13 August 2013
Call that a Narrative? This is a Narrative! The need for researchers to get beyond Crocodile Dundee
The first paper is by Lisa Smith and is coming out as an IDS Working Paper and focuses on the Great Indian Calorie Debate.
The puzzle is that calorie availability in India, as measured by existing surveys, shows a steady decline over the past 15 years. Various reasons --or narratives--have been put forward for this decline: lower physical activity levels, greater poverty which is constraining purchases, and food inflation doing the same thing.
Lisa's paper takes a new angle, she asks "what if the surveys are missing food eaten away from home?". Using existing data, she goes through a series of analyses that explore the prevailing narratives --casting doubt on each--and then examines her own. Her analysis is thorough and compelling--it looks to me like she is on to something. Could this great debate really be settled by something as ordinary as a flaw in a questionnaire design? I think there is definitely merit in this argument.
The second paper is by Stefan Dercon (Prof at Oxford and also DFID Chief Economist) and has just been published in the journal Agricultural Economics. In the paper Stefan laments the simplistic narratives that are put forward for agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa.
Is agricultural growth really necessary for economic growth? Is it really the most poverty reducing kind of growth? Is raising smallholder productivity really the best way of getting this economy jolting, poverty reducing growth?
The article points out that in many contexts these assertions may hold true, but that it is highly unlikely that they do in all contexts (sub-Saharan Africa has hundreds of different agroecological contexts). And by asserting they hold true in all contexts, then we are crowding out the kind of analysis that allows some nuance into the debate. Is agricultural development really the most cost-effective way of advancing economic growth and reducing poverty and hunger? Is smallholder investment the best way to go about this? Even if we assume that, on average, probably yes (note, that apart from some work by Shenggen Fan and others at IFPRI from about 7 years ago for Uganda we don't have the evidence on cost-effectiveness) nevertheless the averages are surely blinding us to many new opportunities for thinking about (and investing in) agriculture in Africa. Truth be told, the evidence base on African agriculture is too weak to find answers to these questions. Agricultural research funders need to be braver in testing their own assertions.
Of course Lisa and Stefan have introduced their own narratives into the debates, but they have done so after giving a fair hearing to the competition--and that is all too rare.
Posted by Lawrence Haddad at 10:19