Archive | November 2011

The Symbolism of Progress (or lack of progress)

The New York Times’ India Ink blog ran an interesting story about melting police-seized guns into agricultural tools to try to reduce the levels of violent crime in Bihar. While peace will likely be harder to attain than just by melting guns (especially guns which have been seized after already being used to commit murder), the symbolism of reworking weapons to rework the land is interesting and sounds like something Gandhi would have approved of.

The question now, of course, is whether all these new farm tools will be put to use. Many of the weapons seized were “country-made firearms,” known as katta. This is to say that they are made fairly cheaply and easily. A gunsmith in Ganga recalls:

“The barrel can be made from any hard good quality metal pipe, the butt and the trigger are fashioned from raw metal, the hammer is generally improvised from the spring of a stove and some nails. And if I have the raw material, I can manufacture it in one-and-a-half hour’s time. All I use is a hammer, chisel, pliers, a screw-driver and a forge with bellows,” he adds.

If kattas are made this easily and cheaply, what’s to say that melted guns-turned-farmtools can’t be reworked once more? If the stashes of weapons across the province suddenly disappear, what’s to prevent demand for more guns from rising? It takes a whole societal shift, not just fewer guns. As the same gunsmith observes, “Weddings, festivals and election time usually spell higher sales.” Ironic, no, that weddings, festivals, and fair elections are usually associated with peace and prosperity elsewhere?

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OPIC: a better way to do development?

I must admit that I’m far less familiar with the OPIC’s operations than with those of the World Bank, IMF, and other development finance institutions. However, OPIC (the Overseas Private Investment Corporation) might arguably be doing a greater service to society than these more well-known agencies.

For one, it’s been able to finance itself since its creation in 1971, something that can’t be said for most bodies that insure private businesses in high-risk areas like the DRC, Sudan, and post-revolution Egypt. Secondly, the money is used to fund private ventures rather than languishing in government coffers and being syphoned off by bloated bureaucracies. Thirdly, the funding is being targeted (at least from what I can tell) towards high-risk (high-need) areas that would otherwise lack access to high amounts of capital or insurance–something that is very often not the case for other aid coming from the U.S. (which has historically been directed towards areas of national security interest, towards keeping incumbent dictators in power, and generally ignoring areas of greatest need.) Political insurance and general loans are far less “sexy” than humanitarian aid, but I’m thankful that at least OPIC is dedicated towards providing these services.

I definitely wish that OPIC had more staff dedicated to examining the social and environmental ramifications of their investments (like the $200 million that went towards coal-fired power plants in Indonesia in 1995 or the $60 million that was used to fund silver and tin mining for an American corporation in Bolivia in 2005)…

But there were investments that I did like:

Slums: hotbeds of opportunity?

I was lucky enough to go to Stanford’s Conference on Global Underdevelopment today, and have so, so many thoughts I’d want to discuss. Firstly, (and not surprisingly) I had a bone to pick with Jeff Raikes (or more precisely, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he represents as its CEO)… Last year, I was frustrated that the Gates Foundation completely failed to consider staple/orphan crops like cassava, yams, and tef as a funding priority; they were (and still appear to be) more interested in funding corn and other row crops, which have higher rates of return, than crops that actually have direct linkages to food security in developing countries.

This year, I was ecstatic because another audience member, a photographer at National Geographic, brought up the issue of slums to Raikes. Having just returned from Kibera, one of the biggest slums in the world, the photographer wondered why such places aren’t receiving more aid and international attention (including none from the Gates Foundation). I wonder the same thing. When I’d asked others before, their answer was always that NGOs are already serving slums. If that were the case–if NGOS could really have enough prowess and funding to fully provide for hundreds of thousands of chronically poor and malnourished people [per slum!]–I would be impressed.

And yet, these kinds of places represent the perfect opportunity for change: they are highly concentrated, so relatively small investments in infrastructure, education, basic sanitation, health services, and agricultural support would go a long way. Markets for goods already exist, simply due to the number of people living in the area. Credit would be easier to disseminate (and perhaps even easier to enforce), and people are likely to be more entrepreneurial if they can survive under such harsh conditions. What would it take to incentivize philanthropists to invest in slums, if these are not reasons enough?

Slum population in urban Africa (UNDESA 2010)

Toeing a Thin Line

When does one draw the line between foreign direct investment (FDI) in agribusiness and large-scale land acquisitions? The case of Australia is particularly perplexing to me: this is a highly developed country with a healthy economy, an educated population, a theoretically functioning justice system and strong civil society. And yet, Australia’s lands have become privy to so much foreign investment that the government last year felt compelled to launch a national investigation on large agribusiness investments…because they no longer knew how much of their land was still in the hands of Australians.

As John Cobb, the Australian Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, said in April 2011:

“While foreign investment has been vital for the development of agriculture in Australia, in the last three years we have seen a ten fold increase. There has been a marked change in the activity by foreign companies from investment in agriculture to ownership and control of supply lines.”

It is precisely this control of supply lines that will make the difference between FDI, which has helped to boost agriculture and R&D worldwide when the public funding just hasn’t been there, and land acquisitions that directly threaten food security and food sovereignty.

Frankly, after having run a model analyzing food supply to 2050, I am surprised that Australia is taking such leisure to sell off its most productive lands. It has already faced serious droughts in recent years, with the wheat crop—its largest agricultural export—suffering heavily due to rising temperatures (wheat’s optimal growth occurs below 26 Celsius.) This trend of decreased yields will continue to accelerate, and a greater shift toward barley, sugar, and fruits (its other main agricultural exports) will only get Australia so far if the aquifers become even more depleted due to increased reliance on large-scale irrigation and are not recharged at sustainable rates due to decreased rainfall.

Unfortunately, instead of incentivizing Australian politicians to limit foreign agricultural land purchases, this pressure from decreasing yields has begun to make Australians, like Prof. Robin Batterham, consider pushing this fate onto others:

”Other countries are investing in Australia … so that the produce of the land can go to their countries… As an investment, why aren’t some of our larger farms – that is the companies that own them – also investing in places where the soil is a bloody sight better than Australia’s?”

Hence why a headline like “Western Australia to release 15,200 hectares of new farm land” makes me so upset. Since when is this land “new,” undeveloped, unowned? Aside from the obvious lack of concern for any ecosystems that may have once existed on this “new” land, there is likewise a blatant disregard for farmers that were already on this land, the native peoples that have been on the land for centuries, and the children who would have inherited the land tomorrow. When does the cost of economic growth finally become high enough to make politicians question their decision-making?

American Hegemony

Despite my extreme frustration with the Stanford housing process this summer, I am now realizing just how fortunate I was to land in a dorm on the central campus, with an awesome roommate (who has an awesome Jamaican accent to boot!), and with a theme revolving around global citizenship. The consequence? I happened upon a poster this morning by the watering hole (the bathroom) advertising a talk by Jeremy Weinstein… and just showed up, to a casual Q&A with one of the most lucid political thinkers I have ever heard.

A few thoughts:

-Washington makes people sound proud of the U.S. to the point of sounding elitist. However, this might just be the political scientist coming out. Stephen Krasner was certainly the same way in lecture, but then again, he was in Washington for even longer.

-I was surprised by how biased Weinstein was toward the White House vs. the State Department. In highlighting the shift in foreign aid responsibility from the White House to the State Dept., he essentially stated that the State Dept. is less capable of insulating foreign aid policy from foreign policy than the White House…which seems counterintuitive when the president’s main job is to watch out for US interests above all.

-I was not surprised to hear that US foreign aid and its associated bodies are largely ineffecient and ineffective. I was, however, surprised to hear Weinstein say that DFID is the best international aid agency (with the justification that it is not tied to the UK’s foreign service), and moreover that the MDC in the US is our best development body. Development in Weinstein’s sense seems more like mere charity, rather than as investment for large-scale, long-term growth… Is this the view of a jaded American political advisor, a naïve American, or of an academic who has watched too many aid darlings sparkle and then fade?