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.