13 April 2014

Easterly on growth and leaders: busting myths or generating new ones?

In an article in Prospect magazine William Easterly claims that "the most persistent myth in economic development" is that "autocratic governments create growth miracles".  

This is far from clear to me as there are plenty of other candidates for most persistent myth about economic development, but what is clear is that  Easterly's evidence does little to refute the argument that autocrats are good for growth.  The regression work he describes seems to explore associations between changes in leaders and growth spells. He finds that changing leaders is barely associated with growth.  Leaders don't matter,  he suggests. 

Now this result could hold because leaders don't try to change anything, or they try but fail, or the things they do change don't matter for growth - either because they are not interested in growth or because they back the wrong growth driver. The possibility of the last explanation is important because it suggests leaders could matter in the future even if we think they have not in the past - they just need to do different things. 

So we should be much more interested in estimating the association between growth and the things leaders can control --either individually, or collectively over time--such as the extent of repression. Even better, we should estimate the associations between the dynamics of freedom and growth to test Easterly's very plausible assertion that it is a relaxing of repression -- whether within a leader spell or across spells -- that leads to an increase in growth rates. 

When assembling evidence it is important to avoid replacing one myth (autocrats are good for growth) with another (leaders don't matter for growth).

01 April 2014

Is economic growth helpful for reducing malnutrition? New paper says no. I think it is wrong.

So, I thought it would be good to start off my IFPRI blogging days with a piece about a new paper in Lancet Global Health on the link between economic growth and under 5 malnutrition by Sebastian Vollmer and colleagues.  They use 121 DHS surveys from 36 countries over the time period 1990 to present to conclude:

 "the quantitatively very small to null association seen in our study suggests that the contribution of economic growth to the reduction in early childhood undernutrition in developing countries is very small, if it exists at all."

This is so counter to all the other research out there (some involving me so I do have a vested interest), that it merits a closer look and some colleagues and I have written a letter to the Lancet Global Health to say why we think the study is flawed and draws the wrong conclusions.  We hope they publish it.  After they have made their decision I will share it. 

Many of the arguments we make in the letter are rather dry and technical, but they boil down to which of the graphs below (from the paper) you are trying to fit a line to.  

The first graph shows the association between the levels of stunting and GDP per capita--clearly a strong and downward sloping relationship.   

The second graph shows the relationship between changes in stunting and changes in GDP per capita over 3-5 year periods.   Here there is a much weaker negative relationship (although still significant at 7.3% level). 

The first graph shows the longer term relationship between GDP and stunting, the second one shows the shorter term relationship.  

Why are they so different?  Well, it takes time for GDP per capita to work its way into improved household income and improved health and watsan services.  The regression work focuses solely on the short term effects but does not clearly portray the results as such.  

Economic growth is not sufficient for malnutrition reduction, it may not even be necessary, but it is certainly almost always potentially useful.  Country case studies tend to show the important role economic growth plays in malnutrition reduction (e.g. see this one for Vietnam). 

We know that nutrition specific interventions can only take us so far (see Bhutta Lancet paper 2) and that nutrition sensitive interventions are full of potential, but as yet somewhat unrealised (see Ruel and Alderman Lancet paper 3).  So while for sure we cannot rely solely on economic growth to reduce malnutrition we need economic growth to pick up some of the slack.  We know it won't do it well in the short run.  We know it won't work in every country.  But on average, longer term, it  has to be useful.  That's what the vast majority of the evidence says and I don't see anything in this new paper to convincingly counter that.  

30 March 2014

The World Needs DFID. But DFID Also Needs the World.

Folks, this is my last post as IDS Director. The blog will move to IFPRI and I don't think you will notice the difference, save for the different background and disclaimers.

For my last post I thought I would summarise some thoughts on UK development assistance, some thoughts that I shared at a panel last week for my wonderful farewell event.

How does UK development policy need to change for the post 2015 world?

Next year is a big one for global development and for the UK. In September 2015 the new development goals will be unveiled and in May 2015 we will have a new Government in place, no matter who wins. So it is timely to ask: is UK development policy fit for purpose? I am proud of the UK’s development efforts, but I do have my worries about the future. 

First, I believe that an increasing proportion of the world’s problems will be solved collectively, for example, climate, trade, financial flows, drugs, firearms and tax. DFID’s bilateral programme is focused on 28 countries. This makes is very difficult to contribute to collective solutions via this route. One obvious way forward is to work through the multilaterals. The Multilateral Aid Review should give UK politicians some confidence that their money is contributing to things that support development, but a smaller and smaller proportion of the multilateral spend is going into the UN, the EC and even the World Bank. Instead it is increasingly going through Global Funds, which often are not set up to solve collective action issues. If collective action problems require DFID to work better multilaterally, they also require the UK’s contribution to go beyond DFID. However when this is tried (for example, Ed Davey’s Energy and Climate Change Department and their £15m grant to Colombian climate mitigation by reducing cattle flatulence) it does not exactly fly terribly well with those who are aid sceptics. There is almost a sense among some that if UK development spending is not focused on the 28, it is wasted. The UK needs to get better at being a leader on collective action issues—this will benefit the 28, the rest, and the UK. 

Second, I am worried about the UK’s engagement with the international development assistance (IDA) “graduates”, those countries that have GDP per capita above the $1195. The economic growth of many of these countries disguises the fact that very large proportions of their populations remain extremely poor.  Seventy percent of the world’s poor live in middle or low middle income countries. How can the UK support them? The DFID focus seems to be almost exclusively on helping these countries focus on economic growth and jobs, with side benefits for the UK’s own trading interests. Nothing wrong with that. However the lack of nuance in this growth focus is somewhat alarming. The World Bank’s World Development Report on jobs tells us that some jobs are development promoting and some clearly are not. We also know that some economic growth delivers what we want--poverty reduction, health improvements, wellbeing--while some does not. Why does this matter? Well the UK is squarely behind the World Bank’s Zero Poverty goals (getting $1.25 a day poverty down to 5% or so). But the World Bank’s optimism on this is derived from analysis that assumes the average growth rates of the past 10 years will persist in the next 15—but in every country! This proviso is wildly unrealistic. As work by Richard Bluhm has shown the only chance we have of getting anywhere close to zero poverty, even if average growth rates are maintained, is by improving equity. We actually have a pretty good idea about what to do on equity, but we also have a pretty good idea about how difficult that is in a political sense. But this is an issue for UK leadership. The quantity of growth only matters if the quality is above a certain threshold. And reducing inequality is a big part of growth’s quality. The UK has been very silent on this issue. It needs to step up to the plate and be a leader if it has any hope of seeing extreme poverty rates continue to decline at current rates.

Finally, UK development assistance has to get a better balance of accountability and flexibility. I don’t know a single person who has said to me in the past couple of years “DFID is getting easier to work with”. The transactions costs are mind numbing and resource consuming. They have been put in place to demonstrate value for money. We all want value for money. I’m a UK taxpayer too. But when, by the very nature of the work, it is easier to track the money than the value, the focus will be too much on the former and not enough on the latter. This can lead to strange investments, where cost control is wonderful but value is not interrogated. The other side of this is that only really large partners can afford to engage with DFID. This is a problem because creative ideas often come from the smaller groups and organisations. These creative ideas are needed more than ever in the world of collective action, fragile contexts and persistent poverty in middle-income countries. The recent appointment of a Head of Procurement within DFID in response to the recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact review (pdf) is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done.

Wherever I travel it is easy to see that the UK Government’s development efforts are held in very high regard. That is a massive credit to David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and the rest. But if our leaders want the UK to stay at the top of the tree, DFID and other UK development agencies need to start showing more leadership on collective action problems, on worrying more about the quality of growth and inequality and on reducing the costs of engaging while still relentlessly focusing on accountability. Fit for purpose? Yes, but creaking. The world still needs DFID. But DFID also needs the world.

21 March 2014

Richard Longhurst: It's time for the UK to learn lessons on development from "developing" countries

Here is a guest blog from Richard Longhurst, a ResearchAssociate of IDS. We know the old model of "you have the problems, we have the solutions" is dead. We all have problems, increasingly common and collective, and we all have solutions, increasingly from outside the West. Richard outlines some of the issues where the potential for cross learning is high. 

His intervention is timely, not just because of the recent floods in the UK, but because of a recent series of articles in Prospect on Poverty in Britain, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. There is a nice introductory essay by AC Grayling on "What is Poverty?" and interestingly he finds he cannot talk about poverty in the UK without referring to poverty elsewhere--he says there is a moral connection within and across nations. The difficult truth is that it is very difficult to get any such comparative work done because of how research funding is divided up in the UK and elsewhere: developing and developed. Time to tear down these artificial walls and learn, learn, learn. 

Time for the UK to learn some lessons on "development"?

By Richard Longhurst

There has been a great deal of speculation recently in some parts of the media about whether the UK international aid budget might be better spent on flood recovery here in the UK rather than be sent abroad.  

But the historic UK flooding disaster has opened up another and perhaps more helpful argument about the use of our aid budget, raised by several commentators, including George Monbiot for one. This is: Wouldn’t it be sensible to try and apply some of the technical advice and support we provide for poorer countries, right here in our own back yard? Certainly the Prime Minister’s recent assertion of ‘money is no object in the relief phase’ must have struck a chord with many development professionals involved with water management and disaster risk reduction projects overseas for which significant rates of return on the original investment can be achieved. 

This general concept of ‘Development in Britain: Lessons from the Developing World’ is not new. Here at IDS these arguments were initiated in the 1970s with an IDS Bulletin co-edited by Richard Jolly and Robin Luckham, (See Britain: A Case for Development? IDS Bulletin 9.2, 1977). As we move towards the Institute’s 50th birthday in 2016, which will inevitably entail quite a bit of reflection on a changing world, we hope to vigorously pursue these ideas once again.

Why is it that so many people think that ideas and actions can only flow from richer countries to poorer ones? Why do no formal mechanisms exist to channel ideas and programmes that have worked in low resource contexts to higher resource areas, despite much anecdotal evidence about ‘what works’. Surely with so many ‘Diaspora’ communities in the UK there must be a lot of informal sharing of experiences. As we approach the end of the current MDG framework and a new settlement is developed that will hopefully recognise the end of the traditional North to South development paradigm, surely it is time to reverse the flow of appropriate development innovations?

We want to raise questions in sectors such as governance (decentralisation in particular), health, education, social protection and livelihoods and science and technology. For example, can the lessons of conditional cash transfers be applied to the UK welfare programme? The development of food banks in richer countries could learn from experience in developing countries. In early childhood development, what can Sure Start learn from experiences in Latin America and Asia? The small-scale credit model from Bangladesh has been trialled in the US. Finally, from this list, the use of mobile phone technology has galvanised communities in developing countries in ways that we could learn from in the UK.

In IDS we are starting to draw together some of these experiences. This is a huge topic and there may be organisations interested in working with us. So do keep an eye on the IDS website as our work on this topic progresses.

Audio podcast: India's malnutrition puzzles

Here is an audio podcast of my lecture on India's malnutrition puzzles. (Prakash Shetty, right, was the chair).  About 45 minutes.

Slides also there.

Sound quality not great, so turn up the volume if you want to listen.  For enthusiasts.  

17 March 2014

Tony Benn: Outspoken, Principled and Too Easily Ignored

Last week Tony Benn died.  He was  the longest serving MP in the history of the Labour Party.

For those who don't know him, to give you a sense of the man, when he left the House of Commons in 2001 after more than 50 years as an MP he said it was to "devote more time to politics" -- a terrific riposte to the politicians who leave Parliament, usually in disgrace, to "devote more time to their families" or perhaps it was a condemnation of the UK parliamentary system which he felt was too focused on spin and not enough on the issues. More great quotes here.

He was also a keen diarist (he would surely have been a blogger) and I recommend the 1991-2001 edition in particular.

I've been catching a lot of commentary about him on the radio talk shows as I drive the kids to school and back.  He clearly divided people.  On the one hand:  "A toff who doesn't speak for working class people like me." and "His failure to help Labour towards the centre ground let in politicians like Margaret Thatcher." On the other: "A politician who spoke his mind and upheld his convictions" and "one of the most charismatic and wide ranging thinkers in politics".

Back in 2006 we invited him to IDS to be interviewed by Natasha Kaplinsky as one of our 40th Anniversary celebrations (above picture).  He was a great internationalist, never a Little Britain type.  It is no coincidence that one of his sons, Hilary, was the Secretary of State for International Development (a good one at that).

I have always admired him, not necessarily for his politics (I share some of his views, but he was too radical for me) but for his convictions.  And of course for his mischievous sense of humour.  When, in 2003, the newspapers reported his "platonic" relationship with Natasha Kaplinsky (daughter of one of IDS' most famous Fellows, Raphie Kaplinsky) and 40 years Benn's junior, he wrote a tongue in cheek letter to the newspaper saying he was outraged at the article assuming the relationship was platonic.

I do think his unwillingness to compromise was a shame.   Preserving principles while compromising to make deals--can anyone do that?  Not easy, but I wished he had tried a bit harder.  I would have loved to have seen him wield some real power.  He was too easy to ignore, and that was a great pity.

14 March 2014

The ICN2: So far, too food focused

The ICN2 (the second International Conference on Nutrition--the first was in 1992) is currently holding a public web based consultation on the zero draft of the political outcome document that will emerge from the Conference.  

The ICN2 website says:

"The Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) is an inclusive high level inter-governmental meeting on nutrition. It is jointly organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), in cooperation with the High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis (HLTF), IFAD, IFPRI, UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, WFP and the WTO. The ICN2 will be the first global intergovernmental conference to addressing the world’s nutrition problems in the 2lst century. Its overall goal is to improve diets and raise levels of nutrition through policies that more effectively address today's major nutrition challenges. It also aims to enhance international cooperation on these challenges"

My comments:

1. The Zero Draft kicks off by saying "malnutrition poses one of the greatest threat to people’s health and well-being". 

This is true, but it also poses a severe threat to their livelihoods and their ability to escape poverty as well as the economic growth of their nations. This should be stated very clearly up front.

2. Soon after the Draft says we: "recognize that the causes of malnutrition are complex and multidimensional, while food availability, affordability and accessibility remain key determinants."  

So this frames the Draft around food, which is puzzling given that food is just one of 3 sets of underlying factors and one of 2 sets of immediate factors driving bad nutrition. If the focus is to be food (and there may be good reasons) tell us why.  

3. Then it says "Together with inadequate physical activity, dietary risk factors account for almost 10% of the global burden of disease and disability."  

This feels a bit underwhelming, and does it really tally with the data? The table below is from the Lim et. al. GBD paper in the Lancet last year and suggests more than 10% (you can't just add up the risk factors because many of them are co-determined, but a diet low in fruits alone is over 4% of the burden of disease measured by DALYs). (The colours relate to different diseases.)

4. This takes us to points 9-20 in the Draft, "Reshaping the Food System to Improve People's Nutrition."  

This section goes like this. Food systems should focus on quality as well as quantity (paras 9 -11); Food and nutrition require multisectorality, but seen through a food perspective (paras 12-13); consumers need to be protected (para 14) as do people with special needs who are particularly vulnerable (the poorest, pre and antenatal maternal health, child health, school feeding, para 15); development assistance should support nutrition enhancing initiatives at national level (para 16); government leadership is key (paras 17 and 18), civil society, data and accountability are vital for holding governments to account on what they do as well as on outcomes (paras 19-20).

There are a few nods to nutrition outside of food systems, but not much.  

5. Committing to action. Para 21 starts out by recognising the need for a framework for "collective commitment, action and results is needed to reshape the global food system to improve people’s nutrition, particularly that of women and children" and then has 7 action points that are all food systems based. Para 22 says that there will be a Decade of Action on Nutrition guided by this framework and para 23 says it should be integrated into post 2015 global development efforts.

None of the action points relate to anything other than food systems.  


Overall, this would be a superb manifesto for FAO, but as a International Conference on Nutrition it is unbalanced.  It is too food focused. We do need to know how we can make the food system deliver more for nutrition, but we also need to know how to make family planning, social protection, health systems, water and sanitation provision, education, poverty reduction and governance more nutrition sensitive.  

If you feel the same (or not), please comment on the web forum, there is one week to go (March 21).