Entries tagged with “USAID”.
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Mon 28 Sep 2015
Last week, I published a short editorial in Scientific American’s SA Forum online that decried the near-total lack of organization or prioritization in the Sustainable Development Goals/Global Goals/whatever they are called this week. My argument was simple: by not ordering or prioritizing goals, the SDGs
risk becoming an empty exercise that empowers business as usual in the field of global development.
At the conclusion of that piece, I suggested that the only way to avoid this outcome was to find actors who were able to demand organization and prioritization among these goals – principally the big bilateral donors like USAID and DfID, or perhaps the Gates foundation (which, on expenditures, comes in around the world’s sixth-largest donor organization).
I’ve been taken to task a few times by colleagues for this suggestion. These rather polite and professional interventions (I know, not at all like the internet I’ve come to expect) pointed out that I’d empowered the big donors, with their problematic, often Eurocentric framings of development and how to achieve it, to act as the saviors of development via the SDGs. Given my rather clear critical stance with regard to these framings of development (most clearly articulated in Delivering Development, but generally present in most of the stuff I write), I think some folks were mystified by my logic. So allow me to clarify:
When we refuse to define terms, organize concepts or efforts, or engage in the politics necessary to set priorities, we are not apolitical: we are empowering other political agendas. The basic argument of my op-ed was simple: by not making hard decisions, we have empowered a particular political agenda, one that leaves development in a business-as-usual situation. Therefore, I see nearly any effort at locking down priorities and organizing efforts as superior to no prioritization at all, because any effort to set priorities will accomplish two things:
First, it will bring politics to the fore, and we will all be forced to wrestle with what we want to prioritize and why.
Second, it will lock down the meanings of the different terms we use (i.e. sustainable, well-being, secure) in such a way that they can become sites where politics can happen.
What do I mean by this? If, as we have done to this point, we refuse to define what we mean by sustainable (for example), we create a conceptual container that can be filled by nearly any definition, policy, program, project, or activity. It allows completely contradictory efforts to coexist and cancel each other out, without providing a base from which to contest any or all of these efforts. When there are no definitions, everything using a given term can be seen as equally valid. Similarly, if we refuse to prioritize our efforts, organizations can fill their efforts to meet the SDGs with almost any hodgepodge of policies, programs, projects, or activities…and will likely do so in a manner that mirrors their current emphases, funding, and staffing structures. Thus, organizations could set up completely contradictory agendas, with associated material efforts, and be seen as making equally valid efforts to address the SDGs in the eyes of the donors and the public. There is no way to contest the way one organization or another does its business if there are no definitions or priorities from which to work.
This does not mean that I think any particular donor organization will save the SDGs by setting the agenda we need to move forward. All are mired in their own internal and/or national politics, and therefore will push for agendas that most clearly reflect their own strengths and priorities. Further, most donor organizations do, in fact, operate from rather problematic, Eurocentric framings of the world, for example in their continuing inability to recognize the genius of small farmers who already negotiate uncertain environments and economies. As I have written about at length, in the eyes of most donor organizations these farmers are poor and helpless in the face of these large forces, and in need of help/saving/education. As a result, the donors cannot identify the things that these farmers really need (which are often a lot more narrow than a total reworking of their agricultural systems) and, even worse, they cannot learn from the things these farmers already know about how to best manage their agricultural, economic, and social environments.
So no, I don’t think the donors will save us…directly. But if one or more are willing to step up and impose politics on this process, they will create a process by which terms gain definition, and efforts are prioritized. When these meanings become fixed, it becomes possible to engage them and contest them, to actually have a conversation about what development is, and what it should be. Right now, we can just hold hands, say words like sustainability, and watch a nice concert together, all the while operating under the illusion that we have the same goals, and that we are working toward those goals in the same ways. That gets us nowhere. I want a development world where we are forced to recognize that different organizations and individuals prioritize different things, have different visions of the future, and different means of moving us toward those visions. Further, I want a development world where we have to struggle with the fact that what organizations want may have little to do with what the global poor want. That is what the SDGs could have given us.
It is too late to make the SDGs’ 17 goals and 169 targets a site of real development politics. But all is not lost: over one thousand initiatives have been set up to meet these targets and achieve these goals, and many more are coming. This is where the goals will become impacts on the ground. If we can create a real politics of development around these initiatives by organizing and prioritizing them, perhaps we can recover the SDGs as a site from which we can build a truly transformative agenda for development.
Sun 28 Dec 2014
Raj Shah has announced his departure from USAID. Honestly, this surprises nobody at the Agency, or anyone in the development world who’s been paying attention. If anything, folks are surprised he is still around – it is well-known (or at least well-gossiped) that he was looking for the door, and at any number of opportunities, at least since the spring of 2012. There are plenty of reviews of Shah’s tenure posted around the web, and I will not rehash them. While I have plenty of opinions of the various initiatives that Shah oversaw/claims credit for (and these are not always the same, by the way), gauging what did and did not work under a particular administrator is usually a question for history, and it will take a bit of space and time before anyone should feel comfortable offering a full review of this administrator’s work.
I will say that I hope much of what Shah pushed for under USAID Forward, especially the rebuilding of the technical capacity of USAID staff, the emphasis on local procurement, and the strengthening of evaluation, becomes entrenched at the agency. Technical capacity is critical – not because USAID is ever going to implement its own work. That would require staffing the Agency at something like three or four times current levels, and nobody is ever going to approve that. Instead, it is critical for better monitoring and evaluating the work of the Agency’s implementing partners. In my time at USAID, I saw implementer work and reports that ran the gamut from “truly outstanding” to “dumpster fire”. The problem is that there are many cases where work that falls on the dumpster fire end of the spectrum is accepted because Agency staff lack the technical expertise to recognize the hot mess they’ve been handed. This is going to be less of a problem going forward, as long as the Agency continues to staff up on the technical side.
Local procurement is huge for both the humanitarian assistance and development missions of USAID. For example, there is plenty of evidence supporting the cost/time effectiveness of procuring emergency food aid in or near regions of food crisis. Further, mandates that push more USAID funding to local organizations and implementers will create incentives to truly build local capacity to manage these funds and design/implement projects, as it will be difficult for prime contractors to meet target indicators and other goals without high-capacity local partners.
A strong evaluation policy will be huge for the Agency…if it ever really comes to pass. While I have seen real signs of Agency staff struggling with how to meaningfully evaluate the impact of their programs, the overall state of evaluation at the Agency remains in flux. The Evaluation Policy was never really implementable, for example because it seems nobody actually considered who would do the evaluations. USAID staff generally lack the time and/or expertise to conduct these evaluations, and the usual implementing partners suffer from a material conflict of interest – very often, they would have to evaluate programs and projects implemented by their competitors…even projects where they had lost the bid to a competitor. Further, the organizations I have seen/interacted with that focus on evaluation remain preoccupied with quantitative approaches to evaluation that, while perhaps drawing on Shah’s interest in the now-fading RCT craze in development, really cannot identify or measure the sorts of causal processes that connect development interventions and outcomes. Finally, despite the nice words to the contrary, the culture at USAID remains intolerant of project failure, and the leadership of the Agency never mounted the strong defense of this culture change to the White House or Congress needed to create the space for a new understanding of evaluation, nor did it ever really convey a message of culture change that the staff of USAID found convincing across the board. There are some groups/offices at USAID (for example, in the ever-growing Global Development Lab) where this culture is fully in bloom, but these are small offices with small budgets. Most everyone else remains mired in very old thinking on evaluation.
At least from an incrementalist perspective, entrenching and building on these aspects of USAID Forward would be a major accomplishment for Shah’s successor. Whoever comes next will not simply run out the clock of the Obama Administration – there are two years left. I therefore expect the administration to appoint an administrator (rather than promote a career USAID staff caretaker with no political mandate) to the position. In a perfect world, this would be a person who understands development as a discipline, but also has the government and implementing experience to understand how development thought intersects with development practice in the real world. Someone with a real understanding of development and humanitarian assistance as a body of thought and practice with a long history that can be learned from and built upon would be able to parse the critical parts of USAID Forward from the fluff, could prevent the design and implementation of projects that merely repeat the efforts (and often failures) of decades ago, and could perhaps reverse the disturbing trend at USAID to view development challenges as technical challenges akin to those informed by X-Prizes – a trend that has shoved the social aspects of development to the back seat at the Agency. At the same time, someone with implementing and government experience would understand what is possible within the current structure, thus understanding where incremental victories might push the Agency in important and productive directions that move toward the achievement of more ideal, long-term goals
There are very, very few people out there who meet these criteria. Steve Radelet does, and he served as the Chief Economist at USAID while I was there, but I have no idea if he is interested or, more importantly, if anyone is interested in him. Much the pity if not. More likely, the administration is going to go with the relatively new Deputy Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt. Looking at his background, he’s already been vetted by the Senate for his current position, has foreign service experience, time in various implementer-oriented positions, and he is well-positioned to avoid a long confirmation process as a former lobbyist and from his time as House Sergeant-at-Arms, which likely give him deep networks on both sides of the aisle. In his background, I see no evidence of a long engagement with development as a discipline, and I wonder how reform-minded a former Senior Vice President for Government Relations at an implementer can be. I do not know Deputy Administrator Lenhardt at all, and so I cannot speak to where he might fall on any or all of the issues above. According to Devex, he says his goal is to “improve management processes and institutionalize the reforms and initiatives that Shah’s administration has put in place.” I have no objection to either of these goals – they are both important. But what this means in practice, should Lenhardt be promoted, is an open question that will have great impact on the future direction of the Agency.
Thu 4 Dec 2014
Posted by Ed under Academia, Adaptation, Climate Change, Development Institutions, research
Comments Off on Gender, adaptation, and development: frontiers or retreat?
From my recent post over on HURDLblog, my lab’s group blog, on the challenges of thinking productively about gender and adaptation:
My closing point caused a bit of consternation (I can’t help it – it’s what I do). Basically, I asked the room if the point of paying attention to gender in climate services was to identify the particular needs of men and women, or to identify and address the needs of the most vulnerable. I argued that approaches to gender that treat the categories “man” and “women” as homogenous and essentially linked to particular vulnerabilities might achieve the former, but would do very little to achieve the latter. Mary Thompson and I have produced a study for USAID that illustrates this point empirically. But there were a number of people in the room that got a bit worked up by this point. They felt that I was arguing that gender no longer mattered, and that my presentation marked a retreat from years of work that they and others had put in to get gender to the table in discussions of adaptation and climate services. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Read the full post here.
Wed 26 Mar 2014
Two days ago, World Vision USA announced its willingness to hire LGBT employees who were married. To insiders in the aid and development world, this was a stunning reversal, as World Vision USA’s (legal but problematic) resistance to hiring LGBT employees is well-known in the aid world. Therefore, the decision to openly hire married LGBT staff seemed to signal an important new direction for World Vision…and then today, they reversed themselves.
Jim Beré, Chairman of the World Vision Board, wrote a letter on the reversal.
Today, the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed its recent decision to change our employment conduct policy. The board acknowledged they made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.
I have no doubt this change of course is technically legal. World Vision has lawyers, and I’m sure those lawyers were consulted on this reversal. But this public reversal lays bare World Vision USA’s view of the LGBT community, and its hiring practices with regard to that community. Sure, Beré offered the usual, pro-forma support for the LGBT community in his letter:
While World Vision U.S. stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage, we strongly affirm that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created by God and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.
However, it is difficult to overlook the fact that this dignity and respect should be extended to everyone except those qualified LGBT individuals who might seek employment at World Vision.
This country was founded on the idea that people are entitled to their religious beliefs. However, it is not OK (morally or legally) to use federal dollars to push one’s religious beliefs on others, or to discriminate against anyone on the basis of that faith. World Vision is one of USAID’s largest cooperators – in simple terms, they implement a hell of a lot of federal money in the context of humanitarian assistance and development programs. Shadrock Roberts, using data from foreignassistance.gov, managed to identify nearly $145 million in money obligated to World Vision in fiscal year 2013. This should be read as an absolute minimum measure of federal money going through World Vision – there are other flows of US dollars that reach World Vision projects indirectly, and I seriously doubt that foreignassistance.gov captures all of the money directly obligated to them.
Let me be clear: in fiscal year 2013, there were at least $145 million taxpayer dollars going to an organization that just openly told the world it will not hire LGBT staff.
While I personally believe that World Vision USA is on the wrong side of history with regard to the issue of LGBT hiring and staff, my (or indeed anyone’s) personal politics are not the big issue here. The Government of the United States implements development projects and delivers humanitarian assistance through “implementers” like World Vision. USAID, USDA, the State Department, etc., do not have enough staff to actually build bridges, dig boreholes, or deliver food aid themselves. Instead, they pay others to do the work. In most places where American development aid and humanitarian assistance is delivered, these actors are effectively the face of the United States.
In the face of this decision on LGBT staff, World Vision USA may no longer be able to credibly act in this capacity. In 2011, the White House issued a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on the subject of “International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons.” In that memorandum, President Obama directed “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”
How, exactly, is World Vision to credibly support this memorandum after this particular statement about its own hiring?
The short answer: It cannot. The actions of the World Vision USA board speak much, much louder than the very weak claim that the organization feels that the LGBT community should be treated with dignity and respect.
This has real-world implications right now. For example, World Vision has a project, “SPEAR-Incremental funding using FY2012 PEPFAR $2,383,490” (just check Shadrock Roberts’ “USAID Spending on World Vision & World Vision Inc: Fiscal Year 2013” fusion table here). Let’s all remember that Uganda is a country that just last month criminalized homosexuality (those convicted face life in prison), an act that the Obama Administration has punished through shifts in foreign aid away from the Ugandan government and organizations that pushed for this law. Yet we have World Vision, with its clear stance on LGBT hiring, spending $4.8 million federal dollars (some from FY 12, some from FY 13) on an HIV/AIDS project in this country? It seems to me that this muddies the message that the Obama Administration was trying to send.
Legal or not, World Vision’s actions with regard to the hiring of those in the LGBT community have damaged their credibility as an implementer for the government of the United States in any context where the rights of the LGBT community are in question (basically most of the world where development aid and humanitarian assistance is delivered). Further, for USAID and the State Department to continue working with World Vision under these circumstances sends the message that implementers can tap dance around White House directives they might not like or agree with. While World Vision has the right to choose to ignore such directives on the basis of the organization’s religious beliefs, it should not have the right to do so and continue to work with federal dollars.
If the Obama administration is serious about maintaining order among those who work for it, and are serious about furthering the rights of the LGBT community globally, the recent actions of World Vision cannot pass without comment or action. And they do not have to. It’s simple, really: make World Vision choose between the $145 million dollars of taxpayer money that fund its work each year and the individual and organizational donations of those who cannot tolerate or accept the LGBT community.
Fri 22 Nov 2013
Posted by Ed under development, Development Institutions, policy
Comments Off on File Under “Hilariously Unreflexive Tweets”
So, this just popped up in my twitter feed from @USAID:
What’s fun about this tweet is the fact that USAID, and indeed most development donors, are “other places” where failure = damage to your career and budget. There are a host of reasons for this (just start reading this Natsios piece and work out from there), but anyone who denies this problem is just delusional (there are pockets of high risk operations at USAID, but they are the exceptions, not the rule).
Also note, this tweet is related to a discussion of innovation policy…which, it seems to me, missed the point of innovation entirely. Let me summarize a workable innovation policy for everyone: If donors want innovation, they need to foster a culture of reasonable risk for big rewards among their staff and implementers. They need to stop being the “other places” in this tweet. How they do this depends on the institution, but this should be the goal.
See, you don’t even need an executive summary for that.
Sun 4 Aug 2013
So, climate change and conflict is back in the media, seemingly with the strength of science behind it. I’ve been a rather direct, harsh critic of some work on this connection before, at least in part because I am deeply concerned that work on this subject (which remains preliminary) might disproportionately influence policy decisions in unproductive or even problematic directions (i.e. by contributing to the unnecessary militarization of development aid and humanitarian assistance). So, when CNN, the Guardian, and other media outlets jumped on a new paper in Science (sorry, paywalled) last week, and one of the authors was responsible for the paper I critiqued so harshly before, I felt compelled to read it – especially after seeing Keith Kloor’s great post on the issue. After reading it, I feel compelled to comment on it.
My response is lengthy, so for those on a time budget, I offer some takeaway points. The main post, with details, follows.
- The Hsaing, et al paper in Science makes claims that are much more nuanced than what is represented either in the press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, or in many of the media stories (especially the big outlets) about them.
- The actual findings of the paper simply reiterate long-held understandings of the connection between climate change and conflict
- These findings are, in summary:
- The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
- Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
- Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
- Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future
- We already knew all of this
- The authors’ claims (as stated in this press release from Princeton) that this study was necessary to establish a causal relationship between changing climate conditions and conflict is based on a straw man of “people” who have been skeptical of “an individual study here or there.”
- Much of the literature, and those working on this issue, have long accepted the idea of a complex link between changing climate/weather conditions and conflict. The real question is that of how climate variability and change contribute to rates of conflict.
- The paper does not answer this question
- The quantification of increased risk of conflict in the paper is problematic, as the authors appear to assume a constant relationship, year-to-year or season-to-season, between climate conditions and their influence on various drivers of conflict.
- This assumption has long been discarded in studies of food security and famine
- This assumption likely introduces significant margins of error to the findings of this paper regarding increased risk of conflict associated with climate change
- The paper does not address the real research frontier in the study of conflict and climate change because it does not further our understanding of how climate variability and change result in increased risk of conflict
- To the author’s credit, the paper does not purport to explain how observed climate variability and change are translated into conflict
- The paper merely summarizes existing literature exploring this issue
- The findings of the paper do not present an opportunity to adjust policy, programs, or diplomacy to avoid future conflicts, as they do not identify specific issues that should be addressed by such efforts.
- To some extent, this makes the critique under #2 above irrelevant – the “risk of conflict” figures were never actionable anyway
- Media coverage of this paper amounts to much ado about nothing new
The Hsaing, et al paper bears little resemblance to the media stories written about it. It makes very measured, fairly contained claims about climate change and conflict that, if represented accurately in the media, probably would not have made for interesting stories. That said, the article deserves critical attention on its own terms so we can understand what, if any, new information is here.
First, I want to start with the good in this paper. This is a substantially more careful paper than the one I critiqued before, both with regard to its attention to existing work on the subject and to the claims it makes about the connections between climate change and conflict. The authors deserve credit for noting the long history of qualitative work on conflict and the environment, a literature often ignored by those conducting large, more quantitative studies. They also should be commended for their caution in identifying causal relationships, instead of basic correlations.
In my opinion, this much more measured approach to thinking about climate change and conflict has resulted in more nuanced claims. First, as the authors note:
“Social conflicts at all scales and levels of organization appear susceptible to climatic influence, and multiple dimensions of the climate system are capable of influencing these various outcomes.”
But later in the paper, the authors temper this point:
“However, it is not true that all types of climatic events influence all forms of human conflict or that climatic conditions are the sole determinant of human conflict. The influence of climate is detectable across contexts, but we strongly emphasize that it is only one of many factors that contribute to conflict.”
And in the end, the big summary (my emphasis):
“The above evidence makes a prima facie case that future anthropogenic climate change could worsen conflict outcomes across the globe in comparison to a future with no climatic changes, given the large expected increase in global surface temperatures and the likely increase in variability of precipitation across many regions over coming decades”
Every bit of this is fine with me. Indeed, had the reporting on this paper been as nuanced as the claims it actually makes…there probably wouldn’t have been any reporting on the paper. The hook “the climate affects a lot of things, and some of those things could affect rates of conflict, so climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future” isn’t exactly exciting.
And this is where I have to critique the article. My critique has two sides, one intellectual and one from a policy perspective. They are closely linked and blend into one another, and so I present them both below.
Intellectually, I fundamentally question the contribution of this paper. In a nutshell, there is almost nothing new here. Yes, there appear to be some new quantifications of the risk of conflict under different climate situations, and I will return to those in a minute. But overall, the claims made in this paper are exactly the claims that have been made by many others, in many other venues, for a while. For example, the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at USAID put out a report back in 2009 (yes, four years ago) that reviewed the existing literature on the subject and came to more or less the same conclusions as this “new” article. So I was a little bothered by the Princeton press release for this paper in which quoted lead author Solomon Hsaing several times, because I think his justification for the paper is based on a straw man:
“We think that by collecting all the research together now, we’re pretty clearly establishing that there is a causal relationship between the climate and human conflict,” Hsiang said. “People have been skeptical up to now of an individual study here or there. But considering the body of work together, we can now show that these patterns are extremely general. It’s more of the rule than the exception.
I’d love to know who the “people” are who think there is no relationship between climate conditions and human conflict. Critiques of the study of this connection (at least credible critiques) have not so much argued that there is no connection, but that the connections are very complex and not well-captured in large-scale studies using quantitative tools. So, when Hsaing goes on to say:
“Whether there is a relationship between climate and conflict is not the question anymore. We now want to understand what’s causing it,” Hsiang said. “Once we understand what causes this correlation we can think about designing effective policies or institutions to manage or interrupt the link between climate and conflict.”
…he’s really making a rather grand claim for an article that just tells us what we already knew – that there is a connection between climate conditions and human conflict. And he is burying the real lede here…that the contribution we need, now, is to understand how these causal relationships come to be. This argument for “where we should go next” is also a bit grand, seeing as everyone from academics to USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation have been conducting detailed, qualitative studies of these relationships for some time now because we already knew a) that there were relationships between climate and conflict and b) we needed to establish what caused those relationships.
Second, I feel this article suffers from a critical methodological flaw, in that the authors never address the variable coupling of climate outcomes and changes in even those drivers of conflict identified in the literature. For example, it is not at all uncommon to have market shifts take place seasonally, in a manner that can be either coupled or uncoupled with shifts in climate: that is, sometimes a bad rainy season damages local harvests and drives market prices for food up, while other times it could be a great rainy season and a very productive harvest, but factors on regional or global markets could still generate price spikes that end up limiting people’s access to food. In both situations, the people in question would experience a food stress, one closely linked to climate variability, and the other experience a food stress uncoupled from climate. This is why, as I argued back during the Horn of Africa Famine, drought does not equal famine. Famines are far more highly correlated to market conditions than climate conditions. Sometimes climate events like a failed rainy season can trigger a famine by pushing markets and other factors over key thresholds. However, we’ve also had famines in times of normal or even favorable climatic conditions for agriculture.
Simply put, the authors appear to assume a constant relationship between a conflict driver like access to food and the local/regional/global climate. To be fair, this seems to be a pretty prevalent assumption in the literature. But to the point, this is a bad bet. As best I can tell, the authors have not managed to address the intermittent coupling of conflict drivers like access to food and markets with climatic conditions in their analysis. This, to me, casts significant doubt on their findings that risk of inter-group conflict will rise 14% at one standard deviation of temperature rise – in short, this is far too precise a claim for a study with such large margins for error built into its design. My suspicion here is that the margin of error introduced by this problem is probably larger than their analytical findings, rendering them somewhere between weak and meaningless. And this, to be honest, was the only really original contribution in the paper.
Third (as I begin to pivot from intellectual to policy critique), while the authors claim to have focused on causal relationships (a claim I think should be tempered by my methodological concerns above), they cannot explain those relationships. I’ve made this point before: in the social sciences, causality is not explanation. Even if we accept that the authors have indeed established causal relationships between climate variability and change and the risk of conflict/rates of conflict, they do not know exactly how these changes in climate actually create these outcomes. This is clear in the section of the paper titled “Plausible Mechanisms”, in which the authors conduct a review of the existing literature (much of which is qualitative) to lay out a set of potential pathways by which their observed relationships might be explained. But nothing in this study allows the authors to choose between any of these explanations…which means that all the authors have really accomplished here is to establish, by different means, exactly what the qualitative literature has known for a long time. To repeat:
- The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
- Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
- Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
- Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future
We already knew all of this.
At this point, allow me to pivot fully to my fourth critique, which comes from a policy perspective. People tend to see me as an academic, and forget that I served as the first climate change coordinator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) at USAID. I was Nancy Lindborg’s first climate advisor – indeed, it was in this role that I found myself first dealing with issues of conflict and climate change, as I was responsible both for briefing my Bureau’s leadership on these issues and guiding the programming of the Bureau’s dedicated climate change budget (some of which I directed into more research on this topic). In short, I do know something about policymaking and the policy environment. And what I know is this: this paper gives us nothing actionable to address. Even if I accept the finding of 14% greater risk of intergroup conflict at one standard deviation of temperature increase, what am I supposed to do about it? Without an explanation for how this temperature rise produces this greater risk, I have no means of targeting programs, diplomacy, or other resources to address the things that create this greater risk. In short, this paper tells me what I already knew (that climate variability and change can contribute to conflict risk) without giving me anything concrete I can work on. If I were still briefing Nancy, my summary of this paper would be:
- There is nothing new in this paper. Its key findings are those of CMM’s (four-year-old) report, and are already well-established in the literature
- The paper does not provide any new information about how climate change and variability might contribute to increased conflict risk, and therefore presents nothing new that might serve to guide future policy, programs, or diplomacy
- I have methodological concerns with the paper that lead me to believe that the rates of increased risk of conflict reported in this paper are likely stated with too much confidence. These rates of heightened risk should not be cited until put under significant scrutiny by the academic and policy community*.
In summary, the supportable parts of this paper are nothing new – it is a reasonable summary of the issues with establishing a connection between climate change and conflict, and a decent (if truncated) review of the existing literature on the subject (I’d suggest that a real review article of this subject would have to go wider and look at the conflict and environment literature more broadly). But it doesn’t say anything new that really bears up to scrutiny, and even if the “risk of conflict” figures are correct, the paper provides no information that might guide policy, programs, or diplomacy in a manner that could avoid such conflicts. For that information, we have to return to the qualitative research community, which has long espoused the same general findings as those in this paper.
The press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, and the more hyped of the media coverage we’ve seen around this paper (likely driven by those press releases) is much ado about nothing new.
*In my third point I am indeed taking issue with the peer review process that brought this paper to publication. I believe that Science wanted this paper for the same reason Nature wanted the last one: headlines. Let’s see how the findings here stand up to serious scrutiny.
This paper is currently available for review at The Winnower.
Sun 2 Jun 2013
I’m late to this show – I was traveling last week when the whole Gates/Moyo throwdown happened. I was going to let it go, but I have received enough prodding from others to offer my thoughts – probably because I have offered extended critiques of Moyo’s Dead Aid (links below), while also noting that Gates’ understandings of the problems of aid and development are a bit myopic. So, here we go…
Bill Gates finally voiced what has been implicit in much of his approach to development – he sees aid and development critics as highly problematic people who slow down progress (or whatever Bill thinks passes for progress). Honestly, this is thoroughly unsurprising to anyone who has paid any attention to what Bill has said all along, or indeed anything the Gates Foundation does. There just isn’t much room for meta-criticism at the foundation or its work – sure, they evaluate their programs, but there isn’t much evaluation/consideration of whether or not the guiding principals behind those programs make much sense. There is an assumption that Gates’ goals are somehow self-evident, and therefore critics are just problems to be solved.
Let’s just start with this part of what Gates said. To me, his comments represent a profound misunderstanding of the place of aid and development criticism – his comments represent critics as annoyances to be brushed away, implying that criticism is an end unto itself. I do not know a single aid/development critic for whom criticism is the end. Critical thinking, and any resultant criticism, is a means to the end of changing the world. Simply put, without critical thinkers to constantly evaluate, challenge, and push the thinking of those in the world of development policy and implementation, where would we be? Take gender, for example. Today, nobody questions the need to consider the gender of the beneficiary when we think about policies or programs, but in the late 1960s those who first raised this issue were critics, often viewed as “annoyances” who slowed down the process of designing and implementing projects with their silly concerns about the needs of women. Gates does his foundation, and the entire enterprise/discipline of development a disservice in this rather sad misrepresentation of the aid critic.
Had Gates simply said what he did about aid critics in the abstract, I think it would have passed without much comment. But he didn’t. Instead, he singled out Dambisa Moyo as an archetype of aid criticism. As a result, he gave a platform to someone who clearly loves the attention. I fear he also somehow made her the archetype for the aid critic, validating a writer whose “critical” arguments are rife with errors and problems (I detailed these in an extended review of her book here, here, here, here, and here). In short, Gates was rather clever here: he picked the contemporary aid critic with the greatest conceptual shortcomings and held her up as the problem, as if the rest of the critical thinkers shared her thinking, shallow arguments, and factual problems. Further, he (apparently rightly, given the reaction of twitter and the blogosphere) seems to have assumed that such critics should and would rally to her support.
Well, not me.
I am without question a critical thinker when it comes to development and aid. I have a hell of a paper trail to prove it. But I do not see myself as a colleague or contemporary of Dambisa Moyo. I’d prefer to be a colleague of Bill Easterly, Arturo Escobar, James Ferguson, James Scott, and Timothy Mitchell (all more senior than me), and I see myself as a colleague of Katharine McKinnon, Kat O’Reilly, Mara Goldman, and Farhana Sultana (all friends or colleagues of my generation). All of these scholars have conducted extensive scholarly work on the problems of development, and backed up their work with evidence. I don’t think any of these scholars is perfect, and some have produced pieces of work that I see as deeply flawed, but all hold their work to a much higher standard than that I saw in Dead Aid.
The fact is that Gates was right: Moyo doesn’t know much about aid and what it is doing – Dead Aid made this rather clear (seriously, read my review of the book). On her webpage, she argues that she “dedicated many years to economic study up to the Ph.D. level, to analyze and understand the inherent weaknesses of aid, and why aid policies have consistently failed to deliver on economic growth and poverty alleviation.” First, a Ph.D. is no guarantee of knowing anything – and I say that as someone who holds two Ph.D.s! I have seen absolutely no scholarly output from Moyo’s Ph.D. work that supports any sense that she developed a rigorous understanding of aid at all. Indeed, her very phrasing – she sought to analyze and understand the inherent weakness of aid – suggests that her work is not analytical, but political. And after two years in D.C., one thing I have learned is that the political has very little to do with facts or evidence. In that regard, I can safely say that Dead Aid is a political book.
Second, being born and raised in a poor country does not mean that one understands the experiences of everyone in that country. Zambia is a culturally, economically, and environmentally diverse country, home to many different experiences. Just as I cannot make any claim to understand the experiences of all Americans just because I was born here, majored in American Studies, and have lived in five states and a federal colony (D.C.), Moyo’s implicit claim that being born in Zambia allows her to speak for all those living in countries that receive aid, let alone all Zambians, is absurd.
Finally, she argues that she has served as a consultant at the World Bank, implicitly suggesting this gives her great purchase on development thought. It does not. As I have argued elsewhere, working as a consultant for a donor is not the same thing as working as an employee of a donor. I too have been a consultant at the World Bank. Technically, I am currently a consultant for USAID. These are very different roles from those I occupied while employed at USAID. Consultants are not privy to the internal conversations and machinations of development donors, and have at best partial understandings of what drives decisions about development policy and implementation. Moyo has no practical experience at all with the realities of development donors, a fact that comes through in Dead Aid.
So let’s divorce the two things that Bill Gates did in his comments. He completely misrepresented aid critics in two ways: first, in failing to recognize the contributions of aid criticism to the improvement of aid and development programs, and second in lumping aid critics into the same basket as Dambisa Moyo. This lumping is pretty egregious, and the overall characterization represents a significant flaw in Gates’ thinking about development that is likely to come back to bite his foundation in the ass in the near future – without criticism of the overall ideas behind the foundation, it’s programs will wither and die. We can separate this first problem from Gates critique of Dambisa Moyo, which aside from characterizing her as doing evil (which is just going too far, really), pretty much got the assessment of her thinking right.
In short, let’s push back against Bill’s thinking on development criticism, but not valorize Moyo’s crap arguments in the process.
Tue 28 May 2013
I am in Tromsø, Norway for a workshop on gender and adaptation. The conversation has been very interesting, with a lot of different people bringing different ideas/concerns to the table. As you might imagine, a lot of it has been fodder for thought. But today a comment by Torjer Andreas Olsen, of the Centre for Sami Studies (SESAM) at the University of Tromsø, really stuck with me. In a conversation about business and innovation, he suggested that we face a challenge in the use of the term “innovation” when we talk about indigenous peoples such as the Sami. Because most business discussions of innovation are focused on technological change, they fail to see the development of new forms of knowledge and information as innovation. Therefore, while indigenous peoples (and I would extend this argument to most of the global poor) have the capacity to produce important information and knowledge about the world, this often does not come attached to technological change and therefore goes unacknowledged.
I think Torjer is dead right, and I think I can extend his argument a bit here. By failing to acknowledge the production of knowledge and information as itself an innovation, we basically allow ourselves to write off the global poor as lacking innovation. This enables our usual narratives of development – of a helpless global poor waiting for someone to come save them from their routinized ways. This is enhanced by climate change, as this narrative, run to its logical end, suggests that the global poor have pretty much nothing to contribute in their own efforts to adapt, and therefore require massive interventions from the “innovative north”.
This is a major problem for development, especially as major donor start embracing the idea of innovation. While at USAID, I looked up at the wrong time in a meeting and was tasked with identifying the Agency definition of innovation. My friend and colleague Mike Hanowski kindly threw himself under the bus and volunteered to help me. What followed was a fairly hilarious afternoon where Mike and I called various people in the Agency to obtain this definition. Every person we called passed us to another person, until we were passed back to the first person we had called. Really. So, no formal definition of innovation (maybe this has changed, but I doubt much of the Agency would know if even if it had).
Now, I am a fan of the Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) folks at USAID (a group that was started after the aforementioned story). They do promote interesting, relatively edgy ideas within the Agency. But look at what DIV does – every project amounts to the use of a technology to address a “big challenge” for development. In and of itself, this is fine…but in this focus, DIV (inadvertently) reinforces the trope of the helpless global poor, waiting for the “innovative north” (or ideally an “innovative southerner”, presented as an outlier who can lead the helpless poor in his/her country or community to a brighter future). Even as we find interesting solutions to development challenges, we are reinforcing the idea that such solutions are the Global North’s to give to those in the Global South. As long as this is the case, we will continue to miss the interesting opportunities to address these and other challenges that exist in the minds and practices of the global poor.
Thu 14 Mar 2013
One of the dangers of acting as a critic is drifting into troll territory, where you are constantly complaining and finding fault, but rarely adding constructive ideas to the conversation. I fear that my concerns with contemporary food security conversations are headed in that direction. And, well, USAID asked on twitter, which probably violates my late father’s first rule of cross-examination: never ask a question for which you don’t want an answer.
So, over the next few blog posts I am going to try something that many academics and critics would never risk: I am going to put some ideas down about how we perhaps should be building food security programs right now. You all can have at these. I can make some changes and edits. We can argue some more. And somewhere in there, maybe something that is both workable and more likely to actually work will emerge.
The major points of how I think we ought to be addressing world hunger look like this:
1) Get over production: it’s rarely about production, and focusing on it draws us away from the real causes of hunger
2) Embrace complexity: sectoral responses are doomed to fail. Please stop programming sectoral responses, and start thinking integration
3) Create exit points: a critical problem in agricultural development is the all-too-rapid march to market integration, without appropriate attention being paid to the new risks such integration creates. In most places where agricultural development takes place, market integration predicated on the simplification of existing agricultural activities to even fewer crops is a recipe for disaster that removes the safety nets that the rural poor have already created.
4) The future is already being fed: while we live in a world of economic and environmental change, these changes are not linear. We’ve already seen extremes of both that represent conditions beyond what we expect to see as the “new normal” in the future. Why not figure out what people did to address those extreme events, and build off of that?
I will elaborate each of these points in its own blog post over coming days. The goal will be to make each point clear and actionable. The other goal is to present a real alternative to what I firmly believe are misguided initiatives dominating the contemporary food security conversation. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
Thu 31 Jan 2013
Bill Gates, in his annual letter, makes a compelling argument for the need to better measure the effectiveness of aid. There is a nice, 1 minute summary video here. This is becoming a louder and louder message in development and aid, having been pushed now by folks ranging from Raj Shah, the Administrator of USAID, to most everyone at the Center for Global Development. There are interesting debates going on about how to shift from a focus on outputs (we bought this much stuff for this many dollars) to a focus on impacts (the stuff we bought did the following good things in the world). Most of these discussions are technical, focused on indicators and methods. What is not discussed is the massively failure-averse institutional culture of development donors, and how this culture is driving most of these debates. As a result, I think that Gates squanders his bully pulpit by arguing that we should be working harder on evaluation. We all know that better evaluation would improve aid and development. Suggesting that this is even a serious debate in development requires a nearly-nonexistent straw man that somehow thinks learning from our programs and projects is bad.
Like most everyone else in the field, I agree with the premise that better measurement (thought very broadly, to include methods and data across the quantitative to qualitative spectrum) can create a learning environment from which we might make better decisions about aid and development. But none of this matters if all of the institutional pressures run against hearing bad news. Right now, donors simply cannot tolerate bad news, even in the name of learning. Certainly, there are lots of people within the donor agencies that are working hard on finding ways to better evaluate and learn from existing and past programs, but these folks are going to be limited in their impact as long as agencies such as USAID answer to legislators that seem ready to declare any misstep a waste of taxpayer money, and therefore a reason to cut the aid budget…so how can they talk about failure?
So, a modest proposal for Bill Gates. Bill (may I call you Bill?), please round up a bunch of venture capitalists. Not the nice socially-responsible ones (who could be dismissed as bleeding-heart lefties or something of the sort), the real red-in-tooth-and-claw types. Bring them over to DC, and parade out these enormously wealthy, successful (by economic standards, at least) people, and have them explain to Congress how they make their money. Have them explain how they got rich failing on eight investments out of ten, because the last two investments more than paid for the cost of the eight failures. Have them explain how failure is a key part of learning, of success, and how sometimes failure isn’t the fault of the investor or donor – sometimes it is just bad luck. Finally, see if anyone is interested in taking a back-of-the-envelope shot at calculating how much impact is lost due to risk-averse programming at USAID (or any other donor, really). You can shame Congress, who might feel comfortable beating up on bureaucrats, but not so much on economically successful businesspeople. You could start to bring about the culture change needed to make serious evaluation a reality. The problem is not that people don’t understand the need for serious evaluation – I honestly don’t know anyone making that argument. The problem is creating a space in which that can happen. This is what you should be doing with your annual letter, and with the clout that your foundation carries.
Failing that (or perhaps alongside that), lead by demonstration – create an environment in your foundation in which failure becomes a tag attached to anything from which we do not learn, instead of a tag attached to a project that does not meet preconceived targets or outcomes. Forget charter cities (no, really, forget them), become the “charter donor” that shows what can be done when this culture is instituted.
The evaluation agenda is getting stale, running aground on the rocky shores of institutional incentives. We need someone to pull it off the rocks. Now.