Archive for the ‘Incentives’ Category

Ethical Publishing for Dummies

“A book is a window on to the world.”

So said a poster I had on my bedroom wall as a kid. However, as all quantum physicists know, observing the world perforce changes the world. And not always for the better, according to this report by the Rainforest Action Network on paper sources used by publishers of children’s books, which alleges pulp from illegal clearance of tropical forest in Indonesia is being used in many children’s books. The publishers’ side is put by this article forwarded on to me my someone I know who works in publishing.

Not being an expert on paper usage by publishers I am not in a position to say exactly to what extent publisher’s efforts to improve their paper sources thus far represent a serious and significant initiative or little more than green-washing. The lowest hanging fruit are always plucked first. Publishers claim that there is not enough FSC certified paper to go around, but have they put enough pressure on their suppliers? If the demand is sufficiently strong and persistent then the supply will surely materialise, and possibly quite quickly. On the other hand we should not demonise firms who are doing everything reasonable to improve things but are constrained by real world limitations.

In the past people just didn’t think through issues like the environmental impact of paper supply, and we shouldn’t hold the publishing industry responsible for the sins and business models of their fathers. However, now that they do know about it, the onus is on them to turn things around, which might require some imaginative thinking, e.g. on reducing the regular over-printing of books which are later pulped, a clearly wasteful strategy that might make a lot less sense if all environmental externalities were properly accounted for. This is undoubtedly a time of upheaval in publishing with the arrival of electronic books and the print-on-demand paradigm, so maybe the stage is set for a radically improved business model?

Thus I raise one cheer for all those publishers who are making genuine efforts to control their paper sources, and another cheer in RAN’s direction for keeping up the pressure. All in all this is another good example of focusing on the end products used in the West rather than chasing shadows in developing countries who have little real interest in policing their own environmental laws.


Great Green Wall: old thinking, new ambition

I cannot help but be somewhat skeptical about African leaders’ plans for a Great Green Wall of trees to hold back the Sahara desert. Twenty years ago tree planting was all the rage in forestry hereabouts, and twenty years ago all the seedlings were eaten by goats. Soil erosion and desertification are serious problems, and I applaud the ambition behind the Great Green Wall idea. (Are they planning on getting funding from the carbon markets, I wonder?) But they need to ensure they get the incentives right, including real community engagement, otherwise this will turn into another white elephant, where grandiose plans and statements from on high run aground against poor implementation and lack of consultation.

UK to ban illegal timber

The funky new coalition government in the UK appears ready to follow the US in criminalising the import of illegal timber. In the same way that many commentators see trade policies as more important to development than aid, so I think these kind of initiatives can have greater impacts on conservation than many on-the-ground projects. Although I do not have any firm figures to hand, anecdotal evidence that has reached me suggests the Lacey Act in the US has significant sharpened minds for anyone supplying timber products over there.

Two significant caveats apply:

(1) A lot of timber products imported to UK, US and other developed countries are put together in China and other Asian countries that now lay claim to be the world’s great factory. In order to maximise impact such legislation needs to incentivise secure labelling along the supply chain of wood products, which brings us to forest certification à la FSC.

(2) A lot of other timber products just go to China et al and never leave. The demand for such products is likely to outstrip the growth of nascent environmentalism in these countries for several decades.

These policies are therefore likely only to have an impact at the margin, and on specific timber products that are supplied direct to those countries with such legislation. Knock-on effects analogous to how vehicles emissions standards for California changed the global car industry are likely to be small and slow in coming.

The argument for on-the-ground conservation projects of the like which keep this blogger in business therefore remains. But I like the thinking behind legislation like this. What other policy changes in developed countries can we lobby for?

By focusing on such issues – where is the money? – the environmental movement has, in recent years, wised up a lot; keep up the good work folks!

Hat tip: Sound & Fair

COD, REDD and the free market

Swahili Street asks about REDD in relation to Cash on Delivery.

With REDD (carbon-based payments for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation for the uninitiated) I think it all depends on how the international architecture pans out. Lots of people are arguing for fund based approaches, and there are some good reasons why that could be a better solution as being both potentially simpler to manage and to avoid penalising well-behaved countries like Costa Rica who have already acted to control deforestation. (Is there anything to be read into the appointment of a Costa Rican as the new UNFCCC coordinator?) But I am with lots of other people in voicing substantial skepticism that other developing countries could actually get deforestation under control without a more robust transactional system which pays for actual achievements. This would act in a more commercial way than I expect most COD will do, but maybe that’s the exactly the direction we should be going on this? Perhaps we could end up with exchanges trading things like completed primary school years; the money would flow to those countries which could deliver such public goods at the lowest possible price, and governments of other developing countries would have to scrabble around to see how they could deliver the same benefit at the same price. The ultimate free marketeer’s solution to development in poor countries!

Cash on Delivery & the Last Mile

Recently I had a conversation with a donor representative here who was frustrated by the progress of rolling out CBNRM initiatives in this country, and the subject of Cash on Delivery came up. (Ok, I suggested it.) This was well analysed by Owen Barder, but I think he missed one important angle which in many ways sums up  my motivation for writing this blog.

Owen principally talks about COD creating incentives for policy changes (though he is not clear what kind of policy changes he means), and correctly points out that until donor threats carry real credibility these will have little impact on donor country leaders. He also highlights the marginal impact aid conditionality has on the interests of elected politicians, although I believe we should not underestimate their persuasive force when there is no direct negative impact on a politician’s personal interests. (Not all politicians are totally corrupt.) My interest, however, is on solving the delivery problem, and here we are not necessarily talking about the bigwigs. (As the CGD blurb mentions, COD can be used within countries too.)

A lot of aid suffers from the problem of the Last Mile (e.g. see Esther Duflo’s TED talk). This problem is not always well appreciated (or well enough appreciated) by aid officials working in their plush offices in the capital city, or those even further away in donor countries. They tend to engage with aid on two levels. Firstly they get involved in direct bilateral projects; these are intensively funded and can help pilot new approaches, and point the way forward for a certain sector in the host country. Such projects can produce great results (if you can avoid the problem of unsustainability), but do not produce many bangs for the lots of bucks invested owing to the rather concentrated nature of such work. Donors, typically, then seek to convert these narrow projects into broader national programmes; in doing this they team up with the best officials they can find, nurture and support them, and generally get a good feeling that they are working with the right people.

Except that, at least in the country where I work, such talent is at a premium, and most of it heads towards the private sector. All this aid has to be delivered by someone, and here donors are trapped by constraint of low human resources and their understandable, though often misguided, desire to minimise transaction costs. I’m talking here about the teacher who doesn’t turn up to work, or the agricultural extension officer who cannot get to work because his car has been requisitioned by a higher-up. The final mile is often by far the worst managed, and this is the problem we confront daily in our view from the Bottom Up. I think most people working in aid do realise this, but then rather forget it in their desire to push out the latest big idea, or somehow kid themselves that this time they’ve got the right trick to solve that problem.

I think mid-ranking officials, as long as they’re not hopelessly corrupt, might be more susceptible to COD incentives. Most such officials want to be managing bigger departments, with bigger budgets (more opportunity for patronage if you want to be cynical). Under COD, those officials who can better manage delivery will do better, those who cannot will be left by the wayside. And it will also get the donor out from under their noses; as Owen points out, the best thing about COD might be how it incentivises donors to reform. Those who want change should first put their own houses in order, and donors are more culpable than most in this respect.

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