Tag Archive | development

We have no idea what poor people do

I was just reading a post from development economist Ed Carr’s blog, where he reflects on a book he wrote almost five years ago. Reflection is a pretty depressing excercise for any academic, but Carr seems to remain positive about his book.

He sums it up in three points:

“1. Most of the time, we have no idea what the global poor are doing or why they are doing it.
2. Because of this, most of our projects are designed for what we think is going on, which rarely aligns with reality
3. This is why so many development projects fail, and if we keep doing this, the consequences will get dire”

Well, yeah. This is a huge problem. In academics, we filter the experiences of the poor through a lens of academic frameworks, which we haphazardly impose with often no consultation with our subjects. Granted, this is likely inevtiable, but when designing public health interventions, it helps to have some idea of what the poorest of the poor do and why or our efforts are doomed to fail.

I remember a set of arguments a few years back on bed nets. Development and public health people were all upset because people were seen using nets for fishing. The reaction, particularly from in country workers was that poor people are stupid and will shoot themselves in the foot at any opportunity.

I couldn’t really understand the condescension and was rather fascinated that people were taking a new product and adapting it to their own needs. Business would see this as an opportunity and would seek to figure out why people were using nets for things other than malaria prevention and attempt to develop some new strategy to satisfy both needs (fishing and malaria prevention) at once. Academics simply weren’t interested.

To work with the poor, we have to understand them and understanding them requires that we respect their agency. If we don’t do this, we risk alienating the people we seek to help.

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Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the language of NGOs

I just finished reading “Decolonizing the Mind,” a short book from perhaps Kenya’s greatest living writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Ngugi is an interesting figure. Born into a peasant Kikuyu family in the fabricated colonial village of Kamiriithu in Central Province, he managed to take advantage of new educational opportunities during the colonial period and attended Makere University in Uganda and eventually Leeds in the UK. He returned to Kenya and eventually became Chairman of University of Nairobi’s Literature Department.

Though highly critical of colonialism, having been in the heart of the worst of Kenya’s experience with it, he was even more critical of Kenya’s post-colonial trajectory. He started a political theater in his hometown and was eventually jailed under the dictator Daniel Arap Moi.

In “Decolonizing the Mind,” Thiongo seeks to dissociate Kenya’s literature from that of the colonialists. He seeks to create a new African literature, by and for Africans. He would eventually abandon writing in English, choosing instead to write works in his native Gikuyu. Despite Thiongo’s call for an African literature, his European pedigree can’t be denied. He is Brechtian in both rhetoric and action. Hs politics are wholly Marxist and it can even be noted that his medium itself (the novel) is decidedly un-African. Moreover, despite his clear hostility to Europe and the United States, it is interesting the he would be jailed by his own countrymen and then would receive asylum and employment from the US.

I found his ideas of language, however, quite interesting. The colonialists, like the Americans, worked to debase indigenous cultural practices to further an imperialist agenda. Locals were weakened through the apparent dominance of English as a language for communication and business, and the language itself was presented in such a way that social hierarchies were reinforced.

This phenomenon continues to this day. Children are taught from an early age, to greet white people on the street with a scripted “How are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” The formal distance between the stilted Kenyan English spoken in Palirament and the guttural Sheng spoken on the streets of Nairobi is hardly an accident. English the language of oppression, control and government exploitation, and Sheng the language of resistance.

Given my recent experiences at Governmental and NGO meetings, however, what strikes me is how language continues to be used as a tool of control, but hat this vocabulary has been internalized by Kenyans themselves. I grit my teeth now when I head the term “capacity building,” which basically implies that people lack the capacity to help themselves without the good graces of NGOs and governmental organizations. It implies that people are helpless without the assistance of formal authoritarian structures. This is, of course, untrue (though one has to allow for the possibility that people often do things that run counter to their long term self-interest).

People may argue that the term is innocuous, but in my experience “capacity building” is often used in place of “training.” To me, words matter, and where “capacity building” carries with it the implications that there is an inherent defect to be rectified, training implies that the capability exists, but the knowledge not yet there. To put this in perspective, I don’t think that anyone would call any of my academic degrees to have been an exercise in “capacity building.” I can’t help but think that white people are trained, while black people are “capacity built.”

Worse yet is “gender empowerment,” which implies that women weren’t sufficiently capable of managing their own affairs prior to the arrival of some dubious microloan project. Again, in my experience, women all of the world are sufficiently empowered. It’s the men who need to be de-powered. The term is condescending and fails to appropriately recognize the inherent capabilities of individuals while at the same time avoids challenging the paternalistic structures which created economic disparities reprehensible practices like FGM, the buying and selling of women and the inability for women to hold men accountable for violence. In essence, the term blames the victim.

Both “capacity building” and “gender empowerment” reinforce the weakness of the individual and offer that the poor of Africa’s only hope lie in international organizations and their own authoritarian though wholly inept governments. It’s worth noting that the strategy is very similar to that of Christianity, which requires followers to believe themselves powerless and to blame for whatever awful fate has befallen them.

Sadly, both of these terms have worked themselves so deeply into the consciousness of people in SSA, that questioning their validity is futile, which is exactly the nightmare that Thiong’o writes of in “Decolonizing the Mind”. Pointing out that “training” is a more appropriate term than “capacity building” to locals will be met with black stares.

Development as unfreedom….

Was reading Chris Blattman’s list of books that development people should read but don’t and found this in the Amazon description of “The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho.”

Development, it is generally assumed, is good and necessary, and in its name the West has intervened, implementing all manner of projects in the impoverished regions of the world. When these projects fail, as they do with astonishing regularity, they nonetheless produce a host of regular and unacknowledged effects, including the expansion of bureaucratic state power and the translation of the political realities of poverty and powerlessness into “technical” problems awaiting solution by “development” agencies and experts.

Note that I do not harbor any ill will toward development or even, as a general rule, “technical solutions.” Having been involved with bed net distributions and having watched the outcomes of reproductive health interventions, for example, I can say that there are many positive outcomes of development projects. In my area, fewer kids are dying and women are becoming pregnant a whole lot less, decreasing the risk of maternal mortality.

Disclaimers aside, there is no doubt that development projects often fail for a number of reasons, the first of which is that leaders have no interest in seeing that they succeed. While leaders are indifferent to the outcomes, they happily take on the power that comes with them, embracing bureaucratic reforms, which are mostly just expansions of power at all levels of government.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except that African countries never embraced many of the protections of individual rights which restrict the powers of the state. Independence movements in much of Africa was predicated on an eventual return of power to the majority. Not many (none?) of these movements sought to protect the rights of the minority, much less the individual. Thus, there is little restriction on the types of rules which may be created and since many of these development projects influence policy, development projects unwittingly feed into the autocracy machine.

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.

Did pathogens influence the course of human development?

Roman toilets

Roman toilets

I would say “it depends.” I was just reading an interesting article on the “pathogen stress theory” of the development of human societies, most often attributed to Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New Mexico.

According to the “pathogen stress theory of values,” the evolutionary case that Thornhill and his colleagues have put forward, our behavioral immune systems—our group responses to local disease threats—play a decisive role in shaping our various political systems, religions, and shared moral views.

If they are right, Thornhill and his colleagues may be on their way to unlocking some of the most stubborn mysteries of human behavior. Their theory may help explain why authoritarian governments tend to persist in certain latitudes while democracies rise in others; why some cultures are xenophobic and others are relatively open to strangers; why certain peoples value equality and individuality while others prize hierarchical structures and strict adherence to tradition. What’s more, their work may offer a clear insight into how societies change.

This is a reasonable view, and something I’ve long observed from working on infectious diseases in developing countries. The developmental trajectory of a country is influenced by the deliberate avoidance of illness. An example can be seen in the locations of African cities. Many African administrative capitals are located on isolated, cool hilltops, far away from rivers and lakes. Colonialists would intentionally set up shop in areas where they were unlikely to encounter malaria.

Developmentally, this has had major implications for trade within Africa. European cities are often placed along water ways amenable to domestic European trade. The lack of trade between African countries is one of the reasons the continent has developed so poorly. This is the direct result of not only colonial priorities of resource extraction to Europe, but also the unfortunate placement of economic centers in response to malaria.

Certainly, the nature of cities themselves have much to do with the control of infectious diseases. Public works often involve the management of sewage waste and the delivery of clean water. Thornhill might suggest that the development of democracy, citizen involvement and taxation to pay for urban improvements are in direct response to enteric diseases.

However, while it is interesting to try to apply this view, it can be taken to the extreme:

Fincher (a graduate student of Thornhill) suspected that many behaviors in collectivist cultures might be masks for behavioral immune responses. To take one key example, collectivist cultures tend to be both more xenophobic and more ethnocentric than individualist cultures. Keeping strangers away might be a valuable defense against foreign pathogens, Fincher thought. And a strong preference for in-group mating might help maintain a community’s hereditary immunities to local disease strains. To test his hypothesis, Fincher set out to see whether places with heavier disease loads also tended toward these sorts of collectivist values.

I’m not sure it’s that easy to boil down political differences between Asia and Europe to a need to manage infectious disease. Certainly, Sweden is more collectivist than England, but I wouldn’t say that their infectious disease profiles are all that different.

Worse yet, if taken to the extreme, this “hunt for significance” will provide one with evidence to support any crazy theory at all. Pathogens exist wherever humans do. Moreover, we risk attributing the contribution of pathogens to human development based on current conditions, assuming that the present is deterministically preordained centuries ago. Until very recently, nearly the entire world was at risk for malaria, but despite this, various societies have embarked on different social and political trajectories.

The biggest problem I have with the theory is in its basic in rational theory. It assumes that humans are making rational choices based on pathogen threats, when we know, and particularly those of us who work in the tropics, that humans often have poor conceptions of disease transmission and causes of illness. At times, despite very obvious threate, humans will act in manners which exacerbate that threat. The history of enteric disease is filled with tales of ignorance and folly.

If we are going to subscribe to a rational model of political and social development which includes pathogens, then we have to also address first, the ability of pathogens to hijack human behavior to create new opportunities for replication and survival and second, that social changes can exacerbate the worst effects of infection. For the first point, I would look to the development of international trade systems which allow pathogens such as influenza to move around the world quickly, increasing opportunities for mutation to avoid immune responses. For the second I would point to polio, a disease which becomes a problem on after the introduction of water sanitation practices.

Thornhill’s ideas are interesting, and certainly provide good material for the popular press and BBQ conversation, but they require that the reader suspend too much consideration of the details of the complex history of human social and political development. Taken with restraint, as in the example of the locations of African cities, they can provide interesting insights into how current conditions are impacted by past pathogenic threats.

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.

Apparently, “the Aid Debate is Over.” We Can All Go Home Now.

I was just checking out Bill Easterly’s (author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good) article in the January issue of Reason, “The Aid Debate is Over.” (I wonder if he noticed that he had written an article called “The Big Aid Debate is Over” back in October of 2013.)

Yet again, Easterly uses Jeff Sachs as his academic punching bag. Sometimes I wonder if those two really just like each other a great deal, but go to great lengths to hate on each other in public.

I’m somewhat interested in his derisive tone towards technology:

Jeffrey Sachs’ formula for ending poverty was appealingly simple. All the problems of poverty, the famous Columbia University economist argued, had discrete technological fixes. Bed nets could prevent malaria-spreading mosquito bites. Wells could provide clean water. Hospitals could treat curable diseases. Fertilizer could increase yields of food crops.

Through a recent book on Sachs by Nina Munk (author of: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty), he goes on to expose the failings of Sachs’ “Millenium Villages” experiment. Sachs wanted to test the hypothesis that throwing money at the poor and solving their basic ills would get the wheels rolling and free them from the chains of poverty for good.

Sachs’ technical fixes frequently turned out to be anything but simple. The saga of Dertu’s wells is illustrative. Ahmed Mohamed, the local man in charge of the effort, discovers that he needs to order a crucial part for a generator that powers the wells. The piece takes four months to arrive, and then nobody knows how to install it. Eventually a distant mechanic arrives at great expense. A couple of years later, Munk returns to find Mohamed struggling with the same issues: The wells have broken down again, the parts are lacking, and nobody knows how to fix the problem.

Easterly then moves on to use Sachs “failures” to criticize the current trend in development which uses small targeted programs which lend themselves to easy evaluation and implementation. People will often work on localized water development programs, or experiment with ways to help small farmers. Behavioral economists will attempt to use cash incentives to get parents to send their children to school. The thinking is that if projects are too big, they become unwieldy and impossible to properly implement.

Easterly believes that development should come from releasing countries from the shackles of bad policy. If the economic policy of a country is too intrusive or bureaucratic to allow the market to function properly, the policy should be changed.

We can now see that aid and development are two distinct topics that should each have their own separate debates. If today’s development economists talk only about what can be tested with a small randomized experiment, they confine themselves to the small aid conversation and leave the big development discussion to others, too often the types of advocates who appeal to anecdotes, prejudice, and partisanship. It would be much better to confront the big issues, such as the role of political and economic freedom in achieving development.

I mostly agree with Easterly’s position. The problems of poverty are mostly problems of the market. Even within Kenya, for example, high value companies must follow a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to do business, following 10 procedures and taking an average of 32 days from initial application to license. To put it in perspective, in the States, you’ll have to jump through 6 hurdles and it will take you five days. In developed countries, that’s considered extreme. In New Zealand, there’s only one step and it takes all of four hours.

Setting up a fruit stand may be easy, but profits slim, business slow and tax revenues are impossible to collect. Setting up a new wage paying transport company to move massive amounts of fruits from producers to markets efficiently is a bigger bureaucratic challenge, though the long term benefits are massive. Reducing the number of gatekeeper would go a long way to allowing these industries to grow.

However, aid and social programs are not ineffective. Though Easterly loves to beat up on Sachs, painting aid with a broad brush is unsatisfying. Sure, the water pump in one village may break, parts may be difficult to obtain and expertise hard to find when things go wrong, but the simple fact is that some people are getting water where they couldn’t before. Internationally funded distributions of bed nets have reduced malaria incidence and mortality all across the continent. There are a lot of kids alive today who would have died a decade ago.

Naively, I measure social progress through dead kids. There’s no way to measure the level of devastation that families feel when children needlessly die and the negative impacts on society and development are vast. Anything which keeps kids from dying is a good thing.

My view is that the macro and micro level development strategies need to work in tandem. Bed nets need to be distributed and water pumps provided. Aid programs which increase access to capital and training need to be strengthened. Evaluation of programs will be important to insure that waste is minimized and report successes. But we also need to see the end of unnecessary regulatory hurdles which do nothing but foster corruption and hamper the ability for countries to develop their market sectors.

Aid programs and market oriented regulatory reform developing countries will insure that short term problems are ameliorated and insure long term sustainability of current gains. While probably patently obvious, a combination of these two strategies will go a long way toward improving the public health and making sure that kids don’t die.

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