26 April 2013

The Politics of Evidence: A Big Step Forward

Earlier this week, IDS hosted a Big Push Forward conference on the Politics of Evidence.

The Big Push Forward is an informal international network of practitioners who aim to:

"create the space for discussion, debate and the exploration of appropriate approaches for assessing transformative development processes. Hard evidence, rigorous data, conclusive proof, value for money, evidence-based policy are tantalising terms promising clarity about what works and what should be funded in international development. Yet behind these terms lie definitional tussles, vested interests and contested world views. For those who hold the purse strings certain ways of knowing and assessing impact are considered more legitimate than others. Yet increasingly people are recognising the need for multiple and mixed methods and approaches to better understand complex change and that, compared to imposed standards, are more likely to lead to fair assessments helping us learn how to support a fairer world."

We know that evidence is power, but we also know that power shapes evidence.  We all do it. This blog does it. The key is to be self aware and open about it and to share assumptions and biases. This is hard.

But it is important.  When it comes to evidence of what works, why and how, the stakes are even higher.  We have an even greater moral obligation than usual to be balanced and comprehensive, to triangulate and to consider alternative ways of seeing and knowing things. 

I could only stay for the first morning of the 2-day conference, but I heard 3 presentations -- from an NGO that agreed, bit by bit, to relinquish control to a funder via a results framework discussion; from a large INGO that agreed, bit by bit to relinquish control to a funder and the impact evaluation researchers (!); and a very successful US based network of professors who undertake impact evaluations and capacity building who decline 95% of the requests made to them to evaluate interventions (because they feel the interventions do not need evaluating).  Power pervaded all of these stories (no doubt selected as such by the organisers).

I read the background paper, by Professor Rosalind Eyben at IDS, which I recommend.  I don't agree with everything in it, but I do, like Rosalind, get a sense that the tension between supporting sustainable country led development processes and the important obligation to demonstrate impacts is no longer a creative tension. 

The pressure from taxpayers and the media to see results from ODA is now so intense, and so confrontational, it has put bilaterals in a very difficult position, with lots of accompanying fallout for their partners.  Relationships are fraying all over the place.  Certain types of evidence are privileged over others, not because they are intrinsically superior, but because they are easier to quantify and therefore use in defence.  Creativity is being put into getting around systems rather than improving them. 

That is why I welcome the Big Push Forward's transformation from the Big Push Back.  It is easy to push back at something but much harder to find a better way.  This conference was one big step towards changing measurement so that is measures change. 

25 April 2013

RTM = Real Time Monitoring = Regression to the Mean?

Real time monitoring is the new kid in town: fresh faced, full of promise, using language some of us over 40 do not understand (not me of course).   

The potential seems limitless. Nearly half the world's population have a mobile phone. As Eric Schmidt of Google said in 2010, ‘Every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003’. And the world is speeding up. Uncertainty, fragility, volatility, adaptation, resilience--this is the new language of development. But is RMT simply only old wine in dangerous new bottles? (See a sceptical blog from my sharp (under 40) IDS colleague, Keetie Roelen.)

So, what do we know about whether RTM helps to support development? My colleagues at IDS--Martin Greeley and Henry Lucas, together with Jingqing Chai at UNICEF have put together a nice collection of case studies in a new IDS Bulletin that explore the strengths and weaknesses of development approaches that attempt to use these new technologies and the data they generate (either as "exhaust" from other activities or as more efficient ways of collecting existing types of data). The IDS Bulletin is one output from a joint project with UNICEF (see here for a synthesis report on the project).

They also enumerate, usefully, all the different purposes for which RTM methods are adopted: service provision, monitoring programme effectiveness, policy influence, advocacy and system integration.  

They note that we are all operating in an RTM knowledge vacuum. Swarms of pilots, not enough evaluations. 

They note the intense interest in this space from and for the private sector, and they point to some examples where interests are aligned and some where they are not.

They explore whether RTMs can help organisations such as UNICEF to pay greater attention to those in remote and excluded areas. Again, RTMs do have the potential to deconstruct averages, to highlight populations at the margins.  But in the attempt to aggregate masses of information they also have the potential to create messy "average" views and to privilege the voices who have the technology and who have the greatest capacity to use it. RTM might just mean "regression to the mean".

To avoid these pitfalls, the authors suggest the most pressing need is for country led and country specific RTM common guidance, as was developed in other sectors such as microfinance, to ensure RTM measures the right things, for the right people, by the right people, at the right time. 

Highly recommended.  

16 April 2013

A Nature Hike Through the Book of Revelations with Al Gore: Dublin Day 2.

So, Day 2 of the Dublin conference on Hunger. Nutrition. Climate Justice  was interesting. 

First there was another useful learning circle.  The theme was joining up the issues and joining up national to local.  The case study in my group was Keyhole Gardens, which are one metre tall and two metres in diameter.  Filled with layers of soil, ash and manure, within a stone wall, with a biodegradable basket in the centre where water and organic waste is deposited.  We were told by one of the farmers and extension workers, together with Catholic Relief Services about how they were transforming the lives of poor households in Lesotho by increasing income, diet diversity and resilience.

The Keyhole Gardens seem like a good thing:  They integrate the issues (households cannot afford the luxury of separating them); they blend local and outside knowledge; they use locally available products (except for the seeds); they are tailored to HIV/AIDS afflicted areas that have been depleted of agricultural labour and they are scalable.

Questions were raised, however: (a) where are the independent evaluations of the range of benefits and costs? These will help get investment and scale the technology spatially and help get it embedded in policy, (b) when to bring in the government? (c) how do they affect gender and community power relations?  and (d) what are the market consequences of surpluses generated?

We had plenary presentations, but the highlights for me were Al Gore (yes, him) and a farmer (I missed her name!) who closed out the session.

Gore was quite inspirational. He said the increasing incidences of severe weather was like "taking a nature hike through the book of revelations" and that we need to "win the conversation" on climate change (recalling a recent incident when he was in line --yes it is hard to imagine him waiting in a line--and someone uttered hateful words to a gay couple also in the line. The others in the line all told the person in question that their comments were unacceptable--that conversation had been won).

David Nabarro, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative on Food and Nutrition said we need to go further and win not only the conversation, but the struggle. (I do believe David, like a US Presidential contender, is getting more radical as the campaign goes on. I like it.)

Gore also told a story about the average age of the systems engineers in Houston that got Apollo 8 to the moon and back: 26 years old. They were 18 when JFK set out his call to action. A good way of reminding us of the power of youth. He also told us that Aristotle wrote that the the end of a thing defines its nature. He said that he refused to accept that humans were destined to destroy ourselves: "the opposable thumb and overdeveloped cerebral cortex cannot be merely a failed experiment. I refuse to accept it refuse to believe it." Great.

But the best parting shot was given by the farmer that closed out the conference. I paraphrase: "you invite people to the meeting who know nothing about farming. They can just read and write. We are the owners of the work". Other comments by other farmers "what I know is not in your papers" and "local people don't need to think out of the box--we don't put things in boxes".


A good conference. A bit light on analysis, but rich on relationships. Nutrition got a bit lost, even in such a friendly environment. 

We nutritionistas need to keep fighting for space in the post 2015 world.

15 April 2013

Hurdling Fords in Dublin: Hunger. Nutrition. Climate Justice

One of Dublin's names is "town of the hurdled ford". 

Today was the first day of the 2 day conference on hunger, nutrition and climate justice, organised by the Irish Government, the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice and the World Food Programme. It is convened at Dublin Castle.

And fords are indeed being hurdled. There are two big disconnects that the Conference is trying to address: (1) getting the hunger, nutrition and climate justice communities making connections and (2) getting meaningful dialogue between practitioners and policymakers.

My highlights from the morning: a strong first set of speeches. Opening speeches can be real snooze fests, but these were great (if a bit long).

Michael Higgins, President of Ireland gave a real rabble rousing speech calling us to action (longest standing ovation I can recall at a conference); Ertharin Cousin on how WFP was working to support national food security systems; Mary Robinson ("shame on us if we miss this opportunity to act now"); Andris Piebalgs ("undernutrition is the worst form of poverty"); William Ole Seki Laitayock, Ngorongoro Pastoralist Development Organisation, Tanzania ("we are not troublemakers, we are pastoralists"); the impressive Simon Coveney, Irish Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine ("replacing small scale producers with large farms is a disastrous thought process"), President Joyce Banda (video) on Malawi's leadership on these issues (and Malawi is the top rated African country in the new Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index); William Chilufya, SUN civil society group, Zambia, ("Zambians know food, less about nutrition"); Alex Nallo, World Vision Youth ambassador ("2015 shall not be our limit") and Salah Hussien, another Youth Ambassador ("young people speak from the heart so it is important to listen to them".)

In the afternoon, we broke into "learning circles". This consisted of 2 case studies (Ethiopia and Malawi) presented by pairs of farmers and scientists/community organisers, followed by discussions in groups of 3, merging into groups of 8, merging into groups of 50. We discussed the 2 case studies.

I was in one on "Whose Knowledge Counts?"--a very IDS-like title.  It was refreshing to be able to listen to so many African farmers (with farms of 1-4 hectares). The Ethiopia and Malawi examples showed how farmers can be at the centre of knowledge systems--either through demand driven research priorities or through farmer group representation.

We were asked by the facilitator to generate 3 asks of those in power. 

To hurdle those those fords, mine were:

1. Training on knowledge generation. Bring nutrition, hunger and climate change together in schools, in universities and in on the job training. 
2. Research funding.  Design calls that bring the 3 themes together, but which also bring together different types of "expertise": formal and informal, inferential and deductive, tacit and explicit. Test whether these co-constructed methods yield different (and better) ways of navigating the policy space
3. Put farmers and households at the heart of these efforts: in prioritisation, design, and evaluation.

For me, it is a no-brainer: in an increasingly dynamic and fluid world whose challenges resist narrow silos, knowledge generation systems need to be pluralistic, adaptable and resilient--and that means more diverse expertise needs to be drawn upon and integrated.

I look forward to Day 2.

A climate of distraction: Are current efforts to integrate climate change and development misdirected?

A guest blog from IDS research fellow Thomas Tanner

Climate change is now a mainstream development concern. Rightly so in my view – transforming to low carbon development pathways and adapting to change that cannot be prevented are critical to the welfare of billions of people, especially those in poverty.

But I’ve had a few niggling concerns for some time about whether our current efforts to tackle climate change in a development context, an issue which international policy makers will be grappling with today at the Dublin Climate Justice conference, are misdirected or counter-productive.  Maybe I’m playing devil’s advocate, and perhaps doing myself out of a career, but these are issues that need debate.

Firstly, we still seem to consistently focus on changing hazards rather than the changing development context that underpins how those hazards affect us (our vulnerability and resilience). In other words, we are always starting from rising temperatures and erratic rainfall rather than the lack of existing rainwater storage or inability of urban citizens to enjoy good drainage or access to medical services.

This is in part because of the privileged position of physical science and modelling in influencing policy-making. It also reflects the demands of the UN to show what element of impacts are specifically related to human-caused climate-change (known in the science as detection and attribution). This is underpinned by the demand to justify international finance that is over and above existing aid flows. The same force is pushing parallel debates around post- 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and UN global climate change agreement.

Secondly, in treating climate change as different, we are too often creating parallel institutions and practices that ignore many of the lessons from the wider development community. These lessons include the long history of reducing the human causes of underlying risk factors (pdf), the role of social protection mechanisms in bolstering resilience to climate shocks, and efforts to ensure that our responses are culturally and developmentally appropriate rather than focused only on maximum greenhouse gas emissions reductions (exemplified in fuel efficient cook-stoves).

Thirdly, our standard response to tackling climate change is as a managerial response, breaking it down into a technical issue. Get the right information and technical assistance to the right people and, lo and behold, policies and actions will adjust to become low-carbon and climate resilient. This ignores both the fact that behaviour is often not rational, not least when it comes to managing risks, and that policy change is contested, mediated by political economy and politics. It also turns attention away from more radical solutions such as addressing over-consumption. We need to better understand the political factors that mediate trade-offs between the achievement of climate change and development objectives, and engage with radical and behavioural approaches.

This is not to say that no-one is working on aspects of human vulnerability (witness the growing community based adaptation community), or trying to mainstream climate change into development, or asking questions about how to adapt to more catastrophic levels of climate change given the failure of international efforts to date, or challenging the dominance of a ‘post-politics’ managerial approach to development. It’s just that these seem to be sideshows next to the main act which continues to treat climate change as something isolated and separable from wider development processes. Should we just let development take care of climate change?

To explore these issues further, the IDS Climate Change Team is hosting a Sussex Development Debate to discuss how to tackle these issues in light of new post 2015 development and climate change frameworks. The debate is open to all and will also be available to watch live on the IDS website.

14 April 2013

This quarter’s stories from the Policy Mags: Bad governance here incentivises bad governance elsewhere.

Having grown bored of the Economist, my regular policy magazine reads are the centre left UK based Prospect (P) and the centre right US based Foreign Policy (FP). Despite their positioning, these magazines are more alike than they think in terms of what they cover and what their writers advocate.

The articles that caught my eye this quarter all revolve around the idea that good enough governance in the poorer countries is dependent, directly or indirectly, on good enough governance in richer countries. This came through in several articles:

• The dwindling number of credit AAA rated European countries (FP). This article by Mohamed El-Erian tells us why this matters for Europe, but this also matters beyond Europe. Why? Economic growth in Europe is an important driver of resource flows to the poorer parts of the world via business investments, remittances, philanthropy and overseas development assistance (ODA). Africa is growing quite rapidly, driven by growing links with China and other countries, and by natural resource discoveries, but it needs a diversity of country partners.

• And on ODA (and not from F or FP) there was a letter from Richard Manning (my boss) in the FT last week which noted the bad behaviour from the Ministers of Finance in the OECD countries reflected in their new overly broad definitions of ODA. No doubt this stretching (and some would say breaking) of the definitions is driven by the difficulty of balancing budgets in the rich industrialised world. Richard, the former Chair of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), concludes his letter (which is behind an FT firewall): “The OECD must put in place a definition of concessionality that reflects the real cost of capital and requires real fiscal effort. It is shocking that the OECD should publish official statistics that allow “different practices” on such a key issue and which make a mockery of its own requirement that loans are concessional in character. It is encouraging OECD finance ministries to get away with murder as they seek to massage reported aid upwards at minimum cost. If the OECD cannot do a professional job on this, the UN should take over the reporting for international aid flows.” Strong stuff. Good stuff.

• You call it corruption, I call it lobbying (FP). A short piece by Ngozi Okonjo Iweala noting rich countries’ double standards when it comes to classifying influencing behaviours in one context as lobbying and in the African context as corruption. She also makes the case that domestic policy is now also international policy, something that even “self-absorbed” countries like the US and Nigeria will begin to realise sooner rather than later.

• Democracy in retreat (FP). An article by Joshua Kurlantzick at the Council on Foreign Relations notes that Freedom House’s democracy index, based on civil and political rights, has now been in decline for 7 years in a row. He assigns this to a growing global middle class which values stability over democracy, a preference only strengthened by the global economic downturn, which of course started in the West. The article says that the US cannot do anything about this because democracy is in retreat in the US too. Kurlantzick doesn’t actually explain what he means, but it reminded me of one of the few things the UK press, currently self absorbed with the death of Margaret Thatcher, can agree on—by taking a position on the issues (love it or hate it) Thatcher at least gave people a choice at the polls.

• Corporate opacity (P). Paul Collier has a lively essay on how more of the $21 trillion sitting in tax havens ($12 trillion from the rich and $9 trillion from the poorer countries) can be subject to tax. His argument is a familiar one: those with the best lawyers and accountants are best able to navigate the rules and loopholes and shift profits (not actual economic activities) to the lowest rate tax havens. And the corporations have vacuumed up all the talent. Through “professional brilliance”, profits, like water in a house, find the lowest level in the financial architecture. This corporate opacity or deliberate lack of transparency stimulates all kinds of corruption in North and South. Solutions? G8 leadership is necessary but not sufficient—solutions require large scale global action, so the G8 cannot do it on their own, but it won’t happen if they don’t act. Make exchange of information on profit switching automatic. Lower evidence thresholds for those who are suspected of acting illegally. Tax Inspectors Without Borders to support national systems. Being struck off professional registers and jail sentences (not fines) for violators.

11 April 2013

Naming, shaming and praising - Introducing HANCI

A guest blog by IDS researcher Dolf te Lintelo

As food banks rapidly become the face of food insecurity in western countries reeling under austerity, welfare reforms and stagnating economies, hunger and undernutrition remain stubbornly widespread in the developing world. Globally hunger affects around 870 million people and undernutrition contributes to the deaths of 2.6 million children under five each year. Yet, quite unlike the West, global hotspots of hunger and undernutrition in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa witness substantial and sustained economic growth.

Such growth, managed well, can widen tax and public investment bases, to offer clear potential for governments of developing countries to address the two scourges of hunger and undernutrition. Internationally, we know what kind of public interventions work, and we also know that these investments are simply good economics.

So, the resources available for action are bigger than ever and we know what interventions can best address these.

Sadly, we know far less about what actions governments do and do not take to address hunger and undernutrition. National and international bodies have long focused on measuring hunger and nutrition statuses, which clearly is important, but is not enough to foster greater accountability of governments and political leaders for their (lack of) action.

Today, the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (www.hancindex.org) is launched. It measures political commitment to tackling hunger and undernutrition in 45 developing countries by focusing on 22 policy, legal and spending indicators. This index first compares and ranks countries for government inputs and outputs, and only then assesses these within their contexts of wealth, administrative capacity and hunger and undernutrition prevalence.

This leads to some intriguing and counter-intuitive findings.

First, the commitment to reduce hunger may be quite a different entity than the commitment to reduce undernutrition. For instance, Nepal ranks 3rd for undernutrition reduction commitment, and 34th for hunger reduction commitment.

Second, some of the poorest developing countries are showing the greatest political commitment to tackling hunger and undernutrition. Low income countries like Malawi and Madagascar and lower middle income Guatemala, are leading the charge against hunger and undernutrition, whilst economic powerhouses such as India and Nigeria are failing some of their most vulnerable citizens.

Third, the index not only shows that low wealth is no barrier to committed action, it also highlights that sustained economic growth does not guarantee that governments will make tackling hunger or undernutrition a priority. This may help explain why many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia remain blighted by high levels of hunger and undernutrition.

Accelerating the reduction of shocking levels of hunger and undernutrition will require strong and dedicated public action. Yet, without greater accountability, incentives for political leaders to act on hunger and undernutrition will remain limited. The HANCI, constitutes an innovative tool helps all those who want to hold their governments to account: it allows for naming, shaming and praising.

About the author
Dr Dolf te Lintelo is a Fellow in the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team.

02 April 2013

How committed to equity are Latin American governments?

Long held up as examples of societies rife with inequality, countries in Latin America are now lauded for their attempts to do something about it.   But how committed to equity are Latin American governments?

This guest blog from Nora Lustig gives us some insights based on the Commitment to Equity Project. The results on health and education spending are particularly interesting....

Nora is the Samuel Z. Stone Professor of Latin American Economics at Tulane University and nonresident fellow at the Center for Global Development and the Inter-American Dialogue (and IDS Board member).

By Nora Lustig

Latin America’s distribution of income and wealth has long been the most unequal in the world—but poverty and inequality have been falling consistently since 2000 in most countries of the region. What has changed in Latin America? Are the region’s governments more committed to equality than in past? Have their tax and spending policies improved? Which governments are most committed? Which least? What policies and programs have been most effective in redistributing income? Are they sustainable? What is holding Latin America back from faster gains? What more—or less—should governments be doing?
The Commitment to Equity project (CEQ) is working to answer these and many related questions. A joint effort by the Inter-American Dialogue and Tulane University, the CEQ has been designed to measure the impact of taxes and government spending on inequality and poverty in every country of Latin America http://www.commitmentoequity.org. CEQ studies have now been completed on seven countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.

The early conclusions of the CEQ project point to a wide variation among countries in their policy choices, and the impact of those choices on income redistribution and poverty reduction. Some examples are:
  • Government size varies greatly in Latin America. Government spending is around 40 percent of GDP in Argentina and Brazil, similar to that of some European nations and the US, while it is only half as much in Mexico and Peru.
  • Taxes and transfers reduce inequality and poverty by nontrivial amounts in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, less so in Mexico and relatively little in Bolivia and Peru.
  • Personal income tax varies from around five percent of GDP in Uruguay to nearly zero in Bolivia. In all countries in which they exist, direct taxes are progressive, but because direct taxes are a small percentage of GDP almost everywhere their redistributive impact is small.
  • Cash transfers have reduced extreme poverty by more than 60 percent in Uruguay and Argentina, but only by seven percent in Peru, which spends too little on cash transfers to achieve much poverty reduction. Bolivia spends five times more than Peru (as a share of GDP) but because funds are not targeted to the poor, the amount of redistribution and poverty reduction has been limited. It is only slightly higher than Peru.
  • In Brazil and Bolivia, indirect taxes wipe out most effects of direct transfers, and poverty is almost the same after as before taxes and cash transfers. In contrast, in Mexico poverty after indirect taxes and subsidies is lower because the poor pay little in the form of indirect taxes due to exemptions and informality.
  • Public spending on education and health is more equalizing than cash transfers in all the countries
  • The largely positive redistributive picture of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay hides some unpleasant facts.
    • For instance, about 16 percent of Brazilian social spending goes to tertiary education, mostly benefitting the five percent of the population with incomes above US$50 per day.
    • Uruguay, too, allocates subsidies to upper income students.
    • Argentina’s sharp rise of public spending during the 2000s has been increasingly financed by distortionary taxes and unorthodox and unsustainable revenue-raising mechanisms.
Read the complete overview