Development Links – May-July

Wow, so I’ve been pretty busy and haven’t gotten around to writing up some posts, so let’s see if I can get back into the habit of blogging again by getting this draft of several articles I was looking at from the begining of the summer.

  • Violent Conflict and Gender Inequality – A World Bank working paper that takes a look at the varying gendered effects of conflict around the world. It feels a bit like a literature review. There are some very interesting papers cited in this review. I didn’t see a whole lot of new information, but it is a good summary of the many ways that conflict can effect both men and women.
  • Education Technology Success Stories – Excellent paper from Brookings looking at some of the successful and promising technologies that could be harnessed to improve our education system. I think that the spirit of the paper is especially important in that they are looking at technologies as aids, that can enable teachers and students to better use their skills and improve the efficiency of the education process.
  • A Welcome Half Loaf on Food Aid Reform (Center for Global Development) – An excellent post looking at the proposed reforms the the U.S. Food Aid program. I am generally in agreement with the author that any reform of the program would be welcome. Increasing local and regional sourcing would be more efficient, and allow for greater spill over effects into regional economies, instead of using food aid as an excuse to subsidize the transportation and agriculture sector. If a full reform isn’t possible at this time, incremental steps are better than nothing, and if implementing these reforms increases the push towards greater trade liberalization of the agriculture sector in Europe, than all the better.
  • RTC Study on School Uniforms in Ecuador (PDF)
  • Internet and Elections (World Bank Blog) – Not sure if the world is ready for voting on the internet. It is true electronic voting could encourage greater participation, improving access to voting, and speeding up the counting of votes and encouraging transparency, while reducing opportunities for voter intimidation. However, moving the election online could also open up elections to security attacks (hackings) and easier falsification of identity on the one hand, and if implemented by less than honest governments could facilitate ballot stuffing. Much like in most areas the promise of technology to improve our lives needs to be weighted with a good deal of skepticism, because the devil is always in the details.
  • Kenya’s laptops for schools dream fails to address reality (The Guardian)

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.

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.