Posts Tagged ‘development in remote areas’

Poverty and assessments of risk

Around here one of the most dangerous things you can do is to get on a bus. They are poorly maintained, go way too fast and drivers have poor understandings of the risks of the road. A significant part of the blame must go to the bus owners and drivers (and the policeman who daily accept bribes to look the other way), but passengers are not compelled to board; they could easily vote with their feet and demand a better service. Whereas instead actually something of the opposite happens; the market demands the cheapest prices (hence poor maintenance of vehicles) and people want to get to where they are going as fast as possible.

That bus passengers exercise this preference is partly because they also do not understand well the risks of driving too fast etc. However, it is also often said that poor people assess risk differently to us: what to us is an unacceptable risk is for them just a regular feature of their environment. There are parallels in the way that few expats take anti-malarial prophylaxis. There may well be something in this – indeed in the past I have been known to utter just such sentiments – but it occurs to me there may be another aspect to the poverty dimension that we (or at least I) have hitherto been missing.

Recently when up in town my car ran out of diesel just as I was on my way to a meeting. My stupid fault, although the blame is shared with the previous driver who had not taken the trouble to fill it up when the tank was dangerously close to empty. Thankfully for me a neighbour gave me a lift to the nearest filling station where we half filled a flimsy old 5l water bottle with diesel and drove it back to my car, with an open top, wedged between my legs for stability, and thus solved the immediate problem.

Clearly this was not the safest solution, and it may actually have been illegal. If we had suffered an accident and I had gone up like a human torch, other people (like me!) would presumably have remarked upon the idiocy of what we were doing. In my defence I would point out that while petrol is highly volatile, diesel is not. It was also a very short journey on quiet, tarmac roads, so the risks were actually pretty small. Furthermore, I was following the local societal norm; certainly my neighbour did not seem too concerned to be driving around with an open bottle of diesel.

Finally, and this is my main point, I did not want to be any later for my meeting than I had to be, and this was just a one off. Indeed we all take bigger risks for special events or in order to minimise the hassle in overcoming unforeseen hiccoughs such as suddenly running out of diesel. Similarly bus journeys are not regular occurrences for the poorest people; going to the big city may be something they only do a few times in their life. There will often be a special reason to undertake a long distance bus journey; a wedding or a funeral. Even an annual trip home to visit one’s parents in your home village hardly counts as a regular thing. The risks may be high, but so in each case are the (social or emotional) rewards.

Thus we reach that old truism of statistics: that while specific rare events are … well … rare, it is rare for no rare event to happen, or, to put it another way, rare events are happening all the time. A specific bus crashing is rare, but collectively they are all too common. Moreover, it is rare for an individual poor person to travel on a long distance bus, but poor people are numerous around here, and collectively they drive the market preferences. And, as I saw in my own experience, it can be hard to go against the local norm for what, for oneself, is a comparatively rare event.

Poor people may evaluate risks and rewards differently to us, but they also, individually, may undertake apparently risky activities quite rarely. Not so different after all.

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Trust (part 1)

Trust is absolutely fundamental to any community-based work. Whenever I am asked about our own projects, I always cite a good trust relationship with the communities we support as fundamental to our successes, and indeed building that trust relationship is one of the things I am proudest of*, even though it is usually the subsequent achievements which we end up trumpeting more.

Trust is vital if you want to bring about social change, whether it is wearing condoms during sex or looking after your local environment. In particular communities need to be able to trust that:

  • You are there for the long haul. They are, but are you?
  • You will come back when they need help, not just when you decide to plan a visit.
  • You will listen to their concerns, and adapt your plans to fit with them.
  • You are on their side.

It’s not quite unconditional love, but the parallels with good parenting are obvious. Work in the poor, remote rural communities in which we work inevitable has a strong tinge of paternalism, however much one might shy away from the implications of such a relationship. That said, when I come across failed community projects, a common underlying factor is that the relationship with target communities combines all the negative aspects of paternalism without any of the positive elements of a mutual trust relationship listed above. In particular, projects whose primary field staff are government workers often seem to fall into this trap.

In tropical conservation and development work one always starts as an outsider. It is thus critical that before you can really move the dial on any of the issues that brought you to a particular community in the first place, you must first bridge that gap with a solid trust relationship. Where, perhaps for political or religious reasons, that gap is especially hard to bridge, consider finding an appropriate intermediary who can. This is not just about hiring local staff, but presenting an acceptable institutional face, and may require aid organisations to cut back on their usual copious and prominent display of logos.

In my next two posts I will talk about other significant trust relationships in the aid industry: with donors and with local government. These work in substantially different ways, and also contribute to successful project delivery, but fall far behind, in my own estimation, the absolute central importance of the trust relationship with your beneficiaries. If you work on getting one thing absolutely right in your project, make it that one, and you have a good chance of succeeding.

* Most of the credit, however, belongs with our field staff.

For what dost thou lament?

Traditional livelihoods decline in Borneo forests as communities rely on mining, logging jobs, so say CIFOR:

A new study by the Center for International Forestry Research has found that villages along the Malinau River, an area rich in valuable timber and mineral resources, are relying less on traditional livelihoods — typically a mixture of hunting, fishing, cultivating fruit gardens, collecting eaglewood and bird’s nests.

The study found jobs in mining, agriculture, construction and services accelerated economic growth in the Malinau district from 1.24% in 2004 to 8.96% in 2009. Most of those interviewed said they supported development as beneficial to their quality of life.  Indeed, development projects in the last decade have brought jobs, health and education services and infrastructure improvements. But villagers said they were concerned such growth is threatening traditional livelihoods and comes at the expense of reduced access to their forests and forest resources.

So it sounds like things are actually getting better for the communities! Smile  This is what we call Development. Often it comes with an environmental cost. This is unfortunate, and it is good for environmentalists to point this out, and to devise means to ameliorate that. If “Giving villagers a say in forest management would provide greater protections for forest resources” then great, although I can bet there will be management challenges for the big investors.

However, I do think we need to watch ourselves so that we do not unconsciously project our own views on to those resource-dependent communities we study and/or work with. I do not know Borneo, so I cannot say for sure that CIFOR have not accurately reflected the Malinau communities’ priorities. I also generally have a very high opinion of CIFOR, as a rational, objective research institute who do not get too dewy eyed about the fate of doomed ecosystems, but instead consider practical issues and what might be feasible solutions. That said, I cannot help but suspect that the author of this piece laments the passing of a simpler age when she could expect to have a fulfilling job, and her research subjects could not.

Update 27/02/2012: See response from study author and my reply in the comments.

Paternalism in Development

Bill Easterly bizarrely posits feminism as the anti-thesis of paternalism, arguing that paternalism in development is a bad thing, and because he is against paternalism, he must be some kind of feminist. So I’m going to be a bit controversial and suggest that a bit of paternalism is almost essential in many aid projects. Hopefully no-one will interpret that to mean I am an anti-feminist.

First the obvious: paternalistic approaches are inherently condescending and patronising, and can rapidly descend into sexism, racism and probably a bunch of other undesirable -isms too. (Feminism can thus be viewed as a countervailing force to some aspects of paternalism, but that is only part of the story.) Paternalism also comes with a strong current of hubris, and misplaced paternalism explains many of the failures of the past 50 years of international development aid.

But … whilst respect for the knowledge and skills of the community is a minimum requirement for effective development work in any remote, rural community, we must also recognise the following:

  1. Said poor people want to become richer people, and to live lives more like ourselves.
  2. They tend to be very poorly educated and, as such, do not know much about how ‘our’ world works.

(These arguments hold much less water in poor urban communities who are more exposed to what a modern economy looks like.)

Hence these poor rural communities are often heavily reliant on us advising them and acting upon their behalf, often advocating to other elites what we perceive to be their interests. (A strong trust relationship with the communities we’re supporting is a prerequisite.) And if we’re not doing it you can be sure the various local and national government authorities will be doing so, often, unfortunately, with worse results.

Does doing this make me feel uncomfortable – yes it does! Is there an alternative? Yes, but it involves so much capacity building that it would take a generation before the community are really ready to take on the necessary roles, during which time next to no development would take place. (You can guess which option the poor would go for, though they certainly appreciate the capacity building too.) So in practice we have to make paternalistic decisions on behalf of the communities we support on a fairly regular basis. Sceptics are entitled to call us out for our hubris – indeed I think such questioning plays a vital role in keeping our paternalism in check – but practical alternatives are thin on the ground.

A good example of this in current conservation practice is the desire for full free, prior and informed consent before initiating land or resources based projects such as REDD+. The principles are incredibly important, but there’s a limit to how much you should sensibly invest in such a process before you need to move forward with a project. Anyone who claims a community was 100% fully informed before such a decision was made is deluding themselves; either they’ve over-simplified the situation, or not everyone understood, or (most likely) both.

Two more points bear making. Firstly, I suggest that it is next to impossible for a charitable donation between two people, or groups of people, who do not know each other not to be inherently condescending and tending towards paternalistic. So, if we do not want to dump the whole aid thing altogether, and thus cannot avoid one of the key downsides of paternalism, I think we should also celebrate the potential upsides of a certain degree of limited (!) paternalism.

Finally, is the rejection of paternalism on behalf of poor people not itself paternalistic? Who exactly does the paternalism sceptic think he/she is?

I now look forward to all the contrary comments from those who disagree with me …

Something is better than nothing

A blog on conservation and development surely cannot let the Cancun summit on climate change pass without any comment. On the other hand it does all seem a rather long way from the day to day work in which I am involved. Many of my colleagues made the trip over but I cannot say I am sorry to have missed the whole jamboree. Apart from the odd publicity stunt, I’m really not sure what is the value of all the NGO presence at these summits. Fine, if a government official has invited you along because they actually value your input, but most NGOs seem to go just to be … er … well … seen.

After the complete disaster that was Copenhagen, expectations were so low that any kind of achievement was going to be applauded. And if it weren’t for that chastening experience I would expect far louder complaints about the huge number of holes left to be filled in the Cancun agreement.

Of course, I am disappointed at where we are now; the various pledges made don’t seem to amount to much more than a finger in the dike. But I am also a realist, and too often the environmental movement can sound far too shrill in demanding the infeasible. Sometimes the important thing can be to establish the principle, and then ratchet up the numbers later. The European Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme came in for huge criticism early on for being far too generous, but is now, gradually, making up for lost ground. Yes we need strong incentives to drive the sorts of investments necessary to avert catastrophic climate change, but there is also something to be said for getting the ball rolling; as it picks up steam, and technological improvements come through, the harder challenges will not seem quite so daunting.

REDD+ is one of the few real successes on the UNFCCC negotiations since Kyoto. Here Cancun has at last provided some solid ground for things to start to move forward. However, from where I sit, there is still one major problem if REDD+ is going to make a big difference in Africa; the extremely government centric approach. I think this might work in South America and SE Asia where management capacity is higher, and maybe even some other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, but where I work I see a big problem. It goes like this:-

Natural resources and environment have hitherto been under-resourced sectors here; not top priority for the government and not top priority for donors. So let’s compare with a sector which is relatively well resourced: health. The health sector in theory reaches into every village with its drug provision programme, but in reality most village drug dispensaries are extremely poorly stocked. This ought to be the easy side of health care provision (in contrast trained employees can get easily tempted by better paid jobs), but the leakage and basic mismanagement are massive and endemic. Why then should we have any confidence that a government-run fund to disburse REDD money to villages protecting their local forests will provide money on time and without taking a huge cut?

Although I well understand the reasons for working at the national level – many drivers of deforestation are best addressed here – I think REDD will have much more impact on actual forest cover in Africa if the regulated market were to be opened up for direct access by the private sector. See also my previous musings about keeping REDD a transaction-based system.

ps. Beyond REDD, am I skeptical about how effective will be those huge sums being bandied around to help developing countries adapt to climate change? You betcha! But that’s just the same old story.

Do we need more Aid?

Lots of hand-wringing this week in New York about poor progress towards the benighted Millennium Development Goals. (Texas in Africa has an excellent post about exactly who is doing the hand-wringing.) It is good to see top level acknowledgement (from the very top!) that business as usual in the aid industry is not going to solve the problem. However, the old 0.7% of GDP argument is rearing its head again, with the UK promising to up its donations to that figure by 2013 at the same time as implementing a whole raft of reforms about how it provides aid. Do I think this is sensible? No I do not, and here’s why.

There is a huge gap between a successful pilot project and a wide scale programme of intervention. When an intervention is scaled up in this way a savvy donor will lean on upon the government of the beneficiary country to ensure that someone good is put in charge of the new programme. This person may well be very able and impressive, and sitting in comfy aircon offices in the capital, it can be easy to be beguiled by these people – after all, they’re our chosen partners. But, the person in charge is not the person on the ground implementing the programme. They will likely be of much lower calibre, and working in a management system that is mildly dysfunctional at best. In actual fact all the donor’s hopes are vested in a bunch of pretty junior employees who are a long way from the supervision of the donor’s chosen champion. Even if the beneficiary government wanted to overhaul their civil service, they would be greatly constrained by the talent pool available.

In my experience the closer one is to a project, the more one sees the problems, when from the outside it may appear all is well (and this applies as much to our projects as any others). Some of the biggest problems are at the sharp end, in actual service delivery; here capacity is at its lowest (development speak for incompetence is at its highest) and management skills almost non-existent. Yet the donors by and large trust these local government officials to deliver key projects and services, and just suck up the all the reports of ‘success’ which are sent to them.

It is true that part of the blame lies with recipient governments. Donors can do little to clean up corruption and improve management practices – these things need to come from within. A lot of responsibility lies with donors who are maddeningly inconsistent both between themselves and over time (witness DFID’s back-tracking on general budget support) with conditions upon grants and loans often subsequently relaxed. They ignore basic issues like sustainability.

However, the rest of the aid industry (especially aid advocates) are also often guilty of mistaking local success stories with the next silver bullet and making wild extrapolations. Take, for example, the Guttmacher Institute’s estimate of $180 million for the annual cost of providing effective maternal health care to every Ethiopian women who wants it. (HT: Owen Barder) Now I’ve never worked in women’s health issues in Ethiopia; maybe there really is that capacity in the health system (Ethiopia does have a reputation for more efficient implementation of aid projects), and maybe the Guttmacher Institute have really researched the issue to its utmost limits, but I hope they will excuse me if I am just a little bit sceptical because I don’t see any capacity like that where I am.

The development sector is not just a pipe into which if you pour more money one day, more impact will come out the other end the next day. Where ‘absorptive capacity’ does not exist the additional funds will either go unspent, be wasted on unnecessary overheads, or be stolen. NGOs such as the one where I work continually have to battle to convince donors as to our absorptive capacity (not entirely unreasonably), and yet donors appear happy to continue to pour in more money into government systems which manifestly have considerably lower management capacity.

Few people would disagree that the aid system needs serious reform. Many say we need both more and better aid. I think that’s too much to deal with at one time. First make it better, much better, then add more if the absorptive capacity really is there.

Beaten by Geography

A couple of issues recently have gotten me thinking about the limits of what we can achieve in development, especially when combined with conservation.

Being an organisation that has such dual aims we work in some pretty remote villages, a long way removed from infrastructure such as tarmac roads, electricity supplies or banks and markets. To complement our work, and also to build financial literacy, we have been looking at introducing a microfinance scheme into the villages. We talked to a local expert, and he emphasised that it is best if a substantial proportion of loans go to local enterprise development (IGAs = Income Generating Activities, in the jargon). I was curious as to what enterprises in remote villages such as those in which we work could benefit from a small injection of capital. His response, which included things like vegetable gardens and coconut collecting, did not fill me with much optimism. These are livelihood strategies which might help a little bit, but are not going to lift people out of poverty. Moreover, so far from a main road and markets, they are never going to get a good price, and will always be confounded by the costs of taking their produce to market. Lack of capital is not likely to be the principle barrier to enterprise development.

A friend of mine has worked in an even more remote National Park. There she was involved in a small project trying to link the tourists lodges more into the local economy; mostly basic food stuffs but also some local crafts. The problem? A remote NP such as this is very expensive to visit so they do not get many visitors, = not many opportunities for the local communities. Some aspects of the project they ended up winding down because they just didn’t make business sense, and/or were wholly dependent on my friend to market the products (i.e. not very sustainable).

These kind of stories will be familiar to any development economist. In their respective books Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier both talk about the severe challenges that the geography of the area of your birth can impose on your chances of participating in economic development. Generally speaking the solution is the creation of more waged jobs in urban areas so that food prices increase to a point where farmers can make a decent living. (All presuming that food prices are not subject to the myriad political controls that is the reality all over the world.)

Organisations aimed principally at poverty alleviation can choose where they work (although many do appear to ignore the basic criteria of economic geography), but conservationists much more frequently find themselves working in remote places; that’s usually where the best biodiversity is to be found. In our desire to help those communities, we need to remember these important lessons. Even the best resourced projects cannot overcome basic facts of geography.

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