of complex structures of risk management that include concerns for climate variability, we overestimate the current vulnerability of many agricultural systems to the impacts of climate change, and underestimate the risks we create when we wipe these systems away in favor of “more efficient”, more productive systems meant to address this looming global food crisis.
Why does this matter?
In ignoring existing systems and their logic in the name of addressing a crisis that has not yet arrived, development aid runs a significant risk of undermining the nascent turn toward addressing vulnerability, and building resilience, in the policy and implementation world by unnecessarily increasing the vulnerability of the poorest populations.
The whole post is here, along with a number of other really interesting posts on the future of aid here. Head over and offer your thoughts…
Mon 17 Feb 2014
Nick Kristof’s piece decrying the distance between academia and the rest of society has, predictably, triggered a screaming firestorm in academia. That’s what you get when you poke the (over)educated, seriously literate beast. A lot of the criticism is very well written and thought out (outstanding examples here and here). But I fear that Kristof’s central message, that society needs a more engaged academia, is getting lost here. My main problem was not that Kristof was arguing for a more engaged academy, but that his prescriptions for how to bring about that engagement did not address the real incentives and barriers that academics negotiate when they try to engage with public debate.
So, in the interest of constructive criticism, I have some suggestions for things that Mr. Kristof might consider looking into – throwing a light on these challenges would actually serve to highlight the real, and often absurdly unnecessary, barriers between the academy and society. This is obviously just a tiny sample of potential topics, drawn from my own experiences in a top-tier department in a large, Research-1 state institution.
- Examine the system by which departments are “ranked” in the United States: The National Research Council (NRC) ranks departments at (not so) regular intervals, creating a sort of BCS ranking of departments, with about the same amount of accuracy and certainty. By and large, academics know these rankings are garbage, but administrations love to trot them out to demonstrate the excellence of their institution, and therefore justify the institutional budget/tuition/etc. But here’s a fun fact: if you dig into what counts in the rankings, you can quickly see why university administrations don’t necessarily care for academic outreach. For example, did you know that authoring an NRC report (which is seriously prestigious) DOES NOT COUNT AS A MEASURABLE PUBLICATION IN THE NRC RANKINGS? I know this because my department ran into this problem the last time around, with at least three members of our faculty losing multiple publications because the NRC did not count ITS OWN PUBLICATIONS. If those pubs were excluded, you can imagine that basically all reports in all contexts were excluded. So if administrations love rankings, and rankings hate outreach, you’re not going to get much outreach.
- Consider how academic evaluation’s over-focus on the number of articles produced creates less interesting, more arcane academic outputs: The production of knowledge in academia has, for some time, been driven by expectations of ever-greater output (as measured in research dollars and publications) with less input (fewer faculty members). These expectations govern everything from the evaluation of departments to individual tenure decisions. As a result, the publication requirements for tenure have become ever-more challenging, with expectations for the number of publications produced rising so steeply that many who recently got tenure might have published more articles than their very senior colleagues published to become full professors even two decades ago. This is driven by everything from departmental-level politics to the NRC rankings themselves, though I suspect a strong trickle-down effect here. In any case, this has created a crisis of knowledge production in which professors are incentivized to produce what my colleague Carl Dahlman once called the minimum publishable unit (MPU). Because expectations of performance are more and more heavily based on quantitative output (thanks, NRC!), as opposed to the quality of that output, it makes sense for faculty to shy away from “big question” articles that might chew up a lot of their data and interesting ideas, and instead package that same set of ideas as two or three smaller, much more arcane publications. This is a very real pressure: when I put out my retheorization of livelihoods approaches a year ago, more than one colleague suggested that I would have been better cutting its 15000 words into two 8500 word pieces, as it would have counted for more in my annual evaluation. Nothing has driven us toward a proliferation of small, specialized journals carrying tiny, arcane articles quite like this drive for quantification and greater production. Undoing this really awful trend would help a lot, as academics would be freed up to think big thoughts again, both in journals and in other fora. One way to help: publicize the alt-metrics movement (start at the LSE Impact Blog and work from there) that attempts to move beyond a system of academic assessment that reflects a long-dead era of publication and communication.
- Focus on how for-profit academic publishers wall off knowledge from the public: Academics must publish to survive professionally, and the best journals in nearly every field are the last profitable properties for a number of publishing houses. These publishers benefit from free labor on the part of authors, reviewers, and the nearly-free labor of editors, and often the subsidy of taxpayer-funded research, yet charge exorbitant amounts for subscriptions to their journals – in the case of public universities, bleeding the taxpayer once again. Academics are absolutely responsible for this situation – after all, we collectively define what the good journals are, and as I’ve argued before we could change our minds if we wanted to. But academia takes time to change, and could use a push. Where is the push from the federal government to demand that the results of taxpayer-funded research be made available to the taxpayers immediately? What happened to the initial push from the Obama White House on this issue? It seems to be a topic ripe for a good investigative journalist.
And, for good measure, an interesting trend that will likely lead to a more engaged academia:
- The shift in acceptable academic funding: Until very recently, academic grants from traditional agencies like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health were given exalted status, with all other forms of funding occupying lesser rungs on the great chain of funding. Thus, to get tenure, many (biophysical science/social science) academics really had to land one of these grants. The programs associated with these grants very often rewarded pure research and actively discouraged “applied” work, and even today the NSF’s requirements for “impact” are fairly surficial. Contracts were very second-tier, and often not taken seriously in one’s academic review. Now, thanks to funding crunches in both universities and the funding agencies, any research-looking dollars have started looking good to university administrations, and contracts are more and more being evaluated alongside more traditional academic grants. There is a tremendous opportunity here to engage academia through this mechanism. [Full disclosure: I’ve been funded in the past by NSF and by the National Geographic Society, but today roughly 90% of my funding comes directly or indirectly from development donors like USAID in the form of contracts or grants]
This is hardly a comprehensive list of things into which a serious journalist could shed light on, and perhaps help leverage change. I’m just typing quickly here. If you have other ideas for things that journalists should be examining, please leave them in the comments or email them to me: ed at edwardrcarr.com I will append them to this post as they come in, attributing them (or not, depending on the wishes of contributors) in the post.
Sun 16 Feb 2014
Edit 17 February: If you want to move beyond criticism (and snark), join me in thinking about things that Mr. Kristof should look into/write about if he really wants a more engaged academia here.
In his Saturday column, Nick Kristof joins a long line of people, academics and otherwise, who decry the distance between academia and society. While I greatly appreciate his call to engage more with society and its questions (something I think I embody in my own career), I found his column to be riddled with so many misunderstandings/misrepresentations of academia that, in the end, he contributes nothing to the conversation.
What issues, you ask?
1) He misdiagnoses the problem
If you read the column quickly, it seems that Kristof blames academic culture for the lack of public engagement he decries. This, of course, ignores the real problem, which is more accurately diagnosed by Will McCants’s (oddly marginalized) quotes in the column. Sure, there are academics out there with no interest in public engagement. And that is fine, by the way – people can make their own choices about what they do and why. But to suggest that all of academia is governed by a culture that rejects public engagement deeply misrepresents the problem. The problem is the academic rewards system which currently gives us job security and rewards for publishing in academic journals, and nearly nothing for public outreach. To quote McCants:
If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.
This is not a problem of academic culture, this is a problem of university management – administrations decide who gets tenure, and on what standard. If university administrations decided to halve the number of articles required for tenure, and replaced that academic production with a demand that professors write a certain number of op-eds, run blogs with a certain number of monthly visitors, or participate in policy development processes, I assure you the world would be overrun with academic engagement. So if you want more engagement, go holler at some university presidents and provosts, and lay off the assistant professors.
2) Kristof takes aim at academic prose – but not really:
…academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose.
Well, yes. There is a lot of horrific prose in academia – but Kristof seems to suggest that crap writing is a requirement of academic work. It is not – I guarantee you that the best writers are generally cited a lot more than the worst. So Kristof has unfairly demonized academia as willfully holding the public at bay with its crappy writing, which completely misdiagnoses the problem. The problem is that the vast majority of academia isn’t trained in writing (beyond a freshman composition course), there is no money in academia for the editorial staff that professional writers (and columnists) rely on to clean up their own turgid prose, and the really simple fact that we all tend to write like what we read. Because academic prose is mostly terrible, people who read it tend to write terrible prose. This is why I am always reading short fiction (Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories, etc.) alongside my work reading…
If you want better academic prose, budget for the same editorial support, say, that the New York Times or the New Yorker provide for their writers. I assure you, academic writing would be fantastic almost immediately.
Side note: Kristof implicitly sets academic writing against all other sources of writing, which leads me to wonder if he’s ever read a policy document. I helped author one, and I read many, while at USAID. The prose was generally horrific…
3) His implicit prescription for more engaged writing is a disaster
Kristof notes that “In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.” In short, he sees engagement as prescription. Which is exactly the wrong way to go about it. I have served as a policy advisor to a political appointee. I can assure you that handing a political appointee a prescription is no guarantee they will adopt it. Indeed, I think they are probably less likely to adopt it because it isn’t their idea. Policy prescriptions preclude ownership of the conclusion and needed responses by the policymaker. Better to lay out clear evidence for the causes of particular challenges, or the impacts of different decisions. Does academia do enough of this? Probably not. But for heaven’s sake, don’t start writing prescriptive pieces. All that will do is perpetuate our marginality through other means.
4) He confuses causes and effects in his argument that political diversity produces greater societal impact.
Arguing that the greater public engagement of economists is about their political diversity requires ignoring most of the 20th century history of thought within which disciplines took shape. Just as geography became a massive discipline in England and other countries with large colonial holdings because of the ways that discipline fit into national needs, so economics became massive here in the US in response to various needs at different times that were captured (for better or for worse) by economics. I would argue that the political diversity in economics is a product of its engagement with the political sphere, as people realized that economic thought could shift/drive political agendas…not the other way around.
5) There is a large movement underway in academia to rethink “impact”.
There is too much under this heading to cover in a single post. But go visit the LSE Impact Blog to see the diversity of efforts to measure academic impact currently in play – everything from rethinking traditional journal metrics to looking at professors’ reach on Twitter. Mr. Kristof is about 4 years late to this argument.
In short, Kristof has recognized a problem that has been discussed…forever, by an awful lot of people. But he clearly has no idea where the problem comes from, and therefore offers nothing of use when it comes to solutions. All this column does is perpetuate several misunderstandings of academia that have contributed to its marginalization – which seems to be the opposite of the columns’ intent.
Mon 10 Feb 2014
I’m a big fan of accountability when it comes to aid and development. We should be asking if our interventions have impact, and identifying interventions that are effective means of addressing particular development challenges. Of course, this is a bit like arguing for clean air and clean water. Seriously, who’s going to argue for dirtier water or air. Who really argues for ineffective aid and development spending?
More often than not, discussions of accountability and impact serve only to inflate narrow differences in approach, emphasis, or opinion into full on “good guys”/ “bad guys” arguments, where the “bad guys” are somehow against evaluation, hostile to the effective use of aid dollars, and indeed actively out to hurt the global poor. This serves nothing but particular cults of personality and, in my opinion, serves to squash out really important problems with the accountability/impact agenda in development. And there are major problems with this agenda as it is currently framed – around the belief that we have proven means of measuring what works and how, if only we would just apply those tools.
When we start from this as a foundation, the accountability discussion is narrowed to a rather tepid debate about the application of the right tools to select the right programs. If all we are really talking about are tools, any skepticism toward efforts to account for the impact of aid projects and dollars is easily labeled an exercise in obfuscation, a refusal to “learn what works,” or an example of organizations and individuals captured by their own intellectual inertia. In narrowing the debate to an argument about the willingness of individuals and organizations to apply these tools to their projects, we are closing off discussion of a critical problem in development: we don’t actually know exactly what we are trying to measure.
Look, you can (fairly easily) measure the intended impact of a given project or program if you set things up for monitoring and evaluation at the outset. Hell, with enough time and money, we can often piece enough data together to do a decent post-hoc evaluation. But both cases assume two things:
1) The project correctly identified the challenge at hand, and the intervention was actually foundational/central to the needs of the people at hand.
This is a pretty weak assumption. I filled up a book arguing that a lot of the things that we assume about life for the global poor are incorrect, and therefore that many of our fundamental assumptions about how to address the needs of the global poor are incorrect. And when much of what we do in development is based on assumptions about people we’ve never met and places we’ve never visited, it is likely that many projects which achieve their intended outcomes are actually doing relatively little for their target populations.
Bad news: this is pretty consistent with the findings of a really large academic literature on development. This is why HURDL focuses so heavily on the implementation of a research approach that defines the challenges of the population as part of its initial fieldwork, and continually revisits and revises those challenges as it sorts out the distinct and differentiated vulnerabilities (for explanation of those terms, see page one of here or here) experienced by various segments of the population.
Simply evaluating a portfolio of projects in terms of their stated goals serves to close off the project cycle into an ever more hermetically-sealed, self-referential world in which the needs of the target population recede ever further from design, monitoring, and evaluation. Sure, by introducing that drought-tolerant strain of millet to the region, you helped create a stable source of household food that guards against the impact of climate variability. This project could record high levels of variety uptake, large numbers of farmers trained on the growth of that variety, and even improved annual yields during slight downturns in rain. By all normal project metrics, it would be a success. But if the biggest problem in the area was finding adequate water for household livestock, that millet crop isn’t much good, and may well fail in the first truly dry season because men cannot tend their fields when they have to migrate with their animals in search of water. Thus, the project achieved its goal of making agriculture more “climate smart,” but failed to actually address the main problem in the area. Project indicators will likely capture the first half of the previous scenario, and totally miss the second half (especially if that really dry year comes after the project cycle is over).
2) The intended impact was the only impact of the intervention.
If all that we are evaluating is the achievement of the expected goals of a project, we fail to capture the wider set of impacts that any intervention into a complex system will produce. So, for example, an organization might install a borehole in a village in an effort to introduce safe drinking water and therefore lower rates of morbidity associated with water-borne illness. Because this is the goal of the project, monitoring and evaluation will center on identifying who uses the borehole, and their water-borne illness outcomes. And if this intervention fails to lower rates of water-borne illness among borehole users, perhaps because post-pump sanitation issues remain unresolved by this intervention, monitoring and evaluation efforts will likely grade the intervention a failure.
Sure, that new borehole might not have resulted in lowered morbidity from water-borne illness. But what if it radically reduced the amount of time women spent gathering water, time they now spend on their own economic activities and education…efforts that, in the long term, produced improved household sanitation practices that ended up achieving the original goal of the borehole in an indirect manner? In this case, is the borehole a failure? Well, in one sense, yes – it did not produce the intended outcome in the intended timeframe. But in another sense, it had a constructive impact on the community that, in the much longer term, produced the desired outcome in a manner that is no longer dependent on infrastructure. Calling that a failure is nonsensical.
Nearly every conversation I see about aid accountability and impact suffers from one or both of these problems. These are easy mistakes to make if we assume that we have 1) correctly identified the challenges that we should address and 2) we know how best to address those challenges. When these assumptions don’t hold up under scrutiny (which is often), we need to rethink what it means to be accountable with aid dollars, and how we identify the impact we do (or do not) have.
What am I getting at? I think we are at a point where we must reframe development interventions away from known technical or social “fixes” for known problems to catalysts for change that populations can build upon in locally appropriate, but often unpredictable, ways. The former framing of development is the technocrats’ dream, beautifully embodied in the (failing) Millennium Village Project, just the latest incarnation of Mitchell’s Rule of Experts or Easterly’s White Man’s Burden. The latter requires a radical embrace of complexity and uncertainty that I suspect Ben Ramalingan might support (I’m not sure how Owen Barder would feel about this). I think the real conversation in aid/development accountability and impact is about how to think about these concepts in the context of chaotic, complex systems.
Tue 4 Feb 2014
Since returning to academia in August of 2012, I’ve been pretty swamped. Those who follow this blog, or my twitter feed, know that my rate of posting has been way, way down. It’s not that I got bored with social media, or tired of talking about development, humanitarian assistance, and environmental change. I’ve just been swamped. The transition back to academia took much more out of me than I expected, and I took on far, far too much work. The result – a lot of lost sleep, and a lapsed social media profile in the virtual world, and a lapsed social life in the real world.
One of the things I’ve been working on is getting and organizing enough support around here to do everything I’m supposed to be doing – that means getting grad students and (coming soon) a research associate/postdoc to help out. Well, we’re about 75% of the way there, and if I wait for 100% I’ll probably never get to introduce you all to HURDL…
HURDL is the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab here at the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina. It’s also a less-than-subtle wink at my previous career in track and field. HURDL is the academic home for me and several (very smart) grad students, and the institution managing about five different workflows for different donors and implementers. Basically, we are the qualitative/social science research team for a series of different projects that range from policy development to project design and implementation. Sometimes we are doing traditional academic research. Mostly, we do hybrid work that combines primary research with policy and/or implementation needs. I’m not going to go into huge detail here, because we finally have a lab website up. The site includes pages for our personnel, our projects, our lab-related publications, and some media (still under development). We’ll need to put up a news feed and likely a listing of the talks we give in different places.
Have a look around. I think you’ll have a sense of why I’ve been in a social media cave for a while. Luckily, I am surrounded by really smart, dedicated people, and am in a position to add at least one more staff position soon, so I might actually be back on the blog (and sleeping more than 6 hours a night) again soon!
Let us know what you think – this is just a first cut at the page. We’d love suggestions, comments, whatever you have – we want this to be an effective page, and a digital ambassador for our work…
Mon 20 Jan 2014
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, development, Development Institutions, environment, Livelihoods, Mitigation, policy, research, sustainable development
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of development programs that claim to work on issues of environmental governance. Most donor-funded environmental governance work stems from concerns about issues like sustainability and climate change at the national to global scale. These are legitimate challenges that require attention. However, such programs often strike me as instances of thinking globally, but implementing locally (and ideally someplace else). You see, there are things that we in the wealthiest countries should be doing to mitigate climate change and make the world a more sustainable place. But they are inconvenient. They might cost us a bit of money. They might make us do a few things differently. So we complain about them, and they get implemented slowly, if ever.
Yet somehow we fail to see how this works in exactly the same manner when we implement programs that are, for example, aimed at the mitigation of climate change in the Global South. These programs tend to take away particular livelihoods activities and resources (such as cutting trees, burning charcoal, or fishing and hunting particular species), which is inconvenient, tends to reduce household access to food and income, and forces changes upon people – all of which they don’t really like. So it is sort of boggling to me that we are surprised when populations resist these programs and projects.
I’m on this topic because, while conducting preliminary fieldwork in Zambia’s Kazungula District last week, I had yet another experience of this problem. In the course of a broad conversation on livelihoods, vulnerabilities, and opportunities in his community, a senior man raised charcoal production as an alternative livelihood in the area (especially in the dry season, when there is little water for gardening/farming and no nearby source of fishing). Noting that charcoal production was strictly limited for purposes of limiting the impacts of climate change*, a rationale whose legitimacy he did not challenge, he complained that addressing the issue of charcoal production is not well understood or accepted by the local population. He argued that much of the governance associated with this effort consisted of agents of the state telling people “it’s an offense” and demanding they stop cutting trees and burning charcoal without explaining why it is an offense. He then pointed to one of his sons and said “how can you tell him ‘don’t cut this tree’? And his fields are flooding [thus destroying his crops, a key source of food and income].” But the quote that pulled it all together…
“Don’t make people be rude or be criminals. Give them a policy that will open them.”
The text is clear here: if you are going to take away a portion of our livelihoods for the sake of the environment, please give us an alternative so we can comply. This is obvious – and yet to this point I think the identification and implementation of alternative livelihoods in the context of environmental governance programs is, at best, uneven.
But the subtext might be more important: If you don’t give us an alternative, you make us into criminals because we will be forced to keep practicing these now-banned activities. And when that happens, we will never view the regulations or those that enforce them as legitimate. In other words, the way we tend to implement environmental governance programming undermines the legitimacy of the governance structures we are trying to put in place.
The sad part is that there have been innumerable cases of just the phenomena I encountered last week at other times and in other places. They’ve been documented in reports and refereed publications. Hell, I’ve heard narratives like this in the course of my work in Ghana and Malawi. But environmental governance efforts continue to inadequately explain their rationales to the populations most affected by their implementation. They continue to take away livelihoods activities from those that need them most in the name of a greater good for which others pay no tangible price. And they continue to be surprised when people ignore the tenets of the program, and begin to question the legitimacy of any governance structure that would bring such rules into effect. Environmental governance is never going to work if it is the implementation of a “think globally, implement locally (ideally someplace else)” mentality. It has to be thought, understood, and legitimized in the place it will be implemented, or it will fail.
* Yes, he really said that, as did a lot of other people. The uniformity of that answer strikes me as the product of some sort of sensitization campaign that, to be honest, is pretty misplaced. There are good local environmental reasons for controlling deforestation, but the contribution of charcoal production to the global emissions budget is hilariously small.