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Academics as iconoclasts…

This struck me this morning while reading a post on Chris Blattman‘s development blog where he refers to Harvard academic, Matthew Stephenson’s anti-corruption blog:

But as long as folks having this conversation feel free to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of others’ motives, I’ll throw out my own hypothesis about why so many academics in the blogosphere are drawn to the anticorruption-is-a-Western-obsession-that-doesn’t-matter-much-for-development canard: academics (and I speak as a member of the tribe) enjoy feeling like iconoclasts willing to speak uncomfortable truths to power. And in the development field, a certain type of academic particularly enjoys attacking anything that the major institutions (World Bank, U.S. government, OECD, etc.) seem to be for. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself – a contrarian cast of mind is often conducive to questioning received wisdom and pointing out contradictions, self-serving justifications, and the like. But in this case, I think it’s lazy and counterproductive.

Well, yeah, it’s usually lazy and unproductive. As a member of the tribe, I feel vindicated. I find that too many academics aren’t as concerned with bettering to world so much as making themselves feel good about themselves by following a political script. If we’d worry more about pragmatics and less about ideology, we might be able to help make the world a better place.

What I’m reading now March 23, 2014

Well, it should really be, what I was reading two weeks ago, but… details, details….

TOEThe Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor Generally speaking, I like Bill Easterly’s views on aid and development. Easterly questions traditional models of development, arguing that top down strategies which rely on purely technical solutions rarely work, and often do more harm than good. Here, Easterly again makes the argument that the development world is full of bumbling technocrats, who fail to see the simplicity of the real problem of African development.

Note, however, that I do not share the views of uninformed cynics, which laugh at the “folly of development” and the evils of foreign aid indiscriminately. Easterly is often propped up by cynical opponents of foreign aid as a spokesperson for why we shouldn’t be given money to poor people, or by Ron Paul style non-interventionists who are quick to dismiss anything the United States does outside it’s borders, not to suggest at all that the United States alone is responsible for development. To me, and call me stupid, the issue is far too complex to boil down to a black and white view of a few self satisfied cynics. Debates over what works and what doesn’t work in development are far more interesting to me than debates of whether development is “good” or “bad.” But… I digress…

Easterly argues that what’s missing from the picture is the guarantee of true democratic rights, that is, legal restrictions on the powers of government. The reason democracy is faulty in Africa, is that most African governments equate democracy with merely having elections, when, in fact, democracy is a function of checks on the ability of government to stifle opposition and the guarantee that citizens are fully protected under the law. He is absolutely right. The structures of African governments (in general) were initially constructed to support a colonial model, which guaranteed that power would be held by a privileged (white) few. However, post-independence, few governments have made substantive changes to the ways in which they govern, despite having had, in most cases, nearly 50 years to do so. Easterly lays blame with development organizations, which offer highly technical solutions to basic problems, but are weak-kneed in demanding that governments work to guarantee basic rights to their citizens.

While I agree that democracy is about more than just having elections, and agree that basic rights must be guaranteed in order to have a free state, I wonder if he gets so caught up in the grand academic thought process, and misses some of the details. His treatment of Asia is quite limited, for example. There, most governments achieved their developmental goals without guaranteeing the rights of citizens and sometime achieved them under incredibly authoritarian and sometimes brutal one party systems. While I don’t think that the end of development is worth the means of authoritarian brutality, it must be pointed out that many governments (for example, South Korea and Taiwan) only loosened their grip after they had an educated middle class which demanded increased freedoms and rights (see the work of Ha-Joong Chang and Joe Stiglitz for a reasonable treatment of the subject). While Africa and Asia are two very different places, any discussion of development has to include both.

Easterly makes me feel good, though, in his preface. Mentioning anywhere that markets are good things in a discussion of development will have one branded as a rabid right winger, which is just a pathetically myopic view (or merely a by-product of total ignorance). The tired argument of market vs state which dominates political discussions in the US (and elsewhere) is merely a distraction from the real argument we should be having, which is over rights vs. non-rights. Are rights being protected or not? Is there proper representation or not? You can have any type of free market system you like or even a heavy welfare state, but if the guarantee of basic rights to free speech, assembly, expression and representation aren’t there, you don’t have a democracy and you probably don’t have continued development of the type that matters most.

But, I’m not a political scientist, and could easily rant on aimlessly for hours to no end whatsoever.

Politics in West Africa – Sir Arthur Lewis (1965) - Sir Arthur Lewis was a Nobel Prize winning economist from St. Lucia. He wrote this fantastic little book on the state of West African politics following independence in 1965. It’s just as relevant now as it was back then. His scathing criticism of authoritarian African governments and the multitude of missed opportunities for development for African countries were both timely and eerily prophetic. I’m particularly drawn to his criticism of viewing Africa through a Marxist lens, pointing out that, outside of a few foreign corporations, there are few true capitalists and that the plentiful nature of land compromises efforts to commodify it, and thus create a European style, class based system. He also points out the problems with the one party state, pointing out that the one party state was often created by force following independence, rather than consensus. In fact, the nature of the independence movements themselves compromised the creation of true constitutional democracies, which guarantee the rights of the minority. Independence movements were created to topple minority rule. Great book.

ATSAgainst the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japans I can’t put this book down. An excellent account of the fight to stop the building of Narita airport in the 1960’s, the implications of which were more than merely a struggle of some farmers unwilling to part with land. The struggle for Sanrizuka was a culmination of the coalescence of a wide variety of actors, many of which had little in common ideologically, reacting to an ever disconnected state. Apter rightly points out that despite strict rules on social behavior and self-control, Japan’s history is filled with examples of social change brought about not through discussion, but incredible and coordinated violence.

VOFCThe Violence of Financial Capitalism (Semiotext(e) / Intervention Series) I bought this book thinking it might be an interesting perspective on the financial crash and the events which followed it. I was somehow let down to find that the book didn’t really live up to it’s striking title. Marazzi views the crash as not an aberration, but rather another aspect of capital accumulation by financial elites, a tool of undermining labor and a method of creating conditions of social change which benefits a minority of privileged individuals. While I don’t really argue that these things didn’t (aren’t) occurring, the treatment of the subject was far too academic and disconnected for me to get behind. It is possible that I’m just not well informed on the particular academic perspective of this author. I will have to read it again.

Not All GDP Measures are Created Equal

1365632412893Recently, I got the pleasure of seeing a lecture by Morten Jerven, a faculty member at Simon Fraser University’s School for International Studies. He has written a wonderful book, “Poor Numbers” which asks some very important questions.

Measure of the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country are important to understanding one country’s economic health as compared to another. We use these measure all the time to track relative differences between economies, and to figure out if countries’ economies are improving and degrading from year to year.

The measure is, of course, not without its problems. Gross Domestic product usually measures the sum total of the value of all market goods within a country at a particular time. For developed countries with established systems of taxation, this is not a difficult measure to produce.

Developing countries, however, particularly in Africa are quite bad at collecting taxes from their citizens, they often have opaque informal business sectors which dominate their economies and weak governments which don’t fund their census and statistical offices very well.

This is, of course, exactly the question that Jerven explores in his book. Given the rudimentary infrastructure of data collection and recording in developing countries, how do we know what we think we know about developing world economies?

Global funding agencies and governments make billion dollar decisions based on the recorded GDP of a particular country. Yet, it’s astounding that few of these agencies or anyone else who uses these measures often never asks whether the numbers are valid.

Three years ago, Ghana’s GDP doubled in one day, due to a change in the way that the GDP was calculated. Ghana went from being a developing country, to a low middle income country in one day. This year, Nigeria is also going to revise how it calculates its GDP. We expect that Nigeria’s GDP will rise considerably over night.

These measures matter. The World Bank considers concessionary loans on the basis of the GDP. If a country has too much money, it no long qualifies for special lending terms. This is a serious issue for countries that want to embark on development projects, or, in the case of resource economies (which most developing countries are), weather rapid fluctuations in market prices.

There are three major sources of GDP measures. The World Bank’s Development Indicators, the Maddison Project, and the Penn World Tables.

Jerven pointed out in his book that the rankings of countries by GDP do not agree between the three measures, outside that the Democratic Republic of Congo is the poorest country in the world. Liberia is the second poorest country in the world according to Penn, number seven according to Maddison and number 22 by the World Bank.

Though ranking is interesting, I was interested to see if the measure agreed with one another over time. If we were to measure economic growth of, say, Liberia over time, even if the basic dollar measures did not agree, the change from year to year might. For math people, the intercept might differ between two lines, but the slope might be the same.

Lacking time, I could only download two of the tables, the World Bank’s and Maddison’s. I wrote a script that would extract all of the GDP measure for each country from 1960 until 2012. I then compared the two measures by calculating the correlation coefficient for each country’s series.

I found that most of the country’s series agreed, with correlation coefficients in the .85 to .99 range. However, there were some glaring exceptions. The map to the right shows correlations coefficients for each country, colored by level. Tanzania stick out prominently, as does Namibia, the Central Africa Republic and Sierre Leone. Some of them are even in the negatives.

The political mess that is the CAR does not surprise me at all. Tanzania with its mostly righteous government and wealthy Namibia do surprise me very much.

I will have to explore this further, but until then, the take home message is that not all measures are created equal.


The Cure for Malaria is Development: A Controversial Notion?

I think not. I’ve just returned from a meeting of malaria researchers in Basel, Switzerland. The meetings were excellent. It is rare to have such a wide showing of malaria experts in one place, talking about nothing but malaria.

The meeting was notable for what was included, namely excellent presentations on vaccine development, subsidies to increase access to medications, malaria elimination programs in less than talked about parts of the globe (Bhutan, Turkmenistan, PNG), and the paucity of research on Plasmodium vivax.

The meeting was also notable for what it did not include, namely global economic determinants of malaria.

To me, malaria is 100% a disease of poverty. Where poverty is low, malaria is low. This is true globally, as well as within still malarious countries. The graph to the right shows the relationship of country level GDP with the estimated number of malaria cases per 100,000 in 2006. Though accurate data on the true number of cases is difficult to obtain for developing countries for a host of reasons, the trend should be clear. More money equals less malaria.

Is this because on better funding for malaria programs? After all, wealthier countries are able to put more resources into prevention, mosquito control, and treatment. Sure, I think this is partially the case. It has to be said, however, that malaria was eliminated from the United States without modern medicines and insecticide treated bednets, cornerstones of current malaria control strategies. Though DDT was instrumental in helping to control malaria transmitting mosquitoes in the US, the truth is, the bugs are still here.

Malaria deaths around the world are down. It is also the case that worldwide development is up. The economies of developing countries are improving, record numbers of people are moving out of entrenched poverty and, while within country inequality is increasing, global inequality is decreasing. Personally, I think the relationship between development and malaria is no accident at all.

What strikes me, is that this topic was hardly mentioned last week. I brought it up a couple of times, but, unfortunately, scientists are hesitant to move out of their comfort zone, and wish to give it little thought. Talk of politics or economics produces blank looks in scientists trained in microbiology or entomology. I’m sure its the same on the other end. Certainly, the current research is important, helpful, relevant and should be continued. However, I don’t think that we, as scientists, should stick our heads in the sand and willfully ignore the bigger picture.

Malaria will be eliminated not through fancy pharmaceuticals and ever improved bednets, but through the increase in access to employment, market economies and remunerative opportunities. Malaria will be eliminated through the elimination of entrenched poverty, the expansion of free education, reductions in gender inequities and improved nutrition. In my opinion, these were the true factors which led to the elimination of malaria from the US, Europe, Japan. Granted, there are climatic differences between those countries and sub-Saharan Africa, but P. vivax, a cold weather malaria, was also fully eliminated.

People I spoke with sort of waved their hands and acted as if there is nothing we can do about these global and economic problems. I disagree, of course. Policy makers look to scientists for answers (though they make ignore what they don’t like). Endless bednet trials that only marginally expand on previous research do not do much to ameliorate the structural factors which keep people in poverty. Research which explores those big picture factors, however, could have vast benefits.

John Rawls and the Cancer of Extreme Inequality

Presently, I am slogging through John Rawls‘ “A Theory of Justice“, the brunt of which rests on these two basic requirements of a just society:

First, each person is to have an equal right to the most basic extensive set of liberties comparable with the liberties of others.

Second, social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and b) attached to positions and offices open to all…

The first appears rather standard, particularly to an American. Liberties and rights should be guaranteed to apply to all citizens in an equal fashion.

In practice, of course, the easiest way to circumvent this requirement is to play fast and loose with definition of citizenship itself. This phenomenon should be very familiar to an American, particularly in an age where rights are happily denied to those labelled as “illegal,” despite participation in our economic system, which is the very root of out national identity.

The second is more interesting. Rawls accepts inequality, but argues that it is only permissible when it benefits everyone, and when opportunities to move on the social ladder are open to everyone.

Clearly, if we take Rawls’ requirements as dogma, the United States in 2012 has a serious problem. The United States would be a prime example of an unjust society. Our level of inequality benefits only a select few. Our level of inequality is cancerous.

One could argue that it always has been, though I would also argue that we made serious inroads for a while (thank you labor, thank you unions). However, The economic tides have very much turned against individuals seeking to move up.

I keep returning to the situation of adjunct instructors, and how the phenomenon is completely unspectacular in the grand scheme of things and indicative of this cancerous growth of economic inequalities and therefore, power inequalities.

Inequality is wildly popular in the US. Hollywood made an industry out of telling stories of people with lives and abilities vastly superior to our own. Jesus can walk on water, we have to swim. It’s also true, that a certain amount of inequality is necessary.

What proponents of the current level and growth of inequality miss (and they are clearly legion), is that the extremely wealthy in the United States are no longer constrained by national borders. Free marketers make the assumption that once all resources move to a select few, the market will collapse and reset. This is the heart of neo-classical economics. If things get really bad, the system will fix itself. But what if the winning players can just quit the game?

As an example, this idea of a “resetting system” certainly hasn’t worked for Michigan. Why? Michigan (and least of all for Detroit) isn’t a closed system! The wealthy of Michigan are free to invest is other more profitable areas, other states or countries, while the not so wealthy at home are left in the dust and without capital. The point is, the rich have many choices. We don’t have that many.

Mr. Romney is the inequality candidate. In fact, he feels that people (like me) screaming of the problems of inequality are just “envious.” Personally, I don’t give a shit about his dancing horse. I just want non-employer sponsored affordable health care and reasonable wages for my fellow Americans.

Granted, Mr. Romney has never been poor so we should wonder why anyone should believe him when he speaks on the subject. Vote for him, and you, well, vote for him.

Guest Blog (and post 300!): The Joys of Eating at the World Bank

My good friend Kathleen recently picked up a job at the World Bank. She used to work at National Geographic. Getting jobs at really interesting and amazing places is a symptom of having a great personality and living in Washington D.C.

Recently, she sent me a note telling me how great the food at the Bank is. This is the week of the World Bank/IMF spring meetings (please get me tickets) so, to celebrate, I asked her to write a short piece about it. Next time I go to D.C., lunch will be at the Bank, preferably with Kathleen and Jim Young Kim, listening to the beautiful sounds of an employed piano player two floors up.

Anyway, here’s her mouth-watering piece on eating at the World Bank:

Many office buildings house a small store where you can buy soda, gum, and chips. At the World Bank, that store has espresso, refrigerator magnets, and wine. The last thing I bought there was a cucumber, mint, feta cheese tabouleh wrap. And a bag of chips. Well, no, no chips.

The cafeteria at the Bank is famous. Google has an autocomplete for it. It has a Yelp page. You use real plates and cutlery. So grab a tray and come with me! The first station is called whole+sum. You pick a protein and two veggies. Today’s are

—Green Chile Chicken Stew with Potatoes & Peanuts
*Spicy Black Bean Chili with Lime Crema
—Fresh Tilapia in Rich Mole
*Poblano Brown Rice & Beans
*Farro Salad with Orange Cumin Dressing
*Cilantro Jicama Slaw
*Grilled Pineapple Wedge with Honey & Lime
*Sautéed Chayote
*Romaine Lettuce, Mango, Red Onions, Radishes & Buttermilk Avocado Salad Dressing

The asterisks above and the cards by the food indicate what is veggie and what has pork. Today’s general theme is Cuba. The “Global” station is serving “ropa vieja, pollo a la babacoa, moros y cristianos, yuca frita with mojo sauce, jicama salad with avocado, and ensalada rusa.” For the rest of the week we will be seeing jicama. They will work leftovers into the salad bar and sandwiches. (The World Bank building itself is built from buildings they’ve used since the 1940s. Use leftovers.)

The soup station has four kinds. Because this is the World Bank (did she just say “Je prends un bento box,” working three languages?), the stations are named South Asian & African, Pacific Rim, Quiche, Noodle Bowl, Good (“A new station that is good for you, your neighbor, the community, and the planet” that today features lemon herbed chicken, sockeye salmon with herbs de Provence, gingered ahi tuna, beef with cracked pepper and garlic, sage citrus pork [contains pork]), Mediterranean Flatbreads, Pizza, Deli, Everything Vegetarian, Sushi/Sashimi/Bento Box, Salad Bar. The desserts are what you would see at a Paris bakery. There is a frozen yogurt station. At the cashier station, there are cookies, apples, and wine. (I figure this is a French thing. It’s the second most-heard language in the hallways. France is a country that “graduated” quickly from being a recipient of funds to being a donor.)

Each station expands with ever-changing flavors. My Czech teammate, who is studying Chinese, often gets ramen at the Noodle Bowl. You get two or three noodles to choose from, two or three broths (today it’s red coconut curry or tom yum), chopped tofu and green onions, and all that stuff. Three kinds of flatbread at that station. Ever-rotating African street/comfort food.

The building takes up an entire city block. The dining hall nearly does. Because the selections are so many and the dining room so vast, there is a waiting area just past the cashiers. I don’t know how the cashiers do their job, but the food is simply and very reasonably priced (often by whether or not there is meat) and the cashiers are reliably cheerful.

They have eliminated single-serving condiment packets; the waiting area is where you get Sriracha for your noodles, vinegar for your pommes frites. The takeout containers and cutlery are biodegradable.

The walls of the main dining room feature doors of the world. They are beautiful, painted, carved, mostly wood. Many must be surprised to find themselves in a D.C. basement after so many years on a farm in Kazakhstan or a temple in Malaysia. If you don’t want to eat in the main dining hall, you can eat on a bridge over a pool or on a mezzanine. From the mezzanine you can enjoy the sounds of a player piano two stories up.

The diversity continues: There are children. The Bank has daycare and many kids get to have lunch with their parent. Got a picky eater? Take him to the World Bank cafeteria.

Jim Kim is Named Head of World Bank

Dr. Jim Young Kim, former President of Dartmouth, has formally been named as the next head of the World Bank. It marks the first time that a Michael Jackson impersonator has been chosen to lead an international development organization.

The naming of Kim is somewhat anticlimactic. Jeff Sachs made a very visible appeal to the position, travelling around the world and obtaining the endorsement of high ranking figures in countries suchs as Kenya and Costa Rica. When the short list of candidates came out, which included Larry Summers, it was obvious that the Obama admin hadn’t even considered Sachs at all.

Kim was quickly named following the rejection of Summers by European members of the World Bank’s administration. Former and current executives at the Bank called to offer the position to either Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigerian Finance Minister or former Colombian Minister of Finance Jose Antonio Ocampo, both appropriate candidates.

Kim’s appointment is important as it represents the first time that developing countries had any say in who would lead the Bank. The influence of the BRICS is rising, and clearly with good results. The United States will likely be a dominant world power for decades to come, but it’s waning influence should be a welcome change.

Despite so much discussion world wide, it was disappointing that Kim would be offered the job to such little fanfare though this too, could be indicative of America’s more seemingly humble facade on the world stage. I believe that Kim will likely be the last American appointee for a while, though applaud his appointment.

Kim will make a fine leader for the Bank. Let’s hope that he leads it well.

I received the following from an unnamed source.

Statement from Jim Yong Kim

Date: April 16, 2012

Dr. Jim Yong Kim today released a statement in response to his selection by the World Bank’s Executive Directors as 12th President of the World Bank:

“I am honored to accept the Executive Directors’ decision to select me as the next President of the World Bank Group. I am delighted to succeed Robert Zoellick, who has served with excellence and distinction during the last five years, and I am grateful to the Bank’s member countries for the broad support I have received.

I have spoken with Minister Okonjo-Iweala and Professor Ocampo. They have both made important contributions to economic development, and I look forward to drawing on their expertise in the years to come.

It is befitting that I conclude my global listening tour in Peru. It was here in the shantytowns of Lima that I learned how injustice and indignity may conspire to destroy the lives and hopes of the poor. It was here that I saw how communities struggle to prosper because of a lack of infrastructure and basic services. It was here that I learned that we must raise our sights to match the aspirations of those most excluded. And it was here that I learned that we can triumph over adversity by empowering the poor and focusing on results.

As President, I will seek a new alignment of the World Bank Group with a rapidly changing world. Together, with partners old and new, we will foster an institution that responds effectively to the needs of its diverse clients and donors; delivers more powerful results to support sustained growth; prioritizes evidence-based solutions over ideology; amplifies the voices of developing countries; and draws on the expertise and experience of the people we serve.

My discussions with the Board and member countries point to a global consensus around the importance of inclusive growth. We are closer than ever to achieving the mission inscribed at the entrance of the World Bank – “Our Dream is a World Free of Poverty.” The power of this mission is matched by the talent of the World Bank Group staff. May this shared mission embolden our efforts to end the disparities which too often diminish our shared humanity. Let us work together to provide every woman and man with the opportunity to determine their own future.”


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