A room full of elephants? Population, consumption and sustainability

Shopping street.

The SDGs are are a good example of our inability or unwillingness to deal with consumption, writes the author. Photo: Arthur Kraft/Unsplash

Consumption, not population, is the elephant in the room of the sustainable development agenda.

The population question seems to be experiencing yet another resurgence in discussions on climate change and sustainable development. This is perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising is the extent to which population is presented as a ‘forgotten’ or ‘taboo’ topic, or as an ‘elephant in the room’ (just google population in combination with any of the terms).

Population has always been part of sustainability agendas and still is. As David Johnson from the Margaret Pyke Trust puts it in a recent blogpost, ‘the elephant left the room quite some time ago’. Furthermore, I would add, while addressing population growth is obviously important, and while we should continue placing reproductive rights at the core of development efforts, population growth is not our main sustainability challenge.

If we are to make development sustainable, we should rather be dealing with questions of distribution of resources and with the consumption patterns of the rich.

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Historicising the Aid Debate: South Korea as a Successful Aid Recipient

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‘The principal enemy is orthodoxy: to use the same recipe, administer the same therapy, to resolve the most various types of problems; never to admit complexity and try to reduce it as much as possible, while ignoring that things are always more complicated in reality.
Albert O. Hirschman (1998:110)

It’s clear from last week’s blog posts by Duncan Green that he is tired of academic critique against aid which have not been translated into concrete solutions (see here and here). However, the problem with his ‘marmite’ approach to addressing very complex problems is that it leads to reductive debates which are more symptomatic of the problem than constructive ways of finding solutions. Following Pablo Yanguas’ synthesis of research approaches I thought of taking a step back and analyzing the case of a successful aid recipient, South Korea.  I do this in hope of moving away from the ‘literature’ – which Duncan finds overbearing – as well as getting away from the linearity of the contemporary monitoring and evaluation approach used by the aid sector. Read More »

Think Positive, Climb out of Poverty? It’s Just Not So Easy!

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Social mobility in Brazil: Positive thinking and ambitious aspirations can create lots of frictions“

A few weeks ago, Professor Seema Jayachandran from Northwestern University published an article in the New York Times in which she discussed the role of positive thinking and of believing in oneself for overcoming poverty. Jayachandran argues that there is “growing evidence that it can used as an anti-poverty strategy”, while also warning about placing too much emphasis on positive thinking alone. This post will dwell on the latter point, arguing that we should pay much more attention to limitations and broader contexts of positive thinking in development. I do not want to deny the role of self-worth and forward-looking aspirations for poverty reduction and quality of life more generally, but I will emphasize the importance of considering their role only as part of a broader policy mix.

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From Addis to Davos: International Development Finance gets Conspicuous

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The theme of the 2018 World Economic Forum was, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Its six richest attendees each boasted an estimated net worth of $5.2 billion or more, or the same amount as the total burden of Somalia’s outstanding debt, which, amid the splendor of the event, Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre  met with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde to discuss clearing. In this era of extreme global inequality, it is estimated that the United Nations agenda of seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) known as Agenda 2030, will require 4.5 trillion dollars of investment per year to be realized, or more than twice the amount expected to be available from traditional official development assistance (ODA) alone. Due to the increasing concentration of private wealth in the global economy, discussions around development finance have focused on private sector engagement, rather than more traditional, ODA from predominantly Western donor governments and multilateral institutions.Read More »

A Critical Review on the documentary “Poverty, Inc.”

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The documentary “Poverty, Inc.” has become so influential that it is now part of many courses at the university level. The good news is that at universities we apply critical thinking to the information we receive (or we are supposed to). As a development economist, I share here my views on this famous documentary.

On the positive side, the documentary does a good job in making some points for an audience unfamiliar with economic theory, such as the idea that dependency does not end poverty, or that current foreign aid (money flows between governments) has “unintended consequences that do more harm than good.” However, both ideas are not new in development studies. The much quoted “teach a human to fish” is an idea associated with many philosophers, including Maimonides (about 850 years ago). This criticism of the structure of current foreign aid is a relatively old idea in the development literature. Perhaps the best point made by the documentary is the argument that Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) can do a better job if they base their strategies on effective communications with local entities, although this idea is not new either.

What are, then, the problems with this documentary? Many. Firstly, the development literature has two main perspectives; namely, the conservative and the progressive. A documentary that omits a whole branch of argumentation is not responsible and carries “unintended consequences,” such as misinforming that unfamiliar audience. Besides mentioning supranational entities, the documentary did not expose crucial structural problems: there is no serious analysis on geopolitics, global power relations, or class issues, among others. A class analysis would not, for instance, focus on stressing that “NGOs need the poor to exist” but that “the rich need the poor to exist”.Read More »

Poor Behavior, Good Behavioral Policies? Double Standards for the North and South

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Behavioral approaches to development economics and policy have gained momentum in recent years. A growing number of papers studying behavior of people in poor countries have been published in top journals, accompanied by the rise of randomized controlled trials (RCTs). In 2015, the World Development Report was dedicated to behavioral and cognitive research and policy. Papers studying how to nudge farmers to use fertilizers or increase savings have become classics in the field. Lots of hope has been placed into social experiments and behavioral policies to fight global poverty.

Behavioral policies are of course not reserved for policy-making in poor countries. In fact, nudges became famous with a US-American savings plan. Many behavioral instruments have been discussed and tested in and for rich countries. But there has been an important difference as compared to the debates in development economics: when debating behavioral policies in rich countries, scholars have also devoted lots of time to consider normative and ethical concerns. For example, following Thaler and Sunstein’s exposition of Libertarian Paternalism (see also here), a debate unfolded on whether nudges could be anti-libertarian (here, here, here, or here). Implications of the use of nudges as a new form of government policy have been analyzed, for example, from a Foucauldian perspective, or with a focus on institutional change. Books have been written about ethical concerns. The debate has reached a great level of differentiation, e.g. when authors argue that so-called social nudges (these are nudges that seek to stimulate voluntary cooperation in social dilemma situations) may be justified for different reasons than those targeting individual welfare. Overall, the debate has become really sophisticated, and the autonomy, welfare, and dignity of citizens in rich countries as well as consequences of the use of behavioral policies for these countries’ modes of government have received lots of careful scrutiny (recently again here).Read More »

How We Know It’s Christmas Time

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As Christmas approaches and the infamous Band Aid charity song Do They Know it’s Christmas resurfaces on radios, in supermarkets and in malls, so do old and harmful stereotypes of poor people living in oblivious destitution, in need of a foreigner’s donation to help them escape poverty. These stereotypes portray the poor as passive recipients of aid and poverty as a phenomenon disconnected from structural political and economic processes. In recent years, alternative charity awards – the Raid-Aid Awards – have been organized every December. This is  a concerted effort to counteract the negative stereotypes perpetuated by many charity videos and songs.Read More »

Global Development Goals: If at All, Why, When and How?

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By Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven

Last week, the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) were launched at the UN in New York. This is the outcome of two years of consultations, lobbying, and debate about what the “post-2015” agenda should look like. The assumption has been that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a huge success and that we, therefore, must proceed with a new round. Unfortunately, this assumption is not backed by empirical evidence.

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