Holy Fake African City, Batman!

I’ve just been made aware that DC Comics will be launching a new Batman comic – set in Africa. Specifically, they’ve made up a city called Tenasha, which sounds a little better to my ears than Zamunda but still could wind up being an epic example of poverty porn, especially when you read sentences like this:

And, if you think about it, is there any continent more in need of a superhero than Africa?

That said, I’m going to do my best to put aside the cynic in my head who’s screaming ‘this is going to be a train wreck! Look away!’, because for once it seems that even if they do think Africa needs saving, they don’t think they’re the ones to do it:

Written by Judd Winick (Green Lantern, The Outsiders) and animated by Ben Oliver, Batwing won’t be a black American who travels to the Motherland to fight crime—he will simply be African.

After all the adverts and campaigns that promote the Africa is Hell, We Must Save It tropes, it’s kind of nice to see something that recognises that it is Africans who have the greatest degree of agency to change Africa, even if it’s the only cliche they avoid.

Reading is Fundamental

... and if you don't think so, it might be time to enroll in this school...

Rajiv Shah has chosen a set of his favourite development books over at The Browser. It’s obviously a selection designed to stimulate a bit of interest in USAID’s current approaches to development, and it’s a pretty good one (though Chris Blattman has a legitimate beef with one of his comments).

One thing I like about the list is that it goes outside the standard development texts, with one selection about the development and impact of fixed nitrogen fertilizer. He also selects a work of economic history, Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms. I’m glad to see some economic history here, but I probably would have chosen some different ones. Here are some suggestions:

The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz, which looks in detail at the Industrial Revolution, and why it didn’t occur in Japan or China. I can’t stress enough how important it is that we understand why massive economic transformations occur, because every country that goes from poor to rich goes through one. Why did China not have its own in the 19th Century? Pomeranz looks at some of the reasons.

Of course, one of the seminal papers about the Industrial Revolution was Jan de Vries’ The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution, which makes great play of the importance of increased output and consumption powered by effort and extended working hours – these provided a kick that supported deeper processes pushing an Industrial Revolution. It’s been criticised since its publication, but it injected a layer of complexity into the analysis of the industrial revolution that was missing. Its ideas contribute to Chris Bayly’s thinking in The Birth of the Modern World, probably the most impressive work of history I’ve come across.

Another cracking book, again flawed, is David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, again explicitly looking at the role of cultural norms in generating industrial transformation. I don’t agree with this 100% or even close to that, but it’s a thought provoking and excellently written work.

Finally, I’m going to cheat a little with my last two. The first is one I haven’t actually read yet: The Origins of Capitalism by Ellen Wood, subtitled A Longer View. This looks absolutely fascinating, bringing together history, economics, culture, philosophy and ideology into a wide-ranging analysis of modernity and capitalism in Europe. I can’t wait to read it.

The last book I would select as an economic history is actually a work of fiction (harking back to a previous post when I suggested five non-standard sources of learning on development). I read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell on the recommendation of my brother-in-law and I couldn’t agree more with his high estimation of it. Written in 1855, at a time when industrial capitalism was just taking root in England, it offers remarkably thoughtful critiques of the cultural and economic impacts of industrialization and the ways in which capital and labour interact and would continue to interact under this system. It’s astonishing to think it wasn’t written with a century of hindsight. It recognizes the transition to capitalism for what it is: messy, violent, hugely beneficial and all-encompassing: no one can opt out.

Any other favourite development books out there? Always grateful for new suggestions, especially those that are well written as well as intelligent.


"You want my advice, Tone? I say we whack him.'

Duncan Green has a really good set of suggestions for advocacy with ‘effective but authoritarian’ states. The first five are especially good and worth quoting in full:

1. One party states can be more open to robust evidence than multi-party ones. Disturbing, I know, but these governments often appear more interested in hard evidence than their more democratic counterparts. Petitions and emails won’t do it – you need data, though individual impact stories can work quite well too. Let’s not get too starry-eyed though, there will be areas that are off limits, and you need to know what they are.

2. Research will have more influence if it is done by an organization the government trusts – such as the parastatal Academies of Social Science in Vietnam and China and major Moscow-based universities. In any system, the messenger matters as well as the message, but these governments seem to specifically use such parastatals as channels to gather new knowledge.  Such research institutions are also often hungry for connections with external agencies so you’re pushing at an open door.

3. Your political economy analysis had better be good: understanding how decisions are taken in Addis or Moscow is absolutely critical. Personalities, relationships (both personal and professional), the histories, cultures and incentive systems of different leaders or ministries. Until you have a confident grasp of these, your influencing is highly likely to go wrong (always with the risk of backlash).

4. The importance of symbolism, pride and sovereignty. Traditional NGO name-and-shame tactics are as likely to lead to a counter-productive backlash as a breakthrough.  Instead, offer things that work. Find the Achilles’ heel that the government recognizes as a weak spot and focus on that. They can be surprisingly grateful for suggestions.

5. Alliances with non-state actors: in terms of citizens, most authoritarian regimes are keenly aware of issues of legitimacy, if not of direct accountability, and acts of citizenship are far from absent even when elections are either not held, or perfunctory. Building alliances with other actors (academics, churches, private sector) is just as important as in more open state systems.

Numbers three and four are particularly important. Always approach leadership upwind: nothing makes authoritarian Governments angrier than the feeling that they’re being ambushed. I would caveat point five by saying that it’s exceedingly important to ensure that support to NSAs is transparent; you don’t want to give anyone the chance to make accusations of perfidy based on their paranoia. In general, these rules can be extended to ‘intransigent’ states where leadership is democratically elected but is particularly sensitive to criticism, especially from external actors. Malawi probably fits this bill.

Grow: The Good, The Bad and The Uncertain

Today, Oxfam launch their big new advocacy campaign, Grow. Unsurprisingly, it’s slick, looks good, and is packed with soundbites that will make their way into umpteen speeches and pub-based arguments in the next few months, with the choice stat being that while $312 billion is spent on fossil fuel consumption subsidies annually, the total volume of ODA for agriculture is less than $10 billion.

The central thrust of it won’t surprise anyone too much: food security, climate change and equity have been at the centre of Oxfam’s sphere of interest for some time now. Grow puts these into a coherent framework. It’s essentially predicated on one central challenge: feeding the world’s poor in the context of increasing demand for food. Achieving this, we are told, is complicated by the ecological challenges of increasing production without causing irreparable damage to the environment, the logistical challenge of dealing with increasingly frequent crises moments in food security and the moral challenge of huge inequity in hunger and in the incidence of the costs of how we currently produce food.

I expect most of you will read the document for yourselves; for now I’m going to give a very quick summary of some of the things I think it does well; some of the things I think might be misguided, and some of the things I just don’t know about.  Opinions, as ever, welcome in the comments.

The Good

Given the name of Duncan’s blog, and his interests, it’s not a surprise that the report contains a pretty decent power analysis of why bad practices are difficult to budge: because the incentives in the current system and the vested interests in maintaining them make ‘bad’ practices profitable for rich and thus powerful groups. The language is very advocacy-document, but it does identify some of the key issues:

We will have to overcome the vested interests that stand to lose out, and which will strongly resist. The powerful elites in poor countries that control land and block reform. The farm lobbies of rich countries that plunder public purses, tipping the playing field against poor farmers. The dirty industries that block action on climate change at every turn. The seed companies whose myopic pursuit of patents undermines public research and leaves poor farmers on the margins. The multinational traders who profit as food markets unravel. The financial institutions that bet on them doing so.

The second thing I really like in the document is the focus on equity, an issue that is slowly returning to the debating table in development. While Oxfam pay much less attention to jobs and work as a motor for improving equity than I would like, I am incredibly pleased to see an entire section on the importance of collective action, and in particular unionism, as a tool for seizing rights.

Finally, the Grow campaign does not just look to donors or the international development architecture (in this I include subsidies and trade as well as aid), but also looks at national, developing country policies and approaches. I like this approach – it’s not about the West saving the world, it’s about the West rectifying some of the problems in the way it engages with the world, and the poor claiming their rights and carving out a niche in a set of global relationships. Oxfam are good at advocacy, so it’s nice to see it aimed broadly.

The Bad

This wouldn’t be Aid Thoughts if I didn’t have some gripes, though. There are two big areas where I’m doubtful. The first relates to one of the good things about the report: it recognizes that there are really powerful vested interests aligned against the changes the report calls for. The problem is that I don’t see a clear strategy for dealing with these interests beyond ‘naming and shaming’ and advocacy for better practices. I suspect this will only make private vested interests (normally corporations) change just enough to buy breathing space. Real success in the sphere depends on changing the incentives at work for these vested interests, by changing their risk/reward/cost ratios. This is the hardest thing to do, but ultimately it’s the one with the biggest potential. How do we go about it? I’m not sure, but I’d like to see an attempt at a strategy.

The other major concern I have with the report is the high regard it has for smallholder farming.

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Survival of the fittest? Assessing the value of multilateral aid

I recently had a long and involved argument with a group of development workers about the value of multilateral aid agencies compared with bilateral agencies. I was in the minority on that particular issue, but it raised a number of questions for me, which basically boil down to an assessment of the different incentive structures that obtain for multilateral agencies and bilateral agencies and the good and bad ways that these influence their working. Two key questions are raised: whether or not there is a net benefit of the incentives that govern multilaterals, and secondly, if these agencies are fundamentally different should they be judged on different criteria?

Both of these questions are going to come under increasing scrutiny in the future. Aid budgets are being squeezed, and even in those places where they are not there is an ever-increasing focus on value for money in aid delivery. As part of this, many aid agencies are questioning whether the money they channel through multilateral aid agencies is better spent by their own development organisations. The impacts of this are already being felt, with Britain having cut all support to the ILO due to their low assessment of its efficacy. If this trend continues, and as the international aid effectiveness agenda develops further during and in the aftermath of the Busan conference later this year, I expect a more intensive culture of accountability and measurement to evolve for donor agencies. When this happens, the question of how to assess different kinds of agency will need to be met head on.

The central difference in the incentive structures of bilateral and multilateral agencies lies in their sensitivity to domestic political climates and their responsiveness to political imperatives. Bilateral agencies ultimately all report directly to a Parliament and to local voters. Their bureaucracies also respond much more directly to political leaderships. This has a direct effect on the ways in which they work. It means that they have an inherently strong impulse for efficiency as Government finances are much more transparent and easily held to account upon than supra-national entities’ finances; they are also far more flexible because they need only satisfy the rules of a single Government and a simple political test: will this fly with my Minister (or my electorate, if you put yourself in the Minister’s shoes)? This flexibility manifests both in the way in which aid is delivered (budget support typically requires less justification) and also in the sectors covered. They can, if needed, quickly change the structure of their programmes in response to need, evidence or a changing political climate. The user experience of bilateral aid is usually much less complicated than multilateral aid, and the lines of responsibility and decision-making are short enough to ensure that decisions can be swiftly made and swiftly enforced.

This, however, is also at the root of the drawbacks of the bilateral system. The proximity of bilateral agencies’ action to the political process means that they respond too closely to the biases of an electorate, and equally importantly, they are wary of challenging this electorate. Thus, most bilaterals cluster in ‘easy sell’ areas they do not need to spend valuable public time on to justify: health, education, water, food security and the like. Their need to justify their actions in the international development sphere competes with their need to justify other policies that may be more politically important, and thus makes them less likely to engage in more politically complicated international development initiatives.

Further, the shorter line between electorate, politician and development policy also makes it easier to change policy to suit political imperatives. When the UK government wants to increase spending on national security but without massively increasing their military or foreign office budget (both of which are politically sensitive), DFID provide an option for them. Spending in conflict-ridden areas is genuinely developmental in most circumstances, but the policy decision and balance of spending is influenced by factors other than development. Bigger questions of policy are more strongly influenced by the gravitational pull of political necessity and preference than strictly rational allocation procedures.

These costs and benefits are not universal to bilateral agencies. USAID and Japan, for example, are hardly paragons of flexibility, but they do serve as a relatively good characterization of the costs and benefits of bilateral aid.

Multilaterals on the other hand, have a different set of institutional incentives.

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When the Levee Breaks

While I was away, a couple of questions were playing on my mind. The first related to the desirability of a season of revolution in the southern part of Africa, as witnessed in North Africa and parts of the Arab world recently. Three readers gave their initial thoughts. One suggested that my thoughts might be premature in any case, as the Ugandan example was rather deceptive and not actually indicative of a really fundamental democratizing force in that country. This may well be true (I would be the first to admit that I am no specialist on the politics of Uganda). However, the theoretical question of whether a series of political upheavals would be a positive thing remains.

Another ventured that as long as the upheavals are genuinely democratic, they must be good things. There’s an obvious logic to this position: representative government is a good in it’s own right, regardless of its developmental impact. Plenty of others have discussed whether democracy or a kind of benevolent dictatorship is the ideal developmental form of Government (we’re all pretty much agreed that purely predatory dictatorship is a bad thing all round), and I don’t mean to rehash this argument here, except to say that the state that is most developmental in any given circumstance depends on the polity it governs, and there are probably multiple equilibria of varying stability that can be achieved.

Rather, I wonder if the principle reasons that there have been so few movements towards revolution or inquilab in any form in southern Africa has been that there is almost no gain from such action – that in some cases there is no alternative that is significantly more representative as opposed to differently representative. This is the point that MJ raised in his comment. Relatedly, it is also possible that how representative the Government is may actually have little impact on how well it responds to its citizenry.

Take the first possibility: that in few countries are there significantly better leaders waiting in the wings. One characteristic of contemporary commentators on upheavals is that they often put too much stock on the act of change, without spending enough time thinking about the content of change (I myself have often been guilty of this). There is some intrinsic value in upheaval and violent or forced change, namely that it creates the credible threat that bad governance will be punished even where political process leaves no space to legally generate punishment. However, we tend to get excited when a ‘bad’ leader is deposed even before we start considering how much better the new one will or can be. It is quite possible that changes, even those that depose leaders showing signs of authoritarianism, may simply usher in a worse or equally bad leadership.

Malawi is an example where this may be true. I’m not fully up to speed on Malawi’s contemporary political scene, but unless a new generation of political leadership has sprung up in the last three years, it’s difficult to see that any other politician placed in the same position as Bingu wa Mutharika will be any more democratic of progressive. His predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, was not a particularly progressive leader, and indeed Malawi had a significant improvement in the terms of its governance (particularly economic) under Mutharika. There has been some backsliding, but it’s clear that Malawi in 2011 is in a better place than it was in 2003. If Bingu were to leave power tomorrow, who are the alternatives with sterling democratic credentials? It’s not clear that any other leading politician would be travelling a significantly different path to Bingu.

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Short on words, but long on things to say

Anyone get the reference?

I’ve been a little quiet recently as I’m on holiday at the moment, flitting around East and South-East Asia visiting relatives and friends, while trying to keep in touch with the office. I’m still doing a bit of work, and so to make room for my mission to eat all of Asia and see as many friends as possible, blogging has fallen on the wayside and my link to the news has been tenuous at best (as best as I can work out, someone got married and someone else got killed in the last couple of days and I hope I have them the right way round).

That said, a lot of the people I’ve been meeting with are development friends, so I’ve had a few vigorous arguments that I’m going to blog about on my return. Prior to setting out my thoughts in detail, there are two questions in particular that I am really interested to get some initial views on before I return to set out my own thoughts in detail. They are:

  1. With Uganda seemingly in incipient rising (this follows widespread riots less than 2 years ago), would a series of revolutions or popular risings be a good thing in Africa? Do readers think that a widely-backed movement to remove leaders in the southern portion of the continent would be met with the same scarcely contained glee from the West, and would it offer any more hope for the future than what we have now?
  2. And secondly, a question about the structure of development work: should we have different criteria on which we assess multilateral and bilateral agencies? What is the right mix of the two approaches to development intervention and support? Do we need both? Are their incentives sufficiently different, and their efficiency sufficiently similar to justify both kinds of development support?

The latter question arises after a long and thoughtful argument with some friends just a few nights ago. My own position (on a different phrasing of these questions) was very much in the minority, so I’m keen to open it up a bit and listen more before I go off on one of my epic rants. Thoughts welcome.

Decline and Fall

Gibbons, illustrated.

News that the Government of Malawi is (allegedly) expelling the British High Commissioner from the country in response to a leaked memo expressing dissatisfaction with the Governance situation there only serves to further emphasise the decline of Malawi as a donor darling. I lived and worked in Malawi for almost four years and retain an of enormous amount of affection for it: it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world and populated by some of the best people I’ve known. This being the case, I’ve been following its progress closely since I left. The changes in Malawi demonstrate the extremely important role of conflict in the domestic political process and relative powerlessness of donors.

When I left Malawi, I was full of optimism: elections (free, fair and gracefully conceded by the losing party) were about to be held; the economy was in it’s strongest state in years; aid was increasing almost exponentially, while we were ever moving closer to best practices in aid management and transparency; and the Government was committed to poverty reduction and economic growth. Since then, however, things have gone south quickly. The re-elected President, Bingu wa Mutharika, began to take on increasingly authoritarian tendencies; he sacked and removed many of the most competent Ministers (most notably Malawi’s excellent ex-Minister of Finance Goodall Gondwe) and reshuffled the Principal Secretaries, with many new appointees having strong ties to the President. This trend was only emphasised when the President at one point took on the same portfolio of Ministries as Dr. Hastings Banda, Malawi’s long-time dictator. He began to call himself ‘Ngwazi’ (hero), which was the name given to Banda. He even had the national flag redesigned: where before Malawi was represented by a rising sun, it is now fully risen, presumably in gratitude to the new regime.

The effects were eventually felt in Government policy. Progress on Governance issues began to reverse, and poor performance against the IMF programme in country led to a freeze on general budget support (since lifted by most donors), in turn causing a foreign exchange shortage which led to a situation of petrol scarcity which continues to date. The Government also began to exert malign influence on the universities, forbidding the discussion of certain topics by lecturers, and on civil society, by imposing financial requirements for permission to demonstrate. These changes are not simply academic – they are affecting people’s lives.

What’s most remarkable about these changes is the role of the Government under Mutharika. Matt has posted before about Malawi’s performance on inflation, crediting the IMF’s PRGF programme for helping kick start this improvement. This is definitely accurate, but there’s no doubt that the serious effort and political will of Bingu’s first Government played a massive role in ensuring that expenditure was reined in, and that all the IMF targets were taken seriously. Under Mutharika, corruption cases were brought to bear against various members of the previous Government, too. These may have been partly political, but it’s clear that they were also aimed at people who had stolen vast sums in the past – establishing an extremely important precedent for Malawi. The Government also put serious effort into improving the budgeting system and implementing and monitoring a national development strategy. So what changed?

In my opinion, the single biggest factor in Malawi’s turnaround has been the change in the security of Mutharika’s position. When he was first elected in 2004, Mutharika was a member of the UDF party. However, once in office, he left this party and created his own, the DPP, inducing a number of MPs to cross the floor and join the DPP from UDF and other parties. In response, the UDF made the claim that this was illegal citing a vaguely worded article of the Constitution – Section 65 – as rendering illegal any attempt to cross the floor. The DPP vigourously disputed this claim, but avoided any attempt to resolve it through the courts, because if the ruling had gone against them, they would have all lose their seats and had to stand for re-election, leaving the President isolated.

What this meant was that every time Mutharika’s Government wanted to pass anything controversial, be it a National Budget, or loan agreement or a new bill, the opposition could grind Parliament to a halt by refusing to vote until Section 65 was resolved. As a result, the Government had to work very hard to make sure that every step it took was justifiable in the public eye, and could be clearly explained in rational terms – any attempt to delay using Section 65 would then encounter popular resistance, as happened more than once when Budget delays led to demonstrations and scuffles near Parliament.

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It’s not about the money

"$93,000. That's all I want. Not more."

Talking to Matt recently, he made the point that the ‘more aid for development’ lobby is bigger than it has ever been. Advocacy organisations like One, the 0.7% promise, and the Robin Hood tax are all pushing in this direction. The media are pushing it, too, though sometimes through negative reinforcement, for example when the Guardian complains about the reduction of the US Government’s aid budget. It’s something that is easy to advocate for, easy to measure, and easy to promise (if not always easy to deliver). Unfortunately, there are a few significant problems with this lobby that I want to address. These are that it promotes a skewed conception of what development is, that it reduces incentives for domestic revenue generation, and that it can lead to economically unsound approaches to development funding.

The first, and biggest, problem is the conception of development that it pushes. As Matt’s recent post explained development is more than improved outcomes. It is improved outcomes that can be sustained in the absence of aid. The more money for development lobby says things like ‘$50,000,000 will get ARVs to every person who needs them in Africa’. Now, it would be ludicrous for me to argue that getting ARVs to everyone who needs them is a bad thing. However, the statement is incredibly misleading. To give a good picture of the developmental impact of that $50,000,000, the statement really should read: “$50,000,000 will get ARVs to everyone in Africa who needs them for a period of 18 months. After this, we will need to find another $50,000,000 or perhaps only $40,000,000 since some networks will have been built and norms changed, but we’ll still need a lot more money to actually purchase and distribute the ARVs. We’ll continue to need all of this money from aid sources until we come up with an internal revenue generation scheme or we solve the problem of HIV prevalence rates.”

The first statement promotes the idea that the problems with ARV distribution are purely monetary, and if only we had the cash, we could solve the problem once and for all. This is nonsense. Anyone who works in development will recognise it as such. There are big institutional and management barriers to better distribution, and sometimes these are complicated by things like a lack of political will, or ethnic/regional/identity tensions that lead to some groups being under-served and others over-served. There may be confounding issues of corruption, as drugs and central medical stores are a brilliant source of illicit income. What all of these ancillary problems have in common is that their solutions are not primarily monetary. Having more money may help, but it depends on where you spend it, and how you change the incentives at work.

Either the money-for-development lobby needs to accept that it’s essentially making the case for sustained humanitarian aid, which may not be a bad thing though it’s not going to be very developmental, or it needs to show some evidence that lack of money is the primary constraint to building sustainable systems for service delivery.

Secondly, constantly increasing the volume of aid available to developing countries provides terrible incentives for the establishment of a viable taxation regime. I’ve blogged before on why a working tax regime is so important, so I’ll just summarise here. Taxation revenue is infinitely superior to aid because: the line of accountability runs from Government to citizens, not Government to donors; it is fungible on the budget, so that it can be used wherever it is needed in response to changing circumstances; it is contestable, so that every distinct group with electoral representation (different ethnic groups, different political parties, different classes) has a say in where it gets spent. Taxation can also help incorporate the informal sector into the legal system, which can greatly enhance its economic potential. What’s more, unless we want aid to be permanent, taxation has to ultimately finance everything that aid is currently financing.

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