29 August 2009

All the king's men and the Development Studies Association

I am useless at managing my email inbox. I regularly get messages telling me my inbox is nearly full, prompting a junk email deletion frenzy. Most of these junk emails are challenging some aspect of my current status: are you leading your team successfully? are your computing costs as low as they could be? why aren't you on facebook yet? I especially like the ones that begin "Dear Ms. Haddad"--the ultimate challenge of status. On the work front, I have noticed a stream of emails, blogs and articles that challenge current development thinking on a wide array of topics--can we afford growth that is green and pro-poor? is the downturn changing gender balances of power in unexpected ways? will the credit crunch liberate us from an obsession with consumerism? is financial economics broken? is morality about to become a bigger part of policymaking? In other words, will all the king's horses and all the king's men be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again, or do we need an altogether less fragile and more nimble symbol for the way we reconstruct development in the 21st Century? These and other themes will be the centre of attention at the Development Studies Association's Annual Conference. I am currently the President of the Association and I hope to see you in Ulster, Coleraine, Sept 2-4.

26 August 2009

Gender: everyone sighs?

One of the first IDS Bulletins that was published after I joined the Institute noted a quote from a development agency staff member that "when gender is mentioned everyone sighs".

Gender issues have been on my radar screen more than usual these past few weeks. We had a visit from Isatou Jallow, Chief of the Gender, Policy Strategy of the World Food Programme to discuss WFP's new Gender Policy. She met with the Bridge team and some of our Fellows. One of the progressive things about WFP's new gender policy is that it is making a big effort to incorporate understanding of masculinities and men's roles in promoting gender equity. Then a couple of articles on the Katine site (The Guardian newspaper) on brideprice. The debate was around whether brideprice is necessarily a violation of rights---some said it represented an informal and nominal gift and others said, no it was a contract that commodified women. Still others said, it does not matter what it is, don't judge other places according to UK cultural values. I also caught Douglas Alexander the DFID Secretary of State being grilled by Kirsty Wark on BBC's Newsnight about how could the UK government spend resources supporting the Afghanistan government when it had just passed a law stating that food could be witheld from wives who refuse sex from their husbands (glad I did not have to answer that one). Then the Caster Semyena controversy (the South African runner being "tested" for how female she is) and what it means to be a man or a woman. And finally an article in Foreign Policy on the financial crisis saying that the recession is turning into a "he-cession" as more than 80% of the job losses in the US have fallen on men. Fascinating stories all.

How is it that the development profession has managed to turn such a vital, contested and essential part of the human condition--the relations between men and women and the factors that govern them--into such an anodyne topic?

Interview with Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Programme

Today I post an interview I did with Josette Sheeran, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme. I wrote to her a couple of weeks ago after reading more headlines about how WFP was having to scrabble around for more funds to deal with the short and medium term causes and consequences of hunger. The old critiques of WFP--undermining local markets with food no-one really wants--are much diminished today. They are using cash to purchase food locally and making bigger efforts to reduce the transactions costs of buying from even the smallest smallholders. Often they are the only development agency operating in some of the most fragile contexts on earth. My view is that they deserve more support.

These are her answers to my questions. The forward purchasing mechanisms she highlights sound promising and her reminder that 18 years ago China was WFP's biggest programme is a reminder that hunger is not inevitable (and that UN agencies can improve the targeting of their programmes!).

Hunger today is a scandal. Don't tolerate it.

Haddad: We hear a lot about WFP in the media - much of it is about funding shortfalls rather than the important work you do in terms of staving off hunger and saving lives. How frustrating is this for you?

Sheeran: WFP typically reaches about 10 percent of the world's most desperately hungry people. Due to the food and financial crisis, the number of urgently hungry has climbed to over 1 billion for the first time in human history. In bad times WFP needs to be bigger, in better times smaller. This year, our analytical needs assessment has us planning to assist 108 million of the poorest and hungriest in 74 countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

To do this WFP must raise $6.7 billion this year. But as of mid-August, we have received just $2.5 billion. WFP is facing an unprecedented funding shortfall. As we rely entirely on voluntarily funding, we have had to reduce our beneficiary numbers or cut rations in countries such as Uganda, Bangladesh and Yemen. In some cases, we have had to suspend an activity entirely. Without a rapid and massive influx of funds, we will soon have to make even harder choices and even deeper cuts.

Haddad: What percentage of WFP’s time and other resources are spent raising funds?

Sheeran: Unlike many other organisations in the United Nations, WFP depends entirely on voluntary contributions, which come mostly from donor countries but also from multi-donor trust funds, foundations, businesses, and individuals. It’s important to note that more than 90 percent of all funds raised go directly towards feeding the hungry. This very low overhead is not only highly efficient, but also includes a very small proportion less than 1 percent – of WFP’s annual budget that is spend on fundraising and communications. We therefore strategically leverage as much earned media and free visibility as possible – news, the Internet, You Tube, word-of-mouth, online games, such as freerice.com. One of the reasons that the world so generously stepped forward last year in response to the food price crisis was because nations knew that our very low overhead and focus on field operations meant that more than 90percent of every dollar raised would go to help the hungry.

Haddad: Has anyone at the WFP undertaken an analysis of the impact on lives lost due to lack of donor response?

Sheeran: We are already in a crisis situation when a child dies of malnutrition-related causes every six seconds – that equals 5.1 million deaths or more than half of all under-five deaths in the world. If malnourished children do not get the correct nutritional support during the critical first two years of life, their brains and bodies will be permanently stunted and their futures forever compromised. If farming families that have seen their annual crops devastated by drought or floods lose their monthly food ration, they will eat their seeds and slaughter their cattle, leaving them destitute – and still hungry. And during the high food price crisis, we saw how hunger led to civil unrest as hungry communities rioted in more than 30 countries.

There is a devastating economic as well as human cost to hunger. According to the Global Framework for Action the cost of child under-nutrition to national and economic development is estimated at $20-30 billion per year. When multiplied over the lifetime of today’s undernourished children, this amounts to $500 billion - $1 trillion in lost productivity and income. For some countries, the cost of child malnutrition is as much as 2-3 percent of their annual GDP.

Unplanned budget cuts leave beneficiaries weaker and therefore more vulnerable and more susceptible to disease. It also reinforces a negative downward cycle, making it harder for beneficiaries to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger.

The faster WFP can respond the sooner we can break the negative cycle of poverty and hunger at its root and prevent short-term food needs from turning into long-term malnutrition deficits.

Haddad: What is the main change you would like to see to WFP’s funding mechanisms? What is stopping this happening? How can supporters of WFP help change this dynamic?

Sheeran: Our immediate priority must be to raise sufficient funds to meet identified needs in the current year. Many donors have sustained their generous support despite a challenging economic environment. Others, such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Oman, contributed for the first time in 2009.
We are also reaching out to corporate partners and individual supporters. Everyone can play a crucial role in helping to raise awareness of worsening global hunger and our funding shortage. Moving forward, WFP is also working with donor countries to explore mechanisms that would improve the stability and predictability of its funding. More predictable and stable funding would allow us to plan farther ahead and respond to needs more effectively and efficiently. We already have in place a forward purchase mechanism that allows us to purchase food at low prices – when we’re not in a crisis situation – and preposition them. This has proven to cut 2 months off our normal procurement and delivery timeframe – thereby allowing us to not only save money, but life-saving time.

We are exploring with donors, the World Bank and other financial experts how to scale up this pilot concept and create an advance finance facility that will cut costs, improve effectiveness and efficiency, allow us to response more quickly in a crisis and institute a level of predictability that we have not had in the past.

Haddad: Did the G20 outcomes from London make a difference to WFP’s operations? What are you looking for from the upcoming G20 in Pittsburgh?

Sheeran: Restoring growth in the global economy is critical to continuing what had been a positive trend in cutting poverty and hunger. The global economic crisis has hit developing nations hard – reducing remittances, slowing exports, evaporating jobs and minimizing investment. By focusing on that goal and recognizing that the current crisis has had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable people in the world’s poorest countries, the G20 meetings were helpful.

Following an historic $20 billion commitment to food security by world leaders at the G8 Summit in Italy this summer, the Pittsburgh G20 will be a vital opportunity to set a bold vision for ending hunger vulnerability by directing substantial new resources toward the kinds of successful anti-hunger safety nets pioneered by Brazil, China, Sierra Leone and other countries. We need to remember that hunger is a solvable problem. A few generations ago Ireland, where my ancestors were from, was devastated by famine. Just 18 years ago WFP’s biggest program was in China. Today they help us feed other nations. Brazil has broken the hunger curve through innovative food safety nets and other programs. Ghana is making progress.

Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that these hard economic times do not reverse our progress on defeating hunger. Effective food security strategies must be comprehensive, including emergency food assistance, food safety net programs, such as school feeding and mother-child nutrition interventions, as well as increased agricultural production. They are proven strategies that need to be modelled as best practices.

22 August 2009

Spurious Correlations and "Compelling Inconclusiveness"

Spurious correlations are very much on my mind. As I noted in an earlier blog, I read Risk by Dan Gardner over the summer and enjoyed it very much (about the way people incorrectly assess risk, guided by emotion, fanned by the media and organisations with their own agendas). Recently my colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies passed me an article by Steven Greenberg in the British Medical Journal which shows how "unfounded authority" can be generated by citation distortions, using evidence from the medicial journals. Then in Foreign Policy magazine this month there is a note by David Lehrer on how the Journal of Spurious Correlations is a refuge for "compellingly inconclusive" results in the public policy research sphere. I also read somewhere about Rejecta Mathematica, a new online journal that has similar goals in its field. This is a trend I welcome--too often the applied policy research community polarises conclusions and overstates claims to get into the journals or policymakers hype a particular paper because it confirms their own biases. For example in the very same issue of Foreign Policy a "Prime Numbers" feature claimed that low birthrates are needed to create wealth and are not driven by wealth. This strikes me as a very strong statement--I would expect causality to run in both directions ("compellingly inconclusive"). But no articles were cited to backup this claim. The final thread on this entry relates to a paper I am writing on "The M&E of M&E". One section of the paper reviews the impact that the participation of intended beneficiaries has on project outcomes. A paper I co-authored in 2001 on this issue claims “De facto participation lowers the ratio of project to local wages; increases the labor intensity of projects that provide community buildings, roads, or sewers; and lowers the cost of creating employment and of transferring funds to poor individuals.” In writing this M&E of M&E paper I am reviewing more recent reviews of whether participation affects project outcomes. My 2001 paper is cited in two papers, authored by highly respected economists from the US and Europe, as showing that participation has "no effect" on project outcomes. I suspect they are referring to the result we found that de jure participation has no effect--but the much more important result is that de facto participation does. Thanks to the Greenberg paper I know know what this is called: "citation diversion--citing content but claiming it has a different meaning". You could also call it sloppy research. Just don't call it spurious correlation.

13 August 2009

Customer-Driven Aid?

Two recent publications pick up on the themes from my previous blog (Data Mining and Homer Simpson) around accountability to donor country taxpayers and the intended beneficiaries of aid--citizens of recipient countries. The reports are the Conservative Party’s new Green Paper on international development and Aid Under Pressure a report from the watchdog for DFID, the UK’s House of Commons International Development Committee (IDC) chaired by Malcolm Bruce MP. The IDC’s report is well written and wide-ranging. The parts that caught my eye were on aid effectiveness and on public support for development. The report warns DFID of the tensions inherent in managing a growing budget with fewer staff in increasingly fragile contexts, while trying increasingly to demonstrate impact. The tendency, the report warns against, is focusing on inputs (i.e. spending) rather than outputs, outcomes and impacts. The Conservative Party report (refreshing in many ways) is unnecessarily critical about DFID under Labour on this issue.

The truth is that none of the donors are good at documenting the impacts of their spending. The canon of documented aid success stories is remarkably short, however impressive the components are: the eradication and control of smallpox, polio, measles and river blindness, progress in slowing HIV infection rates and the emergence of AIDS, increases in education enrolment rates, and farm productivity improvements in Asia. The weak documentation of impact has many causes: it is not easy to do (e.g. aid is often only one of several inputs and impacts take a while to emerge), taxpayers in rich countries have not shown much interest, and those living in poverty in the developing world have been cut out of the feedback process. But this is changing.

The downturn and the movement towards 0.7% of Gross National Income are raising the profile of spending on international development. And the Conservative Party Green Paper as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are now saying that they are looking at “innovative ways to transmit the preferences, desires, and priorities of poor people to decision makers” (Green Paper). DFID and indeed the whole development sector will come under increasing pressure to demonstrate poverty impact. The understandable temptation to accentuate the positive will need checks and balances. One set of checks is independent assessments to document the successes--and the failures. One set of balances is to innovate around ways to get customer feedback (i.e. people who are supposed to be benefitting from the interventions) into the public domain. For these changes to happen, donors are going to have to relinquish control to potentially gain more credibility and trust (and effectiveness) — a difficult calculation and a bold decision, but surely ones best made ahead of the curve rather than behind it.

09 August 2009

Data Mining and Homer Simpson

It is annual leave time in Europe and a chance to catch up on some reading. And when I’m not reading Robertson Davies’ “Deptford Trilogy” (brilliant, by the way) I have been going through some reports and books that have been lingering near my in tray. First up is an article in the New York Times entitled “In the age of data, nerd is the word” where Hal Varian (he of the famous economics text book and now chief economist at Google) and others reflect on the growing trend of trawling massive data sets (generated by web hits) and looking for things that are statistically odd. The job of statistician will become “sexy” says Varian. While this might be pushing things a bit far, we certainly are in an increasingly data-rich world.

Who is going to make sense of all this data? The statisticians are necessary but not sufficient. Why is that? Because the ways in which data are manipulated reflect political and cultural processes. Analysts have their own agendas (Diana Coyle’s excellent book, Economics: The Soulful Science, reminds us that economists in the US vote one way in general elections, and anthropologists vote in a very different way) as do the organisations they work for. The new data sets they work with do not represent a global census, much as they may appear to be, they are samples—big ones—and very partial, dominated by the US and Europe and by the wealthier groups in those regions.

Knowledge is power, yes. But power and culture also shape knowledge. Dan Gardner’s latest book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, reminds us of the classic Homer Simpson quote “people can come up with statistics to prove anything.. forty percent of all people know that”. Gardner goes through all the traps of interpreting data—looking for evidence that lines up with what one already thinks (confirmation bias), group-think (social cascading), the tendency for people to think something that is easy to visualise occurs more frequently than it really does (the example rule), our tendency to initially view new information as all good or all bad (the good-bad rule) and the power of stereotypes to frame new information and data (the rule of typical things). Statisticians are people too and will suffer from these biases no matter how rigorous their methods are because their models kick in largely after the questions have been framed and before the conclusions are drawn.

What does this have to do with international development? First, the development community is not spending enough time thinking about the potential of the internet to fix some of the things wrong with development (e.g. accountability to people living in poverty and ways of communicating to donor country citizens about what aid is and is not good for). Second, we need to be aware of the potential of the internet to make some things worse (e.g. generating a knowledge platform that privileges those with the greatest capacity to generate information which is partial). Third, I am worried that the age of data will undermine critical analysis. Hypotheses, true causality, evidence based policymaking and commons sense may become victims of the new data miners unless we put checks and balances in place. As the pressure on aid budgets increases and as the numbers in poverty grow we need to know more about where aid works and where it does not. These are themes that IDS is currently trying to raise funds for.

03 August 2009

Cory Aquino

I was very sad to note the passing away of Cory Aquino. Her husband's murder in 1983 mobilised Filipino citizens against the tyranny of the Marcos regime and she ran for and was elected President in 1986, governing decently and fairly, fighting off numerous coup attempts, and modelling good enough governance in a country that had forgotten what it looked like. The Philippines has a special place in my heart--it was the first country I visited in Asia and I spent a lot of time in Mindanao in the 1984-86 period, witnessing the lows and highs of citizen action. There should have been a bigger recognition in the world media of this remarkable woman, the first female President in Asia.