The rich in the West are getting richer. Many countries have experienced a sharp concentration of incomes over the last three decades. The top 1% of Americans have doubled their share of national income (from 8 to 17%) since Ronald Reagan was inaugurated 32 years ago – see graph, source here. The elite in other advanced economies, including, Australia, the UK, Japan and Sweden, have also gotten a larger share of the pie. We have been able to understand the concentration of incomes at the national level thanks to the study of tax records by enterprising scholars such as Emmanuel Saez, Thomas Picketty and Sir Anthony Atkinson. But until recently, we didn’t know much about the global concentration of incomes (there’s no global tax collector with a similar database).
It is now 2050. Globally, we are 9 billion strong. Only 20% of us are directly involved in agriculture, and poor country economies have diversified. Yet we all have enough food. Technological innovation has played its part, but increased production has been largely driven by institutional reform. For example, industrialized countries have eliminated the subsidies that once undercut poor country agricultural production and exports. Land reform has spread in Latin America. Water reform has proceeded in Asia. Irrigation, which once constituted 70% of freshwater use, now consumes less than 50%. New agronomic practices are taking hold worldwide. The world is eating more healthily and locally. The sustainability of our agricultural systems is taken as non-negotiable by the world’s politicians.
The key? Institutional reform. And the key to institutional reform has been placing citizens and primary producers in more central oversight and ownership positions, with governments stepping back and taking more responsibility for managing at watershed and ecosystem levels.
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
Africa's digital election trackers
“Harry Kargbo barely slept the night before Sierra Leone's recent election for president. "I was so excited," he said. “I was up until 1 AM the night before. I was thinking, 'What will happen tomorrow? What will tomorrow look like?'"
Four hours later, Kargbo was up and out the door. Armed with nothing more than a mobile phone, he spent the next 10 hours navigating his way through a vehicle ban and police checkpoints, observing voting at polling stations around this West African country's capital, Freetown, and reporting on what he saw using the basic text messaging function on his phone." READ MORE
Every now and then, a ‘Big Book on Development’ comes along that triggers a storm of arguments in my head (it’s a rather disturbing experience). One such is Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu (MIT) and James Robinson (Harvard). Judging by the proliferation of reviews and debates the book has provoked, my experience is widely shared.
First, what does the book say?
‘The focus of our book is on explaining world inequality’, which is essentially a phenomenon of the last 200 years (certainly at its current extreme levels) – the average income of a conquistador was only about twice that of a citizen of the Inca empire.
“A liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
-- Robert Frost (1874 – 1963), American Poet.
Quote from http://www.barrypopik.com
Recently I had a lot of conversations about evidence. First, one of the periodic retreats of Oxfam senior managers reviewed our work on livelihoods, humanitarian partnership and gender rights. The talk combined some quantitative work (for example the findings of our new ‘effectiveness reviews’), case studies, and the accumulated wisdom of our big cheeses. But the tacit hierarchy of these different kinds of knowledge worried me – anything with a number attached had a privileged position, however partial the number or questionable the process for arriving at it. In contrast, decades of experience were not even credited as ‘evidence’, but often written off as ‘opinion’. It felt like we were in danger of discounting our richest source of insight – gut feeling.
In this state of discomfort, I went off for lunch with Lant Pritchett (right – he seems to have forgiven me for my screw-up of a couple of years ago). He’s a brilliant and original thinker and speaker on any number of development issues, but I was most struck by the vehemence of his critique of the RCT randomistas and the quest for experimental certainty. Don’t get me (or him) wrong, he thinks the results agenda is crucial in ‘moving from an input orientation to a performance orientation’ and set out his views as long ago as 2002 in a paper called ‘It pays to be ignorant’, but he sees the current emphasis on RCTs as an example of the failings of ‘thin accountability’ compared to the thick version.
Sophisticated campaign communication (an important part of political communication) is a field both invented and dominated by American practitioners and scholars. When I ask my associates in the field why this is so, the reason they usually give me is the sheer quantity and frequency of democratic elections in the American political system. Therefore, they point out, human and material resources have been poured into the science and the art of winning election campaigns. What is important for our purposes is that the practices of American political communicators tend to spread worldwide... like much else in American culture. Politicians in newly democratizing polities have for decades now invited American political consultants to help them run and win elections. Local specialists have also mushroomed, many of them trained by the American universities who offer amazingly good degrees in communication, particularly political communication. If you are interested in campaign communication as a global phenomenon, a good place to start is Fritz Plasser's Global Political Campaigning: A Worldwide Analysis of Campaign Professionals and Their Practices (2002).
My bet is that at least two aspects of the recently concluded presidential election campaign in the United States -- a spectacular showcase of political communication at work -- will prove influential globally. President Obama was re-elected and it was a big win, but for campaign communication two methods won big victories of their own and they are likely to be flattered with imitation worldwide. They are as follows:
One of the topics that kept coming up during my recent trip with Oxfam India was the role of the rising middle classes. We had a great debate with Aseem Prakash from Jindal University, who is in the middle of a paper on this (I’ll link when it’s published). According to Aseem, different definitions yield numbers for India’s middle classes ranging from 5 million ($10-$20 per day) to 214 million ($2-$4 a day). What’s not disputed, however, is that the numbers are rising rapidly as India’s economy continues to boom.
Behind the numbers are some increasingly complex dynamics, as a new commercial middle class, including rising numbers of so-called ‘lower caste’ entrepreneurs, joins the post-independence middle class of mainly dominant-caste government technocrats who placed their faith in the power of the state to lead India’s rise.
I spent last week trying to understand an intriguing experiment. About five years ago, Oxfam GB’s 'white men in shorts' left India, along with all the other Oxfam affiliates, and a new, completely Indian-run Oxfam India took over. All part of ‘Bricification’ within the Oxfam family (there’s an Oxfam Brazil in the pipeline too).
So what’s changed? After a period of reflection Oxfam India has opted for a strategy combining programming with increased levels of advocacy in areas such as smallholder agriculture & climate change, natural resource management, right to education and health, violence against women and women’s empowerment, along with a hefty dose of emergencies work and disaster risk reduction. Its two ‘emerging themes’ are urban poverty and ‘India and the World’ – for example the impact of Indian investment in Africa, or India’s role in the G20.
But it hasn’t been easy. The apparently unanswerable political logic of ‘Indianizing Oxfam’ has faced some pretty steep challenges, as I found out in a consultation with partners from Indian civil society. These come in two broad areas: political and financial.