Monday, 8 October 2007

2 books

Sorry for the long silence - was travelling and then getting stuck into induction and the start of reading lists, lectures etc.

Just a quick note to bring your attention to 2 books which are well worth reading:

1) "The Rise and Decline of Nations" by Mancur Olson. The title may sound grandiose, but I've actually omitted the rest of the title which talks about social rigidities. This is an absolutely phenomenal book - I found it eye-popping. He starts with the concept of rational ignorance to examine the difficulties and rationales around the formation of collective action (for example, why do the poorest people - who are also the most voluminous - have such poor representation, even by themselves). And then he builds up the implications of it. And then he shows the consequences of these implications in different ways through history. Essentially the book looks at the formation of special-interest groups or distributional coalitions - how and why they might arise, and have arisen in the past, and the ways in which these have the consequences on whether societies develop or stagnate. And if you're thinking this is only for developing countries, think again. It's based on fundamental human behaviour and is stunningly insightful for the most developed nations as well - and should give people pause for thought about whether some of the incentive structures in our societies are going to be good for us or not. Well worth reading.

2) "Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance" by Douglass North. This is a slightly drier and more social sciencey book, but still very valuable. The author examines "institutions" as in the "rules of the game" in society - the different (formal and informal) forms, how and why they might change, and where this analysis then leads (particularly around path dependence). Again, I would recommend reading it for sure.

Anyway, will stop here - will try and get some time to post something on a "livelihoods workshop" I went to recently where there were stunning case studies from around the world by the actual field-workers at the coalface.

Thursday, 13 September 2007


Something completely different.

"In the dying years of Emperor Haile Sellaisse I and the first stirrings of a brutal military dictatorships the soul groups, jazz combos and big bands of Ethiopia played like never before or since."

That's the first sentence from the back of a double-CD - "The Very Best of Ethiopiques" - just out. Check it out - fantastic - I haven't bought an actual CD for over a year now, but had to buy this when I heard it.

"The main body of Ethiopian vinyl was produced in less than one decade from 1969 to 1978. All in all, just under 500 45s and around 30 LP albums were released..."

"The recordings were made with a minimum of technical equipment. A microphone for the singer, and another in the middle for the musicians; a two-track tape recorder, no re-recording or mixing, and usually recorded in clubs where, because of the curfew, the dinner bands performed in the early evenings..."

Music (particularly jazz-heavy music!) that is actually melodic and evocative rather than intellectual or self-referential tootles and poop-de-poops. Could this be a lot to do with the immediate and social environment these people were in - does continuous prosperity only breed complaceny and indulgence? Can happiness ever give rise to the creation of great art? There's a question...

Enough tangential verbiage - website here, with samples on that as well. Click through on the track-listings for brief bios on the performers. Awesome music - some absolutely stunning tracks - entire double-CD is superb (very little, if any, "padding" tracks).

Friday, 7 September 2007

Kicking Away The Ladder

This is a book referred to in an earlier post. It's by Ha-Joon Chang (a development economist at Cambridge), and is well worth reading.

It provides an overarching review of how the developed countries really came to their current prosperous economic states. Did they use the same policies and institutions recommended and instigated by the "Washington Consensus" on today's developing countries? Of course not - what's sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.

The book is really good in showing - in a fairly damning way I would say - that the neo-classical or neo-liberal or orthodox economics espoused by the intelligentsia (and heartily echoed by the financial community and others with well-entrenched interests) is actually very often diametrically opposite to the techniques used by the US, UK, Germany, France, Japan, Sweden etc in making their significant leaps forward from pre-Industrial Revolution days.

Most people would view this as blatant hypocrisy - and indeed its tough to reach any other conclusion. The book itself, however, is no hysterical diatribe - and is therefore much more powerful for it. Written by a trained and respected academic, it is actually quite useful as a primer and introduction to the actual economic history of the Developed World. The unemotional counterpoints he provides by comparing these actual practices to what is recommended to (and let's be honest here, often forced down the throat of) Developing Countries are very provocative.

It is a very welcome blast of transparency which shows the hypocrisy which runs through the orthodox or neo-classical economic establishment - and considering how well-educated this establishment is, some readers may well also ask whether this is a wilful and deliberate hypocrisy borne out of self-interest.

My notes on the book run to >15 pages, but I won't replicate them all here! I won't try and summarise the arguments either - simply because there's a summary from the author himself
here (or you can always try Amazon or Wikipedia). Instead, I'll just highlight some of the "unexpected" points and historical facts that I found intriguing:
  • the Developed Countries extensively used interventionist industrial, tariff and trade policies to actively manage their economic development
  • these policies included heavy tariff manipulation, infant industry protection, capacity building through education and infrastructure, deliberate shunning of intellectual property rights
  • the USA was arguably the founding father of protectionism, making heavy use of infant industry protectionist policies for well over a century
  • laissez-faire free trade policies have been extensive for a very short period of time in history (essentially the 2nd half of the 1800s) - before and after the major economic nations have used protectionist ITT policies
  • Friedrich List, a German economist who was exiled in the US and heavily influenced by US legislators, writing in 1841, analysed English economic development as follows - “they perceived that their newly established manufactures could never hope to succeed in free competition with the old and long-established manufactures of foreigners…hence they sought, by a system of restrictions, privileges, and encouragements, to transplant on to their native soil the wealth, the talents and the spirit of enterprise of foreigners”
  • free trade was advocated by many British economists, who had a variety of recommendations particularly for the US - Adam Smith: “were the Americans, either by combination or by any other sort of violence, to stop the importation of European manufactures, and, by thus giving a monopoly to such of their own countrymen as could manufacture the like goods, divert any considerable part of their capital into this employment, they would retard instead of accelerating the further increase in the value of their annual produce, and would obstruct intead of promoting the progress of their country towards real wealth and greatness” (emphases mine, contrast this with what US actually did, and interestingly with the current anti-free trade stance of presidential hopefuls)
  • British advocacy of free trade really kicked in only about 50 years into the Industrial Revolution (upto which point Britain had been actively interventionist), when British firms clearly had built up considerable technological and productive advantages
  • even then, there was also a clear tangential agenda, behind free-trade activists of (a) reducing cost and expanding availability of primary raw materials (to counter the “fostering bounties which the high-priced food of the British artisan has offered to the cheaper fed manufacturer of those countries” ), and (b) improve ability to access and exploit export markets on the back of their technological advantage (hence Britain’s espousal and advocacy of free-trade as the intellectually and allegedly practically virtuous path)
  • “halt[ing] the move to industrialisation on the Continent by enlarging the market for agricultural produce and primary materials” was also a significant motive, as attested to by the words of the free-trade lobbyists themselves, eg: Cobden arguing that “the factory system would, in all probability, not have taken place in America and Germany. It most certainly could not have flourished…in these states, and in France, Belgium, and Switzerland”
  • the US political leaders were aware of what the consequences of such British-advocated policies would be (although perhaps they also had their own electoral or commercial interests within the US in mind) - Jefferson tried to stop the publishing of Ricardo's works in the US, whilst elsewhere List cites a US congressman as stating that English trade theory “like most English manufactured goods, is intended for export, not for consumption at home”
  • even by the 1880s, previously assertive English manufacturers in some industries were starting to advocate tariff protection, and from 1879/1880 tariff barriers began rising back across nations
  • industrial espionage was encouraged by many states, including Germany, France, Sweden
  • intellectual property rights were largely ignored by all Developed Countries - Britain (pre-1852), Netherlands, Austria & France specifically permitted “patenting of imported inventions by their nationals, while US granted patents to its nationals “without any proof of originality” until 1836, and “did not acknowledge foreigners’ copyrights until 1891”
  • Switzerland refused any form of patent law until 1907, significantly aiding its chemical, pharmaceutical and food industries – any guess on the nationality of many of today's largest food and drugs companies??
  • public funding of capacity building can and does have significant benefits (ie, it cannot just be left to the "market" to provide) - in the US, the proportion of educational investment which was publicly funded rose from <50% in 1840 to c. 80% by 1900, with an increase in literacy ratio to 94% by 1900
  • Germany’s building of new schools and universities included “the reorientation of their teaching from theology to science and technology…at a time when science and technology was not being taught in Oxford or Cambridge”, and led to a net inflow of students from the US to Germany for 100 years
  • US government actively supported agricultural research from mid-19th C, including establishing research institutes and granting government land to agricultural colleges
  • Defense-related procurement means US government continues to be a major driver of R&D, with historical benefits accrued by industries such as IT, aerospace, internet
  • US government’s National Institutes of Health continue to play “critical role” in “supporting R&D in pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries”, funding 29% of R&D vs 43% by the industry itself
This list could continue even more, but should be sufficient as a canvas to contrast some of the Washington Consensus policies for Developing Countries, examples include the arguments over patent rights in medication and even food (surely hypocritical), the imposition of free-trade (milk from overseas is cheaper in Tanzania than domestic milk!), the recommendation that the "market" (ie foreign companies, entrepreneurs, and investors) should be left to fund and finance development (including major capacity-building like transport and utilities) etc.

If you have the time, read the book itself. It's not an academic textbook, more a background primer, and will leave you with a much better briefing and often damning context as regards many of the topics you see advocated by the special interest groups (public and private) in the Developed Countries, and which make for debate in the newspapers as well.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

A letter from SciAm

On an entirely different topic, an open letter from the Sept 2007 Scientific American issue, with good points and some great quotes.

Rational Atheism

An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens
By Michael Shermer

Since the turn of the millennium, a new militancy has arisen among religious skeptics in response to three threats to science and freedom: (1) attacks against evolution education and stem cell research; (2) breaks in the barrier separating church and state leading to political preferences for some faiths over others; and (3) fundamentalist terrorism here and abroad. Among many metrics available to track this skeptical movement is the ascension of four books to the august heights of the New York Times best-seller list—Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (Hachette Book Group, 2007) and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)—that together, in Dawkins’s always poignant prose, “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled.” Amen, brother.

Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance. I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher for the following reasons.

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: “An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”

2. Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”

3. Rational is as rational does. If it is our goal to raise people’s consciousness to the wonders of science and the power of reason, then we must apply science and reason to our own actions. It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind. As Carl Sagan cautioned in “The Burden of Skepticism,” a 1987 lecture, “You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it.”

4. The golden rule is symmetrical. In the words of the greatest conscious­ness raiser of the 20th century, Mart­in Luther King, Jr., in his epic “I Have a Dream” speech: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrong­ful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.

5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.

As King, in addition, noted: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic (

Saturday, 18 August 2007


Interesting things happening in the area of food-aid. Many NGOs, and recipient countries, are dissatisfied with some of the consequences of the way emergency food-aid is granted by many donor nations.

The basic summary is that very often (disregarding catastrophic and widespread famine or massive population displacements) shipping food from overseas actually has serious adverse consequences for the recipient.

This is particularly where food shortages in recipient countries are localised in only certain areas, and where on an aggregate basis there is sufficient food available, but market prices are rising due to localised shortages.

In these situations, granting cash relief to local populations is very often proving to be a much more effective mechanism than shipping food from overseas. This is because the
food donated is often that produced by Western (or, using the semantics of development, 'Northern') farmers benefiting from both significant trade barriers protecting their own domestic markets, and lavish subsidies which often result in excess production in the North (the CAP anyone?).

This food is effectively dumped by donors in the recipient countries, flooding their markets, distorting the price mechanism, and significantly adversely affecting local producers.

Local producers are therefore hit by a double-whammy, and there is often no incentive mechanism created for them to improve their own production techniques (e.g., through yield enhancement or investment etc).

The costing of such food-aid is also significantly raised by the shipping costs of transporting this food from the North. Such shipping of course typically being done by contracts granted to shippers from the donor countries...and the cost of such shipping also often being more than the value of the food-stuffs being transported! And then of course the time needed to actually ship the food means that it arrives much later (the US GAO itself estimates a 4.5 month timelag!)

"So what" is one instinctive response to this, since the local consumers are apparently spared
having to 'indulge' the profit-maximisation motives of their local producers. However, note that effectively they are instead indulging the similar motives the Northern producers! And the Northern shippers are not complaining either...

The acid test should be what is the most cost-effective (since this is ultimately paid for by the Northern taxpayers like you and me) and sustainable way of addressing the underlying problem of food-shortages (usually due to poor harvests rather than catastrophic nationwide famine).

And many NGOs and recipient countries are finding that giving cash to the people affected is actually a much more cost-effective and successful solution. The same $ (or £ or €) of Northern taxpayers' funds goes much further (and therefore buys more food) when it is not lining the pockets of Northern farmers or shippers.

Good old Keynes also comes into this, since the effect of people receiving cash which they spend within their domestic economy is to create a shorter-term consumption multiplier effect, as well as a longer-term investment multiplier.

There are also significant social multipliers that are being discovered. The recipients of this cash don't spend it just on food. They make independent consumption decisions, and actually have been found to spend some in capital goods for their own farms (like equipment or seedstock for next year), school fees for their children and so on. This also helps counteract one of the more longer-term debilitating factors of food shortages which is the diversion of people's assets and economic activity into areas which do not yield longer-term benefits for them - examples of this would be selling or liquidating assets like livestock to raise food or funds to buy food, working as cash-labour (often leading to population movements or family separations), stopping schooling and so on.

Quite a few agencies - including, of course, Concern Worldwide which has been trialling this in Malawi - are finding that such cash transfers are actually much more effective. Recipient countries like Eritrea are also making the point.

Lastly, this can also be linked to more subtle institutional improvements in areas such as financial access for the poor, womens' rights and so on. For example, early trials in some areas found that male recipients had a greater tendency to waste this cash (on alcohol and girlfriends!) than female recipients. So by distributing such cash to women, this improves the contextual environment for women, improves their position and makes them more vocal in general (and therefore for other matters as well).

In addition, rather than just handing cash out, by linking this to mobile-technology and smart-cards (with fingerprint details embedded) it starts creating an environment, infrastructure and awareness for other services that can work through similar channels, such as of course banking (and particularly saving) for the poor. If this sounds far-fetched, then look at this excerpt.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Severe Acute Malnutrition & CTC

I'm finding that I'm not getting as much time as I'd like to post (even though my course hasn't started yet!), so I'll keep this brief.

Severe Acute Malnutrition kills 1,000,000 children every year (source: WHO). That works out to 1 child every 30 seconds - 10 kids in the 5 minutes it takes to drink one cup of coffee - 60 kids in the half an hour on the tube in to work in the morning, and another 60 on the journey home. I briefly touched upon the Community-based Therapeutic Care (CTC) approach jointly spearheaded by Concern and Valid in an earlier post.

For those who might be interested, this press release and Joint Statement from the UN system (WHO, WFP, UNICEF et al) from June 2007 touches upon CTC, and effectively endorses it as their preferred approach for dealing with severe malnutrition and recommends member governments to adopt it within their public health systems.

As an aside, Concern Worldwide is also now on YouTube so that it is easier to see (as well as read about) some of their work. The first upload is a 10 minute feature on Chad and the spillover from Darfur.

When I have more time, I'll try and post something on an incisive - and very illuminating - book by a Cambridge economist.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Nature's Fury

Just a quick note to say that there is a book-launch of "Nature's Fury" on Wed 29 Aug from 6-9pm at the Bargehouse on Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, South Bank.

This is a photo & narrative piece prepared by Shahidul Alam for Concern Worldwide. The book focuses on the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan in October 2005. This 7.6 richter scale quake officially left c. 75,000 people dead, 2.8 million people displaced and without shelter, and destroyed >1 million livelihoods (source: World Bank).

Alam travelled to the region after the quake and again in August 2006 to capture the initial effects, as well as the efforts people are making to rebuild their lives. Alam is a very talented photographer, has won several awards and has been a repeat jurist for the World Press Photo awards. He is also very active in transparency and communication work for otherwise neglected constituencies, and was one of the founders of Drik & Pathshala in Bangladesh - two leading independent photo agency and educational institutes over there. (Btw, check out this short retrospective in his blog on Muhammed Yunus and Grameen).

Concern Worldwide's communication and outreach work sets a very high standard indeed - they commissioned "Positive Lives", which won the Photojournalism prize at the Amnesty International Media Awards in 2006.

So, if any of you have time, then I would definitely recommend going to take a look. These photographs have drawn a strong reaction wherever they have been exhibited. If you can't make it, then click here for some samples (and the follow-through link for the August 2006 photos).

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Why Concern?

As some of you may know, I've recently become a new trustee of Concern Worldwide UK. So, what's so special about Concern - what do they do?

Concern started out with a shipload of emergency aid sent from Ireland in 1968 (when it was nowhere near the Celtic Tiger it's become) to what was then known as Biafra. It is now an international, humanitarian, non-denominational NGO active in 30 countries across the world.

It's focus is on reducing suffering and working towards an ultimate goal of eliminating extreme poverty in the world's poorest countries. (Cynics or sceptics may view this is as an "unrealistic" objective but that's the mission, and all we can do is aim towards it and start walking a step at a time - see the title of this blog! And if I may revert to my own cynicism, I think it's a better and more meaningful mission statement than any corporate one I ever came across in my banking days!).

I've followed their work for many years, and have been very impressed by their dedication, tenacity and most importantly their strong focus on results. This has led them to work very closely with others (whether they are other agencies, or indigenous partners in the field), and has resulted in the development of innovative and highly effective programmes with a very high marginal return. Such a field-based approach, in my opinion, also means that they stay close to the frontline of what is actually needed, what will work, and how that can be improved.

Working with partners also means that wasteful duplication is minimised or avoided, and working with indigenous partners means that solutions are built around the people who need them (not imposed by well-meaning outsiders) and that significant spin-off capacity building benefits also arise.

I'm fairly certain I'll be posting more about Concern in the future, so for this posting, I think I'll give just one example - Community-based Therapeutic Care ("CTC").

Initially devised by an organisation called Valid International, Concern and Valid have been collaboratively pushing this forward since 2001. You can find much more details on, but I'll summarise my own key takeaways here (they may well seem over-simplified for any expert readers, but they are not the intended audience for this).

Basically, traditional nutrition interventions in areas afflicted by drought and malnourishment have involved setting-up Therapeutic Feeding Centres, where severely malnourished people come for treatment.

This is obviously necessary for people who have reached such an unfortunately critical stage. But what if somehow nutritional supplements could be delivered to people before they reach this stage?

That's what CTC does. By using Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food ("RUTF") which is delivered through already established local facilities and community channels, CTC gets a very high nutritional package to people in the field through 'Outpatient' style sites.

RUTF is itself a complex carbohydrate based product, so high in slow-release nutritional value (for those of you who are marathon-runners, you'll click with this!) - which needs no refrigeration or water. This means it can be kept for longer time periods in the actual environment found in the field (no reliance on clean water or electricity).

By being delivered in the field, it also reduces the considerably disruptive process of people having to physically get to TFCs (often when they are physically compromised, and very typically over arduous terrain in acutely challenging conditions) - which also means taking them away from their homes and livelihoods.

This means that people who are moderately or severely malnourished but do not (yet) have any medical complications get nutritional aid in a more effective manner, and that the TFCs are then able to focus more on the people with medical complications who have to be treated on such an "in-patient" basis.

CTC has been recognised by organisations including the World Health Organisation, and UK's DFID as an innovative and effective treatment technique, with a significantly better effectiveness rate than traditional legacy methods. CTC is now being implemented in a number of countries and regions (including Malawi, Darfur, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Niger, Kenya, Bangladesh among others).

I'm sure this is a slightly over-simplified description for field-professionals (eg, it doesn't even touch upon second-stage developments such as interplay with HIV/AIDS strategies and collaboration with local domestic health authorities and infrastructures etc), but I find it helpful as a summary from my perspective as a layman. If you want more details, feel free to ask, or check out their website.

Saturday, 11 August 2007


If you're reading this, then thanks for clicking through. At my late age, I'm actually going to attempt to use some new-fangled (for me) technology, and instead of sending "bcc" emails, I'll post this blog. That way, those who are interested can read this, and those who aren't don't get unwanted messages!

I'll add the health warning that I have no idea how often this will get updated, or if it will be of any use - but, hey, nothing ventured nothing gained. I'll try and avoid navel-gazing, and keep it to facts that I discover in my new path which I think might interest, amuse, appal or intrigue people who know me from old paths. And of course, as an overarching disclaimer, and unless otherwise stated, any views that I express are done in a personal capacity only and do not necessarily reflect any institution or organisation.

Lastly, and as always, please don't be shy about feedback, criticism or mockery!