If you only read one thing this week…


People and the Planet – How to lift people out of poverty without destroying the world. by Nick
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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Evidence based poverty reduction and the Millenium Villages by Nick
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”.



Political Anthropology vs Developmental Economics by Nick
July 13, 2011, 4:28 pm
Filed under: Book reviews, Development theory, If you have 30 mins

This is a genuinely interesting critique of Paul Collier (The Bottom Billion and others) by Yale political anthropologist Mike McGovern. On one level, it is an attack on what McGovern sees as sloppy methodology and misleading storytelling by Collier, but on another level it is an examination of the different ways that economics and anthropology see the world, and the implications of adopting one school or another as your primary analytical tool.

Take a read here (pdf).



ALNAP’s new study on humanitarian leadership by Nick
June 9, 2011, 11:36 pm
Filed under: Articles, If you have 30 mins, Management

The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (yes, that’s really what they are called) has just released the most recent in a series of reports on the state of the humanitarian system. This one focuses on leadership in humanitarian operations, and features several interesting case studies of successful leadership as well as a sobering survey of humanitarian workers, most of whom, according to the study, believe that a lack of effective leadership presents the main challenge to effective humanitarian action today.

Decide for yourself here. Full PDF here.

Thanks to Ruth Allen for bringing this one to our attention.



The Earth Summit in Rio – hopes and fears by Nick
April 27, 2011, 9:47 am
Filed under: Development theory, Environment, If you have 30 mins, News

Jim Thomas writes a fascinating article giving a short history of the last twenty years of climate and environmental negotiation, and their relationship to sustainable development efforts. What’s at stake, argues Thomas, is whether the future of the planet will be governed by financial markets and climate engineers, or whether we will see a genuine attempt to solve environmental problems in the context of larger social and economic goals such as reducing poverty and creating a just and sustainable society.

Read the Guardian Article here.

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The new population bomb – old people by ifyouonlyreadonethingthisweek
January 3, 2011, 12:01 pm
Filed under: Development theory, If you have 30 mins

The United Nations Population Statistics state that the world population will rise by roughly one-third over the next 40 years, from 6.9 to 9.1 billion. Most policy makers focus on this startling statistic, working to create policies that will mitigate the population increase. A recent article from Foreign Policy points out the other, somewhat neglected side of this issue that in many areas of the world the population is shrinking, especially the population under five years old. The problem persists in unlikely areas, such as Iran and Brazil, where birth rates are dropping. Concurrently, a gender gap is widening in many areas, where boy children are preferred. But maybe this isn’t so bad, older people can just work longer to make up for the lack of younger generations entering the workforce? Maybe a world of older people would be more peaceful?  Unlikely, the article points out. So is the world graying a bad thing in general? Read the article to see Foreign Policy’s analysis and then come to your own conclusions.



Lessons learned in earthquake response by ifyouonlyreadonethingthisweek
January 19, 2010, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Articles, If you have 30 mins

The snappily named Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance works to improve humanitarian action through learning and accountability. They have a particularly interesting and timely paper on lessons learned from previous major earthquake responses – you can read it here (pdf). They divide their lessons into four categories, Recovery First, Relief Issues, Managing Aid, and Livelihoods and Shelter.

I’ve pulled out soundbites on some of the findings I thought were most interesting: Continue reading