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.

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