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.