New Book on Poverty and Development in Fragile States

poverty development fragile statesI am pleased to announce the publication of my new book on fragile states — Betrayed: Politics, Power and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan). The book focuses on the biggest challenges in the development field today: how to create inclusive societies, equitable governments, and dynamic economies that will give the poor the opportunity to accumulate the means and skills to control their own destinies. Up to now, change has proved illusive in most parts of the world, leaving three billion people — roughly one-half the population in the developing world — disadvantaged. The concrete suggestions described in my book are targeted at political, economic, and civil society leaders as well as scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and students.

The book combines the latest research on poverty and state building with my personal observations drawn from many years working in the developing world, and covers a far wider range of issues than comparable titles. These include social exclusion processes, ideology, elite incentives, strategic urbanization, connectivity, livelihood factors, power dynamics, transaction costs, social networks, and business linkages.

Former President of Ghana Jerry Rawlings wrote the foreword, calling the book “a compelling and eloquent argument for empowering all citizens, especially the poor.”

I hope you will share this information with your colleagues and friends. You can order a copy from Amazon. Continue reading

The African Exodus: A View from the Ground


Sunday’s El País carried a surprising article detailing the increase in immigration from Africa to Spain in the past two years.

Although Spain is in the midst of a debilitating economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of over 27%, the number of would-be migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco in the first quarter of 2013 has quadrupled compared with the corresponding period in 2012. Alarmingly, the proportion using inflatable rubber dinghies – the kind your kids play on at the beach – has risen from 15% to 90% in the past year. These dinghies are designed to be used by two people, but in the Strait they are often intercepted with up to ten on board (Spain’s coastguard has yet to hear of one that has completed the fourteen kilometre journey – the lucky ones are rescued before they sink). In Morocco, the market in these vessels is thriving – a 2-3 metre boat that can be had for €300 in the Spanish beach resorts will set you back over €600 in Tangiers.

This continued flow of migrants from Africa to Europe gives the lie to the “Africa Rising” story peddled by some Western media outlets of late. Although GDP is growing in many parts of the continent, most Africans see nothing of this. The millions who have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life too often end up with nothing to do, and in their desperation are forced to look further afield, to Europe, for a way out of poverty (as the chief prosecutor in the Spanish port town of Algeciras noted, ‘many people would love to have our crisis’).

While researching my new book, The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries, which as well as analysing the great social upheavals the developing world is going through as it modernises is an attempt to give voice to the people experiencing these changes on the ground, I observed this frustration at first hand. The population of Bissau, the capital of the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau which was the first stop on my trip, has quadrupled in the past thirty years. Whole villages in the interior have emptied out as the land has become too crowded to farm and the lure of modernity entices people to the cities. My wife Ebru and I spent a few weeks in one of Bissau’s poorest districts, where, as the excerpt below shows, urbanisation’s losers face a constant dilemma over whether they too should undertake the perilous journey to the West:

Since there is no power and the heat quickly rots anything perishable, Bissau’s residents must lay in a new supply of food each day. Every morning, therefore, we walk down the paved but potholed road that leads from our bairro to Bissau’s main market at Bandim. The market is a labyrinth, its narrow dark lanes winding between rickety wooden stalls whose tin roofs jut out threateningly at throat height. A press of brightly-dressed shoppers haggles noisily over tomatoes, onions, smoked fish and meat. The vendors know their customers – you can buy individual eggs, teabags, cigarettes, sugar lumps and chilli peppers; bread sellers will cut a baguette in half if that is all you can afford; potatoes are divided into groups of three, tomatoes into pyramids of four; matches are sold in bundles of ten, along with a piece of the striking surface torn from the box. In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year, which all Guineans celebrate regardless of their religious persuasion, the market is crowded and chaotic, but after the turn of the year, when all the money has been spent, it is empty and silent.

Only the alcohol sellers do a year-round trade. On a half-mile stretch of the paved road there are thirteen bars or liquor stores. They sell cheap Portuguese red wine, bottled lager, palm wine and cana, a strong rum made with cashew apples. Bissau has a drink problem. Its inhabitants’ love of alcohol is well-known throughout West Africa. Back in Senegal, a fellow passenger on one of our bush taxi rides had warned us that Guineans ‘like to drink and party but they don’t like to work.’ Later in our trip, on hearing we had spent time here, Sierra Leoneans would talk in awed tones of Guineans’ capacity for alcohol consumption. The liquor stores near our bairro are busy at all hours of the day and night. Christians and animists quaff openly, Muslims more discreetly.  Continue reading

Tony Blair Saves Africa!

When I was young, naive and ignorant both of humanity’s complexity and my own limitations, I believed I would one day save the world. Once I reached adulthood, I thought, the willpower and abilities I possessed would be sufficient to wipe out poverty and put an end to conflict.

Then I grew up. I slowly realised that the world was not for saving, much less by one individual, and least of all by me. As I studied history, I realised too that the only people who still believed they could save the world having reached adulthood were dictators or madmen, and that their efforts always ended in failure.

It turns out, however, that I grew cynical too soon, and that in reality it is possible for one man to save the world, or at least a large part of it. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, believes that he has singlehandedly rescued Africa from poverty and underdevelopment. In an article on the Guardian website which must be either a push for a Nobel Prize or a pitch for a job at the UN or World Bank, he argues that all of the recent socio-economic improvements that have taken place in Africa resulted from his own focus on increasing international aid (he has nothing to say about the many African countries that have yet to see any improvement).

The beginning of Africa’s salvation, Blair claims, came at the Gleneagles G8 summit which Britain hosted in 2005. His role in the summit was crucial for Africa. As he reports:

Summits with genuine, long-lasting outcomes are rare. But as we started planning for the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005, I saw that it could be one of these rare ones – a summit about changing the world…

I decided to put Africa at the top of the agenda for Gleneagles…And it worked. Today, the positive legacy of that summit is still being felt across Africa: aid was doubled and developing world debt dropped.

Now an increase in aid is not, of course, an end in itself. Large quantities of aid given to Africa over the decades have been squandered on entrenching corrupt elites or padding the overseas bank accounts of dictators, with little impact on the quality of life of ordinary Africans. Gleneagles, however, not only increased the quantity of aid; it apparently dramatically increased its effectiveness. Here is Blair again:

I want to answer the aid sceptics – those who think aid doesn’t work or is all swallowed up in corruption. Look at the facts. In Africa since 2005, the rate of children dying before their fifth birthday has fallen by 18%. The proportion of people in Africa living in extreme poverty is down by nearly 10%.

It is undeniable that the latter two sentences are facts, but Blair offers no evidence that they have anything to do with an increase in aid. That they might have had more to do with increased investment in and trade with Africa by China, remittances and ideas sent from the diaspora, high commodity prices, or anything Africans living in Africa might have done is a possibility Blair is either unaware of or, because it does not fit with his messianic self-image, has no interest in highlighting. He even takes the credit for foreign investment. He writes:

Africa is among the fastest-growing regions in the world. The Gleneagles agreement can claim some credit for this; bilateral aid for trade to sub-Saharan Africa has almost doubled between 2005 and 2011. Foreign direct investment in the continent has increased by 87% in the past 10 years.

Again, no evidence is presented linking aid to fast growth – it is merely hoped that the juxtaposition of the two things will convince the unwary reader. Even Blair’s buddy Bob Geldof doesn’t have the chutzpah to attribute China’s growing influence in the continent to Gleneagles, admitting in an otherwise tub-thumping piece today (in which he refers to Africans as ‘the people you kept alive all those 30 years ago’ and to Africa’s success as ‘Blair’s lasting legacy’) that trade was not discussed at the Scottish summit. Blair, though, is in no doubt. ‘The last decade of development progress was defined by aid,’ he announces.

Blair does admit that despite his efforts Africa is not yet a utopia, and that improvements can still be made. Fortunately, he has the answers for these too. ‘After leaving office,’ he writes, ‘I set up the Africa Governance Initiative to continue my work on that forgotten half.’ The forgotten half refers to ‘the ability of governments in developing countries to get things done.’ In Blair’s world aid alone, or at least the aid he generated, has rescued Africa – the region’s governments have had nothing to do with it and like their people, who have thrived only since he decided to help them, can do little without his assistance.

Blair has one final piece of evidence, in case we remain unpersuaded that he is Africa’s saviour. ‘The very fact that people are still talking about Gleneagles eight years on shows that we were right to be ambitious, to change the debate.’ he writes. We will have to take his word for it that Gleneagles remains the talk of the town, and the argument that noise proves success is at least no flimsier than some of his other contentions. It’s certainly strong enough for the image-conscious Blair, who concludes his article by proclaiming that ‘the journey from Gleneagles to long-lasting development in Africa is not over [there was, it seems, no journey before the summit]. But Africa is on the move and if we keep going on the whole Gleneagles agenda…the continent will be transformed. So I’m proud to say that Gleneagles has turned out to be that rare thing – a summit that matters.’ If anywhere else in the world needs rescuing, they know who to call.

The biology of poverty traps

By way of catching up on my popular social science, I have been reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s Poor Economics. Among the most arresting revelations in the latter is the following:

There is a strong association between poverty and the level of cortisol produced by the body, an indicator of stress. Conversely, cortisol levels go down when households receive help. The children of the beneficiaries of PROGRESA, the Mexican cash transfer program [later renamed Oportunidades], have, for example, been found to have significantly lower levels of cortisol than comparable children whose mothers did not benefit from the program.

One of the problems with producing excess cortisol is that the hormone impedes the functioning of important parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, for example, which is vital for suppressing impulsive responses, is rendered less effective by high cortisol levels, making us more likely to take hasty, ill-considered decisions. ‘When experimental subjects are artificially put under stressful conditions,’ Duflo and Banerjee note, ‘they are less likely to make the economically rational decision when faced with choosing among different alternatives.’

When I was in Guinea-Bissau a couple of years back, I remember being horrified that an impoverished local housewife who complained that she could not afford her daughter’s $10-a-month school fees was nevertheless able to buy regular top-up cards for her expensive mobile phone. At the time I blamed consumerism and the foreign aid workers who paraded their own phones so brashly, but it may be that biology played a part too, and that high cortisol levels were impeding the woman’s judgement and encouraging her to make impulsive and seemingly irrational investments. Indeed, Duflo and Banerjee report that women who had access to a microcredit program in India drastically reduced their purchases of impulse products such as tea and snacks; the two economists postulate that this occurred both because the women’s cortisol levels declined in line with the reduction in stress and because their increased confidence that plans would come to fruition gave them a stronger incentive to restrain themselves.

But it is not just short-term decision-making that is affected by cortisol – people who are unable to control their impulses as children are at a serious disadvantage later in life. In Thinking Fast and Slow, his wonder-strewn study of the brain’s reasoning powers, Daniel Kahneman describes a famous psychological experiment wherein a group of four-year-old children were given a choice between eating one biscuit now or two if they could wait for fifteen minutes. Each child was left alone in a room, with just the single biscuit and a bell for company. If the child could not resist the temptation, she was to ring the bell and the experimenter would come in and give her the biscuit. Continue reading

Why a Focus on Inequality in the MDGs (and in Fragile States) is Wrong

With the appointment of the United Kingdom’s prime minister, David Cameron, as one of the chairs of a forthcoming UN committee tasked with establishing a new set of UN millennium development goals (the existing ones expire in 2015), debate on the issue is expected to heat up in the months ahead.

Many in the development field think the reduction of inequality in poor countries should be a high priority. But this shows a misunderstanding of the problems the poor face in these countries—and what steps must be taken to help them. Continue reading

Do World Bank Country Classifications Hurt the Poor?

world bank country classifications

As the competition for president of the World Bank approaches its final stages, it is worth considering what changes ought to be brought in by the new person. One area in need of reform is the Bank’s system of country classifications. Although Robert Zoellick pushed the World Bank to open its much-prized treasure chest of data to the public during his five-year term as president, he did little to reform how the World Bank conceptualized that data. Changing how countries are classified would have a wide impact on the whole development community.

For instance, look at all the discussion in development policy circles about the sharp reduction in the number of low-income countries in recent years. Some believe this news should be trumpeted as a policy success. For others, the reduction suggests that there is a “New Bottom Billion” of poor people living in middle-income countries, forcing a change in donor focus. For yet another group, it indicates that foreign aid as a concept should be updated to blend more loans with grant money.

But has all that much changed? Does the World Bank country classifications accurately identify the countries in need of outside assistance? Continue reading

How many people are hungry?

The good news: poverty is in retreat. The bad news: hunger isn’t.  That’s the headline finding for the first Millennium Development Goal , which aims to halve the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day and the proportion of people living in hunger between 1990 and 2015.

Great strides have been made on poverty, as I explained in a recent post, with the proportion of the poor projected to fall to 14.4% of the population of developing countries, from 41.7% in 1990. But what about hunger?

According to the UN’s 2011 assessment of the MDGs, the news is not good. In 1990, 828m people were hungry or 20% of the population of developing countries. Progress has been very slow since then:

The proportion of people in the developing world who went hungry in 2005-2007 remained stable at 16 percent [837m people], despite significant reductions in extreme poverty. Based on this trend, and in light of the economic crisis and rising food prices, it will be difficult to meet the hunger-reduction target in many regions of the developing world.

But hang on a minute. Why is the UN trotting out data for 2005-2007? That’s before the global food crisis, which hit at the same time as the financial crisis and has been just as slow to go away.

Food prices hit rock bottom in 1999, but then rose quickly with vicious increases in 2007 and 2008 (20% and 18%) and 2010 and 2011 (17% and 28%) as illustrated in the chart below.  Yet we’re still relying on data from five years ago to estimate hunger.

The UN reported ‘dire’ news of a spike in its 2009 and 2010 MDG reports, with an estimate of more than 1 billion people hungry by 2009. But then it backed off in 2011, simply reporting the old data (which, oddly and without explanation, had been revised up slightly for all years, including 1990).

What gives? The problem is that our data on hunger are extremely patchy and rely on assumptions so heroic that I am left wondering if we are currently able to say anything useful about global hunger at all. Continue reading