Claire Melamed

About Claire Melamed

Claire Melamed is Head of the Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The programme does research and policy analysis on how economic growth can be more effective in reducing poverty and inequality. She has worked for the UN in Mozambique, taught at SOAS and the Open University, and worked for ten years in NGOs including ActionAid and Christian Aid.

Could foreign aid actually help UK flood defences?

flood_uk_2007Thankfully the Daily Mail’s mean-spirited campaign to get the government to cut aid to pay for the UK’s flood response was swiftly dismissed by the PM in his press conference yesterday.  To recap: dealing with suffering at home by creating suffering in some other country probably isn’t the most moral or sensible approach, and anyway it’s an utterly unnecessary conversation to have because we know there is money elsewhere – the Treasury has a contingency fund for just this sort of thing, just for starters.

But it’s particularly ironic and wrong given that an international peer review of the UK’s plan for ‘building resilience to disasters’ (for which read floods), recommended just last year that

A more consistent approach, in terms of resilience and exporting national good practices through international cooperation, could be achieved through improved coordination between the Civil Contingencies Secretariat and the Department for International Development (DFID).

Or in other words, that the UK’s systems for flood defences could learn a lot from the work DFID is funding to build resilience in other countries.  Betting that the Mail won’t be reporting on that though….

The bicycle theory of social change

Something odd is happening on the streets of London. Cyclists are obeying the law in droves. On my daily cycle from home to work, it’s rare now to see anyone jumping a red light, or cycling the wrong way up a one way street, or cutting across a busy pavement.  Not unheard of, of course (so please don’t bother telling me about the exceptions), but rare.

The laws haven’t changed, but the behaviour has. So being a little bored with cycling the same route every day for 3 years, I started wondering why this might be. Two possible reasons. It might just be volume. When there are more people on bikes, they all seem to become more law-abiding. One cyclist on their own at a relatively empty junction will often still jump a red light. But once there are three or four, the power of peer pressure seems to keep those feet off the pedals and encourage almost everyone to stay put until the lights change.

Secondly, I wonder if people are starting to see the laws a bit differently. As cyclist deaths received more publicity, it seemed to me that riding got better. I don’t think it’s just because people are scared – any cyclist knows that crossing a busy junction during the pedestrian wave is much safer than waiting until the lights change and all the cars and lorries are thundering off as well. Instead, I wonder if it’s because cyclists feel that there’s more in it for them to obey the law. They want to be protected from bad and illegal and careless drivers – well, they have to do their bit too. And there seems more point in obeying a law that has something in it for you, rather than one that’s just an irritating inconvenience.

So that’s my theory of social change as demonstrated by London cyclists. Peer pressure and a bit of a tweak to the social contract underpinning a legal system can actually make people obey the law. Any lessons there for tax evaders?

Angus Deaton and the foreign aid debate

Angus Deaton is in town, promoting his new book, The Great Escape. I am a huge fan, so off I went to a breakfast discussion at the (super-plush!) Legatum Institute, to hear him talk about it. And of course he was brilliant and interesting on inequality and the stuff that really matters. Then the last third or so of the talk was taken up by a big diatribe against aid, on the basis that it does more harm than good.

I almost always find myself disagreeing with strong opinions either for or against aid. On the whole I don’t think it’s as important as either its supporters or its detractors think it is.  But if an intellectual giant like Prof Deaton pays so much attention to it, you’d assume that the evidence base is pretty strong. Not quite. The aid chapter of the book relies on a series of anecdotes and inferences – which in any other case, I suspect an academic of the standing of Angus Deaton would not consider adequate as the basis for drawing such unequivocal conclusions.

People have tried to get beyond stories and test the relationship between aid and governance more systematically – some find a negative relationship, others a positive one, at least with some aspects of what we think of as good governance.  We shouldn’t be surprised that the evidence isn’t clear – all attempts to link aid strongly to macro level outcomes like ‘growth’ or ‘good governance’ seem doomed to failure. It’s just not that simple. Disappointingly for the polemicists among us, the answer to any question about aid is almost always….’it depends’.

…all of which serves to introduce this much more detailed analysis by my colleague Richard Mallett:

No role for aid? Some thoughts on Angus Deaton’s new work

Richard Mallett, ODI

I don’t like Mondays. This is true in general, but this week’s was made particularly disappointing by a fruitless visit to a university bookshop in an attempt to procure Angus Deaton’s latest, The Great Escape. Hadn’t had any in stock since August, apparently. Not strong. Thankfully, my disappointment was short-lived: I soon learned that the man himself would be talking about his new tome at the LSE the next day. Perfect – a chance to snare a copy (and feel like a student again).

His talk was excellent. Crystallising vast amounts of data and information, Deaton took his audience on a journey starting several hundred years ago, showing how the remarkable gains in wealth and health made over this period have not just been accompanied by, but have actually created, screaming gaps in living standards (the health and wealth inequalities we see today).

But I left feeling not altogether satisfied. The reason for this was, I think, the treatment given to aid towards the end of the talk, which kind of came out of the blue: there was no particularly strong suggestion at any point that aid would become a central theme of the conclusion (Fred Andrews of the New York Times has likewise described the book’s discussion of aid as ‘jarring and odd’). But it did – and Deaton’s assessment is not an encouraging one.

Continue reading

Evidence, policy and badgers

Fascinating discussion on how evidence from a randomised trial should be used in policy making, on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning.  Summed up in this exchange…

Interviewee: ‘we have learned from the randomised trial’

Presenter: ‘yes, but what have we learned?’

in the middle of several minutes of really high-quality discussion about what, if anything, has been learned from the trial and subsequent introduction of badger culling in the UK.  The answer to the question ‘what have we learned’, turned out to be very different for the two sides of the argument. Leaving aside the cute little badgers, it’s partly a debate about the translation of evidence into policy when there are strong interests involved.  It’s not my area, but the evidence from the trial seems to be complex (as so often…), with different things going on and judgments required about tipping points, the relative importance of different factors, and the degree of latitude to be expected in translating from a trial situation into other environments. A bit of a masterclass in why it’s usually the politics and rarely the evidence that matters for decision making in the end.

You can hear the full exchange here (at about 2 hours 43 minutes)

Where are the women? Gender imbalance in MY World mobile phone voting

This is a joint post with Frances Simpson Allen, of the UN Millennium Campaign

Women doing the MY World survey in Bangladesh

Women doing the MY World survey in Bangladesh










The million votes – and counting – in the MY World survey will keep data geeks (like us) happy for years.  There’s lots of stories in there, but there’s one in particular which has us scratching our heads and we’d like to know what others think.  It’s this.

We have been experimenting with different ways of collecting data via mobile phones.  About a fifth of the votes come in via phone, mainly text messages or people calling a number and recording their answers.  And while overall the votes are pretty evenly balanced between men and women, the phone votes are strikingly male (all the data can be found here).

Globally, two men answer the survey by phone for every one woman. Of the fifteen countries where there are more than 2000 mobile phone votes, there were only two, Nicaragua and Kyrgyzstan, where women’s votes outnumbered men’s.  In India, Bangladesh and Ethiopia more than 90 per cent of phone votes come from men.  In another five countries: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Pakistan and Nepal, more than three quarters of phone votes come from men, while in Ghana, the DRC and South Africa, between 65 and 75 per cent of mobile votes came from men.  India and Nigeria also have large numbers of online votes, and there men also outnumber women though by a much smaller margin (around 60:40).

This imbalance is much higher than rates of phone ownership would suggest.  According to industry research, across Africa, 56 per cent of mobile phones are owned by men, and 44 per cent by women, while in South Asia the figures are 63 per cent men and 37 per cent women.  The Kenya figure is also particularly striking, given that a recent survey suggests there is very little difference in mobile phone usage rates between men and women.

The SMS MY World survey so far is not sampled (although we are doing sampled surveys through other means in a growing number of countries) and relies on people choosing to take part.  It’s clear that, under these conditions, women are less likely to offer information via mobile.  With one of our mobile partners we are testing female-specific messaging to see if more women opt-in when the question is phrased differently. We don’t have results from this pilot yet and we are keen to find out from others involved in similar exercises if the gender imbalance is a general finding or something specific to MY World.

There is huge optimism about the possibilities of using current technology to improve data collection, and through that to improved transparency and accountability.  Much of that is justified.  But the old problems – making sure that data is representative and doesn’t reflect existing biases and inequalities – apply to new technologies as much as to more traditional ways of collecting data.  The experience with MY World suggests that this may be a bit harder than we’d like to think.

Being wrong, wrong wrong about migration: David Goodhart in the Guardian

Migration is a notoriously divisive issue. Maybe David Goodhart, writing in the Guardian last week, should be commended for trying to say something new on the subject. But alas, his attempt to marry fairly standard right-wing anti-immigrant views with pro-welfare liberalism results in an article that is, to put it kindly, a little confused. Others have written well about the fact that he’s wrong on the evidence about the impact of immigration on the UK, and about how immigration policy is made. But he also makes some wild assertions about migration and development, which is what I know about, so let me start there.

First, he attributes some pretty extraordinary views to people like me who work in development and live in the UK. Apparently we think that UK policy should be just as much about people in Burundi as people in Birmingham (loving that alliteration, David). But, oh dear, he then tells us that in the UK, the apparent home of this hotbed of internationalist liberalism, we spend 25 times more every year on the NHS than on development aid. And, er, that most people see this as a ‘perfectly natural reflection of our layered obligations’ although ‘to a true universalist it must seem like a crime’. Spot the straw man. I have been working among these strange ‘universalist’ creatures for nearly 15 years now, and I have never met anyone, not one single person, who would argue to cut the NHS budget to spend more on overseas aid.

Tempting to say that there is no argument here since the people to whom the article is addressed do not exist, and the point of view he is rebutting is not one that anyone actually holds. Tempting to stop right there. But let’s plough on. Continue reading

President Obama wants to eradicate extreme poverty

Obama sotu 2013

This was the development bit in President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night:

We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all.  In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day.  So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades: by connecting more people to the global economy and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed, power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation

Two things struck me – first, this is a shift from the ‘we can end poverty’ rhetoric that Owen Barder  recently pointed out has been around for decades – it’s a ‘we will’ with a time frame, not a ‘we can’ with a vague aspiration.  This could – let’s hope – be an important difference from those earlier statements.  Secondly, this is of course more or less the time frame that a new post-2015 agreement on development would cover - twenty years from now, or just over fifteen years from 2015.  If this is Obama committing to throw the US’s weight behind getting an effective post-2015 agreement, well, that’s very exciting indeed….