sustainable development

Just a very quick thought today.  After reading Charles Kenny’s Getting Better and skimming Owen Barder’s “Can Aid Work?“, I’m wondering if anyone else can hear the faint rumblings of something very important – here we have two people, hardly from the fringes of development thought, noting variously that 1) aid does not seem well-correlated with economic growth, and therefore a clear causal relationship is pretty hard to determine and 2) despite this, and in several cases in the absence of major economic growth, things seem to be getting better in a number of places (this second point is mostly Charles).  In other words, are we seeing arguments against a focus on economic growth in development shift from the margins to the center of development thinking?

Those of us more on the qualitative social theory fringes of the field have long been arguing that the worship of growth did not make much sense, given what we were seeing on the ground.  Further, the emergence of the anthropocene (the recent era of human dominated environmental events) as a direct outcome of more than a century of concerted efforts to spur ever-faster economic growth, calls into question the wisdom of a continued myopic focus on growth without a serious consideration of its costs and potential material limits.  So if indeed we are seeing the beginnings of a shift in policy circles,  I am thrilled.  Nothing will change tomorrow, but I think these interventions might be important touchstones for future efforts to create some sort of development economics of finitude . . .

Andy Sumner and Charles Kenny (disclosure – Andy and Charles are friends of mine, and I need to write up my review of Charles’ book Getting Better . . . in a nutshell, you should buy it) have a post on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog addressing the two most recent challenges to the idea of the “poverty trap”: Ghana and Zambia’s recent elevations to middle-income status (per capita GNIs of between $1,006 and $3,975) by the World Bank.

Quick background for those less versed in development terminology: GNI (Gross National Income) is the value of all goods and services produced in a country, as well as all overseas investments and remittances (money sent home from abroad).  Per capita GNI divides this huge number by the population to get a sense of the per-person income of the country (there is a loose assumption that the value of goods and services will be paid in the form of wages).  So, loosely speaking, a per capita GNI of $1006 is roughly equivalent to $2.75/day.  Obviously $2.75 buys a lot more in rural Africa than it does basically anywhere inside the US, but this is still a pretty low bar at which to start “Middle Income.”

I do not want to engage an argument about where Middle Income should start in this post – Andy and Charles take this up near the end of their post, and nicely lay out the issues.  The important point that they are making, though, is that the idea that there are a lot of countries out there mired in situations that make an escape from food insecurity, material deprivation, absence of basic healthcare, and lack of opportunity (situations often called “poverty traps”) is being challenged by the ever-expanding pool of countries that seem to be increasing economic productivity rapidly and significantly.  The whole point of a “poverty trap”, as popularized by Paul Collier’s book on The Bottom Billion and Jeffrey Sach’s various writings, is that it cannot be escaped without substantial outside aid interventions (a la Sachs) or may not be escapable at all.  Well, Ghana certainly has received a lot of aid, but its massive growth is not the product of a new “big push”, a massive infusion of aid across sectors to get the country up into this new income category.  Turns out the poorest people in the world might not need us to come riding to their rescue, at least not in the manner that Sachs envisions in his Millennium Villages Project.

That said, I’ve told Andy that I am deeply concerned about fragility – that is, I am thrilled to see things changing in places like Ghana, but how robust are those changes?  At least in Ghana, a lot of the shift has been driven by the service sector, as opposed to recent oil finds (though these will undoubtedly swell the GNI figure in years to come) – this suggests a broader base to change in Ghana than, say, Equatorial Guinea . . . where GNI growth is all about oil, which is controlled by the country’s . . . problematic . . . leader (just read the Wikipedia post).  But even in Ghana, things like climate change could present significant future challenges.  The loss of the minor rainy season, for example, could have huge impacts on staple crop production and food security in the country, which in turn could hurt the workforce, exacerbate class/ethnic/rural-urban tensions, and generally hurt social cohesion in what is today a rather robust democracy.  Yes, things have gotten better in Ghana . . . but this is no time to assume, a la Rostow, that a largely irreversible takeoff to economic growth has occurred.  Aid and development are important and still needed in an increasingly middle-income world, but a different aid and development that supports existing indigenous efforts and consolidates development gains.


I like Grist, most of the time . . . and then there are times when it grates a bit.  Jess Zimmerman got me with one of the latter today – in a post about the grave condition of our oceans.  First, I guess I just like my info delivered straight, not . . . well, this:

Ocean ecosystems are taking a faster nosedive than anyone predicted. Without urgent action, coral reefs and entire fish species could disappear in a generation. Why is this happening? Do you really need to ask? Hint: It rhymes with shmarbon shmioxide.

Shmarbon shmioxide?  Really?

CO2 in the atmosphere increases the temperature of ocean water, throwing off the pH and making the oxygen-hogging algae population explode. Result: OCEAN DOOM.

Ocean doom?  That is the summary of this report?  This does not enhance the readability or accessibility of the report.  Hell, I feel like it trivializes the report, which I suspect was the opposite of Zimmerman’s intent.

But here’s the thing: Zimmerman’s summary mischaracterizes the report.  The title of the press release is the first hint:

“Multiple ocean stresses threaten ‘globally significant’ marine extinction.”

The second hint is the first bullet point of the press release:

  • The combination of stressors on the ocean is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth’s history

And finally, just reading down a bit, it becomes clear that climate change is one of three major stressors that combine to cause the challenges we face.

The group reviewed recent research by world ocean experts and found firm evidence that the effects of climate change, coupled with other human-induced impacts such as overfishing and nutrient run-off from farming, have already caused a dramatic decline in ocean health.

Increasing hypoxia (low oxygen levels) and anoxia (absence of oxygen, known as ocean dead zones) combined with warming of the ocean and acidification are the three factors which have been present in every mass extinction event in Earth’s history.

So, to Jess Zimmerman and Grist, please, please take a bit more time reading press releases (God forbid you read the report before reporting on it) and try to get the messages right.  The collapse of our oceans is an incredibly important challenge that is vastly underreported and very poorly understood by the general public (earlier post on this here), and addressing the causes of the depletion of the oceans (and some really significant terrestrial impacts as people look for new sources of protein – see chapters 2 and 13 in Delivering Development) will require addressing how we grow our food and dispose of our waste, and how we choose to fish the oceans for generations to come.  Climate change and CO2 emissions are part of the problem, no doubt, but without a comprehensive approach, we will collapse our fisheries no matter what we do on climate change.

The AP is running a story on food prices – and it is heavily focused on the problem of commodities speculation.  Actually, it is heavily focused on French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments on the causes of the food price increases.  While Sarkozy acknowledged the importance of issues like climate change, he quickly moved past these causes:

Sarkozy said the difficulties go far beyond the whims of nature. He said financial market specialists — instead of agricultural trading houses — had taken over the global farm market and called for change.

“Take the Chicago market,” said Sarkozy, listing how the derivatives exchange totals 46 times the annual U.S. wheat production and 24 times that of corn. He said 85 percent of the contracts on commodities futures markets are held by purely financial players “with no link to the commodity itself.”

“The example shows to what extent our world has lost a sense of value, a sense of reality, a sense of capitalism to serve the development and happiness of people,” Sarkozy said.

It is worth noting that Sarkozy is no leftist . . . though he will likely be painted as one for that last sentence.  Then again, anyone who notes that markets might have negative as well as positive effects will be painted as  anti-capitalist/naive/out-of-place ideologue (see the comments on Dot Earth’s mention of my concerns over climate change communication).

Let me note that Sarkozy is not demonizing all speculation – nor do I.  As I discussed in an earlier post, speculation plays an important economic role that can distribute the stresses that lead to future price spikes over time, thus ameliorating future crisis.  However, this is not to say that speculation should just run unregulated – basic regulation that keeps speculation within productive parameters would likely enhance its value in the food security arena.  (See this IFPRI forum for more on the role of speculation in world food markets)

However, more information for these markets would probably help as well.  While the USDA and other organizations offer estimates of global and sometimes national-level agricultural production, it would be good to have concrete, sub-national datasets on ag production updated in real time – this would remove some of the uncertainty in commodities markets that can then be leveraged into arbitragable price instability . . . and that alone might start to clean out the more problematic players in agricultural commodities markets.

Schuyler Null has a post up on The New Security Beat on the 2010 revision of the United Nations (UNDESA) World Population Prospects, noting that this new revision suggests that by 2100 roughly 1 in every 3 people in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa – a total of 3.36 billion people.  It is far too early to pick apart these projections, especially as the underlying assumptions used to guide their construction are not yet available to the public. Null is quite right to note:

the UN’s numbers are based on projections that can and do change. The range of uncertainty for the sub-Saharan African region, in particular, is quite large. The medium-variant projection for the region’s total population in 2100 is 3.36 billion people, but the high variant projection is 4.85 billion and the low variant is 2.25 billion.

A few preliminary thoughts, though.  I pulled up the data for a country I know reasonably well – Ghana.  Under this new revised projection, Ghana’s population is expected to reach more than 67 million by 2100.  Peak population growth is supposed to take place between 2035 and 2040, with steady declines in population growth after that.  With life expectancies projected to rise to 79 years by 2100, certainly a lot more Ghanaians will be around for a lot longer than they are today (current life expectancy is just shy of 60 years).  That said, these numbers trouble me.  First, I don’t quite see how Ghana will be able to sustain a population of this size at any point in the future – the number is just too massive.  Second, it seems to me that the life expectancy estimates and the population size estimates contradict one another – as Charles Kenny quite ably demonstrates in Getting Better, as life expectancies rise and more children reach adulthood, the general trend is to lower total fertility.  The only way Ghana’s projection can be made to work is to assume massive demographic momentum that I am not sure will play out in the face of expected declines in infant mortality and the increased cost burden for prospective parents supporting older family members for much longer than they do today. In other words, this seems to me to be a rather dire overestimation of where Ghana is going to be in the future.

Now, this is just a quick cut at what appear to be the assumptions for one country, but I worry that this potential overestimation has a certain political utility.  The Malthusian specter, however inaccurate it may be, remains a great motivator for aid and development spending.  Further, presuming massive demographic momentum requires we assume that adequate reproductive health options are not in place in places like Ghana.  Given that the monitoring of reproductive health, presumably to better direct development interventions, seems to be a large focus of UNDESA’s and other UN organizations’ mandate, they might have a bit of a built-in bias against a lower population number because such a number would presume significant progress on the reproductive health front, thus challenging the need for this particular service.  In a wider sense, it seems to revive fears of a population bomb, albeit in this case limited to Africa.  While I have no doubt that demography will be an important challenge to address in the future, I think the current numbers, even the low estimates, seem overstated.

Besides, any projection of any social process 90 years into the future probably has gigantic error bars that could encompass anything from negative growth to massive overgrowth . . . the problem here is that policy makers often fail to grasp this uncertainty, see the 100-year projection, freak out entirely and reorient the next 5 years worth of aid programming to address a problem that may not exist.

A while back, I had a blog post on a report for ActionAid, written by Alex Evans, on critical uncertainties for development between the present and 2020.  One of the big uncertainties Alex identified were environmental shocks, though in that version of the report he limited these shocks to climate-driven environmental shocks.  In my post, I suggested to Alex that he widen his scope, for environmental shocks might also include ecosystem collapse, such as in major global fisheries – such environmental shocks are not really related to climate change, but are still of great importance.  The collapse of the Gulf of Guinea large marine ecosystem (largely due to commercial overfishing from places other than Africa) has devastated local fish hauls, lowering the availability of protein in the diets of coastal areas and driving enormous pressure on terrestrial fauna as these populations seek to make up for the lost protein.  Alex was quite generous with my comments, and agreed with this observation wholeheartedly.

And then today, I stumbled on this – a simple visualization of Atlantic Fisheries in 1900 and 2000, by fish haul.  The image is striking (click to expand):

Now, I have no access to the datasets used to construct this visualization, and therefore I can make no comments on its accuracy (the blog post on the Guardian site is not very illuminating).  However, this map could be off by quite a bit in terms of how good hauls were in 1900, and how bad they are now, and the picture would still be very, very chilling.  As I keep telling my students, all those new, “exotic” fish showing up in restaurants are not delicacies – they are just all that is left in these fisheries.

This is obviously a development problem, as it compromises livelihoods and food supplies.  Yet I don’t see anyone addressing it directly, even aid organizations engaged with countries on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, where this impact is most pronounced.  And how long until even the rich really start to feel the pinch?

Go here to see more visualizations – including one of the reach of the Spanish fishing fleet that makes clear where the pressure on the Gulf of Guinea is coming from.

Geoff Dabelko, Sean Peoples, Schuyler Null and the rest of the good folks at the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars were kind enough to interview me about some of the themes in Delivering Development.  They’ve posted the video on te ECSP’s blog, The New Security Beat (you really should be checking them out regularly). So, if you want to see/hear me (as opposed to read me), you can go over to their blog, or just click below.

It’s been a while since I focused on the environment side of the whole “global change” thing that this blog is supposed to be covering . . . at least directly.  Pretty much everything we do in development is connected to the environment – indeed, of late I have been referring to climate change as development’s Kevin Bacon while at work: I can get you from climate change to a development challenge, or vice versa, in three steps or less.  But I have not been writing much on the subject directly.

However, thanks to Garry over at Resilience Science, I’ve just read a really interesting article in Science (and a nice counterpoint to the recent bin Laden ambulance chasing in that journal) by Steve Carpenter and a bunch of others on Early Warnings of Regime Shifts in ecosystems.  For years, I have been teaching my students about the challenges of global environmental change, and trying to impress upon them that the part of these changes I find most worrying are the parts that are hardest to predict – the thresholds when particular biophysical systems might make sudden, discontinuous transitions to new states.  What has worried me, and I think much of the global change community, the most is the fact that we are not sure where these thresholds are, nor are we sure what it looks like when we approach one.  Thus, there is a pervasive concern within the community that we won’t know we’ve crossed a threshold or done something irreversible.

Carpenter and his co-authors, however, tested the hypothesis that “catastrophic ecological regime shifts may be announced in advance by statistical early-warning signals such as slowing return rates from perturbation and rising variance” by artifically inducing a regime shift in an aquatic food web (Carpenter is a limnologist – he does lakes, as it were) while monitoring a nearby similar lake as a control.  Their finding: they could see statistical warnings of an impending regime shift for more than a year before it occurred, validating their chosen early warning indicators (chosen from previously constructed understandings of the food web in question, and a bit much to synthesize here).

That there might be early warning indicators, or that the variables chosen by Carpenter, et al served as useful early warning indicators for regime change in this particular system are not terribly surprising.  What is interesting, though, is that the authors were able to demonstrate in a real-world (experimental) context (as opposed to desk theorization) that the early warning signals of regime shift are in fact detectable and measurable.  Granted, this is for a small, bounded food web – but the demonstration is important in a much wider way.  If we can find early warning indicators for regime shift in a small food web, there is no reason why we cannot find indicators for other complex systems – we can find a lot more early warning indicators of the discontinuous changes we fear, and in enough time to possibly address those changes before they occur.

But one big caveat here: this study did not reveal the actual mechanisms of regime shift.  As the authors note:

The precise mechanism of the nonlinear transitions is not known for our experiment; it could be one of the processes proposed in the literature, or something else. These early warning signals are expected to occur for a wide class of nonlinear transitions (7). Even though the mechanism is not known, manipulation of an apex predator triggered a nonlinear food web transition that was signaled by early warning indicators more than a year before the food web transition was complete. Thus the early warning indicators appear to be useful even in cases where the form of the potential regime shift is not known.

It seems to me that there is a serious risk of conflating correlation and causation here – that the authors got a bit lucky in this experiment, but that in other systems without an adequate understanding of the mechanisms of change, false correlations could cause us to lose the signal of regime shift in the noise of inappropriate data points.  I’m not sure how, or if, they intend to address this . . . but I think they will have to, if we are to usefully apply this to our food-producing ecosystems in a manner that allows us to think about sustainable development and food security in a meaningful way . . .

Tom over at A View from the Cave has a really interesting observation at the end of his post on the Mortensen scandal the other day:

I have been conducting interviews with the Knowledge Management team with UNICEF and the one today go to discussing the access of information. I was struck when the gentleman I was interviewing said, “There are hundreds of offices and thousands of people in UNICEF. Any idea that I come with has likely been already done by 50 people and better than what I had imagined.” We need to access this information and share it with each other so that a story like this will not go the same route.

I know that this is not a new observation – hell, it is practically the mantra of the ICT for development crowd – but I want to point out something that gets lost in its common repetition: optimism.  The interviewee above was not disparaging the idea of access to information, but instead showing tremendous humility in the face of a vast, talented organization.  Tom’s point was to move from this humble observation to (quite rightly) point out that while great ideas may exist within the organization, until they are accessed or shared they are just potential energy.

This is the same thing I tried to leave readers with as one of the takeaways from Delivering Development.  As I argue:

We probably overlook significant problems every day, as our measurements fail to capture them, and we are likely mismeasuring many of those we can see. However, this is not failure; this is hope. If we acknowledge that these are, indeed, significant problems that must be addressed if we wish to build a sustainable future, then we can abandon the baggage of decades of failure. We can open ourselves up to innovation that might be unimaginable from within the echo chamber of contemporary globalization and development . . .

This uncertainty, for me, is hope. There are more than 6.5 billion people on this planet. Surely at least several of them have innovative and exciting ideas about how to address the challenges facing their lives, ideas that might be applicable in other places or be philosophically innovative. We will not know unless we ask, unless we actively go looking for these ideas and empower those who have them to express them to the world.

In short, Tom’s interviewee sees 50,000 people as a hopeful resource.  I see the nearly 7 billion people on this planet in the same way.  I am optimistic about the “potential energy” for addressing global challenges that exists out there in the world.  That said, it will be nothing but potential until we empower people to convert it into kinetic actions.  Delivering Development provides only the loosest schematic of one way of thinking about doing this (there is a much, much more detailed project/workplan behind that loose schematic) that was presented to raise a political challenge the the status quo focus on experts and “developed country” institutions in development – if we know that people living in the Global South have good ideas, and we can empower these people to share their ideas and solutions, why don’t we?

Sometimes optimism requires a lead blocker.  I’m happy to play that role . . . hopefully someone is following me through the line.

RealClimate had an interesting post the other day about adaptation – specifically, how we bring together models that operate at the global-to-regional scales with an understanding of current and future impacts of climate change, which we feel at the local scale. This post was written from a climate science perspective – and so focuses on modeling capabilities and needs as related to the biophysical world.  In doing so, I think that one key uncertainty in our use of downscaled models for adaptation planning is huge – the likely pathways of human response to changes in the climate over the next several decades.  In places like sub-Saharan Africa, how people respond to climate change will have impacts on land use decisions, and therefore land cover . . . and land cover is a key component of local climate.  In other words, as we downscale climate models, we need to start adding new types of data to them – social data on adaptation decision-making, so that we might project plausible future pathways and build them into these downscaled models.

For example, many modeling exercises currently suggest that a combination of temperature increases and changes in the amount and pattern of rainfall in parts of southern Africa will make it very difficult to raise maize there over the next few decades.  This is a major problem, as maize is a staple of the region.  So, what will people do?  Will they continue to grow maize that is less hardy and takes up less CO2 and water as it grows, will they switch to a crop that takes up more CO2 than maize ever did, or will they begin to abandon the land and migrate to cities, creating pockets of fallow land and/or opening a frontier for mechanized agriculture (both outcomes likely to have significant impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and water cycling, among other things)?  Simply put, we don’t really know.  But we need to know, and we need to know with reasonably high resolution.  That is, it is not enough to simply say “they will stop planting maize and plant X.”  We need to know when this transition will take place.  We need to know if it will happen suddenly or gradually.  We need to know if that transition will itself be sustainable going forward, or if other changes will be needed in the near future.  All of this information needs to be part of iterative model runs that capture land cover changes and biogeochemical cycling changes associated with these decisions to better understand future local pathways of climate change impacts and the associated likely adaptation pathways that these populations will occupy.

The good news* is that I am on this – along with my colleague Brent McCusker at West Virginia University (see pubs here and here).  Between the two of us, we’ve developed a pretty solid understanding of adaptation and livelihoods decision-making, and have spent a good bit of time theorizing the link between land use change and livelihoods change to enable the examination of the issues I have raised above.  We have a bit of money from NSF to run a pilot this summer (Brent will manage this while I am a government employee), and I plan to spend next year working on how to integrate this research program into the global climate change programming of my current employer.

Long and short: climate modelers, you need us social scientists, now more than ever.  We’re here to work with you . . .

*Calling this good news presumes that you see me as competent, or at least that you see Brent as competent enough to make up for my incompetence.

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