You can never win


“I am Paul Atreides, the Muad’Dib, leader of the Fremen of Arrakis, the *only* source of Spice Melange, which gives me rights as Galactic Emperor! ……. oh I see, you can create it synthetically now. This is awkward.”

It appears that it is now possible to synthetically create artemisinin, used primarily (solely?) as a treatment against malaria. This is the stuff of first-pumping and cheering, especially if the synthetic version turns out to be significantly easy and cheaper to obtain than the natural version. This is a real win for global health.

Not so fast, says Jim Thomas in the Guardian, a newspaper which somehow manages to make us feel guilty about any good development-related news by identifying some poor sod who has lost out (a wonderful example is their silly, excessive worrying over Western consumption of quinoa). According to Thomas, the new synthetic version of the drug will put farmers of sweet wormwood (the plant from which artemisinin is usually derived) out of business:

Now it turns out that artemesia farmers are dismissed as entirely expendable. The rejoinder of “let them plant potatoes” seems dismissive of farmer knowledge: farmers understand markets well and those now growing artemisia annua do so because it helps them bring in income. As for the argument that synbio is necessary to eradicate malaria, the botanical approach was already producing more than enough artemisinin to address malaria.

“There is simply no rationale to have a synthetic product on the market when farmers could produce enough raw material to produce the tablets from pulverised high quality plants,” said Professor Hans Herren, World Food Prize winner, who has worked extensively with east African artemesia farmers.

Now, it remains to be seen how much cheaper the synthetic version will be, but let’s assume that it’s significantly cheaper than the natural one (although it turns out the price of the latter is insanely volatile). How much hand-wringing should we actually do if welfare gains for fighting malaria outweigh the welfare losses of having farmers switch to another type of crop?

If you still feel outraged by all this, would you feel differently if we switched out the words “sweet wormwood” with “biofuel crops”? Would you feel differently if someone had discovered a working vaccine for malaria?

In which Malawi gives Madonna a spinning roundhouse kick


So Malawi was graced by another visit from Madonna recently. Somewhat miffed that she hadn’t received an invitation to go meet with President Joyce Banda, she wrote an overly-personal message to Banda (“Dear Joyce”) to ask if they could meet. To slightly complicate things further, the head representative of Madonna’s charity went after the President’s sister (who used to work for the Raising Malawi) and complained that the Material Girl wasn’t getting the right treatment from the government:

Madonna can continue her work here [even] if the politicians don’t want to welcome her because her work is all about the children who are here. The politicians can stay. Even donors are also surprised that government is treating Madonna like this when she is the biggest private donor in the country

In response, the Malawian government released an 11-point passive-aggressive smackdown. You can read the whole thing here, but one particular point stood out as being awesome and seriously bad ass:

7. If the argument is that because she is an internationally renowned star, and, therefore, Madonna believes she deserved to be treated differently from other visiting foreigners, it is worth making her aware that Malawi has hosted many international stars, including Chuck Norris, Bono, David James, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville who have never demanded state attention or decorum despite their equally dazzling stature. [Emphasis added]


Hat tip to Kim Yi Dionne at haba na haba, who has covered both Madonna’s PR gaffs and the government response.



Land grabbing: whatever you do, don’t mention the G-word.

Large scale land purchases get some more media attention, this time from Jonathan Glennie over at The Guardian:

“A new report on land acquisition by the Munden Project/Rights and Resources Institute brings an important angle to the land “grab” debate. Rather than focusing on the ethics of land grabbing, the report makes the business case for working with local communities, arguing that failure to inform or fairly compensate affected locals heightens the risks to investors. Why? Because affected communities start to make life difficult for abusive or lazy companies, leading to massive unexpected costs or even an eventual full-scale retreat.

What is slightly disconcerting is that Glennie managed to write an entire article on land grabs while only using the world “government” once. NGOs and the media have largely painted the land grabbing story as a situation where evil companies are parachuting in and snatching land away (for example, check out Oxfam’s recent campaigning). In reality, land acquisitions which circumvent local property rights are only possible when governments themselves are incompetent, corrupt or overly-impatient. Of course campaigners realise this, but it’s much easier to set this up as story of evil capitalism than it is of governance, the latter being harder to sell and even harder to treat. I’m not trying to pick on Glennie for leaving out a lengthy discussion of governance in his article, but it would be nice for people to start using the g-word a bit more.

How policies end: not with a bang, but a whimper

Masimba Tafirenyika describes how dire the food security situation in Malawi has become:

Once again Malawi finds itself in a tight spot. A food crisis set off by erratic rains, rising food prices and economic hardships is slowly unfolding. For the first time in several years, the country’s ability to feed its citizens is at risk. Sadly and unexpectedly, Malawi has lost its hard-earned status as an agricultural success story — it used to produce enough maize for its people to eat and still provide a surplus to neighbours. Many are now wondering what went wrong and whether there could be lessons for other African countries.

More than 1.63 million people, or 11 per cent of the population, are facing severe food shortages, according to the World Food Programme, a UN relief agency. Malawi needed $30 million to the end of 2012 to cover the shortfall.

As Tafirenyika hints, this stands in stark contrast to reporting on Malawi over the past few years, where it was heralded as a shining example of how to tackle food security. Five years, ago Celia Dugger wrote in the NYT how the country’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, despite the protests of many, “ignored the experts” and subsequently dealt with the country’s hunger problems by drastically scaling up its fertiliser subsidy programme. Malawi subsequently enjoyed a spate of bumper harvests and many were quick to tout the large-scale subsidisation as being both a success and worth of replication in other countries. Most notable was the support of Jeffrey Sachs, who’s incessant belief that the fertiliser subsidisation was a policy holy grail led him to write an oddly-appreciative obituary for Mutharika, who died at the end of a thuggish, repressive and disastrous second term in office.

Meanwhile, hunger returns to Malawi, but we have not yet established a convincing narrative. Many economists (including a few on this blog) have pointed out, time and time again, that the fertiliser subsidy programme was fraught with pitfalls, both political and practical. While the recent crisis is probably too complex to fully substantiate these concerns, now would be an appropriate time for the fertiliser advocates to turn their attention to the food situation in Malawi, and begin to ask why. Otherwise, we risk touting a policy that might actually have been a complete failure, or at the very least lacked the sort of robustness that anti-hunger policies desperately need.

Ask not what your country can do for you


“Sorry Bilbo, I was going to take you on this *amazing adventure*, but then I checked your expenses from last year, and you seem to be spending your entire budget on food, not travelling.”

Economists can sometimes be a little sceptical of asking people what they want. If we’re trying to provide and finance a public good, for instance, we might be worried that beneficiaries will understate their value of that good to try and get away with paying less for it. Others – often those in the behavioural science camp – can be wary that people may not be reasonably informed as to what is good for them, or might let cognitive quirks and biases undermine their prioritisation.

Over at the African Can End Poverty blog, this scepticism seems to have been extended to Tanzanian businessmen, as Jacques Morisset argues that we should pay less attention to what local firms claim are policy priorities:

Allow me to illustrate. According to the entrepreneurs operating In Tanzania, electricity is their major constraint (85 per cent) followed by access to finance (52 per cent), taxes (37 per cent), and administrative red tape (25 per cent). Source: World Bank. Investment Climate Assessment, 2009. Surprisingly, labor and transports costs are only at the bottom of their concerns (less than 10 per cent). According to this ranking, the priority should be therefore given to reducing electricity costs, increasing access to finance and reducing taxation.

A closer look at the firms’ financial balance sheets provides a different picture. In reality, electricity counts for a marginal share of firms’ operating costs in Tanzania (see Figure). For example, it is equivalent to only 3 per cent for a standard firm operating in the apparel sector. In other words, a decline, say, of 50 per cent in electricity prices would only reduce its costs by 1.5 per cent – hardly a high number for such a big effort. By contrast, transport and labor costs are equivalent to 41 per cent and 38 per cent of its total operating costs. This means that reducing transport costs by only 4 per cent would achieve the same gains for the enterprise than cutting by half its energy costs.

I’m not entirely convinced by Morissets argument: he only presents data on the current breakdown of firm’s operating costs, but no evidence on how firm electricity usage might change if prices did come down. This is a little like arguing that that since poor, stunted children in a rural village only appear to consume maize, there’s little point in subsidising the cost of protein-rich foods.

Morisset admits that electricity access might be an issue, but then goes on to make his argumet based on the static view: that we should target inputs which are currently the most costly for Tanzanian firms. Perhaps this it the right course, but a difficult argument to make without more information on how firms change their behaviour when relative prices change.

It’s good to be the president


Since the unexpected death of Bingu wa Mutharika, I’ve been rather hopeful for Malawi. While Mutharika had an incredibly promising start, his second term was marred with paranoia, aggression and growing signs of dynasty-building and patronage politics. Thanks to a heart attack, we were graced with Joyce Banda, the country’s first female president, who appears to be both modest and incredibly pragmatic, while naturally eschewing the big bwana syndrome while has characterized so much of Malawian politics.

Banda’s sudden appearance on the global scene has excited a lot of people. Perhaps unfairly, many consider her to be Malawi’s best chance of rising above the seemingly-endless cycle of dashed expectations. The Guardian recently ran a behind-the-scenes piece on her which, while captivating and well done, only serves to further entrench these hopes.

To a large extent I share these expectations, and was happy to hear that Banda had decided to sell off the presidential jet and cut the presidential salary to less than what an Oxford post-doc makes in a year. Then I chatted to my mother the other day, who pointed out to me that while watching a BBC show on the posh London hotel Claridge’s, she had spotted Ms. Banda’s husband, having booked for 11 nights with his entourage of fifteen people (it happens at about the 11 minute mark here). Indeed, it appears that Ms. Banda also stayed at Claridge’s during her first state visit to the UK, during which she made the announcement about selling off her jet. While rates for a basic room at Claridges are roughly £400, its suites (which the programme suggests the Bandas stayed in) can be as expensive as £3,000 a night. The doorman proudly quips “it is Mr. President,” referring to Joyce Banda’s husband, noting he had been to Claridges before.

Perhaps the Banda’s get a special a discount, or the donors ponied up the cash for their London stay, or perhaps Richard Banda has a good pension from serving as Malawi’s Chief Justice. Maybe it’s reasonable to expect heads of state to enjoy a little luxury. Still, it’s awfully good to be the president (or at least the president’s husband).

If I were British, I’d be proud of DFID

by Kate Orkin

Back home in South Africa, I’d probably score points for criticising donors as self-interested imperialists. My doctorate from the Department of International Development at Oxford has trained me to be highly critical of the aid sector. Nonetheless, I’d like to tell the anti-aid ranters in Monday’s Telegraph that if I were British, I would be proud as anything of DFID.

There are lots of arguments as to why aid should be delivered in the way DFID delivers it, and why Mr Pascoe is misinformed. Direct budget support is best practice because builds government capacity and ensures alignment with government priorities (and for an independent assessment of DBS, see here).  The worst disasters are poorly managed ones, and these are often rooted in poor governance or a lack of capacity, which won’t be fixed by more sacks of grain. Structures of patronage, illegitimate regimes, or a lack of government accountability are often propped up by repeated disaster relief, which Mr Pascoe advocates. And so on.

I’m not going to make those arguments here. I think the defenders of aid sometimes get so obsessed with showing results that they forget to talk about the human side of what they do.

So, firstly, I want to provide a counter to the ad hominem attacks directed at those in the aid sector, a “bunch of chancers and middle managers”. For the last four years I worked as a part-time research assistant for a research project which DFID co-funds and did a lot of fieldwork in Ethiopia. I don’t know the consultants subcontracted by DFID whom Mr Pascoe speaks about.[1] But I have watched DFID staff in action with critical eyes.

Whatever politically correct language they use, many donors are patronising of the African government staff they work with and see them as in need of “capacity building”. DFID staff members are often different. They build respectful, trusting relationships with government staff. In Ethiopia, they speak Amharic and learn the names of their counterparts’ children. Instead of summoning regional officials to the capital, they go on regular field visits. They speak about the country’s targets and priorities as their own. Donor representatives from other countries, whom I interviewed, speak with admiration about the ability of DFID staff to negotiate with government and their specialised expertise in the sector they work in, which is rare in donor advisors in “field” postings. The most talented Ethiopians in the NGO sector aspire to work at DFID, even though they would earn less than in other international organisations. That is a tremendous compliment.

Second, Mr Pascoe argues that British aid achieves objectives that “desirable but not necessary” and that beneficiary countries are doing fine without British help. India is the easiest example for him to choose, although inequality and poverty are often as bad in middle-income countries as poor ones, as argued here. The argument becomes less palatable when one examines countries like Ethiopia, the recipient of the second largest amount of British aid.

Allow me to tell you about the village where I did my PhD fieldwork in Ethiopia. Yes, the country’s human rights record is patchy. DFID withdrew its aid in 2005, and has reinstated it with conditions. But the government has been good at delivering social services with donor money and conditions for children are improving.

When I first visited in 2008, the school was woefully under-resourced: textbooks were shared between two or three children, teachers were often absent and the school only taught up to Grade 6. Partly in response to criticism that access to education had expanded without adequate attention being paid to quality, the government has embarked on an ambitious quality improvement programme, with DFID as the largest bilateral contributor. Country-wide, in 1991, roughly one in five children were in school. Today, that number is close to four in five.

In 2010, when I last visited, each child in the school had a textbook for each subject. The school had just received its school improvement grant directly from the district as part of the quality improvement programme and added it to parent contributions to build two new classrooms. The district allocated two teachers. Girls now complete primary school in the village. They are old enough that they can walk to the nearest town for secondary school without their parents worrying about their safety.

Ethiopian doctors earned dubious fame for their excellence in treating fistula, a debilitating injury in childbirth that is particularly common in very young or malnourished mothers. In 2010, 15-year-old girls in this village say that early marriage is illegal, want to delay marriage until they complete school, and plan to use contraception to space their children. Thanks to the mainstreaming of gender issues in the national education plan, the school runs tutorial classes for girls and assigns a teacher to monitor girls who drop out.

DFID’s whole contribution to Ethiopian education was £61 million in 2011-12. The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics cost around £81 million. Indeed, the entire aid budget in 2011 (£8.6 billion) was significantly less than the government spent on hosting the Olympics (£9.3 billion).

Others have questioned Pascoe’s arguments about the irrelevance of soft power in general or the projection of British influence in particular. I’m not sure that’s the point. Textbook by textbook and classroom by classroom, UK aid marked “from the British people” is being delivered by representatives the British people can be proud of, and it is changing lives. I hope that knowledge guides Justine Greening’s line-by-line review.

[1] As a side note, one wonders if margins are high across the board, or only for organisations prepared to bid for work in Afganistan.

Of mice and men working for the BBC

“I’m holding onto this mouse until food prices go up”

Over at the BBC, Ros Atkins describes my favourite (well – in theory) roadside snack in Malawi: mice-on-a-stick. Always fun to discuss, but unfortunately Atkins tries to paint it as some sort of response to rising world food prices:

Food prices around the world are rising. Drought in the farming states of the American midwest and poor crops in eastern Europe have pushed up the cost of corn and wheat.

The increase in food costs has forced some people in developing countries to make changes in their diet and food choices.

In Malawi, which has the highest poverty levels in africa, young men sell cooked mice to make money and provide cheap food.

Classic – three sentences strung together with heavily-implied causality.  This is pretty silly – mice-on-a stick have been around for as long as I can remember. While the market for skewered rodents might be restricted to countries familiar with food scarcity, they are not a response to the recent food price increases. Maybe the demand for mice has gone up, but it would be nice to see something more than by-the-hip roadside anecdote. What is it about mice-on-a-stick that brings out the worst in journalists?

Dar es Salaam and the megacity

Joe Boyle at the BBC has written an interesting piece on the rapid growth of Dar es Salaam.  It’s a fairly pessimistic read, starting out hopeful but then sketching the city as under-siege from  informal hordes, only to find salvation in Singapore-style urban planning.

The UN estimates that 70% of Dar es Salaam’s population live in informal settlements; there are no slums in Singapore.

Slum clearance would be vital to any regeneration project. It would involve rehousing possibly hundreds of thousands of people, and the extra headache of clarifying the legal status of the land that has often passed down through generations of families without any legal paperwork.

Most of my work in the last two or three years of my PhD has been focused on the slums of Dar. I’ve written about my views of slum formation on this blog before: I do think they represent a missed opportunity, but I’m not sure that slum clearance is the answer. While there is something appealing about wiping the slate clean and doing things properly, the Tanzanian government doesn’t have a history of well-managed land expropriation, often botching both the relocation and compensation of those displaced.

In one of the neighbourhoods where our land titling project is running, over 200 homes have been marked for demolition by the local authority due to their proximity to a river (which was the source of major flooding in December). Ostensibly, all houses within a certain distance are to be bulldozed, but glancing around it’s clear that the targeting has been a little haphazard, and many people are still holding out under the assumption that the actual clearance might not happen for months or years.

There’s little discussion in Boyle’s piece about an alternative route: giving the residents of slums good reasons to embrace formality. We often look at the informal property market as being inherently dysfunctional, but it’s amazing just how well they do work in allocating a scarce resource to incoming migrants. The government would undoubtedly (I think) prefer everyone to have formal titles, so they can be identified, taxed, and regulated. But what slum-dwellers need to see is a formal system which gives them protection from unnecessary expropriation, lets them buy and sell with relative ease, and gives them access to the sort of public goods and infrastructure that taxes should buy you. Over the last decade, the government tried to get everyone to buy-in, advocating a cheap, renewable tenure system which would required everyone to pay land rent, but it failed to deliver on the pro-quo of infrastructure and services.

The slum clearance route would do this bluntly, by pushing people into planned housing and trying to do the same with newcomers, but I think formal systems which are put in place without good incentives for everyone to invest in them are bound to fail. Boyle’s article discussed the creation of a new master plan for Dar es Salaam as a means to curb slum formation. It might be worth noting that the last master plan was updated in 1979, just before several decades of absolutely massive informal growth.

Finally, I’m also a bit perplexed by the comments of Taweza’s Rakesh Rajani:

He says Tanzania could face a similar conflagration to Kenya in 2007, when thousands of people were killed in post-election violence.

Rajani undoubtedly is more in touch with the average Dar es Salaamer than I am, but I still find such a prediction hard to swallow. Yes, there are tensions, both today and historically, especially with young men (David Brennan’s article on the Tanu Youth League makes for some good reading), but the sort of violence Rajani is afraid of needs both a spark and incentives to keep the flame alight. I don’t know if I see either in Dar es Salaam, although I am typing this from my desk in Oxford.

Hat tip to @AndreaScheible for the BBC link.