Who chooses? a response to Jishnu Das

There was widespread admiration in my Twitter stream yesterday for an article by World Bank Senior Economist Jishnu Das slamming The Economist for its support for making cash transfers to the poor conditional. I am less convinced by it.

Jishnu finds it ‘ridiculous’ that the Economist could reach the conclusion that conditional transfers are attractive based on the following evidence:

School enrolment among families that got conditional grants rose by 41% on average in the various programmes; the increase among those that got unconditional grants was only 23%. If conditions were implicit or soft (eg, if recipients were simply encouraged to take children to school), enrolment merely rose by 25%. The big difference came when conditions were tough (eg, if school attendance was mandatory): that boosted enrolment by 60%, a big bang for the relatively few bucks involved.

As he sees it, without conditions, parents are able to take better account of their own priorities, favouring nutrition or healthcare over education, or simply spending the money on beer so they can relax after a long day at work.

Any imposition of conditions suggests that donors know better than parents and is an example of the ‘purely elitist’ mind-set that bedevils development. “Has our hubris really taken us that far?” he asks, despairingly. “What happened to respect for the poor?” Continue reading

How to defuse the twin climate finance / post-2015 finance for development timebombs (updated)

Whether it’s at the climate summit currently underway in Warsaw (from where I’m writing this post) or at two key meetings happening in NYC next month on the post-2015 agenda, financing is one of the issues furrowing most brows.

Right now, progress in both places is stalled. Promises of $100 billion a year by 2020 under the Green Climate Fund are starting to look like a bad joke – especially to the least developed countries (LDCs) who most urgently need help to adapt to climate impacts.

Aid flows, meanwhile, have actually been declining for the last two yeas, rather than rising towards the 0.7% target. And they’re falling fastest for LDCs: while bilateral aid as a whole fell by 4% last year, it fell by 12.8% for them.

Nor does it look likely that rich countries are about to put big new pledges of cash on the table any time soon, what with weak growth, high unemployment, and fiscal pressures – despite the crucial 2015 deadlines on both climate and development. Yet if they fail to do so, it could toxify the dynamics on both issues – and contribute to an outcome where the climate and development ‘tribes’ perceive themselves to be fighting over the same pot of cash rather than working together on a shared agenda.

Is there any way to defuse this ticking timebomb? Well, there might be. Continue reading

The UK’s Anti-Malala Backlash

Sadly, Malala Yousafzai became a controversial figure in Pakistan soon after she was shot and the theory that she is a pawn of the West is now entrenched.

It’s depressing, however, to realize these views have also gained currency in the UK. Yesterday, Nihal – a radio presenter – hosted a phone-in discussion on BBC Asian Network, in response to news that some private schools in Pakistan have banned Malala’s book.

The first guest was Mizanur Rahman, who was introduced as a UK-based ‘lecturer’. It’s quite an interview – you can listen to for the next few days here (2:10 onwards). According to Rahman, Malala was always “a tool of the BBC and Western governments” and that the idea she is promoting girls’ education is a lie. Instead, her main purpose is to justify Western aggression against Muslims, and the Taliban in particular.

The Taliban, in contrast, has been much maligned. “The Taliban has always education promoted for boys and girls,” he claimed. Anyone, like Malala, who claimed otherwise was dehumanizing Taliban members in order to justify their killing by American forces. “The Taliban never barred girls from attending schools,” an incredulous Nihal asked. “Never! Never!” Rahman replied.

Other guests refuted Rahman with great gusto, including Bina Shah, who writes about her experience here. Nihal, himself, is a skilled and patient interviewer. “My gosh, he’s a rude man,” was as cross as he got and he did a good job puncturing some of the guy’s more blatant fabrications and distortions.

But Rahman was not without his supporters. One young woman phoned in to say that she had friends from the Swat valley and they had had no trouble gaining an education. Malala’s father was to blame for the attack on her, she said, not the Taliban. She believed that Malala’s story was mostly a fabrication.

So who is Rahman? There is a lecturer with that name at a British business school, but I very much doubt it’s the same guy.

There’s also an activist called Mizanur Rahman, who has a conviction for inciting racial hatred and for soliciting murder in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons. Maybe it was him. If it was, surely the BBC had a duty to warn its listeners about his background and criminal record.

I’d also be interested to see some polling on how widespread Malala conspiracy theories have become in the UK. On the one hand, her book is so widely distributed that it’s one of only a handful on sale in my local supermarket. On the other, I suspect an anti-Malala backlash is now well underway.

ODI calls for VAT hike on energy bills (updated: ODI fights back)

In a brave move, the Overseas Development Institute – which bills itself as the UK’s leading international development think tank – has called for George Osborne to use his Autumn Statement to announce plans to quadruple the rate of VAT on household energy bills.

Despite sustained pressure for bills to be lowered to address a ‘cost of living’ crisis, ODI believes the Chancellor should raise VAT from 5% to the standard rate of 20%, bringing more than £4 billion into Treasury coffers.

According to an ODI spokesperson:

It is unconscionable that a young man should have to pay 20% to buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto 5 in order to wind down after a hard day in the City by slaughtering virtual representations of old ladies, when real life old people are able to pay only 5% to heat their homes.  This ‘warmth subsidy’ must end now.

If successful, ODI plans to campaign for the abolition of the Winter Fuel Allowance, saving another couple of billion. It will then call for a flat rate of VAT on all products, ending subsidies for reading and eating (both books and food are zero-rated).

Supporting this move… Continue reading

Why Witchcraft Works

lakevUkerewe, the island in the Tanzanian half of Lake Victoria where I am currently spending a few months, is famous for witchcraft. Witches are found in every village, in every street. They earn a living by selling curses. If you want to punish a friend or destroy an enemy, you pay a witch to smite him with some misfortune – illness, injury, impoverishment, death. Because these things are so common anyway, it is easy for witches to claim that it was the curse that did the damage, and easy therefore for them to stay in business. And there begins the vicious circle – bad things sustain belief in witchcraft, belief in witchcraft absolves you (or your government) of any responsibility for your lot, so more bad things happen, and the witches grow ever more powerful.

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