Archive | January 2012

FINALLY! The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Gates’s 2012 annual letter, acknowledged that we need to focus on and invest in orphan and staple crops in Africa (cassava, millet, sorghum, and yams, albeit in addition to his favorite row crop: maize). Good news, coming from the world’s largest private foundation and considering how stubbornly ignorant they were on this point two years ago.

One thing Gates stressed in his letter was the decreasing proportion of farmers in industrializing countries. Can we afford for the entire world to make this transition to mechanized agriculture and lose our agricultural intuition as the last generations of farmers leave us?

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African Agricultural Growth

As I was looking through different organizations’ annual reports for World Bank research, I came across these two interesting charts in CAADP’s (Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme) 2009 report (the most recent one I could find.)

It’s interesting to see how investment didn’t directly correlate with agricultural growth rates (but then again, the 2nd chart doesn’t account for private investments). Glad to see a relatively positive trend, though, and here’s to hoping Zimbabwe gets back on track (if it hasn’t already, since 2008.)

Figure prepared by ReSAKSS (www.resakss.org). Source: WDI, 2009 and UN National Stats, 2009.


Figure prepared by ReSAKSS (www.resakss.org). Sources: SADC 2008; ReSAKSS 2010; Country CAADP Brochures (#4); Country CAADP Stocktaking Reports; IMF 2009; AU, NEPAD, FAO and World Bank Agriculture Expenditure Survey Report 2008; UNECA 2007; ReSAKSS Working Paper #18; ReSAKSS Working Paper #21; Seychelles Government Finance Stats (Abstract 2007).

The Future of International Relations

Many people now believe that the future of international development lies not with large organizations like the World Bank or USAID or UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), but with nimble entrepreneurs and small businesses. Alex Evans often talks of a movement not towards a G20 world but towards a Gø world. Parag Khanna, of TED fame, likes to talk of structural change (moving from a world of unipolarity where the US is all-powerful to a multipolar world with multiple loci of influence) and of systemic change (with hordes of influential new actors other than countries, like cities and corporations).

While I can’t always buy into such black-and-white arguments, there is some credibility to their claims—especially (and hopefully) to their predictions that collaboration (“proactive”) will become a more useful tactic than diplomacy (“reactive”). Which is why I was disappointed to hear President Obama’s State of the Union address yesterday, in which he boldly claimed that the United States must win.

Why must everything be about winning? Since when is economic growth a game? Since when is toying with protectionist trade policies, unemployment, war in multiple countries, and human rights abuses a game? This, if anything, is precisely the reason why the US won’t win—because it places itself on a pedestal of excellence, alienates any and every neighbor and friend, and gives more reasons for potential enemies to become definite enemies. If there’s any explanation for why the US has gotten this far, it’s because of hardworking citizens and entrepreneurs—and not because of our government and its quest for total domination.

The Touchy Issue of GMOs…

When we were in Charleston, SC last weekend, my friends from Stanford and I were lucky enough to hear the chef of McCrady’s, Sean Brock, “introduce” us to his views of good food and good agriculture. Here is a guy from rural Virginia who absolutely adores pigs, pork, and lard — not exactly the typical tree-hugging vegan activist — and yet, he’s also a staunch advocate for local food, to the extent that he tried to salvage and grow rice varieties and other grains from the colonial era. One thing was clear from his 5-minute speech: he absolutely hates GMOs.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that locally-growth food and the preservation of genetic diversity is vital for sustainable development and a healthy society. But there’s something to be said for the multitude of countries in Africa and Asia who face land degradation, desertification, droughts, and ultimately famines. It’s all preventable–one look at the articles on the recent East African famine confirms this–and starting with crops that are genetically modified to withstand high temperatures and less water is one step in the right direction.

However, there should be limits. For example, we probably shouldn’t be adding animal genes to plant genomes and vice versa. We also shouldn’t require farmers to use them, as is the case in much of the US due to the coercive powers of Monsanto and other corporations. For all the staunch anti-GMO advocates who argue that letting some be planted will lead to the demise of all wild cultivars, please consider the people who may actually have food on the table in 20 years as a result. Compromise here, as elsewhere, is key.

A weekend in Charleston – The Capital of Charm

As a “Northerner,” I fully expected to find a few things in the South: greasy food, intolerance, poverty, and quiet. Instead, during our long weekend in Charleston, SC, we were welcomed with sincere hospitality virtually everywhere; we ate some AMAZING food (including honey-soaked hush puppies at Hyman’s Seafood and sweet potato soup with marshmallows (!!) at McCrady’s); and we were truly impressed by the architecture and history surrounding us.

My two favorite experiences:

  1. Listening to a great musician from Ireland on an acoustic guitar singing at an Irish pub, surrounded by friends and singing along.
  2. Walking along the Battery (Charleston’s version of the ramblas in Uruguay) in the warm afternoon sun, complete with dogs, joggers, children, dolphins swimming in the background, and some of the most elegant/ostentatious houses I’ve seen outside of Bay Ridge (including the house where Colbert allegedly grew up).

Another surprise was the huge Navy presence: you could not go one block without spotting a Navy uniform. Even more surprising was [as told to me by friends] spotting large groups of young men from the Navy at the gay nightclub, where many of them would hang out together when they were away from their girlfriends back home.

We stayed in the [more upscale] historic district, so perhaps this accounts for the fact that most African Americans we saw were either working in the inn we stayed at or selling woven baskets at the market, though it was still a bit surprising to see a rather homogenous population, which was probably my only disappointment with Charleston.

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Three Cheers for the IEG

Today at work, I found out about the IEG (Independent Evaluation Group) at the World Bank, which [according to colleagues] consists of long-time WB employees who are nearing retirement (and therefore aren’t scared of losing their managers’ approval) and who are in charge of evaluating the impact of the World Bank Group’s projects. The non-WB-side (public) version of the IEG website looks far more glamorous than the side I see (and also seems to be missing some of the reports), but it’s still a great tool for figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of the WB and similar institutions at a much more nuanced level than how NGOs evaluate the Bank and its impacts.

Some interesting takeaways on the agriculture end:

  • “IFC investments in agribusiness had above-average development outcome ratings in Latin America and the Caribbean and Europe and Central Asia but have been weak in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
  • “When input support programs succeed bumper crops, the temporary surplus is not always exportable—for example, in Malawi and Zambia; storage facilities are also poor.” (this is from a workshop rather than a report)
  • “Failure of policy makers to view research as a long-term investment.”

Day 2 at WBI and I can feel the bureaucracy seeping into my life here. On the bright side, I get exposed to flashy terms like “fast-start finance,” which in reality looks like this (and doesn’t look so fast at all):

And people still wonder why big organizations and governments are often inefficient at carrying out their goals… (not that I have a solution.) An example from both EDF and the WB: I’m asked to research–online, rather than in internal databases–what another branch of the organization [in the same geographic location] is doing, because knowledge apparently doesn’t circulate in big organizations (in the sense that Branch A has no idea what Branch B is working on). Rather maddening and sad at the same time.

Japan and other countries way better than the US at CC mitigation

Today was my first day as an intern at the World Bank! (And I already have a deliverable due by the end of the week, such is life…) At any rate, as I was researching individual nations’ stances toward including agriculture in climate change (CC) negotiations, I found a presentation given by Japan in 2009 on everything they plan to do in order to decrease agricultural GHG emissions. The authors mention many creative (if not new) approaches, including:

  • utilizing manure for energy source by carbonization/methane fermentation facilities
  • cycling biomass resources (composting)
  • expanding the use of rice straw as feed, rather than burning it
  • prolonged mid-season drainage of rice fields
  • reduced fertilizer inputs
  • installing monitoring systems to measure soil carbon
  • reducing emissions (somehow…) from greenhouse horticulture & agricultural machineries

There’s also a great quote from an IPCC report (AR4, which has since been cited everywhere else) that speaks to much of what climate-smart agriculture tries to propone:

“About 89 per cent of technical mitigation potential of agriculture can be achieved by soil carbon sequestration.”

The trouble with relying on the diaspora

OPIC and other organizations have begun to realize the potential benefits of partnering with the diaspora (particularly the African diaspora) to finance and implement risky projects. Diaspora investors, as OPIC’s Executive VP pointed out, are often better than the average investor because:

  • They have a better understanding of what risks they’re dealing with
  • They have more foresight and have a bigger stake in the long-term outcome than non-native investors solely interested in profits
  • They have a better network of connections in-country to help facilitate the project implementation and keep it going
  • They’re less likely to cave in and give up at the first signs of difficulty

However, this fails to point out the potential pitfalls on relying on diaspora finance alone: like most others in a globalized economy, diaspora lenders and investors are also affected by fluctuations in income and they can only do so much. How can you expect a working taxi driver from Pakistan to contribute the same amount in a boon economy as in a year where he makes an average of $30/day and has to support 5 kids? And sure, OPIC helps by buffering for risks, but it can only do so much. While relying on diaspora financing and projects is probably much better than working solely with an outside corporation, relying on the diaspora as the main source of investment seems careless on a continent (Africa) that needs as much investment from possible.

The next Nobel Peace Prize goes to…

Here’s to hoping that Sayyid Abdullah Hashemi is at least considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. I have no idea how his work (turning around all the corrupt orphanages run by the Afghani government) made it to the NYT, or what keeps him going despite all the threats from incumbent, well-connected orphanage directors, or how he’s doing a better job at age 29 than most people twice his age… but I’m glad I came across his story nonetheless.

[I at least think he’s a more worthwhile candidate than Obama was, but that’s besides the point.] What’s more important is figuring out how to facilitate the work done by him and others like him in developing countries, who have fantastic ideas, refuse to abide by the status quo of corrupt government bureaucracies, and are often sidetracked, discouraged, or stopped altogether once they upset the wrong [well-connected] person.

To say, as an economist would, that government officials and others that perpetuate corruption aren’t paid enough, isn’t good enough in my opinion. They may not be paid enough, but that can be said for the vast majority of people in developing countries. To say, as a sociologist might, that these are deeply-ingrained norms perpetuated by the culture and its people, isn’t good enough either. But the combination of these two, now that holds promise.

A great paper by Sunil Sondhi addressing the history and dynamics of corruption in India outlines 4 main courses of action to combat corruption:

  1. Demonstrated political commitment to combatting corruption
  2. Administrative accountability (and enforcement)
  3. Procedural simplification
  4. Active & vigilant civil society groups (like national chapters of Transparency International)

While Mr. Sondhi seems to imply that actions by a government must necessarily come first (such as creating independent government bodies to monitor corruption), I think that this can only come after enough people rally against corruption, especially in the case of non-democracies (as in, countries where citizens have little political say and whose opinions are often overlooked). Politicians have few incentives to curb corruption unless the people responsible for their staying in office no longer approve of the politician’s practices and can stage a revolt. I liked Mr. Sondhi’s idea of Gandhi-style non-violent mass protests (in particular, “24 hour relay fasts” staged at the same time as parliamentary sessions), though this might not work in places where food insecurity and starvation are the norm…

——– Update:

Funny how there’s an article in the IHT about the Indian anti-corruption efforts a few hours after I wrote my post. The author essentially claims that the anti-corruption movement, started a few months ago by Anna Hazare, an aging old man with outdated opinions, has failed due to the fact that people couldn’t actually relate to his views once they found out what they were. However, it pointed out a deeper flaw in the system: that the majority of Indians who had market and political power, and who would stand to benefit from less corruption–the growing middle class–have not actually done much themselves. They may have written blogs and articles lamenting of the corruption, but did nothing to mobilize themselves and actually change their own behavior. It’s a lot easier to say that you support one man (in this case, Anna Hazare) who supposedly represents you, and to say that you’re too busy to rally because of your work and family obligations.

And maybe that’s why protests in Egypt and Tunisia worked — the majority of the masses in the beginning were unemployed and/or unmarried. Something to keep in mind for those that will hopefully take up the challenge after Hazare …