Category Archives: Development Bloat

59 Reforms Later

Some books just fall into your hands at just the right time, and for me Matt Andrews’s The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development was just such a book. If you’re wondering why international institutions are so damn bad at helping developing countries govern themselves better, it really belongs on your reading list.

But actually, the facts reported are as much of an eye-opener as the argument. The sheer number of internationally-backed institutional reforms your average developing country has gone through startled me. Andrews cites the case of Honduras, which has undertaken fifty-nine separate World Bank backed reforms since 1988. Fifty-nine!

They cover just about everything. Banking, trade, privatization, civil service reform, public financial management, civil service payments, procurement, competition, external auditing, procurement monitoring, results-based management, anti-corruption, participatory budgeting, merit-based hiring and performance based compensation. Several of these, like civil service reforms, are “hardy perennials” that seem to crop up again decade after decade.

The bloat is multidimensional. And notice: that’s just the reforms backed by the World Bank, before we even start talking about the agendas pushed by IMF, IADB, WTO, USAID,  DFID, etc. etc.

It goes without saying that, 59 reforms later, Honduras is just as badly governed as before.

In Andrews’s telling, this volume of partner-driven reform activity is by no means unique to Honduras. The Bank requires all sorts of developing countries to jump through various reform hoops before it’ll approve a loan, so all kinds of countries makes a show of approving the desk-based portion of reforms as a signalling mechanism, with no real commitment or intention to really follow through.

That part sounds about right, though it does rather beg the question of why the Bank keeps falling for it again and again. Then again, bank staffers are compensated for the number of reforms “satisfactorily adopted”, not by the number that actually work, so maybe it’s not that big a mystery.

But to me the bigger question is normative. Readers know I don’t usually have much truck with handwringing about neoliberal imposition. But that probably betrays my biases as a guy from an upper-middle-income country with lots of oil that’s seldom had to jump through hoops to qualify for a desperately needed loan. But c’mon, Honduras is averaging well over two semi-imposed, voluntary-in-name-only reforms per year!

Can this really be right?

At the very least it looks like a colossal waste of resources. Who can put a cost on the wasted bureaucratic energy spent on approving reforms nobody ever seriously intended to implement?

But at worse, it looks like a hijacking of basic governance processes. At that pace of imposition, what can “democracy” really mean for a country like Honduras? And what chance for Honduras to strike out creatively and find its own ad hoc solutions for its own unique problems when all its institutional energy has to be devoted to dreaming up fake paper reforms designed to do nothing beyond get that next tranche of loan released?

The opportunity cost to outsider driven reform is enormous. Because whatever it is you’re doing when you’re chasing that next loan tranche, what’s clear what you’re not doing: Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation.


Conservation Agriculture as Bloat?

It’s now been decades since no-till farming became the first line of defense against top-soil erotion and land fertility degradation, especially in the Western Hemisphere.

The plough is the past: in one of those under-the-radar revolutions that’s somehow failed to filter through to urban people’s perceptions, farmers from Canada to Argentina have discarded 10,000 years of agricultural common sense. It turns out deep ploughing leaves your best soil exposed to the elements, where a hard rain can just wash it away, slowly degrading your land’s ability to sustain yields. Do this long enough and you can literally turn good farmland into desert. It’s just not a smart way to farm.

Hot on the heels of No-Till’s success in North and South America, Conservation Agriculture (CA) has quickly grown into development orthodoxy. The idea is simple but revolutionary: don’t plough, keep crop residues in place as mulch and, in general, organize your farm around the overarching need to prevent top soil erosion.

From FAO to any number of USAID contractors, Development Agencies have taken on the role of Conservation Agriculture evangelists, spreading the good news to the unenlightened peoples of Africa and South Asia. Work less, improve your soil, get better yields: who wouldn’t want to farm that way?

The thing is, when first world methods meet African realities, trouble is never far behind. Issues that just don’t show up in a large mechanized farm in Kansas or Rio Grande do Sul turn out to make a big difference in Malawi and Senegal.

The best compilation on the woes of CA in Africa is in a paper tellingly titled Conservation agriculture and smallholder farming in Africa: The heretics’ view, Ken E. Giller, Ernst Witter, Marc Corbeels and Pablo Tittonell.

So what are the big problems CA faces in Africa?

  1. One man’s residue is another man’s animal feed. Key to the CA dogma is the idea of using the residue from last year’s harvest as mulch: just leaving it where it falls to provide ground-cover that shields the soil from erosion by rain. This works great in big monoculture farms, where residue is just residue. But in Sub-Saharan Africa you typically find mixed farming systems, with people raising crops alongside animals. Those animals need to eat. In such settings, crop residue is already spoken for: that’s what you feed your cows/goats. In other settings, they’re burnt as fuel. Either way, leftover biomass isn’t perceived as “residue” at all: it’s a key farm asset. If that’s how you farm, just leaving the crop residue to gently rot in the field looks perverse, if not insane.
  2. The Weeds. Even Conservation Agriculture zealots acknowledge that you tend to get more weed pressure with CA methods than with conventional farming. In big mechanized farms, that’s no sweat: you just spray the bejeezus out of the field with herbicides. But in a smallholder setting in SSA, you gotta pull those weeds up by hand. Whether the labour you save by not having to till is more or less than the extra weeding load depends on local conditions – in some places you end up with more work after you switch to CA. And guess who’s generally stuck doing that extra work? The women. So CA ends up shifting the household division of labour away from men – who usually do more of the tilling – towards women – who often are in charge of weeding.
  3. The wait. Over the long term, it’s pretty well established that you get better yields with CA than with conventional methods: that’s why Conservation Agriculture is so popular among better resourced commercial farmers. But the long term is really long. As Giller and his team found in reviewing the literature, it can be 10 years before CA yields beat conventional yields in an African setting. For ten long years CA yields can be the same or even lower than conventional yields – an eternity for an edge-of-subsistence smallholder with a notoriously compressed time horizon. And there’s evidence that CA takes longest to establish its superiority in “the clay-poor, structurally weak soils of the (semi-) arid areas” which, as it happens, is a good description of quite a lot of Sub-Saharan Africa

For all these reasons – as well as others detailed in the paper – it turns out to be hard to get farmers in much of SSA to switch over to CA methods permanently.

A number of studies report enthusiastic adoption at first, but often it lasts only for as long as project support does, with farmers quickly reverting to conventional methods once the foreign experts leave. There seem to be some exceptions in Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania, but what researcher’s have never documented is any evidence of Conservation Agriculture going viral: spreading from one farmer to his neighbor via word-of-mouth in the absence of promotion efforts by development agencies.

Listen, if you read this blog you know I enjoy a counterintuitive development riff as much as anyone. But even for me, a wholesale denunciation of CA looks perverse. We know conventional farming degrades soils, we know it’s not sustainable, especially in areas with potential for desertification. We know we have to do better than that. So, to be clear, I absolutely understand the zeal to spread the one technology that’s proven to sustain soil health over time.

But along with missionary zeal comes a certain blindness to on-the-ground realities that quickly comes to look like the soft-imperialism of development bloat. In fact, in terms of my Development Bloat Checklist, the typical CA project scores a 5 out of ten:

  • It provides something most people in rich countries have/use, but few people in the recipient community have/use.
  • It’s likely to be abandoned once donor funding runs out
  • People in the recipient community have to significantly change their habits or reorganize their daily routines to make it work
  • If the cost of the project was just handed out to recipients in cash, they certainly wouldn’t spend it on CA
  • Its main target is soil health, not people’s incomes.

You’d have to be blind to miss the signs of bloat here.

The really worrying bit, for me, is how Giller et. al. say people in Development Agencies tend to react to their concerns:

We do not doubt that agriculture is possible without tillage, yet when we question whether CA is the best approach, or whether the suitability of CA in a given setting has been established, the reactions are often defensive. It seems as if we assume the role of the heretic – the heathen or unbeliever – who dares to question the doctrine of the established view.

This tendency to treat skeptics as heretics is a deeply worrying sign of the bureaucratization and institutionalization of the Saviour Complex.

And, when it comes down to it, what’s a bigger threat to African livelihoods: soil erosion, or the tyranny of experts?

The Bloat Backlash (Bloatlash?!) Spreads

You can say this again: hip gadgets for the developing world won’t solve global poverty, as Hugh Whalan argues.

It’s nice to see this anti-bloat rant get some viral traction online. It shows there’s a growing awareness of the problem. I especially liked their takedown of Soccket, the deliriously bloaty gadget pictured above, in effect:

soccer ball that harnesses kinetic energy to generate light. Cool right? This company has received loads of press (including here at Co.Exist), and has raised nearly $600,000 from crowdfunding sites. Even Obama and Bill Clinton love it. It is undoubtedly a nifty piece of technology.

The problem? At a cost of $60 per Soccket, it is the most expensive six-watt light on the market. D.Light, for example, produces a high-quality study light with a two-year warranty and similar functionality that retails for $10. The Soccket is also certainly the most expensive soccer ball the customer, presumably kids with no access to electricity, is ever going to see. (A more in-depth analysis of the concerns with Soccket’s approach can be found here.)

I do think it’s important to go beyond denunciation to a positive agenda, one that goes beyond blasting bloat. Whalan is right to note that “many entrepreneurs (incorrectly) think the biggest challenge is actually making the product.” But if that’s not the biggest challenge, what is?

If it’s achieving efficiencies in marketing and distribution, then let’s talk about that. If it’s ensuring poor people have enough money in their pocket to buy any given product, then let’s talk about that. If it’s Financial Inclusion, then let’s talk about that.

But let nobody think you can  just bitch about hopelessly bloaty products and projects and call it a day.

On Cookstoves, there’s no need for hyperbole

Improved Cookstoves are all the rage. Drawing the kind of A-List backers – from Hillary Clinton and Mary Robinson to Michelle Bachelet and Julia Roberts – that used to gravitate towards microcredit and water wells, cleaner cookstoves are indubitably flavour of the month. And with the dire health and environmental impacts of breathing all that smoke from indoor fires, it’s no wonder the development community is going all in.

Some researchers call the low take-up rates for improved cookstoves “puzzling“.  To me, they’re anything but.

There’s just one problem: a lot of recipients don’t use them. In study after study, demand is weak and adoption rates are dismal. At times even when they’re given away for free, families use them only sometimes, if at all. Obviously, the Third World is a big place, so Clean Cookstoves do better in some places than others. In some studies, improved cookstoves lead to positive health outcomes, but in other settings health impacts prove elusive, with studies often throwing up equivocal, contradictory results.

The long and the short of it is that clean cookstoves seem to be considerably more popular in Washington and Geneva than in Senegal or Orissa.

Some researchers call the low take-up rates “puzzling“.  To me, they’re anything but. Clean cookstoves are perceived as the solution to a problem you may have a looooong time in the future by people whose time horizons are brutally compressed by the daily grind of extreme poverty. Is it really surprising that their value is discounted down, in many cases, to zero?

In some of the wonkier corners of development academia, people are nodding thinking “ah yes, hyperbolic discounting.”

But that’s not what I mean. You don’t need to reach for some exotic discounting function to understand beneficiaries’ indifference for clean cookstoves. There’s, quite literally, no need for hyperbole.

Continue reading On Cookstoves, there’s no need for hyperbole

What Microcredit is…and what it isn’t

There’s something thrilling about the way A. V. Banerjee goes about whacking away at the thick underbrush of hype and BS that has grown around the Microcredit movement. There’s a twilight of the idols feel to it, and I just love it.

Take this lecture he gave in Perú last year. Yes, the video quality is awful, and you can’t see the slides, etc. etc. None of that matters – the guy is too brilliant. If you really want to cut to the chase, you can start from 36:34 – but trust me, you can do way worse with an hour than to listen to the whole thing. Just treat it like radio:

Isn’t that thrilling?

As the high priest of the Church of RCTology, Banerjee speaks with the kind of authority about this topic that lesser mortals can only dream of. Between him and RCT Co-Priestess Esther Duflo, the market for Aid Nerd Chic is effectively cornered.

The takeaway here is emphatically not that Microcredit is useless. Far from it. The takeaway is that microcredit has been systematically mis-sold. Tiny loans do a lot to improve the lives of the very poor. One thing microloans don’t do, though, is make them less poor.

Banerjee’s take on microcredit brings to mind a lovely quote from a paper by Jain and Moore: “to properly appreciate the great achievements of the microcredit movement, one has to be more skeptical of its self-image than is normally considered polite or respectful.” [Hat tip to Roodman for that.]

In Banerjee’s analysis, the problem is that the familiar narrative about the bottom billion as entrepreneurial but capital-starved just isn’t borne out by the evidence. Framing the poor as “natural entrepreneurs” obscures the much more mundane reality that, for the most part, very poor people in very poor countries use very small loans very much in the same way middle class people in rich countries use bank loans: to finance big ticket items that massively improve their lives but cost multiples of their monthly income.

Continue reading What Microcredit is…and what it isn’t