Poverty (and Social Development Writ Large) is Not an Innovation Problem

I came across an article a friend posted on Facebook yesterday about the work that the MasterCard Foundation is doing to reduce poverty in Africa. Since some of my work is in the ‘techno-innovation 4 development’ sector, I was curious to give it a read. It was everything that makes me *sigh* and/or *shake my fist* at the ‘development innovation’ field.

The article starts from a logical premise that misunderstands what poverty is. Poverty, fundamentally, is when there’s not enough stuff available for all the people in a polity or community to meet their needs. In the modern world we measure capacity to gather the stuff we need in terms of money. I read the article waiting for the part where the MasterCard Foundation addresses the fundamental dilemma of people not having enough money to get the stuff to meet their needs; it never came. There were other things about the article that could be highlighted as problematic, but they are all secondary to the fact that the poverty reduction program being discussed doesn’t address poverty reduction. So what does it address?

“The MasterCard Foundation, with huge assets of $9 billion, is an independent entity without a single MasterCard executive on its board. But its financial work in Africa syncs up nicely with the efforts of Mastercard, the company, to nurture a cashless society as the African continent continues its economic rise.” Basically, they’re developing a market for non-cash monetary services. This is fine; I appreciate the convenience of my debit card, and my bank that allows me to access my money when I’m working abroad. But providing these services in Africa is not poverty reduction, and presenting it as such is at best intellectually dishonest. 

There’s a lot more I could say about this article, but the point is that it highlights a consistent problem in the development innovation space. At times we are too easily captivated by ‘solutions’, losing sight of the fundamental causes of the problems we’re trying to solve.




Samoa Post: End of semester observations

So I’ve been in Samoa for a semester now, working with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and getting things in order to do dissertation fieldwork. I’ll probably post again before the end of the year, but here are a few key themes that have emerged in conversation as I’ve developed relationships with my counterparts.

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Samoa Update: What “Kickstarting an Emergency” got me thinking

Andrej Verity, who works at UN-OCHA, wrote a thought provoking and enjoyable post earlier this week about alternative crowdfunding and Kickstarter-type mechanisms for distributing aid funding to beneficiaries during disaster response.  I posted a few short thoughts in the comments section of the post, but thought it’d be good to expand on them a bit.  Hopefully these observations can add to the discussion Andrej started, since it’s an important one.

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Disaggregating Peacekeeping Data: A new dataset on peacekeeping contributions

Jacob Kathman at the University of Buffalo has an article in the current issue of Conflict Management and Peace Science about his new dataset on the numbers and nationalities of all peacekeeper contributions by month since 1990.  This is a pretty fantastic undertaking since peacekeeping data is often difficult to find, and no small feat given how challenging it is not only to code a 100,000+ point dataset, but do it in such a way that it complements other datasets like Correlates of War and Uppsala/PRIO.  I’m particularly excited about this dataset because it highlights something I’ve been interested in, and will continue to work on throughout my career: gathering and coding historical data on peacekeeping missions so that social scientists and economists can start producing quantitative research to compliment the existing case study-oriented research on peacekeeping operations and practice.

As Kathman points out, there has usually been a focus on case study approaches to researching peacekeeping.  This makes sense: most of the research is geared toward identifying lessons learned from mission success and failure, and is meant to be easily integrated into operational behavior, instead of addressing theoretical issues.  This also reflects the ad hoc nature of peacekeeping; a mission gets a mandate to deal with a specific issue, and missions tend to be short (with some exceptions), so the data tends to be mission and context specific which lends to case study research approaches.  As civil wars became the norm in the 1990s though, missions expanded their roles to include war fighting, humanitarian aid delivery, medical provision, policing, and other aspects of civil society.  This meant that peacekeeping missions became part of the political, economic and social fabric of the post-ceasefire environment, and over the last ten years social scientists started studying the effects of peacekeeping missions on ceasefire duration and economic development, among other things.

One of the things that has lacked, and that Kathman’s dataset helps with, is data about the missions themselves.  Studies, such as Virginia Page Fortna’s excellent book on the effect of peacekeeping missions on ceasefire durability tend to rely on conflict start-stop data to make inferences about the impact of peacekeeping.  Studies of peacekeeping and economics also run into the same issues; researchers have used baseline effect on GDP of peacekeeping missions, but this is a blunt instrument approach and suffers from problems of endogeneity.  Caruso et al’s analysis of the UN mission in South Sudan’s positive effect on cereal production treats the UN mission as a mass entity, but is unable to show comparative impacts on food production across missions since there isn’t finer grained mission data readily available.

Given the need, I would suggest pushing forward with datasets that contain not only data on troop contributions, but also data on mission expenditures, since peacekeeping missions have effects on the local economy which could be positive.  The problem is that the positive effects might not be seen without finer grained data on how missions use their money in the country they’re operating in.  Do investments in durable infrastructure make a difference to the durability of peace and economic growth?  What about focusing on local provision of goods and services where available?  At the moment data on these things is hard to find, but would be useful to conflict researchers.

Kathman’s paper is worth a read since he gives us a road map for how to develop further datasets on peacekeeping missions.  More datasets like this are important for the theorists who do research in the abstract, but can also help inform better processes for mission mandating, procurement and staffing.  If you want to download the datasets, Kathman has them in zip files on his website.

Tech4Dev Conference: Call for abstracts closes Oct. 14

My colleague Dr. Paula Lytle and I will be hosting one of the sessions at next June’s Tech4Dev conference, focusing on the policy side of integrating technology into disaster response and preparedness.  The Federal Polytechnic Institute in Lausanne is hosting the event; they do a great job and the city of Lausanne is lovely.  If you’ve got an idea you want to turn into a paper, you still have a few more days to submit an abstract!  Here are the details of our session, as well as the other sessions:

Theme 2, Session 2-2: Politics, Society, and Technology Integration: How Does Policy Making Affect Governmental and Local use of ICTs for Disaster Risk Reduction?

Session Leader: Dr. Paula Lytle, The World Bank / Co-Session Leader: Mr. Charles Martin-Shields, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Independent Samoa

“Rapid increases in technology development and access have made mobile phones and computing increasingly ubiquitous in the developing world. This session aims to answer three related questions about DRR: 1) Which technologies are allowing governments to be more transparent and connected to local populations? 2) What technologies are helping local actors share information with their governments and among each other? 3) What policies are being put into place to encourage local-to-national information sharing for DRR? Papers that integrate more than one of these topics are encouraged, and can feature case studies, statistical and policy analysis, and mixed method approaches. Authors should explain the technology or policy process, frame it in a social or development theory, and explain the observed or intended outcome of the technology or policy.”

Of course if you’re into the technical side, are an engineer, or specialize in public health, there are sessions for you too!  You can get more details on the call for abstracts here.

Hope to see some familiar faces in Lausanne next June!

Samoa update: A little informed consent, a lot of economics

I’m embracing my status as a political scientist working in the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MCIT).  While a lot of my experience in the tech space tends to be tool-centric, I’m finding more and more that the challenges on the user end (in this case Samoa) are related to policy and economics.

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Samoa Week One: There’s tech and there’s practicality

I’m wrapping up my first week on the job with the Samoan Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, where I’m working as part of my Fulbright-Clinton Fellowship.  I’m working in the Policy Formulation Office of the Ministry, and over the course of the year, I’ll be working on ICT for disaster response policy, cyber security, and helping finalize multilateral support for infrastructure projects.  As someone who has bounced around the ‘tech4good’ community in D.C. for a few years now, I’m really enjoying getting out into the field again.  To make the most of my field time, I’ll post bi-weekly ‘lessons learned’ updates, starting with this post.  Hopefully my observations from a Pacific island can be helpful to others working the tech and development spaces!

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Peacekeeping, economic growth and technology

The economics of peacekeeping are difficult to unpack but there are signs that when a mission has a strategy that includes long-range economic planning, it can have positive long term effects on the host country’s economy.  This could help us understand the strategic value of communication technology as not just a tool for good governance and transparency, but also as an economic stimulant in the aftermath of a conflict.

Carnahan, Durch and Gilmore (CD&G) have made the most comprehensive effort to fully address the ways that a peacekeeping mission can have a positive economic impact.  Like other authors, CD&G discuss the negative impacts of peacekeeping operations on local economies, but also develop an argument for the ways that peacekeeping operations can provide stimulus for local and national economies.  The keys areas include modifications in the acquisition process to focus on acquiring good and services locally, encouraging peacekeepers to spend their mission subsistence allowances in-country, and being aware of brain drain if host country nationals leave their civil services to work with the UN mission.  CD&G focus their recommendations both on short term issues like local procurement and managing wage disparities between local and international staff to prevent price spikes, but also discuss issues such as doing long-term analysis of infrastructure projects beyond the timeframe of the mission mandate, so that mission spending is designed to meet the strategic economic needs of the host country.

A recent article from Raul Caruso and Roberto Ricciuti dove deeper into the economics of peacekeeping by looking at the increase in cereals (grain) production in South Sudan over time, and creating a causal model of the UNMISS mission’s positive impact on food production.  While the security peacekeeping missions provide can help things like the agricultural sector, the mission doesn’t directly control cereals production though.  We should be equally interested in  highlighting the roll that missions can play in investing in durable infrastructure, since this is an area that missions and the UNDPKO have more direct control over.

This brings us back to the long-term value of missions using civilian communication infrastructure as part of the mission strategy.  Communication infrastructure could be low hanging fruit as a durable investment, is useful tactically to the mission, and is good in the long term for the host country’s economy at large.  Because of this ICTs could play both a Keynesian role, stimulating the economy through immediate multilateral and mission spending on airtime and bandwidth, while also having a Solowian long term effect as local populations make use of mobile phones and internet that the peacekeeping mission paid for initially as the economy stabilizes.  Given what we know about the positive effects of ICT infrastructure on developing economies, pushing for an ICT strategy when a peacekeeping mission is deployed could support the mission’s tactical needs while also investing in a sector that is good for the economy after the peacekeepers have left.

Tech, Development and the Pacific Region: Analysis from Gerard McCarthy

I haven’t posted much recently, and probably won’t be able to post much for the next week or so (blasted comprehensive exam and Fulbright paperwork), but I started my morning off right when I came across my colleague Gerard McCarthy’s new article on how AusAID could benefit from an institutional technology for development strategy.

Gerard’s article is particularly interesting for me since I’ll be working on tech for development policy in Samoa’s Ministry of Communications starting next month.  For other’s working in the Asia-Pacific Region, especially if you’re planning to work with the donor community in the region, I’d recommend giving this article a read.  It could spark some ideas, and gives a good assessment of where AusAID is in terms of supporting tech for development programming.

Fulbright-Clinton Fellowship: Quite the welcome

So this week is the orientation week for 23 of my colleagues and me as we prepare to head off and do our Fulbright-Clinton Fellowships.  People will be going all over: Burma, Ethiopia, Haiti, Malawi, Samoa, Cote D’Ivoire and Guatemala.  What really struck me was the history and the timelessness of the Fulbright program.  Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined us at the Woodrow Wilson Center for pictures and hand shakes; this program is named after her, since she was the Secretary of State who pushed for a public service component to the Fulbright student program.  In person she’s captivating – I reckon all of us were overawed when she walked in.

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