Tag Archives: development

Analysis of impact of recent global crises on development

In the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK, writes What impact have the global crises had on development thinking? He summarizes some of the findings from an effort at IDS to assess how the financial, fuel, and food crisis of the past several years have shifted the assumptions underlying development.

Economic growth can be a force for good, but it does not have to be

When many of us were taught economics, growth was sometimes seen as sufficient for development and always necessary. [Our study] concluded that some kinds of growth are necessary, others irrelevant, and some harmful. Growth should be treated like technology: with the right governance, it can advance human wellbeing. The growth we want is economic development that is potent in reducing poverty, uses natural resources sustainably and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases. Too much research on growth is focused on how we get it, rather than how we get the type we need. We get the growth we want by focusing on: creating the right initial conditions (such as low inequality); reducing entry barriers for new, small businesses; setting key prices at appropriate levels (as with carbon production); and adopting stronger transparency mechanisms to allow society to pressurise corporations.

Views on growth are surprisingly homogenous. This is probably because only one type of economics (neoclassical) is taught the world over. But monocultures, nature has taught us, are particularly vulnerable to events.

Wellbeing and resilience are not panaceas, but neither are they fads

The crisis impact work indicated that while material goods were very important to the human condition, so too were the relationships and the psychological dimensions of human existence. Wellbeing brings these dimensions together in an explicit way. The emerging concern with resilience of systems is perhaps a good thing to come out of the bad news of the crises. Given the new global uncertainties (climate, the emerging powers, and resource scarcities deriving from current lifestyles) we think these concepts of wellbeing and resilience are here to stay. But if used lazily to provide politically correct gloss to issues of measurement of progress and interdependence, they will become devalued.

Unfortunately the full study only seems to be available as a book.

A report from the Stockholm Dialogue on Global Sustainability

Below is a guest post from Megan Meacham, a former Masters student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, on the final day of the recent Stockholm Nobel laureate symposium.

The final day of the symposium, titled The Stockholm Dialogue on Global Sustainability – Seizing Planetary Opportunities, gathered some of the world’s leading scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs and representatives from civil society together with a broad audience to have a discussion of the solutions, actions and leadership necessary for global sustainability.

The event and venue itself aimed to represent the holistic multi-perspective approach needed for global sustainability. The dialogue was held in the Royal Dramatic Theatre, the most prestigious and opulent theater in Sweden. Marie-Louise Ekman, director of the theater, emphasized theater as an infrastructure in society, guiding and reflecting society and necessary for a secure and prosperous world. Ms. Ekman and Sten Nordin, mayor of Stockholm, both stressed the key relationship between art and science. Art is a way for society to reflect on itself, challenge itself and aspire. Art can activate peoples’ emotions. Science can use this to motivate action. A common theme of the dialogue was the question of communication.  How to translate scientific findings and knowns into societal understanding and action? Art is a powerful tool, exemplified on this occasion by the reading of poetry by the Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska.

General themes present throughout the day’s discussion were taken from “The Stockholm Memorandum: Tipping the Scales towards Sustainability,” the recommendations developed over the previous days of the Nobel Laureate Symposium. Questions of social equality, redefining growth and development, leadership, the need for a ‘mind-shift’ in society along with communication between science and society were discussed to varying degrees in all the talks and panel discussions.

Generally agreed upon, was the need for new metrics to gauge and discuss growth. Growth domestic product (GDP) is a narrow index that does not represent the wellbeing, social equality or trajectory of society. Trading easily quantifiable indexes for more representative ones will help to falsify the idea that quality of life is based on material aggregation.

Development was discussed as an opportunity for focusing societal aspirations toward more qualitative and long-term prosperity goals. According to Pavan Sukhdev from UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative, developing countries are leading the way in terms of experimentation, innovation and action when it comes to prevention and mitigation of climate change and its effects. Encouraging and rewarding this flexibility and creativity is one way to alter the trajectory of development.

Fostering a transition in society in a way that prioritizes global sustainability requires a mind-shift; focusing society towards understanding the risks facing humanity and creating conditions conducive to innovation and change. A general sense of urgency was express by all the speakers in regards to the need for this change. Considering how to facilitate this mind-shift, emphasis was put on strengthening communication and fostering leadership.

Peter Agre, Nobel Laureate for chemistry in 2003, argued that the accessibility of the science on global sustainability lies in the principals. It is the details that are complicated. Katherine Richardson, Professor of biological sciences at the University of Copenhagen, made a similar point calling for the communication of issues through headlines that people understand. American ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck, argued that the terminology used in the discussion of global sustainability can be discouraging action. Replacing the term ‘challenge’ with ‘opportunity’, for example, can alter how people perceive the issue.

Ultimately, the discussion ended on the role of leadership in times of rapid global change. Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, argued that at the international scale leadership was lacking from the developed nations. She suggests that they are not taking responsibly for their role in making structural changes for global sustainability and instead practicing, “creative carbon accounting.” On the national level, Will Steffen gave a positive example of leadership from the Australian cross-party panel on climate change. That have four sectors (science, economics, industry, and social equity rights) represented with equal voting rights to make the national decisions on climate change. On the individual level Frances Westley argued most adamantly for people to, “Start where you are and do what you are good at.” It is policy’s role to provide the incentives or sanctions that afford opportunities and an innovative environment. They ended by suggesting to everyone to take risks and not to be afraid, because guilt and fear will not help the transition to global sustainability.

The program and list of participants can be found at http://globalsymposium2011.org/ .

Toyama’s myths of information technology and development

Dr. Kentaro Toyama, a researcher in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, presents 10 myths of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in development that persist despite evidence against them and suggests approaches to build successful projects that use ICT for development.

See also his lead article in a special feature on the Boston Review on “Can technology end poverty.” He writes:

We are in the midst of the largest ICT4D [Information and Communication Technology for Development] experiment ever. In 2009 there were over 4.5 billion active mobile phone accounts, more than the entire population of the world older than twenty years of age. The cell phone is overtaking both television and radio as the most popular consumer electronic device in history. Some 80 percent of the global population is within range of a cell tower, and mobile phones are increasingly seen in the poorest, remotest communities.

These numbers prompt suggestions that there is no longer a “digital divide” for real-time communication. Yet any demographic account of mobile have-nots will show them to be predominantly poor, remote, female, and politically mute. Whatever the case, if the spread of mobile phones is sufficient to help end global poverty, we will know soon enough. But, if it doesn’t, should we then pin our hopes on the next new shiny gadget?

Information and Communication Technologies and Climate Change

Richard Heeks and Angelica Ospina at the University of Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics‘ run the blog Notes on ICTs, Climate Change and Development.  Recently Angelica Ospina wrote about ICTs within a Changing Climate:

According to the latest Information Economy Report prepared by UNCTAD [UN conference on trade and development] over the past few years “the penetration rate of mobile phones in the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) has surged from 2 to 25 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants”, and is expected that by 2010 the total number of mobile subscriptions will reach 5 billion. …

But what about the role of these technologies towards climate change mitigation, monitoring and adaptation?

Evidence on these linkages is starting to emerge, suggesting that the role of ICTs towards poverty reduction and the strengthening of local livelihoods is closely connected to their potential in enabling developing country communities to better withstand, recover from, and adapt to the changing conditions posed by climate change –what can, overall, be termed ‘resilience’.

There is still much to learn about the role and potential of ICTs in the climate change field, including their effects in strengthening -or weakening- local responses and strategies to climate change-related effects. However, these technologies are integral to processes of experimentation, discovery and innovation, which are, in turn, essential components of learning and key to enable more effective mitigation measures, monitoring, and local adaptive capacities within vulnerable environments.


That people need to learn in order to build a better world is a key idea motivating a lot of resilience projects, and learning requires failures that you can learn from.  In New York Times Stephanie Strom reports on FailFaire, an attempt to encourage learning from failure among the community of technology development professionals.  The article In Twist, Nonprofits Honor Technology’s Failures writes:

At a gathering last month over drinks and finger food, a specialist at the World Bank related the story of how female weavers in a remote Amazonian region of Guyana had against all odds built themselves a thriving global online business selling intricately woven hammocks for $1,000 apiece.

The state phone company had donated a communications center that helped the women find buyers around the world, selling to places like the British Museum. Within short order, though, their husbands pulled the plug, worried that their wives’ sudden increase in income was a threat to the traditional male domination in their society.

Technology’s potential to bring about social good is widely extolled, but its failures, until now, have rarely been discussed by nonprofits who deploy it. The experience in Guyana might never have come to light without FailFaire, a recurring party whose participants revel in revealing technology’s shortcomings.

“We are taking technology embedded with our values and our culture and embedding it in the developing world, which has very different values and cultures,” Soren Gigler, the World Bank specialist, told those at the FailFaire event here in July.

Behind the events is a Manhattan-based nonprofit group, MobileActive, a network of people and organizations trying to improve the lives of the poor through technology. Its members hope light-hearted examinations of failures will turn into learning experiences — and prevent others from making the same mistakes.

“I absolutely think we learn from failure, but getting people to talk about it honestly is not so easy,” said Katrin Verclas, a founder of MobileActive. “So I thought, why not try to start conversations about failure through an evening event with drinks and finger foods in a relaxed, informal atmosphere that would make it seem more like a party than a debriefing.”

On FailFaire’s blog, Ian Thorpe Reflects on Learning from Failure from a Failfaire Attendee:

A few shared lessons emerged which might also seem familiar to us in UNICEF: …

• People – not just technology – and process. Finding the right partners, listening to them and engaging them are critical success factors. A project that works well in one context might be ineffective in others if you don’t have the right partners and you don’t engage and make use of the skills and knowledge of the people you are working with.

• Make sure to pilot and test. Before scaling up a project, or before using it in a critical setting, make sure to have enough time to thoroughly test it and work out the kinks.

• Beware of “zombie” projects. If we are too attached to a “good idea” and have invested a lot of effort we are often unwilling to admit it is a failure and let go of it, and it keeps coming back from the dead, or it limps along unsuccessfully, not fully supported but still consuming valuable resources.

• Failures can lead to future successes. While a particular project might fail it can lead to new innovation and subsequent success. Look out for the learning and for the unexpected successful spin-off opportunities.

Some of these lessons might seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight – but it doesn’t stop them from recurring in development work.

As to the idea behind the event, I’m a strong believer in the value of learning from our mistakes if people would be willing to admit them and share them with others. This is challenging within a large publicly funded organization that places a lot of emphasis on delivering results and holding people accountable for them, but if we don’t do it we are at risk of continually repeating the same mistakes and in keeping alive our zombie projects because no-one wants to admit they are failing.

Gates and CGIAR

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the wealthiest private foundation in the world, joined the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in December 2009CGIAR is funds a set of research groups – IWMI, CIFOR, etc – that do a big chunk of the research and development for developing world agriculture.  For the last few years they have been experiencing problems with defining their goals, funding, and operation style.  The Gates foundation has just recently made developing world agriculture one of its priority areas, and is investing large amounts of money.

A recent article on SciDev.net ask people what the Gates Foundation involvement in CGIAR will mean for Africa in Are Gates and CGIAR a good mix for Africa?

The critics say that the tensions between those who favour a science- and technology-driven approach to increasing agricultural productivity, and others … who prefer to think in terms of promoting broader agricultural innovation systems, are at their acutest when it comes to genetically modified food.

They point out that [Prabu] Pingali now answers to a new boss, Sam Dryden, who has just been appointed director of agricultural development, and who worked for Monsanto in 2005 when the agricultural firm bought the seed company for which he worked. They claim this is evidence that Gates will be opening the door for the extensive use of GM crops in Africa and elsewhere, and say that this illustrates the flawed “magic bullet” approach to improving agricultural productivity.

But the Gates Foundation does not see things the same way. “From the beginning we designed a strategy that looked across the entire value chain,” says Pingali, who himself came to the foundation after working for many years in the CGIAR system.That chain includes market infrastructure and the policy environment that helps farmers improve productivity. “We provide a very large amount of support for the policy environment that is needed to kick-start agriculture growth in Africa,” says Pingali.

He points, for example, to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), headed by former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, which has received US$15 million from the Gates Foundation to influence broad aspects of agriculture policy in several African countries.

Pingali: “We provide a very large amount of support for the policy environment that is needed to kick-start agriculture growth in Africa”

“But we also realised early in our own work that we cannot do everything, [which is why] we focused on the productivity improvement side,” says Pingali. This in turn is the reason that the foundation has been funding plant breeding and crop improvement activities for rice and wheat and maize, and more recently has begun to fund research into other crops that are important in Africa, such as millet, sorghum and cassava.For these reasons, some believe the Gates Foundation is better working within the CGIAR system rather than outside it, pulling scientists from CGIAR centres into its sphere of influence.

It may also make the private foundation more accountable — another source of criticism in the past — as it will have to work closely with organisations that are used to being held to account by governments, multilateral donors and NGOs

Finally, some argue that Gates’s; involvement should improve dialogue with beneficiary countries. “The CGIAR agenda is supposed to be demand-led, involving regional and national organisations, and that must involve the needs of the poor, and not just the research interests of the advanced countries,” said George Rothschild, Chair of the European Forum for Agricultural Research for Development (EFARD) and a former head of IRRI.

Whichever way the partnership between the Gates Foundation and CGIAR plays out, Gates’s engagement with the group has already sent a strong signal to other donors, namely that agricultural research is of global importance, and that only a huge investment will help ensure that such research makes an adequate contribution to combatting hunger.

But how much it will succeed in meeting Gates’s ambition of eliminating hunger across much of Africa and the developing world, and how much it will in doing so boost the profits of large agricultural companies at the expense of small farmers and rural communities — as critics fear — remains to be seen.

Income, fertility and the world’s demographic trajectory

Avg. Income vs. Fertility from Gapminder

data from Gapminder

The Economists looks at recent declines in fertility discusses current projections of world population, and how changes in a country’s demographic structure shape its economic development (but it doesn’t mention the role of urbanization).  In Fertility and living standards it writes:

Sometime in the next few years (if it hasn’t happened already) the world will reach a milestone: half of humanity will be having only enough children to replace itself. That is, the fertility rate of half the world will be 2.1 or below. This is the “replacement level of fertility”, the magic number that causes a country’s population to slow down and eventually to stabilise. According to the United Nations population division, 2.9 billion people out of a total of 6.5 billion were living in countries at or below this point in 2000-05. The number will rise to 3.4 billion out of 7 billion in the early 2010s and to over 50% in the middle of the next decade. The countries include not only Russia and Japan but Brazil, Indonesia, China and even south India.

The move to replacement-level fertility is one of the most dramatic social changes in history. It manifested itself in the violent demonstrations by students against their clerical rulers in Iran this year. It almost certainly contributed to the rising numbers of middle-class voters who backed the incumbent governments of Indonesia and India. It shows up in rural Malaysia in richer, emptier villages surrounded by mechanised farms. And everywhere, it is changing traditional family life by enabling women to work and children to be educated. At a time when Malthusian alarms are ringing because of environmental pressures, falling fertility may even provide a measure of reassurance about global population trends. …

Higher standards of living, then, reduce fertility. And lower fertility improves living standards. This is what China’s government says. It is also the view that has emerged from demographic research over the past 20 years.  In the 1980s, population was regarded as relatively unimportant to economic performance. American delegates told a UN conference in 1984 that “population growth is, in and of itself, neither good nor bad; it is a neutral phenomenon.” Recent research suggests otherwise.

Cutting the fertility rate from six to two can help an economy in several ways. First, as fertility falls it changes the structure of the population, increasing the size of the workforce relative to the numbers of children and old people. When fertility is high and a country is young (median age below 20), there are huge numbers of children and the overall dependency ratio is high. When a country is ageing (median age above 40), it again has a high dependency ratio, this time because of old people.

But the switch from one to the other produces a Goldilocks generation. Because fertility is falling, there are relatively few children. Because of high mortality earlier, there are relatively few grandparents. Instead, countries have a bulge of working-age adults. This happened to Europe after the baby boom of 1945-65 and produced les trente glorieuses (30 years of growth). It is happening now in Asia and Latin America. East Asia has done better than Latin America, showing that lower fertility alone does not determine economic success. Eventually developing countries will face the same problems of ageing as Europe and Japan do. But for the moment, Asians and Latinos are enjoying fertility that is neither too hot, nor too cold. According to David Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health, the “demographic dividend” (his term) accounted for a third of East Asian growth in 1965-90.

Slowing fertility has other benefits. By making it easier for women to work, it boosts the size of the labour force. Because there are fewer dependent children and old people, households have more money left for savings, which can be ploughed into investment. Chinese household savings (obviously influenced by many things, not just demography) reached almost 25% of GDP in 2008, helping to finance investment of an unprecedented 40% of GDP. This in turn accounted for practically all the increase in Chinese GDP in the first half of this year.

Lastly, low fertility makes possible a more rapid accumulation of capital per head. To see how, think about what happens to a farm as it is handed down the generations in a country without primogeniture. The more children there are, the more the farm is divided. Eventually, these patches become so tiny they cease to be efficient. …

This link between growth and fertility raises awkward questions. In the 1980s the link was downplayed in reaction to Malthusian alarms of the 1970s, when it was fashionable to argue that population growth had to be reined in because oil and natural resources were running short. So if population does matter after all, does that mean the Malthusians were right?

Not entirely. Neo-Malthusians think the world has too many people. But for most countries, the population questions that matter most are either: do we have enough people to support an ageing society? Or: how can we take advantage of having just the right number for economic growth? It is fair to say that these perceptions are not mutually exclusive. The world might indeed have the right numbers to boost growth and still have too many for the environment. The right response to that, though, would be to curb pollution and try to alter the pattern of growth to make it less resource-intensive, rather than to control population directly.

The reason is that widening replacement-level fertility means population growth is slowing down anyway. A further reduction of fertility would be possible if family planning were spread to the parts of the world which do not yet have it (notably Africa). But that would only reduce the growth in the world’s numbers from 9.2 billion in 2050 to, say, 8.5 billion. To go further would probably require draconian measures, such as sterilisation or one-child policies.

The bad news is that the girls who will give birth to the coming, larger generations have already been born. The good news is that they will want far fewer children than their mothers or grandmothers did.

STEPS Centre Reframing Resilience report

Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre, has written and posted a report on the Reframing Resilience symposium the centre hosted in Sept 2008 (Re-framing Resilience: A Symposium Report – pdf 484kb).

The symposium aimed to address questions such as:

  • How does resilience intersect with development and debates about it?
  • What insights does resilience thinking bring to understanding and action concerned with reducing poverty, vulnerability and marginalisation?
  • What are some of the frontier challenges, tensions and gaps as resilience thinking engages with perspectives and debates from other angles and disciplines?

Melissa Leach concludes her report by summarizing the final panel of the symposium:

a panel of speakers (Esha Shah, Andrew Scott, Henny Osbahr, Bronwyn Hayward, Joachim Voss, Carl Folke, Melissa Leach, Andy Stirling) offered their reflections on what had been learned, and what challenges and opportunities remain. Summarising across these discussions, a series of central themes emerged.

First, there is great value in a systems approach as a heuristic for understanding interlocked social-ecological-technological processes, and in analysis across multiple scales. Yet we need to move beyond both systems as portrayed in resilience thinking, and the focus on actors in work on vulnerability, to analyse networks and relationships, as well as to attend to the diverse framings, narratives, imaginations and discourses that different actors bring to bear.

Second, debates about resilience need to engage with normative concerns. This means that when we use terms like vulnerability and resilience we need to attach them to a person, form or organisation, rather than discuss them in the abstract. There is also a need to deal with the many trade-offs between people, systems, levels and scales in a normative way: someone’s resilience may be someone else’s vulnerability, or resilience at one scale may compromise that at another – but the key question is what trade-offs do we want or not want to see? Linking resilience with normative debates in this way may provide a valuable platform for critical discussion, helping to fill the current gulf between optimising and justice-based approaches in development, and contributing to the building of a new ethically and morally-driven development discourse.

Third, resilience approaches can be enriched through more disaggregated attention to action and strategies, considering transformations and transitions; endogeneity/exogeneity and depth of transitions; the relationships between functions, flows and structures; the dynamics (shocks/stresses) they address, and the agency (control/response) involved. We need to consider the processes through which actors at different levels decide strategies, and which would be enabling in terms of adaptiveness, learning, flexibility and empowerment.

Fourth, power and politics are crucial – as a growing area of resilience thinking that could valuably be strengthened with insights from other areas of work in politics, governance and democratic philosophy. Power relations are involved in assigning or avoiding responsibility and accountability; the domination of certain framings/narratives over others, asymmetries between pathways, and which are pursued and which are not. While resilience thinking is clear about the need to conserve life support systems, this will often require politically progressive thinking and action to challenge and transform unsustainable structures and framings in radical ways, and to hold powerful actors and networks to account. Depending on the issue and the setting, strategies might involve a spectrum from discursive and deliberative politics, to more antagonistic politics of resistance and struggle; all involve moves away from the managerialism that characterised early resilience approaches, towards conceptualising it in fundamentally political terms.

Finally, reframing and working with resilience involves an array of challenges for language and communication, and linking understanding and action. Resilience approaches involve complex language and concepts, and integration with other disciplinary perspectives can add to this complexity. A series of balances need to be struck, between attention to the nuances of different frameworks, and articulating their differences clearly; between conceptual advance, and remaining grounded in empirical settings; and between understanding complexity, and the clarity needed to inform policy and practice. The latter is crucial: policy decisions are being made as a matter of urgency in areas from climate change and energy to agriculture, water and health. Building resilience and pathways to Sustainability thus requires both reflection and reflexivity, and clear communication in terms that decision-makers can use.

Scenario-planning for robust development in small-scale farming

Making Investments in Dryland Development Work: Participatory Scenario Planning in the Makanya Catchment, Tanzania is a new paper my colleagues Elin Enfors and Line Gordon from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Debbie Bossio from the International Water Management Institute, and I have just had published in Ecology and Society.  Below is part of the press release Scenario-planning help small-scale farming from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Predicting living conditions in 2030
People farming in the world´s drylands are some of the world´s poorest people, their populations are growing, but they have to cope with a variable climate that causes frequent crop failures. Consequently, many governments, NGOs, and scientists are making large efforts to improve productivity in small-scale farming particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The recent development of cheap, farm-scale water management technologies offer the potential for farmers to improve their farm productivity and reduce their vulnerability to drought. However, often many development investments have failed.

To develop better approaches to investments in water management, Enfors, Gordon, Peterson and Bossio worked with famers, local officials, and scientists in Tanzania to identify alternative ways livelihoods, farming practices, and ecosystems could change over the next 25 years.

“We had two parallel objectives with the scenario planning exercise in Makanya”, says author Elin Enfors.

“The first was to analyze how, investments in water system technologies would play out over a range of alternative, but plausible futures, and the second was to initiate a discussion locally about the catchment’s future development”.

From our paper’s discussion and conclusions

Developing participatory scenarios also proved to be a useful tool to rapidly assess some of the major hopes, fears, and thoughts about the future among people in the local community. Such an overview is useful in any project, especially in a start-up phase. In this particular case, where the objective was to assess the relevance of investments in agricultural technologies that are intended for small-scale farmers, this perspective was essential because the farmers’ risk calculations and expectations of the future will influence whether or not, and under what conditions, they will adopt small-scale water system technologies.

Furthermore, there seems to be a risk that development and applied research projects become trapped in a vision that describes how their proposed interventions will ideally unfold over time. Scenario planning may help overcome such biases as it facilitates an understanding of how the project could develop in different kind of futures and because it improves the understanding of events and processes that either may challenge the project or provide opportunities for it.

We conclude that increasing the robustness of water investments should build

A way to increase the robustness of this type of investments is to build capacity among farmers for innovation and learning through experimentation, as this will generate benefits across a range of possible futures. The analysis shows that there is not one ideal type of collaborative partner for research and development projects working with small-scale agricultural technology, highlighting the importance of identifying a diverse set of potential collaborators.

Follow the links for more of Elin’s research in Makanya, and more photos of Makanya catchment.