Monday, March 22, 2010

Phenomenal World Water Day-themed photos on Boston Globe's "Big Picture"

On a dreary, rainy day in an otherwise energized (thanks to the passage of Health Care Reform legislation) DC, it is important to stop and recognize the gap in access to healthy/improved water sources that so many people in the world face.  The below picture from Boston Globe's "Big Picture" is especially compelling.  Happy Water Day.

Manila Bay

Friday, March 19, 2010

"On academics in the Web 2.0 Era," or "From Peer Review to Blogging: Academics in the Web 2.0 Era"

I’m wondering what those of you who read blogs by the likes of Dani Rodrik, William Easterly, Chris Blattman, etc. think about academics in the development field (or academics in general) blogging.  In the Web 2.0 Era, everybody has the opportunity to voice his or her opinion (well, those of us fortunate to live in countries where the internet is not censored and where electricity and internet access are available on a consistent basis), to lend his or her analytical muscle to consideration of the important issues of our time, and/or to bloviate ad nauseum about their own pet issues (I can assure you that that is not a dig at Bill Easterly).  What took off as a sensation during the 2004 presidential campaign has become de rigeur for the web presences of journalists, non-profits, government agencies, and, yes, a growing plurality of development economists.  Many bloggers are hacks, of course.  Some, fortunately, are exceptional writers and keen policy analysts and observers.  The issue of the quality and accuracy of journalism in the editor-less blogosphere is essentially a long-running, two-sided debate (which newspapers continue to lose), but what about peer review-less academics?  Should we be concerned with the quality of the information academics publish in the blogosphere?  At the very least, and without having done a literature review on the subject or inventoried recent blog posts by the above-mentioned economist-bloggers, I think we should read these blogs with certain considerations in mind.  Why?  Well, we’ve certainly been burned before (see The Bell Curve, or, according to Bill Easterly, The End of Poverty – I jest).

Blogging represents stage 3 in the evolution of academic publishing: 1) peer-reviewed articles, 2) peer-review less books written by “public intellectuals”, and, again, 3) peer-review and editor-less blogging.  Generally, academic contributions are espoused in academic journals in articles that go through a peer review process.  While peer review is not a perfect system, most academic journals employ it in order that similarly qualified experts can review submitted work to ensure that it meets certain standards of quality, analytical rigor, and novelty – that it contributes something new to the field (law reviews, by stark contrast, are generally student run – if the managing editor of a law journal happens to like your piece, you’re in like Flynn).  Academics, including Mr.’s Collier, Easterly, and Sachs, have long condescended to pen books for consumption by the public; these basically present academic analysis (generally analogous to the results and conclusion sections of academic papers) in digestible language for consumption by the lay public.  Are these books peer reviewed?  Not as such, no (Ibid The Bell Curve -- The link provides citations to post hoc refutations of its core findings and abuses of statistics…and, of course, its pernicious normative foundations).  Peer review does not, of course, impede the exercise of freedom of speech – rather, it intends to exclude scholarship that is not considered of a high enough quality to bear the seal of approval of the discipline to which it attaches itself.  Book writing, though often a more labor-intensive undertaking, nevertheless does not require authors to submit to peer review.

Blog-writing one-ups book writing, offering an effortless solution to peer-review/editor-less publishing for academics.  With peer review, we are generally assured that their writing is good, that their statistics are not manipulated, and that their arguments move their discipline forward.  Of course, we may have no idea what they are saying.  We understand their books, though some of us, some of the time are (I keep coming back to the The Bell Curve) susceptible to provocative, though specious, arguments.

So why am I concerned about this?  Academics are experts.  The general blog-reading public is not (though many readers of AidWatch, Rodrik’s blog, etc. are).  Blogs present an exploitable outlet through which academics could conceivably publish material that is not worthy of academic publication but that bears the imprimatur of academic expertise and persuasiveness.  Again, I’m not saying this is happening with the blogs I referenced above.  I simply want to put this out there.  Do any of you share these concerns?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

NY Times piece on the mismanagement of food aid in Somalia

Food Aid Bypasses Somalia’s Needy, U.N. Study Finds

This is an interesting article about the many unintended places food aid goes in Somalia (to armed opposition groups, the military, etc.) due to corruption of local food distribution contractors and mismanagement by the World Food Program, which orchestrates food aid in the definitive failed state. Next week, the Security Council will release the report mentioned in this article, and I think it will create some substantial waves in the aid community given its provocative content and the high profile of the issuing body. I can't seem to find a list of the local Somali contractors used by the World Food Program on the organization's website. It must be very difficult, of course, to find reliable, incorruptible contractors to work in Somalia. Consequently, it will be very difficult to cleanse distribution chains in the country.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

William Easterly cannot ridicule the aid community into irrelevance

Thanks to the very helpful Twitter client TweetDeck, I am able to keep up to speed on Professor William Easterly's prolific Twitter feed.  Easterly is a fixture in the contemporary debate over the propriety of development interventions, having clearly positioned himself as the free market-espousing, anti-multilateral and bilateral donor agency vertex of the tripolar development economics triumvirate.  The other two vertices are held by Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia, the most high-profile "big aid" apologist, and Paul Collier of Oxford, who has more faith in aid than Easterly yet has a more intricate set of theories regarding how it can be used to mitigate extreme poverty than Sachs.  Easterly is most well-known for authoring The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, the first in a series of books by development economists-turned public intellectuals that question the very notion of development interventions (see also Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid).  In essence, Easterly disputes the conclusions of people like Sachs that aid has benefited the developing world, arguing that development interventions have essentially enslaved the developing world to the self-serving interests and low-performing (his conclusion) efforts of bilateral and multilateral aid programmers.  This post won't adjudge the relative merits of Sachs, Collier, and Easterly, of course.  All three thinkers contribute meaningfully to the aid debate.  In fact, I think that Easterly presents many compelling arguments (his "planners vs. searchers" thesis simply cannot be dismissed out of hand), but rather than provide a fully fleshed-out alternative to "big aid" in which the efforts of innovative and entrepreneurial "searchers" are rightly facilitated by the free market, he spends far too much time criticizing aid workers of all stripes (DC-based USAID and other bilateral agency "planners," their field-based foreign-service colleagues, and multilateral development bank and NGO program implementers -- though, of course, some field workers are "searchers").  Indeed, when pressed to defend his position in a class simulation last fall, I really had to grasp at libertarian straws (truly antithetical to my core personal beliefs/worldview, but that's another issue) to fill in the lacunae of his argument.  How can searchers "organize" their efforts to maximize impact (isn't that where government/MDBs can help?)?  How can searchers get funding if there isn't a willing benefactor?  If searchers need funding, is it OK for Western-based foundations to get involved?  Can USAID and the World Bank denude themselves of their policy-planning competencies (this has already happened at USAID, which lost its policy-planning bureau under Secretary Rice's "F Process" reforms) and simply become "searcher"-seekers and funders?

Again, these aren't questions I can answer here, but I did want to take issue with one of Easterly's tweets from yesterday, in which he sardonically impugns USAID's efforts in Afghanistan, suggesting that the most benefit Afghanis have realized from USAID's years of war-time effort is the use of USAID-labeled vegetable oil cans to set up live WIFI nodes in Jalalabad, Afghanistan:

bill_easterly: USAID finally achieves Afghan impact --its Leftover cans used as scrapmetal 4 wireless infrastructure

This is a very unproductive and mean-spirited use of anybody's time.  I honestly have no idea what Easterly expects the response to such a post to be -- this adds nothing to the debate, and perversely co-opts what is otherwise very positive news into an outlet for his nihilistic worldview.  For earnest portrayals of this exciting project, check out this BoingBoing post by Cory Doctorow about the work of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, the research group that, in conjunction with local residents, constructed these ingenious WIFI nodes.

At its worst, Bill Easterly's anti-aid campaign gives a bad name to private sector involvement in development, placing it in opposition to public sector efforts.  If anything, what the rise of major foundations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the nascent interest of large private firms in development shows us is that the philanthropic and private sectors "want in," and the aid community should work to further leverage their involvement into appreciable gains in the developing world.

Finally, for those of you interested in finding a very good counterpoint to the "planners vs. searchers" argument, check out this article co-authored by the DC-based "searcher" and global health economist Ruth Levine on the Advanced Market Commitment, a promising new initiative to provide cutting edge vaccines and drug-regimens to people in the developing world suffering from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases endemic to the developing world. 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Secretary Clinton and...the Incredible Shrinking International Affairs Budget?

Secretary Clinton is on the second of her two-day stint on the Hill, outlining the $52.8 billion international affairs budget request for FY 2011 to Congress.  On Tuesday morning, she went before the Senate Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.  The research department at The Big-Push has not been able to find that testimony as yet, though you can follow the live tweets (almost certainly texted from a Blackberry) from the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, representatives from which were present at the hearing.  That afternoon, Secretary Clinton went before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee (link to full prepared text from RealClearPolitics) to give what would appear to be essentially the same testimony.  Today, Wednesday, she presented before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

At the outset, I should say that I am generally very pleased with her testimony and with the budget.  Sarah Jane Staats, the director of policy outreach at the Center for Global Development, Washington's leading development think-tank, expressed a similar level of approval when the budget proposal was released earlier this month.  It is a robust, development-friendly budget that includes net increases in food security, global health, climate change, and humanitarian assistance.  Wait a second - net increases during a spending freeze?!  That's right - foreign affairs spending is exempt from Obama's spending freeze due to its being identified as a "critical national security investment."  This might be the first time that development stakeholders have been thrilled to have development so inextricably tied to defense.

However, the budget would appear to have been reduced slightly since it was initially proposed.  The figure proposed by the administration in early February and discussed in the above-referenced Center for Global Development post was $58.5 billion, whereas Secretary Clinton's proposed figure is $52.8 billion.  Confusing matters more, the Office of Management and Budget's factsheet on the budget shows a combined figure of $56.8 billion.  Readers should bear with me as I'm new to federal budgeting, but I am going to go ahead and state, tentatively, that it would appear as though the budget has gone through at least two rounds of revision and has been reduced. 

I’ll follow up with a breakdown of the numbers, and, if indeed the budget request has been reduced by $6 billion, a look into which programming areas will experience reductions.  Surely, somebody with more of a budgeting background will post some analysis that will help to clarify this issue.  Additionally, I’ll look into what, if any, take-away can be gleaned/inferred from Secretary Clinton’s rhetorical cues.  Finally, based off of the live tweeting from the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, it looks as though lawmakers have peppered Secretary Clinton’s testimony with some, err, legitimate and quasi-legitimate concerns.  With foreign assistance reform bills in the House and Senate and the approval of the FY 2011 budget still on the horizon, it is important to gauge the temperament of Congress, because no matter how development-friendly the Obama administration and the budget request are, Congress holds the purse strings.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eric Goosby on PEPFAR's next Five Years

Here is an excerpt from a blog post by Ambassador Eric Goosby, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, on PEPFAR's new Five-Year Strategy (follow the link for the complete text of the Strategy), which explains how the U.S. plans to change the ways in which it engages in the effort against HIV/AIDS in PEPFAR countries. The gist of the strategy is a shift from an "emergency response" to one that is more "sustainable" and long-term.

Reflecting the principles of the GHI, under our new PEPFAR Five-Year Strategy, PEPFAR is transitioning from an emphasis on an emergency response to a sustainable one. To accomplish this, PEPFAR is working with partner governments to increase their ownership of, and capacity to lead, HIV/AIDS responses in country. Achieving this outcome requires a heightened effort to improve health systems at the country level. PEPFAR will deepen our work with countries to expand their capacity to deliver the health interventions they designate as priorities. As we build health systems, PEPFAR will also use these systems as a platform to directly support treatment for more than four million individuals living with HIV/AIDS, prevention of more than 12 million new infections, and care for more than 12 million individuals affected and infected by HIV/AIDS, including 5 million orphans and vulnerable children.

Cultivating a sustainable response to the range of global health issues is no easy task. The Administration is dedicating unprecedented funding -- totaling $63 billion over six years -- towards the GHI. This figure is nothing short of remarkable: compared to the preceding six-year period from 2003-2008, this resource commitment for 2009-2014 represents more than a doubling of funds. Included in this in an increase in funding for PEPFAR, allowing us to expand the reach and maximize the impact of our HIV/AIDS programming.

This initiative represents a new and innovative way of doing business for the U.S. Government, promoting coordination among agencies and programs to avoid duplication of efforts and maximize the impact of each dollar invested. As part of GHI, PEPFAR will work closely with other United States Government programs to build the efficiency and effectiveness of national health systems, strengthening their ability to meet the variety of health needs individuals face, including HIV-related needs.

The GHI prioritizes a woman- and girl-centered approach. Over the long term, improving the health of women acts as a positive multiplier, benefiting not only the health but the social and economic development of future generations. PEPFAR also embraces this approach in our strategy, recognizing the disproportionate impact of HIV on women and the centrality of women to the health of their families and communities.

The GHI principles also reflect the reality that improving global health outcomes is a shared responsibility, and emphasizes collaboration with country and international partners. To sustain the gains made on HIV, we will strengthen our partnerships with the multilateral community, non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

OECD and Center for Global Development resources on aid effectiveness

As the response to Haiti turns from acquiring funds to absorbing the money on the ground into meaningful reconstruction work, you might be wondering how effective your country’s response is. While many of us have donated to non-governmental organizations, wonderful groups such as Partners in Health who have labored to improve socio-economic conditions in Haiti since well before this earthquake, the high-level organization and often the actual implementation of reconstruction work is the province of donor governments, generally under the supervision of the United Nations. My previous post provides a link to an excellent article about the challenges all of these stakeholders are facing in implementing the humanitarian response in Haiti, but what about efforts in other developing countries? Who is measuring up, serving as strong program managers and implementers that bring about sustainable socio-economic change, and who is coming up short?
This question is really more the theme of this blog than a question I, or anybody else, could answer in a single blog post. Certainly, I will not attempt to provide an answer to this question here, but I think it is important to know where to look for some answers.
Here are two good resources available online for those interested. If you have a lot of time on your hands (or, like me, find yourself needing to research this stuff), this site provides links to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) periodic peer reviews of the 23 donor countries who are members of its Development Assistance Committee (the OECD-DAC). Each review provides roughly 100 pages of analysis on issues such as 1) a donor’s organizational effectiveness (the institutional structures and legislative accountability of aid agencies such as the US Agency for International Development or the UK’s Department for International Development) and 2) the donor’s “policy coherence,” meaning the extent to which the donor is committed to development through its domestic and foreign policies. The analysis in these peer reviews is generally very strong and lends itself well to comparison since each report is structured similarly.
For those of you looking for some quick answers and/or are perhaps interested in disaggregated rankings for performance on issues such as migration and environmental sustainability, issues the OECD reports do not tackle, the Center for Global Development’s yearly Commitment to Development Index is very useful. It provides a rank-order listing of donors, with Sweden topping off this year’s list. The U.S. does not perform particularly well in this index - this blog will delve more into why this is in subsequent posts.