If you only read one thing this week…


People and the Planet – How to lift people out of poverty without destroying the world.
May 4, 2012, 4:36 pm
Filed under: Development theory, Environment, If you have 30 mins

The world now has a very clear choice. We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption… Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future.” Sir John Sulston, Royal Society Fellow on the Society’s recent report.

Overconsumption in rich countries and grinding poverty in much of the world are a threat to social stability and environmental sustainability. Britain’s Royal Society spent the past two years studying this, and their report (download the report here) is well worth a look.

Key recommendations include:

  1. The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today.
  2. The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels.
  3. Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, both nationally and internationally.
  4. Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues.

If you can’t face the full report, the BBC summary is nice!

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The worst way to judge a charity
April 30, 2012, 8:54 pm
Filed under: accountability

The LA Times is running a long over-due op-ed here on how misleading administrative costs are as a measure of charitable effectiveness. It won’t be news to anyone who works in the non-profit sector, but I’m always disappointed at how little push-back there has been from the sector on this metric. It’s high time we started being more assertive about what we want to be held accountable for.



The future. Again.
January 10, 2012, 10:57 am
Filed under: governance, If you only have 15 mins

I know, I know, I’m tired of people trying to predict the future as well. We all know how that game inevitably turns out, bu Peter Konjin is actually pretty interesting. He spells out two big issues that are playing out right now (the increasing presence of poverty in middle income countries and the more multi-polar world) and anticipates that the role of INGOs largely depends on what happens to the big western powers (the current funders of the lion’s share of international humanitarianism).

Well thank you Captain Obvious, but the interesting issue is what INGOs will do with the questions of: Whether to follow the poor into middle income countries, or follow Collier’s advice and stick to the Bottom Billion in the world’s poorest countries. Western donors appear more political in their donations to middle income countries (thanks Cap!) and donor publics more difficult to convince, but the moral imperative to work with the poor and marginalized demands a principled examination of this issue.

Konjan forsees a re-thinking of the idea of civil-society as we understand it, and a need to form alliances with domestic advocacy groups in emerging countries to work out a genuinely collaborative understanding of governance that does not feel like an imposed western model.

Take a look here.



Evidence based poverty reduction and the Millenium Villages
November 30, 2011, 11:28 am
Filed under: If you have 30 mins, measuring results

So – here’s the dream – figure out how to reduce poverty, scientifically. Find ways to do this that you can show, with numbers, actually work. What a seductive idea. And how slippery and evasive. Let’s look at one of the flagship projects, the Millennium Villages.

They are the poster child of Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia, along with UNDP. The idea is to take Sach’s theories of poverty traps (if you need to brush up on this stuff it’s all in ‘The End of Poverty’ by Sachs), and design a series of pilot interventions that demonstrate, empirically, that an integrated approach to rural development with consistent adequate funding over time can achieve the goal of lifting communities out of the poverty trap (and meet the Millennium Development Goals while we’re at it).

There are 13 of the sites, in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, plus a bunch of similar type projects all over the place. They started as a five year project in 2006 and just got renewed for another five. So – where are we as far as empirical proof of poverty reduction is concerned? Well, it’s, erm, a mixed bag, and sort of depends on how you look at it…

ODI did one of the earliest reviews of it in 2008 (read the full pdf here) – a little early to really show impact on poverty reduction, they do claim crop productivity increases (although only alongside additional agriculture inputs, so there isn’t really a lot of income increase). There does seem to be some malaria reduction, and that’s good, although it’s not entirely clear how cost effective this public health program is compared to traditional ones, since the whole thing is a big integrated package.

ODI signs out with some rumblings about sustainability of gains and issues of scaling up, but they are basically optimistic. Not so the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities group, who claim that their Ekwendini project villages that use sustainable agricultural techniques and crop diversification achieve better agricultural gains with far less cost.

Fast forward to this week, when we get the first independent evaluation of the MVPs, by Kenyan economist Bernadette Wanjala of Tillburg University. She looked at 236 families in the project and 175 control families in the same districts (read more here). She was hoping to find that the MVP project (which spends the equivalent of 100% of local per capita income per year on each beneficiary) would be able to show some empirical increase in recipient income. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find any evidence for it.

How can that possibly be? Well, let’s dig in a little more. She did find a 70% increase in agricultural productivity, which did tend to increase agricultural income in those families (at a substantial input cost). The problem was that those families that spent more time farming seem to be spending less time doing other profitable activities, and their income in those other areas fell, canceling out benefits.

The MVP group claims that ‘incomes are rising’, and that the project is ‘enormously successful’, but unfortunately doesn’t publish their data on incomes.

So where does this leave us? The MVPs are a bold attempt to test theories of change on a village level, and five years on we’re still arguing about what the data mean. It’s encouraging to see donors and academics entering this field of research, and perhaps not surprising that the answer is “it’s complicated – we need more research”.



Mobilizing for peaceful change in the US
October 10, 2011, 11:33 am
Filed under: accountability, Articles, governance, If you only have 15 mins

The New York Times is running an interesting piece of commentary by Paul Krugman on the wave of demonstrations and protests currently taking place in the US. Read it here. The comparisons to the ‘Arab Spring’ are fascinating (although that is not the point of this article).



Steve Jobs
October 5, 2011, 5:34 pm
Filed under: If you only have 15 mins, Management

The tragic death of Steve Jobs today made me think about some of the things he said about the work of transforming Apple from a good to a great company. I think this video from 1997 is pretty interesting, Jobs talks about focus, and how, without it, Apple had been less than the sum of its parts. “Focusing is about saying no,” says Jobs. Watch the video here.



Results of 30 year organic vs non-organic farming trial

Started in 1981, the Farming Systems Trial (FST) at Rodale Institute is America’s longest running, side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. The results of their 30 year trial were published this week (get the full pdf here).

The short story is that they claim that, on real farm size trials, over 30 years:

  • Organic yields match conventional yields.
  • Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought.
  • Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.
  • Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient.
  • Conventional systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases.
  • Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional.