Presention at the Open Data for Agriculture G8 Side Event

So my colleagues at IFPRI filmed my presentation that I gave at the Open Data for Agriculture G8 Side event at IFPRI and uploaded it to YouTube:

This was my first experience giving an Ignite presentation. Ignite presentations have a unique style where each slide should be no longer than 5 seconds long, and automatically advancing after the 5 seconds. They are meant to re-purpose the PowerPoint presentation to be an aid in story telling, instead of just being projected notes. It was an interesting experience. I don’t know if I’ll be doing any more ignite presentations in the future, but I think the experience will improve how I use PowerPoint in future presentations, whether or not I adhere to this style.

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.

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.

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.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Annals of Misleading Statistics: Literacy 83

Amen David McKenzie. In the field of International Development the availability of good data is frustratingly awful, which makes it difficult to identify let alone pursue good policy. There is no need to compound this problem by misrepresenting and oversimplifying what limited data we have. I applaud any attempt to communicate the real problems that exist in the world, and increasing awareness, but the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle is often not the best way forward if we are concerned about real long term changes. Instead building capacity to understand and interpret more complex situations and numbers should be the goal, and refrain from “Fox-Newsifying” everything in the attempt to quickly reach people and avoid having to do the hard and long work of educating people on the issues.