29 December 2011

10 Predictions for 2012

"Our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable" Hillary Clinton January 25, 2011.

Yep, it's that time of year, when the mind is free to wander, wishful thinking has its day, hostages to fortune are taken (see Sec. Clinton above), and some wild ideas are let loose.

As usual, I remain uncomfortable in predictions, especially about the future, nevertheless, here goes:

1. Development assistance will increasingly resemble an hourglass. For the rush of sand to the bottleneck of the hourglass read the run up to the MDGs and the dwindling club of ODA eligible countries. What kind of development world are we slipping into and what do we want that other half of the hourglass to look like? In the rush to 2015, we are not doing such a great job of thinking about the 2016+ world. We all need to do better at this future game.

2. The nutrition bubble will last for more than 1000 days. I have not witnessed anything like it--the interest in getting rid of undernutrition seems here to stay, for a while, at least. Many of the investments are 5-6 years and so this guarantees their longevity beyond 1000 days. The 1000 days is a brilliant marketing construct (the first 1000 days of life is a vital window of opportunity to intervene to address undernutrition--beyond this period Q2 1 nutrition violations are irreversible). Whether this transformation of nutrition within the development agenda can be locked in will depend on how we are able to transform thinking about nutrition, getting a better balance between health and development perspectives and making it as much a political issue as a technical one.

3. Hunger will not rise up the agenda unless there is another major food price spike. It used to be the nutrition stakeholders that looked like a rabble. Now the anti-hunger lobby looks disorganised and toothless. What will it take for hunger to move up the development agenda? Either a crisis (on top of the existing crisis of hunger) or the construction of a movement. Let's not wait for a new crisis.

4. Business accelerates its shaping of development, the development community continues to shrug. Walmart, the world's biggest corporation and China, the world's most populous country have been quietly building a partnership that is beginning to shape consumer behaviour towards green products and increasingly concentrate power in the global retail industry. Chinese consumers are worried about food safety, the Chinese government is worried about its reliance on fossil fuels, and Walmart wants to increase market share in China and become a world leader in green sourcing. It seems to be working, but we don't really know because the rest of us are not paying enough attention.

5. Say hello to SDGs, wave goodbye to MDGs? Rumours are that at the upcoming Rio+20 meetings a suite of Sustainable Development Goals will be unveiled. I can only hope that there will be some coherence with the thinking around the post-2015 goals. It is surprising when we look back at 1999 and realise how little environmental sustainability was folded into the MDGs. With all the political revolts of 2011 will we look back at 2012 from 2016 and wonder why there was so little discussion of political sustainability in any new set of Goals?

6. Politics will become more unruly. My colleagues in the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at IDS have been highlighting this trend for a while, but the Arab revolts and the Occupy movements (due to be focused on Washington DC in an election year) have brought protest to the fore. Even TIME magazine made "The Protester" its Person of the Year (back in 2006 it was "You" as in You Tube). It remains to be seen how much of this is enabled by Facebook (800 million users and counting) and other social media platforms, but we will see more of it in 2012.

7. Central Asia will rise on the development agenda. Long forgotten, despite being on Europe's doorstep, many of the Central Asian countries have poverty rates stubbornly set at 30%. They have booming GDP due to natural resource price rises, weak institutions, growing inequality, frozen conflicts and bad environmental records. With the West's declining commitment to Afghanistan, elections coming up in Russia and other countries in the region and will we see protest and unrest in the Caucases?

8. Don't expect much leadership from the US on international development in 2012. On to a different kinds of caucases, the Iowa ones. At least it does not look as if Ron Paul (let's get rid of foreign aid) will get enough traction in the Iowa Republican nominations to survive beyond the Hawkeye State, but 2012 will be about the election and about dealing with the fallout from the Supreme Court's decision on the challenge by 26 States to national healthcare. The FY 2012 budget saw about a 15% cut in the non war related development assistance, which while not great is much better than was feared in the summer. But the wild card might be if Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden swap places (as Robert Reich predicts). On an Obama-Clinton ticket things will get interesting for foreign assistance. Obama will probably be re-elected and he definitely will with Hillary on the ticket (her predictive ability not withstanding) to energise "the base".

9. We will finally get more balance in the impact debate. We will find the right mix of concern with internal and external validity and the right mixes of quantitative and qualitative methods. DFID will publish a review by Elliot Stern and coauthors that I believe will be a helpful contribution to the debate, a debate in which the pendulum is swinging back to a different (i.e. increased rigor is here to stay), but more balanced place. What we really need are blends of these methods driven by the issues, rather than method driven dogma.

10. The world will not end on December 21, 2012. This is the date at the end of the Mayan Long Calender. I did not know about this until someone mentioned it to me in a comment on this blog. But the world cannot end on December 21, 2012 because the UK's Research Excellence Framework deadline is October 2013. I just can't see the UK's higher education funding council, HEFCE, allowing it.

19 December 2011

Interesting stuff on my desk at the end of the year

I couldn't find a thread for these interesting pieces on my desk at the end of the year, so here goes:

1. "Living With the Gates Foundation" -- it ain't easy speaking truth to power

Living with the Gates Foundation is an article in Alliance magazine by Timothy Ogden (one in a series of articles) that notes the usual "lack of accountability" vulnerability of foundations, but also notes the particular difficulty of speaking truth to power at the Gates Foundation. This is generated by the size of the foundation (about 15 Rockefeller Foundations and bigger than Italy's aid programme) but also by its ability to focus (for example it packs a very heavy punch in the global health community). Ogden notes that very few people he contacted for his article were willing to have quotes assigned to them. Would that be the same for other donors?

2. Publish What You Fund's Pilot Aid Transparency Index: x ray vision + x-tabs

In an index-laden world, this is an essential measure. The World Bank's IDA arm is the most transparent of 58 entities ranked, with China the 4th worst. UK DFID is 5th from the top while USAID is in the bottom half. The African Development Bank came in 4th and UK's CDC in the bottom quarter. I would have liked to have seen more cross-tab analyses such as: transparency x funds delivery, transparency x aid quality, and transparency x administrative spend. But this is a solid first outing for an indicator which I hope becomes a staple guideline for those working in development.

3."Scholars who became practitioners"-necessary, sufficient & (sometimes) helpful?

This is a CGD paper by Nora Lustig. Nora is an IDS Board member and was on the IFPRI Board when I was on the staff. The paper is about how research took centre stage at the birth of Progresa/Opportunidades, the Mexican conditional cash transfer programme. The conclusion is that the 2 main architects of Progresa, Santiago Levy and Pepe Gomez de Leon, were scholars turned practitioners and this had much to do with the detachment of being able to see beyond the political status quo, being able to marshal evidence on design and on their insistence on having a rigorous impact evaluation (which has proven so important in the programme's political sustainability and its replication elsewhere). Lustig is careful to say that it is not clear when or whether scholars turned practitioners are necessary or sufficient for successful policymaking (I can think of plenty of instances when scholars would be pretty unhelpful). I suspect that Levy and Gomez de Leon were pretty shrewd political operators too.

4. Poverty in Middle Income countries: 72% whichever way you look at it

A new study from OPHI. the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative which comes up (remarkably) with the same middle-income country poverty percentage (72% of the world's poor) as Andy Sumner's New Bottom Billion study of last year. And the intensity of poverty in low and middle income countries appears similar. The question is, what to do about it, and even more difficultly, what is the role for international development agencies? While Lustig's paper above highlights the home grown nature of Progresa, IFPRI as an international organisation was clearly key in playing a validating role.

16 December 2011

Why do people still deny climate change?

Dear readers, apologies for the silence. I have to spend too much time writing proposals and don't have enough enough time to write papers and blogs.

In any case, in a post-Durban-Climate-Change-what-does-it-all-mean mode (and see my IDS colleague Matthew Lockwood's insightful analysis here) I was browsing salon.com and came across this post by Gene Lyons which led me to this fascinating paper by Clive Hamilton (actually a year old) entitled "Why we resist the truth about climate change".

It's a question I often ask myself, wondering what it will take to change people's minds.

Hamilton's paper argues that climate deniers are those whose cultural identity is most threatened by the implications of climate change (in the US this means white, male and conservative).

He states:

"Those on the left are as predisposed to sift evidence through ideological filters; but in the case of global warming it happens that the evidence overwhelmingly endorses the liberal beliefs that unrestrained capitalism is jeopardising future well-being, that comprehensive government intervention is needed, and that the environment movement was right all along. For neo-conservatives accepting these is intolerable, and it is easier emotionally and more convenient politically to reject climate science."

It is a paper full of troubling (but gorgeous) quotes:

"In these circumstances, facts quail before beliefs, and there is something poignant about scientists who continue to adhere to the idea that people repudiate climate science because they suffer from inadequacy of information. In fact, denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information."


"Deniers have adroitly used the instruments of democratic practice to erode the authority of professional expertise, including skilful exploitation of a free media, appeal to freedom of information laws, the mobilisation of a group of vociferous citizens, and the promotion of their own to public office. At least in the United States and Australia, democracy has defeated science."

and more

"Innocently pursuing their research, climate scientists were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order. They could not know that the new facts they were uncovering would threaten the existence of powerful industrialists, compel governments to choose between adhering to science and remaining in power, corrode comfortable expectations about the future, expose hidden resentment of technical and cultural elites and, internationally, shatter the post-colonial growth consensus between North and South. Their research has brought us to one of those rare historical fracture points when knowledge diverges from power, portending a long period of struggle before the two are once more aligned."

Hamilton then draws parallels with Einstein's publications on the General Theory of Relativity pointing out how his scientific views were conflated with his political views (internationalist and pacifist) and how strong forces were quickly lined up against his ideas (the One Hundred Authors Against Einstein has eerie parallels to today's petitions from climate "skeptics").

Final quote

"The success of climate denialism in its various guises reveals how shallow the roots of the Enlightenment sink. When superstition was swept away by science and reason, our penchant for self-deception merely lost its cover. In the most vital test of our capacity to protect the future through the deployment of rationality and well-informed foresight the “rational animal” is manifestly failing."

And if you doubt the success of climate denialism, check out the race for the Republican Presidential nomination where candidates are taking pot shots at frontrunner Newt Gingrich for having once spoken in favour of Cap and Trade.

Hamilton reminds us that it is not the fanaticism of the active deniers that is the real worry, but the susceptibility of the rest of us to wishful thinking. It something is uncomfortable or threatens the current order, best to think it will not happen or if it does it won't affect me much. It is the "desire to disbelieve" that is the threat and this "deepens as the scale of the threat grows, until a point is reached when the facts can be resisted no longer."

So when can the facts no longer be resisted? The paper is silent on this.

For me the paper reaffirms the reality that knowledge is inevitably wrapped up in power and politics--how it is constructed, when it is used, how it is used--and that behaviour is guided by identity. And incidentally it is not behaviour that researchers are immune to (not enough researchers actually change their mind about something on the basis of new evidence).

For those of us invested in knowledge driven change, it is a sobering reminder of the need to influence politically on the basis of research that is done as apolitically as humanly possible.