27 October 2009

Gender and Macroeconomics: Necessary Bedfellows

About 9 months ago there was a joke going around about how the global financial crisis would never have happened if it were Lehman Sisters instead of Lehman Brothers. A difficult hypothesis to test!

But a UN recent publication lead-authored by my IDS colleague, Naila Kabeer (World Survey on the Role of Women in Development, 2009) does not shy away from how macroeconomics and public finance need to-- and can be--more gender-sensitive.

Much progress has been made in the microeconomics of gender in the past decade (although not enough-see this paper by me, recently published in the latest Copenhagen Consensus book from Bjorn Lomborg).

Within economics, macroeconomics has been the most resistant of all outposts to gender sensitive analysis and policy formulation. In addition to a good review of the micro evidence, Kabeer and her authors draw our attention to new ways of thinking about macro models, taxation, budgeting, fiscal stimuli and the like.

It is no surprise that in times of crisis, gender issues come to the fore. Women, whether they want to or not, tend to take on or be assigned a shock absorber role during crises. This is one of the reasons why we saw an upsurge in interest in the microeconomics of women in development during structural adjustment in the 80s. Now I hope we see more at the macroeconomics and public finance levels--both during and after this global financial crisis.

26 October 2009

Beyond Planning: Markets and Networks for Better Aid

A striking article (title above) has just been released by Owen Barder. The paper argues that sustained improvements in the effectiveness of aid cannot be made by more planning. Rather, we need collaborative markets which draw on the different strengths of planning, networks and market paradigms. Donors would have to agree collectively to change. They would regulate the aid infrastructure better--positive spillovers (innovations) would be subsidised and negative ones (such as creating parallel systems or an excessive number of donor missions) taxed. Donors would repair the broken feedback loop from intended beneficiary to donor (a theme I have focused on many times in this blog) via new mechanisms. Donors would improve the transparency and accountability of their operations (examples include publish what you spend, and user ratings of technical assistance providers). Finally they would unbundle public service agreements so that funding and delivery are delinked and provision of services could be competed for, with the publication of subsequent performance data.

Why should donors do any of this? Because there might be political resonance in ideas of transparency, outcomes, and voice for beneficiaries of aid. The other reasons he gives (appealing to donor long term interests and the fact that it's easier to collectively agree on the rules of the game than agreeing on how to coordinate specific actions) seem less strong to me.

But should they do any of this? Barder makes it clear that this is no blueprint, but a way of injecting some evolutionary mechanisms into the ossified aid system. I don't agree with all of the specific mechanisms he proposes, but I like the direction of travel and the blend of new (networks), borrowed (markets) and old (planning) ideas. It should generate a good and much needed debate.

19 October 2009

Local Media as Development

I just read a good paper by Charlie Beckett, Director of Polis at the LSE (and IDS Trustee) on networked news for developing countries. The paper argues that the media are often wrongly engaged by NGOs and others in development. The "media about development" mindset can be extractive, feeding communication from country programmes to donor newsrooms. The "media for development" mindset seeks to build local media capability, but often in ways that are overly technically focused and in isolation from society. He argues that networked journalism--engaging with local media as development actors--can blend both of these. Engaging with local media in a "continual conversation" between NGOs and the communities they seek to empower will allow NGOs and others to integrate their programme and media work and improve their accountability to the communities they seek to support, as well as to the donors.

This approach resonates with me given the shift in our Mobilising Knowledge for Development (MK4D) programme towards greater capacity development of knowledge intermediaries--more on this as it develops.

14 October 2009

A Ghost at the Party

Yet more on Indian Malnutrition. A good article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (if you can get beyond Jamie Oliver on the cover) on malnutrition--the ghost at the Indian economic party, which features the recent IDS Bulletin on Malnutrition in India.

Here is an excerpt "When Lloyd Blankfein, chairman of Goldman Sachs, declares that the 21st century will be India’s and that of the other so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia and China), he has sound reasons for saying so. The self-confidence of the Indian corporate elite is even more arresting. Mukesh Ambani, head of one of the country’s principal conglomerates, expressed a common view when he insisted that the 21st century “belongs” to India — though he largely attributes this to demography, contrasting India’s young population with the aging populations of the United States, Western Europe, Japan and China. But there is a ghost at the party, and its name is malnutrition."

The article juxtaposes the optimism that many feel about India's demographic dividend (the bulge of young population about to enter the labor market) and the dawning grim realisation that the potential of up to half of these young citizens has been damaged by impairments in their first 3 years of life.

Last night I went to a reception at Buckingham Palace held in Honour of an upcoming visit of the President of India, Smt. Pratibha Devisingh Patil. In effect, it was a case of another ghost at the party. Her website says she is committed to the cause of education. How I would like to have 10 minutes of her time to talk about how nutrition is vital to that cause.

09 October 2009

Rebooting Africa

Calestous Juma delivered the Marie Jahoda Lecture at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) last week. Calestous is a prominent Professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School and a Graduate of the University of Sussex. His talk was about the role that innovation in science and technology must play in Africa's development.

His talk was brimming with optimism, about "rebooting Africa". With new undersea fibre optic cables connecting Africa's coastlines with the rest of the world, African countries could become the new destinations of outsourcing, the drivers of digitization and the conveners of cloud computing (the use of Internet storage via rugged laptops). What can the state do to support this? Build infrastructure. Distribute the capacity to innovate. Train leadership on the importance of investing in rather than taxing technology development.

His techno-optimist vision was rightly challenged by Melissa Leach from IDS. She noted the ways in which science and technology, left to the market, could not guarantee the delivery of poverty reduction and social justice. See the STEPS research centre she directs for more work on the governance of science and technology. Juma countered that he did not mean to imply that the freedom to innovate was the same as the unchecked free market. He also said that it was important to begin innovating rather than analysing the perfect time to innovate.

There is a lot to both views. Too often those outside the African continent are unable to imagine and vision the new opportunities. On the other hand, the accurate assessment of risk requires good information and a capacity to do something in response to it.

My favourite quote from Juma's presentation? "Vision is a product of trial and error. When something works, the vision is how to project it forward, not how to make it work".

Hope and Peace

There may well be more deserving candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize than Barack Obama. But let there be no doubt about his accomplishments.

First, he got elected on a progressive ticket. A ticket that said we want people around the world to welcome American help. A ticket that stressed "Cooperation and Interconnectedness" as opposed to McCain's American "Exceptionalism and Leadership". A ticket that rejected cynicism.

Second, he is taking on big foreign policy issues in the middle of the fullest domestic agenda any US president has faced since the Second World War. We don't know how well he will do on climate or on the reform of the World Bank, IMF and the US State Department or on Middle East peace talks, but he is expending scarce political capital when many would just forget their overseas campaign pledges.

Third, he has changed the way the world sees America and has given numerous failed peace processes renewed impetus. As I wrote back in January "If there is a silver lining to the current global economic downturn, it is the upturn in progressive leadership in the US. We are loading impossible hopes onto the new administration and it faces many practical problems in achieving stated plans on sustainable development. But I suspect it will be the as-yet-unknown possibilities and opportunities that an Obama administration will inevitably create space for which will, in the end, make the biggest positive difference to global poverty and justice".

It is this game-changing dynamic that the Nobel committee awarded the prize for. What has he achieved? The replenishment of that crucial ingredient for peace-building: hope.

08 October 2009

How Committed is the UK to International Aid?

We just finished a round of presentations at the UK political party conferences on how to make aid work better. My narrative was that the UK public does not think aid works because of the failure of the aid community to be clear and upfront about when aid works and when it does not. If we only provide feel good vignettes in boxes, this breeds cynicism. So, is sharing failures a risky thing to do? It depends. If we describe what we have learned from the failures and explain why the risks were taken in the first place, I believe not. We can also build more UK commitment for aid by using it more smartly (less gap filling and more strategic support for reform within recipient countries) and more authentically (allowing so-called intended beneficiaries to define success or failure of the policies and interventions and to have a public platform to report on their definitions of donor and government performance).

I was at the development fringe meetings of the Labour and Conservative parties, giving similar presentations at each. From the two IDS events, I found the discussion on aid reflecting the current realities of the two parties. In the Labour event, discussants were struggling with the practicalities of using aid in a sensible way. In the Conservative event, there was much discussion over the possibilities of using it differently. There was also much testing of the Conservative commitment to aid, with their senior representatives saying the rights things (see article by Annie Kelly in the Guardian). While the outcome of the election will not be determined by party positions on international aid, the election could yet shape the lives of millions of people outside the UK-for better or worse. I will be tracking the commitments of the different parties towards aid and reporting on it from time to time as we approach the election next May.