25 April 2014

New Director Blog from Melissa Leach at IDS

Folks, here is the new IDS Director Blog from Melissa Leach, Transforming Development.

"I start my new role as Director of IDS at a time when development and development studies landscapes are shifting fast. In my new blog, I hope to offer some personal reflections on this ‘transforming development’, in all its variety.
My first reflection, is that we should stop thinking of major development challenges as ‘north-south’ matters. The traditional framework of official development assistance and aid flows from OECD countries to the ‘global south’ remains vital to channel money and resources to some of the most vulnerable people and places. That aid flows have held up in countries like the UK even amidst the austerity cuts of the last few years is to be applauded. DFID now focuses its aid on just 26 of what are deemed the lowest income, most fragile states. And perhaps this is right, if we are talking simply about ‘bangs for poverty reduction bucks.’ But in a multi-polar world, development policy and co-operation, and the ways we think about it, have to be much more than this. Several events over the last month have driven this home. ......  "

Great title, great design and great content.  Join it immediately!   I have.

India's Elections: Which Political Parties Care About Malnutrition?

Voting is just past the halfway mark in the Indian elections.  The three national parties are Congress (the incumbent), the BJP (Modi's party) and the AAP (the anti-corruption party).  

Their election manifestos are online.  What do they say about malnutrition?  

Congress:  Nutrition mentioned twice. 

Once under the Right to Health: "Almost 56% of adolescent girls in India are anaemic. Anaemia and malnutrition among mothers endanger the mother’s health and causes growth retardation and vulnerability to diseases in children. This is not just a socio-economic challenge; it is a political challenge to which the Indian National Congress reaffirms its commitment." and once under Environment: "We will continue to accord the highest priority to environmental protection and to ensure that all people in India have the right to a clean environment, which secures their health, livelihood and nutritional well-being."

BJP: Nutrition mentioned 12 times.  Impressively the multiple mentions are across several sectors: food, social security, healthcare and agriculture.  

AAP: No mentions of nutrition. 

The lack of prominence of nutrition from Congress is perhaps not so surprising--they have not exactly championed the issue. 

The relative prominence given to the malnutrition by the BJP may reflect Gujarat's own recognition of the importance of malnutrition reduction as signalled by its Nutrition Mission, modelled after Maharashtra's.  But what is interesting is that this party of economic growth has so much time, seemingly, for nutrition.  The two are seen as linked--in both directions. 

Finally I find the AAP's lack of mentioning of nutrition fascinating.  If sunlight  is the best disinfectant for corruption, then the party would be well served by a focus on malnutrition.  Malnutrition thrives in the shadows of the absence of information.  If you want to turn a light on service delivery in general, doing so in the sectors that are supposed to serve nutrition would provide an excellent focus and in the process help the 60-65 million Indian children who are stunted.  

Are manifestos worth the paper they are written on?  As the saying goes there is many a slip between cup and lip.  But while manifestos are not legally binding they are a way of holding parties accountable for their public utterances--or lack of them. 

13 April 2014

Easterly on growth and leaders: busting myths or generating new ones?

In an article in Prospect magazine William Easterly claims that "the most persistent myth in economic development" is that "autocratic governments create growth miracles".  

This is far from clear to me as there are plenty of other candidates for most persistent myth about economic development, but what is clear is that  Easterly's evidence does little to refute the argument that autocrats are good for growth.  The regression work he describes seems to explore associations between changes in leaders and growth spells. He finds that changing leaders is barely associated with growth.  Leaders don't matter,  he suggests. 

Now this result could hold because leaders don't try to change anything, or they try but fail, or the things they do change don't matter for growth - either because they are not interested in growth or because they back the wrong growth driver. The possibility of the last explanation is important because it suggests leaders could matter in the future even if we think they have not in the past - they just need to do different things. 

So we should be much more interested in estimating the association between growth and the things leaders can control --either individually, or collectively over time--such as the extent of repression. Even better, we should estimate the associations between the dynamics of freedom and growth to test Easterly's very plausible assertion that it is a relaxing of repression -- whether within a leader spell or across spells -- that leads to an increase in growth rates. 

When assembling evidence it is important to avoid replacing one myth (autocrats are good for growth) with another (leaders don't matter for growth).

01 April 2014

Is economic growth helpful for reducing malnutrition? New paper says no. I think it is wrong.

So, I thought it would be good to start off my IFPRI blogging days with a piece about a new paper in Lancet Global Health on the link between economic growth and under 5 malnutrition by Sebastian Vollmer and colleagues.  They use 121 DHS surveys from 36 countries over the time period 1990 to present to conclude:

 "the quantitatively very small to null association seen in our study suggests that the contribution of economic growth to the reduction in early childhood undernutrition in developing countries is very small, if it exists at all."

This is so counter to all the other research out there (some involving me so I do have a vested interest), that it merits a closer look and some colleagues and I have written a letter to the Lancet Global Health to say why we think the study is flawed and draws the wrong conclusions.  We hope they publish it.  After they have made their decision I will share it. 

Many of the arguments we make in the letter are rather dry and technical, but they boil down to which of the graphs below (from the paper) you are trying to fit a line to.  

The first graph shows the association between the levels of stunting and GDP per capita--clearly a strong and downward sloping relationship.   

The second graph shows the relationship between changes in stunting and changes in GDP per capita over 3-5 year periods.   Here there is a much weaker negative relationship (although still significant at 7.3% level). 

The first graph shows the longer term relationship between GDP and stunting, the second one shows the shorter term relationship.  

Why are they so different?  Well, it takes time for GDP per capita to work its way into improved household income and improved health and watsan services.  The regression work focuses solely on the short term effects but does not clearly portray the results as such.  

Economic growth is not sufficient for malnutrition reduction, it may not even be necessary, but it is certainly almost always potentially useful.  Country case studies tend to show the important role economic growth plays in malnutrition reduction (e.g. see this one for Vietnam). 

We know that nutrition specific interventions can only take us so far (see Bhutta Lancet paper 2) and that nutrition sensitive interventions are full of potential, but as yet somewhat unrealised (see Ruel and Alderman Lancet paper 3).  So while for sure we cannot rely solely on economic growth to reduce malnutrition we need economic growth to pick up some of the slack.  We know it won't do it well in the short run.  We know it won't work in every country.  But on average, longer term, it  has to be useful.  That's what the vast majority of the evidence says and I don't see anything in this new paper to convincingly counter that.