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The UNDP’s surprising, alarming, Africa view, lurid with green manipulation

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In mid-May 2012, the United Nations Development Programme (the UNDP) released its Africa Human Development report for 2012. Entitled ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, the report is unremarkable for its assessments and language – these have changed but little where Africa (indeed where the recalcitrant South is concerned) is concerned over the last 30 years – and remarkable for the subtext of the agriculture and food focus to human development.

Houley Dia ran out of food a month ago and is now existing on water. A 60-something-year-old widow, she lives in Houdallah, a village of the Fula ethnic group in southern Mauritania on the border with Senegal. Photo: IRIN / Nils Elzenga

The UNDP today, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (and their cousin multilateral lending agencies, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, all incestuous, all unscrupulous, all functioning as think-sinks for mendacious economists who lie with flash charts and sophisticated ppts), is softly softly peddling an industry line. The industry in this case, in the 2012 for Africa case, is food and agriculture, land and poverty, the provisioning of specials foods and the provisioning of the money with which to purchase this reconstituted manna.

For most of Africa south of the Maghrib (or Maghreb, if you prefer, it is impossible to render adequately the flowing Arabic, the Ar’biyy’a, into l’Anglais, into the stilted Roman alphabet) wherever white settlement occured in quantity, the pattern in land expropriation and the use of labour was set by the Union of South Africa. So said Basil Davidson in ‘Let Freedom Come’ (Little, Brown & Co., 1978). This pattern heralded a long period of rising white prosperity still continuing in the 1970s, if with some checks and hiccups (hiccoughs too, the uprising kind) in the 1920s and 1930s, remarked Davidson. He pointed out that South Africa’s Land Act of 1913 provided a model that abolished all African land ownership (i.e., ownership by ‘native’ Africans). Labour supply was increased and the wage rate was lowered and Davidson went on to say that “the same system of proletarianising self-sufficient peasants and of driving them into a labour market where they could have no bargaining power, was used elsewhere with local variants”.

Now, almost a century after that Land Act come into being (providing the precursor to apartheid) an African Development Report from the UN’s development experts has said that “addressing hunger is a precondition for sustained human development in sub-Saharan Africa” (who writes such sentences, I wonder, for do they truly not see the puppet of hunger in Africa and the South) dancing from the threads in the hands of the grain marketeers of the North and their local agents?). “Food security must be at centre of continent’s development agenda,” the report observes magisterially.

A Malian refugee woman in Mangaize, northern Niger, ponders her future. In January, she and her family fled Menaka, a town in Mali, because of the general insecurity and fighting between the army and Tuareg fighters. Photo: IRIN / UNCHR / H.Caux

Pithy statements of concern are duly provided (and recirculated by the world’s press) by the UNDP public relations robots. Hence UNDP Administrator Helen Clark is quoted: “Impressive GDP growth rates in Africa have not translated into the elimination of hunger and malnutrition. Inclusive growth and people-centred approaches to food security are needed.” Hence Tegegnework Gettu, Director of UNDP’s Africa Bureau is quoted: “It is a harsh paradox that in a world of food surpluses, hunger and malnutrition remain pervasive on a continent with ample agricultural endowments.”

And that is why this report, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, is replete with paragraphs like the following, appropriating the language of fairness to conceal behind it the naked greed of the globe’s industrial food networks, their agri-biotechnology partners, their unreliable allies the commodity exchanges, and the political brokers who stitch together, for huge commissions, the whole wreck of an exploitative opera: “Breaking with the past, standing up to the vested interests of the privileged few and building institutions that rebalance power relations at all levels of society will require courageous citizens and dedicated leaders. Taking these steps is all the more pressing as new threats to the sustainability of sub-Saharan Africa’s food systems have emerged. Demographic change, environmental pressure, and global and local climate change are profoundly reconfiguring the region’s development options.”

This is the sort of hearkening to ‘green capitalism’, a disgusting notion, that the UNDP is steering dangerously close to. Why must it be so? Why should this UN agency err on the wrong side of propriety? A closer reading of Africa Human Development Report 2012, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, may answer these questions. Underlying the pregnant concern in the UNDP’s prose is an environmentalism that conforms to “weak sustainability” (as Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal, has called it) and that is the marketing of “rights of access to the planet’s resources.” Great regiments of conventional economists have openly rallied to this position, proposing “the auctioning of world resources” (fisheries, pollution permits, forests, watersheds, and of course land). As Amin has said, this is a proposition which simply supports the oligopolies in their ambition to mortgage the future of the peoples of the South still further.

In villages in Mangalmé District, Guéra Region, central Chad, women have resorted to digging up ant nests in search of the grains of food ants leave behind. Some 3.5 million Chadians are food insecure this year (2012). Photo: IRIN / Oxfam / Stephen Cockburn

As the World Bank knows, the borrowing of an ecological discourse provides a very useful service to Imperialism Version 2.0. I find it impossible to imagine that the phalanx of authors who contributed to the Africa Human Development Report 2012 were all unaware of this capture, this mangling of the ecological discourse, this driving of a weak sustainability doctrine, this marginalising of the development issue and the diminishing, the ruthless diminishing, behind a sequined screen of consensual politics, of the agriculture and food rights of 53 countries that we have come to call Africa.

‘Towards a Food Secure Future’ has said, with the air of heavy pronouncement, with the air a cardinal of the curia adopts perhaps during a papal succession: “With more than one in four of its 856 million people undernourished, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world’s most food-insecure region. At the moment, more than 15 million people are at risk in the Sahel alone – across the semi-arid belt from Senegal to Chad; and an equal number in the Horn of Africa remain vulnerable after last year’s food crisis in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.” Is there a hint of opportunism in these words? Is it possible that the Rockefeller of this era – in the form of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has subtly (or forcefully, for the era of subtle manipulation is as firmly buried as the Bandung cooperation and the Warsaw Pact) influenced the UNDP’s authors? This is, to my mind, a manifesto for the feeding of Africa which extends ambitiously the ecologist discourse in the direction of the merchants of nutrition, the brokers of grain, the doctors of plant DNA.

The UNDP’s Africa Human Development Report 2012, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, may prove to be a turning point for the agency, or it may prove, I hope, a bridge too far, too dangerous, and saner counsel will pull it back into the realm of the familiar damnation of the world’s majority that Frantz Fanon spoke about, which ended not with the withdrawal of formal colonial rule, which continues for Africa in the razorwire-bounded transit camps, in rural pauperisation (Asia too, South America too, East and Central Europe too) and in shanty towns where odes to Steve Biko are still sung.


At 21, the Human Development Report and its message of equity in 2011

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Today, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will release its 2011 Human Development Report, the 21st in the annual series that lets us know how well – or not – the populations in countries are doing. Whether on education, health, income, poverty, cost-of-living the human development indices are now well-constructed and evolved measures of the well-being of people. Today, we’ll know a little more about how 7 billion people live on our Earth.

This year’s ediition is called  ‘Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All’. The HDR website has said the report will call for the urgent global challenges of sustainability and equity to be addressed together – and that the 2011 HDR identifies policies on the national and global level that could spur mutually reinforcing progress towards these interlinked goals.

These introductory articles are uniformly boring and uniformly useless to all those who deal with real questions, hard quetions and tough decisions every day. They say things like “bold action is needed if the recent human development progress for most of the world’s poor majority is to be sustained” and things like “the benefit of future generations as well as for those living today”.

The excitingly squiggly colourful HDI lines that debuted in 2010

This is irritating, but has become part of the HDI furniture. For some perverse reason top politicians and top UN agency muckamucks seem unwilling to cut the waffling and get on with it. Anyway. we’re interested in the rest of the report, the data, the statistics, the methodologies, the background studies and a whole bunch of related research – so that’s what this and related HDI posts will dwell on in the weeks to come.

The HDR website has mentioned that the 2011 report will talk about living standards. Here’s a sentence I want to read more about when the big package opens up: “Yet the 2011 Report projects a disturbing reversal of those trends if environmental deterioration and social inequalities continue to intensify, with the least developed countries diverging downwards from global patterns of progress by 2050.” What are the numbers that led to this prickly insight, I would very much like to see.

Look for these in the 2011 edition:
UNDP HDR 2011 International Consultations
UNDP HDR 2011 Advisory Panels
UNDP HDR 2011 Human Development Seminars
UNDP HDR 2011 Commissioned Research

Let’s look back. A year ago, in 2010 November, UNDP when releasing the HDR 2010 said that “most developing countries made dramatic yet often underestimated progress in health, education and basic living standards in recent decades, with many of the poorest countries posting the greatest gains”. HDR 2010 cautioned that “patterns of achievement vary greatly, with some countries losing ground since 1970”.

Overall, HDR 2010 showed that life expectancy climbed from 59 years in 1970 to 70 in 2010, school enrolment rose from just 55 percent of all primary and secondary school-age children to 70 percent, and per capita GDP doubled to more than US$10,000 (sorry, but this last is a particularly meaningless number). Life expectancy, for example, rose by 18 years in the Arab states between 1970 and 2010, compared to eight years in sub-Saharan Africa. The 135 cuntries studied include 92 percent of the world’s population.

The visual designing coup of 2010

Within the pattern of overall global progress, the variation among countries is striking, said HDR 2010. Over the past 40 years – that is, tilll 2010 – the lowest performing 25 percent experienced less than a 20 percent improvement in HDI performance, while the top-performing group averaged gains of 54 percent. Yet as a group, the quartile of countries at the bottom of the HDI scale in 1970 improved faster than those then at the top, with an average gain of 61 percent. Somewhat zanily, HDR 2010 then advised us that “the diverse national pathways to development documented … show that there is no single formula for sustainable progress”. Umm, we did somehow notice that, all by ourselves actually.

What was enormously useful in HDR 2010 were three new indices that the world’s rambunctious and usually argumentative development community has still not grasped firmly with opposable thumbs. These are:
• The Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) – For the first time, this year’s Report examines HDI data through the lens of inequality, adjusting HDI achievements to reflect disparities in income, health and education. The HDI alone, as a composite of national averages, hides disparities within countries, so these adjustments for inequality provide a fuller picture of people’s well-being.
• The Gender Inequality Index (GII) – The 2010 Report introduces a new measure of gender inequities, including maternal mortality rates and women’s representation in parliaments. The Gender Inequality Index is designed to measure the negative human development impact of deep social and economic disparities between men and women.
• The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) – this is the equivalent of the 400-pound gorilla for all HDI-related stuff – it complements income-based poverty assessments by looking at multiple factors at the household level, from basic living standards to access to schooling, clean water and health care. About 1.7 billion people—fully a third of the population in the 104 countries included in the MPI—are estimated to live in multidimensional poverty, more than the estimated 1.3 billion who live on $1.25 a day or less.

So, while waiting for the goodies from HDR 2011, there are some questions that still smoulder from earlier editions. Here’s one: what does the evidence from the past 40 years tell us about the relationship between growth and changes in human development? The two-panel chart which accompanies this post (below) presents the basic result. The left panel shows a positive association — though with substantial variation — suggesting that growth and improvements in human development are positively associated.

Remember, however, that income is part of the HDI; thus, by construction, a third of the changes in the HDI come from economic growth, guaranteeing a positive association. That’s why a far more useful exercise is to compare income growth with changes in the non-income dimensions of human development (gift economies would be wonderful subjects). This has been done using an index similar to the HDI but calculated with only the health and education indicators of the HDI to compare its changes with economic growth. The non-income HDI is presented in the right panel of the chart – looking for the correlation? Remarkably weak and statistically insignificant, as they said so themselves.

That will deliver a smart kick in the collected pants of the G20 muckamucks when they assemble (what? again!) in France (Cannes) for a new episode of creative bullshitting fiscal sophistry. But, here’s the strange thing. Previous studies have found the same result. One of the first scholars to study this link systematically was US demographer Samuel Preston, whose landmark 1975 article showed that the correlation between changes in income and changes in life expectancy over 30 years for 30 countries was not statistically significant. As ideas such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘environmental’ began gaining traction from the early 1970s onwards – think ‘Limits to Growth‘ – more data became available, and other researchers obtained the same result. In a 1999 article, ‘Life during Growth‘, William Easterly found a remarkably weak association between growth and quality of life indicators such as health, education, political freedom, conflict and inequality. Easterly’s work was ignored by the bankers and their compradors for years thereafter.

Next, François Bourguignon, director of the Paris School of Economics, and several African and European colleagues concluded that “the correlation between GDP per capita growth and nonincome [Millennium Development Goals] is practically zero”. That should have been turned into a poster and hung on the wall of every bloody finance minstry from Abuja to Auckland. More recently, World Bank economist Charles Kenny recently confirmed the lack of correlation between improvements in life expectancy and growth, using both a large sample of countries over 25 years and a smaller sample covering a much longer period. I advise his still-serving colleagues to dust off his file and read his work, for the first time for them.

Well, ’nuff said. Let’s wait till the HDR 2011 starts streaming towards us, tweets and video and all.

New, improved human development indices

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Now where did I put that new index?

Policymakers and commentators are constantly looking for new ways to measure development, writes Martin Ravallion, Director of the Development Research Group of the World Bank, in his column at VoxEU. In his comment, titled ‘Your new composite index has arrived: Please handle with care’, he warns against embracing new composite indices with little guidance from economic or other theories. Ravallion then talks about the strengths and weaknesses of using what he calls ‘mashup’ indices of development (a ‘mashup’ is a web term, which means to mix data in a new way using a new ‘app’ that presents it to users).

“A host of indicators are used to track development. The World Bank’s annual World Development Indicators presents hundreds of such indicators. The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals are defined using a long list of indicators. Faced with so many indicators – a “large and eclectic dashboard,” as the Stiglitz report nicely puts it – there is an understandable desire to form a single composite index.”

You want to index our work? Surely you're joking.

“For some of the composite indices found in practice, economic theory provides useful clues as to how the index should be constructed (GDP, for example). This is not the case for another type of composite index that is becoming popular. For these, neither the list of underlying data nor the aggregation technique is informed by theory or practice. The maker of the composite-indicator has free roam and is largely unconstrained by economic or other theories intended to inform measurement practice.”

Having referenced in his article the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, developed by among others Sabina Alkire and Maria Emma Santos, Alkire has commented on Ravallion’s musings. “I am grateful for the interest shown in our Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) that we developed as an experimental series for the 2010 UNDP Human Development Report that will be released 4 November.”

This paper recycling shop in Mumbai is not yet a beneficiary of the human development indexing effort

“In sum, I agree with Martin’s statement in his Mashup paper, “The lesson to be drawn from this review is not to abandon mashup indices.” I agree equally with the emphasis of this article: that we need to handle composite indices of all kinds with care and curiousity, to understand exactly their construction, their robustness, their legitimate policy interpretations, and their oversights. For that reason Maria Emma Santos and I have stated explicitly the strengths and limitations of the new Multidimensional Poverty Index, and undertaken thorough robustness tests and quality checks, and found it was indeed robust to a number of plausible changes to the indicators, thresholds, and changes in the poverty cutoff. We also have highlighted the areas which do require further research, are undertaking that work and hope others will contribute.”

Well, an index is only as good as the intention that guides it. It will be most useful if it helps the right questions to be framed, and indicates where the answers may be found. Indices of poverty and human development which command most attention are also those that are global in scope. As Ravallion says, these help people – policymakers among them – see where their country stands when compared with others. That’s well and good, but much of our work is within countries, not across them, and much of our work involves dealing with realities that are highly subjective and fluid, open always to a variety of forces and influences.

Poverty for example may be deepened just as much by barriers of caste or environmental degradation as it is by ill health and natural calamity. How does one capture caste biases and environmental degradation as it affects a sub-tribe in a particular locale? An index that attempts to do this will be both dreadfully complex and not portable. Perhaps it is best for locals to develop their own means of measurement, comparison and rating. In that, the lessons provided by Ravallion, Alkire and the host of social scientists on whose shoulders they rest can be put to use.