29 October 2011

Do blogs change anything?

I was a blogger before the Internet. In 1990 while at IFPRI I set up and edited the IFPRI Research Bulletin as an internal summary of the research my colleagues were doing. The goal was to help us all find out about each other's work in an easy and quick way and to stimulate debate.

This is one of the key motivators for me to blog: when I see something interesting I want to reflect on it, share it and listen to what others think about it.

But are blogs anything more than mere vanity projects?

Back in August, David McKenzie and Berk Ozler released a paper "The Impact of Economics Blogs". They pose 4 questions of economics blogs:

1. Do they affect the dissemination of economics research? (Yes.)

They note that RePEc (Research Papers in Economics--a collaborative effort of hundreds of volunteers in 75 countries to enhance the dissemination of research in economics) working paper downloads increase by 20-30 fold after a paper has been mentioned on a popular blog. More formally they regress abstract views on papers mentioned in the top 50 blogs and allow for lags and reverse causality and find big impacts of blog mentions on views.

2. Do they affect the reputation of their creators? (Yes.)

Here they use a list of most admired economists (derived from a poll of US academics) and combine that with the top 500 economists in terms of RePEc downloads. The run a probit regression (1=on admired list, 0 not) and try to explain that with variables such as whether the economists regularly blog and where they rank in the RePEc download ratings. It turns out that those who blog regularly are more admired than their RePEc ratings would suggest (although people are surely admired for more than their writing--whether articles or blogs!).

3. Do they change attitudes of readers or lead to their increased knowledge? (Yes.)

Here the authors used the launch of their own blog (Development Impact) on April 2011 to randomise encouragement to read the blog among other researchers. They did a baseline and follow up. As they note their study design has good internal validity (i.e. it is good at assessing whether their blog has an impact) but that they can say less about other blogs (less strong external validity) although they argue that their blog is not atypical of other blogs (although it is a World Bank blog).

They find that those encouraged to read the blog (the treatment group) were more likely to be interested in working as a researcher at the World Bank, had a more positive perception of the World Bank's research quality, were more aware of the authors of the blog, relaxed their perceptions that World Bank staff face censorship over blogs and changed their opinions on the effectiveness of different interventions.

4. Do they influence policy? (Don't know, probably yes)

This is the part of the paper that has the weakest evidence base and is essentially a search for stories which cannot be verified. The bloggers interviewed cannot put their finger on specific policies changed as a result of their blogs, but then again that is not how policy works. A better strategy would be to see how widely policymakers read blogs. But the strong suspicion has to be if policymakers are influenced by research, and if the blogs are any good, the blogs should enhance the likelihood of research being influential).

So, blogging seems to matter. I liked this paper because:

* of the creative use of mixed methods

* it is careful and well done

* it shows that randomised experiments don't have to be intrusive or expensive

* asks an important question in this blogoshere world and shows us that we can actually do experimental research on how policy processes use information and evidence

* it generates research questions for others to pursue

I would have liked to have seen more on whether blogs lead to less diversity in who is talking to who (I suspect the bonding impact amongst the like minded is quite high and the bridging factor across silos less strong), who has the luxury of being able to blog (e.g. institutional support) and how blogs change power dynamics in terms of whose voice is amplified?

The authors end up by asking, if there are all these benefits, why aren't there more bloggers? They suggest that the supply is lower than it should be because the barriers to doing it are large (emotional, time, writing skill etc.).

Now for the paper on Tweets.....

27 October 2011

ABC, Easy as 123?

Yesterday Brazilian Minister Marco Farani, visited IDS, met with some of our staff and gave a seminar on Brazil's approach to development and its emerging approach to development cooperation. Minister Farani is the Director of the Brazilian Agency for Cooperation (ABC).

The talk, together with the Q and A, was very interesting. Mr Farani made several key points

* the terms "North" and "South" will soon become as anachronistic as the terms "East" and "West" became after the end of the Cold War

* Brazil's approach to development cooperation is, at the moment, project based, pragmatic and underpinned by solidarity, not ideology or commerce

* Brazil's lack of a "past" (e.g. colonial) means it comes to Africa with less baggage than most existing donors. It has opened up 17 new embassies in Africa under President Lula Da Silva and trade with Africa has quadrupled in the past 10 years. Moreover at least 50% of the population has an African heritage.

* Already Brazil is being asked to give advice about its tropical agriculture (its agricultural research system EMBRAPA is widely respected throughout the world) and on its approaches to social protection (ditto).

* The Minister thought Brazil's development cooperation programme would specialise in environment, agriculture and social protection, but not necessarily worrying about becoming a world leader in these areas--Mr Farani reminded us, after all, that Brazil is still a recipient of ODA from Germany and Japan.

* The need to manage expectations--Brazil's domestic success in development will not necessarily mean it has the answers for other countries

* Brazil will probably retain a slightly heterodox development cooperation path, going its own way, with no plans, at least in the short term, a DAC member.

The Minister was admirably positive and optimistic about the path ahead making it sound, if not exactly easy, then not very bumpy either.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out. What are the next steps beyond cooperation projects? How will leadership on environment manifest itself? How will popular opinion within Brazil constrain any potential new ODA programme? When will commercial pressures begin to crowd in on the development cooperation programme? In which areas will the approach be heterodox and in which way? Will there be new ways of approaching certain development issues that have not been tried elsewhere but nevertheless have strong potential?

There are many important questions and Minister Farani made it very clear that research and knowledge would be at the heart of any new development cooperation programme.

The IDS BRICS initiative will be working with the Government of Brazil and our research, NGO and business partners in Brazil as well as DFID on these and other questions, comparing perspectives, approaches and issues across the other BRICS countries, looking for commonalities and contrasts.

IDS Fellows Alex Shankland and Lizbeth Navas Aleman are the leads at IDS in case any of you are interested in finding out more.

25 October 2011

Disaster Diplomacy

I was in Oslo yesterday, presenting some of the findings from the Reimagining Development work we have been doing at IDS to the Norwegian Research Council/NORAD Annual NORGLOBAL meetings.

I met some very interesting researchers doing great things at the interface of development and environment. One of them, Ilan Kelman, gave me a copy of his forthcoming book, Disaster Diplomacy. I began flipping through it on the flight back and found myself getting engrossed.

The basic question the book seeks to answer is: do disaster-related activities support or inhibit diplomacy processes?

Do disasters that affect all adversaries alike provide a space where differences can be put aside temporarily in the name of saving lives? And will this "time out", and the trust building that joint disaster-related action might foster, serve as a spur to the future construction of diplomacy?

More specifically, (1) do disaster-related activities influence diplomatic activities? (2) are the influenced diplomatic activities ongoing or new? (3) are the parties trying to make the diplomacy fail or succeed? (4) how long does the connection between the disaster and diplomacy activities last and what determines their longevity? and (5) do the disaster diplomacy activities address long standing livelihood vulnerabilities?

Kelman poses these questions of 18 case studies, ranging from food crisis (e.g. Ethiopia-Eritrea 2000-2002), tsunamis (e.g. Aceh, Sri Lanka), hurricanes (e.g. Katrina), and earthquakes (e.g. 2001 and India-Pakistan).

His conclusions are bleak. Disaster Diplomacy—at least based on these case studies and with the focus on the level of the State level--tends to fail. He concludes by saying that disaster diplomacy at the level of individuals may be happening and this may pave the way for states to practice it effectively. This is just one of the spin offs that he and others will pursue further in their work.

I was interested in this work because it displays the hallmarks of good research:

* A bridging of different worlds (disaster and diplomacy)
* Being careful about having a general framework that is flexible enough to be applied credibly to highly varied case studies, but in a way that allows those case studies to be aggregated in a convincing narrative
* Being brave enough to report a negative result (disaster diplomacy does not happen—imagine how personally advantaged the author would have been had the other result occurred)
* Being a general enough idea to have application elsewhere. I am thinking about Disaster Development—do disasters provide an opportunity to influence subsequent development in ways that are enduring and support the livelihoods of the most vulnerable?

Disasters are likely to become more frequent as population increases, current resource use patterns are maintained and climate change generates increased unpredictability. So we need to know more about how to create silver linings out of disasters—whether those linings are diplomatic or development orientated. This book is a useful way of thinking about the challenges to doing that.

22 October 2011

Five things I learned from commenting on the MVP

Well, that was interesting.

After my rather mild comments about the MVP last week we had the reply from Jeff Sachs and Prabhjot Singh.

Then we had some other blogs too.

David McKenzie provided a rebuttal of the response from the Millennium Promise team to me (many thanks David, even though we do not know each other).

Berk Ozler notes the role that the UN and the funders have played in the MVP. Michael Clemens from CGD weighs in too.

So after all the hoo-hah (a brilliant English term for fuss), here are 5 things I learned in the course of the last week.

1. If you offer a critique of the MVP, get ready for a full-on "stern" response. There seems to be an "if you are not with us then you are against us" narrative at work.

2. Get ready for any content in your critique to be drowned out by the impact issue. My blog was primarily about how to use the upcoming impact assessment to get a fix on how sustainable the MVP experiment would be once the donor money had gone. None of the above blogs mentioned this point.

3. The powerful can also be seduced by the "I've seen it work" argument. No need for boring old impact assessments, it seems.

4. One could make a career (of sorts) out of debating the MVP. There is a micro-industry of MVP debate out there. Lots of good stuff, but it must get a bit all-consuming.

5. The DFID funded evaluation of the MVP is more needed than I had realised. Well done DFID. And I will be the first to congratulate the MVP team if rigorous impact assessments show a positive impact attributable to the MVP.

Signing off on this topic for a while...

16 October 2011

On World Food Day who is most committed to reducing hunger?

Today is World Food Day.

It is usually a time when lots of measures of hunger are updated and released. All of these measures use an out of date methodology for assessing hunger (based on food balance sheets which are estimates of food availability, not access or utilisation) but that is another story.

More importantly World Food Day is a time to reflect on--and redouble--efforts to reduce hunger around the world.

But how do we know who is taking hunger reduction seriously?

It is vital to separate hunger outcomes from hunger reduction efforts and effort has to be contextualised by the resources and capacity available to a country.

IDS, together with NGO partners, with support from Irish Aid, has developed a Hunger Reduction Commitment Index (HRCI) to try to measure who is making the biggest effort to reduce hunger. Using secondary data (9 variables covering anti hunger spending, policies and legislation) we ranked 22 developing countries and 21 donor countries.

This is the kind of thing the FAO should be doing, and I hope they eventually take it over, but for now we are committed to developing it further.

The index ranking is still a draft (it is being peer reviewed) but the initial results are striking:

1. The top countries are Malawi (best), Guatemala, Brazil, Senegal with Ghana and Ethiopia tied at 5th. The bottom are Guinea Bissau (worst) Zambia, China, Nepal, with Lesotho and Bangladesh tied at 16th. China is the big surprise, coming in at 19th. It is a surprise because it usually ranks at the top of indices about who is doing well on hunger, but once we take out its hunger reduction numbers, the explicit commitment to hunger reduction does not show up in policies, spending or legislation. Of course if you have that level of hunger reduction (fuelled by economic growth), explicit commitment probably does not matter so much. That is why it is important to cross-reference commitment with hunger levels and resources available.

2. Once you cross-reference the commitment levels with hunger, wealth, administrative capacity and voice and accountability scores, several off- diagonal situations are highlighted:high hunger and low commitment (notably Guinea Bissau, Zambia, Bangladesh, but also Nepal and Lesotho), low wealth and high commitment (e.g. Malawi, Ethiopia, and Tanzania), high administrative capacity and low commitment (e.g. Lesotho and China) and low public accountability and voice but high commitment (Ethiopia). This contextualisation makes the HRCI more than an index, but helps it play a diagnostic role, guiding action from different stakeholders (governments, civil society, donors) to where their efforts can make the biggest difference.

3. On the donor countries, Denmark does best (with Finland second, and Ireland and Belgium joint third) with Switzerland worst. The UK comes in at joint 5th with France and Norway. South Korea, the new kid on the donor block, comes in at 12th--higher than Japan (13) Canada (14), the US (18).

We also collected primary data on 10 indicators in 3 countries (Zambia, Bangladesh and the UK) from in country "expert" panels (of around 30 people in each location, selected for as wide a range and balance of perspectives as possible) to give those governments a steer as to where these expert groups think they are relatively strong and relatively weak. For example in the UK the panel felt the UK government was strong on using evidence to inform policy but weak on working in a whole of government way.

I am a fan of relative rankings. I believe they provide positive motivation for action. Our hope is that civil society will find this index to be a useful addition to their toolkit in terms of putting pressure on governments to do something about hunger rather than simply talk about it.

We are developing the next phase of this work and will continue refining the index, updating the secondary data scores, updating the primary data collection while expanding the number of countries, working with civil society partners in country to help them use the index to support mobilisation against hunger and to set up a baseline for evaluation of the index.

The full draft report can be found here.

14 October 2011

Jeff Sachs: LVP of the MVP?

I have a lot of time for Jeff Sachs: sharp intellect, unflagging energy, extraordinary communication ability and gallons of boldness.

But when it comes to things like the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), in many ways, he seems to be his team's Least Valuable Player (LVP). He is, in short, a lightning rod. I think Madeleine Bunting called him a marmite person--you love him or hate him (although I am nowhere near these extremes).

The 2 main critiques of the MVP seem to be (a) of course if you spend $60 per head per person for 5 years you will see dramatic development improvements--but what happens when the donor money runs out? and (b) actually we don't know if the impacts are there because the MVP has no baseline comparison group of villages (and there is absolutely no technical reason the MVP experiment could not have been randomised at the village level a la Progresa).

The second critique seems sound to me. It is hard to understand why baselines of case control villages were not undertaken. The second critique gets us impact folk excited, but I suspect it is the first critique that is more widely supported--who on earth will pay for this once the donors leave?

But it seems to me that this ownership and sustainability issue can be evaluated in the impact analysis, at least in a plausibility kind of way (i.e. we won't really know if it sustainable until the external money is taken away).

For example, one could measure whether the MPV funds:

(a) crowd in or crowd out private or state contributions to infrastructure development

(b) lead to more business activity

(c) create a more diversified tax base

(d) lead to more domestically financed NGOs

(e) helps secure rights (property, user of civil), and

(f) build a stronger capacity to fight for state resources.

One could also do some knowledge, attitude and perceptions work with policymakers, community leaders and NGOs that is clever enough to get around self-interest and get answers to questions about about sustainability and ownership.

These kinds of questions are vital, it seems to me, for the next phase of the MVP evaluation equation--an equation that Jeff Sachs would do well to take himself out of for a while...

09 October 2011

When Worlds Collide

For the past year or so I have been working with folks who regularly publish in the leading health journals and with the editors of those journals. It has been an eye-opening experience.

Now I am used to working with those from a public health background--I have an undergrad degree with joint honours in Food Science and Food Economics--and one of my PhD supervisors, Prof. Reynaldo Martorell is a leading light in Public Health Nutrition. But nothing could prepare me for this parallel universe.

Some examples:

* having my writing described as "so ugly" by a health reviewer -- OK it's more prose than poetry, but come on..
* being a part of a systematic review that surveyed 14000 papers and came up with 3 that met the inclusion criteria--and that, apparently, is OK!
* having to define "development" as an "intervention"
* trying to write a very wide ranging paper in 3000-4000 words because readers of these journals will not tolerate more (why not?)
* having been told my paper is going before a "hanging panel" (gulp)
* being surprised to be on a list of authors for a paper just because I contributed a few ideas
* being listed at the end of the long list of authors on a paper because this is what the grand old men and women are put

I have to say I have learned an enormous amount too:

* about the strengths and weaknesses of systematic reviews and meta analyses
* about malaria (why don't more social scientists work on it?)
* that re-reviews of systematic review papers are rarely done (why not?)
* about how complex our development language is to those outside development (complexity fundamentalism versus the epidemiological fundamentalism of the health research community)

And, most importantly, about how health can add value to understanding development and vice versa. In fact this is the theme of the special series of papers we are hoping to publish simultaneously in a leading health journal and in a leading development journal (and the working title of the series is the title of this blog).

I will keep you updated on this interplanetary journey.

06 October 2011

UK Attitudes to Aid: Minding the Gap Between Political Leaders and the Public

This morning I was interviewed by a TV reporter on the results from the UK Public Opinion Monitor on public attitudes to aid. It will be interesting to see how they present my evidence. I have a sinking feeling I will be presented as an aid-sceptic. I hope my instincts are wrong on this occasion.

Quite unrelatedly (I think) Andrew Mitchell, the UK's Secretary of State for International Development, was interviewed by the Independent newspaper in Saturday’s edition. He cited some encouraging private polling which found that the number of people who agree that “even as we deal with our deficit, we should be proud of our aid commitments” has risen from 48 per cent three months ago to 51 per cent at present, while 38 per cent disagree.

It is good news that this most recent polling shows support is holding firm and perhaps it signals a positive response to DFID's efforts in 2011 to demonstrate the positive force that aid can be.

Results from the UK Public Opinion Monitor (UK POM), run by IDS, had shown a deterioration in public support for aid in 2010.

In June 2010, 63% of people in the panel thought aid should be cut in context of addressing deficit. By November 2010, this figure had risen to 71%.

When we investigated the longer term views, the results were more positive. In March 2011 we asked UK POM participants what they thought about aid spending in 5 –10 years time. The negative response fell significantly: 51% thought aid should be cut in the longer term.

And in June of 2011 when we asked UK POM participants whether they agreed with the statement that their lives would become "much more dependent on events elsewhere" in 5 years time and again in 50 years time, the 50 year agreement numbers increased dramatically.

So some of the perceptions about aid are clearly linked to the current economic conditions in the UK and in the longer term people feel more supportive of aid and understand we will be living in a more interdependent world (where aid will be important in building political and economic relationships).

But the news from the Governor of the Bank of England today "the most serious financial crisis at least since the 1930s if not ever" makes the longer term feel even further away.

So what will build support for aid now?

• first, recognise the strong base we already have--the UK public feels the need to help--UK POM results from early 2010 show that 6 out of 10 of the UK public feel we have a “moral obligation” to help poor people wherever they live

• second, more evidence about when aid works is also important--systematic reviews are beginning to marshal an important type of evidence, and the ones I have read show that there are plenty of interventions--many supported by aid--that are having a real positive impact on people's lives

• third, the UK Aid Watchdog (ICAI) is becoming more important as another avenue for citizens to ask questions about aid effectiveness and for aid's effectiveness to emerge

• fourth, contextualising helps -- when we asked UK POM participants whether they agreed that aid to India should be at £280 million per year, 66% disagreed, but when we pointed out that India contained more people living in poverty than sub Saharan Africa, the percent who disagreed dropped to 50.

• fifth, those of us who have seen the sustainable support that aid can give to those living in the most desperate conditions must tell those stories to their friends, families, neighbours, communities and MPs

• finally, and I think most important, we need to be more prepared to support those directly affected by aid in sharing their experiences of aid--these are the most authentic voices and testimonies to the strengths and weaknesses of aid

Leadership is about doing the right thing, not necessarily the popular thing. But when will the gap between the leadership of the main political parties and the public on the commitment to aid become unsustainable? Those who believe that aid can do great things must support the leaders of the 3 main parties as long as the evidence supports us. For now, it does.

04 October 2011

Is Business the New development?

IDS organised a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference called “Is business the new aid?” The title was deliberately focused on getting a sharp response from the panel members (chaired by Lanre Akinola, Editor of This is Africa, Financial Times with Barbara Stocking, CEO of Oxfam, Sue Clark, Director of Corporate Affairs, SAB Miller, Stephen O’Brien, the DFID Minister, and me).

Everyone on the panel agreed that the answer to the question was “no”. For me the answer was “no” and “no”. No because businesses creating jobs and tax revenues are much more powerful than aid in reducing poverty and no because unlike businesses, aid has a responsibility to work for the most vulnerable.

We want aid to create the conditions where progressive growth can flourish—helping with governance (legitimate political stability, inclusive property and user rights, transparent recourse and justice mechanisms), with infrastructure (to reduce transactions costs for everyone), and with pro-poor institutional innovations (e.g. supporting smallholder farmers to work together to enter and influence value chain rules). The business schools call this reducing “beta risk” to allow (small and medium) enterprises to continue taking their own “alpha” risks. By progressive growth I mean growth that generates decent jobs (Stephen O’Brien called this “jobful” growth), that reduces poverty and is environmentally responsible.

I was struck by how relaxed the audience at the fringe event was about the role of business in development (I was also reminded that all 3 DFID Ministers have substantial business experience). The experiences of the BRICS countries seem to have changed the development community’s attitudes to business.

But the problem remains: how to tell whether the "business and development" success stories on display at panels such as these are: (a) genuine successes (have they been as independently and rigorously assessed as aid interventions are?) and (b) not just window dressing?

There is no way of knowing this at the moment. We need much more independent research on this issue. Collectively DFID, 3ie and Aus Aid have recently funded about 200 systematic reviews on development interventions—each of these will focus on 20 or so studies, making for at least 4000 high quality studies of development interventions. My guess is that there are less than 40 such rigorous studies of the impacts on business on poverty. That is why IDS will focus on building up the evidence base in this area over the next 5 years.

After our event, there was a reception hosted by the Conservative Friends of International Development. It was packed. Andrew Mitchell has clearly been very effective in building support for development within his party—certainly with the elder statesmen and stateswomen and the younger members of the party who have experienced the Umubano work in Rwanda. The strong support from David Cameron is important too. But what about those in the middle? Their resolve will surely be tested in the next 2 years as it dawns on the UK public that the aid budget will increase by 40% by 2014-15. George Osborne’s speech to Conference yesterday “we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business” is a sign that the UK is reining in its green leadership ambitions and provides a contrast to Andrew Mitchell’s frequently repeated phrase “we’re not going to balance the books on the backs of the poorest”.

Encouragingly, there are no signals that the government’s stance is softening on the importance of DFID’s efforts to support international development. (Indeed the close out of the Conference by David Cameron will be dedicated to mobilising support from the membership for famine relief for the most vulnerable in Somalia.) But perhaps an even more important test of the Government’s resolve on development will materialise if it emerges that its development efforts are holding back UK businesses. That is why it is so important for DFID to work across government to head off these potential tradeoffs and identify the things that BIS, DECC, DEFRA and the rest can do to support development without damaging UK business interests.

When does business have the biggest positive impact on development? That is the research question. Is development bad for UK businesses? That is the political one.