Category Archives: Development, but not as you know it

Deconstructing Green

Genetically modified crops use fewer pesticides than conventional crops. Far fewer. That’s not me saying it, that’s an enormous meta-analysis of 147 studies published just a couple of weeks ago. The difference is not small: we’re talking 37% less by volume, compounded over this huge range of studies.

It’s interesting how little play this story gets in the media. So much environmental reporting is intent on placing any story on a simple, green/not-green scale, which is really code for virtuous/vicious. The assumption is that these things move together: everyone knows GMOs are not green, and therefore they must use more pesticides, produce more GHG emissions, kill bees, the lot.

Reality isn’t that neat by a long shot. No-till agriculture sounds great, until you realize not-tilling raises weed pressures, which farmers respond to by just nuking them with extra herbicides. Organics sound great, but of course they give you lower yields, which means you need more land to produce the same amount of food, land that you can’t then use to plant trees, which trap carbon.

As “Green” turns into a marketing category, the culture’s ability to process this kind of complexity wanes. Who wants to buy a loaf of bread marked “GMO Free! Grown from wheat using 18.3% more pesticides and 14.9% more carbon emissions due to extra land-pressures arising from lower yields!”

As transgenics mature and more ambitious transformations are attempted in plants, these kinds of tradeoffs are likely to become more prominent. Some GMO research is now aiming at improving crop roots’ capacity to take up phosphorus from the soil, which will of course reduce the amount of fertilizer you need to reach a given yield level.

Hate fertilizer overuse? Here is Monsanto, with this transgenic maize that will help stamp it out!

Of course, for lots of activists GMOs aren’t really the issue, Monsanto is. Those guys could develop a GMO crop that ends global warming while giving Malala an education and people would still picket against it. Plenty of anti-GMO activists have a problem less with gene-splicing itself than with the economic system it’s part of. The easy “Monsanto-paid-you-didn’t-they?!” attack is now so ingrained for people it comes automatically, pretty much regardless of what a participant in one of these debates says. (Look for it in the comments section below!)

But even that’s not as straightforward as it once was, either, because some amazing genetic research is now being done by public research institutes with impeccable social credentials and no shareholders to speak of.

Take striga, the pretty purple flower pictured at the top of this post as it munches away on nutrients taken directly out of the roots of the sick maize plants in that field. Striga-resistant maize is now being developed by the same organizations that brought us the original Green Revolution. For my money, striga-resistant maize is the hardest transgenic crop to object to out there. It takes real bloody mindedness to harrumph the development of crops that ward off a pest that’s been destroying African livelihoods for as long as anyone can remember, doesn’t it?

Then there’s IRRI’s insanely ambitious C4 Rice project, which would remake the rice plant at its most fundamental level – the way it photosynthesizes – yielding a plant that looks like rice, produces rice, but eats sunlight like maize. The botanic equivalent of dropping a new, far more powerful engine into an old car, C4 rice promises to be vastly more productive than existing C3 varieties. The upshot would be much, much more food coming out of the same amount of land.

You can be against striga-resistant maize and C4 rice, of course, but then the onus is on you to say where all the extra land to produce the same amount of food should come from. We could chop down some forests, maybe. Or we could get all Malthusian and accept famine as a birth control method. I don’t find either of those alternatives especially appealing.

More and more crops  like these are going to be developed, and as they come online, I think intellectually honest people are going to have to reconsider their opposition to GMOs in light of new evidence.

That’s a process that’s only now starting, and it won’t be quick. But maybe accepting the idea that there are tradeoffs involved and that our cognitive shortcuts for figuring out what’s green and what isn’t can lead us astray is as good a starting point as any.

Blattman on Spain

When Blattman is on, he’s really on. 

The tricky part with this: the people who choose the leaders (the masses) aren’t the ones who control the wealth or weapons or other institutions, and they might have little education or civic organization. So the people who are powerful remain powerful, but now have to work through the quasi-democratic system and the masses, who now have a little more power than before. Thus you get patronage and party boss systems, or the rolling back of rights from the least powerful. At least for a time.

Preach it.

What exactly is a starvation ration?

From my conversation with UNHCR’s Nutritionist for Chad over on

I ask Wilkinson point blank if 850 calories a day is even enough to keep these people alive.

“Won’t they effectively, starve to death on these rations?”

There’s a deep sigh and then a long pause at the other end of the line. She’s measuring her answer carefully.

“You would expect people to continue to lose weight,” she says, uncomfortably.

I push her. “Really, though, 850 calories, it’s just not enough is it?”

“It isn’t just that. As important is the micronutrient profile: even as an adult you need them to sustain your immune system.”

Without the right micronutrients, she explains, refugees are exposed to illnesses that a better fed person would fight off quite easily.

“But yes, [the current ration level] is very, very low. For the children, in terms of calories, it’s probably ok, but for an adult, for a working adult…it’s an extreme value in terms of caloric intake.”

What Our Technoutopia Turned Into

I’m old enough to remember when the internet looked like this. It was 1994, I was a first year college student, and the buzz in the dorms was about the amazing democratizing potential of this crazy new gizmo that politicians were still describing as “the information superhighway.”

The Web, we realized, would radically disintermediate information flows. Rather than a handful of information gatekeepers hoarding prestigious jobs in a few institution, everyone would be at the same time reader, writer and editor: leading to a radical decentralization and an explosion in information, engagement and understanding. As a 19-year old, I was genuinely excited about this looming, radical democratization of information; we all were.

Fast forward 20 years, and survey the state of reporting on, for instance, Africa:

Congo is the scene of one of the greatest man-made disasters of our lifetimes. Two successive wars have killed more than five million people since 1996.

Yet this great event in human history has produced no sustained reporting. No journalist is stationed consistently on the front lines of the war telling us its stories. As a student in America, where I was considering a Ph.D. in mathematics and a job in finance, I would read 200-word stories buried in the back pages of newspapers. With so few words, speaking of events so large, there was a powerful sense of dissonance. I traveled to Congo, at age 22, on a one-way ticket, without a job or any promise of publication, with only a little money in my pocket and a conviction that what I would witness should be news.

When I arrived, there were only three other foreign reporters in Congo.

Our technoutopia’s gone a bit pear-shaped, hasn’t it?

The wars in Congo – and the enormous journalistic crack they fell through – lay bare the strange, skewed ways attention flows in the internet age. The web has turned out to be a weapon of mass distraction, subtly undermining our ability to engage with the worst outrages of our time.

The problem isn’t that the web hasn’t fulfilled its democratic promise. It’s that it has, and only too well. Give people a choice between endless servings of ice cream and endless servings of broccoli and it turns out they’ll go for the ice cream, every time. The internet’s eroded the institutional pressures that we used to come under in place to pass on the informational sweets once in a while, opting for the kinds of journalistic vegetables that will nourish you but won’t give you a sugar rush.

I think it was Clay Shirky who explained the mechanism most clearly: the great 20th Century Newspaper was basically an elaborate mechanism to get the guy down the street who needed to sell a used washing machine to pay the salary for the Cairo Bureau Chief. The internet destroyed that model of subsidization: the guy down the street who needs to sell a used washing machine has no reason to kick any money down to Cairo anymore.

That’s a pretty old insight by now. Even the shock of grasping that nothing magical is going to come along to replace it is old hat. What we’re left with, in 2014, is the fall-out: that dystopian realization that what’s replaced the well-coiffed gate-keepers isn’t some radical hippie communicational democracy but photos of everybody’s cat.

These are the new rules of the game. You can love them or hate them but you probably can’t change them, so best to do what you can to work with them.

As an advocate facing radical indifference to an outrage whose “non-newsness” I can neither understand nor accept, it’s all rather upsetting. People will not share stories about starving refugees, and because they won’t editors won’t commission those stories, and because they won’t politicians won’t fund an even minimally adequate response.

I don’t know how, exactly, you go about explaining to a refugee mom in Eastern Chad that her child has to be stunted and anemic because there’s a little blue button on a screen with a thumbs-up logo that people in the West can’t bring themselves to affix to her suffering. But that seems to me about the size of it.

Strong demand for things poor people sell somehow bad for poor people

Zainab Mudallal’s story on Quartz on expanding demand for the “next” Quinoas (Teff, Fonio, Amaranth) is a neat example of a growing genre of reporting about these products: cataclysmically over-written and based on a first-semester-first-year’s economic student-style blunder on the distributional impact of growing demand.

You know the stories I’m talking about: stories about how rising demand for Quinoa are “pricing people out of foods they’ve eaten for generations.”

What’s odd about these stories is the way they treat Peruvians (or Ethiopians, or Whereverians) exclusively as consumers who suffer the negative impact of price rises. What’s jarring is that they do this in the context of honouring local people for maintaining ancient grains in production.

It never seems to register that these things can’t both be true. The reality is that in many places, ancient grains are mainstays of smallholder agriculture, and smallholder farmers are almost always the poorest people in poor countries.

Other thing being equal, growth in farm-gate prices for the products of smallholder farmers are some of the most unambiguously good news for poverty reduction in any poor country: raising incomes and expanding opportunities in a way no first-world funded aid project ever could.

The Quinoa Boom, for instance, has generated previously unheard of opportunities for Bolivian farmers and agro-entrepreneurs, even generating a class of very well off indigenous people now building themselves the deliriously over-the-top mansions pictured above. These are people whose grandparents lived on the edge of starvation, Zainab: put that in your pipe and smoke it.

None of this registers with the disasterist school of Quinoa reporting. We’re just meant to feel bad that our “gorging” on “their” food is somehow hurting the people whom we’re paying for our dinner.

People in rich countries who think of themselves as socially responsible have built a bizarre network of justifications to explain to themselves why it’s good to purchase their food from people just like them who drive nice cars and eat three meals a day (c.f., “eat local”) and bad to buy their food from the poorest farmers in the world. It’s painful.

Adventures Outside the Aid Comfort Zone

I’ll own up, I’m obsessed with Counterfeit Seed. I don’t think about much else these days: Seed Counterfeiting is just this perfect little case study of the way Aid can keep winning development battles from now until the end of time and still lose the war.

First things first: Big Aid is very well clued in to seed issues.

In a way, Seed (and fertilizer, and herbicide) is where it all started: the Green Revolution of the 50s and 60s in Asia and Latin America was, among other things, a massive, these-days unthinkably successful Big Aid project. It was the crucible where the model that so many later initiatives would try to emulate was forged.

Low agricultural productivity in Asia and Latin America was an enormous Third World problem solved conclusively in First World labs back in the day when people still talked about the Third and the First World. And it was solved in no small part is a sprawling effort to bring out the fruits of that research and put them into the hands of the world’s poorest people, with impacts on food security that were dramatic and lasting and real.

Even today, there’s a whole little subworld of the aid world that’s all about seed. Legacy organizations from the Green Revolution like CIMMYT and ICRISAT working alongside newcomers like AGRA are out there working to spread knowledge of modern plant breeding techniques, developing new strains, monitoring pest and plant disease patterns to come up with new resistant varieties.

And it works! They do amazing things! 20th century biotech is alive and well in the 21st century thanks to a wealth of initiatives by crop scientists who do more for the world’s poor before breakfast than an army of voluntourists would do in a lifetime. Hurray for them!

So far, so comfort-zoney. Aid for new crop varieties is development as we’d like to imagine it: the poor are poor because they lack certain knowledge- and technology-intensive tools, and if there’s one thing we’re not short of is technical expertise to provide them. And so the Gates Foundation grants keep getting granted and the FAO studies keep getting studied and the whole machine keeps puttering forward relentlessly and everybody’s happy…except the Africa’s smallholder farmers.

Because here we are well into the second decade of the 21st century and fewer than 1 in 10 Ugandan farmers even tries to buy High Yield Variety seeds from the market! When they do, they’re cheated 30 or 40% of the time, sold counterfeit seed and hung out to dry.

And suddenly we’re well out of the collective comfort zone of the guys in the white lab coats. Suddenly, you start to realize the problem isn’t technical at all. The reason the Green Revolution somehow skipped Africa isn’t biological.

Ugandan farmers are not primarily constrained by a technological gap, what they’re facing is criminal gangs running a sprawling criminal conspiracy that preys on the world’s weakest people. Forget the lab coats, what you need a badge and a gun. You need informants and snitches, you need somebody to grass. You need a courtroom and a prison and a parole board and all kinds of things the Gates Foundation ain’t ever going to give you a grant for.

Notice what happened just there? When you become genuinely aware of the prevalence of seed counterfeiting, you’re summarily evicted from the Aid Enterprise’s collective comfort zone. You’re expelled from that Sachsian schematized reality where you have poor people in villages who lack access to technology and you have sophisticated experts able to develop that technology and the only thing keeping you from putting the two together is lack of a big enough aid budget.

Fake seed fascinates me because it shines the spotlight back on the whole tangle of social and political relationships that mediate between the two. In the final analysis, farmers buy seed not from the top of Mount Olympus but from a local agro-dealer who’s the last stage in a perfectly mundane, entirely corruptible supply chain where transactions are regulated and policed by an equally humdrum set of bureaucracies arising from an eminently corruptible state.

The seed scientists – the real heroes in all of this – find themselves in an impossible position. They can continue developing improved seed varieties from now until the end of time, but there is no magic wand you can wave to make the intervening institutions suddenly stop hindering the interface between what they produce and what farmers sow the following year.

To ask why Ugandans go hungry is to ask why those who grow the foods don’t have a reliable way to access the things they need to grow the food. That interface is broken, not because the seeds don’t exist, not because the farmers don’t want to buy them, but because markets – even the simplest of markets – are complex institutions that need a minimally competent state guarantor to operate properly.

But the stories of the specific features of that break-down is one that’s seldom told: or, rather, one that’s usually told at such a high level of abstraction and generality as to be fairly useless. I’m not interested in Why Nations Fail as a general pr0position. I’m interested in why this farmer can’t find good seed and fertilizer in that village. That’s the story I want to explore.


Taking “Context is Everything” Seriously

You’ll have noticed the pace of posting here has slackened. Truth be told, I’m having second thoughts about whether a blog on “Development” is really a viable project in the first place.

I started Campaign for Boring Development because I noticed nearly every blog on development out there were not actually about development at all. They were about development work. They were about the aid enterprise, about NGOs’ and multilateral agencies’ role with regard to development, about stuff expat aid workers like or about a series of more or less recondite academic discussions in the west on development research topics.

It didn’t take long to piece together why this happens: bloggers respond to traffic and the reader engagement it brings, and the thing that generates engagement is writing about the problems that Western development practitioners face. Poor people in poor countries, alas, don’t spend much time reading development blogs.

So the posts that were getting the most reader engagement here were posts about the lives of first world professionals involved in development. That thing I wrote on Bulte et al.’s double-blind seed RCT went the development-nerd version of mega-viral. The other post on why World Bank reforms don’t stick was another big hit among…wait for it…World Bank staffers.

Meanwhile, what I consider to be far and away the best stuff on BoringDevelopment – the posts on Seed Counterfeiting, in particular – basically languished.

This, I started to suspect, is why the globaldev blogosphere is the way it is.

The deeper problem is that “development” tout court is  too abstract a topic to make for a good, meaty, focused blog. And “African Development” or “Rural Development” don’t really solve the problem. These formulations totally decontextualize the process, bleaching out all the politics, the state context and the power relations that increasingly seem to me to be the heart of the matter.

Development, when you get down to it, is a political process. Whether you go for the right wing or the left wing variant of this idea matters less, I think, than whether you buy into the concept in the first place. If “context is everything” then “development” doesn’t make sense as a starting point for analysis: why would you start from a category that works by zapping the very thing that “is everything” out of the picture?

The upshot is: I’ve been spending more time reading about the gentlemen in the photo, and less reading about the econometrics of missing variables. I think it’s a much better use of my time.

I may be obsessed with the problem of counterfeit seed, say, but without a deeper appreciation of the basic ways power and influence flow through the Ugandan state system, there are very clear limits on how far I can take that obsession. I may find the marketing strategies of Kenyan seed producers riveting, but without a sophisticated understanding of how agro-inputs policy fits into President Kenyatta’s coalition-building approach, there are very clear limits to what I can do with it.

There’s hope for a blog on Ugandan development or on Kenyan development or on Rwandan development in a way there isn’t for a blog on “development” as such. Hope for relevance and insight into questions that ultimately matter.

So now I need to get a solid handle on the political economy of the Kenyan, Ugandan and Rwandan states. Will it be easy? No way. It’ll be much harder. But worth doing.

A Torpedo Aimed Straight at H.M.S. Randomista

It can’t be that often that the American Journal of Agricultural Economics publishes a genuinely spectacular result, but their most recent issue is the exception that proves the rule.

Under the unassuming title of “Behavioural Responses and the Impact of New Agricultural Technologies: Evidence from a Double-Blind Field Experiment in Tanzania”, Erwin Bulte, Gonne BeekmanSalvatore Di FalcoJoseph Hellaand Pan Lei have delivered probably the most serious challenge yet on the theology of the Church of the Randomized Controlled Trial.

For years, people have known that RCTs in Development Economics have a serious external validity problem: just because poor farmers in Kenya react in a certain way to, say, a given incentive to use fertilizer, that’s no reason to suppose that farmers in Guatemala, or Nepal or anywhere else will.  As a result rigorous evidence isn’t, to quote Pritchett’s enviable knack for a snappy headline.

So long as that was the standard rap against RCTs, the randomistas just about got away with it via their claim to superior internal validity: they can say things about cause and effect that are true in a way other economists could only dream of.

And yet, there was always a discordant note in the RCT literature. The term itself, as well as its epistemic claims, are straightforwardly borrowed from medical research. But in medical research it’s not enough for a trial to be randomized and controlled. It generally has to be double-blind, as well, to aspire to “gold standard” status.

Of course, in most development settings, there’s no viable way to make trials double-blind: presumably, if you only pretend to give that Kenyan farmer a way to save for fertilizer, but you don’t really, the guy’s going to notice.

So the “double-blind” bit of the medical analogy is quietly dropped and swept under the epistemic rug, in hopes nobody will notice…or at least it was, until Bulte and his collaborators realized seeds have some interesting things in common with pills, and so if you can double-blind a medicine trial, you can probably double-blind a seed trial, too.

So they deviously ran an open RCT comparing traditional and improved cowpea seeds alongside a double-blind RCT testing the same thing. Their results are deeply troubling for Banerjee-and-Dufloites.

In the open RCT, Tanzanian cowpea farmers who knew they getting improved seed easily outperformed farmers who knew they were getting traditional seed. But in the double-blind study, farmers who weren’t told whether the seed they got was improved or not performed just as well whether that seed they got was improved or traditional.

In fact, farmers who used traditional seed without knowing it did just as well as farmers who used improved seed, whether they knew it or not. Only farmers who knew the seed they were given wasn’t improved lagged behind in productivity.

This gap between the results of the open and the double-blind RCTs raises deeply troubling questions for the whole field. If, as Bulte et al. surmise, virtually the entire performance boost arises from knowing you’re participating in a trial, believing you may be using a better input, and working harder as a result, then all kinds of RCT results we’ve taken as valid come to look very shaky indeed.

Of course, this is just one study, and so until it’s replicated we’d probably do best not to get too too excited. The pre-publication version of the paper came under some heavy fire, which was perhaps to be expected.

It does strike me as problematic that, while the study was done on cowpea seeds, cowpeas were a secondary crop for all farmers involved, and the productivity gap between improved and traditional cowpea seeds isn’t comparable to the gap in maize or wheat. Replication is badly needed here, and preferably in a study dealing with a crop more central to farmers’ livelihood strategies.

Still, the study is an instant landmark: a gauntlet thrown down in front of the large and growing RCT-Industrial Complex. At the very least, it casts serious doubt on the automatic presumption of internal validity that has long attached to open RCTs. And without that presumption, what’s left, really?

“Pull away the infrastructure and sophisticated just becomes complicated”

A great piece on why Medical Equipment ends up sitting unused in so much of Africa, over at WhyDev:

When an anaesthesia machine designed for use in an American hospital is used in a poorly-supported hospital in Uganda, things often go wrong – even when it’s a brand-new machine (and, as we all know, often it isn’t). The machine isn’t designed to work in low-resource hospitals, which violates the cardinal rule of medical device design: Know Thy Hospital.