Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The smell of Africa

It is not a romantic smell. It is not the smell of free people, living as they would choose. Rather, it is the smell of people who labour, strain, and toil for every drop of sustenance their body receives from the earth. It is the smell of of people who have been marginalised and disempowered and forgotten. It is the smell of of people without a voice in a world where only the loud are fed. It is the smell of people who are alive only because they are cunning, ingenious, and endlessly resourceful. In theory they are "peasants".  In practice they are brilliantly versed in the skill of surviving.

Absolutely brilliant. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

From Science to Impact

Most scientists, well at least senior scientists, need to report on progress to funders and policy makers reliant or interested on the outcome of their research.  Yesterday I was invited to attend such a meeting, not to report, but to listen and observe. Apart from really interesting presentations and ground-breaking research, the eternal struggle on how to clearly speak to policy and decision makers on matters of science was clearly evident.

I made a few notes:

  • Present in a nutshell the implications of research for policy
  • Explain what and why some modelling, calculations have been done. Guide policy makers through the logic. Do not baffle them with complicated statistics
  • Do not present all of the work you have done. Many times it will help much more to just say that your peers have endorsed you.
  • Focus on the impact of your work on people and society, not on scientific details
  • Always ask ‘So what?’
  • Do not speak about what you think is interesting, but speak about things that are important to decision making
  • Do not duplicate other work when you do not have to! Use existing data, analysis etc. and invest in connecting the dots.
  • Design and optimise modes of communication. Beware of death by ppt... (Despite the fact that everyone knows the term, my perception is that it is getting worse)
  • Be clear on the investment cost of projects/programme in relation to societal benefits. Do not emphasise costs only.
  • Generalise from specific studies in a responsible way. Neither jump to conclusions, nor be willing to take some risk. An educated expert opinion is still much better then an uneducated guess.

This is just a rough, personal account. There are many more excellent resources on how to improve the science-policy interface.   I recommend Prof Pielke's book The Honest Broker as a good place to start.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Social networking and happiness

From the BMJ a study on happiness within social networks:

Happy people tend to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of happy people.  

Happiness... is also a property of groups of people.

...people are embedded in social networks and the health and wellbeing of one person affects the health and wellbeing of others.

Social networking as a public health focus area?

Read the full study.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Rising Cost of Deteriorating Water Quality

Everything is not well in South Africa's Waterland.  Sewerage, industrial effluents and acids are contaminating South Africa's scarce water resources. Some speak of a water crises

Water in South Africa belongs to the state (National Water Act). The question that does arise is whether the state are able to manage and protect this water effectively. There is mounting evidence that this is not the case. Many water resources are effectively treated as common property and without clear and binding institutional arrangements are overexploited as repositories of waste. Unregulated markets will generally produce more then the desired amount of pollution, externalising these costs onto the environment and ultimately on human beings and the environment dependent on clean water.

A honest review of government failure is long overdue. It is also time to bring the polluters to book and time for developing open-minded approaches to the pricing of water pollution. Gradual and well-designed prices on the scarcity of natural resources send more correct signals to market players on the cost of pollution, and may help to avoid sudden crises.  When water quality approaches critical levels, longer delays will only mean rising costs of inaction.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Should business be involved in poverty alleviation?

In a world of persistent poverty and growing inequality the pressure to respond will continue to increase. This is not only the case for governments, but increasingly one for larger businesses who start realising that it makes little sense to operate in failed societies. 

An article from Sustainability Investment News on the basis of a new WBCSD report, highlights the perceived role of business in poverty alleviation: 

Almost half of the world’s population survives on the equivalent of less than $2 a day. And the gap between rich and poor countries continues to widen; the richest 20% of the world’s population control three-quarters of the world’s wealth, while the poorest 20% control just 2%. 

World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a global association of 200 companies dealing exclusively with business and sustainable development, has produced a report that sees in such dire statistics an opportunity to do business in new ways. The report, developed by the WBCSD Development Focus Area and entitled "Doing Business with the World--The New Role of Corporate Leadership in Global Development", finds that "companies can contribute to global sustainable development through their core businesses in a way that is profitable for the companies and good for development." 

The key to alleviation of poverty is the creation of wealth, the report concludes, and business is a necessary part of the equation. By engaging with low-income segments of developing countries through direct employment and sourcing from low-income suppliers, companies can tap into a market that despite its poverty represents an estimated collective purchasing power of $5 trillion. 

It is a good thing that big business is coming on board in addressing the world's biggest problems.  Social responsibility is not something only for governments, NGOs and philanthropists.

Expect some interesting developments in shaping this suggested partnership between governments, NGOs and business.

Hope that the really poor are not left out in the action.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Poverty and violence

From VoxEU.org - a new study on poverty and violence in Africa:

This column suggests that in Africa an income drop of 5%—a large but altogether common deterioration in economic conditions—increases the risk of civil conflict in the following year to nearly 30%. This suggests that aid agencies could help prevent war by targeting short-term emergency aid towards countries hard-hit by adverse commodity price movements or weather shocks.
If we believe that a direct link connects poverty and violence, then when failing rains create economic hardship, war should follow. In this case, we can actually figure out whether poverty caused violence by isolating rainfall’s effects. Drought and the resulting economic hardship turn out to matter a lot for understanding conflict in Africa. In work with co-authors Shanker Satyanath and Ernest Sergenti of NYU, we find that a 1% decline in national GDP increases the likelihood of civil conflict by about 2 percentage points. So an income drop of 5%—a large but altogether common deterioration in economic conditions, especially when the rains fail—increases the risk of civil conflict in the following year to nearly 30%, up from an already-high average probability of conflict in Africa of around 20% in normal rainfall years. So we find that short-term shocks to income – exactly the type that Djankov and Reynal-Querol purport to study – do trigger violent conflict on the world’s war-prone continent.

This is an interesting observation. It also begs the next question how aid organisations, governments and society as a whole can effectively react to such shocks. Apart from preventing those few that can be controlled, it is more a matter of keeping "the fingers on the pulse" and to have sensitive systems in place that can "hear the baby cry". That means a lot of flexibility and adaptability.

Rural poverty does not exclude sensitivity to relative standing

A recent EfD study in rural China pointed out that Chinese rural farmers do care about relative income. This concern for relative standing, according to the authors,  is similar to comparable studies in developed countries.  In China, however, these results need to be interpreted within the context of a country rapidly becoming more unequal. It may also help explain peasant discontent and incidents of rural protest and unrest.

See also earlier related posts Globalisation and Inequality and Does Inequality lead to Violence?