25 November 2009

Eight ways the world should be spending its money

The MIT Poverty Action Lab has a fantastically simple, compelling list of seven ways to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals. I'm going to print these and put them in my wallet.

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

Liberte, egalite et . . Francafrique

Depressing article from NY Times on French quasi-colonial policy in Africa. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

(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)

Climate change in Australia vs healthcare in the US

I’ve spent the last month in Australia, working on the role of forests in combating climate change. It’s hard to avoid noticing that Australia is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide per head. Relying on coal for power and an energy-intensive lifestyle lead to emissions of 27 tonnes per person per year, higher even than the US. Australians have dragged their feet over climate change for years: they only signed the Kyoto Protocol in 2008 and while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd travels the world drumming up support for ‘global deal’, at home he is struggling to force through Australia’s first ever emissions trading scheme without watering it down to meaninglessness. Large chunks of the Liberal Party are oppose any kind of emissions trading and some of them happily proclaim they “don’t believe” in climate change.

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 Victoria last year were the worst in living memory. The antipodean climate is harsh and unreliable: a decade of drought may be followed by torrential floods as the warm waters of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation wallow back and forth across the Pacific. European invaders cleared swathes of inland forest to make farms and pasture, but much of the thin soil is exhausted and the land has reverted to bush. Even the once-rich agricultural lands of the Murray-Darling basin are being abandoned as there just isn’t enough water to feed the fruits, vines and Adelaide at the same time. So how can any reasonable Australian doubt that climate change is a serious threat to their beautiful country and way of life? After all, most forecasts suggest that a warmer world will exacerbate the fluctuations of their climate even further.

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 USA is even more perplexing. The strongest opponents of healthcare reform in the US include many who should benefit from it: middle-class white people, whose employee-linked health benefits are more precarious than ever thanks to the recession, mass unemployment and spiralling costs. Almost any American, veterans excepted, risks losing their healthcare if they lose their job. Yet the right spent much of 2009 creating the impression that universal healthcare meant “losing your healthcare” – which is a bit like saying that a programme to end famine will make your family go hungry. I would love to find an unemployed Republican who cannot get insurance her- or himself, but continues to protest against the “government takeover” of healthcare.

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 Australia and bush fires is evident, but as long as China opens two new power stations every week, an Australian might be rational in continuing to burn coal, as long as China does. How about Greenpeace stop trying to shut down nuclear power plants and blockade the port of Newcastle, the source of much of China’s coal, instead?

02 November 2009

Can biotech cure world hunger?

Last week we learnt that there are now 1 billion hungry people in the world, more than ever, albeit a smaller proportion of the population than in the 1950s. I found this debate from the New York Times a useful guide to how to respond. On the one hand, it would be absurd to condemn millions to malnutrition because we don't like high-tech farming in Europe. On the other hand, genetic modification has delivered very little for poorer countries so far: herbicide-tolerant maize and soybean varieties, yes, but none of the drought-resistant crops that the biotech companies promised.

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.