13 August 2013

Call that a Narrative? This is a Narrative! The need for researchers to get beyond Crocodile Dundee

In the research and policy worlds, narratives duel.  Your narrative will do battle against mine.  However, there are too few judges of these narratives, only crazed academic knife fights.  So it is refreshing to find two recent papers that assess narratives in a dispassionate way.

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.


Duncan said...

Hold on a minute Lawrence. Saying 'there are no general solutions, everything is context specific, very complicated and probably requires you to be a prof to understand it' is an ABSENCE of narrative for most of the population and target audience (tho music to the ears of profs of course!). You won't get much media coverage with that one.

Lawrence Haddad said...

Duncan. Invest in smallholder agriculture to reduce hunger is a good policy narrative. Unfortunately I think it has also become a research narrative. Researchers have to go behind the narratives. On this one they have not and when you are an ag economist or an ag research funder it is hard to do that. Researchers should constantly be doing work that helps the narrative evolve --if they don't the narrative itself will be seen more as belief than evidence based and it will ultimately fail. Best

Duncan said...

That's and interesting tension Lawrence - when does the policy narrative get in the way of the research narrative? A good policy narrative gets attention and funding, but then reduces the intellectual freedom of researchers as they try and spend their newfound dosh? And what does that imply for all the REF focus on 'research for impact'?

Phyrne said...

Small holders tend to up their production when they need to or theres abetter market for something they grow!IF someone explains how to preserve food without a fridge i.e pickle it,smoke it,dry it ,cure it ways of storing disuading pests and carriage easy propagation planting and havesting in connection to moon, climate extra .we have to insist on easy gps certification for opening up intertrade markets that bypass the west so the costs and wastage are kept low ,they do it already but may need more help.explaining land reform and usage rights to administrations of countries could help