Delivering Development


While behavioral economics continues to open old questions in development to new scrutiny, I am still having a lot of problems with the very unreflexive approach BE takes toward its own work (see earlier takes on this here and here).  Take, for example, Esther Duflo’s recent lectures discussing mistakes the poor make.  To discuss the mistakes the poor make, we must first understand what the goals of the poor are.  However, I simply don’t see the behavioral economists doing this.  There is still a lurking, underlying presumption that in making livelihoods decisions people are trying to maximize income and or the material quality of their lives.  This, however, is fundamentally incorrect.  In Delivering Development and a number of related publications (for example, here, here, and here) I have laid out how, in the context of livelihoods, material considerations are always bound up in social considerations.  If you only evaluate these actions as aimed at material goals, you’ve only got a part of the picture – and not the most important part, in most cases.  Instead, what you are left with are a bunch of decisions and outcomes that appear illogical, that can be cast as mistakes.  Only most of the time, they are not mistakes – they are conscious choices.

Let me offer an example from Delivering Development and some of my other work – the constraint of women’s farming by their husbands.  I have really compelling qualitative evidence from two villages in Ghana’s Central Region that demonstrates that men are constraining their wives’ farm production to the detriment of the overall household income.  The chart below shows a plot of the size of a given farm versus its market orientation for the households operating under what I call a “diversified” strategy – where the husband farms for market sale, and the wife for subsistence (a pretty common model in sub-Saharan Africa).  As you move up the Y axis, the farm gets more oriented toward market sale (1 on that scale is “eat everything”, 3 is sell and eat equally, and 5 is sell everything).  Unsurprisingly, since men’s role requires them to produce for market, the size of their farm has little impact on their orientation.  But look at the women’s farms – just a tenth of a hectare produces a marked shift in orientation from subsistence to market production…because women own that surplus beyond subsistence, and sell it.  They take the proceeds of these sales, buy small goods, and engage in petty trading, eventually multiplying that small surplus into significant gains in income, nearly equaling their husbands.  What is not to like?

Well, from the perspective of those in these villages, here is something: among the Akan, being a “good man” means being in control of the household and out-earning your wife.  If you don’t, your fitness as a man gets called into question, which can cost you access to land.  For wives, this is bad because they get their land through their husbands.  So as a result, being in a household where the woman out-earns her husband is not a viable livelihoods outcome (as far as members of these households are concerned).  Even if a man wanted to let his wife earn more money, he would do so at peril of his access to land. So he is not going to do that.  What he is going to do is shrink his wife’s farm the next season to ensure she does not out-earn him (and I have three years of data where this is exactly what happens to wives who earn too much).  There is a “mistake” here – some of these men underestimated their wives’ production, which is pretty easy to do under rain-fed agriculture in a changing climate.  That they are this accurate with regard to land allocation is rather remarkable, really.  But the decision to constrain women’s production is not a mistake, per se: it is a choice.

We can agree or disagree with the premises of these choices, and their outcomes, but labeling them as mistakes creates a false sense of simplicity in addressing problematic outcomes – because people only require “correction” to get to the outcomes we all want and need.  This, in turn, rests on/reproduces a sense of superiority on the part of the researcher – because s/he knows what is best (see a previous post on this point here).  That attitude, applied to the case above, would not result in a productive project design aimed at addressing income or other challenges in these villages.

Yes, people do things against material interest…but there is always a logic behind a decision, and that logic is often deeply entrenched.  We would be better off talking about decisions poor people make (for better or worse), and dedicating our time to understanding why they make these decisions before we start deciding who is mistaken, and what to do about it.

I’ve just burned 15,000 words in Third World Quarterly laying out my argument for how to think about livelihoods as more than material outcomes – and how to make that vision implementable, at least via fieldwork that runs in length from days to months.  I am happy to send a copy of the preprint to anyone who is interested –and I will post a version to my website shortly.

Update: 11/22: So, after seeing Tom Murphy’s Storify of the twitter exchange, it is now clear that Sachs was on fire – the man was engaged in several conversations at once along the lines below…and he seems to have been responding to all of them pretty coherently, and in real time. I admit to being impressed (No, seriously, click on the Storify link there and just scroll. It is boggling). So recognize that what you see below is what I saw in my feed (his other conversations were with people I don’t follow, so I didn’t realize they were ongoing). Still, glad to get geography’s foot back in the door…

So, quite by surprise, I found myself on the end of an extended twitter exchange with Jeff Sachs.  I’ve hassled him via twitter before, and never had a response. So, I was a bit taken aback to see my feed light up about 30 seconds after I tweeted with @JeffDSachs at the front end! To give Sachs credit, he stayed quite engaged and did seem to be taking on some of my points. Granted, 140 characters is hardly enough to really convey the issues at hand, but I did the best I could to represent contemporary human geography. Y’all be the judge – this is the feed, slightly rejiggered to clarify that at times Sachs and I were crossing each other’s messages – he was clearly responding to a previous message sometimes when he tweeted back after one of my tweets. Also, Samuel Danthine was also on the conversation, and I kept him in the timeline as it seems he and I were coming from the same place:

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

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

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

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

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

The data is speaking. Anyone ready to listen?

 

 

 

 

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

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I am working through James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (my endorsement is in the linked post).  In the course of my reading, I have been thinking about what Scott calls the State Accessible Product, which he sets in contrast to the Gross Domestic Product.  To Scott’s thinking, the states/kingdoms he is discussing in Southeast Asia were motivated not to maximize the value of all goods and services in their realms, as such maximization might include the production of goods that could not be transported/taxed/otherwise used to enrich the state.  Instead, it was in the state’s interest to maximize the production of things it could see, count and move – in other words, to push the growth of a State Accessible Product.  Two things resonate for me about this idea:

1) It scales. Just as states pushed for the production of SAP, so too the households I I discuss in Delivering Development tend to divide up livelihoods roles and activities in a manner that maximizes not individual well-being, but activities that only make sense when bundled with the activities of other members of the household – a sort of Household Accessible Product.  In an uncertain economy and environment, it makes no sense to focus one’s entire agricultural production on market sale, or to focus entirely on subsistence reproduction of the household.  Yet this is just what we see men (playing the former role) and women (playing the latter) doing in some of the households I examined in Ghana.  They do this for a lot of complex reasons, but certainly there is something to the idea that these roles force the members of the household into the production of a HAP that certainly does not maximize all possible production and income, but does a lot to reproduce social roles and social stability.

2) It explains why my argument that a lot of farmers on globalization’s shoreline strategically deglobalize was both surprising and, at least to some people, threatening: the opting in and out of global markets is exactly the sort of thing states fear, as it means that the production of these farmers goes in and out of legibility from year to year – making it hard to extract value from that production. In short, there is a GDP that is not coterminus with an SAP along most of globalization’s shoreline – and that non SAP production is critical to the well-being of those engaged in those activities.

It strikes me that a key question here is whether or not our focus on governance in development has led us to inadvertently emphasize activities, projects and programs that render greater and greater percentages of GDP as SAP – certainly, without access to the financial resources produced by the control of a SAP, states are in a weak position.  But if many of the activities that actually keep people alive on a day-to-day basis are non-SAP activities, what are we to do?  Are we to wipe out/make legible these activities so the state can profit from them?  If we do, are we going to enhance the vulnerability of the populations whose livelihoods we alter?  Is the enhancement of vulnerability an appropriate trade-off for the creation of a state-legible economy?  Can addressing vulnerability and building a strong state be made to rhyme at all?

In my previous post, I objected to the way in which Tyler Cowen’s recent NYT blog post pushed the dominant “crisis of production” narrative in discussions of food security.  In my opinion, the recurrence of this problematic claim in various popular outlets has a lot to do with people’s relatively surficial understanding of food security and the causes of hunger in the Global South.  For some reason, development seems to lend itself to dilettantism…at least in part, I suspect, because people assume that the global poor are so bad off that any new ideas would be an improvement on what is there.  Of course, there is also the subtle, durable assumption that poor people (especially of darker skin tones) somehow (re)produce their problems because they don’t think rationally/clearly/etc*.  Such arguments fall apart when they are tested with actual evidence, but most op-eds and policies have nothing to do with evidence…

This problem extends beyond how we talk about the poor themselves to how we think about the governments under which they live.  While governance (not the same as government, folks – please try to remember this) is really important to development outcomes, it is not everything…and government (as in the formal rules and structures of governance in a particular place) can be even less important, as many of the global poor live beyond the reach of the state.  So blaming the state and its policies for hunger can be a pretty tricky proposition. When Cowen, in an offhand way, wades into the role of the Malawian government as an illustration of how his presumed production shortfalls are exacerbated by problematic government policies, his lack of understanding of the African context becomes clear:

many African nations have unhelpful policies toward agriculture. Malawi, for instance, subjects corn to periodic export and import restrictions as well as to price controls, all of which thwart development of a well-functioning market. When market speculators save corn in anticipation of greater scarcity, they may be punished by law. These restrictions of market incentives exacerbate the basic supply problems.

First, Cowen cherry-picks Malawian government actions to make this point.  While price controls and import/export restrictions have been used, there is another side to Malawian intervention in the markets: the subsidization of inputs to boost overall farm productivity.  As a result, he ignores the near-perfect correlation between the years when the government intervenes in input markets – effectively, when the Malawian government subsidizes fertilizers – and the years when Malawi is a net food exporter to the extent that it can pay for the entire subsidy several times over (this correlation has proven very durable and very vexatious to some of the more theologically-inclined free marketeers out there).  In the case of Malawi, some market intervention, however distortionary, actually does work to ensure adequate food production within the country each year. Which gets to a much larger point: the Malawian government is doing this not out of ignorance or irrationality, but because it is being responsive to citizens whose short term needs are so dire that to take a long-term only view would result in mass morbidity, if not mortality, in the short run.

For example, in a priori assuming that Malawi’s decision to punish market speculators when they “save corn in anticipation of greater scarcity” (one person’s “saving” is another’s “hoarding”), Cowen fails to parse between the needs of an efficient market (a means of transmitting future price situations into current pricing decisions) with human needs (a means of obtaining adequate food such that members of the household do not die) – in most places I work, there is a large disjoint between the two.  It is this disjoint that the government of Malawi, and indeed many governments around the world must negotiate.  It is this disjoint, and its attendant reality, that is Cowen’s second major problem, as he doesn’t really understand it.  This reality has two parts:

1) Yes, in the long run markets can transmit information about pricing and preferences that can lead to more productive and useful decisions, but in contexts where people are living on a dollar a day, their margins for error are small and their ability to wait for markets to work things out is limited.

2) There is a presumption that the anticipatory price signal will result in actions to address the problem before the shortage actually hits.  However, the causes of shortage generally extend well beyond the management capacity of any single state.  In short, transmitting shortage signals into the present only serves to prolong the challenges that the Malawian poor are going to face, without producing any effective policy or market response because there is no government capacity to respond.  In short, why transmit the emergency into the present when you are going to need help to address it now or in the future?  This is why many African states punish hoarding…though they could be looked upon as comprising a de facto futures market, hoarders transmit not just information, but shortage into the market and onto very vulnerable populations earlier than would otherwise be the case, undermining safety and security sooner and to no good end.  Given the option of an efficient market populated by a lot of dead people and an inefficient, or even broken market populated by live people, most African states are going with the latter.  Until someone sorts out how to set up functioning markets near-instantly, builds enough financial resilience into African livelihoods to weather this sort of market behavior, or builds the financial and infrastructural capacity of African states to a point they can manage this short of shock without external assistance (or some combination of the three), states will continue to be forced into this sort of decision, and will make the same choice.  I am not convinced that the manipulation/corruption of markets Cowen describes is a cause of hunger as much as a symptom of a hugely problematic global political economy that no one small country can effectively manage.

In short, the situation in Malawi is very common in sub-Saharan Africa.  For most countries, the issues I raise above have been in play since independence.  The typical African country is dealing with a set of pressures that make straightforward economic decision-making nearly impossible – from state-building to market-building, these countries cannot just make economic decisions, they must make political-economic decisions that reflect the immediate reality around them.  Government is easy…until you actually have to govern.

 

 

*This is not to absolve all poor people of all responsibility for their situations. The global poor, like everyone else, are human – they are subject to emotions, biases, prejudices, etc. that sometimes do cause major problems for their well-being.  However, it has been my experience that this is not a dominant cause of the problems of poverty…mainly because if these problems were exacerbated more than they were helped by the efforts of the global poor, we’d have a lot fewer poor people because they would mostly have died. The global poor make fantastically difficult decisions about the allocation of scarce resources every day with a shocking degree of success…something we overlook at our peril.

 

Ben Leo at ONE.org (formerly of CGD) put forth an intriguing proposal recently on Huffington Post Impact: It’s Time to Ask the World’s Poor What They Really Want.  In short, Ben is trying to argue that the current top-down definition of development goals, no matter how well-intentioned, is unlikely to reflect the views of the people these development goals are meant to benefit.

Hear, hear.  I made a similar point in Delivering Development. Actually, that sort of was one of the main points of the book.  See also my articles here and here.

But I am concerned that Leo is representing this effort a little too idealistically.  Just because we decide to ask people what they want doesn’t mean that we will really find out what they want.  Getting to this sort of information has everything to do with asking the right questions in the right way – there is no silver bullet for participation that will ensure that everyone’s voices will be heard.  To that end, what worries me here is that Ben does not explain exactly how ONE plans to develop the standardized survey they will put out there, or how exactly they will administer this survey.  So, here are a few preliminary questions for Ben and the ONE team:

1)   Does a standardized survey make sense? Given the very different challenges that people face around the world, and the highly variable capacity of people to deal with those challenges, it seems to me that going standardized is going to result in one of two outcomes: either you ask focused questions that only partially capture the challenges facing most people, or you ask really general questions that basically capture the suite of challenges we see globally, but do so in a manner that is so vague as to be unactionable.  How will ONE thread this needle?

2)   Who is designing the survey? To my point above, what questions are asked determine who will answer, and therefore determines what you will learn.  While the information gleaned from this sort of survey is likely to be very interesting, it is not the same thing as an open participatory process – full participation includes defining the questions, not just the answers.  Indeed, I would suggest that ONE needs to ditch the term participatory here, as in the end I fear it will be misleading.

3)   How will you administer the survey? Going out with enumerators takes a lot of time and money, and is subject to “investigator bias” – that is, the simple problem that some enumerators will do their job in a different manner than others, thus getting you different kinds/qualities of answers to the same questions.  On the other hand, if you are reliant on mobile technology, how will you incentivize those rural populations with mobile handsets to participate?  If you can’t do this, you will end up with a highly unrepresentative sample, making the results far less useful.

This is not to dismiss the effort Ben is spearheading – indeed, it is fantastic to see a visible organization make this argument and take concrete steps to actually get the voices of the global poor into the agenda-setting exercises.  However, this is not a participatory process – it is, instead, an information-driven process (which is good) that is largely shaped by the folks at ONE in the name of the global poor.  If ONE wants this to be more than information-driven, it needs to think about how it is going to let a representative sample of the global poor define the questions as well as the answers.  That is no easy task.

In all sincerity, I am happy to talk this through with anyone who is interested – I do think it is a good idea in principle, but execution is everything if you want it to be more than a publicity stunt…

OK folks, I have never done plugs on the blog, but I am about to do one here.  A friend of mine from back in my Syracuse/Ph.D. fieldwork days named Keith Bratton is trying to get funding for a photodocumentary project that explores the complex impacts of climate change in coastal Ghana.  Keith knows this area well – he was there during my fieldwork (and took some of the photos of my site and artifacts that I still use to this day), and has been back since. He is a remarkable photographer – his previous work from Ghana is here.

The project he is trying to get funded seems to have emerged from a combination of his own experiences in Ghana and (in part) his reading of my book and its discussion of the complex ways in which the collapse of the Gulf of Guinea fishery is radiating into various onshore ecological and economic impacts.  Just as I wrote my book to reach a wider audience, Keith wants to do this project as another means of telling this story.  Not only do I think this work has the potential to be picked up by media outlets, I suspect that in telling the complex story of how climate change becomes a development challenge, there will be many in the donor and implementer world who might find this work, or versions of it, useful for training – something that I think is really critical if we are ever to mainstream thinking about climate change and its impacts into development.

He’s trying to do this on a shoestring – he wants to raise $4000.  The plane ticket will eat $1200 of it.  This is a huge bang-for-the-buck potential operation here, so if you can find a buck…or two, or ten, please think about pledging it to Keith and this project.

His kickstarter page is here.

 

Full disclosure: While I have offered Keith advice and feedback on the project, I am not a part of it, nor will I profit from it in any way.  Further, this project is not, in any way, connected to any of my employers.  It’s just a good idea that deserves support.

I continue my musings on the recent emergence of development studies in the American academy . . .

The rise of development studies presents two interesting opportunities for development in general – a chance to start treating development as a discipline, and the chance to bring interdisciplinary (or, in the parlance of the donor and implementation world, integrated) thinking to the fore in development.

What do I mean by treating development as a discipline?  Various social scientists have demonstrated that development is not just a set of activities, it is a body of thought.  This is what I meant in Delivering Development when I said that

“contemporary development is not the product of a single organizational mission, a single theory, or a particular set of practices. It is the congealed outcome of more than six decades of often-uncoordinated administrative decisions, monitoring reports, economic theories, academic studies, and local responses. These ideas, such as the value of free trade and global markets for the global poor, are repeated so often and in so many venues that they seem to lack a single author or source. For the contemporary development practitioner, they seem to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The same assumption is repeated over and over in development documents until, for example, it is impossible to talk about development in the absence of markets. The results are practices and ideas that seem both universal and eternal.” (p. 7-8)

If people come into development from narrow, technical backgrounds, they are unlikely to know the history of ideas into which they have waded.  They may not know the history of interventions that have been tried in the past.  Understanding the ideas to which one is responding or building on with a particular program or project, and knowing the previous history of similar efforts, seems to me to be critical to achieving any development goals.  For such a knowledge base to become common in the field, development cannot just be an object of study for other academic disciplines – it has to be recognized as its own discipline to which new students must be introduced.

Academia has, for essentially my entire academic life since I entered undergrad, argued for greater interdisciplinary collaboration.  As best I can tell, very little of academia has actually shifted academic incentives such that interdisciplinary work might actually emerge and flourish.  The emergence of development studies presents an opportunity to create such incentives within an academic discipline*.  Any program of development studies that considers not only theory and thought, but also the history of development interventions, will necessarily engage the fact that development is an inherently interdisciplinary undertaking.  While economists have long held sway over the (informal) discipline of development, they are hardly the final answer for most questions that anyone engaged in development might face on a day-to-day basis (market failure around the environment, anyone?).  As the same time, the climate scientist is probably not going to have a lot of answers for how we might foster the emergence of local markets better able to address the predicted/modeled challenges of future climate change.  Technical expertise is critical to achieving development goals, but narrow disciplinary expertise is likely to reproduce stovepipes of information, funding and programming that make it difficult to address the suite of issues arising around most development challenges.  In the rise of development studies, we have the chance to break down these stovepipes under the rubric of a single discipline, thus creating a home for interdisciplinary work within a discipline (yes, that is contradictory), as it were.  At the same time, graduates of such programs would already think “integratively,” perhaps one of the biggest challenges I have seen for implementation.

Much of this opportunity could be realized even in the course of a Masters degree – which is critical to most programs, as they are Masters-terminal.  However, if development studies is to realize these potentials, it will require Ph.D.-level engagement by students and faculty to build literature, journals, and approaches requisite of an academic discipline.  This, however, must take shape in the context of an extended and varied engagement with donors and implementers that can only really be had if we move more people between academia and the donor/implementer world.  Creating the incentives for such movement is an entirely different question . . .

 

 

 

*Note: as a geographer, I have to point out that my discipline displays all of the characteristics of an interdisciplinary endeavor – most departments contain everything from qualitative social scientists to soil or atmospheric scientists to experts in the GISciences, and we are rewarded for collaborating with one another.  Of course, we are collaborating within geography, and publishing in journals accepted by geography, which makes things much easier.  But working across the various academic divides (quant/qual, human/environment, etc.) has already been modeled . . .

 

Disclaimer: This post is my personal work, and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of any of my current or past employers.

I will be speaking about my book and research at the University of Florida on Friday as part of the Glen R. Anderson Visiting Lectureship.  Poster here:

Hope to see folks there!

I’ll be running my mouth about the book again at Chatham University on December 2nd.  Chatham has some very cool stuff going in sustainability and the environment (a new school!), including a new Eden Hall Campus in Richland Township, PA.  My talk will actually be out on that campus, and not in the Shadyside campus . . . directions are here.

The flyer (they’ve done a nice job on it):

Hope to see some of you there . . .

« Previous PageNext Page »