In the midst of a bigger issue, some odd wording

The Guardian (via Reuters) is reporting on the demonstrations in Malawi. While the political issues that underly the demonstrations deserve their own post, I noted some odd wording in Reuters’ assessment of Malawi’s recent performance:

The outburst of public anger … was directed mainly at Mutharika, a former World Bank economist who was first elected in 2004 and has presided over six years of high-pace but aid-funded economic growth.

The freeze has left a yawning hole in the budget of a country that has relied on handouts for 40% of its revenues…

If we take this at face value, and assume that Malawi’s economic growth was ‘aid-funded’ (as opposed to aid-accelerated or aid-independent), is this a bad thing? It seems that Reuters is devaluing the economic growth because it has taken advantage of external assistance, but surely if the economic growth effect of aid is greater than the volume of aid, implying some kind of multiplicative effect of aid on growth in Malawi, this is a positive. It tells us that aid can indeed improve economic performance and contribute to growth, something that most aid workers and thinkers are deeply unsure of. The statement on Malawi’s ‘reliance on handouts’ also strikes me as a little disingenuous. A little digging by the staff would have shown them that while 40% of the budget surely constitutes aid dependency, this isn’t particularly high for the region, especially considering that Malawi gets almost all of it’s aid on budget, unlike most of its neighbours, and thus has a more accurate estimate of aid dependency than others countries, for whom estimates are almost universally biased downwards. I have seen incomplete estimates of aid dependency as high as 60%.

It seems to me that of all the criticisms we might wish to make of Malawi and its economic management, turning aid into growth and accurately assessing a not-astronomical aid dependency ratio should be very, very low on the list.

The myth of the persecuted aid blogger

Aid Watch gripes that anonymous aid bloggers are… well, anonymous.

Thank goodness we have press freedom here at home…oops, Dennis Whittle points out we don’t. At least not for many aid bloggers, who have to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.Could the CPJ consider an award for those aid bloggers? Alas, it would still have to be anonymous, unlike Ethiopia.

Most aid bloggers are tied to some sort of institution, be it academic, government, non-governmental, or private, and while some might accept their employees blogging general discussion and criticism, few would tolerate direct criticism of the employer’s policy. There are some exceptions – academic and think-tank bloggers work in environments that foster more transparent discussion, and so are more likely to feel comfortable enough blogging under their own name.

The important thing to remember is that this is the reality for all bloggers, not just aid bloggers. How many people who work for the UK Treasury have  open, independent blogs which objectively cover Treasury policy? The Fed? Google? Walmart? Employers just don’t like their employees talking about them. Maybe that’s a shame, but then again we’re not really press – most of us aren’t independent, and it’s perfectly rational (if unfortunate) for employers to expect their employees to pubicly conform to the company line. To compare the need for private individuals to protect their careers when diverging from the company line to an authoritarian government’s crack down on the actual press is silly.

Aid Watch often tries to spin the aid critic as the unappreciated minority. I’m an aid critic, and I believe that energy could be better spent making honest, coherent criticism, rather than trying to paint myself as the persecuted underdog.

Hbut mnjjoow many people who work for the UK Treasury have independent blogs which objectively cover Treasury policy? The Fed? Google?How many people who work for the UK Treasury have independent blogs which objectively cover Treasury policy? The Fed? Google?

Update on Kapuscinski

A polish journalist, Artur Domoslawski, has written a book claiming that Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote a form of fiction rather than journalism, in pursuit of a ‘higher form of truth.’

The Guardian writes about the book:

… a new book claims that the legendary Polish journalist, who died three years ago aged 74, repeatedly crossed the boundary between reportage and fiction-writing – or, to put it less politely, made stuff up…

[Domoslawski] added: “Kapuscinski was experimenting in journalism. He wasn’t aware he had crossed the line between journalism and literature. I still think his books are wonderful and precious. But ultimately, they belong to fiction.”

I probably won’t be picking up the biography: I doubt it adds more to John Ryle’s critique that I mentioned a couple of weeks back. Still, this is a good warning for those inclined to quote The Shadow of the Sun as fact.

Read more here.

Incentives in Storytelling and Journalism

Its just not like this anymore...

It's just not like this anymore...

Chris Blattman linked to an interesting critique by John Ryle about Ryszard Kapuscinski recently. Ryle’s critique of Kapuscinski essentially stems from the latter’s romanticism. Ryle argues that in his desire to stress the exotic and ‘unknowable’ element of the foreign cultures he was in, Kapuscinski stretched the truth, perpetuated myths and propagated his own misunderstandings of what he observed. Kapuscinski is a genuinely great writer so it manifests itself a little differently, but this is basically just another example of the ‘Africa: Land of Rape and Lions’  phenomenon.

Like many other development blogs, we’ve spent a lot of time moaning and complaining about the quality of journalism about our field. Sometimes we criticize the specific arguments or evidence they present. More often we rail against what we’ve described as ‘Poverty Porn’ and the myth-building exotica that characterizes so much press coverage of Africa. I used to get extremely worked up about this, but after arguing about this with my sister, a journalist for a major news outlet, I’ve come to revise my opinions.

Journalism is not and has never been simply a pursuit of the truth. This has always been part of it, but it has also always been a means to engage audiences through good writing, and to respond to popular desires. It has usually been written by generalists who specialize, though often without much more than ‘learning on the job’, because the primary skill of journalism is writing. People who genuinely write well are thin on the ground; even newspapers pad out their staff with second rate writers. Writers who can keep to strict word limits and a house style are also scarce. When assessing journalism, there are a few things about their style that we need to keep in mind.

  • News media all focus on events where most of their customers are based. As such, political writing about the UK in UK newspapers is far more common and insightful than political writing about any other country in those places, because they can assume a basic background knowledge among readers and they can build narratives and stories over days, weeks and months of blanket coverage of political events. This is not possible for UK coverage of African issues, because most people in the UK don’t want to read about Niger every single day, or even every single week.
  • The function of journalism is to impart information, of course. But this isn’t so simple: most people lack the time and patience to read an eight thousand word essay about the eating habits of the Dinka every time there’s a food shortage in South Sudan, and most newspapers lack the space to provide one. Journalists must compress information in order to impart it; by necessity this reduces the subtlety of argument.
  • Journalism is also about active education. Plenty of people don’t know where Malawi is. If a journalist wants to make people care about gay rights there, they have to put a sketch of it on the paper. That’s why we always get those lines that say ‘Malawi is a small, landlocked country of 13 million people, of whom the vast majority live in extreme poverty’, which makes those of us who know and love the country cringe. But it’s accurate, if not the whole picture. We can’t expect every article to add a two-paragraph amendment also talking about its recent clean elections or the rapid growth of the last three years unless it’s directly relevant to the story.
  • We need to remain vigilant on specific issues of morality and good practice. Kristof outing a child as a rape victim is unacceptable, even if he thinks it will increase awareness of the issue. The trade-off is murky and that alone should put us on the side of the child’s privacy. Using informants who do not exist is unacceptable: Abu Sharati steals the legitimate voice of those ‘he’ claims to represent and distorts their message – with real consequences.
  • We must also remain vigilant to factual inaccuracy. Claiming that Malawi had only one paved road, as a recent Guardian article did, has real implications: it may discourage tourist visitors or encourage charitable donations in a sector that needs much less support than others in Malawi – because of it’s exceptionally good road network.

These points above are just common sense. There are other arguments about the changing nature of journalism in response to the media environment that we must also take into account.

Continue reading

Numbers are a dirty business

Celia Dugger, whose articles I still find frustrating, has written about the global decline in child mortality over the past twenty years. Dugger commits a popular sin in journalism: reporting absolute numbers instead of ratios or percentages. Giving absolutes can be intentionally misleading – how often have you seen a headline which reads “greatest number of job losses since 1425?”

Luckily, Karin Grepin jumps in with a detailed discussion of the numbers:

The announcement was that there has been a decline in the number – or level – of child deaths, which I thought was an unusual metric to report. The number of deaths is a function of the number of women, the number of births per woman, and proportion of children that die. When I think child mortality, I think just the last of these components. Fertility has been on the decline and it could very well be that we now have less deaths because there are just less births. But as it turns out, this is not what happened because of a nifty little phenomenon that demographers like to call “population momentum”. Since there are more women alive, we still have more births even with lower fertility. We have actually seen a nearly proportional decline in the actual under 5 mortality rate (deaths per live birth).

Read the rest of Grepin’s discussion of the article on here blog here.

This is also an excellent opportunity to mention Grepin’s working paper on the negative impact of HIV/AIDS targeted funding on the general health sector available here, which is a must-read.

Not the P-word again

I’ve been using the word ‘porn’ so much recently I wonder what sort of google results this site is getting. Tim Samuels in the Guardian has written about the potential impacts of the porn industry on developing countries.

The village has no electricity, but that doesn’t stop a generator from being wheeled in, turning a mud hut into an impromptu porn cinema – and turning some young men into rapists, with villagers relating chilling stories of assaults taking place straight after the film’s end. In the nearest city, other young men are buying bootlegs copies of the almost always condom-free LA-made porn – copying directly what they see and contracting HIV. The head of the country’s Aids commission says porn risks destroying all the achievements they’ve made. It’s a timebomb, he says.

A timebomb? I’m not denying that pornography can influence young men’s perceptions of women and sex, but doesn’t this article seem a little alarmist… and a bit patronising? Aren’t there selection effects at play here? Samuels is always worried about the norms of prophylactic use being supported:

Since the only sex education some people in places such as Ghana are getting is via porn films, there is a decent argument for the porn industry to produce more films where performers use condoms. In LA, where the majority of the world’s porn is still shot, only one company routinely makes such films. The condom-only policy adopted following an industry HIV outbreak five years ago lasted just months.

According to the HDR, the Ghanaian contraceptive prevalence rate was 25% in 2008. Are we really to believe that porn is going to make or break this? Perhaps it is time for donors to break into the business and produce some more responsible pornographic films. When it comes time for the randomised impact assessment, call me.

It’s hard to rely on my good intentions

I just discovered Beyond Good Intentions, a short documentary series covering several different topics in the development agenda. Given the lack of quality coverage on the issue, I was surprised to find that the series avoids many of the trappings of the development documentary:

  • There is a disturbing lack of distended bellies
  • Western aid/NGO workers are, for the most part, not treated as saviours
  • Poor people are portrayed as determined and active, not helpless and doe-eyed.

It is well worth a watch. Tori Hogan has gone out of her way to cover a nice range of topics, although there is a slight micro bias to the whole thing. Absent are discussions on larger issues concerning aid effectiveness or less tangible areas such as governance. Even though Hogan manages to insert a healthy dose of skepticism from time to time, there’s a lack of a devil’s advocate for several of the pieces (the randomistas get off a little too easy). There’s also that post-MTV obsession with constant, uplifting music in the background.

Still, quibbles aside, it’s a great first step towards more thoughtful discussion. You can view entire the series on Youtube here. Especially cringy is, during the discussion on faith-based aid in Mozambique, the moment where a missionary admits he will only exchange assistance for guaranteed Christian conversions.

If nuance isn’t your thing, you’re welcome to check out The Invisible Children Project or watch two women discuss development over popsicles (thanks Aid Watch).

Handset of darkness

There’s an op-ed in the NYtimes by Thomas Friedman, who after going on safari in the Botswanan bush, decided to extrapolate his entire experience to the rest of the continent. Friedman noted that he managed to find a spot where his Blackberry and other assorted electronic addictions failed to find a signal. His writing gets bizarre almost immediately:

Yes, Dorothy, somewhere over the rainbow, there is still a “Land of No Service” — where the only “webs” are made by spiders, where the only “net” is the one wrapped around your bed to keep out mosquitoes, where the only “ring tones” at dawn are the scream of African fish eagles and the bark of baboons, where the only GPS belongs to the lioness instinctively measuring the distance between herself and the antelope she hopes will be her next meal, and where “connectivity” refers only to the intricate food chain linking predators and prey that sustains this remarkable ecosystem.

As his technology withdrawal symptoms worsen (he must have composed this op-ed in the soil with a stick), he goes on to claim that without similar connectivity, Africans will remain trapped in poverty:

“No Service” is something travelers from the developed world now pay for in order to escape modernity, with its ball and chain of e-mail. For much of Africa, though, “No Service” is a curse — because without more connectivity, its people can’t escape poverty. Can there be a balance between the two?

Technological developments in the region, especially mobile phones, have been extremely beneficial to the everyday African, but are they really the panacea that Friedman imagines? The check-list of opportunities that connectivity brings small-scale in nature: micro transactions, informational dissemination, agricultural productivity and tourism (despite Friedman’s assertions, I still think most tourists prefer staying connected, even in the bush). These sort of things lead to tangible improvements in people’s lives – they must do – they has been no Africa-wide product that has been more successful than the mobile phone (except perhaps Coca-Cola).

When I lived in Malawi, the local provider “Celtel” was re-branded as their parent company “Zain.” This involved a change in the  colour scheme from red/yellow to purple. Within a month of the switch every billboard, car and house that had been sporting the Celtel look had been splashed in purple. Imagine if we could do the same with every intervention (perhaps by piggy-backing on the existing distribution network?)

Despite all this, connectivity can only augment, not create, a conducive environment for sustained development. The resulting impacts, on liquidity, smallholder farming, etc, are not the sort of improvements we’d imagine to bridge the micro-macro paradox. We still need to look at the success of the mobile phone industry more carefully, because their ability to respond to demand is not something we are inherently good at, but we need to be cautious not to put too much faith in interventions solely because they now seem  crucial to our own way of living.

Well, with that confused rant over, there’s time still for a story: the op-ed’s odd oscillation between safari marvels and a discussion of connectivity reminds me of my last safari in the South Luangwa National Park. Our group was amazed at how knowledgeable our driver had been – discussing the most minute details of the fauna. A friend of mine asked him how long it had taken him to learn so much about the wildlife.

“Not long,” he replied, “I look it all up on my mobile phone.” In his hand was a Nokia with a picture of a hyena on the display.

Of mice and men

Lunch, anyone?

Lunch, anyone?

There’s a very brief article in the Washington post on the Malawian delicacy mice-on-a-stick. I lived there for two years and *somehow* failed to sample it.

What bothers me about the piece is the last sentence:

Malawi, with a population of 12 million, is among the poorest countries in the world, with rampant disease and hunger, aggravated by periodic droughts and crop failure.

This sentence is copied onto the end of every single photo description in the article. It reflects the media’s preferred African stereotype. Yes, Malawi is poor, disease-ridden, and often hungry, but it is really defined by these things? If we’re going to start bringing more dignity to development, we’ll need to start with our newspapers.

America, with a population of 300 million, is one of the fattest countries of the world, with a frighteningly awful perception of poor countries, aggravated by a befuddled, profit-driven media.