26 August 2011

What are the gaps in food governance and how to close them?

Today I attended a 2 hour roundtable on food security policy and governance hosted by Unilever.

Participants were drawn from the NGO world (Oxfam, Save the Children, the Prince's Trust), the UK Government (FCO, DFID, DEFRA, Cabinet Office, BIS and the Treasury) the private sector (Unilever, Barclay's, IBLF, McKinsey and Yara) and researchers (NYU, Imperial College and IDS). The goal of the roundtable was to figure out how food security governance could do better to connect public and private sector stakeholders in policymaking. The roundtable was one in a series of meetings to feed into the upcoming G20, World Economic Forum and Rio+20 processes.

There is only so much that 25 people can accomplish in 2 hours on such a slippery concept as food governance. My own observations were helpfully organised by a "motive, means, opportunity" framework from IBLF. What are the motives, means and opportunities for public and private sector stakeholders to work together and which governance gaps need to be filled to support this?


* Leadership. Public sector leadership these past 3 years on the food price spike(s) has been pretty weak (one participant called in "G-zero" leadership--Doha, Copenhagen, low investment in agriculture, no restrictions on biofuels, weak on L'Aquila commitments etc.) and yet leadership is vital as a spur to action. Have we been looking in the wrong place for leadership? Perhaps it is there in Ghana, Vietnam and Brazil, or in the private sector? How do we nurture it?

* Lack of a roadmap. There seems to little consensus on what to do. This is inevitable given the different political, economic and social contexts in different countries, but consensus could surely be achieved on some principles. Lack of it was thought to be a drain on action.

* Lack of data. We don't have much data on where hunger is and how this changes in the short term. We don't collect food production data standardised by hunger reduced or by carbon emissions generated--in their absence how can we evolve governance to meet that aspiration? Do we know which countries and companies are really committed to reducing hunger as a result of their actions? Do we know enough about food waste and where to invest in post harvest technologies?


* There was consensus that different stakeholders needed to establish relationships at the national levels and that any capacity and alignment of interests thereby developed would work well to support international agreements. The latter could not drive national action without understanding national level political interests.

* To facilitate public and private stakeholders working together, transparency and trust are paramount. How do different stakeholders know who has a good track record and who does not? This is particularly difficult in the private sector, and some kind of Agroindustry Transparency Initiative would really help.

* Institutional innovations can help cross-working. Despite the lack of appetite for new organisations, potential new virtual charters, conventions and other mechanisms to bring stakeholders together should not be taken off the table. Rio 1992 gave us a number of useful such mechanisms and we should be open to new ones.

* Boundary-crossers. People who can span both cultures (private and public) were seen as essential for cross-pollination. There are not too many of these folks (sometimes for good reasons relating to conflict of interest) but we need to look hard at how to increase the demand for and supply of people with these skills

* The concept of resilience (the ability to preserve the function of a system or organisation because it has a good capacity to adapt to shocks and uncertainty) has a lot of resonance in the public sector and a growing one in the private sector, but what does it imply for business as usual in the public and private spheres? Co-generating ideas about resilience could be one way of developing new blends of public and private.


One participant noted that crises should generate opportunity and novelty and in that spirit we listed some of the newer ideas we had heard of:

* "catastrophe bonds" to help countries/companies deal with shocks
* progressive food commodities investments
* hedging derivatives for helping organisations manage risk
* private sector initiatives to reduce the transactions costs of dealing with lots of small clients (e.g. a private sector version of WFP's purchase for progress model)
* higher stock to use ratios with stronger incentives for good management of stocks
* stress testing of food security organisations (as in stress testing of banks)
* better understanding of the features of value chains that promote hunger reduction
* less decoupling of humanitarian and development efforts might lead to less (not more) variability in each domain and to greater incentives for private-public partnerships

All in all, an interesting meeting and about as much as one could get from so many different people in such a short time--testimony, in part, to the excellent chairing of Alex Evans from NYU.

Does Local Governance Improve Local Economic Growth?

One of the frequent rationales for efforts to strengthen governance is that this will lead to stronger economic growth (e.g. entrepreneurs are more certain about property rights, services, taxes and feel they are less likely to be exploited). Another debate is whether local governance or national governance matters most.

In a new paper, Neil McCulloch and Edmund Malesky use a unique data set from Indonesia to test these hypotheses. They link district level growth rates to firm perceptions of governance in those districts. Over 12,000 firms were surveyed in 243 of the country's 500 districts (representative of 15 of the country's 33 provinces). They mainly rely on some careful econometric analysis to explore the relationships between governance and growth.

The results are surprising:

* They do find a positive, statistically significant (and economically meaningful) relationship between district growth and local governance, but only after correcting for a whole host of data quality issues. This leads them to think that the relationship is not that strong and to explore other avenues of interpretation

* They find some evidence that structural features of districts (e.g. are they urban larger, more populous, conflict over natural resource endowments etc.) may be positively associated with growth but negatively with governance (e.g. corruption is easier). It is not clear to me from a quick read why their panel regressions cannot control for these relatively fixed features, but in any case they speculate that these are muddling up the relationship between growth and governance.

* Finally they speculate that governance at the local level may be less important than governance at the national level. The features that associate most strongly with growth are things like the presence of electricity and these have little to do with local governance, being determined nationally.

I would have liked to have seen more discussion on the influence of governance on different sources of growth (e.g. by sector, by labour intensity) and different qualities of growth (e.g. poverty reducing etc.), but perhaps this is for a later paper.

An interesting paper using an interesting data set which I am sure will generate many further important results.

11 August 2011

Civil violence in the UK: three steps to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’

This is a fascinating blog from Jaideep Gupte, one of my IDS colleagues, on the riots that in the UK these past few days. It provides an interesting perspective, drawing on empirical research from around the world on poverty and conflict under the MICROCON programme. I have reproduced the first few paragraphs from the MICRCON blog. The rest is to be found here:

"Last weekend, twitter and various internet blogs lit up: London was under attack. Television news repeatedly showed bewildering scenes of riotous mobs on the rampage, shops being looted and buildings on fire. As the violence spread from Tottenham to several neighbourhoods across the city, ‘copy-cat criminality’[1] and mob frenzy were blamed for the continued violence. However, as public order in other cities, including Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, also broke down, it became harder to pin the violence on mindless criminality alone.

The BBC hosted a lively exchange between Edwina Currie (former Conservative MP) and West Indian columnist Darcus Howe.[2] Currie de-linked the present spate of civil violence in London from the violent rioting in Brixton in 1981, arguing that while deep-rooted racism was almost a ‘respectable’ trait in the 1980s, this was not the case now. And that youth violence today, regardless of race, is fuelled by a disconnect with society in general. In a hypothetical scenario she painted, a youth would turn to violence just to have ‘the trainers that Mum won’t buy me’ and through a lack of respect for private property, that is, not recognising the distinction between ‘what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours and I don’t touch it’. In response, Howe pointed out that young Black men continue to be a disenfranchised cohort, who are stereotyped by the police through their stop-and-search powers. Howe also indirectly questioned why that mother would not (or could not) buy running shoes for her son, or what meaning the concept of private property had for someone who had none.

These views characterise an important debate in understanding civil violence: whether it is perpetrated by mindless criminality, or whether there is a more structured anatomy of a riot. So how are we to understand the London riots? Here is a 3-step approach to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’"

09 August 2011

How can Researchers Maximise their Impact?

Why am I recommending a 298 page “Handbook for Social Scientists on Maximising the Impacts of Your Research?” In fact I was going to do a blog about how silly it is to have such a long guide to building impact, but the Handbook, from the LSE Public Policy Group (consultation draft 3) is really good. Lots of evidence and data analysis is provided, stratified by discipline and level of seniority of researcher, all written up in clear (if not pithy) prose.

The handbook argues that research impact comprises academic impacts (within the research world) and external impacts (those outside higher education). It defines impact as an “occasion of influence” not as a change in outputs or activities as a result of that influence or a social outcome (would this definition be challenged by the UK Research Councils?). The Handbook states that “verified causal links from one author or piece of work to output changes or to social outcomes cannot realistically be made or measured in the current state of knowledge”.

Personally I think we can push it further than this given a concerted research agenda (see end of the blog) but then I have always been bullish about this issue.

The first part of the Handbook focuses on citations (the average article in the social sciences and humanities is cited less than once a year! p.24): what shapes them (in the first few years book citations are lower per year than articles, but also are more enduring), how to assess them (I had not heard of Harzing’s Publish or Perish software, but is supposed to be very good or social scientists), how to increase them (have a distinctive name, choose memorable titles that also summarise your argument, and co-author, preferably with people outside your organisation and country), how to assess citation performance (e.g. the h-index where you have an h score of 10 if you have 10 articles that have at least 10 citations each--the average for social science researchers is 3-4!).

The second part focuses on maximising external impact. The Handbook uses a simple research discovery, integration, application and renewal model as a necessary condition for generating impact. It then discusses how these 4 activities are spread across the 5 main demands on academics time (research, academic citizenship, academic management, teaching and dissemination and impacts work). Bridging scholarship, across disciplines and organisations is vital for this. Also vital are “impacts interface” organisations such as think-tanks, the media, professional associations and consultancies. "Impact gaps" lamented by some users can be traced to incentives, culture, demand and supply mismatches, weak communication and poor social capital. Ways of resolving these are highly context specific, with exchanges likely to be important in many contexts. The Handbook’s framework for identifying academics who achieve external impacts include 6 behaviours: they (a) are academically credible (that is a relief), (b) have good networking skills, (c) have good personal communication skills, (d) an external profile, (e) are experienced/safe pair of hands, and (f) have a track record of influence. At the organisational level the Handbook argues that: it is the tacit knowledge of research teams/institutes that has the highest impact, not the explicit knowledge they pump out; commissioned work can shorten time lags for impact; it is vital to systematically collect impact data in customer relation systems; stretching for impact does not necessarily lead to a loss of academic independence, but it could, so make sure this risk is prominent on risk registers; “information wants t be free”—maintain an online depository; researchers write blogs (cut out the middleman), but rely less on single-author blogs because readers want something new every day and single author blogs cannot do this (unless you are Duncan Green).

I found the first part of the Handbook more interesting than the second part (which seemed more obvious to me, perhaps because at IDS we worry about these things and don’t have to be as scientific about citation indices).

What really struck me however was how thin the evidence base is in terms of how research influence is defined, assessed and shaped. There is a really interesting research agenda out there on what affects the uptake of research (we are doing a project on how the framing of a research report affects what policymakers retain).

Finally, the Handbook, even as a reference tool, needs to apply the principles it espouses if it is to have an impact of its own. It needs to be shorter, with more real examples, and quotes from users, aggregators and producers of research. It needs to draw on that tacit know-how and less on more explicit (but abstract) knowledge.