Archive for November, 2010

Kentaro Toyama has a great piece in the Boston Review on the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in development – really, though, it is a larger commentary on how we think about using technology in development generally.  Simply put, Toyama warns against treating ICT as itself a solution for poverty – instead, he argues, it is but one tool, a means to an end:

If I were to summarize everything I learned through research in ICT4D, it would be this: technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Alex Dehgan the other day – talking about how efforts to address particular development challenges, whether via technology or other approaches, should be focused on a systematic approach to the problem that will yield different, but locally-appropriate, outcomes in different places, instead of the search for a singular solution that could be applied anywhere and everywhere (history is littered with the wreckage of these efforts – most recently, see the Millennium Village Project).  This is what I have been after in my work on livelihoods and adaptation for the past 7 years or so – a way of approaching these issues in a rigorous manner that allows for the serious consideration of local context.  How we translate that into programming and policy remains to be seen . . .

OK, two posts for today, because I can’t help myself. Yeah, I am a social scientist. Which means that people either think I run control experiments on various populations (an idea that freaks me out)*, or they think that I have no method to my research at all – I just sort of run around, talk to a few people until I get bored or run out of money, and then come back and write it up.

Of course, both views are crap.  Good social science is founded on rigorous fieldwork and data whose validity can be verified.  How one collects that data, and verifies that validity, varies – it depends on what you are studying.  For whatever reason, though, people have a hard time understanding this.  Quick story: a former chair of my department, during a debate about field methods, actually once asked me if it was really possible to teach someone to do interviews and participant observation.  My response: “I didn’t pop out of the womb able to do this, you know.”  End of discussion, thankfully.

But now I have found someone who has written this up nicely – Wronging Rights (absolutely hilarious, and totally awful, all at the same time – just go read for a bit and then feel bad about yourself for laughing.  Everyone does) has a great post on the subject that links to a series of even better posts at Texas in Africa that covers it (see the Wronging Rights post link to connect to the relevant Texas in Africa posts).

Social scientists, get to reading.  Journalists, read this and understand why you are not social scientists.  Especially you, Thomas Friedman.  And the rest of you . . . never, ever ask me if you can teach someone to do social science . . .

*controlled experiment: what, am I supposed to pick two identical villages (no such thing), and then start to work with one village while studiously ignoring the other village no matter what happens to that community (i.e. drought, food insecurity, disease, what have you) because I need to preserve the integrity of my control group?  There are other ways to establish the validity of one’s results . . .

No time for long posts today . . . but if you want to understand why the US and China are trapped in the economic version of a dance of death that neither can escape, simply watch the following . . .

Happy Thanksgiving!

Some students of mine (Mary Thompson and Manali Baruah) and I just got word that an article we wrote, “Seeing REDD+ as a Project of Environmental Governance”, has been accepted for a special edition of Environmental Science and Policy.  You know, getting articles accepted never really gets old . . .

While there is no abstract, for those who might be interested, here is the introduction:

1. Introduction

Since 2007, efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation have explicitly recognized the role of conservation, sustainable management, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks, facilitated through the use of equitable financial incentives, as promising approaches for mitigating global climate change (known as REDD+). Questions have been raised concerning the issue of government within this so-called REDD+ framework, focusing on the structures that operationalize policy decisions related to deforestation and climate change.  However, the literature has yet to offer a careful consideration of how REDD+ is itself an emerging project of environmental governance – that is, a set of social norms and political assumptions that will steer societies and organizations in a manner that shapes collective decisions about the use and management of forest resources.

In this paper, we argue that REDD+ is more than an impartial container for the various tools and actors concerned with addressing anthropogenic climate change.  Instead, even as it takes shape, REDD+ is already functioning as a form of governance, a particular framing of the problem of climate change and its solutions that validates and legitimizes specific tools, actors and solutions while marginalizing others.  This framing raises important questions about how we might critically evaluate REDD+ programs and their associated tools and stakeholders in a manner that encourages the most effective and equitable pursuit of its goals.  Further, it calls into question the likelihood of achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions via REDD+ programs.

This paper has three parts.  First, we examine the current governmental structure of REDD+. While no single agency or organization holds a monopoly on the design or administration of REDD+ programs, we focus on two that have emerged at the forefront in transferring this concept from an idea into reality: the United Nations (via UN-REDD) and the World Bank (through the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, or FCFP). The second section of the paper considers how REDD+ functions, even at this early stage, as a largely unacknowledged project of environmental governance.  Here we focus on the objects to be governed, who is governing, and how desired conservation and sequestration outcomes are to be achieved under REDD+.  Finally, we illustrate how this framework attempts to align the interests of a wide range of stakeholders in this process to bring about desired environmental outcomes through the example of the formalization of indigenous peoples’ participation in REDD+.  We argue that this alignment has thus far been incomplete, suggesting an emerging crisis of governance within REDD+ that will compromise future project and policy goals, along with the well-being of various stakeholders.

Well, the Cancun Conference of the Parties (called COP for short) is upon us, where everyone will sit down and accomplish pretty much nothing on a global climate change agreement.  There is real concern circulating in the diplomatic world that this meeting could see the fracturing of the push for a global agreement such that it never happens – at least from this framework.  This outcome is problematic in all sorts of ways, not least of which in the chaos it will unleash in the development world, where a huge amount of money was slated to be used for adaptation to climate change under what amounted to a glorified memorandum of understanding coming out of Copenhagen.  If the whole process bites the dust, it isn’t very clear what happens to that money or the programs and projects under development to use it.

That said, if it all goes totally bad in Cancun it doesn’t mean that we are beyond creating meaningful paths toward a lower-emissions future that might be manageable.  Indeed, one might argue that the death of the global framework might be the only way forward.  States like California, and cities like New York, are now starting to implement policies and programs to cut their own emissions without a national mandate.  They are creating locally-appropriate policies that maximize environmental benefit while minimizing the local “pain” of the new policies.  This is all well and good for these cities, but what I find interesting is that there is some evidence – however loose- that this city-by-city, state-by-state approach might actually be more efficient at achieving our climate goals than a global agreement.

I was part of the Scenarios Working Group for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – my group was tasked with running four future scenarios for ecosystem services (the goods and processes we get from ecosystems) under different future political, economic and social conditions.  Once we got our baselines and assumptions for each scenario in place, a team of modelers ran the scenarios for various issues (temperature change, water availability, etc.) and then we attempted to link the model runs to meaningful statements about how ecosystems might fare under each scenario.

This is relevant here because, interestingly, we had a “global orchestration” scenario that, to some extent, looks like what the world was going for with Copenhagen and Cancun.  We also had another scenario called “adapting mosaic”, which assumes decentralized control and adaptive management of environmental resources.  Neither scenario was a clear winner – each had strengths and weaknesses.  An “adapting mosaic” approach is great at managing new and emerging environmental challenges, whether from climate change or other issues.  It might also serve as the very legitimate basis of a bottom-up approach to an eventual global accord on climate change.  However, this approach risks ignoring global commons like fisheries, which often leads to the loss of that resource through overuse.  There is a real risk that inequality will go unaddressed, at least across countries and at the global scale, but at the same time economic growth will not be as robust as under other scenarios.  Global orchestration is good at maximizing income.  While I dissented from this view*, the group argued that under global orchestration a Kuznets Greening Curve would kick in (as people get wealthier, they pay more attention to the environment – thus, economic growth and consumption can result in better environmental quality), and we would have strong global coordination on everything from trade to environmental issues.  However, this approach is much more reactive, and focused on the global scale – thus it is not very good at dealing with local surprises.  In my opinion, adapting mosaic looks better, over the long run, than global coordination (especially if you factor in my concerns about the Kuznets Curve assumption).

In short, in the efforts of California and New York we are seeing the emergence of a de facto adapting mosaic as the global orchestration efforts of Cancun and Copenhagen fall by the wayside.  This actually might be a good thing.

In uncertainty, there is hope.

*the Kuznets curve rests on a key assumption – that with enough wealth, we can undo the damage we do while building wealth to the point that we start caring about the environment.  Kuznets has no answer for extinction (a huge problem at the moment), as that is gone forever.  Further, the Chinese are starting to provide an object lesson in how to blow up the Kuznets curve by damaging one’s environment so badly that the costs associated with fixing the problem become overwhelming – and those are the fixable problems.  Basically, assuming a Kuznets Greening Curve allowed those framing these scenarios to put an overly-happy face on the global orchestration scenario for political reasons – they wanted to provide support for a global effort on climate change.  A more honest reading of the data, in my opinion, would have made adapting mosaic look much better.

Lord, there are days . . . look, people, the connection between climate change and any sort of social behavior is complex and difficult to trace.  I’ve mentioned before that the connection between climate change and conflict is not at all straightforward.  So too the connection between climate change and migration/refugees.  But no matter how many times we say this, people still go with the simple connection – climate change = more refugees/more migration.  Take, for example, this bit of reporting at CNN.

The devastating effects of climate change and conflicts fought over ever-scarcer resources such as water could cause a surge in migration that experts fear the world is totally unprepared for.

At least one billion people will be forced from their homes between now and 2050 by such forces, the international charity group Christian Aid predicted in a recent report.

Oh, for God’s sake.  Look, we’ve been over this before.  There will be relatively few new refugees, and all I can offer is a very qualified maybe about more migration.  Why do I say this?

First, a refugee, by definition, is someone who is forced to move (a nebulous issue) and then does move across an international border.  People who are forced to move but stay in their country after moving are called internally displaced people (IDPs) – this is not merely terminology.  Refugees have all sorts of rights that IDPs do not.  And most work on climate and migration suggests very short moves, meaning we might see a surge in climate-related IDPs, but probably not climate refugees.  Well, that and the fact that international law does not consider climate-related events as legal “forcings” that can result in refugee status.  So, most people will not clear a border, and those that do will not be recognized under current law as refugees.

Second, there are a hell of a lot of assumptions here about what causes people to move and why in the context of environmental change.  I’ve written on this in refereed journals, and a chunk of the first half of my book addresses this issue indirectly.  Simply put, any decision to move incorporates more than an assessment of one’s material situation – it is a complex decision that takes into account a whole range of factors, including social considerations and opportunities elsewhere.  These factors are locally-specific, and therefore any wide, general claim about the number of likely refugees is mostly crap – we simply don’t know.

So where did the crappy analysis come from?  Oh, right, this crap story was built on a completely crap report that I complained about just recently.  Crap begetting crap.  Super.

Yeah, the level of discourse around climate-related topics is pretty low these days . . . not that it has been elevated for a very long time.  Still, the folks at RealClimate hacked a political cartoon and got it right:


Well, it’s about a year ago that the “climategate” email hack broke on the world, with a lot of sound and fury that, in the end, signified nothing.  I’ve dealt with this plenty of times, and I am too tired to do it again.  But there are great posts all over the place – like Peter Gleick here and Gavin Schmidt here.  Folks, its all a pack of little distractions from the big problems in front of us – and arguing that the future is uncertain is not reassuring.  Uncertainty is what worries me – predictable change can be managed, but nonlinear, unpredictable change can disrupt society significantly . . .

Hey, the IMF is in Ireland!  Super.  Should be interesting to see how they treat a non-poor country . . . and what the hell would Irish structural adjustment look like, I wonder?  Actually, I shouldn’t wonder . . . since we will likely find out shortly.  Let’s all watch the loss of sovereignty.  Ugh.

Perhaps we could fix this by simply forcing U2 to bring its business operations back to the country.  Ooops, was that out loud?

You know, it is not often that you can draw a direct analogy between events here in the US, and events in places like sub-Saharan Africa . . . but today we have one!  Sadly, it’s not a happy one.

Yesterday, the Beeb reported on protests in Malawi over an effort to set the retirement age at 55 for women and 60 for men.  Why the protests, you ask?  Well, because life expectancy in Malawi is about 50 years . . . so this is a bit like asking the US to accept an increase in the age of retirement for social security to 80.

Well, the analogy doesn’t hold all that well – actually, most of my colleagues in Ghana, where mandatory retirement from state-funded jobs starts at 60, would like to see that age lifted to 65 or more so they could keep earning a salary.  But this points up a larger issue – that these colleagues of mine are highly educated and make good (by local standards) salaries.  They are also more likely to live well past the average lifespan in Ghana (about 59 years).  For those with less education, working in lower-paying jobs, even a retirement age of 60 is a bit of a cruel joke, as they are unlikely to ever get there.  In other words, there is an income dimension to life expectancy that makes the issue of a single, blanket retirement age in places like Malawi and Ghana inherently unfair . . .

So, it is really interesting that, just as we start hearing about various plans to reduce the US deficit, and indeed our massive national debt, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ran a study on life expectancy and retirement ages, and came to an African-sounding conclusion here in the US:

Raising the retirement age for Social Security would disproportionately hurt low-income workers and minorities, and increase disability claims by older people unable to work, government auditors told Congress.

The projected spike in disability claims could harm Social Security’s finances because disability benefits typically are higher than early retirement payments, the General Accountability Office concluded. (via Businessweek)

Paul Krugman makes the point a bit more starkly:

Working until you’re 69, which may sound doable for people with desk jobs, is a lot harder for the many Americans who still do physical labor.

But beyond that, the proposal seemingly ignores a crucial point: while average life expectancy is indeed rising, it’s doing so mainly for high earners, precisely the people who need Social Security least. Life expectancy in the bottom half of the income distribution has barely inched up over the past three decades. So the Bowles-Simpson proposal is basically saying that janitors should be forced to work longer because these days corporate lawyers live to a ripe old age.

Can we spend money forever?  No.  But is it fair to start pushing the benefits people have contributed to for their whole lives via their taxes out of reach in the name of deficit reduction?  No.  We are going to have to create a very nuanced set of reforms here, that recognize whose benefits should start when, if we are to have anything that looks like justice – either here or in Africa.  One size fits all is not, in fact, fair . . . and as someone whose retirement age would likely be raised under any plan (given my income and job description), I am strongly in favor of justice, even if that means some people get to retire before I do . . . besides, according to the GAO, we need to consider this or we will blow up social security even sooner, which means no benefits for anyone.  Now, let’s see if people can grab onto this point and use it to force a real conversation about spending that doesn’t turn deficit reduction into another hammer used on the poor, here or abroad.

And why, oh why, is there really no discussion about raising the Social Security taxed maximum wage (the “cap”)?  I wonder how many Americans understand that Social Security taxes are only collected on the first $106800 of wages, and after that they disappear.  Yep, that means that the bulk of Americans (roughly the bottom 92%) pay Social Security taxes on roughly 85% of their taxable income, while the top 8% enjoy what amounts to a 6-ish percent tax cut on that income after $106800.  This is obscene.  While there is significant debate about how much additional revenue we would gather from eliminating this largely arbitrary cap, or how much that income would help, removing the cap would certainly raise revenue, help the situation, and correct an absurd component of our tax system . . .