22 February 2010

BRAC Earth

Last week I attended a reception in honour of Fazle Hasan Abed, who had been knighted the day before. Sir Abed is the founder and Chair of BRAC, probably the largest NGOs in the world and based in Dhaka.

BRAC provides services to millions of poor people in Bangladesh, and increasingly is working in sub-Saharan Africa. There is a BRAC UK, a BRAC USA and a BRAC University. I was invited to the reception because BRAC is one of IDS's key partners in areas such as microfinance, public health, and pathways from extreme poverty.

So what is it about BRAC that makes it so successful? Is it BRAC's constant innovation? Its adherence to empiricism--continuously monitoring and evaluating its work? Or is the brand itself is so strong with its "movement"-like feel that it inspires people to exceed their own expectations?

There have been several external evaluations of different bits of BRAC in the past--usually positive--but what is it in BRAC's DNA that generates this success? Will this success stand up to the most rigorous impact evaluations? And how can BRAC's success be replicated elsewhere? These are key questions for the international development community, one deserving of a more systematic review. For an excellent paper that begins to get at these questions, see the recent report by Naomi Hossain and Anasuya Sengupta.

We all need to learn from this remarkable organisation.

19 February 2010

The Book with Seven Locks

"The Fututre is a Book With Seven Locks" is a Dutch proverb which means the future cannot be predicted.

On 18 January 2010 the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) presented its report Less pretension, more ambition: development aid that makes a difference’ to the Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation, Mr Bert Koenders.

The study envisions a different future for Dutch aid. It is causing quite a stir and there is a good international debate going on at the Broker web site.

The themes of the report resonate with me: (a) aid can make a difference, but there is no formula and a deep understanding of context is essential, (b) when it does have an impact, these are most likely to be modest compared to other drivers and income streams, (c) not enough of the aid is targeted towards structural transformation and growth, (d) not enough attention is given by aid agencies to global governance issues, and (e) aid has to be recast as a series of strategic investments in global development.

A few observations:

(1) The modesty language bothers me a little. I think it is fair to say that modesty should be the default position when it comes to expectations about what much of aid can do. But modesty should not be the aspiration. A few of the bets will pay off big, and we should expect them to. We just cannot expect most of them to. Aid is one of the few income sources that have the potential to be truly redistributive. But it is a relatively small resource and it should be used strategically to lever change, not simply to fill gaps.

(2) The report argues that social sector spending is less transformative structurally than some other investments. But spending in this area can be hugely transformative in terms of shifting power relations and changing the rules of the game--think of the research that shows how investments in health, education and social protection drive the rate and pattern of growth. Just as there is no one formula for development, there is no one formula for social sector spending. Perhaps social sector spending is simply the victim of an apparent but false certitude that one size really does fit all.

(3) There is not enough about sustainability in the conclusions of the report. I like the call for more reflection on the balance between short term and long term and between those in poverty and in the middle class, but there needs to be more nuance brought to the analysis of the types of growth that support development.

(4) Finally, there is a certain amount of romanticising of DFID. To its immense credit, DFID is probably the leading bilateral development agency, and it has invested heavily in knowledge generation, but it is also under fire for mission creep and overstretch with the critics arguing that it is working in too many countries, on too many issues, with not enough staff.

I am really impressed by the modesty and the ambition of the conclusions to the report. I applaud the authors and the Dutch development community for taking the ideas in the document so seriously. I recommend you read it.

15 February 2010

Asking the Right Questions About GM

There was an article in the Times (UK) on Feb 12 which suggested that UK scientists were increasing the pressure for greater GM use in addressing world hunger.

I suppose I am getting tired of the "embrace" or "shun" dichotomy that we see in the press about GM. Here is a letter that my colleague, John Thompson, and I wrote in reply, published today, Feb 15.

Sir, We must neither embrace genetically modified (GM) crops, nor shun them. We must govern them (“GM crops ‘are vital’ to beat food shortage”, Feb 12). It would be foolish to rule out GM as part of the solution to hunger, but equally foolish to see it as the silver bullet. For some ecosystems, for some crops and for some types of farmers it can help to raise yields and reduce the use of other inputs, potentially raising the income of smallholder farmers and those who do business with them. “Potentially” is key.

There are risks associated with the adoption of GM crops: risks for farmers — can they afford the upfront costs and will the crops work as advertised? Risks, too, for society — will only rich farmers be able to adopt the crops and will the crops in any case only reflect the needs of rich farmers? There are also risks for the environment in terms of unanticipated consequences.

In other words, there may only be a few real pathways from GM to hunger reduction. But those pathways may be very powerful ones. If we get the governance of GM right we can find them and create them. Farmers and other less powerful stakeholders need to have a meaningful voice in the institutions that prioritise, assess risk and regulate GM crops.

The best science results from asking the right questions about the right problems, and it is the potential users of technology who understand their own problems best. The best regulations need not be burdensome; indeed they can be facilitative, but they must be based on real, local evidence and so have firm scientific underpinnings. When these are in place I would expect us to be much better at finding and creating ways in which GM can reduce rather than exacerbate hunger.

09 February 2010

Should the 0.7% be embedded in law?

A draft International Development Bill embedding in law the target of achieving aid levels equivalent to 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) by 2013 is working its way through the UK Parliament. I recently submitted evidence to the Select Committee on International Development about the Bill. My comments were framed by the question: will this legislation do any harm?

I organized my comments around the implicit assumptions in the draft Bill. I also noted the potential conflict of interest as IDS receives approximately 50% of its funding from DFID contracts and grants.

Implicit assumptions in the Bill

1. More aid is good for development.

This is a good bet if

a. aid allocations are driven by a donor-recipient consensus on the evidence about what stimulates development in that context and if both donor and recipient have the capacity to utilize the overseas development aid (ODA)

b. as aid allocations increase they are more carefully monitored and assessed.

c. as aid is increased, it does not distract attention from aid exit strategies in certain countries

2. More aid from the UK is good for development.

a. Leadership is important for inspiring others to increase commitments, but free-riding is all too easy and I would like to see some evidence on whether unilateral increases in aid are merely compensated for by reductions of other Development Assistance Committee members

b. Does DFID have the capacity to sensibly administer more aid under these tight deadlines? If it took 11 years to increase the ODA/GNI % by 0.17 percentage points, an increase of 0.27 percentage points over 5 years represents a three-fold increase in ramp up. Can this be done in increasingly fragile contexts with a smaller and smaller staff?

3. UK aid will be more predictable.

a. The previous point emphasizes how quickly ODA will have to increase if the target is to be met. Does this make UK Aid more predictable?

b. If ODA is strictly tied to GNI does this mean ODA amounts become less predictable?

4. Without the Bill, 0.7% will not be protected. With it, it will.

a. Cross-party support for 0.7% seems strong although some have concerns about DFID funds being allocated to climate and military purposes should there be a new Conservative Government.

b. There seem to be several get out clauses that an SoS can appeal to if the target is not met (“the effect of economic or fiscal circumstances arising outside the UK” which seems to offer wide latitude)

5. The UK public is comfortable with the 0.7% by 2013 goal.

a. Will this Bill, and the reporting on any failure to meet the target, strengthen or erode the UK consensus? I can see several newspapers using the Bill and any subsequent failure to meet it to “wake up” its readers about “money being given to corrupt African governments”. This will need to be managed and DFID’s communication strategy around ODA will have to be substantially strengthened (see a recent IDS report by Spencer Henson and Johanna Lindstrom on this).

b. The timing could be seen as electioneering. If so, this could contribute to the politicization of aid in the UK. If the current Government is re-elected, does the Bill add much? If an Opposition party is elected, any failure on their part to support it could undermine the UK’s credibility going forward.

On balance, I am in favour of the Bill. But the Impact Assessment section of the Draft Bill seems rather sanguine about the potential downside risks--these will need active management.

01 February 2010

MDGs: 4 takeaways from the UNDP meetings

A few days ago I mentioned that I was on my way to UNDP for the first UN consultation on the MDGs in 2010. The big conference in September is coming up to address the question: what can be done to accelerate progress on the MDGs?

The event co-organised by IDS, DSA, EADI, DFID and UNDP had some excellent speakers--Mary Robinson, Salil Shetty and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr to name a few, but the real stars of the show were the UN representatives from Barbados and Mongolia. They showed how the MDGs had been contextualised and developed in a country context.

My 4 takeaways from the meeting were

1. Use the September 2010 conference to refresh the Millennium Declaration. The world in 2010 is very different from 2000. Use this opportunity to update the development vision -- the development means as well as the development ends.

2. Stress the importance of leadership and accountability. Where are the indicators of effort and commitment that underlie the MDGs? Let us have more assessment of that.

3. Set up a consultation process for September 2010 that draws on the in-country riches of adoption, adaptation, extension and evolutions of the MDGs. Innovations from different parts of the world must be embraced and learned from.

4. Set up a monitoring, evaluation and learning system for the MDGs. The data gaps are striking, and the knowledge gaps even more profound. The original MDGs were not set up to evaluate their usefulness. The creators of the MDGs should subject themselves to this discipline of critical reflection about the value added of the goals.

To contribute to the debate, add your comments here or write to Selim Jahan, Director of the UNDP Poverty Division (Selim.Jahan@undp.org).

Food Security: The Triple Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People

A recent paper in Science which I contributed to dwells on how 9 billion people will be able to avoid hunger in 2050.

The demand for food is going to explode in the next 40 years. Rapidly growing incomes demand more animal products, which are cereal intensive. As populations grow, so too does demand. Yet today, 1 billion people cannot get access to enough food to stave off hunger. Meeting the additional demand without making a dent in the 1 billion is not going to be easy. Meeting the demand while drastically reducing hunger will be even harder. Doing all of that in a way that does not damage the environment and avoids conflict adds to the challenge. It would be so much easier to have to deal with only the first of these 3 challenges. But they are inseparable. Meeting increased demand while ignoring sustainability and hunger represents the hollowest of achievements.

Recognising the indivisibility of these three challenges automatically rules out business as usual. Radical changes are needed in the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed and accessed.

The paper in Science, authored by the lead experts on the Foresight project, explores 5 components of the food system that need to be changed.

Closing the yield gap. There is much variation in the ability of farmers to produce food from a given set of inputs. Can the yields from those who produce the lowest approach the yields from those who produce the highest? Those producing the lowest yields have the weakest access to high quality inputs such as knowledge, infrastructure, water, fertilizers and finance. These inequalities must be addressed head on if yield gaps are to be closed. This means that extension agents need to work where it is least convenient. Microfinance organisations need to be incentivised to develop new products and services for those who are currently not considered creditworthy. Irrigation needs to penetrate historically less favoured areas. Roads need to be built where they can generate the most food security, not the most food.

Increasing production limits. Technology has a key role to play here, whether conventional or biogenic. But again, the frame of meeting demand, ending hunger, and doing it sustainably shapes the processes of technology development. Genuinely inclusive processes need to be developed to set priorities, determine access, assess risk and regulate new technologies so they go beyond merely producing more food for the newly affluent. Innovations in institutional arrangements will be as important as technological innovations.

Reducing waste. 30-40% of food is lost to waste. We believe this is not inevitable. In the richer countries, food is cheap and is not consumed with care. Significant behaviour changes, akin to attitude shifts around recycling, will be needed to change this situation. In the poorer countries, much food is wasted due to poor storage and transport infrastructure. Giving attention to post harvest losses became unfashionable in the 1990s—this has to change.

Changing diets. As incomes increase more meat is demanded by consumers, putting more pressure on natural resources. But livestock is an important part of rural livelihoods. More research is needed to develop livestock and poultry that are less demanding in terms of cereals. This will be good for poor and rich farmers alike and for sustainability of land use. And more research is needed to find effective strategies to shift consumer preferences in rich countries towards healthier meat choices,

Expanding aquaculture. Aquatic products play a critical role in the diets of consumers across the income spectrum. We feel that there is scope—through technical and institutional innovations—for greater aquaculture production in places where it has not proved commercially viable, often the places where most hungry people live.

These 5 elements may or may not be the most important elements of a new approach to food production, storage, distribution and access. But they way we have framed the 5 as needing to address all 3 goals--meet demand, end hunger, do it sustainably--provides an illustration of how we think food systems need to be radically re-cast. For this recasting to stick, it is going to have to be backed by new alliances of natural scientists and social scientists to develop technologies and practices that are socially and environmentally sustainable, new institutions that bring in marginalised voices to affect a wide range of decision making processes, new incentives for powerful actors to respond to these new voices, and new ways of monitoring everyone’s commitment to feeding 9 billion.