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peace ???

8 Sep

Classes have begun, which means a few things:

1. I will have more to think about

2. I will have less time to write on this blog

3. I will be eating a lot more $5 footlongs from Subway. Since the powers that be decided to install a Subway on the first floor of the Elliott School, I somehow can’t avoid them. Try as I might.

But since this is only the second week of classes, I’ll use this precious free moment to toss around a few things from one of my classes.

One of my classes this fall is Intro to Conflict Resolution. It’s going to be a doozy. And depressing. I’ll report back on this in three months.

Here’s what we covered today: 1. What is Conflict? 2. What is Peace? 3. What is Violence?

Don’t answer too quickly.

Conflict will involve two groups, and their pursuit of incompatible goals. As well as attitudes and beliefs. And behavior. And a context.

Peace: is it the absence of violence? Is peace to be maintained, or is it to be obtained? Is peace stopping war? Or is it building a just society? And these terms – “peace” “just society” – are laden with political beliefs. What I perceive as just may fly in the face of what another group perceives as just. But somehow, this doesn’t stop us from chasing after these things.

Violence. This is defined by some of our readings (Galtung) as the cause of the difference between what we can potentially achieve and what we actually achieve. If the world has the means to cure malaria, but does not, and millions die each year of something that could potentially be cured, this is violence. If we did not have a cure, it would not qualify as violence. But who is the agent of violence in this scenario? Who is to be held accountable? With this definition, there will always be violence, as there will always be groups of people who are not achieving what they could potentially achieve.

At this point, this just begs more and more questions (which I’m not opposed to). Because as our professor pointed out, the entire field of conflict resolution is partly about answering the question: how do we change the future? How do we not only stop current violent conflicts, but also change structures that can escalate beliefs and attitudes into violent behavior? How do we not only make peace, but also build it?

And the scariest part is that, as was pointed out in my last class, things can always get worse. And you can always make things worse. International intervention in Rwanda prior to the genocide in 1994 is an example of this. I might also argue that the Sudanese Comprehensive Peace Agreement may be another example. Tread lightly, with fear and trembling.

So on that note, I leave you with a song from le meaningful band de jour:


Glamorous Geocoding!

14 Aug

A few months ago a couple of classmates and I got wrangled into spending a day at the World Bank. I can’t remember exactly what we were told we would be doing – but I remember that it was going to be something about geocoding and that free food was involved. I may have been expecting a short talk on the work the World Bank was doing with geocoding, with light refreshments. Oh, and for some reason they told us to bring our laptops.

Whatever I was expecting was way off base. After sitting down in a room crammed with undergraduate and graduate students, listening to a short pep talk from a German Senior Governance Specialist on the potential of impact of geocoding aid projects, we were given some coffee, split into groups, and given lists of World Bank projects. And then we were told: break out your laptops, split up the countries where projects are taking place, start weeding through digital World Bank documents to find the projects’ locations, compile this information into an Excel spreadsheet, and keep doing this until all the projects can be accounted for.

Come again? It turned out we had actually been duped into doing free work for the World Bank. Maybe students from the other schools who were there went into this knowing what they were getting themselves into, but our GW delegation did not. Needless to say, I was a little miffed by it all, and the food wasn’t that exciting.

I ended up geocoding projects in the DR Congo. This was slightly challenging not only because we had to go through a number of documents to find the projects’ location (which was slow going on my ol’ iBook), but also because nobody seems to know how many provinces the DRC officially has. After working for about five hours, my friend and I skipped out to go work on a school project instead. The second we got out of the building, we burst out, “How did we get sucked into doing THAT?”

Fast forward, a few months later, to today, when I read this on one of the development blogs I follow regularly:

A team of researchers from Development Gateway and AidData have worked with the World Bank to add detailed subnational geographical information to all of the Bank’s active projects in the Africa and Latin America region. This isn’t just pins in a map showing the country where the money is spent: they have looked through the project documentation to find out as far as possible the geographic coordinates of the actual locations where aid the activities take place. (read the entire blog entry here).

With this video:

It’s great to know my unpaid labor went to some good use, less exciting to know that the World Bank didn’t think knowing the actual location of its thousands of projects was something worth even paying its employees to do. I say, Kudos to whoever thought of asking a bunch of overeager and hungry students to do it. Pure genius! And why wasn’t I interviewed for this video?!

But more seriously, a question I had after our pep talk from Bjorn-Soren, and still have now, is: why wasn’t the World Bank keeping track of its projects’ locations all along? Unfortunately, many development donors, both large institutions and NGOs, don’t track where they are working, or what they are doing there. This makes accountability very difficult. It also makes it hard to track results: if a donor has been funding anti-malaria projects in a country, but isn’t seeing a decrease in the national rate of malaria-related deaths, it could be easy to say that the project is failing. But what if it turns out that the project was only being carried out in the two largest cities in the country, which already have low rates of malaria, and isn’t even reaching areas with the highest rates? Geocoding aid also carries the potential for greater cooperation amongst donors, if they can find out who is already doing what and where. And most importantly in my mind: it could let recipients (both governments and individuals) in developing countries, find out about projects taking place in their communities. Don’t be shocked – there are plenty of stories of people having no idea that a development project is being carried out near them.

I’m glad that this dirty work is being done, even if it means luring starving grad students with the promise of a ham sandwich with chips to do it. I really am. But my reaction isn’t “Kudos to you, World Bank!”, but “It’s about time!”

coupla excerpts

8 Nov

A few thoughts that have stood out to me recently from books I’ve read, touching on a number of different issues:

“Reforestation is also an issue in Kanha National Park and in all the other remaining habitats for tigers, the park’s most famous and pivileged residents.  In Kanha, as in many other places, a desire to protect the forest makes governments keep marginalized people off the land.  When I was in Kanha, I kept thinking, ‘What a strange world where a few hundred tigers can displace thousands of human beings.’ Not that I begrudge the tigers, I am an even bigger fan of the charismatic animals than are most other citizens of the United States.  Yet the relevance of that comparison points to the problem: the displacement of people from the tigers’ habitat is not really about the relative power of tigers and humans.  It is about the power of the tigers’ allies (people like me) relative to that of the men and women who live around the tigers’ homes, people who, on average, have 1/200th or 1/300th of the market power, the income, that I have.  The whims of those of us whom money has made powerful, our consumer tastes, and even our ideas about right and wrong can reach out and change the lives of people on the other side of the world about whom we know nothing.”                                                                            Craig Murphy, The United Nations Development Program: A Better Way? p.31

“Foreign aid cannot be separated from either foreign or security policy, in spite of the propensity of many analysts to do so; however, all three can be reconstructed in ways that emphasize one over the other at any point in time.”                                  Louis A. Picard and Terry F. Buss, A Fragile Balance p. 4-5

“In situations of protracted armed conflict in sub-Sahara Africa, there exists a strong tendency to describe rebel violence as a senseless war of ‘all-against-all’ ; this Hobbesian violence is often illustrated by the sight of drugged and gun-toting youngsters engaged in the harassment of innocent civilians, and whose sole motivation seems to lay in benefiting from organized plunder.  However ‘senseless’ it may appear, violence still has its functions.  It is used to foster strategies of political control, and has an important identity and social function.”                             Roberto Beneduce, Luca Jourdan, Timothy Raeymaekers & Koen Vlassenroot “Violence with a purpose: exploring the functions and meaning of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo” p. 1

FUN!!! Cost-Benefit Analysis!

1 Nov

I promise that I’m not writing about cost-benefit analysis just to spite those of you who pressured me into this.  There are, of course much more interesting topics than cost-benefit analysis.  Such as: conflict resolution, environmental impacts of macro-development, the history of “development”…

But here’s the thing: after getting an unsatisfactory grade on my Economics for Development Policy midterm, I will regurgitate what I’m learning in the hopes of understanding it better.  In the hopes that I will get a satisfactory grade on my final exam.

Let’s get started!

The conundrum for economists is figuring out what fuels economic growth (economic growth = an increase in Gross National Product = an increase in the sum of of the value of finished goods and services produced by a society in a given year).  History has shown that in general, GDP growth benefits all members of society.  Sometimes some people benefit more than others, but in the long run everyone is better off.  So what makes GDP grow?  In a word, investment.

“Investment” can mean a number of things.  I would define it as an external input, which is vague enough to mean nothing.  Some examples of investment: building a road, providing technical training, implementing projects, funding a business, distributing bednets, etc, etc.

Investors will look at the overall economic environment when deciding whether or not to invest in a project (or business, etc).  But they also look at the potential cost and benefits of the project in question.  High risks?  High costs?  Low payoffs?  Then the investment probably won’t happen.  One way investors decide whether or not to invest is by using cost-benefit analysis.

This is getting a little long so I’ll cut to the beef.

Calculating costs and benefits normally follows four steps:

1. The investor will try to predict the net cash flow of an investment.  This is a measurement of the difference between revenue and what is spent on material inputs, wages, services, etc.

2. Predictions take into account short-term and long-term costs and benefits.  Cash in the future is less valuable than cash earned immediately.  This is not only because of inflation, but also because of the forgone interest that could be accrued by funds in the present.  This process is called discounting.  And it works like this: if asked to choose between $1000 today or $1000 next year will choose to take the money today, and then put it in a savings account, which might earn 2% interest a year.  After one year, the firm will have $1020.  Conversely, the $1000 that might have been taken a year from now should be valued today as $1000/.02 = $980.  This process should be viewed over the course of a few years – so by year 2, the new balance would be $1040.40, and the present value of the $1000 taken two years from now is only $1000/1.04 = $961.

The general way of expressing this is: PV = Vf/(1+i)t  (t should be superscript but I can’t figure out how to do it).  Where PV = present value, Vf = future value, i = discount rate, and t = time.

Since investments usually expend in the beginning, and don’t see profits until later, its useful to look at predicted costs and benefits over the span of a few years.  From there, firms might want a single number summary (maybe they’re lazy?).  By dividing each year’s net cash flow by the corresponding year’s discount rate, you can get the net present value (NPV).  This is calculated as:

NPV = ∑[(B – C)/(1+d)t], which is the sum of the costs and benefits in each year t, and d is the discount rate.  If an investor is looking at projects they might fund, they will choose the project that maximizes NPV, rank projects by NPV, and fund the one with the highest NPV.

ah, but there’s a 3.  This type of cost-benefit analysis was very popular 20 to 30 years ago.  However, simple NPV analysis is overly simplistic.  It gives a “false sense of precision”.  The very numbers that the analysis is based on – costs and benefits – are predictions. There is really no way of knowing what costs and benefits might be in the future.  What if fuel prices go up?  What if there’s a coup?  Wise investors will generate a range of NPVs, looking at best and worst case scenarios, and everything in between.

And there are more problems!  How do you quantify benefits of certain investments, such as education or clean water?  How do you quantify certain costs?  What about external costs that are not absorbed by the investor, such as environmental degradation?  This is why this method of cost-benefit analysis has fallen out of favor… to a degree.

So like most things that I’m learning in Policy for Development Economics, BC analysis can be useful to an extent, but probably shouldn’t be the sole basis for making investment decisions.  The field of economics, I think, would like to be very precise, but like all social sciences, there is a lot of guesstimating.

Perkins, Dwight H., Steven Radelet and David L. Lindauer.  “Economics of Development”. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.  New York. 2006.