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.

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….

What do people want a post-2015 agenda to do for them?

my worldHere, my post-2015 friends, is the very beginnings of an answer.  The ‘MY World’ survey, available through the internet, by mobile phone, and in the old-fashioned way with clipboards and pens, has now been completed by tens of thousands of people in 188 countries.  It’s very global – the top five countries with most votes are Brazil, the USA, the UK, Liberia and Mexico.

In particular, the focus is on making sure that people who can’t access the survey online or by mobile phone are well represented.  We had a first go at that in Liberia last month, surveying a representative sample of 2000 people before the meeting of the UN’s High Level Panel on the post-2015 agenda met there last week.

Pleasingly, and not by design, the results in Liberia echoed very strongly what the panel talked about.  The need to keep working on the current MDG agenda was clear, with education and health high on the list of people’s priorities.  Infrastructure also featured highly – with transport and roads the third most important priority in the sample, and jobs were, unsurprisingly also very important.

Some fascinating details emerged which need closer examaination – the most unexpected one for me was that while women consistently ranked gender equality as more important than men, both men and women in urban areas ranked it about twice as highly as men and women in rural areas.  Does urbanisation make people more in favour of women’s rights?  And if so, why?

There’s lots more data to gather over the next few years, and the votes should rise quickly into the millions.  The first mobile phone MY World survey will be launched in India very soon. Civil society organisations are ready to take the survey offline to hundreds of thousands of people.  Global advertising for the online survey is being developed.  And working with global polling company IPSOS Mori we’ll be able to work out what all of this is really telling us about the global and country ranking of different priorities among different groups.

There’s a lot of talk in post-2015-land about finding out what people want from a new agreement.  MY World is just one of the ways that people are finding out.  I’ve written before about how translating the results of different opinion-getting excercises into a language that policy makers can understand and act on can be a challenge.  With numbers and clear priorities MY World can help to provide useful and useable answers to the question ‘what do people want’ for the politicians constructing the post-2015 agenda.  We had a first go at that this week in Monrovia, and there’ll be a lot more to come…..

Book Review: ‘The Ringtone and the Drum’

At the risk of coming over all ‘Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like’, it’s hard to know how to talk about being a rich and privileged white person in a poor African country.  Liberal types like to accentuate the positive, and talk about the beauty of the landscapes and the smiling friendly people and the fact that – shock horror – people everywhere are, you know, kind of similar.  Others like to tell funny stories about the awfulness of it all, emphasise the strangeness and express a huge sigh of relief at coming home again.

There’s a fear, perhaps, of being judged by how you react to the experience, and the risks, of being patronising, being ignorant or crass, are all quite real.  One of the things I like most about Mark Weston’s book ‘The Ringtone and the Drum’ is the honesty of the emotional reactions to being a foreigner in a foreign – in every way – country.

It meant vexation at life’s unfairness and anger at those who had caused it to happen.  It meant a constant dilemma over how to respond.  It meant a realisation that the optimistic view of the world you had in middle-class England was a Panglossian delusion.  And, most of all, it meant guilt.  Guilt over your wealth, guilt when you refused to give, guilt that when you gave you did not give everything, and guilt that having had your fill of their destitution you could and one day would fly away to a magical world of comfort and security.

Mark has no delusions about what he’s doing there.  He’s an observer.  He tells people’s stories honestly, respectfully and without an agenda.  And he’s open about his own reactions – the difficulty of it all, the time wasted, the physical discomfort, and the emotional strain. In fact, he’s pretty self-revelatory on that front, in a way that I found immensely sympathetic.

And as always, talking to people, taking them seriously, and writing it down, gives you endlessly fascinating stories, and also offers a number of challenges to assumptions prevalent in the development business.  Two things stood out for me.  Possibly without thinking very much about it, there’s often an unthinking view that people’s lives are linear.  Once, in that horrible phrase ‘lifted out of poverty’, the assumption is that they won’t go back there – the road goes only one way.  The stories here show again and again how that’s not true.  The ways that people try to make a living for themselves, try, fail, try again, succeed, get knocked back, try again, are both heartening and depressing.

Also, once one is in the business of parcelling up complex processes into little projects, there’s perhaps a tendency to see people as representatives of different ‘types’.  Are you a ‘smallholder farmer’, or the owner of a ‘micro-enterprise’?  A disempowered woman or a freewheeling young man?  Someone, somewhere, has a research project or a development programme for you, if only you can fit yourself into the correct box.  Again, the stories here show how that’s a stupid way of thinking about people – as a nanosecond’s thought about our own lives should make quite obvious, and yet often doesn’t.

The ‘without an agenda’ bit of this book is sometimes problematic.  The reliance on immediate impressions and responses, without much in the way of an underlying argument or analysis, can be a bit deceptive. It sometimes slips into a slightly wistful tone, for example, when describing the rural areas that so many people have chosen to leave (to be fair, they talk about it this way themselves, too), and about the approach of modern life – talking, for example, of people being ‘shielded from Westernisation’ as if it were some approaching danger.  So it’s hard to understand why people, in their millions, leave behind a countryside that they, and Mark, often seem to think is easier and gentler than the poorly functioning cities that they end up in, and why they are so enthusiastic – as we all are – about the trappings of modernisation in the form of cars, phones and televisions. In a book which is all about change, this enthusiasm for it needs to be taken as seriously as the hardships it can involve.

(alert readers will notice that Mark Weston is also a contributor to Global Dashboard.  So you can discount this review on those grounds, if you want.  But we have never met, and I wouldn’t have been nice about the book just for that reason.)

Lots of lovely numbers

A New Year present for data geeks.  In case any of you are bored with twitter and facebook as ways of wasting your time, have a look at this.  ‘Worldometers’ offers real time data on all kinds of things – population, government spending, emails sent, bicycles produced, carbon emitted…based on data from UN, OECD etc.  Of course it’s all guesswork and extrapolation, like most statistics, but very interesting and quite astounding to see some of the counters whizzing round (I’m posting this at 12.55 and there have already been more than 229,000,000,000 emails sent today, apparently!).








Did the world just get simpler?

Among our many neuroses, we right on development types like to agonise about what words to use to describe countries. Low, middle and high income? Bit technocratic and reductionist for many. ‘Developed’ and ‘developing’? Too value laden for some tastes, and implying that we in, say, Europe, are at some ‘end of history’ type nirvana which others are struggling to emulate. ‘First’ and ‘Third’ worlds? Even more value laden and with some anachronistic Cold War overtones for good measure.

Oh how we worry. But recently I’ve noticed that the one I used to find most annoying – ‘North’ and ‘South’ – seems to be gaining ground on the others[1].  I use it more and more myself (yeah, hypocrite…).  What’s the appeal? It’s suitably vague to not have the overly prescriptive drawbacks of the others, yet there’s just enough in it for people to know (or think they know) what you mean. It’s got more political and less technical implications, which often suits the thing that people are trying to get across more than narrowly economic categories.

Of course it’s ludicrously simplistic, but maybe that’s the point.

[1] Or is it just me?