25 November 2009
My favourite finding is still that deworming kids in Kenya at 50 cents each adds a year to their schooling. It's widely known in the academic community, but not enough outside it (and are there any case studies outside Kenya?).
My nomination for an eighth high-impact way to spend money is REDD: Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation. If done properly this could make a big contribution to carbon emissions cuts and help improve the productivity of smallholder agriculture at the same time. I have high hopes that this will form part of whatever deal emerges at Copenhagen; paradoxically, it may be easier to get it through if the rest of the summit is a flop, because the world will be desperate for some good news (though beware countries who think they can buy their way out of climate change on the cheap. We still has to replace those coal fired power stations with something better) . See here for a new Economist article about it.
What doesn't make the list? Stimulus packages, the war in Afghanistan and bank bail-outs. Personally, I think all three of the above are necessary to avert worse disasters (after all a global economic collapse would also cut the amount we can spend on development) but the ease with which we shovel vast amounts of money down the banks' throats is still staggering.
18 November 2009
(I'm not being smug: US and UK aren't much better. Corrupt politicians not given US visas - unless they have oil and a villa in Malibu, of course)
There is a paradox here. Australians are among the most ecologically stressed people in the world. Every year, wild bushfires lay waste to coastal forests, but the fires in
Some of the people who should lose the most from climate change are therefore among its stoutest deniers – while the population of certain European countries, whose idea of a heat wave is a week above 30 degrees, are up in arms. Why this self-defeating short-sightedness? Are the people in the pockets of BHP Billiton?
The healthcare system in the
Is this behaviour economically explicable? Selfishness does not explain why, in effect, people vote to increase the risk of bushfires or their chances of being undiagnosed with a disease for lack of insurance. Is it short-sightedness, a fear of uncertainty or simply a contrary instinct, one that assumes it is best to the opposite of whatever the government is advising? My current best guess is that it is to do with a long and tangled chain of causation. The link between burning coal in
02 November 2009
Beyond the biotech dichotomy, most contributors recognized that the solution to the food crisis will involve a combination of technologies, including some that don't exist yet. High-input farming depends on natural gas, which won't be around forever; water is running short in many grain-growing regions; a strictly organic world food system would be a disaster for forests, but many techniques from organic farming are useful and should be spread. It would probably help if the NGOs and corporations stopped insulting each other and worked together for a change.
If I could contribute to the debate, it would be on prices and the signals they send. High food prices are in general a disaster for development, but we need higher prices for meat, fish and air-freighted vegetables for richer people (not just rich countries) to change their destructive eating habits. We need to tax water and energy use in such a way that basic grains and vegetables are cheap enough for everyone, but beef becomes an expensive luxury for the Americas, Europe and Australia just as it is for the rest of the world. A serious carbon tax would stop us agonising between strawberries grown in Dutch greenhouses or flown from Kenyan orchards: they will be too expensive to eat anytime they're not in season.
In the absence of carbon and water taxes, more information can help: just publishing the emissions associated with beef burgers led 20% of diners to switch to chicken or the veggie option, according to this photo essay. Ultimately, though, the most powerful information is provided by the price.
06 August 2009
J. Vernon Henderson, Adam Storeygard and Vernon N. Weil at Brown University take this insight a step further: why not use lighting levels to measure changes in development over time? This turns out to be a particularly useful method for countries where statistics are erroneous or missing, for example because of civil war. Governments can manipulate figures, but lighting never lies. Here are the two main findings (also summed up by the Wall Street Journal and Marginal Revolution):
1. Lighting is indeed a proxy for economic development and it goes down as well as up: there are some great pictures of changes in lighting levels in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Whereas Poland experienced economic growth of 56% and an increase in lighting of 80%, neighbouring Ukraine saw its economic activity decline by 35% and lighting fall by 47%.
2. Increases in agricultural productivity (from high rainfall years)raise economic activity and hence lighting in nearby cities. Are these farmers rushing to sell their goods at the market, buy TVs with the earnings or simply celebrating their good fortune at the bar?
I'd love to see some further work on this data set. One question I have is whether the data might be distorted by certain high-light activities: mining, for example, or oil refining. This might matter for, say, DR Congo, where light levels seemed to increase in the 1990s, in the middle of a devastating civil war. I'd also like to see the impact of power cuts, such as California experienced a few years ago or South Africa in 2008. Most power cuts don't last long enough to show up in GDP figures, but their short-run effect might be severe: think of what happened in Europe this January when Gazprom turned the heating off. Next time that happens, we might be able to measure its effect from outer space.
03 August 2009
Sam Knight in the Financial Times tries to unpick the climate change migration debate. Is climate change migration something entirely new, or merely a continuation of existing trends? It looks like the numbers will be greater than we have been used (the Stern review suggests anything between 200 and 500 million people over the next 50 years), but that doesn't mean that starving farmers from Burkina Faso or Bangladesh will be pitching up in European capitals. More likely, the children of the rural poor will migrate to coastal cities and the educated youth of the capitals will migrate to richer countries, as they do now.
So what can we do about it? Beyond the obvious priority of containing climate change, I can think of two helpful policies:
1. Invest in agriculture in vulnerable areas - whether it's drought-resistant seeds, irrigation, new kinds of crops that reduce soil erosion or thrive in drier (or more volatile) climates
2. Improve transport links between coastal and inland regions: that facilitates seasonal migration, which keeps remote areas alive through remittances and periodic visits. It will also bring down the cost of living and make it easier for people in the arid areas to sell whatever they grow to richer urban consumers
On the other hand, these two are unlikely to work:
1. Trying to restrict migration - through passports, ID cards, quotas, . People will still move, only they will pay more for it and people traffickers will collect the difference
2. Bribing people to stay at home through welfare payments, social services, etc. Investing in health and education in rural areas is a great area, but it's more likely to promote migration than discourage it
Climate-induced migration is nothing new: we've been at it since the Sahara was green. It may be that the last few millennia were the abnormality and human migration patterns will end up looking more like they did before we invented agriculture.
13 April 2009
1. Mars, which is the world's largest end-user buyer of cocoa, has promised to certify that all its cocoa will come from sustainable sources by 2020. Unfortunately, this article from the Financial Times does not tell us what a 'sustainable source' is, how it will be certified or why it will take over 10 years to complete the process. However, they do hint at the root of the problems of the cocoa sector: very low yields in West Africa, where two-thirds of the world's cocoa comes from. Mars seems to understand that since there is little primary forest left to cut down in Ghana or Côte d'Ivoire, the only way to increase cocoa production is to apply inputs to existing trees and replant them with higher-yielding varieties.
2. Cadbury, the UK's best-selling chocolate maker, has announced all its Dairy Milk bars will be certified 'Fair Trade' by the middle of 2009. The BBC reports this will mean tripling the volume of Fair Trade cocoa it buys from Ghana, to 15,000 tonnes. The more detailed press release points out that they are no longer relying just on Ghana's well-established 'Kuapa Kokoo' cooperative, but will help set up farmers' groups and cooperatives in other parts of the country.
Both Mars and Cadbury promise that chocolate prices won't rise, while promising higher farmgate prices for the cocoa growers. How can they do this without squeezing their profit margins? I can think of two ways. First, certified cocoa has been expensive in the past because it was a niche product. If certification becomes the standard, the economies of scale may make it cheaper to operate the tracing systems, audits and inspections required for certification. Two, Fair Trade (which Cadbury backs, but Mars doesn't) guarantees a minimum price to farmers, but when cocoa prices are as high as they are now, there is no difference between Fair Trade and the world market price. (There is a small 'bonus' for Fair Trade growers, but it's tiny and usually given to the cooperative for community projects, rather than individual farmers).
Will these schemes help cocoa farmers, then? I'd like to see more details of what Mars is planning, but there are some benefits. If certification works, it will make the supply chain more efficient and thus cut out some of the profits made by middlemen. If Fair Trade works, it will reduce the risk of a sudden crash in cocoa prices leaving farmers worse off. Neither of these schemes will do much to reduce poverty in cocoa-growing communities, however. To increase their income, they will need to raise productivity. Higher productivity will come from growing more and better cocoa on the same land, with higher-yielding trees and more inputs including fertiliser (sorry). You can do this through subsidised credit and government- or private-sector led replanting schemes; certification and higher prices alone will not be enough.
02 February 2009
Second, a mysterious plague of worms riddles Liberia. There is still no certainty on what they are and many upcountry farmers feel frightened and abandoned - but even though the spray teams from the Ministry of Agriculture come late, at least there are spray teams.
Third, another story on middle income countries buying food through barter deals. This time last year, it was because food was too expensive. This year, food is cheap, but they can't get credit to pay for it.