Esquina Latina – March 25

I was born in Colombia, and have spent more than 5 years living, working, and traveling in Latin America. I find the many cultures, traditions, and histories of this region fascinating. Even though I am currently living in DC, I try to keep myself informed on what is going on in the region, and in the spirit of my weekly development links, I am going to start summarizing the articles and papers I read about the region. Not sure if I’ll do this every week, or make it a bi-weekly thing, guess I’ll play it by ear.

With no further ado, the links:

  • Mayor of Lima Survives Recall Vote (NY Times) – I am not very knowledgeable about Limeño politics. However, on first glance it seems like a good thing Susana Villaran won her recall vote. She clearly has riled up a lot of animosity from Lima’s traditional powers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem she has committed any illegal or corrupt actions. While this is not exactly a ringing endorsement, the recall appears to be a part of a strategy to prevent Villaran from exercising the powers of her office. Considering this, it is probably for the best she will get to finish her term,  if only for stability sake or the fact she is Lima’s first female mayor.
  • Proceso de Paz en Colombia (El Tiempo) – Cool flash application providing a chronology of the peace process and a description of the participants in the peace negotiations ongoing between Colombia and FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. The application was designed by El Tiempo, Bogota’s main newspaper, and is in Spanish.
  • In Effort to Try Dictator, Guatemala Shows New Judicial Might (NY Times) – In a major ruling, Guatemala’s supreme court ruled in favor of the prosecution, which will ensure that Efraín Ríos, Guatemala’s former dictator, will be tried for human rights violations committed during his rule in the 1980s. I think this is excellent news. While there are certainly concerns about whether or not Efraín Ríos will get a fair trial, this concern is outweighed by the message it sends: dictators are responsible for the actions done under their rule. The fact it took 30 years to get here does weakens the deterrence capacity of the judgement, it is nevertheless, a positive step. I look forward to seeing how this trial unfolds, and hope the victims in Guatemala get an opportunity to voice their outrage and see some form of justice.
  • Argentina’s Fernandez Asks Pope to Intervene Over Falklands (Reuters) – Glad to see that Venezuela doesn’t have a monopoly on absurd political theatre in Latin America.  Argentina’s use of the Falklands is fairly similar to Chavez’s anti-U.S. rhetoric. It is used as a call to arms for supporters and a smoke-screen to distract from domestic problems. Much like the anti-imperialist claims from Venezuela, the Falklands are rooted in historical events and stories. Just as in Venezuela, the truth of the matter has little to do with the effectiveness of using this political tool. Therefore, it isn’t really worth going through point by point the tenuousness of the Argentine claim to the islands, or the fact a recent referendum had the islanders voting nearly unanimously to remain British. Trying to draw the Pope in on the issue should be interpreted as a cynical attempt to rally nationalist sentiment and boost morale in the face of local economic problems.
  • Earth to Evo (Project Syndicate) – This article struck me as a bit too negative on Evo Morales.  Is there a certain amount of hypocrisy and political  self-serving behind the environmental and pro-indigenous mantle that Evo Morales has clothed himself? Sure. However, Evo like national leaders everywhere has to make trade offs, where economic, social, political, and environmental objectives have to be weighed and prioritized. The road represents potential economic development for a country in need of it. Does it threaten the rights of the indigenous people living in the TIPNIS, and potentially the environment? Yes. However, it would potentially open markets for other indigenous groups (cocaleros, quechua, aymara) that are a more powerful voting block. With this in mind is it really a surprise Evo is pushing forward with the project? Disappointing perhaps, but not all that surprising.
  • Chavez backers clash with protesters in Venezuela (ABCnews) – The situation in Venezuela continues to be volatile, as this article shows, with pro- and anti- Chavistas clashing in the streets of Caracas. I am sympathetic to the student protesters, who are trying to get the supreme court to prevent Maduro from using the full force of the state during the elections. Hopefully, they can get their message across without too many people getting hurt. Representative democracy is best served when the electorate can make decisions based on free and honest information about the candidates.
  • Autumn of the Patriarchs (Project Syndicate) – An interesting look at the final days of many modern autocrats, and their similarities with what is currently happening in Venezuela. I agree with Ben-Ami that Chavismo is not sustainable over the long run unless major reforms are enacted  However, in the short-term I expect that Maduro will win and continue in the same vein as Chavez. What happens from there will depend on Maduro, his desire to maintain a veneer of democratic legitimacy, his ability to control the Chavistas, and how long he can maintain handouts through oil-money.

Weekly Development Links – March 22

Some of these links are a little older, and I just hadn’t gotten around to reading them till this week. Any way on to the links:

  • White House Proposal Could Revolutionize Food Aid – From the Center of Global Development’s  Rethinking US Foreign Assistance blog, this blog post is a couple of weeks old. However, I think that it is an excellent piece especially considering that U.S. foreign aid and development budgets will almost certainly face cuts this year. This blog post points out that there are some low hanging fruit that could be picked to not only reduce spending but also to follow development best practices and potentially lead to improved outcomes. The article focus particularly on the extremely inefficient Food for Peace program, which is more of a subsidy to American Agriculture and Transportation sector than it is an effective development/assistance program. However, the preference towards U.S. producers and service providers are ingrained throughout the U.S. foreign assistance program. If we could move away from giving preferential treatment to U.S. producers and service providers, we could save money as well as encourage more local production. This could potentially build greater local resilience. Will there remain a role for U.S. produced food in creating a safety net in case of severe food emergencies? Probably, but we should try to source as much of the food aid as possible from the region, and thereby incur the double effect of boosting local economies, while reducing costs and trade distorting subsidies. Additionally, following through with this reform we could correct the farce of a foreign assistance program that largely benefits domestic sectors. If we want to assist domestic sectors it would be better to do so directly than covertly through U.S. foreign assistance.
  • Behind the Brands (PDF) – A briefing paper from OxFam looking at the role of the major food processors in the overall food production chain, and trying to assess how effectively these companies are towards promoting valuable social outcomes. On the whole their conclusion is that they are not doing enough to ensure that the global food chain is just. Overall the paper is interesting, but leaves a bit to be desired in terms of implementable policy solutions. Their main call is for increased transparency, which is probably a good starting point as there is terrifying ignorance about what goes on in the global food chain. This particular quote I found particularly insightful:
    This consolidation of the market-place has made it difficult for consumers to keep track of who produces which products and the “values‟ behind a brand… But perhaps more troubling is that since the global food system has become so complex, food and beverage companies themselves often know little about their own supply chains. Where a particular product is grown and processed, by whom, and in what conditions are questions few companies can answer accurately and rarely share with consumer

    As consumers and governments become more interested in the social aspects of production, and push for products that represent their own social values producers will feel monetary incentives to demonstrate to consumers the quality of their own supply chain, or at least this is the causal chain that OxFam is hoping for. OxFam makes a good case that it is in the best interest of companies to gain better control of their supply chains, if only to better protect their own brands from embarrassing negative publicity. On the whole I agree with this, but with some caveats. Demonstrating value in the way a good is processed in harder than showing value in the quality of the final good. Consumers and to a lesser extent producers cannot observe the whole production process (producers can’t observe everything their suppliers do), and must rely on others to confirm the value of the production process. To do this there needs to be better certifications that clearly explain to consumers (and producers) the intrinsic values of the way the good are made. Right now there are too many different standards (Green, Sustainable, Fair Trade, Organic, Shade-grown, Local, etc.), which imply certain social values in the production process. However, most consumers have trouble differentiating many of these standards, or knowing which is better. When consumers cannot effectively perceive the quality of the production process, then their actions are formed on poor information, which dilutes the market signals to producers to maintain socially beneficial production.  This paper is pretty timely considering the horse meat scandal in the United Kingdom, and some of the articles I’ve read recently about the mislabeling of seafood in the U.S.

  • The multilingual dividend – An interesting article from the Financial Times looking at the benefits of knowing more than one language. The benefits aren’t just limited to the language, but allow for more active brains, that allow people to look at the world from different perspectives. This improves problem solving, as well as making people more culturally aware and effective in teams. I thought it was particularly interesting that these benefits are not lost if you learn a language later in life, so for those of you interested in picking up another language go for it.
  • Quina: The little cereal that could (World Bank Blog) – Another post about my favorite pseudo-grain. This one has some good info about the global expansion of quinoa. It also speaks about the challenges producers in Bolivia are now facing in buying quinoa due to higher price.
  • ICTs and Literacy (World Bank Blog) – Interesting look at the role ICTs are currently playing in teaching literacy. I also really liked the point Michael Trucano made about the importance of 20th century skills (literacy and numeracy) and not to skip them in a rush to teach 21st century computer and technology skills. There are definitely opportunities to jump ahead to modern technologies, but without traditional skills like literacy people are not able to maximize the utility of these new technologies.

Le Théâtre de l’Absurde – An update on Venezuela

I erroneously thought things couldn’t get any more ridiculous in Venezuela, but every passing week continues to prove me wrong. Shortly after Maduro double downed on anti-imperialist rhetoric, accusing the U.S. of giving Chavez cancer, Maduro accused the U.S. of plotting to assassinate Henrique Capriles, the Venezuelan opposition leader, in the hopes of destabilizing Venezuela and leading to a military coup d’etat. Baffling, right? There is so much about this accusation to inspire incredulity, but these are the first that came to mind:

  1. The officials (Roger Noriega and Otto Reich) Maduro is accusing of leading this conspiracy are not currently serving in the U.S. government. They were members of George W. Bush’s administration and have not been in office for more than 5 years. I’m not sure what to make of this. Are people supposed to believe these guys are working secretly for the Obama administration, or somehow have gone rogue and are free-lancing? In the end, I think the Chavistas haven’t bothered to update their Rolodex of U.S. government officials and keep recycling the same names in their random conspiracy generator
  2. If the ultimate goal of the U.S. is to cause the downfall of those currently in power, why would they want to assassinate Capriles, the first opposition leader since Chavez came to power to have demonstrated any ability to be competitive in a national election?
  3. With many pro-chavistas in the Venezuelan military, after years of Chavez purging the military of all opposition, a military coup d’etat doesn’t seem to be a good venue of ensuring a pro-american government

Let us dispense with the obviously baseless conspiracy theory, why would Maduro even make the accusation? I guess going to the bread and butter of anti-imperialist rhetoric might help him rally his base in preparation for elections. However, it seems to be in contrast with Maduro’s other actions of trying to discredit Capriles by tying him to the bourgeois elite and painting him as pro-american. It also seems to shine a spotlight of sorts on the person he will be running against shortly. Frankly, I have trouble coming up with a reasonable explanation. Ironically, I am forced to come up with my own conspiracy to make sense of Maduro’s accusation, and this is the first I imagined:

  • Maduro can now use this conspiracy as an excuse to put Capriles under government watch to protect him. Such an act would fit the overall style of systematically consolidating power and limiting opposition under Chavez, described well in this NY Times article. Maduro could then play the role of patriot, while limiting Capriles’s ability to run a campaign.

Hopefully, this is not what actually happens, and Venezuela has a relatively free and fair election where Capriles is allowed to run without harassment. However, this possibility seems less and less likely. The deck was already going to be stacked against Capriles. Trying to win an election during a short campaign (a month or so), against Chavez’s ghost, and Maduro was  always going to be difficult. However, if the Maduro uses the full force of the government to stymie and suppress Capriles, it seems all but certain he will get his desired electoral victory. 

Weekly Development Links – March 15

Decided that the easiest way to summarize a bunch of the stuff that I read during the week is to start a weekly summary and review of some of the articles and papers I found interesting.

So on to the links:

  • Undernutrition: the invisible killer of 3 million children a year – A nice summary of many of the effects of malnutrition in children. There isn’t anything particularly new in the article. Nevertheless, I think it is important to keep highlighting the topic due to the enormous value to society of tackling and correcting child malnutrition.
  • 45-Year Trends in Women’s Use of Time and Household Management Energy Expenditure – Seemed to attract some controversy on the NY Times website, because people interpreted it as sexist and that the report was suggesting that women’s greater participation in the labor force was leading to their obesity. This is an incorrect interpretation. The report is the second part of an overall study looking at levels of activity today vs. 50 years ago. The first report looked primarily at office activity, which showed less physical activity today compared to 50 years. This second report was needed because women were underrepresented in the first report because of the lower level of labor participation by women 50 years ago. Therefore, this paper looked at the activity level of doing household chores 50 years ago as compared to doing the same chores today or activity in the office. The overall take away from both of these studies is that people are significantly less active today then they were 50 years ago, in large part due to greater automation and use of new technologies. Not sure what is controversial about this conclusion. It seems like it is a good first step in testing the anecdotal hypothesis of less physical activity contributing to increasing obesity in the U.S.A.
  • How USAID Could Score a Double-Win for Learning and Transparency – Greater sharing of data in development would be a huge plus. This article covers some excellent benefits that could be achieved by sharing the raw data of development interventions. Sarah Rose (author) points to improvements in transparency, and ensuring the quality of reported development results. However, Rose didn’t mention another major benefit, which is the power of cloud sourcing analysis. Development practitioners use their data for their own specific objectives. They collect all of their data usually with a very specific task in mind. However, all this information maybe very valuable for a wide array of other uses. By freely sharing it, who knows what independent data users and analysts might be able to make of data. There are undoubtedly thousands of interesting side-effects of development interventions that may be missed by the development agency. Or entirely new connections observable in the data that the data collectors may never have found.
  • Measuring impact: Keep it clear and simple – Article from Stanford Social Innovation Review. Makes the point of the importance of measurement in development. I do agree on the importance of measurement, I am not as much of a fan of  the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle. Yes having clear objectives that we can measure progress toward is critical. However, I am less enthusiastic about focusing only on simple metrics. I am concerned only trying to influence things we can easily measure. Entire fields of development could be ignored, especially in areas like institution and political reform. Economic development isn’t easy. Communities are complex systems, looking for simple changes can encourage a sort of checklist mentality that implies development is just a long to-do list. We should instead be thinking about the complex interactions between people and institutions and the incentives that drive both. Certainly there can be simple changes that dramatically change systems, but we shouldn’t just get involved on easily measurable goals. This should instead encourage us to find ways to measure progress on more complex objectives. I have no doubts that simple goals make fund raising much easier, and that it is a lot easier to show that you are achieving your limited objectives. It is less clear if this would lead to overall better development outcomes if applied widely. While I am skeptical on simplicity in development, I wholeheartedly agree with one of the other points made in the article – the need to use longer term budgets in development. Far too many projects are designed around annual and biannual budgets. This isn’t realistic. Change takes time, we need to have development budgets that take this into account and allow for greater stability, such that development agencies can plan long term interventions with the necessary follow up with the knowledge that the funding will be there in the later stages of the project.

Migration is Development

Migration is Development

Very interesting article by Peter Sutherland at Project Syndicate illustrating the importance of considering migration in the overall context of economic development. I think that too often we think of economic development interventions with the idea that the people we are trying to help are fixed in location. I think Sutherland makes the important point that we shouldn’t do this. Migration be it international, or national (read urbanization) is neither a good or bad thing in and of itself. But it is a reality. People are often able and willing to move in search of better economic, political, and social opportunities. When we ignore this reality we limit our ability to create effective and sustainable interventions.

Venezuela: Panel Will Investigate Roots of Cancer That Killed Chávez

Venezuela: Panel Will Investigate Roots of Cancer That Killed Chávez

Completely absurd. If the U.S. had the capacity to take out people by inducing cancer in them since the 50s, I am pretty sure that there would be evidence of this spectacular assassination technique. I mean how many problematic leaders would have been targeted before Chavez (Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega, Sudan Hussein, Ali Khamenei, or Muammar Gaddafi)?

It would be nice if Maduro would move past this ridiculous anti-imperialism, and start to move towards treating Venezuela’s real economic, social, and political problems. I hope that this is indeed what happens, but I am a lot more skeptical this is the direction things will be going under Maduro.

Admitting Failure, Greater Stakeholder Involvement, and Improving Development Outcomes

Since attending a FailFaire a couple years ago, I have been very interested in the challenges of identifying failure, admitting to the failure, and learning from failure. We all make mistakes in our own lives, and professionally. We make mistakes for hundred of reasons, but one of the most common reasons is lack of experience and information. Poor information and understanding of dynamics on the ground in places we try to do development greatly increases our chances of failing. International development is littered with failure, in fact, I think that the number of failed projects greatly outnumber successful projects. However, by not accepting we fail and owning up to these failures we are wasting an amazing body of experiences we could be learning from. Admitting to these failures not only give us opportunities to learn from what has gone wrong, but help us develop greater credibility with our stakeholders who see that we take responsibility for our actions and attempt to right things when they invariably go wrong.

Still, development institutions find it difficult to admit shortcomings in projects…there is a tendency to handle these shortcomings by defending the decisions made rather than showing empathy or directly addressing stakeholders’ concerns. Things have certainly improved, yet the immediate reaction is to be defensive. – Shamiela Mir (World Bank)

This defensiveness Mir points out is a major problem. Trying to pass off responsibility for a project’s failure is natural, but we need to start taking more responsibility for the failure of our projects. We also need to do a better job of involving stakeholders in all stages of the development process, and admitting to failure will make this easier. Increased stakeholder involvement would be beneficial in many ways

  1. Greater involvement from the beginning allows us to better design and target interventions that meet the needs of the beneficiaries we are trying to help
  2. When interventions target needs identified by the beneficiaries there is much higher likelihood of ownership of the project and the results, which should increase the possibility of sustainable development
  3. Keeping open communication during the implementation phase increases the opportunity to hear what is going right as well as what is going wrong. This allows for a more flexible just-in-time mentality where we can better adjust the implementation to local circumstances.
  4. When the beneficiaries are fully involved and own the project, they are more likely to participate in followup studies to assess the long-term effects of our interventions

Further Reading:
I highly recommend checking out the blog post by Mir that I quoted above. She looks at the value of giving apologies, and how owning mistakes could be beneficial to international development.

Not only is this blog post interesting there are some excellent links to other articles about making effective apologies and learning from failures. I particularly liked the following ones:

If you are interested in reading more about improving stakeholder involvement in development I highly recommend checking out Listening to Those Who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries, a recent article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, by Fay Twersky, Phil Buchanan, and Valerie Threlfall

Hugo Chavez dies

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez dies

So it is official, Hugo Chavez has died. While it is still not clear what exactly happened over the past couple of months, the strangeness of the government’s actions can now be partially explained by the fact Chavez was in his final days.

With Chavez’s death there is now a  feeling reminiscent of Louis XV supposed final words: “après moi le déluge” (after me the deluge). Chavez leaves behind him a polarized country with many major economic and social problems, an untested opposition, and a fractious pro-Chavista party that may not fall in line with Maduro (Chavez’s chosen succesor). Elections will certainly follow, how fair they are will be interesting to see. Nevertheless, whoever wins will have a full plate trying to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess.

Book Review: Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, by Geoffrey Canada

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think the book brings some interesting points to the table, especially on the impact of the proliferation of firearms, and the way they destroyed the previous order. He makes some good points about how firearms don’t really provide deterrence to violence, but instead increase chaos and instability, which breeds more violence. I do think Canada is a bit too nostalgic about the old days. While he readily accepts the brutality of the streets before the entry of firearms in mass, there is still a nostalgic sentiment of the supposed honor and controls that once existed in the pre-gun society. I think this book is a good companion to Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, which is a more in depth psychological look at the human roots of violence and cruelty.

Canada doesn’t go into great detail on the solutions to the challenges of poverty and violence and of breaking these vicious cycles. However, this is more due to the shortness of the book, and not due to a lack of practical knowledge of the policies that are being tried and are having some successes. He highlights some of the work that he has done in Boston and New York, but what you get from these positive stories is more an insight into Canada’s overall philosophy of community-centric investments focused on education and responsive services, than a concrete policy proposal. He seems happy to share his experiences as examples of ideas that might work, but is more interesting in trying to get the reader off the sidelines and involved in finding a solution to the problem.

Overall, this is a good look at issues surrounding violence in inner-cities in the U.S. Canada draws on a wealth of personal experiences having grown up in Brooklyn and having dedicated his life to trying to reclaim inner-city communities from endemic violence and poverty. It is interesting and easy to read.

View all my GoodReads Reviews

The American Airlines-US Airways Merger in an Evolving Airline Industry

The American Airlines-US Airways Merger in an Evolving Airline Industry

A Brookings blog post looking at the competitive effects of the consolidation of the US Airline industry. It is an interesting look at explaining why despite decreasing number of competitors in the US air travel market that prices haven’t increased as much as some worried. I don’t disagree with the overall point that Winston makes. However, I think he may have under estimated the increase of airfares by not taking into account the new pricing schemes that most airlines are using, where they charge additional fees for services that were once included in the ticket price (checked bags, food and beverage, etc.). There is also no mention about the increase in fuel costs, which is one of the major drivers of airline cost. So, while I think that it is true that airline mergers have led to operating efficiencies of which some of the cost savings have been passed along to consumers, without an analysis on a changing pricing mechanism, changing definition of services provided, and a look at fuel costs it is difficult to untangle what the real change in airfare is and how much of it may be attributable to the airline industry’s consolidation.