28 January 2012

Development Acumen and Achilles Heels?

This week, I met with CDC's excellent new CEO, Diana Noble. CDC is a development finance institution, set up by DFID, but not financed by UK taxpayers since 1995. CDC has been successfully recycling returns from investments into new investments. With the aim of having a bigger additive effect transformative change, they are focusing all new investments in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
In the course of our discussion, Diana told me about the Acumen Fund, investing in "social enterprises, emerging leaders, and breakthrough ideas".
The Fund has an interesting "10 things we have learned to be true":
  1. Dignity is more important to the human spirit than wealth
Neither grants nor markets alone will solve the problems of poverty
Poverty is a description of someone's economic situation, it does not describe who someone is
We won't succeed in the long term without cultivating local leaders
Great people, every time, no exceptions
Great technology alone is not the answer
If failing is not an option, you've ruled out success as well
Governments rarely invent solutions, but they can scale what works
There is no currency like trust, and there are no shortcuts to earning it
Patient capital investing is built upon a system of values; it is not a series of steps
I like the fact that the Fund is reflective. I also like the focus on dignity, leadership, blends of grants and markets, patient investing, listening to customer feedback.
But the Achilles Heel of this sector is the lack of independent evaluation and verification of impact.
The claims of Acumen's success are loud: 55,000 jobs created and supported, and 86 million lives impacted. I could not find any evaluations on the website (the "knowledge centre" has photo essays, stories and update letters but no independent assessments of impact and sustainability).
It would be so much more reassuring if these numbers had been generated by independent and publicly available evaluations. This is one way of building trust.

24 January 2012

The Egyptian Revolt one year on: How should it change the way we think about development?

This week IDS releases a collection of papers authored by Egyptians who bridge the academic and activist worlds on "The Pulse of Egypt's Revolt".
The collection is edited by my colleague, Mariz Tadros. Mariz is a Research Fellow at IDS and previously an Assistant Professor at the American University in Cairo and a journalist for the Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper.
The collection of papers, including a nice overview from Mariz, asks two questions:
  1. why and how did the Egyptian uprisings begin? and
  2. what are the implications for development paradigms, concepts and practices?
Linking to and getting inspiration from the other 11 papers in the volume (including one of her own on "Backstage Governance") Tadros puts forward 5 ideas:
1. We need new ways to grasp the pulse on the street
The paper argues that "disciplinary silos" and "methodological precincts" make it hard to get a rounded picture (deductive political science, for a variety of reasons, assumes Egyptians will not rise). It says that what matters is the "dark matter of citizenship" and that this cannot be assessed by surveys. Finally it highlights sites of information that are not mainstream but which need to be engaged (Wikileaks, online reactions to stories, new Arab satellite TV channels, soap operas, films).
2. Calling the revolts a "Facebook revolution" is a gross simplification
There were many triggers and it was their confluence that was important: youth (Facebook, yes, but also old fashioned pamphlets and slogans) and the brutality they were subjected to; the people, who were connected to the brutality by Al-Jazeera and the like and came out in numbers that the security forces couldn't handle; and the military which did not side with Mubarak (and we don't know how hard they had to be pushed to switch loyalties). All of these factors came together.
3. The act of revolting should not be confused with its outcome
Tahrir Square in Jan-Feb 2011 was a particular time and space: it did not represent the whole of the nation (Facebook offered limited opportunities for forging a coalition outside of youth in Cairo), and the political truce called for by rivals with a common goal--get rid of Mubarak--was quickly called off.
4. The concept of "unruly politics" may offer a powerful way to understand people's mobilisation
Much of the public dissent leading up to the revolt was missed because it does not fit conventional "checklists" of what constitutes the right way of challenging the status quo (for example the Stay at Home campaign in 2008 or campaign that conveyed their anger with politicians of their hunger by banging on pots and pans). The unruly label is because citizens engaged in spaces outside of the conventions realms of state and civil society--in hidden and informal spaces that many civil society organisations failed to connect to.
5. There is a disconnect between development paradigms and the dynamics of unruly politics in authoritarian settings.
First, there is a disconnect between the publicised state of the economy (good) and conditions on the ground (no change). Second, the irrelevance of institutions mandated to improve governance and the background operation of the State Security Investigations in pulling the governance strings. Finally, the neutering of civil society through apolitical compartmentalisation and projectisation. These disconnects, together with the right political catalysts and moment, created the right environment for mass mobilisation.
Overall, the shifts the Bulletin calls for include:
(a) a "made in Egypt" economic growth policy, one that recognises the politics of different choices about how markets function, the political consequences of those choices, and how citizens should be protected from its extremes,
(b) civil society organisations to root themselves in civil society, not in donor society,
(c) looking before leaping onto the social media bandwagon--it undoubtedly has a role to play in creating new spaces for meaningful engagement, but not if it is not embedded in the context,
(d) aid to be viewed less through a geopolitical lens and more through a developmental one, and
(e) new ways of supplementing conventional methods of data collection as to the conditions, attitudes and perceptions of ordinary citizens, capable of doing extraordinary things.
Clearly Mariz argues that the donors have a very large opportunity to shape the way they interact with civil society and the Government and that these new relationships must be driven by home grown initiatives, development. Having worked in Egypt in the late 90s this all makes a lot of sense to me. I just hope the new government provides the space to let this happen.

21 January 2012

Do Indices Change Anything?

With so many indexes out there, whether they change behaviour in those collecting, reporting or reading them seems like an obvious question to ask. Thirty minutes on Google Scholar does not reveal anything.

I have indices on the brain this week. On Monday I was at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs making a presentation on hunger, food security and agriculture. This is going to be a new priority for the new Minister for International Development. I presented the Hunger Reduction Commitment Index (HRCI) that an IDS team has constructed with support from Irish Aid. The HRCI shows Denmark at number 1 in the donor countries. This went down well, but raised the question: if Denmark is doing so well, why the new priority?

Then on Tues-Weds there was a meeting at FAO on measuring hunger outcomes, using various indices--my IDS colleagues Edoardo Masset and Stephen Devereux were in attendance. I hope some progress has been made in measuring hunger properly since the last such meeting in 2002 and that even more progress will be made in the next 10 years.

Then on Thursday we had the Global Think Tank Index from the University of Pennsylvania. The index places IDS at 8th in the world in terms of think tanks on international development (2nd in UK behind ODI) and 2nd in the UK in all topics for a University affiliated think tank (although we are independently governed). Of course I would like to be higher than 8th, but last year we weren't even on the list (because no one thought to nominate us, presumably thinking that someone else would --you cannot nominee yourself) so that is an improvement.

Finally on Thursday and Friday we hosted a DFID-IDS Learning Event on Nutrition Governance, showcasing 6 country case studies. Each case study looked at the incentives, barriers and tradeoffs behind the structures and frameworks that are supposed to help coordinate nutrition actions across sectors and across levels of government. We noted the vast difference in governance effectiveness behind the "good governance" scores of the WHO Landscape indicators which track whether such structures are in place.

In all of these examples, the index in question has proven to be a lightning rod for discussion. Sometimes this can be a distraction, but most times it serves as a kick off point for discussion and debate about the index, but also about the issue.

Nevertheless, it does seem that there is a need for rigorous evaluations of indices used--do they spur effective action? This is something that IDS will work with Irish Aid and DFID on in evaluating the HRCI and a related but distinct nutrition commitment index.

If you know of any studies we can draw inspiration from, please let me know. Thanks.
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18 January 2012

Dangerous Delays and Fallible Fire Alarms

Save the Children and Oxfam released a joint report today entitled "A Dangerous Delay: The Cost of Late Response to Early Warnings in the 2011 Drought in the Horn of Africa". The report argues that early warning systems performed, but decision makers did not respond to them. In an interview Justin Forsyth the head of Save the Children UK likened the situation to an alarm bell that had a very delayed effect. A lot of people were harmed by the delayed response and the cost of dealing with hunger and malnutrition was much higher than if it had been addressed earlier.

So why the delay? Using Forsyth's analogy, either policymakers did not hear the alarm, did not trust it, or although hearing and believing the alarm, they simply could not respond to it quickly enough. The report makes some good recommendations about amplifying the alarm (via the media and building up capacity of those to communicate the significance of the alarm up the decision chain). It also makes good recommendations about helping people respond to it more quickly once they believe it (emergency response funds, insurance, greater joint programming between development and humanitarian groups).

The one area that the report is relatively silent on is whether the policymakers believe the signals. The report focuses on the case where the signals were right and outlines the cost of ignoring them, but policymakers might argue: what about the costs of acting when the signals were wrong?

As researchers, we should be analysing, ex post, the frequency with which the early warning signals get it right. If we can attach a probability to the predictive power of the signals, then when the next signal goes off policymakers can better assess the risks of responding to a non crisis against the risks of responding late to an emerging crisis. In other words, how often will the signal get it right?

It's not pretty, but I would not be surprised if this is the kind of calculation that is often made.

14 January 2012

In appreciation of Philip Payne

This week I heard the sad news that Professor Philip Payne passed away.
Based at the Nutrition Policy Unit (set up by ODA, now DFID, in 1977) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he was one of the key shapers of nutrition and nutrition policy in the 20th century, with plenty of implications for the 21st.
He did lots of big things. Three stand out for me.
  1. He helped to debunk the idea that malnutrition was due to a protein gap. He and others pointed out that if there is a calorie deficit in the diet, then a focus on protein is merely an expensive and not nutritionally useful way of filling that gap.
  2. He bridged the gap between the nutrition, economics and political worlds. He was one of the first to recognise that these drivers were fundamental to reducing undernutrition.
  3. He focused on function, stress and adaptation. Using language that would be seen as in vogue today, he and people like Michael Lipton and Richard Longhurst introduced nuance into the various debates about when coping with stress incurred unacceptable costs and when it was a positive adaptive response.
Never far from controversy, renowned for speaking his mind, he would approve of the way the rest of the nutrition community is finally catching up with him.

13 January 2012

Hungama: Stirring stuff for nutrition in India

A remarkable new report has been published by the Naandi Foundation, called Hungama (a Hindi word for causing a "stir" or a "ruckus"). Undernutrition is often neglected and so we need to make more noise about it, especially when it is unresponsive to economic growth. This is what this report does. It surveys 112 districts in India.

"Of the 112 districts surveyed, 100 were selected from the bottom of a child development district index developed for UNICEF India in 2009, referred to as the 100 Focus Districts in this report. These 100 districts are located in 6 states. The best-performing district from each of these states was also selected for survey. To this set was added another set of 6 districts, 2 each from the best-performing states of the country. Having the largest sample size for a child nutrition survey since 2004, the HUNGaMA Survey captured nutrition status of 109,093 children under five years of age. Data collection took place between October 2010 and February 2011 in 3,360 villages across 9 states. Coordinated by the Naandi Foundation, the HUNGaMA survey presents underweight, stunting and wasting data at the district level (this was last done in 2004 by DLHS-2, which reported only underweight estimates). It is also the first ever effort to make the voice of over 74,000 mothers heard."

Quick read headlines for me:
  • in these districts (remember, this is not representative at the state or national level), underweight rates have declined from 53 % in 2002-4 (the LFHS 2 data) to 42% in 2011 (the Hungama data). This is a rate of about 1.4 percentage points per year, much faster than NFHS data suggest (the maroon dotted line below) and somewhat faster than the NNMB data suggest (the maroon solid line below). But has stunting declined? Unfortunately the LFHS-2 did not collect stunting data, even though Hungama did. But can we conclude that stunting (the preferred indicator of undernutrition) has also declined? Not really, because as the below data show, the NNMB recorded an increase in stunting (the solid blue line) at the same time it recorded a decline in under weight. Interestingly, the smallest decline in underweight is for the best districts in the best states (Figure 15): 35% to 32%. This is a bit surprising if only because the rates are still so high.
  • it is interesting that the stunting and underweight rates are better for the Best Districts in the Focus States than the Best Districts in the Best States (figure 1). This needs more exploration.
  • wasting rates are puzzling. These are higher for the Best Districts in the Focus States compared to the average of all Districts in Focus States. The overall wasting rates are 11-12% which is lower than the rates in the diagram above for NNMB (15%) and much lower than NFHS (19% -- a big proportionate decrease).
  • one of the big differentiating covariates of the different district groupings is whether mothers have heard of the term "malnutrition" in their local language: 8% in the 100 focal districts, 18% in the best districts from focal states and 80% in the best districts from best states. But this is not reflected in the differences in undernutrition rates in these groups (remember, the stunting and underweight rates are higher in the best districts from best states compared to the best districts from focal states)
  • lots of analyses are suggested by the data--I would like to examine how ICDS characteristics in 2004 and 2011 are correlated with changes in underweight rates
  • the 3 categories of states are a bit confusing, and simple comparisons of means might be misleading because one group consists of 100 districts and the other 2 groups consist of 6 districts each.
  • the data and the report have received serious attention from the media and the Government. I hope the research community is also active in sifting through the data
  • the effort by Naandi (and it really has been an incredible undertaking for an NGO) shows the enormous vacuum created by the lack of Government data. Despite the great work from Naandi, it remains essential to have a comparable set of snapshots from the GoI every 2-3 years.
I hope this remarkable report stirs all stakeholders into action to accelerate undernutrition reduction.

10 January 2012

Expert Panels: What Are They Good For?

I am currently on the UN Committee on World Food Security's High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). It is an interesting experiment and a part of the reform of international governance of food and nutrition put in place a couple of years ago by the UN. It is interesting because (a) the HLPE acts as an independent think tank in the midst of the UN on food and nutrition, making public recommendations to the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and (b) it tries to draw together expertise and know how from the four corners of the globe.

The HLPE has selected and commissioned two teams to work on two hot issues of the day: "food price volatility" and "land tenure and international investments in agriculture". I have just received final copies of the two reports.

The first is on food price volatility. Two interesting points from this report: (1) it shows clearly the transmission lags between world food price changes and local food price changes. There were 3-6 month lags in transmission of increases from global to local, but very muted declines in local prices even after global prices declined substantially between May 08 and March 09. African prices were the slowest to increase, but once up, they stayed up, right into 2011 (Figure 9 in the report) and (2) there is a nice typology of policy solutions (Table 13) although I would have liked to have seen a greater linkage of these options to political and administrative capacities. For example,Table 12 of the report, which summarises policy interventions actually adopted in the wake of the 07/08 food price spike, shows that countries from Latin America and the Caribbean were much less likely to restrict or ban exports than Asian countries and yet African countries were much more likely to reduce or suspend taxes than Asian countries. Why? Technical, political or administrative capacity reasons?

The second is on large scale land acquisitions and is quite explicit in its discussion of power asymmetries between land users/occupiers, governments and large commercial interests. It aligns its recommendations more closely to different stakeholders than does the first report. Like the first report it calls on the CFS to play a stronger role in promoting data access, policy transparency and stakeholder accountability. This is an important role for the CFS. Data sharing does not always come easily to UN agencies in this arena and transparency and accountability are not always easy for organisations governed by 190 or so members.

As a member of the HLPE I have been encouraged by the openness of the HLPE process so far and the initial attention from the CFS to the first two reports. The HLPE members do not get paid, but the HLPE consumes resources. As more reports come in, an M&E function needs to be put in place to see if and how the reports influence the wider field -- and the CFS/UN in particular.

05 January 2012

FAO DG's first news conference: 5 things we learned

On Tuesday, 2 days into his 3 and a half year tenure, the new FAO DG, Graziano da Silva, held his first press conference. The 10 minute presentation was a restatement of the 5 pillars upon which the DG ran as a candidate: end hunger; move towards more sustainable systems of food production and consumption; achieve greater fairness in the global management of food; complete FAO's reform and decentralization; and expand South-South cooperation and other partnerships.

Much more interesting was the 45 minute Q and A session with the press. Both of these sections of the press conference are available as audiofiles at the link above.

What did we learn?

1. Political Will will have a high priority. When asked by an African newspaper what was the one thing that needed to happen to end hunger in Africa, the DG said build political will and then translate that into concrete action at the technical, financial and support levels. It is refreshing to hear the political coming before the technical and not as an afterthought. Concrete tools and measures need to be developed to assess, spur and build political will for hunger reduction and FAO should lead on this.

2. A whole of society approach is needed. It is not just FAO and not just governments that have the responsibility for ending hunger, a whole of society approach is required: civil society, the private sector. This is great, but someone needs to take responsibility and be accountable. Orchestras still need conductors. FAO should focus on accountability and transparency in the food system.

3. "Nobody Eats at the Global Level". FAO decentralisation and getting closer to the ground is going to be a feature of the new DG's tenure. Quite what this means for a normative organisation is not clear, but the recognition that solutions to hunger need to be found on a nation by nation, community by community basis is clear. There is no blueprint, adaptation to existing capacities and political processes is important. It is clear that the DG will draw heavily on his Brazilian experiences in this and other areas. The South-South sharing of experiences will be particulalry important here. It would be good for FAO to set up the world's best learning hub on what works in ending hunger.

4. The DG is serious about completing the FAO Reform process. In response to a question about FAO expenses and benefits da Silva was clear that he would be looking for savings throughout the organisation, cutting inefficiency and reducing bureaucracy, including in his own office. Good, but don't do this in a mechanistic way.

5. FAO will become more open. Putting the press Q and A out in an unedited audiofile was brave for a UN organisation and indeed for any big bureaucracy. I very much hope this openness lasts beyond the honeymoon period.

A good start for the new DG.

04 January 2012

Leadership in Development: What do we know about it?

There's an interesting review by Ted Miguel in Foreign Affairs of Steve Radelet's book, Emerging Africa. The review summarises Radelet's arguments:
  1. Democratisation--of governments, access to information and accountability
  2. Improved economic policy
  3. Debt reduction
  4. New technologies (esp the mobile phone)
  5. A new generation of leaders
Radelet argues that democratisation is the number one contributing factor. My IDS colleagues in the Africa Power and Politics Programme, supported by DFID, would probably agree with this, although they would argue very strongly for good enough democracy that is suited to context rather than Western style orthodoxy.
In a very positive review, Miguel mildly chastises Radelet:"But in identifying democratization as the leading cause of Africa's recent economic turnaround, especially in the countries he labels as emerging, Radelet simply pushes the question of causality back another step. Left unanswered is why some African countries, such as Ghana, developed successful democracies in the 1990s, whereas others, such as Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana's neighbor, tried and failed."
Miguel's answer? He argues that it might be education. He notes that Africa's human capital stock has risen dramatically in the past 30 years. In addition to Radelet's arguments about how this means the technical level of policymaking has improved, Miguel draws on his own research to illustrate how education empowers students rather than making them acquiesce to authority that is not pro-development. Better educated students are more politically informed and are better able to see through propaganda and are less willing to identify ethnically with a particular policy stance.
I find these arguments plausible, even though Miguel's research is only drawn from Kenya. But Miguel's argument does not really address the question of why Ghana is open but the Cote d'Ivoire is not.
Personally, I think the most under researched area is Radelet's fifth factor: leadership.
What do we know about how pro-development leadership emerges and can it be supported better? What factors have shaped the emergence of pro-development leaders whether the more celebrated ones Radelet identifies such as John Githongo in Kenya and Patrick Awuah in Ghana or the unsung heroes at other levels? What role does oppression play in radicalising them and what role does democratisation play in supplying them with enough oxygen to operate? What can the educational establishment and public policy do to support future leaders?
Leadership is an important and under researched issue for development in general, not only for Africa.