28 May 2010

Feeding the Future, Digesting the Past

Last week USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah launched the Feed the Future initiative.

The website says:

"Feed the Future (FTF), the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, renews our commitment to invest in sustainably reducing hunger and poverty. President Obama's pledge of at least $3.5 billion for agricultural development and food security over three years helped to leverage and align more than $18.5 billion from other donors in support of a common approach to achieve sustainable food security. This common approach builds upon the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action – agreements that embody the international commitment to increase efforts in harmonization, alignment, and managing aid for results."

So, what's new?

In Shah's speech (in which he highlights malnutrition much more highly than the website does) we get some clues

* 4 Principles: (1) country owned and country led plans, (2) increase agricultural business investments, (3) more creative partnerships with large scale food buyers, and (4) use of regional investments to implement regional trade and investment corridors.

* A serious commitment to "focusing on women in everything we do", including a focus on nutrition in the first 1000 days of a child's life (see earlier blog on Hillary Clinton's speech)

* prospective evaluations, i.e. doing baselines at the start "with a focus on measuring women's incomes, rates of child malnutrition and agricultural production".

This sounds promising, but the devil is all in the details of course.

The Administration needs to learn from history, recent and distant.


On country owned and country led, we know from the PRSP experience that the donor reporting timelines do not often coincide with the real time it takes for this kind of national ownership to bed down beyond high level office holders

On getting agriculture and nutrition to work together, we know this will take strong leadership and deliberate incentives and is not a natural fit

On prioritising women, great, but make it something that women can say no to, avoid generating responsibility without authority and be mindful of burdens that women might take on and the unintended consequences that may follow (e.g. violence against women)

On private sector involvement, this will work best if there are citizen-engaged institutions that help shape and assess that involvement

On assessing efforts, great, but in reality, baselines are not terribly well incentivised and are often seen as a donor requirement rather than a way of learning how to improve. For more on these themes, see the excellent Future Agricultures Consortium for more on these and related issues

What does distant histrory tell us?

A recent paper by Ha-Joon Chang on the lessons from the experiences of the now rich countries should be standard reading for the FTF team.

Some key observations from the paper:

* the history of agricultural policy in today's rich countries offers many lessons for how the state can intervene productively to boost agriculture today (state-funded agricultural research was heavily promoted in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the US in the mid to late 1800s; Japan and Sweden were pioneers in agricultural extension; state funded rural credit systems were developed in Norway, France and Denmark)

* Many of these historical interventions go beyond the standard stereotypical dichotomies of public sector=bad and private sector=good. It is the imaginative combinations of public and private that drove agricultural productivity in the now rich countries: there are few blue prints, the successful could develop context specific blends of institutional and policy innovations

* The now-rich countries shamelessly copied and learned from one another, always experimenting.

* National food security was a big motivator of this innovation. In a world of perfect markets, national food security would not depend so much on national food production, but many of the most food insecure countries today are poorly served by markets and have little room for error if markets, even when working well, generate fluctuations in prices.

I am hopeful about Feeding the Future, but only if it can learn by digesting the past.

26 May 2010

Has the Internet Been a Force for Development?

In 2003 China and India had 100 million Internet users. Today that number is 350 million. In most African countries the number of Internet users has tripled or quadrupled in the past five years. In 2004, two in 10 households in the developing world had a mobile phone subscription while today it is five in 10. In 2004 the social networking site Facebook was only used by Harvard students and now it has over 300 million active users. In 2004 YouTube did not exist, but now it gets 1 billion views a day.

So has any of this made a significant contribution to accelerating development? This is a fascinating research agenda, but so far I have not seen a centre of gravity emerge in the field, nor have I seen too much that is based on data from a wide range of contexts.

This lack of evidence became apparent when I tried to write this blog. I wanted to test the assertions in the Foreign Policy article "Think Again: The Internet".

The article by Evgeny Morozov generates a number of propositions (some very straw man-like) which he then demolishes one by one. Here are some of them, with his verdict in parentheses:

1. The Internet has been a force for good ("sadly enough a networked world is not inherently a more just world")
2. Twitter will undermine dictators ("does more information really translate into more power to right wrongs?")
3. The Internet makes governments more accountable ("It's political will, not more information that is still too often missing")
4. The Internet boosts political participation (in the US "both tuning in and tuning out of political discourse have never been easier")
5. The Internet brings us closer together ("The age of the splinternet beckons")

But the evidence base Morozov summons seemed narrow and perhaps vulnerable to more scrutiny, so I had a quick look for alternative sources of evidence. I could not find much.

And yet this is such a vital set of questions. As we know with nearly all new technologies, whether they work to promote poverty reduction and social justice depends on who is doing the prioritising, who has access, who is regulating and who is assessing risk. The STEPS Centre at IDS is a leader on these issues, albeit not on the Internet per se.

One small but important initiative is a roundtable being held on Thursday 27 May at IDS and organised by IDS Fellow Evangelia Berdou entitled "Participation 2.0: Are new, open innovation models for developing solutions for the poor part of the answer to the development crisis?". This is part of a larger IDS initiative called Reimagining Development.

23 May 2010

DFID: Week One

Andrew Mitchell and his team have been in post at DFID for just over a week now. First impressions from those who have seen him in action are that he is a good listener, fundamentally believes in DFID's mission, and is serious about VFM: value for money. The good news is that people feel his agenda is not all about money, but also about value.

He caught the headlines by making some initial cuts to development awareness projects. These projects are designed to increase the UK public's awareness of global poverty and what can be done about it. We know that the new Secretary of State wants the UK public to be more engaged with international development so it will be interesting to see whether he relies solely on MyAid--the model that allows UK public voting on some of DFID's priorities to do so.

Secretary of State Mitchell also caught the headlines in Afghanistan saying it was "crucial" to create a functioning Afghan state by providing good health care and education, while Defence Secretary Liam Fox said that Britain was not there to fix Afghanistan. This is probably the first of many apparent disconnects between Defence and Development and shows how difficult the joined up approach will be.

I am very pleased that Andrew Mitchell stood up for development in a difficult context.

Finally reviewing the Sunday media in the UK we had Dambisa Moyo on the Andrew Marr Show. Moyo, one of the harshest critics of aid (see my review), was invited to scan the newspaper headlines but did not pick up on an international development story. Other critics have not been so quiet, perhaps emboldened by this week's DFID cuts. Alex Singleton writing in the Telegraph heavily criticises Mitchell for his commitment to the 0.7 % aid target (which seems to have made it into the Queen's speech outlining the current government's legislative agenda).

He cites "the most authoritative econometric study of aid" by Tomi Ovaska which concludes "that a 1 percent increase in aid as a percent of GDP decreased annual real GDP per capita growth by 3.65 percent" to make the claim that "the Tories are going to increase poverty, and we’ll paying for them to do it".

Well, Mr Singleton, please use better source material in the future. The paper is published in the Journal of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. The paper is full of problems (variable definition, variable choice, econometric specification, econometric robustness checks etc.) but even if we take the econometric results at face value they do not support the conclusion of the paper. Using his first definition of aid, the full sample and the most appropriate econometrics, Ovaska cannot show overall significance of the impact of aid (positive or negative) on GDP growth and using the second definition he finds a result less than half as negative as the stated result.

At the end of a week where VFM has dominated the discourse, it is clear that it must be applied to research studies too.

14 May 2010

The first 1000 days: Hillary Clinton on Undernutrition

A welcome speech on May 11 from the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on undernutrition. Although USAID is under the Secretary of State, this is a fairly remarkable level of attention for this issue.

The speech was accurate in the stats, and reflected current thinking about the levels and consequences of nutrition and some of the technical things that can be done to reduce it. I liked the sticky messaging around the first 1000 days (the window of opportunity from pregnancy to 2 years of age).

One major disappointment--nutrition still has to work through other new US initiatives in agriculture and in health systems. Fair enough, this where the money is. The disappointment was the lack of attention given to the governance and leadership of the nutrition strategy.

As I have argued many times before, because undernutrition is a cross-sectoral issue and because it is quite invisible, fighting it requires strong leadership --and the supporting institutional infrastructure-- for advocacy and coordination. I very much hope this gets addressed soon.

12 May 2010

Old and New Challenges for the New Team at DFID

Yesterday Andrew Mitchell was appointed the new Secretary of State at DFID.

Many congratulations to him on this appointment. I have been following the work of his team for the past two and a half years and have watched with interest as their policy positions have evolved over that time.

Also yesterday the full text of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Agreement was published (focusing mainly on areas that needed to be negotiated).

From an international development perspective this is what caught my eye:

* "The target of spending 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid will also remain in place." It's not clear if the commitment to embed this in legislation in this parliament, including the timeline for reaching 0.7, has survived. Also, no mention of ring-fencing the international aid budget.
* On gender and equalities this seems to have been downgraded, at least at home, given the new combination of this portfolio with the Home Office
* On Climate, the word itself only gets mentioned once in a relatively long section on environment. The section deals almost exclusively on what the UK will do to reduce its own emissions, but contains very little on the leadership role it wants to play internationally. I don't know how significant that is.
* There is nothing on trade.
* A Commission will be set up to look into the separation of retail and investment banking (which was a major contributory factor in the global financial crisis).
* There will be a full Strategic Security and Defence Review alongside the Spending Review-- hopefully DFID will participate in this review

The new team will have some very tough battles on their hands in the coming months:

1. How to protect the aid budget in the July budget: against cuts and against the equally important needs of climate mitigation and adaptation (Lib Dem Chris Huhne at Energy and Climate will obviously be a key ally)
2. How to reconcile the learning and the accountability sides of the new emphasis on impact and value for money--they do not often work hand in hand
3. How to make sure that the greater accountability of aid-dependent countries to donors does not detract from the accountability of those countries to their citizens
4. How to work with the Commonwealth and Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense while keeping the focus of DFID on poverty reduction
5. How to fix the broken feedback loop in development (citizens in aid-receiving countries cannot hold donors to account) --are there practical ways of doing this?
6. Getting the private sector and NGOs to work together productively to find new ways of combating poverty and powerlessness--there is suspicion on both sides, but perhaps not as much as one might think
7. How to communicate the case for aid in a more authentic and grown up way
8. And the biggest challenge for the next 5 years: how to use aid to reconcile three overlapping but separate goals: global poverty reduction, the sustainable management of the planet, and the UK national interests?

Clearly Secretary of State Mitchell and his team have a lot on their plate. We look forward to working with them on these and other challenges in the months to come.

Finally, I would like to thank Douglas Alexander and his team for the leadership they have shown on international development these past few years. We are proud of what DFID has become in this past decade and we look forward to its sustained excellence as it evolves under the new team.

Does it Matter Which Party Holds the DFID Brief?

So its official, the UK has a new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government.

Who will be the new Secretary of State for International Development? Will it be a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat? No announcement yet.

But will it matter which party leads on International Development?

I have already noted the many areas of agreement between the 3 main parties on international development (see Manifesto Watch).

Now a survey of 1000 British adults in March from nfpSynergy reports that supporters of the three main parties have very similar preferences towards giving.

When asked which type of charities "have you given money to in the last 3 months" 29% of the Lib Dems and Labour supporters reported yes for international development, with 25% of the Conservative supporters doing the same.

On giving to environment and conservation charities, the Lib Dems are the clear leaders (11%), with Labour on 8% and the Conservatives on 6%.

On climate change, over 90% of supporters from all 3 parties expressed an awareness of the issue and over 80% of all three express awareness of the issues relating to hunger in Africa.

This cross-party support--at the supporter and party levels-- is encouraging and a testimony to DFID's ability over the last 13 years to make the case for international development.

We shall see how this broad agreement plays out when it comes to the hard spending choices in the emergency budget set for July.

09 May 2010

Does Policy Matter?

As the UK's Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties hash out post-election policy positions in a bid to form a coalition, an article last week in the influential Hindustan Times caught my eye.

An editorial by Abhijit Banerjee at the MIT Poverty Action Lab argued that policy and legislation cannot do much to reduce undernutrition if even wealthy Indian parents do not give their children the right food, water, sanitation, care and health to achieve a good height for age. He focuses mainly on food, which is a live issue right now given the pressure the Right to Food campaign is piling onto the Indian Government.

But there are a number of problems with this line of reasoning.

1. Is food the most important determinant of undernutrition in South Asia? Actually, no. According to peer-reviewed studies I have been involved in, the main driver is the low status of women. Women's low status drives choices about water, sanitation, health, and food. The status of women is something that is amenable to public policy. Policy can affect legislation around equal benefits and working conditions, a greater equality of economic opportunities and equal political representation in a range of decision making.

2. Prof Banerjee's arguments on the ineffectiveness of policy per se are countered by the wide variety of undernutrition rates within India. The states that have been most successful in combating undernutrition (Kerala, AP, Tamil Nadu) are those where their political leaders --and citizens-- have made it a priority.

3. Evidence from South East Asia shows how policy can make a difference. A recent paper on from Vietnam shows how the incredible success in reducing undernutrition in that country over a 10 year period starting in the mid 90s was half attributable to Vietnam's rapid economic growth and half to the strategic investments made in the health system by the Vietnamese Government.

At the national level neither India's rapid economic growth nor its current policies seem to be reducing undernutrition. But this is not inevitable. This is not a curse. This is something that policy and leadership can change.

05 May 2010

Conditional Cash Transfers in India: Can They Work?

Santosh Mehotra, the Director General of the Institute of Applied Manpower Research in the Indian Planning Commission kindly sent me a paper he has written on Introducing Conditional Cash Transfers in India, which can be found on the IDS Centre for Social Protection web site.

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) are popular in Latin America: cash transfers targeted to low income households, receivable upon keeping children in school and taking them to health clinics. The paper is a frank assessment from a very senior Indian official about the ineffectiveness of many of the current anti-poverty programmes and a positive proposal for change, through the introduction of 5 new CCTs.

The paper highlights 3 key conditions for CCTs to work in India.

* the ability to target households below the poverty line. In India, this capacity is not strong--income levels and income thresholds are widely contested, reflecting a lack of consensus on methodology and underlying political reasons for not establishing that consensus (i.e. the interests of those who would be excluded by accurate below the line poverty targeting).
* a biometric system of identification to ensure those who are targeted actually receive the funds.
* the availability of bank or post office accounts for the unbanked population is needed.

Mehotra argues that these barriers are not as daunting as they may seem. Mehotra reports that a new poverty methodology will be employed in the 2010 census of the rural population, that a new biometric system is likely to be in place by 2012, and that the National Rural Employment Guarantee has created over 80 million new bank or post office accounts. The paper notes that funding is in place for 4 of the 5 CCTs.

The paper does not analyse the political interests behind the current system and whether there is political support for the new CCTs. No doubt this is politically difficult for a member of the Planning Commission. Instead pilots are proposed, presumably to build up buy in from those who purport to speak for low income voters. But there is an underlying sense that these conditions for success are mountainous.

The paper makes me more inclined to think that CCTs in India would be a good thing, but it also makes me suspect they are a long way off from being implemented.

Nevertheless, this paper serves as a well-informed way of initiating a very important debate.

03 May 2010

Mental Models, Relationships and Schizophrenia: Donors on the Couch

As we in the UK wonder who will be in charge of DFID on May 7 (plausible scenarios can be generated for each of the 3 main political parties), three articles on governance and aid caught my eye.

The first, An Upside Down View of Governance, reports on the work of the Centre for the Future State, a consortium convened by IDS. The report argues that donors must change the way they think about governance or become redundant. Mental models of governance held by DAC donors have the wrong starting assumption "that progressive change consists in, and can be achieved through, strengthening the formal, rules-based institutions that reflect a clear division between public and private spheres of life". The report argues that donors should rather restrict themselves to doing things that only they can do--such as fix international governance of finances, drugs, and arms which create incentives for weak governance in the South. Donors should also learn to identify overlaps of interest between themselves and national groups and then focus on those. Tax reform is a good (and perhaps rare) example of this--developing country governments want to increase revenue, donors are interested in increasing finance for development, and OECD governments are keen to improve international financial regulation. Above all, donors should see themselves as facilitating local political processes that can contribute to progressive change. This means developing country governments and donors working in a more inclusive way with a wider range of actors, not an easy thing for any of us to do, especially in a donor culture that emphasises short term delivery above all. The report is very well written and draws on an enormous amount of primary research from the consortium partners and others.

Another publication by Paul Isenman and Alexander Shakow, Donor Schizophrenia and Aid Effectiveness: The Role of Global Funds, concludes that "a better balance needs to be struck between global funds and 'horizontal' assistance, and between bilateral and multilateral aid". If the "Upside Down" report focused on how donors need to discard old mental models to better contribute to good enough governance, this report points out the contradictions between two current donor mental models: vertical and horizontal funding. It asks what donors, who are at the same time funders and critics of global funds, can do to increase the coherence of their own policies and actions. How to square the circle? How to diagonalize funding support? The authors call for donors to stop treating these two mechanisms as ships passing in the night, begin seeing them as potentially complementary instruments in aid investment portfolios, adjust internal policies and incentives to manage competition between sectors (e.g. through increasing coherence of their representation on the boards of global funds) and make more of an effort to ‘think twice’ before starting new funds.

The two previous reports point to the need for donor officials to invest in relationships to help to understand and contribute to the reality they work in. Rosalind Eyben's comment "Relationships Matter"on Amy Pollard's article on donor coordination in Indonesia published in the Broker, reminds us how difficult it is for any bureaucracy to do this, especially ones that operate at a distance and can control the narrative about the tangible influence they are having on the local scene. In the context of aid officials' everyday work, they compete with each other for access to donor country resources and for influence in their location. Even co-location of different agency staff working on the same issue is nigh on impossible.

These articles contribute to a sense of fin de siecle for the current aid set up as we know it. We recently held a donor roundtable as a part of the Reimagining Development programme, the report of which we will share in the next couple of weeks. The main issue that arose in that meeting, was how national self interests (donor and non), global sustainability interests and poverty reducing MDG-type interests can be aligned. They don't have to overlap, but they can. The challenge, as the Upside Down Governance report puts it, is for all of us to switch off pre-existing knowledge that constrains our imagination. The report tells us how, when learning to draw, some art teachers advocate an initial exercise of copying a drawing that has been turned upside down--this is the way we can seen angles, relationships and proportions differently.

Upside down perspectives, new mental models, schizophrenic tensions, and the surfacing of relationships--donors are on the couch as never before.