28 September 2011

Forget the Tobin Tax, What About a Panic Tax?

So the President Barroso of the EC has proposed a Financial Transactions (or Tobin) Tax. Bill Gates is leaning that way too.

If the arguments for and against such a tax are well known, the evidence is not.

Cue the IDS systematic review from McCulloch and Pallacio. This is the first serious review of the research literature on a Tobin Tax and tries to debunk some myths:

* Will a Tobin Tax Reduce Volatility? This was the original motive behind Tobin's proposal. But the empirical evidence suggests no decrease in volatility and in a few cases, even an increase.

* Is a Tobin Tax Workable? Although these questions are not easy, there is a large literature on these questions and the consensus is that a Tobin Tax could be successfully implemented

*How Much Money Would a Tobin Tax Collect? If a tax rate of 0.005 % was applied only to spot transactions it would raise $26 billion globally and $11 billion in the UK only

* Who Would be Affected by a Tobin Tax? Would this really soak the rich? Or would it simply be passed on to consumers? The evidence base is weakest here but the authors think a Tobin Tax would be more progressive than other forms of taxation.

The main reasons given for the UK being against the Tax are political (the French and the Germans are behind it!), economic (it will lead to the decimation of the UK financial sector because bankers will up sticks) and budgetary (what is the case for a ring-fenced tax -- although it is interesting that Barroso is not linking the Tax revenues to climate finance).

So the Tobin Tax might be a useful tool to bolster public finances, but it might not deliver much for climate or do much for price volatility.

The former is a massive challenge--how to raise funds for something that rates far down the public policy list in public opinion polls?

The latter--volatility--might be dampened by a Panic Tax, the Tobin Tax's first cousin.

The Panic Tax--also a Neil McCulloch idea although he calls it an Inductance tax--does not tax the level of financial transactions, but the speed at which they occur.

This gets at Tobin's original concern directly and deals with the dangers introduced by High Frequency Traders.

See here for the Panic tax paper.

How “home grown” are Home Grown School Feeding Programmes?

I attended a small part of a 3 day conference on a Home Grown School Feeding (HGSF) programme being led by the Partnership for Child Development (PCD) at Imperial College—IDS is one of the partners on the evaluation programme involving Rachel Sabates Wheeler, Edoardo Masset and Richard Longhurst amongst others.

HGSF tries to set up school procurement of food for school meals in such a way that it stimulates the local food economy while improving school enrolment, attendance and achievement as well as food and nutrition security. Achieving just one of these outcomes (educational, nutritional, local economy) is a challenge. Nevertheless we do know that there are certain conditions under which all 3 objectives can be realised (see Adelman et. al. 2006 for a nice review).

The HGSF programme is working with governments and other national partners to build on regular school feeding programmes (where food is sourced nationally but not locally) to implement and test various HGSF approaches. From the 3 presentations I was able to catch, a few reflections:

• HGSF is such a neat idea, there is a danger that we can get a bit evangelical about it—we need to give the evidence every chance to speak
• Assessing impact is difficult, because there is no real way of aggregating across multiple outcomes–the PCD team is working on this
• The systematic reviews of School feeding Programmes (not the programmes that rely on locally sourced food) show how sensitive impact is to key design features such as calling the food a snack versus a meal (this has a big impact on food substitution away from the child in the home—families being more likely to treat something framed as a snack in an additive way). This means that there is a need to build in these variants into impact evaluations, which is expensive if done using surveys (as it increases sample sizes dramatically)
• This design sensitivity has implications for capacity development and for sustainability. Innovation and adaptation require capacities at the institutional, organisational and individual levels, so capacity development efforts are intrinsic to the scaling of HGSF
• The design sensitivity also implies that unless the HGSF programmes are “doubly” home grown (i.e. developed locally as well as using local food) they may well fall apart when the outsiders leave
• Ultimately this potential for scaling and sustainability via established institutions (i.e. schools) might be the trump cards that HGSF has when we benchmark its impacts against interventions like public works and cash transfers.

This PCD programme is led by Lesley Drake and Aulo Geli – website is here—I look forward to seeing how the programme overcomes some of these tough challenges.

27 September 2011

Labour's Leadership on International Development--Is It Slipping?

In the UK the Labour Party is the Opposition to the Coalition Government. Being in Opposition is difficult, but it does give political parties the opportunity (and responsibility) to rethink their approach to a whole range of issues. Is the Labour Party of Ed Miliband delivering on this responsibility in the area of international development?

From talking to many of the new MPs and some of the very experienced members of the House of Lords at the Party Conference in Liverpool this week, it is clear that the Labour Party still cares deeply about international development.

There is a lot of energy being dedicated to searching for new ideas and and a new narrative on international development--one that matches the realities of the 21st century (going beyond 2005 And All That) with the core values the Party holds dear.

What might such a narrative look like?

• Dissolve the “us and them” in development--share ideas on solutions to common national problems (e.g. how to reduce inequality, how to provide and effective and affordable social welfare system, how to empower citizens) and devise solutions together on global problems that are common to all (e.g. climate change, infectious disease, security).
• Focus on progressive growth—not growth for growth’s sake, but growth that creates opportunities and jobs for those at the bottom of the pyramid, reduces poverty and inequality and is resource sustainable. Find ways of supporting new blends of private and public sector action to support this.
• Focus on progressive climate financing—financing that asks the most from those who have benefitted the most over the decades from the untaxed emissions of carbon dioxide. The Financial Transactions Tax (are we at a tipping point on this?) will be one step in this direction, although most of its cost will likely be transferred to bank customers (not progressive, but at least proportionate). Keep the pledge to use no more than 10% of ODA for climate financing.
• Work better across government departments—as more countries graduate from LIC to MIC status, the call on ODA as we know it will decline, and because donor countries will be under pressure to reduce ODA, agencies like DFID will need to rely increasingly on the quality of their arguments, not their budgets, to steer other departments towards development outcomes
• Keep the promise on 0.7% of GNI to ODA--but revisit the issue of whether ODA should be more targeted to poor countries or to poor people

Some elements along these lines are emerging. But whatever the specifics are, two things seem really important:
(a) make sure core values (community, opportunity, solidarity, fairness) flow through the entire approach. Authenticity counts for a lot in shoring up public support for international development and for driving party members and
(b) fire up the Leadership about the agenda.

Harriet Harman is said to be allocating considerable energy to the development brief, and that is important, but it was the Blair-Brown energy that has made the UK a leader in development in the last decade. Ed Miliband has been party Leader for a year only and domestic issues have dominated his agenda, but if he is not seen to be more committed to international development by the time of the International Development Policy Review launch in Sept 2012, a big opportunity to shift the debate—and to reposition Labour-- will have been missed.

22 September 2011

Time to Reimagine Development?

In case you did not see this in The Guardian newspaper yesterday.

If the global crises of the past four years (food, fuel, financial) and the slow burn of climate change have called into question the way we live, then it's likely the impact of these crises on the field of international development will be fundamental. This assumption kick-started an initiative at the Institute of Development Studies in 2009 called Re-imagining Development (ReDev). The idea was not only to look at the impacts of the crises on the ground but also to assess how they affect the way we think about development.

Drawing on 20 case studies, we identified a number of assumptions about how development works that were challenged by the crises.

Economic growth can be a force for good, but it does not have to be

When many of us were taught economics, growth was sometimes seen as sufficient for development and always necessary. ReDev concluded that some kinds of growth are necessary, others irrelevant, and some harmful. Growth should be treated like technology: with the right governance, it can advance human wellbeing. The growth we want is economic development that is potent in reducing poverty, uses natural resources sustainably and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases. Too much research on growth is focused on how we get it, rather than how we get the type we need. We get the growth we want by focusing on: creating the right initial conditions (such as low inequality); reducing entry barriers for new, small businesses; setting key prices at appropriate levels (as with carbon production); and adopting stronger transparency mechanisms to allow society to pressurise corporations.

Views on growth are surprisingly homogenous. This is probably because only one type of economics (neoclassical) is taught the world over. But monocultures, nature has taught us, are particularly vulnerable to events.

In an interconnected world, the nation state is increasingly relevant

Do global agreements on climate, trade and drugs drive national behaviour, or do national alliances supply oxygen and credibility to global agreements? Several case studies showed how national self interest will continue to undermine collective action that is in the long-term interest of all. From the G8 to the G20 to the G193, issue-specific coalitions of countries (there are 193 states recognised by the UN), and the membership of those coalitions, is probably best explained by national politics. We need to understand these national coalitions more than ever.

The complexity of reality cannot safely be ignored

Complexity is the policymaker's kryptonite. But it is increasingly difficult to simplify complexity in ways that do not do violence to reality. For example, complexity surfaced quickly for organisations tasked with monitoring the crises. They had to get speedy and meaningful data on a wide range of interlinked outcomes to track the impacts of the crises and to get quick ideas about how policy could mitigate them. They were caught between getting data out quickly and getting the data to be statistically representative. They found the complexity of doing both to be overwhelming. We have to get better at measuring the real-time consequences of complex crises.

Wellbeing and resilience are not panaceas, but neither are they fads

The crisis impact work indicated that while material goods were very important to the human condition, so too were the relationships and the psychological dimensions of human existence. Wellbeing brings these dimensions together in an explicit way. The emerging concern with resilience of systems is perhaps a good thing to come out of the bad news of the crises. Given the new global uncertainties (climate, the emerging powers, and resource scarcities deriving from current lifestyles) we think these concepts of wellbeing and resilience are here to stay. But if used lazily to provide politically correct gloss to issues of measurement of progress and interdependence, they will become devalued.

Civil society did not deal well enough with these mega-shocks

The ReDev report concludes that civil society did not sufficiently rise to the challenge or opportunity afforded by the crises. This was partly due to NGOs and civil society working in silos and partly due to the drop in income many of these organisations experienced. We felt civil society could have done a better job of enforcing the various accountabilities of governments and business. The Arab Spring may well temper this argument, but we were struck by the inability of civil society groups to mobilise collectively to push governments to act more quickly and protect the most vulnerable.

Though derived from different specialisations and institions, our observations are partial, driven by fragments of evidence from purposively selected sites and interpreted by people with particular values and perspectives, so we cannot overstate the representativeness of these conclusions. But clearly it was difficult for many of the thousands of people with whom we engaged to reimagine development.

New ideas often emerged in the personal realm, but struggled to find fertile ground professionally. Established concepts are hard to dislodge, having built up strong constituencies and vested interests within or across organisations. And the new interests - the emerging powers, the new donors, and the new philanthropists - are not necessarily going to plough different paths.

21 September 2011

EADI-DSA Day 3: New (Old) Voices and Open Ears

The plenary this morning consisted of two presentations, one from Eun Mee Kim Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies, Ewha Womans University in Seoul and Peter Knorringa from ISS in The Hague.

Professor Kim talked about South Korea as a bridge between developed and developing countries by way of its rapid development (it had a GDP/capita of $81 in 1961) and also as a bridge between DAC and non DAC ODA donors, especially those from Asia.

She argued that the Korean experience brought three things to the development table:

1. Country ownership was vital—the ability to negotiate strongly with donors about what aid should be used for and domestic policies to promote development (e.g. the government argued against donor advice on exchange rate policies)

2. The Korean example of development should not be a poster child for authoritarian regimes all over the world

3. Investment in human capital was key (although it had very low GDP/capita rates in 1961, it had a literacy rate of around 70%) to Korea’s development under authoritarianism and later under democracy

She closed by saying that South Korea is playing a key role on the G20 (it is now the 13th largest economy) in arguing that the focus of the G20 should not be solely on economic development but also on social development.

Professor Knorringa’s talk was about a different type of “new voice”, the private sector. He pointed to three trends in private sector governance that are likely having major implications for development:

1. The rush from companies to sign up to international standards on labour, environment, and safety. He pointed out that there are not necessarily good or bad for development. For example, they could lead to exclusion of the smallest producers and the poorest consumers but they could also facilitate medium size firms in the emerging countries to get into global markets.

2. The consolidation in the retail sector, with European and North American retailers partnering (and buying up) retailers in the BRICS and elsewhere. This is leading to the % of goods purchased from the organised retail sector increasing dramatically. This might lead standards to go out of the window or it might lead to a social global compliance platform where all retailers work towards convergence or, most likely he thought, it would lead to layers of standards, where the new middle classes might be willing to pay small premia for modest levels of environmental protection or labour standard improvements.

3. Companies getting more involved in the development process in order to secure a supply platform (e.g. working with smallholder cocoa producers in West Africa). Companies are increasingly behaving like NGOs, but not with the primary goal of enhancing development.

He argued that we in the development research community have a lot to offer these companies in creating bigger overlaps between commercial and developmental objectives, and that we have a lot to learn from them given that many have been working for longer than we have in the developing world and from a very different perspective.

Both presentations were clear and interesting. I agreed with Prof. Kim’s arguments about the essentialism of the state to want to promote development for its people, but I was less convinced with her argument that the only way to go in the 21st century is via democracy. That is almost like kicking away the ladder (as Ha Joon Chang, a Korean, would say of the rich countries). She was criticised from the floor for sounding too much like the World Bank, but I felt her response (she gave us an insight into the huge fights with the Bank over their narratives around the East Asian miracle and the role of the state) was very strong.

On Prof Knorringa’s talk, he did a good job of communicating why it is important for development researchers to engage with the private sector, but less on the when and how. Despite his arguments, some of the questions from the floor amounted to “we have nothing to teach the private sector about development and they never ask us anyway”. I find this sentiment depressing. Of course there are things each group can learn from each other—we both know the contexts, but from very different angles and this should make for the potential for some productive collaborations. And more and more companies are reaching out to our community. Of course we have to be very careful about greenwash and whitewash and all that, but we cannot just stick our heads in the sand and say it is too difficult. If we really believe commercial interests are to the detriment of development, we have an obligation to engage.

In both cases, I got a sense that the new voices sounded a lot like old voices, albeit with some new things to say. I also was reminded that new voices need open ears if they are to be heard.

20 September 2011

EADI-DSA Conference - Day 2: Does International Development Assistance Care About Poverty?

On Day 2 of the EADI-DSA Conference we had two excellent presentations from Ravi Kanbur and Sabina Alkire on "Rethinking Progress and How to Measure it".

Ravi kicked off by noting the stylised fact that poverty is now predominantly a middle income country (MIC) phenomenon, not a low income country (LIC) one (citing work by Andy Sumner of IDS). This is an artifact of the cutoff $1165 GDP per capita above which a LIC becomes a MIC. Indonesia changed status (from LIC to MIC) in 2008, India will in 2012/13 and China did in 1999.

Projecting forward, fewer and fewer countries would qualify for IDA and if IDA flows stayed at the same level some countries like Ethiopia would stand to gain.

He suggested there were 3 possible outcomes in IDA allocation: (a) no change in rules and increases in aid for the remaining LICS, (b) no change in rules, but a reduction in overall aid flows, and (c) change in the rules that keep current levels of IDA focused on poor people, whichever country they live in.

He thought (b) was the most likely outcome, but (c) was the right outcome.

He argued that the moral responsibility of the global community to poor people was analogous the Responsibility to Protect and he proposed the following operational rules for IDA qualification:

(a) keep the standard window at $1165 GDP/cap
(b) add a window that is 2 or 3 times of this threshold, but target it to poorest regions or key human development sectors, and
(c) have a third window to support the production of global public goods

He acknowledged that these proposals are unlikely to be adopted: the LICs will lose out, the MICs who will gain are too different to form effective alliances to argue for the rule change (and in any case, some of those within MICs are happy to graduate from IDA) and it is in donor interests to reduce overall aid flows and the current rules will help with this.

Sabina Alkire's presentation on the multidimensional poverty index (MPI)confirmed the conclusion that only 25-30% of the world's poverty is now in LICs--no matter how you measure poverty. She talked about how difficult it is to get crude measures of progress, like GDP/cap, "dethroned" (as Dudley Seers had put it) because of vested interests and noted how little money is spent on measuring poverty as opposed to expenditure on data measuring economic performance and employment. She presented data which show substantial deviations between $1.25 a day estimates of poverty incidence and multidimensional poverty incidence for some countries (in Ethiopia, multidimensional poverty is almost twice the income poverty rate).

Questions from the floor included: Aren't you assuming that IDA has a positive effect? Does this imply a vision of a global welfare state? How do we include multiple voices in multidimensional poverty measurement? Does IDA undermine Indian citizens' incentive to hold the Indian government to account and increase tax revenues? What about the politics of measurement?

Sabina acknowledged the politics issues and said she was not sure the MPI would survive as a cross-country index. She highlighted a number of possibilities: (a) it would be seen as a good idea that nevertheless peters out, (b) good multidimensional poverty measures would be collected and used to improve analysis and policy, (c) complex or inaccurate multipoverty measures would be collected, and the whole initiative would be discredited with a return to simplistic measures, or (d) conflicts would rage between different measurement schools with no consensus. She thought (d) was the most likely. Despite this she did cite several examples of where governments have adopted the measure as their own and have begun to use it.

Ravi responded by saying that lack of commitment of a government to do anything about poverty could also be a condition for receiving IDA--and in fact this might promote civil society to track the commitment of their governments to reduce poverty (this reminded me of the work from Dolf te Linto and colleagues from IDS on measuring the commitment to reducing hunger). He also said that unless IDA has a zero or negative effect on poverty, that his argument that IDA should focus on poor people rather than poor countries still holds.

A very good session, but I was struck by the resignation of the two presenters that the current measurement powers would prevail. Desmond McNeill pointed out that we need more work on the political economy of measurement--something I would wholeheartedly agree with.

EADI-DSA Conference, Day 1: Peak Everything

Mario Giampietro opened up the EADI-DSA Conference giving the Dudley Seers Lecture by asking whether the development community wanted to take the blue pill or the red pill.

This is a reference to the film The Matrix where the main character is offered the choice between the bliss of illusion (blue) or the sometimes painful truth of reality (red). Prof Giampietro argued that the world is taking lots of blue pills and it needs more red. His argument goes something like this

1. The narrative of economists--that we need economies to grow forever--is unsustainable because we are not only at peak oil (we get it out of the ground slower than we consume it) but near peak everything (water, land, energy).

2. As long as the size of the economic pie is increasing, marketisation of services and globalisation in general reduce tensions in the system because the size of the pies is increasing.

3. But peak everything ("the real inconvenient truth") means that the size of the global economic pie is reaching limits and this means that debt cannot be repaid and that we begin operating in a zero sum way which undermines the tendency to cooperate.

4. Economics has contributed to this situation, because (a) it has prioritised growth to policymakers, (b) lacks the ability to deal with complexity in a reflexive way that puts our own behaviour into the centre of the picture (rather it tends to lead to technical fixes), and (c) cannot speak truth to power because this will undermine its position of power ("it is difficult to get someone to understand something if their salary depends on them not understanding it")

5. All of this means that we will have to use less energy, work more and marketise less (e.g. draw on cultural traditions instead of the market). We still have to grow in order to pay off the debts we owe, but we will have to do so using less energy (not only per unit of GDP, but in an absolute sense)

Diagnosis is always stronger than prescription in these kinds of presentations, but Prof Giampietro did say that we need to create a new reality (he just did not know how we would reach it, nor what it would look like) and ditch the fairytale that current consumption patterns can prevail.

I agree with the need for rich countries in particular to drastically change the way we consume resources, but for me there were 2 big questions (a) can we discard the "human ingenuity will fix this with technology with no need for a great change in behaviour" counterargument as Giampietro suggests? Simply because industrial production is not getting more energy efficient does not mean it could not under any circumstances, and (b) what will be the triggers for either a dramatic upsurge in new technology development or a drastic change in behaviour around energy use? What would concentrate our minds? What discomfort will represent a strong enough signal? And once concentrated, will we --like boiling frogs--realise we must do something once it is too late to change anything?

A stimulating seminar--for more on Prof Giampietro and his work see here.

16 September 2011

DSA York: Time to Reimagine Development?

This week IDS released a report (Time to Reimagine Development?) on how the global crises of the past 4 years have:

* affected people's lives on the ground
* challenged our core assumptions about development
* surfaced new ideas (or given life to old ones) about how sustainable development can be promoted

The report draws on about 20 case studies from the private sector, civil society, government, NGOs, faith based groups, students, and donors to try to address these questions.

The overview paper (which is free to download) suggests some core assumptions need to be challenged, including:

* complexity is always too complex to deal with
* the nation state is becoming less relevant
* wellbeing is too fluffy to operationalise
* resilience is a somewhat negative aspiration
* inequality is not something to fret too much over
* the present brand of economics is the best we have got
* civil society is well suited to responding to these crises

These are some of these issues will be discussed at the EADI-DSA Conference in York next week.

There are too many panels, working groups and study groups to tell you about (the schedule runs to 50 pages!), but the overall theme is around rethinking development in an age of scarcity and uncertainty: what are the new values, voices and alliances we need for increased resilience? Keynotes include Ravi Kanbur, Sabina Alkire, Mario Giampietro and Richard Jolly and there will be close to 1000 participants.

See you there.

11 September 2011

Bad Social Science?

I'm a fan of "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre, published in the Guardian. Focusing mostly on common flaws in the scientific process, this week's article was on errors committed in the psychology research literature. He reports on a common statistical error. When, for example, the nerves of normal mice are treated with a drug, does the rate of nerve firing change? And what happens when you use mutant mice? If the response of the firing rate to the drug in the normal mice is statistically different from zero and the response of the firing rate to the drug in the mutant mice is not statistically different from zero, have you found a difference in response between the two groups? You have, but is it a statistically different response?

Apparently half of the 157 studies published in 5 prestigious neuroscience journals failed to perform this "difference in difference" test. This is made more amazing, because it is an easy test. For economists, the test is equivalent to seeing if an estimated slope coefficient in a regression equation varies by population subgroup. We usually do this test by interacting a dummy variable tagged to the subgroup (i.e. mutant mice) with the independent variable of interest (i.e. the drug) and seeing if the estimated slope coefficient on the interacted variable is significantly different from zero. If it is then the slope (i.e response) is statistically different for the two subgroups.

Economists do not typically make this mistake, in fact I wish they were more interested in sub-groups in the population, but they are usually happy with average affects across a diverse group of observations, with the usual excuse (sometimes valid) being small sample sizes.

But this made me wonder what similarly blunderous statistical mistakes we economists make?

I would be interested in your answers.

10 September 2011

Will Busan and Rio+20 Change Anything?

I was at the German Development Institute yesterday, presenting on “5 things to do by 2015 to accelerate hunger reduction”. Those of you who are regular readers will not be surprised by the content of my talk:

(1) build political commitment (don’t wait for it to magically materialise)—I shared some of the results from our Hunger Reduction Commitment Index work (showing Germany as 11th out of 22 donor countries)

G2) spend more public funding on agriculture (donors have only met 22% of their L’Aquila commitments and the deadline is 2012; and only 7 of 25 signatories of the CAADP target of 10% of government expenditure on agriculture have made that target with another 13 countries in the 5-10% range)

(3) focus money, energy, innovation on realising the “critical triangle” of more food production, hunger reduction and sustainability (with resilience—the ability of the food system to perform these 3 functions under shocks and stress—being in the middle of the triangle)

(4) dramatically improve cross-government coherence (e.g. does it matter if a country focuses its ODA well on hunger if it supports the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU?) (the UK scores poorly on this from our Hunger Reduction Commitment work)

(5) use 21st Century metrics: get estimates of hunger (not food production); be nimble about assessing hunger (using mobile technologies) and embed the critical triangle in the metrics (e.g. food production by hunger reduced by CO2 emitted).

The conference--well organised by Dirk Messner and his team at GDI around the theme “Rio+20: Planet Under Stress”-- was a good mix of greyhairs and those early in their careers. It touched on a number of interesting points:

• Will Rio+20 in April 2012 mark a paradigm shift as Rio did back in 1992 (did it?) or will it just be ensuring that we properly follow through on the 1992 agenda? The audience of 200 was pretty split on this.

• Is the focus of the rich countries on climate adaptation simply a form of displacement activity when they should be dealing with the much harder (politically for them) issue of mitigation where there will have to be real change in the intensity of resource use of voters

• Will Busan (the meeting in November 2011 to take stock of aid effectiveness) get to grips with the new pluralistic landscape in the ODA world (foundations, philanthropists, person to person giving, and new aid programmes in India and Russia)?

• Should the DAC aid effectiveness framework and commitments apply to new forms of aid (such as climate finance) and even more controversially to emerging forms of development resources such as tax revenues (apparently tax revenues in Africa amount to $440/person compared to $40/person for ODA)? Again, there was some division on these Busan questions.

I would like to see 3 “practical” but symbolically important things emerge post-Rio+20 and post-Busan:

• Ditching the old metrics on growth and consumption and replacing them with items (or at least denominators) that measure the intensity of resource use and carbon emissions

• Ditching the terms “developed” and “developing” countries and replacing them with new terms such as “sustainable developing countries” and “developing countries” to stress the work that the richer countries have to do. Germany might be in the former category and the USA and China in the latter (although strictly speaking no countries can be classified as sustainable developing countries if the collective action failure on emissions continues)

• Begin to think about replacing “aid programmes” and Ministries of Development with “Ministries of Global Development” which bring together international and global elements of business, climate, security and aid together under one roof, apply aid effectiveness indicators to all of it, and use these new ministries as building blocks for international agreements on global public goods.

08 September 2011

Development research's Love-Hate relationship with policy and practice

I was asked to make some introductory comments at the Development Study Association-Ireland (DSAI). DSAI is the newest part of the DSA, and this was its second conference with the theme of linking research, policy and practice.

I started off noting the Love-Hate relationship development research has with policy and practice.

Love: many of us took up development research through some personal motivation to make a difference; normative aspirations are firmly and openly embedded in development studies; many of our institutional homes reinforce this sense of mission; and finally, we are quite good at it by virtue of our multidisciplinarity and our comfort with evaluation and learning.

Hate: on the other hand we are sometimes not so enthusiastic: when there is a sense that the "use" orientation is taking us away from fundamental relationships and questioning assumptions and framings; when we feel we are no longer able to speak truth to power; when we get drawn into researching the amenable and not the meaningful and finally when we are told to do it (e.g. the value for money imperative).

Most of these risks can be managed, it seems to me, and in any case, we can't help it, it's in our DNA this linking of policy and practice.

How do we do it better? I used the Motives/Means/Opportunity model.

Motives: there are many ways of inculcating the motive to connect with policy and practice--supporting young PhD researchers to spend time in the field and recruiting Masters students who have some overseas work experience.

Means: models are useful (I like the problem stream, solution stream and political stream approach of Kingdon)

Opportunities: "build it and they will come" is a slogan for non-dissemination. We need to build relationships with key people we want to influence. Be clear about it and be focused on it.

It's easy for researchers immersed in the daily grind of writing proposals, supervising students, writing papers, teaching courses, doing administration and management of projects etc. to forget the privileged position we occupy. We should not underestimate how inspiring the best of our work can be to people outside the sector. I am constantly reminded of it. That's good, because it is easy to forget the potentially transformative potential our work can have when it is firing on all cylinders.

The DSAI had a couple of terrific panels bringing together researchers and organisations like Trociare (a large Irish NGO) and Irish Aid. We reflected on how difficult it was to make time to develop and invest in these relationships, but we also noted several instances when it had made a big difference.

DSAI seems to have found a valuable niche in bringing research, policy and practice together in Ireland. It has tremendous energy from its members and steering group and I wish it well.

Footnote: At the DSA-EADI conference in York Sept 19-22 --places still available, topic "Rethinking Development in an Age of Scarcity and Uncertainty", over 1000 people will attend--I will step down as DSA Chair after 3 years and a new Chair will be elected from the nominees. I will remain an advocate of the DSA--I believe it does a very good job of promoting development research, connecting researchers with other researchers and with policymakers and practitioners, supporting the next generation of researchers and providing a stimulating space to draw out new ideas.

You should join!

07 September 2011

Floud, Fogel et. al. on "Technophysio Evolution"

I recently reviewed "The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700" by Roderick Floud, Robert Fogel, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong for the journal Science.

The book offers an authoritative summary of the field of "technophysio evolution" (in short, how work and technology interact to express themselves over the generations via the size, composition and functioning of the human body). In doing so, they generate new insights into contemporary development processes. My main critique of the book is that the authors understate our ability to do something about the trends that affect our bodies.

Here is the my review

Book Review: The Changing Body. Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World since 1700. Authors: R. Floud, R. Fogel, B. Harris and S.C. Hong. 2011.

This book uses the “plasticity, flexibility and responsiveness” of the human body to changes in nutrition, disease, work and warmth to generate long term insights on human development. The opening chapter is centred on a series of assertions which set up the book’s narrative: (1) the nutrition status of a generation determines its longevity and ability to work. Individuals with a better nutrition status (manifest as height for age and weight for height and the result of the net accumulation of energy and nutrient intake, infection, care and activity) have better brain development, stronger immune systems, and are less likely to succumb to certain chronic diseases later in life, (2) the work of that generation, when allied to technology (broadly defined) determines the generation’s output, (3) the output of a generation is partly determined by its inheritance from past generations (i.e. malnourished mothers are more likely to give birth to malnourished babies) and determines its standard of living through the enhanced ability to acquire material goods and the exertion of agency, (4) the standard of living of a generation determines the nutrition status of the next generation (through the ability of adolescent girls, pregnant women and parents to get access to food, health services and care for themselves and their children), (5) and so on.

This circle underpins the central theory of the book: “technophysio evolution”, a link between technological and physiological change. The authors explain that this kind of evolution differs from conventional forms in its emphasis on the control that humans have over their environment and its rapidity. The next two chapters review the evidence behind these assertions (using equations and lots of data), and the three chapters prior to the summary concluding chapter examine, in great detail (again with many data points provided), these “technophysio evolutions” in England and Wales, continental Europe and the US. Adult heights and life expectancy in these three regions have responded very rapidly to improvements in diet, disease prevention and sanitation over the past 300 years. Today, for example, adult males in the UK are, on average, 10 cm taller than their counterparts in the early 18th century and their life expectancies at birth have doubled.

My own work centres on the links between income, food consumption and nutrition, the links between nutrition and productivity and the distribution of food and other resources within households in a developing country context, so much of this territory is familiar. Nevertheless, the book makes several important contributions. First, because a number of the authors are historians the book introduces a “long view” into the relationships between different variables. Too often, those conducting research on developing country issues neglect these intergeneration effects (from grandparents to children through to their own grandchildren). Our need to understand long wave phenomena will only increase as we tackle issues such as aging, chronic disease, urbanisation and climate change. This book gives us some insights into how to do that and the value added of doing so. For example are we using short-run estimates of the responsiveness of calorie consumption to changes in income (vital in projecting food needs and potential hunger crises) when we should, as the book argues, be using time series estimates which give much lower estimates? If we did, our forecasts of the numbers of hungry people would be much lower with profound implications for public policy. Second, the book contrasts experiences from the rich and developing worlds. This does not happen nearly enough—these two worlds are quite distinct in terms of research and policy communities and yet the issues, methods and policy prescriptions are very similar and so the scope for cross-learning seems immense. For example, the evidence on how urbanisation in the 19th century in the US and UK led to declines in average male heights as disease and overcrowding overwhelmed any higher wages earned) should serve as a wake-up call to those in the development community who, in my opinion, are taking a rather casual view of the implications of urbanisation for wellbeing. Third, the book shapes the future research agenda by outlining a number of important questions, two of which stand out: (a) why does it take 2-3 generations for changes in environment to manifest as improved adult height? and (b) given that heights were not measured at the population level anywhere before the early 18th century, what will the laments of the 22nd century analysts be as to the variables we should be measuring today but have not even considered?

But the book also frustrates. It does not manage to make the most of the developed-developing country comparisons. There is not enough firepower in the writing team on the developing country literature (the evidence is over-reliant on a small number of top US academics) and so some of the opportunities to apply interesting findings from Europe and the US to the developing world (and vice versa) are missed. For example the insight about the extent to which heights can improve in one generation might explain the curious lack of response of nutrition status to sparkling economic growth in India (the book mistakenly brackets China and India’s progress in improving nutrition status). Nor does the book do enough to challenge current notions of economic growth. While effectively critiquing the partiality of income as a measure of welfare (and arguing that, as a measure, nutritional status is “analogous to measures of capability”), the book is sanguine about the capacity of current economic growth patterns to generate “bads” such as carbon emissions, obesity, and inequality. The long term perspective afforded by the intergenerational historical perspectives are also presumably the reason for the book to be very light on policy recommendations, but surely the long view places a greater obligation to think about core policy mechanisms, unencumbered by electoral cycles. At the individual level, there is a nagging worry that the authors have not sufficiently highlighted the ability of people to influence the impacts of long term trends on their bodies. The body is more than a diagnostic tool, it is the servant of our agency.

Nevertheless, this book is an authoritative summary of an evolving field of “technophysio evolution”. It places the size and shape of the human body at the centre of generational transitions. In doing so it generates new insights into contemporary development processes, even if it does understate the ability of humans to do something about the trends that affect their bodies.

03 September 2011

Hunger Strikes for Malnutrition?

I have just returned from a brief trip to Delhi. While there I met with the Planning Commission to talk about India’s nutrition situation, participated in the Britannia Nutrition Foundation’s third symposium and was on a panel (Malnutrition: Cracking the Code) of commentators organised by the NDTV channel.

Some reflections on the Planning Commission meeting:

While there is clearly a real concern within the Central Government about undernutrition and a desire to do something about it, my sense is that there is a lack of intensity and focus to the efforts and no real mechanism for mobilising all the available instruments (e.g. agriculture, sanitation, health systems, women’s empowerment, food programmes etc.) to deal with the issue. My presentation at the Planning Commission, chaired by the Deputy Chairman, precipitated a 70 minute dialogue among the 20 or so Commission members present. In a good natured discussion we touched on a number of issues:

• The interactions between the enabling environment for nutrition and the effectiveness of nutrition programmes like ICDS: if open defecation is practiced by over half of the population, if agricultural growth does not seem to drive nutrition improvements, if the health service is underfunded and if the women lack power then how can even the best nutrition programmes (or economic growth for that matter) get any traction in reducing undernutrition?

• The need for annual outcome data on undernutrition. The last assessment of nutrition status in India was in 2005-6. Can you imagine running an economic strategy in 2011 based on 2006 economic indicators? That is what is happening with nutrition. Apparently annual outcome data on nutrition will begin within a year or two.

• How the 12th 5 year plan (in development) will differ from the 11th when it comes to nutrition. Answers included: more funds for ICDS and more of a focus of that programme on the first 1000 days of life. Indeed, the whole 12th Plan will be health orientated.

• Was there something unique about India? Nutrition standards? Women’s status? Low diet diversity? On standards (are the healthy growth standards from other populations too high for Indians?) they may contribute to the high levels of undernutrition in South Asia relative to Sub Saharan Africa (Stephan Klasen has written about this) but standards would not be responsible for the slow rate of decline in undernutrition. On women’s status, yes, it is low in India, but it can be changed (look at the evidence from Duflo and others about the female quotas on Indian village council leadership showing that this form of empowerment increases nutrition relevant expenditures in the community). On diet, vegetarianism might be a challenge for raising the calorie density and micronutrient availability of diets, but there are many nutrition outcome bright spots within India that suggest these features of culture do not represent a binding constraint.

• Reassurances that a “nutrition lens” was being placed on other sectors (17 was the number mentioned) although I was less reassured about who within the Commission was going to make sure nutrition was firmly embedded within the 12th Plan.

• The need for the Government to commission the research it feels it needs. It does not at the moment. For instance the best study on ICDS impacts happens to be a PhD study by an Indian researcher at an American University—the Government got lucky, but it should be more demanding about the kinds of research it needs in order to do its business.

• While many members of the Commission clearly feel passionately about undernutrition, it does not seem to be anyone’s sole responsibility. I argued for more leadership from the Centre, mindful that a lot of power is devolved to the States, and for a strategic perspective on what to do about nutrition (there are so many opportunities, a strategic approach is needed) but I don’t think I was terribly persuasive.

Reflections on the Britannia Nutrition Foundation Symposium:

• The divide between public and private sectors in nutrition in India seems as large as ever. If the private sector is to be involved in shaping nutrition outcomes then the feeling from much (I think) of civil society is “they are only out for profit”. Well, guess what, they are already involved in shaping nutrition outcomes for profit. How can we begin talking to them to find and increase the overlaps between good profit outcomes and good nutrition outcomes? Part of the problem is, I suspect, an inability to know which companies are behaving responsibly and doing good things and which are not. At the moment we have to rely on what companies self report and even then in a rather piecemeal way. Accountability is weak. Marc van Ameringen the CEO of the Global Alliance for Nutrition (GAIN) reported on their work to assess the nutrition performance of food companies. I think this promises to be a great initiative (the candidate indicators are on the GAIN website www.gainhealth.org) because it will help us assess the reputation of a company in a more transparent way.

• There are dynamic States. Dr Veena Rao presented the Karnataka Nutrition “Mission”— a public commitment by the leadership of the State to place nutrition higher on the agenda and a commitment to spend more of the state’s money on nutrition in the hope that it will leverage additional funds from within and outside India. This whole initiative is quite inspirational—of course the implementation will be crucial if it is to live up to its aspirations.

• The lack of incentives for the Indian nutrition research community to reflect more holistically about the causes of the stagnation in nutrition status. Where are the demand driven research funds? Are the journals putting out calls for answers to these questions? Are the academic societies lobbying government via the media about nutrition? Are studies being done on how nutrition is shaped, framed, communicated and taught? Is there research on the beliefs and attitudes of key decision makers on nutrition, and on how the media report on nutrition and why? There are plenty of exceptions, and the level of nutrition science expertise is very high, but the lack of incentives to researchers to generate a wider system perspective is, I believe, a problem.

• The Britannia Nutrition Foundation is providing a service that other organisations should also be shouldering: annually convening Indian nutrition thinkers and leaders from a wide background to share innovations and findings, network, and strategise. Why is this not happening?

Reflections on the NDTV panel (airing on Sept 10):

• In addition to me the participants were Syeda Hameed, responsible for ICDS within the Planning Commission, Vinita Bali, the MD of Britannia and the Chair of the Foundation and a famous Indian screenwriter and activist. The moderator was a journalist from NDTV.

• Our moderator (excellent) told us that she had to study for a few days to get up to speed on undernutrition facts and consequences. She admitted to being shocked by what she read. This is a fascinating insight into the invisibility of the malnutrition issue.

• Other NDTV reporters in the audience noted that nutrition was not an electoral issue and that there were no “hooks” on which to put nutrition stories. We agreed that regular data on nutrition outcomes would be an important hook (and we all eagerly await the results of the Naandi Foundation’s first survey of the worst off districts—out later this year). I mentioned the work IDS has done in Peru, documenting how civil society groups in Peru (including CARE-Peru) forced electoral candidates to produce “malnutrition manifestos” – what they would do on undernutrition if they were elected. What a great commitment mechanism.

• Finally my trip came at the end of a two week hunger strike by the activist Anna Hazare in protest at the widespread corruption in Indian life (not so much paying for things citizens are not entitled to, but having to pay bribes for things citizens are entitled to, like a drivers licence, school entry, access to water etc). I made the point that it is ironic that civil society has been energized by a hunger strike, but that it cannot be energised by the hunger and malnutrition that pervades society.

I’m not suggesting hunger strikes to draw attention to malnutrition, but I wonder what the lessons of the Hazare movement will be for our collective efforts to generate energy around the need to reduce undernutrition in India?