Emerging from what?

One of the most illuminating insights in Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos (see last week’s review) was on how well suited complexity science is to tackling issues of systemic risk in the global financial system (e.g. too much inter-connectedness amongst banks and other financial institutions). The reason being that there was a wealth of data, millions upon millions of individual transactions, just sitting there waiting to be analysed if only someone could bring the right toolset (and a powerful enough computer). Complexity science can take all that apparent randomness and help us tease out significant emergent patterns and behaviour.

I thought this was particularly illuminating because it perfectly illustrates one of the major challenges of bringing complexity science techniques to bear on development problems: for the most part we do not already have the data, and going out and collecting it is very expensive. Different analytical approaches no doubt differ in their data requirements, but I suspect that in many cases that chaos nerds have an even bigger problem in this respect than randomistas. In short without the huge morass of data there is too little random feedstock from which patterns can emerge.

If we combine that problem with one of the main challenges to RCT’s global domination – limited external validity when context is everything* – I am worried that complexity thinking may sometimes me the equivalent of the proverbial sledgehammer used to crack a nut. It may be that the nut is so hard to crack that nothing short of a sledgehammer will suffice to do the job, but the reality is that we cannot go round deploying chaos science sledgehammers everywhere, not least because I doubt there are enough capable chaosistas.

But there is another emergent pattern out there, of bloggers sounding really stupid when they write about things they don’t understand. So now maybe Ben and co can tell me how badly I am wrong …

* In chaotic systems this is represented in the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, hence the joke about the butterfly flapping its wings in the rainforest triggering a thunderstorm on the other side of the world.

Fair Trade: from oppressed to oppressors?

Fairtrade accused of failing to deliver benefits to African farmworkers screams the Guardian headline. Alright, the headline doesn’t exactly scream, but if they can use journalistic clichés then so can I. Either way it’s certainly not good news for Fair Trade.*

So where’s that precious premium going, then, you might ask? Why into the hands of that holy grail of much development aid: the “rural capitalist” smallholder. That terminology comes from the conclusions of the the DFID-commissioned SOAS report behind the headline. That conclusion, however, switches the quotation marks, putting quotes around “smallholder” (presumably on the basis that are not all farmers so classified have operations that are especially small) and not around “rural capitalist”. It is an interesting indicator of possible cognitive bias.

But a premium for smallholder farmers is exactly what I always thought was the main point to Fair Trade, so what’s the problem? I see a whole raft of issues bundled up here, not all of which necessarily reflect badly on Fair Trade, but which nonetheless do lead to some uncomfortable questions about where now.

  1. Have FLO and their brethren just become too successful for their own good? The bigger you are, the harder it is to maintain the highest standards everywhere. Especially when you are relying on economies of scale to make the business proposition feasible.
  2. The myth of the noble peasant. I suspect most people in FLO know it’s nonsense, but their marketing plays right up to it.
  3. Even if they knew the myth is codswallop, how much did FLO, its senior people and backers, know about the high prevalence of wage labour in some of their agricultural producer sectors? Not much presumably because the report claims to demolish another myth: that “very little wage employment has been created by smallholders in Africa.” One might suggest that, given their business, FLO ought to have understood better, but it seems the failing might be rather more widespread than just the FLO.
  4. Who better to hold down the wages of casual labourers than people living in the same village, who know exactly how much work you can extract from someone for a few shillings, and know exactly how desperate their fellow villagers are for work?
  5. Lots of aid projects try to stimulate rural capitalists. Why? Because every project needs to identify local leaders and other agents of change: local entrepreneurs are highly prized. (Who do you think all those micro-financiers are lending to?) Plus, other things being equal, a greater proportion of profits earned by such people is likely to stay in and circulate within their communities. Newly minted capitalists may spot other business opportunities in their communities, and invest, which would be missed entirely by outsiders. Conversely, it is hard to design economic development projects that specifically benefit the poorest of the poor that aren’t either incredibly expensive or just hand-outs in disguise.
  6. What’s the counterfactual? According to the report many of these labourers are amongst the very poorest in local society, and often disadvantaged for other reasons. Maybe they struggle to get employment on other farms with better wages and employment conditions? They might be no better off as a result of Fair Trade, but it seems hard to argue they are any worse off.
  7. All of which might suggest a storm in a teacup were it not for the fact that the Fair Trade Foundation say fair trade is “about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world” (my emphasis added). Whoops! Did they over-reach?

So what now? The report contains a whole raft of recommendations for fair trade organisations, donors and governments, and yet many of these recommendations, especially to the latter groups, the authors themselves acknowledge are highly difficult if not downright infeasible to implement in the setting of smallholder agriculture. For FLO they include a bunch of technical corrections which may help to a degree, but which will probably also make the whole Fair Trade standard that much more complicated, and therefore more intimidating to smallholders.

The authors also suggest fair trade organisations should invest more in research (now there’s a surprise coming from a bunch of professional researchers!), and better monitoring. However, where will the money come from? The report implies where it thinks there is some fat that could be trimmed:

“These recommendations are unlikely to be welcomed by Fairtrade organisations, or by the supermarkets that profit from the important public relations and product differentiation opportunities that certified products provide.”

And so we’re back to one of the main criticisms of fair trade over the years: a great proportion of the consumer product price premium stays with supermarkets, and only a very small proportion makes its way back to the farmers. As indeed is true for the non-premium bit of the price. The trouble with much fair trade labelling, alas, is that it implies that this normal law of economics is somehow reversed in the case of the price premium on fair trade labelled products.

Would fair trade work without those excess profits for supermarkets? I know too little to tell, but one has to guess that market penetration would surely be lower if it were less profitable for the supermarkets, and so, at the very least, there is a trade-off that fair trade organisations need to weigh up.

Ultimately, the bigger problem seems to be the question: can fair trade live up to all its claims reliably on a tiny slice of the product price? If fair trade organisations take a bigger slice how ethical will that be judged? Do we view this as money taken from the consumers (who are paying more) or from the producers (who could receive more if the fair trade organisations’ slice was smaller)? Fair traders have a real problem any time the debate shifts towards the latter consideration.

Many economists think the basic premise behind ‘fair trade’, namely paying a higher price than you have to, is just plain poppycock. But the many achievements of the fair trade movement to date suggest that its rationale is no more poppycock than assumptions of rational economic decision makers, and indeed that it fits very well that gap between theory and reality. The problem is that those assumptions of economic theory work well enough in so many other cases to suggest the gap (and thus its market value) is quite thin.

That does not bode so well for fair trade, but I would not write off the power of human willing self-delusion so quickly. Yes we might all be better off buying the cheaper coffee and then sponsoring a child, but consumers like to think they are doing good when they buy ethically labelled products. It’s part of the modern feel-good sales pitch. If someone is going to trade off that, better they have the moral intentions of the FLO and its peers. The next time I have the option, I’ll probably choose to buy fair trade. There are far worse ways to indulge oneself in this world.

* The Fair Trade Foundation have their own response alleging some methodological flaws in the study. Through the grape vine I gather the researchers are pushing back strongly. I am not in a position to judge how serious is the flaw nor how significantly it might affect the final conclusions.

The power law and why Aid is SNAFU

According to Ben Ramalingam’s new book, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, emergent characteristics of complex systems (a category that covers most targets of international development aid) often follow a power law in which most results are clustered together but which are offset by a long tail, e.g. lots of mostly poor people and a few incredibly, stinking rich folk. This tail is fatter, and contains much more extreme elements than you would expect from a Normal distribution, so that ignoring it as a few outliers can be incredibly dangerous. Conversely, such as in the case of earthquakes, the tail commands all the attention over swiftly forgotten smaller events. Maybe the same could be said of success rates in Aid projects? Boosters focus on the Green Revolution and the eradication of small-pox ‘fat tail’, sceptics obsess about the vast majority of Aid projects and spending which appears to achieve very little. Both are right, and both are wrong, and both could probably do with reading Ramalingam’s book.

I hope the title does not put people off the book. It suggests to me an anarchic office environment with harassed over-worked managers, when in fact the chaos that results from too many aid projects is rather more slow moving, if no less SNAFU. Ramalingam does have a good justification for his choice of title, but you will have to get to the final few paragraphs to understand it.

The book comes in three parts, and is a mixed read. The first part is a well-written indictment of the many failures and hubris of the international aid system. It treads familiar ground for anyone who has read Ferguson, Easterly and others. I have yet to tire of reading such critiques partly, perhaps, because they fit well with my prior beliefs, but also because such tales of failure are often instructive, useful to remind oneself what not to do!

Some of the targets may be easy, but all the more deserving of criticism. Occasionally it over-reaches, e.g. in condemning the reliance of orthodox economics on the idealised Homo economicus without acknowledging the many useful findings it has produced. Perhaps better editing would have helped, since such lapses are an easy mistake to make when a polemicist’s blood is up, but they do not detract significantly from the argument.

The second part introduces the reader to the power law and other elements of complexity science, and struggles manfully against the reader’s presumed lack of familiarity with this difficult subject. Part of the problem it faces, I think, is that complexity science is as yet a very young discipline. Theory and understanding are still very much in development, hence appropriate analogies and clear explanations are not well established. This presents a barrier to comprehension of a school of thought that is conceptually difficult to grasp.

Given this challenge it is ironic that the book suffers from too much space given over to this part, presumably in some attempt to keep the book balanced between the three parts. Such space has to be used up somehow: Ramalingam has chosen to do so through regular diversions into the history of complexity science. It is laudable that Ramalingam wants to tip his hat to the giants in his field, but such diversions are not fully contextualised (since this is not a history of the development of complexity sciences) and thus not especially illuminating. They are also somewhat repetitive, and distracting from the main argument.

One criticism of the use of complexity theory in development is that it is good for telling us after the fact what went wrong, hence the long list of shame in part one. But it often seems less good at telling us what we should do instead. This is slightly unfair because for the biggest aid agencies with millions of dollars to spend, investing $50,000 (say) in a complexity assessment could save a lot of money from being wasted on a doomed project. (If only aid agency incentives worked that way …) Ramalingam makes this point, but then in part three goes further with a series of examples of where complexity thinking has been used positively to underpin some highly successful development programmes.

How you respond to these examples may depend upon your background. I loved the on-the-ground examples such as the Subak system for irrigation management in Bali, the ecosystem-based approach to tackling endemic malaria in parts of Kenya, and using positive deviance to find ways to reduce child malnutrition in Vietnam, but others left me wondering “So what?” Conversely the talk of chaotic patterns in epidemiology may leave anyone with a decent grounding in ecological population dynamics thinking “Well, duh!” Some of these examples could thus perhaps have done with a better connection back to the critiques of part one to highlight why the use of complexity science is important.

Pressures of time meant that I took much longer to finish reading the book than ideal, and it maybe that a more focused reading would have been easier on the brain, but by the end I found the book frustrating. The overall aims and structure of the book are clear, but in the detail Ramalingam often appears to lose sight of where he is going with too many digressions in what may be an attempt to humanise an extremely abstruse subject. Ultimately I think the book needed more on aid and aid projects, and how they can be improved by the introduction of complexity science, and less on complexity science itself and its practitioners.

All of which is a pity because the ideas contained within the book are incredibly important. Indeed, despite those flaws, I have little hesitation in recommending it to anyone working in development or in developing countries. Unfortunately I suspect the very deliberate (and quite correct) decision not to offer any panaceas will limit the book’s impact on how most aid agencies operate. The world will be poorer as a result.

On the horn of a dilemma

A few years ago a report by TRAFFIC entitled Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum standards and best practices from east and southern Africa was a strong contender for the most ridiculous book title that year. The oxymoron seemed obvious. With the South African government now considering legalising the trade in farmed rhino horn that conclusion is rather less clear cut.

“According to a study supporting the South African proposal, existing ‘demand’ could be met by moving 2000 adult rhinoceros – 10% of the wild population – to fenced enclosures covering a total of 400,000 ha. These a poor animals would then have their horns ‘humanely’ removed once every two years over their lifespan of 35 to 50 years.”

That is Paula Kahumbu writing in the Guardian. However she is opposed. She goes on to argue:

“But in reality there is no way that the supply from farmed rhino could come remotely close to meeting the demand, which is growing exponentially as consumers in the principal markets in Southeast Asia become richer.”

This seems something of a non sequitur: yes if demand does continue to rise exponentially and farmed stocks do not increase then clearly this solution will not suffice. But when protected from the threats of living wild and given proper veterinary care then animal populations can also increase exponentially. (Although it should be noted that rhinos breed quite slowly, so that exponential growth might not be of the most impressive sort. But with another 90% of the population still in the wild, early short falls could be met by moving more of the wild population on to farms.) Conversely the potential for market demand to continue increasing exponentially rather depends on how much unmet latent demand there is, and how that might react to a rare ‘status symbol’ luxury good becoming that comparatively common place.

However, instead of focusing on the economics, Paula’s article focuses on the emotional, with distressing tales of the fate of poached rhinos. Her biases are clear in the above description of farmed rhinos as ‘’poor animals”. She should check out Gerald Durrell’s defence of zoos* in relation to the Hobbesian reality to life in the jungle (or savannah). And why is it ok to farm cattle and chickens (and ostriches and kangaroos these days), but not rhinos? (Especially since de-horning is rather less fatal than a trip to the abattoir!) This seems to be drifting dangerously close to much debunked Victorian romantic notions of the noble savage.

Of course, I am with Paula in my abhorrence for poaching and a preference for rhinos to live free. But if the choice is between extinction and managed trade then such principles do not get us very far. There are far better arguments against farming rhino horn in the lessons learned from attempting legal trade in ivory a few years ago (it provided plausible cover for poached ivory and undermined moral arguments against the use of ivory amongst consumers). It is also unclear whether farmed rhino horn would have the same cachet as wild stuff: economic conditions need to be right for farming to work.

I suspect some conservationists do not like to engage with such arguments because they fear that in doing so they concede the point that this is a question of economics, when for them it is a moral issue. However, we are a long way from global consensus at present, and the ‘enlightened’ minority for the most part recognise the limits to which they are prepared to impose their morals on others. And while I can happily agree that maiming rhinos is clearly immoral, such moral arguments have fuzzy enough philosophical edges (especially for meat eaters) that our pleas for a more moral approach may cut little ice with those who see the world differently.

So I think we need this debate. As with the War on Drugs, strictly prohibitionist approaches to poaching and the illegal trade in animal parts seems to be getting us nowhere. Populations continue to decline, and species are ending up extinct. Whether the South African plan could ever work is another question.

* In one of his books. Alas I cannot recall which one, and for once the interwebs have let me down.

The minutiae of cultural differences

You are walking along an unsurfaced road. A motorbike is coming towards you. You step out of the way towards the side of the road. The motorbike follows you. You both get annoyed and you have to step off the road entirely in order not to get run over.

“A bit rude!” you think.

“Why did he have to move to the smoothest part of the road?” thinks the motorcyclist.

If I were an African farmer

Not so long along ago Save the Children UK produced a bunch of adverts highlighting how anyone born into a rich country had won the ‘lottery of life’ in terms of expected well-being etc. I.e. however much we might feel like things weren’t great, that in fact we are incredibly lucky, and that globally we are the privileged 1% (or whatever the proportion is). This was popularising a fairly well established philosophical point known as the Veil of Ignorance, which asks you to consider how fair various aspects of public policy are if you do not know in advance which family you will be born into.

lotteryoflife1

However, such invitations to consider the hypothetical can suffer from a sense of individual exceptionalism. (Or at least it does with me, I confess.) It goes like this:-

A key requirement of any good development worker is the ability to empathise with the people you are trying to help. (Without such empathy you probably wouldn’t be working in this sector.) So it is that on many an occasion I have thought how I would act if I were a poor rural farmer like those in the communities we are assisting. I’m a fairly bright guy (if I do say so myself) and I’ve been involved in a lot of innovative work, so even if my educational opportunities were way lower than the fantastically good education I received in the UK, I like to think that as a rural farmer I might rise above the crowd; I would try lots of different things, not everything would pay off, but enough would that I would be one of the most successful farmers in the village, respected by my peers. I may well have some position in the community leadership.

And indeed were you transplant me now, as a grown adult, into such a village I don’t think it is being too arrogant to suggest that something like that would happen. (In order to make it a fair experiment, I would have my entire technical knowledge bank wiped, and have only access to the same information other villagers have.) The life would be tough, much tougher physically and health-wise than my current life, but I like to think I would succeed.

Nature vs. Nurture

But is this really a fair thought experiment? Who am I really? We are all products of the culture in which we, and our parents before us, were brought up, and the resources that were available. We know, for instance, that the diet that a mother eats during pregnancy, and the diet of a child during its first few years, are critically important for later physical and mental development. And not just the diet; my parents talked to me a lot when I was very young, they provided a stimulating play environment, and once I was old enough encouraged me to read. The most valuable aspect of my education was not the knowledge and technical skills I learned, but the capacity to think critically and to think for myself, the thirst for new knowledge and experience, and the self-confidence to try such things. All of which is very hard to separate out from the person I am today.

Quite simply, if I were born into a rural village around here I would not be the same person. Not being the brawniest or healthiest child I may well instead have ended up something of a loser.

A hundred years ago, colonialists would routinely dismiss local people as stupid and ignorant. They were racist, but not totally wrong. They just did not understand the sheer magnitude of advantages they had in life being born a European. Even now it requires a tremendous leap of imagination to truly put ourselves in the shoes of someone born into poverty. If I were a poor African farmer, you might pity me or scorn me. If you are a development worker you might desperately want to help me, to listen to my problems, and try to see life from my perspective. You may strive not to get too frustrated when I am unable to articulate my situation or take apparently irrational decisions. I hope you would respect me. But you would not see me as an equal, because in most things I simply would not be your equal.

Humble gratitude

“Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right.”

So said I a couple of days ago. Something worth remembering, especially for those of us who work for NGOs and are fond, as I am, of bashing donors on a regular basis. Unfortunately always easier to remember when you hear others complaining than when launching into one’s own remonstration.

Thank you.

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