Category Archives: Inequality

Estimating welfare: another measure

New NBER paper Beyond GDP? Welfare across Countries and Time by Charles Jones and Peter Klenow looks interesting.  They propose a new summary statistic for a nation’s flows of welfare that combines data on consumption, leisure, inequality, and mortality.  They do not include welfare gains from ecosystem services.

The authors explain their index:

… High hours worked per capita and a high investment rate are well known to deliver high GDP, other things being equal. But these strategies have associated costs that are not reflected in GDP. Our welfare measure values the high GDP but adjusts for the lower leisure and lower consumption share to produce a more accurate picture of living standards.

This paper builds on a large collection of related work. … We try to incorporate life expectancy and inequality and make comparisons across countries as well as over time, but we do not attempt to account for urban disamenities. The World Bank’s Human Development Index combines income, life expectancy, and literacy into a single number, first putting each variable on a scale from zero to one and then averaging. In comparison, we combine different ingredients (consumption rather than income, leisure rather than literacy, plus inequality) using a utility function to arrive at a consumption equivalent welfare measure that can be compared across time for a given country as well as across countries. Fleurbaey (2009) contains a more comprehensive review of attempts at constructing measures of social welfare.

They discover that while their index is highly correlated with GDP/capita (.95) there are still important differences among countries using this new measure.  They also find welfare growth is less correlated with GDP (0.82), and exhibits even larger differences among individual countries.  According to their index, welfare is being substantially increased by recent increases in life expectancy worldwide (with the major exception of sub-Saharan Africa).

Using this index many developing countries are poorer than GDP/capita alone suggests due to inequality, poor health and lack of leisure.

How resilient is the Pakistan government to floods?

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of many books on the geopolitics of central Asia, writes about the continuing floods in Pakistan in the New York Review of Books.  He argues that the floods have the potential to further weaken the Pakistani state.  In his articleLast Chance for Pakistan he writes:

Though it has received only moderate attention in the western press, the torrential flooding of large swaths of Pakistan since late July may be the most catastrophic natural disaster to strike the country in half a century. But even greater than the human cost of this devastating event are the security challenges it poses. Coming at a time of widespread unrest, growing Taliban extremism, and increasingly shaky civilian government, the floods could lead to the gravest security crisis the country—and the region—has faced. Unless the international community takes immediate action to provide major emergency aid and support, the country risks turning into what until now has remained only a grim, but remote possibility—a failed state with nuclear weapons.

Since the upper reaches of the Indus and other rivers in Northern Pakistan first flooded their banks over three weeks ago, the floods have spread to many other parts of the country, submerging dozens of villages, killing thousands, uprooting some 20 million people, and leaving millions of poor children and infants at terrible risk of exposure to water-borne diseases. But the next few months could be even worse, as the collapse of governance and growing desperation of flooded areas leads to increasing social and ethnic tensions, terrible food shortages, and the threat that large parts of the country, now cut off from Islamabad, will be taken over by the Pakistani Taliban and other extremist groups.

A key part of the security problem lies in the already precarious situation of the regions most affected. The floods and heavy rain have caused the worst damage in the poorest and least literate areas of the country where extremists and separatist movements thrive: this includes the northern region, near Afghanistan, but also parts of Balochistan and Sindh provinces in the south. By contrast, central Punjab, the country’s richest region, with incomes and literacy about double that of other parts of the country, has been relatively unscathed by the disaster. The longstanding resentment by ethnic groups in the smaller provinces against Punjab is thus likely to increase.

The situation in the north is particularly critical. Now inundated by floodwaters, the poverty stricken North Western Frontier Province—now officially known as Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KP)—is a haven for both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. Millions of people have lost their homes and taken flight only a few months after many of them had returned following a successful offensive against militants by the Pakistan army.

In the Swat valley, where the army had flushed out extremists only a year ago, every single bridge has been destroyed and roads washed away. Across the province hundreds of miles of electricity pylons and gas lines have been ripped out, power stations flooded, and livestock and standing crops decimated by as much as 50 percent. All this will dramatically loosen what little control the state had managed to sustain over outlying areas—especially those bordering Afghanistan, which could now be quickly captured by local Taliban.

Another major recruitment center for extremists are the rural plains of southern Punjab and northern Sind, which suffer from underdevelopment and widespread poverty. Now, these regions too are drowned in water. Lacking any prospects for meaningful employment or education, more young men from these regions will join the militants, who are already proclaiming that the floods represent God’s wrath against the government.

In Balochistan, the large province in southwestern Pakistan that skirts Afghanistan’s southern border, the floods have deepened an already existing crisis. The country’s poorest region, Balochistan, has long hosted a separatist insurgency as well as Afghan Taliban bases (Quetta, the provincial capital, has been a haven for a number of senior Taliban leaders). Now, flash floods have destroyed infrastructure and what little was working in the region’s below-subsistence economy; the state’s fragile control of the region has become even more tenuous, as Baloch separatists, blaming the government for poor relief efforts, are urging a stepped up struggle for independence. (The last time such major floods hit the country in the late 1960s, the inadequacy of the government’s response led in part to the secession of east Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.)

Meanwhile, the floods have had little effect on the rampant violence by extremists and other groups that has been occurring across the country. The Pakistani Taliban continue to carry out suicide bombings and have vowed to wipe out the country’s government leaders while in Karachi, inter-ethnic violence between political parties representing the Pashtun, Sindhi and Urdu speaking communities has resulted in some 100 deaths in the past four weeks. Since the flooding began, the Taliban have also been seeking to prevent Pakistani non-governmental organizations from carrying out relief work by threatening their workers, while encouraging militant groups who have set up their own relief camps to expand.

Much now depends on the ability of the government and its foreign allies to bring relief to flood victims. Tens of thousands of Pakistani troops and virtually the army’s entire helicopter fleet are now involved in the effort. But its resources are way overstretched, and for months to come the army is unlikely to be in a position to even hold the areas along the Afghan border that it has recently won back from the militants, let alone initiate any new campaigns against the Taliban.

Four short links to new papers

Four interesting new papers – Parks & Poverty, Pleistocene extinctions, Evosystem services, and making better assessments

1) Parks can help local people.  Protected areas reduced poverty in surrounding areas in Costa Rica and Thailand by K.S. Andam and other in PNAS (doi:/10.1073/pnas.0914177107)

2) Evidence for a long Anthropocene.   Pleistocene extinctions of mega-herbivores may have lead to global cooling due to reduction on methane.  Methane emissions from extinct megafauna by Felisa A. Smith and others in Nature Geoscience(doi:/10.1038/ngeo877)

3) Evosystem services, the services of evolution.  By Daniel Faith and others.  Evosystem services: an evolutionary perspective on the links between biodiversity and human well-being (doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2010.04.002).  Evosystem services seem fall into the category of regulating and supporting services to me.  However, an interesting idea.  It would be nice to see it further developed.

4)  A bit older, Reflections on how to make global scientific assessments better. From new journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability How to make global assessments more effective: lessons from the assessment community by Dale Rothman and others. (doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2009.09.002)

Conservation Social Science

Conservation Biology has published three ‘virtual issues’ of Conservation Biology for the International Year of Biodiversity.  The issues each include 10-15 previously published articles from Conservation Biology, but access to these articles is now free of charge.  The virtual issues are:

Two of my articles are in the “Conservation Social Science” issue.  The first article was a collaboration with my Smith Fellows cohort, and the second was written by Tim Holland, who did his Masters with Andrew Gonzalez and I.

Resilience colleagues also have two papers reprinted, the first in the climate change special issue, and the second also in the social science issue

Mapping segregation and integration

On radicalcartography Bill Rankin has posted some interesting and pretty maps of urban segregation in The cartography of segregation.

Excerpt from CHICAGO BOUNDARIES Bill Rankin, 2009 (click on image to see full high resolution version)

He writes:

Nearly every U.S. city is radically (and disturbingly) segregated, with stark divides of race, ethnicity, and class. I’ve been playing with various ways to show these divisions, using graphics which are equally evocative, provocative, and rigorous. I’ve posted two new projects, showing two possibilities: one for Chicago, and another for New York.

In both projects I’m reacting in part against maps which show ethnic areas using solid homogeneous colors, often highlighting only the majority group — such as this Wikipedia map of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or this New York Times map of Pashtuns in the Sulaiman Mountains. Not only do these maps fail to show local diversity or ethnic overlaps, but they visually reinforce the all-or-nothing logic of national territorial statehood that made the conflicts in question so intractable in the first place. These cases are crying out for new forms of mapping — mapping which could directly provoke new ways of thinking. (In other words, radical cartography to the rescue!)

Partial success in reducing global maternal death rate

Globally maternal deaths are decreasing.  The rate at which mothers die during childbirth has been reduced by about 40% since 1980, but this is not enough to meet the Millennium Development goal of reducing maternal mortality 75% from 1990 levels by 2015.  However, 23 countries are on track on meet this goal.

Afghanistan is the worst country, with a high death rate and little improvement – 1,575 women die for every 100,000 live births, while Italy has only 4 deaths per 100,000. The figures below showing the global trend, the rate in countries, and changes in the rate are from article by Margaret Hogan and others Maternal mortality for 181 countries, 1980—2008: a systematic analysis of progress towards Millennium Development Goal 5 (doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61345-8):

Cochabamba picking up after Copenhagen

The Bolivian city of Cochabamba will host what is called “The Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” writes Sarah van Gelder in YES! Magazine.

Once a pivotal popular struggle arena against water privatization (see e.g. here and here) the city of Cochabamba is now hosting what is reported as a new kind of people-centred forum on climate change, supported by Bolivian president Evo Morales, who is joined by representatives of 50 governments.

Sarah van Gelder reports:

[The] Cochabamba [meeting] represents a new mindset with new players taking the lead: the activists who are stopping new coal plant construction; the towns and cities, businesses, faith groups, and farmers who are adopting sustainable practices; and each one of us who cuts back on driving, meat, and waste and works to “live well” where we are, without using up the life-giving capacities of our finite planet.


A concrete objective concerns the “climate debt”, as reported by Sarah van Gelder:

Participants at the Cochabamba summit will develop ways to measure the climate debt that the wealthy nations—where just 20 percent of the world’s population lives—owe the rest of the world for having emitted 75 percent of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Organizers are calling for binding agreements, with United Nation sanctions for those who fail to live up to their climate commitments.

Representatives of 50 governments will meet with ordinary people and social movement leaders from around the world in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to work on solutions to what may be the biggest threat ever faced by humankind.

How much is African poverty really falling?

Martin Ravallion, Director of the Development Research Group of the World Bank,responds to Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martin’s NBER paper that estimates a decline in African poverty.  He agrees that poverty is decreasing, but believes they are overstating their case.

He writes Is African poverty falling? on the World Banks’ Africa can end poverty blog:

We must first be clear about what we mean when we say “poverty is falling”. What many people mean is falling numbers of poor. However, PSiM [Pinkovskiy & Sala-i-Martin] refer solely to the poverty rate—the percentage of people who are poor. (There is no mention of this important distinction in their paper.) And it is not falling over their whole period of their analysis, which goes back to 1970. Rather they find that the poverty rate has been falling since the mid-1990s.

Here we agree: aggregate poverty rates have fallen in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since the mid-1990s.  Shahoua Chen and I came to exactly the same conclusion in our research, for the World Bank’s global poverty monitoring effort, although our methods differ considerably and (no surprise) I prefer our methods.

However, Chen and I also point out that the decline in the aggregate poverty rate has not been sufficient to reduce the number of poor, given population growth. …

Two points to note here: (i) Chen and I show that the poverty decline in SSA tends to be larger for lower poverty lines (in the region $1-$2.50 a day) and (ii) PSiM’s method attributes the entire difference between GDP and household consumption to the current consumption of households, and they assume that its distribution is the same as in the surveys. These assumptions are very unlikely to hold, and they give an overly optimistic picture.

In effect, PSiM are using a lower poverty line than us.

…  Another important difference is that Chen and I are more cautious about the data limitations. There are not enough good household surveys available yet to be confident that this is a robust new trend of a falling poverty rate for SSA. PSiM are not so restrained, as is plain from their title!

…Hopefully we will see a confirmation of the emerging downward trend for Africa in the years ahead, as more (genuine) data emerge.

Chris Blattman

Climate vs. Tobacco

Tobacco and public health researcher Maria Nilsson and others have a Comment in the Lancet Climate policy: lessons from tobacco control (doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61959-0) in which they compare the policy response to the public health problems of tobacco to climate policy:

Controlling tobacco use is the highest immediate priority for global health, while climate change is the biggest threat to health in the medium and long term. The longstanding efforts to control the impact of the tobacco industry have important lessons for climate control.

Both health threats are underpinned by scientific evidence of increasing robustness. …
There are many similarities between tobacco use and climate change. In addition to causing huge damage to population health, both cause substantial adverse social, economic, equity, and gender effects. Both have long lead times between cause and effect, and both require long-term policies and monitoring systems. The number of countries implementing the policies effectively is far too low. Negative effects are increasing over time and will have greatest effects in low-income countries and poor populations. Both issues are influenced by strong vested interests; moreover, delaying tactics and the use of “junk science” by opponents of change have impeded effective policies.

Climate change can be compared to passive smoking because those who generate the damage are not the same people as those who suffer (in the case of tobacco) or the same country (in the case of climate change); greenhouse gases are the largest externality the world has ever experienced.

Externalities require public policy intervention because markets cannot and will not deal with them. As with tobacco use, climate change requires local action informed by local circumstances. But in both cases, solutions ultimately depend on globally coordinated policies.

There are also important differences. The health damage due to smoking accrues either directly to smokers or indirectly to others through passive smoking. The effects from climate change will be global; those countries responsible for the most cumulative emissions are much less damaged than those who suffer most from the health effects.

There are important lessons from tobacco control for climate policy. The existing research base calls for urgent, comprehensive, and sustained action. Political will and strong leadership are required for both areas: implementing effective tobacco control policies has taken decades and is far from complete. Additional funding to support action in low-income countries is in the interest of all. The main lesson from tobacco for the Copenhagen conference is that delay in agreeing on international policy and poor implementation will cost countless lives. We must act now in the interests of future generations.

Agro-colonialism and/or Agricultural development?

The New York Times Magazine has an article by Andrew Rice Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism? on new mega-investments in agricultural land in Africa.

This type of activity featured in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment‘s TechnoGarden scenario as something that can have complicated ecological and social consequences. These investments often displace small scale farmers, but can greatly increase yields.  Indirectly they can benefit local people enhancing local agricultural infrastructure, skills, and economic opportunities – or they can just degrade local ecosystems for external benefit.  The article sets the stage and provides some examples from Ethiopia:

Investors who are taking part in the land rush say they are confronting a primal fear, a situation in which food is unavailable at any price. Over the 30 years between the mid-1970s and the middle of this decade, grain supplies soared and prices fell by about half, a steady trend that led many experts to believe that there was no limit to humanity’s capacity to feed itself. But in 2006, the situation reversed, in concert with a wider commodities boom. Food prices increased slightly that year, rose by a quarter in 2007 and skyrocketed in 2008. Surplus-producing countries like Argentina and Vietnam, worried about feeding their own populations, placed restrictions on exports. American consumers, if they noticed the food crisis at all, saw it in modestly inflated supermarket bills, especially for meat and dairy products. But to many countries — not just in the Middle East but also import-dependent nations like South Korea and Japan — the specter of hyperinflation and hoarding presented an existential threat.

“When some governments stop exporting rice or wheat, it becomes a real, serious problem for people that don’t have full self-sufficiency,” said Al Arabi Mohammed Hamdi, an economic adviser to the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development. Sitting in his office in Dubai, overlooking the cargo-laden wooden boats moored along the city’s creek, Hamdi told me his view, that the only way to assure food security is to control the means of production.

Hamdi’s agency, which coordinates investments on behalf of 20 member states, has recently announced several projects, including a tentative $250 million joint venture with two private companies, which is slated to receive heavy subsidies from a Saudi program called the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad. He said the main fields of investment for the project would most likely be Sudan and Ethiopia, countries with favorable climates that are situated just across the Red Sea. Hamdi waved a sheaf of memos that had just arrived on his desk, which he said were from another partner, Sheik Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a billionaire member of the royal family of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, who has shown interest in acquiring land in Sudan and Eritrea. “There is no problem about money,” Hamdi said. “It’s about where and how.”

All through the Rift Valley region, my travel companion, an Ethiopian economist, had taken to pointing out all the new fence posts, standing naked and knobby like freshly cut saplings — mundane signifiers, he said, of the recent rush for Ethiopian land. … Behind it, we could glimpse a vast expanse of dark volcanic soil, recently turned over by tractors. “So,” said my guide, “this belongs to the sheik.”

He meant Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, a Saudi Arabia-based oil-and-construction billionaire who was born in Ethiopia and maintains a close relationship with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s autocratic regime. (Fear of both men led my guide to say he didn’t want to be identified by name.) Over time, Al Amoudi, one of the world’s 50 richest people, according to Forbes, has used his fortune and political ties to amass control over large portions of Ethiopia’s private sector, including mines, hotels and plantations on which he grows tea, coffee, rubber and japtropha, a plant that has enormous promise as a biofuel. Since the global price spike, he has been getting into the newly lucrative world food trade.

Ethiopia might seem an unlikely hotbed of agricultural investment. To most of the world, the country is defined by images of famine: about a million people died there during the drought of the mid-1980s, and today about four times that many depend on emergency food aid. But according to the World Bank, as much as three-quarters of Ethiopia’s arable land is not under cultivation, and agronomists say that with substantial capital expenditure, much of it could become bountiful. Since the world food crisis, Zenawi, a former Marxist rebel who has turned into a champion of private capital, has publicly said he is “very eager” to attract foreign farm investors by offering them what the government describes as “virgin land.” …

By far the most powerful opposition, however, surrounds the issue of land rights — a problem of historic proportions in Ethiopia. Just down the road from the farm on Lake Ziway, I caught sight of a gray-bearded man wearing a weathered pinstripe blazer, who was crouched over a ditch, washing his shoes. I stopped to ask him about the fence, and before long, a large group of villagers gathered around to tell me a resentful story. Decades ago, they said, during the rule of a Communist dictatorship in Ethiopia, the land was confiscated from them. After that dictatorship was overthrown, Al Amoudi took over the farm in a government privatization deal, over the futile objections of the displaced locals. The billionaire might consider the land his, but the villagers had long memories, and they angrily maintained that they were its rightful owners.

For more see Food Crisis and the Global Land Gra which is a website run by GRAIN an NGO supporting small-scale farmers.