Italy’s Election Results Are Bad News for All of Us

Italy’s Election Results Are Bad News for All of Us

An interesting look at the results of this week’s elections in Italy. It seems that political theatre and the failure of politicians to make important decisions while facing economic crises (US continued budget brinkmanship, Chavez and Economics in Venezuela, etc.) is becoming a pandemic. Not sure what will happen in Italy, but after reading this blog post none of the most likely outcomes outlines by Douglas Elliot sounds all that great.

The MCC Effect

Does the MCC Effect Exist?

This is an interesting post at the Center for Global Development’s Rethinking US Foreign Assistance Blog summarizing the current body of knowledge to the effects of the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) Eligibility Indicators. The blog itself is an interesting quick read, and has a lot of good links to different studies looking at the influence of the MCC in policy application. I would definitely recommend checking out the new study by Parks and Rice that inspired this CGD blog post. While it isn’t  by any means a rigorous impact evaluation it is still an interesting survey looking at how MCC and other international indicators have influenced policy makers and development practitioners. I found two things found in the study particularly interesting.

  • The survey data suggest that the policy influence of external assessments may have more to do with signaling credibility to investors, creditors, and donor agencies than directly influencing specific aid allocation decisions. Parks and Rice 2013. p.3

I thought this was interesting. It means that for many policy makers the indicators created by external agencies like the MCC serve more as a cover of legitimacy to making certain reforms. Meaning, that instead of creating a push for previously unlikely reforms, it is more a facilitating tool that enables or eases the process of gaining legitimacy on public reforms that were already on the table. This doesn’t mean that the indicators don’t have value, it just weakens the effect of external indicators. It changes the counter-factual. No longer are we talking about indicators leading to reforms that wouldn’t have happened prior to the indicators. Instead it is talking about facilitating the implementation of reforms that were already being considered.

  • Politics matter, and politicians like all individuals respond to incentives. 
MCA Policy Influence. (Parks and Rice Feb 2013, p. 4)

MCA Policy Influence. (Parks and Rice Feb 2013, p. 4)

These incentives greatly impact how influential the specific MCC indicators are towards pushing reform. I copied and pasted the following graph from the Parks and Rice study because it illustrates the limitations of external indicators in influencing policy makers when they contradict local socio-political incentives structures. As we can see the more political the indicators get the less readily they are accepted by policy makers in their decision making progress. Does this mean that these political indicators should be dropped? Probably not, but it just suggests that we should be realistic as to how influential external indicators can be, and try to build up awareness of how these indicators are tied to beneficial results that have short-term as well as long term benefits for implementing countries, and perhaps more importantly potential reform implementer.

Book Review: Invisible Armies: The Impact of Disease on American History

Invisible Armies

Invisible Armies: The Impact of Disease on American History by Howard N. Simpson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By now, we take for granted that disease was important, but the categorical way that Simpson documents hundreds of moments where disease played a deciding role in critical outcomes was shocking. Many of the stories were already familiar to me, but having all of them stringed together in a single 500 year narrative lends an impressive weight to the effects of micro-organisms in the development of the modern world.

This book isn’t the newest, having been published in 1980. So some of the novelty of the issue of the effects of disease on civilization and history has been lost if you have read more recent books like Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Nevertheless, this book is an interesting look at the often critical impact of disease on the development of the United States. It is also a fairly easy and quick read. If you have limited time don’t want to read multiple books on the topic I would recommend Guns, Germs, and Steel before Invisible Armies. However, I still think this book is pretty interesting and worth reading despite it being over 30 years since its publication.

Chavez is back…or is he?

Chavez’s Return Spurs Doubts, New Speculation

I didn’t think this situation could get any shadier than Chavez being sequestered away in a hospital in Cuba, but I guess I was wrong. Chavez supposedly is back as reported by the Venezuelan government, and there isn’t any specific reason to believe otherwise, but the strange way that the government has handled his “disappearance” from public life is odd to say the least. The government’s actions basically beg people to ask what is being hidden, and lead to some spectacular rumor mongering and speculation, which can only erode society’s trust in the government. Assuming Chavez is alive and in Venezuela, which again there is no reason to believe otherwise at this time, it is hard to imagine a worse way of handling this situation.

The importance of Measurement in Development

WSJ: Bill Gates on the Importance of Measurement

There is nothing dramatically new in this short Wall Street Journal article from last month, but we can never have too much harping on the importance of collecting better data, and quality monitoring and evaluation (M&E) in development. Too many decisions are made on poor or incomplete data. Millions of dollars and hours of time are wasted on projects, without ensuring that positive outcomes are being achieved.

Without a doubt, better measurement needs to be stressed in the field of economic development world. Thankfully Gates, among many others, is doing more than just stressing the importance of measurement, they are trying to make real changes.

While the battle for convincing people of the importance of M&E isn’t fully complete, thankfully, consensus towards measurement is occurring. However, finding what and how to measure in complex multi-sector problems isn’t easy, and many of the incentives that development agencies face negatively impact the quality of measurement that occurs. Measurement is expensive, and many development agencies still think of measurement as a task apart from implementation. This leads to a mindset where money for evaluation takes away available money for implementation. This mentality needs to change. While it is easy to understand why we might think this is a trade off, this is a false decision. M&E is essential to all aspects of any project. Without it we can measure progress towards objectives, alter course to changing circumstances, or prove our effectiveness. M&E needs to be mainstreamed in development. Without this we cannot distinguish our success from our failures, which sure makes learning from past projects difficult. This mainstreaming cannot only happen at the implementation level. Implementing organizations work within a funding environment that has its own challenges and incentives. Thus, funding agencies need to prioritize money for these activities. Demanding M&E from their implementing partners, without allowing for realistic resources for quality M&E is a recipe for maintaining the status quo. Money needs to be set aside for improved M&E, and for training to ensure that quality metrics are used as objectives, and that accurate data is collected.

The Gates foundation has done much in pushing the development community towards greater rigor in their projects, and going beyond good intentions to trying to show that good intentions are being turned into positive outcomes.  I for one applaud their efforts and look forward to continued progress on this front.

Venezuela and the Politics of the Absurd

So it sounds like Hugo Chavez has finally returned to Venezuela (New York Times), which will hopefully mean that the last couple of months of political chaos and absurdity that the country has been living through has finally come to an end. For almost 2 months, and shortly after wining reelection to the presidency, Chavez had been under secretive treatment for unspecified cancer in Cuba. What was amazing is that for more than 2 months Chavez was sequestered in Cuba with absolutely no information available to anyone in the country to the status of his health, or proof that he was still alive. After  more than a month of total silence a few pictures were released by the government, but this caused almost more confusion and skepticism to Chavez’s true status (First Pictures of Chavez). He was physically incapable of being sworn in, and this created a near constitutional emergency. Political ally tried to rally people and accused the opposition of disloyally using the circumstances for  political gains and did all sorts of ridiculous stunts to try to rally political opinion to the pro-government cause (Who cares about real problems when there are baseball caps). All of this of course has been taking place while the country has been in dire economic straits, with major shortages being reported in super markets, massive inflation, high levels of crime and violence in Caracas (the capital), diminishing oil exports due to poor management of the state oil company, and mounting state debt. The problems are so serious the government has had to act before Chavez’s return with Venezuela devaluing the Bolivar. There is so much about this story that just boggles my mind.

  1. First, how on earth did the acting president of a country spend 2 months in a foreign country for treatment of cancer (potentially terminal) without anyone in the country knowing what was going.
  2. How is it that no leader in Latin America has anything to say about this? When presidents in Honduras and Paraguay were overthrown in less than normal circumstances, outcries were heard about how democracy was being trampled. And yet while Chavez laid in a bed in Cuba, not a single word was uttered about how democracy was being threatened. I find this very disturbing. Leaders in Latin America’s left leaning parties are far too ready to attack neo-conservatives and Yankee threats to democracy, but are far too often willing to ignore the same actions that would drive them crazy if they were being done at the behest of the U.S. or of the right. Can you imagine what would happen if a president of a Latin American country spent 2 months in total media silence in a secret government hospital in the U.S.? I am pretty certain it wouldn’t be silence.

I just hope that in the not too distance future, that leaders in Latin America will be able to move forward and call out any threat to peace, prosperity, and democracy and not just those convenient times when the threats are being perpetuated by members on the other side of the political spectrum.

FAO Food Waste Statistics

FAO Food Waste Statistics

This is an interesting set of statistics, a little too clean for me to accept blindly but interesting nevertheless.

I don’t doubt there is a great deal of waste in the global food chain, I am just curious how some of these statistics were collected. I can’t imagine there is good data on harvest lost at the farm in much of the developing world. I also wonder how they have defined waste when putting together this list of numbers. Does food that is starting to go to waste and is fed to animals considered waste, how about compost? While it is true that these uses may be sub-optimal  they are also not complete losses for the farmer.

The other thing that I found interesting from this page is that waste in the developing world and the developed world are remarkably similar in terms of total food waste. The difference is where the waste is occurring. In the developing world waste occurs primarily at the farm-level and in transportation to the market. Clear symptoms of poor infrastructure and access to technologies like cold storage, and good roads. In the developed world the waste occurs mostly on the tail end of the food production chain with food going to waste in consumers homes or at supermarkets due to food standards that are focused on aesthetics. While both are food waste, the causes are very different as are the consequences to society from this waste.

  • Waste at the farm level hurts farmers who lose potential food and revenue. Without the security of selling all of ones harvest due to waste creates major disincentives to investing in farm productivity (irrigation, weeding, fertilizer, etc), as the farmer can’t be sure these off, as the harvest may end up spoiling in bags while waiting to reach the market. In many ways, the worst losses from post harvest loss comes from missed economic opportunities.
  • Waste at the end of the production chain is perhaps less visibly damaging, because it disappears once people have had their opportunity to eat what they want. However, in many ways it is more wasteful than waste after post-harvest. Why? Think about all the steps that are taken to getting food from the farm to our tables. There is harvest, transportation to a processing center, processing and converting primary goods into market ready goods, packaging, transportation to super market, and then transportation to your home. Waste at the end of the chain means that all of the work, and energy required to move harvested goods all the way through the chain has also been wasted when we throw away unconsumed food.