19 December 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

My favourite quote so far: 
“When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Dore, I saw the Lord God standing on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious. 
Spontaneously, without any theological training, I, a child, grasped the incompatibility of God and shit... Either/or: either man was created in God's image-- and God has intestines!-- or God lacks intestines and man is not like him... 
Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man's crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.”

Cash Transfers in Congo

One of the main challenges of the Concern (and other) humanitarian programmes in the Eastern Congo is that even if they wanted to give out cash rather than goods or vouchers, the security situation is too fragile and there are no banks outside of Goma.

The BBC World Service Africa Today podcast reports that a truck belonging to the Banque Internationale pour l'Afrique au Congo was just robbed of $1 million in broad daylight in the middle of Goma, the driver and a bystander shot and killed. What a mess.

The NRA and "now is not the time"

"We think it is poor form for a politician or a special interest group to try to push a legislative agenda on the back of any tragedy."
-- NRA, after 2008 Northern Illinois shootings 
"Now is not the time to debate politics or discuss policy."
-- NRA, after 2009 Binghampton massacre 
"At this time, anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate."
-- NRA, after 2011 shooting spree that wounded Gabrielle Giffords 
"There will be an appropriate time down the road to engage in political and policy discussions."
-- NRA, after 2012 Aurora massacre 
"NRA will not have any comment."
-- NRA, after 2012 Newtown massacre
From Doonesbury 

17 December 2012

The best news story of the year

In January 2013, India will start the world's biggest social innovation programme: giving cash directly to its poorest citizens in a bid to reduce its very large problem of corruption that stops subsidised goods and welfare benefits from reaching those who really need them. This initiative will affect at least 720 million people—a population almost the size of Europe!
The scheme is open to families who live below or just above the government-set poverty line. The Indian government expects to transfer up to 40,000 rupees ($720) a year to each poor household. Cash handouts will replace the money the government currently spends on subsidies on goods such as fuel, food and fertilizer. India plans to launch this ambitious social innovation program from 1 January, covering 18 states by April and the whole country by the end of 2013.

If this is to be believed, the consequences for human welfare are simply staggering. Nothing else even comes close.

Brazil's Bolsa Familia reaches 50 million people and has lifted 20 million out of poverty. India's programme could reach seven hundred and twenty million people.

Just wow. Sceptical comments to calm me down below please.

15 December 2012

The Rwandan National Strategic... Rap Video?

This is definitely the first national strategic plan that I've worked on that has its own music video. Presenting... the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy 2 (EDPRS 2) song.

10 December 2012

Underpants Gnomes in Rwanda

One of DFID's many genuinely excellent initiatives is requiring a detailed business case for all of its new programmes, so that there is a carefully thought through theory of change before any money is spent on implementing something new.

However a friend-known-to-be-witty suggests by email that DFID's theory of change for suspending aid to Rwanda seems to be pure underpants gnomes:

1. Aid to Rwandan domestic programmes is stopped
2. Rwanda stops alleged support for M23
3. ??????
4. Peace in Eastern Congo, and free ponies for everyone!!!!

Any better ideas?

Everything you ever wanted to know about migration and development

Well not quite, but the latest Development Drums podcast with Michael Clemens covers a lot of ground, including the case that should now be familiar for why migration has such enormous potential for development, and rebuttals to some of the most common criticisms. I am though continually amazed by how many smart development-industry types are so sceptical about migration (so if this is you, listen to the podcast now).

And for the wonks, there are also a couple of papers that were new to me:

A paper by Branko Milanovic calculating the determinants of individual earnings across countries. Earnings are partly determined by individual characteristics, and partly simply by what country you live in. Which is more important? It turns out that 59% of the differences in earnings is determined just by the country you live in. More than all of your personal characteristics - your experience, your education, your talents, your effort - all of it. I think that one of the defining differences between the left-wing and the right-wing is in the underlying assumptions about the determinants of individual success. Is it down to luck, or skill? If success is primarily due to skill, then a free market is going to deliver "fair" outcomes and the government should butt out. You work hard, you do well. But if success is primarily due to chance, then you can work as hard as you like, but it won't do much good if you were unlucky to begin with. So there is a "fair" case for the lucky to compensate the unlucky. So the life chances of humans born on earth are at least 59% chance. If you're born in Togo, the odds are stacked well against you.

Second, an old paper by David Card from 1990. In 1980, the US and Cuba made a one-off agreement to admit as many people as wanted to move. Over 100,000 people moved from Cuba to the Miami area. This amounted to a 7% increase in the Miami labour force in just 3 months - a huge increase. And yet there was no impact on unemployment or wages of existing workers in Miami.

05 December 2012

Mapping rebel groups in the Congo

A bit of perspective - if M23 totally disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow, there would still be more than 25 armed groups operating in the eastern DRC. All Rwanda's fault?

via BBC - Hattip - someone on my twitter feed

03 December 2012

What about diplomacy?

Finally, cutting aid just strikes me as a fundamentally lazy and cowardly choice. If you want to achieve political goals, how about bothering to spend the time engaging politically and talking to people? Diplomacy brought peace to Northern Ireland and diplomacy brought a 2005 peace agreement to North and South Sudan. That meant long hours of hard work, and real political commitment. How many international leaders have even been to the DRC? Maybe if the collective international political community had demonstrated even the slightest regard for the people of the DR Congo through any actual tangible action then all of this posturing wouldn't leave such a bad taste.

A few reasons not to cut aid to Rwanda

The Rwandan High Commissioner to the UK has a good article in today's New Times on the aid cuts, highlighting the farce of continued donor failure to meet our own commitments on the predictability of aid. 
Budget support to Rwanda was frozen not because the country has failed to use it for the benefit of those who need it most, but to influence a political end in the DRC. There is no direct link between what is happening in the DRC and what aid achieves for ordinary Rwandan citizens. This is definitely not the right way to solve DRC’s problems. Rwanda should not be penalized for the failures of another country... 
One important point to underscore is that these political decisions directly affect the poor. They compromise the quality of aid which has an adverse effect on the quality of development outcomes and results. But fundamentally the belief that aid is primarily aimed at reducing poverty and improving the welfare of the poor is greatly undermined. Even ordinary citizens begin to perceive aid as a tool only intended for political control and to buy political leverage and influence. 
Well worth reading in full. Some of the points he makes include the frankly phenomenal successes that the Rwandan government has achieved over the past five years, with the support of foreign aid, such as

- the rapid growth in the economy, 
- the rapid fall in poverty, (faster than anywhere else in Africa, and amongst the fastest ever) 
- the rapid increase in agricultural output, 
- the rapid improvement in access to finance
- the improvements in healthcare (basically no malaria to worry about thanks to mass bednet provision), and
- increases in school enrolment.
- that people in Rwanda feel safe (the safest place in Africa?), 
- and see Rwanda as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa.

Despite this impressive progress, the government is impatient, and wants to deliver more and faster. A spokesperson for Tony Blair notes that "a recent study by the British Government showed that Rwanda was one of the most effective users of aid in the world."

Of course things in DRC are complicated and it's hard to know what is really going on, but I can't help feeling that putting all of these gains at risk by seriously threatening the economy of Rwanda is just a bit irresponsible.

(I should add that I'm presently in Kigali working on a project for the Government of Rwanda. These opinions are mine and only mine, so you can of course discount any of this as you wish, but the facts.... they are just facts).

The fiscal cliff in East Africa

So, when South Sudan makes a strategic choice to temporarily (but drastically) cut government spending in order to achieve political objectives, it is being "reckless". And when Western donors decide to temporarily cut government spending in Rwanda and Uganda in order to achieve political objectives, they are being... what exactly? Is there any evidence that sanctions are even effective? And it's lucky that our whiter than white British government has a totally clean record on corruption, human rights, and interfering in other countries... ahem, MPs expenses, Leveson, our Prime Ministers acting as arms salesman to Middle Eastern despots, our financial services industry laundering exactly the cash stolen from foreign governments that we pretend to care about, the invasion of Iraq... good job our citizens don't rely on foreign aid for basic service delivery then.