Close but no cigar. Just been reading an ODI paper from a few months ago, Making sense of the politics of delivery: our findings so far, by Marta Foresti, Tam O’Neil and Leni Wild. It’s part of the ODI’s excellent stream of work on governance and accountability (see my review of David Booth and Diana Cammack’s book) and repays close study.
The starting point is the widespread disillusionment in DFID and elsewhere with ‘political economy analysis’ (PEA), memorably summed up by Alex Duncan’s definition of a political economist as ‘someone who comes and explains why your programme hasn’t worked’:
‘There is no doubt that PEA has helped answer some of these questions [why stuff doesn’t work]. Yet many would say that researchers have not found a middle ground between generality and specificity. On the one hand, the use of catch-all concepts, such as political will or unspecified incentives, fail to provide enough analytical purchase on which to hang entry points for reform. On the other, if we view every context and problem as sui generis, experience cannot be used to construct theories of change that include learning across programmes and contexts.’
The Sunday before last I woke up to a couple of articles in the New York Times Magazine and The Economist. In the first article, the New York Times ethicist was asked a question about Halloween candy: Are dentists who purchase candy from kids (thus protecting their teeth) and donate it to poor families engaging in “thoughtless, unethical and unprofessional” behavior? The Economist article summarized research on cash transfers to the poor, concluding that “Giving money to poor people works surprisingly well. But it cannot deal with the deeper causes of poverty”. In both articles, the fundamental question is how we measure and judge improvements in welfare based on what people consume. But while the ethicist takes the question head on, The Economist does not even get the question right.
To see this, recall that in welfare economics there are two rationales for government interventions to make people better off. First, governments fix market failures. If the market does not produce efficient outcomes, the government can use taxes and subsidies to make things better. Externalities are classic examples. I don’t worry that my pollution makes others worse off and therefore “over pollute”. But the government can tax that pollution to the point where I behave “as if” I care about others.
Second, governments redistribute income by giving cash to the poor. If, in society’s judgment, an alternate distribution of consumption is better, government could achieve that distribution by redistributing “endowments” or cash from one party to another.
The collapse of a US investment bank in the fall of 2008 turned a severe credit crunch into the worst financial crisis since the great depression, providing a blunt reminder that mismanagement of risks does not go unpunished. What is more, mismanaged risks do not respect boundaries in a tightly interconnected world, damaging anything they touch on their path, hurting especially the poor and vulnerable. While financial systems can contribute to economic development by providing people with useful tools for risk management, such as credit, savings, and insurance, they can create severe crises with devastating social and economic effects when they fail to manage the risks they retain.
Natural disasters – such as tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones and floods – are costly to society, in terms of both human destruction and financial losses. Governments ultimately bear the full cost of the havoc wreaked by natural disasters, which can create an enormous strain on limited government budgets, especially in developing countries. This is even before we begin to contemplate the development impact and how the poorest of the poor are disproportionately affected.
Just last week, the world saw the widespread damage that the St. Jude storm inflicted across Europe, and we witnessed its effect on hundreds of thousands of people. Most advanced economies, however, have sufficient capacity to be able to absorb the financial losses inlicted by natural disasters. Higher-income countries enjoy (relatively) efficient public revenue systems and developed domestic insurance markets.
By contrast, developing countries do not have the same degree of access to financial and insurance markets. They face limited revenue streams, limited fiscal flexibility, and limited access to quick liquidity in the wake of an event. This is particularly so for Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as the Pacific island nations.
It started with the first cries of “degage” that resonated across southern and central Tunisia to the streets of the capital in the winter of 2010. Through the ups and downs of Tunisia’s transition, one constant has been the citizens’ demand that the government listen to their voices and for greater accountability. Public opinion polls, banned under the former dictatorship but common today, rarely touch on bread and butter issues, such as how citizens feel about the most basic public services. One such issue is access to and the quality of health care, where systematic feedback from citizens has long been lacking.
Urbanization is the most powerful force shaping the planet today. This can be good news as urbanization is the best bet we have to meet our global poverty reduction targets. Cities generate our wealth, our culture, and our innovation. This is also bad news since cities generate the lion’s share of the world’s GHG emissions, and cities are responsible for most of the planet’s current decline in biodiversity. Cities also generate solid waste; lots of it and the amount is growing fast.
‘Peak waste’ – that point in time when all the waste from all the cities finally plateaus around the world, and then slowly starts to decline, is not on track to happen this century. Estimates are that it will peak at three-times today’s current waste generation rate. Peak waste is an excellent proxy for humanity’s cumulative global environmental impact; therefore we are on track to triple today’s overall global environmental impact. Our ‘assault on the planet’ will start to subside on the other side of peak waste. Therefore we must move peak waste forward and reduce its intensity when it finally does arrive.
“I certainly love the IT thing. But when we want to improve lives, you’ve got to deal with more basic things, like child survival, child nutrition. As a priority? It’s a joke. Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I’m thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.”
- Bill Gates, an American business magnate, investor, programmer, inventor and philanthropist. He is the founder and current Chairman of Microsoft.
I took my first bird flight over London on Friday courtesy of Pigeon Sim, an app developed at University College of London that simulates flying over the city, drawing on real time environmental data, such as air pollution levels. This was one of many attention grabbing displays within the Festival of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Annual Summit. The conference provided a similarly dizzying overview of the terrain of open government.