sustainable development

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.

Man, has there ever been a less enticing blog post title?  But it pays to be direct – so there it is.  I have funding for a Ph.D. student, starting in January, to help me on my USAID-funded work on climate services for development.  So, without further ado, the ad:

Graduate Student Opportunity for January 2013

University of South Carolina, Department of Geography

Ed Carr is seeking a Ph.D. student to support ongoing work on climate services for development in sub-Saharan Africa and develop an independent research program in this broad area of inquiry.  The funding for this position is attached to USAID’s Climate Change Resilient Development (CCRD) program, and the candidate will have specific responsibilities supporting the the development of field methods and the analysis of preliminary data, as well as conducting extensive fieldwork in one or more Malian communities in May-July 2013 as part of the project “An Assessment of Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Program.”


  • Candidates will have to be admitted to the geography graduate program at the University of South Carolina
  • Candidates should be from a country in which USAID operates. Preference will be given to candidates from West Africa, then other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as this is the current target region for the project.
  • Candidates should have experience in one or more of the following: climate change adaptation, rural/community development, rural agriculture, climate science
    • The bulk of initial project work will focus on community-level information needs, and therefore preference will be given to those candidates with experience conducting qualitative research in rural settings.
  • Candidates should hold a Masters degree in Geography, Anthropology, Planning or another closely related field
  • Excellent written and spoken English.  French language ability is preferred.

The duration of funding is January-July 2013, with likely continuation through July 2014.  The candidate will receive tuition, a living stipend, and salary/research support for work to be conducted in May-July 2013.  Candidates who meet departmental expectations of progress and excellence will be eligible for additional semesters of support to complete their degrees.

Please note the very short lead time for this opportunity – viable candidates will likely have to have a visa in hand if they are to start in January 2013.  Candidates who cannot make this deadline, or who are not selected in this round, should stay tuned – I am hoping to open up a few more slots in the fall.

Prospective candidates are encouraged to contact Ed Carr at  Applications are due on 1 November, 2012 via the instructions on the departmental web page:



Ben Leo at (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, yesterday I pointed to my friend Keith Bratton’s kickstarter effort to fund a photodocumentary study of the impacts of climate change on life in Ghana’s Central Region.  Please go to the page and check it out – Keith is a great photographer, and will produce really stunning stuff (some of which you can have, for a very low pledge!).  He’s crawling toward what he needs for the project, so all donations are important.

But to up the ante, I want to point out another “reward” option that Keith is now putting up.  The case he wants to document is a fantastic example of the complex challenge that climate change presents to the achievement of development goals – it raises issues of cross-sectoral work, the connections between people and the natural world, and how climate change creates unexpected challenges that, if unaddressed, can compromise the things you are focusing on.  It is, in short, a perfect case from which we can learn about why we must integrate climate sensitivity into development work, and the ways in which such sensitivity makes us “think differently” about development.

To whet your appetite, an example from my own work in Ghana that I talk about in my public speaking on the book: in 2005, I suddenly noticed that there were flocks of toucans flying around the villages in which I had been working from some 8 years.  I had never seen toucans before, and their sudden presence puzzled me.  It took me a while to piece together what was going on – you see, the Gulf of Guinea large marine ecosystem has been collapsing due to an intersection of overfishing (itself driven by a combination of local overfishing to feed a growing population, and the presence of large international trawlers overfishing the territorial waters of Ghana and other countries, largely with impunity) and climate change (which has changed the upwellings of cold water in July-September and December such that there are fewer fish riding those upwellings into the local fisheries).  With less fish to eat, communities in the coastal hinterland had started hunting aggressively, wiping out most terrestrial animals in the process – along with them, rodents…who must have eaten toucan eggs.  Hence the explosion of toucans, who are likely wiping out some other species they like to eat, etc., etc..  The toucan is just a manifestation of a complex ecological change taking place along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea that is poorly understood, but presenting real challenges for people’s food security and incomes.  Achieving development goals in this region, then, requires understanding climate change and its impacts, as well as the complex and seemingly-distant outcomes of these impacts.

That is a remarkably simplified version of what I see happening in Ghana – and it can be told more eloquently, and with more grounding in the human experience of these changes, in the work Keith proposes.  So, beyond seeing him work toward publishing this important story, I have suggested to him that he offer, at the $1000 pledge level, to put together a training module for your organization, using his pictures and findings, to help train your people up on the importance of climate change to development, and on how to think about climate change in the context of development.  Further, because I believe in Keith’s project but lack the wherewithal to back it out of my own pocket, I have offered to work with Keith to build this module should anyone order it.  So, in return for supporting Keith’s work, you get his photos and experiences, as well as my expertise – 14 years in university classrooms, over two years of living in villages in sub-Saharan Africa, lots of refereed publications addressing the climate change/development connection, and work on the donor side examining the climate change/development connection – all wrapped up in a training module that you can plug in to your own training program.

For those of you outside the development implementation world, this might seem like an insanely high price – but everyone in that world knows that this is a steal.  Were I a training consultant, I would be charging an order of magnitude more for such a service, at least.  And my illustrations would not be as nice as what you will get from Keith.  Again, Keith will produce the module, and I will help him do it – but I will not be paid to do this.  I have no financial stake in this project at all.  This is my in-kind backing of what I think is a significant project.  So if your organization needs the training, here is a great opportunity.


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 . . .

Chris Albon copied me on a retweet today from World Concern that said:

A beautiful sight: things growing in #Somalia. This is what’s possible in the

For those not inclined to click the link, it went to this picture:

I have mixed feelings about this tweet and this picture.  On one hand, it expresses what I am sure is genuine relief from an organization that is concerned with the well-being of people living in the Horn of Africa.  On the other hand, the phrase “this is what is possible” suggests that this does not usually happen . . . except, of course, now we are in the Dayr, the October to December rainy season.  Though the Dayr is the shortest rainy season in this part of the world, wet fields and new growth do in fact usually happen right about now.  Further, the phrase “things growing in Somalia” suggests that nothing was growing before.  This was not the case – things have been growing, even in famine-struck parts of southern Somalia.  Not enough has been growing in some places, and this shortage has been compounded by all sorts of political challenges that have created a widespread problem.  Finally, there is a bit of tone to this – as if we are out of the woods in the Horn.  Well, maybe – but it will be months until a real harvest comes in, and much longer than that before accountable governance and functioning markets return, so we have a ways to go.  And given that this famine was not caused by drought (the drought exacerbated other underlying factors), the fact that we are having trouble addressing those underlying factors means the next drought (and there will be another one relatively soon) may create a very similar set of circumstances and challenges.

In summary, I believe in hope.  That is why I call myself an optimist.  But at the same time, we have to be careful about conflating hope with triumph . . . which is why I call myself a hopelessly realistic optimist.




So, it seems I have been challenged/called out/what-have-you by the folks at Imagine There Is No . . . over what I would do (as opposed to critique) about development.  At least I think that is what is going on, given that I received this tweet from them:

@edwardrcarr what would You do with 1 Billion $ for #The.1.Bill.$.Question

In general, I think this is a fair question.  Critique is nice, but at the end of the day I strive to build something from my critiques.  As I tell my grad students, I can train a monkey to take something apart – there isn’t much talent to that.  On the other hand, rebuilding something from whatever you just dismantled actually requires talent.  I admit to being a bit concerned about calling what I build “better”, mostly because such judgments gloss over the fact that any development intervention produces winners and losers, and therefore even a “better” intervention will probably not be better for someone.  I prefer to think about doing things differently, with an eye toward resolving some of the issues that I critique.

So, I will endeavor to answer – but first I must point out that asking someone what s/he would do for development with $1 billion is a very naive question.  I appreciate its spirit, but there isn’t much point to laying down a challenge that has little alignment with how the world works.  I think this is worth pointing out in light of the post on Imagine There Is No . . ., as they seem to be tweaking Bill Easterly for not having a good answer to their question.  However, for anyone who has ever worked for a development agency, the question “on what would you spend a billion dollars” comes off as a gotcha question because it is sort of nonsensical.  While the question might be phrased to make us think about an ideal world, those of us engaged in the doing of development who take its critique and rethinking seriously immediately start thinking about the sorts of things that would have to happen to make spending $1 billion possible and practical.  Those problems are legion . . . and pretty much any answer you give to the question is open to a lot of critique, either from a practical standpoint (great idea that is totally impractical) or from the critique side (and idea that is just replicating existing problems).  When caught in a no-win situation, the best option is not to answer at all.  Sure, we should imagine a perfect world (after all, according to A World Of Difference, I am “something of a radical thinker”), but we do not work in that world – and people live in the Global South right now, so anything we do necessarily must engage with the imperfections of the now even as we try to transcend them.

Given all of this, I offer the following important caveats to my answer:

1) I am presuming that I will receive this money as individual and not as part of any existing organization, as organizations have structures, mandates and histories that greatly shape what they can do.

2) I am presuming that I have my own organization, and that it already has sufficient staff to program $1 billion dollars – so a lot of contracting officers and lawyers are in place.  Spending money is a lot harder than you’d think.

3) I am presuming that I answer only to myself and the folks in the Global South.  Monitoring and evaluation are some of the biggest constraints on how we do development today.  As I said in my talk at SAIS a little while ago, it is all well and good to argue that development merely catalyzes change in complex systems, which makes its outcomes inherently unpredictable.  It is entirely another to program against that understanding – if the possible outcomes of a given intervention are hard to predict, how do you know which indicators to choose?  How can you build an evaluation system that allows you to capture unintended positive and negative outcomes as the project matures without looking like you are fudging the numbers?  This sounds like constrained thinking, but it is reality for anyone working in a big donor agency, and for all of the folks who implement the work of those agencies.

4) I am presuming there are enough qualified staff out there willing to quit what they are doing and come work for this project . . . and I am going to need a hell of a lot of staff.

5) I am presuming that I am expected to accomplish something in the relatively short term – i.e. 3-5 years, as well as trigger transformative changes in the Global South over the long haul.  If you don’t produce some results relatively soon, people will bail out on you.

All of these, except for 5), are giant caveats that basically divorce the question and its answer from reality.  I just need to point that out.  Because of these caveats, my answer here cannot be interpreted as a critique of my current employer, or indeed any other development organization – an answer that would also serve as a critique of those institutions would have to engage with their realities, blowing out a lot of my caveats above . . . sorry, but that’s reality, and it is really important to acknowledge the limits of any answer to such a loaded question.

So, here goes.  If I had $1 billion, I would spend it 1) figuring out what people really do to manage the challenges they face day-to-day, 2) identifying which of these activities are most effective at addressing those challenges and why, 3) evaluating whether any of these activities can be brought to scale or introduced to new places, and 4) bringing these ideas to scale.

Basically, I would spend $1 billion dollars on the argument “the new big idea is no more big ideas.”

Why would I do this, and do it this way?  Well, I believe that in a general way those of us working in development have very poor information about what is actually happening in the Global South, in the places where the challenges to human well-being are most acute.  We have a lot of assumptions about what is happening and why, but these are very often wrong.  I wrote a whole book making this point – rather convincingly, if some of the reviews are to be believed.  Because we don’t know what is happening, and our assumptions are wide of the mark, a lot of the interventions we design and implement are irrelevant (at best) or inappropriate (at worst) to the intended beneficiaries.  Basically, the claim (a la Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project) that there are proven development interventions is crap.  If we had known, proven interventions WE WOULD BE USING THEM.  To assume otherwise is to basically slander the bulk of people working on development as either insufficiently motivated (if we weren’t so damn lazy, and we really cared about poor people, we could fix all of the problems in the world with these proven interventions) or to argue that there simply needs to be more money spent on these interventions to fix everything (except in many cases there is little evidence that funding is the principal cause of project failure).  Of course, this is exactly what Sachs argues when asking for more support for the MVP, or when he is attacking anyone who dares critique the project.

The only way to really know what is happening is to get out there and talk to people.  When you do, what you find is that the folks we classify as the “global poor” are hardly helpless.  They are remarkably capable people who make livings under very difficult circumstances with very little resource and limited fallback options.  They know their environments, their economy, and their society far better than anyone from the outside ever will.  They are, in short, remarkable resources that should be treated as treasured repositories of human knowledge, not as a bunch of children who can’t work things out for themselves.  $1 billion would get us a lot of people in a lot of places doing a lot of learning . . . and this sort of thing can be programmed to run over 6 months to a year to run fieldwork, do some data analysis, and start producing tailored understandings of what works and why in different places . . . which then makes it relatively easy to start identifying opportunities for scale-up.  Actually, the scale-up could be done really easily, and could be very responsive to local needs, if we would just set up a means of letting communities speak to one another in a free and open manner – a network that let people in the Global South ask each other questions, and offer their answers and solutions, to one another.  Members of this project from the Global North, from the Universities and from development organizations, could work with communities to convey the lessons the project has gleaned from various activities in various places to help transfer ideas and technology in a manner that facilitates their productive introduction in new contexts.  So I suppose I would have to carve part of the $1 billion off for that network, but it would come in under the scale-up component of my project.  Eventually, I suspect this sort of network would also become a means of learning about what is happening in the Global South as well . . .

With any luck at all, by year 3 we would see the cross-fertilization of all kinds of locally-appropriate ideas and technology happening around the world and the establishment of a nascent network that could build on this momentum to yield even more information about what people are already doing, and what challenges they really face.  We would have started a process that has immediate impacts, but can work in tandem with the generational timescales of social change that are necessary to bring about major changes in any place.  We would have started a process that likely could not be stopped.  How it would play out is anyone’s guess . . . but it would sure look different than whatever we are doing now.

Whenever you write something, you hope that other people will like it . . . or perhaps hate it so much it spurs them to do something useful in response.  In any case, you want feedback.  A vast, echoey silence just sucks.  I have a weird version of this with my own academic work.  More often than not, I write things that land in the literature with a huge thud.  One or two people notice, read and cite it in the first two or so years it is out . . . and then all of a sudden lots of people start citing it in all kinds of places, ranging from academic journals to UN Reports.  This has become a pretty regular pattern for me, which to some extent reflects the fact that I have a habit of writing stuff on the edges of my discipline(s), and also reflects how long it takes new ideas to get into people’s work and show up in print (generally speaking, it takes between 9 months and a year, at least, from the acceptance of an article to its appearance in print – so any new idea has to be read, processed and incorporated into a new article, which takes a few months.  Then the article has to be accepted, and review typically takes 3-6 months.  Finally, after it is accepted, another 9-12 month wait.  Add it up, and you realize that it takes anywhere from 14-24 months for the first people who read a new idea to start responding in print).

Delivering Development has been a little different, as it is being reviewed in different kinds of venues – a lot of blog attention, for example.  I also had the good fortune of having two people review the piece for the back cover, so I got some feedback before the book even came out.  In any case, the reviews are now starting to flow in, and overall they are really kind.  Best of all, they seem to get what I was trying to do with the book – which are the best kind of reviews one can get as an author.  The reviews (with links to full reviews):

Back Cover

Carr’s concern is that development and globalization, as currently pursued, are creating more poverty than they solve, needlessly producing economic and environmental challenges that put everyone on Earth at risk. Confronting this paradoxical outcome head-on, Carr questions the “wisdom” of the traditional development-via-globalization strategy, a sort of connect-the-development-dots, by arguing that in order to connect the dots one must first see the dots. By failing to do so, agencies do not understand what they are connecting and why. This fundamental questioning of Post WWII development strategies, grounded in life along “Globalization’s Shoreline,” sets his approach to development in the age of globalization apart from much of the contemporary development literature.

— Michael H. Glantz, Director, CCB (Consortium for Capacity Building), INSTAAR, University of Colorado

Over the fifty years since the end of the colonial era, rich nations have granted Africa billions of dollars in development aid—the equivalent of six Marshall Plans—and yet, today, much of the continent is as desperate as ever for help. In Delivering Development, Edward Carr delves into the question of why the aid system has failed to deliver on its promises, and offers a provocative thesis: that economic development, at least as international donors define it, is not necessarily equal to advancement. Unlike many combatants in the debate over the causes of global poverty, who jet in and out of these countries and offer the view from 10,000 feet, Carr takes a novel approach to the problem. He examines the aid system as it is actually experienced by poor Africans.Delivering Development focuses on a pair of Ghanaian villages, which despite their poverty by statistical measures have nonetheless managed to construct sophisticated systems of agricultural cultivation and risk management. Carr doesn’t argue that these places hold the secret to ending poverty. On the contrary, his point is that there are no overarching solutions, that each community holds a unique set of keys to its own future. By delving into development at the grassroots, Carr reveals the rich and bedeviling complexity of a problem that, all too often, is reduced to simplistic ideological platitudes.”

— Andrew Rice, author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda

Summaries of Recent Reviews (with links to full reviews)

The book is a riveting read, horizon broadening and . . . takes a somewhat unusual path towards challenging the dominant paradigm that complements other, parallel efforts . . . All-in-all, a must read for aid wonks everywhere.

— Andy Sumner, Global Dashboard

Development often fails. This is not a new premise. Many have written about it. But Edward Carr offers a fascinating perspective on why he believes this is true in Delivering Development.”

— Robin Pendoley, Thinking Beyond Borders

This book makes an important contribution to critical literatures on globalization and development . . . [providing] an often overlooked perspective within critical development literature: the real possibility for positive change and for a more active role of development’s target population to participate and shape the direction of change in their communities.

— Kelsey Hanrahan, Africa Today

Yep, no sooner do I post on failure and how we account for it and learn from it, then I come upon a big fail of my own.  That I can learn from. Irony, anyone?

As many of you know, I have been working in Ghana since 1997.  I’ve spent some 20 months there, though it has been a while since I was last on the ground (I need to change that) – basically, the last meaningful research trip I took was in the summer of 2006.  That work, along with the fieldwork that came before it, was so rich that I am still working through what it all means – and it has led me down the path of a book about why development doesn’t work as we expect, and now a (much more academic) complete rethinking of the livelihoods framework that many in development use to assess how people make a living.

One of my big findings (at least according to some of my more senior colleagues) is that inequality and (depending on how you look at it) injustice are not accidental products of “bad information” or “false consciousness” in livelihoods strategies, but integral parts of how people make a living (article to this effect here, with related work here and here, as well as a long discussion in Delivering Development).  One constraint specific to the livelihoods in the villages in which I have been working is the need to balance the material needs of the household with the social requirement that men make more money than their wives.  I have rich empirical data demonstrating this to be true, and illustrating how it plays out in agricultural practice (which makes up about 65% of most household incomes).

In other words, I know damn well that men get very itchy about anything that allows women to become more productive, as this calls one of the two goals of existing livelihoods strategies into question.  Granted, I figured this out for the first time around 2007, and have only very recently (i.e. articles in review) been able to get at this systematically, but still, I knew this.

And I completely overlooked it when trying to implement the one village improvement project with which I have been involved.  Yep, I totally failed to apply my own lessons to myself.

What happened?  Well, to put it simply, I had some money available after the 2006 fieldwork for a village improvement project, which I wanted the residents of Dominase and Ponkrum to identify and, to the extent possible, design for themselves.  We had several community meetings that meandered (as they do) and generally seemed to reflect the dominant voices of men.  However, at the end of one of these meetings, one of my extraordinarily talented Ghanaian colleagues from the University of Cape Coast had the experience and the awareness to quietly wander off to a group of women and chat with them.  I noticed this but did not say anything.  A few minutes later, he strolled by, and as he did he said to me “we need to build a nursery.”  Kofi had managed to elicit the womens’ childcare needs, which were much more practical and actionable than any other plans we had heard.  At the next community meeting we raised this, and nobody objected – we just got into wrangling over details.  I left at the end of the field season, confident we could get this nursery built and staffed.

Five years later, nothing has happened.  They formed the earth blocks, but nobody cleared the agreed-upon area for the nursery.  It was never a question of money, and my colleagues at the University of Cape Coast checked in regularly.  Each time, they left with promises that something would get going, and nothing ever did.  I don’t fault the UCC team – the community needed to mobilize some labor so they would have buy-in for the project, and would take responsibility for the long-term maintenance of the structure. This is on the community – they just never built it.

And it wasn’t until yesterday, when talking about this with a colleague, that I suddenly realized why – childcare would lessen one demand on women that limits their agricultural productivity and incomes.  Thus, with a nursery in place women’s incomes would surely rise . . . and men have no interest in that, as this is not the sort of intervention that would drive a parallel increase in their own incomes.  I have very robust data that demonstrates that men move to control any increase in their wives incomes that might threaten the social order of the household, even if that decreases overall household income and access to food.

So why, oh why, did I ever think that men would allow this nursery to be built?  Of course they wouldn’t.

I can excuse myself between 2006-2008 for missing this, as I was still working through what was going on in these livelihoods.  But for the last three years I knew about this fundamental component of livelihoods, and how robust this aspect of livelihoods decision-making really is, even under conditions of change such as road construction.  I have been looking at how others misinterpret livelihoods and design/implement bad interventions for years, all the while doing that very thing myself.

Healer, heal thyself.

I was on a panel at the Organic Trade Association‘s research series at the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore last Friday, discussing the issue of organic farming and the need to feed the world.  As I heard over and over from proponents of organic agriculture, the argument “you can’t feed the world on organic” is something thrown at them all the time.  As I argued, though, this is a production-based argument: that is, organic farming often has somewhat lower levels of productivity than industrial farming (though there are several cases where this does not seem to hold, and a number of confounding factors that make it entirely possible that the productivity difference is actually quite small).  Well, that would be a relevant argument if we were already using our food resources carefully.  Except we aren’t.  Consider:

  • We still produce more than enough food globally to feed everyone a very healthy number of calories, and probably enough that those calories could be accompanied by adequate nutrients.  The current problems of food insecurity are primarily about distribution, not production.
  • Anywhere between 20% and 40% of all food grown globally spoils before it reaches market.  The figures are lower for grains (which tend to travel well) and much higher for vegetables.
  • In the US, we throw away roughly 30% of all food we purchase.
  • Consider those two numbers together: In the US, we probably lose a lot less of the crop between farm and purchase at market, but then throw 30% of it away.  In other places, the food that reaches the table is nearly completely eaten, but we could lose up to 40% of that food before it reaches market.  In other words, no matter where you go on Earth, there is a hell of a lot of waste in the food system.
  • Finally, consider that 33% of all farmland is used for animal feed, one of the less efficient ways of getting calories out of the environment.  It is unclear to me if this 33% includes biofuel crops, but in any case biofuels would only add a few percentage points to this at most.

In short, we have distribution problems and an astonishing amount of waste in our food systems, but it seems that a lot of the food security debate in policy circles is driven by production arguments.  Enhancing production is not a low hanging fruit.  Enhancing production is often used as an excuse for ignoring local knowledge and capacity in favor of reworking entire agroecological systems (which usually ends badly).  Those of us working in development would be well-served to consider all the ways we might address hunger, including waste and distribution, rather than focus myopically on one cause for what might be a phantom problem.  Welcome to another central theme of Delivering Development: misunderstanding/misidentifying the development challenge, and then trying to solve the wrong thing.

One caveat: there are places in the world in absolute production crises – that is, they lack market access to facilitate the movement of needed food, and their agricultural systems are no longer resilient in the face of current challenges.  In these places, waste may be less of an issue, and distribution solutions may be years in the future (good infrastructure and markets require good governance, which is no easy fix), and therefore the application of new agricultural technologies might become the low hanging fruit solution for the time being, until the other challenges can be met. It’s about finding the right tool for the job (and knowing exactly what the job is, too).

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