Wanting to change

Anybody who reads Duncan Green’s excellent blog, From Poverty to Power, won’t be entirely surprised by the approach he takes in his equally excellent new book, How Change Happens. It is based on two pillars. One is Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to human development (‘the freedoms to do and to be’), and I’ve always thought that when you appreciate its ethical and practical merits, it’s hard to take any other approach. The other is the need for systems thinking when it comes to considering economic policies or other interventions – in any context, really, but certainly in the case of development.

“Change in complex systems occurs in slow steady processes such as demographic shifts, and in sudden, unforseeable jumps,” Green writes. Mostly, change is extremely, painfully slow. It turns out to be impossible to do one thing because another, linked thing gets in the way. Events and crises open the way for the big shifts – being an economist, I think of this in terms of what it takes to move a co-operative game to a new focal point. But even then, the direction of the jump is contingent, messy, unpredictable. It anyway depends on the prevailing climate of ideas and norms – so part of the challenge is to be ready to take advantage of a crisis by having done all the contextual spade work, all the while getting on with the day job of trying to bring about incremental changes in the previous state of affairs.

Needless to say, this does not make for a concise ten-point plan in the final chapter (although it does try to sum up the whole in a ‘power and systems approach’ in the final few pages). The book has some interesting practical ideas, however. I like the principle of looking for ‘positive deviance’ – look for examples of people or activities that succeed against enormous odds, for outliers, and use them as ‘social proof’ so others copy whatever it is. This is exactly the way new technological innovations spread: the ideas are there, a few people try, and others imitate them. There are loads of examples of advocacy and development organisations and initiatives that have been able to implement responsive, adaptable changes (many of these brought Tim Harford’s Adapt to mind). Other suggestions are harder to see how to implement. The book argues that principled leadership matters. I agree. But where is it? How do donors encourage it?

Green concludes that many organisations in the aid world, including his own, need to move away from linear thinking and get wiser to context and the whole complex environment (actual and political) in which they operate. I hope they follow his advice and this book is certainly well worth anyone working in this world reading. The one element missing, though, seems to be the meta-analysis of the development agency ecosystem itself, and the prevailing ideas. For example, how do you get social innovation akin to technological innovation in a world of impact assessment and RCTs? Or indeed combine fleetness of foot with a genuine need to understand ‘what works’? Understanding one’s own cognitive biases or limitations is a tall order. What’s more, the aid world has incentive structures built in that will discourage change. In a variation on the old lightbulb joke (How many psyhologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change), how change happens is that a lot of people have to want change to happen.

Anyway, there’s no excuse for not reading the book, as it’s also published as an open access pdf. I hope lots of activists read and digest and change their approach, but suspect it will prove difficult for many.


The Great Escape

I’m very late to reading Angus Deaton’s excellent [amazon_link id=”0691165629″ target=”_blank” ]The Great Escape: health, wealth and the origins of inequality[/amazon_link]. There is lots to like about this book. It’s a clear and comprehensive summary of the state of knowledge about the history and present of two key dimensions of human well-being on earth. Even for economists who’re pretty familiar with the data and research, there are insights from the way Deaton sets out the evidence here. There were plenty of trends in the statistics I hadn’t known about before reading the book – one example is the recent increase in dangerous and deadly behaviour by young people (especially men) aged 15-34 in recent years compared with 70 years ago. (I suppose life presented enough external dangers then.)

[amazon_image id=”0691165629″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality[/amazon_image]

I particularly liked the care he lavishes on the statistics – the sources of data, the conceptual problems, the uncertainties – all done in a way the general reader can understand (although it does make for some quite dense sections). As Deaton notes, the way statistics are defined and collected determine how policy problems are defined and addressed: they “are part of the apparatus that allows what political scientist James Scott memorably called ‘[amazon_link id=”0300078153″ target=”_blank” ]seeing like a state[/amazon_link]’.

The book is also strong on the social and political context for the spread of ideas that improve health and wealth. As Deaton writes, “Diffusion of ideas and their practical implementation take time because they often require people to change the way they live.” In particular collective actions – affecting public health or education – are inherently political.

And then the new facts: did you know Louis Pasteur invented Marmite (and then licensed it to a British brewer?) Fabulous addition to the shiny nuggets of knowledge.

UPDATE: On the Marmite issue – Deaton’s Pasteur claim was challenged on Twitter:

@diane1859 Louis Pasteur invented Marmite? Wikipedia says it was some other guy: https://t.co/uD9JZyCT9d https://t.co/hs7x6S8oXx
06/04/2016 10:15

@diane1859 I’ve looked into this a bit more and I think I’m on Team Von Liebig. https://t.co/kw5BwP1DJa https://t.co/6Orq0mAOQf
06/04/2016 10:48

The hamburgerized economy

It’s Saturday, when I try to bring order to my life, and I was just sorting out the teetering pile of books when I unearthed [amazon_link id=”0691163871″ target=”_blank” ]Hamburgers in Paradise: the stories behind the food we eat [/amazon_link]by Louise fresco. It’s a notably handsome book with lovely pictures, so already enticing. Paging through, it looks a fascinating read as well. Although billed as a cultural history, it looks at the dominant role of supermarkets in the way we shop, at genetic modification, at agriculture, poverty and economic development, at the slow food movement and the globalization of food supply.

[amazon_image id=”0691163871″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories behind the Food We Eat[/amazon_image]

Now, I love food and prepare most of our meals from scratch, buying few ready-made items. Quality is important to me. Eating as a family, round a table, talking, is essential. Yet the slow food movement makes me uneasy, as it often seems to reject the productivity needed to feed everyone, and to embody an approach few can afford. Agricultural productivity needs to increase again. As it happens, I just spotted this tweet on exactly this subject:

Global middle class is booming, so is demand for food. More crop per acre is the only way! https://t.co/LM9PFbRAbi https://t.co/VL09pRxOFv
21/11/2015 14:18

On the other hand, the scandals of industrial food production – horse meat disguised as beef, the treatment of animals including stuffing them with antibiotics, obesity, the high-salt, high-fat, high-margin products etc – are unacceptable and probably unsustainable. We will soon be publishing a terrific book by David Fell on food policy and taxation in our Perspectives series. meanwhile, I’m going to read [amazon_link id=”B00XB19ZB0″ target=”_blank” ]Hamburgers in Paradise[/amazon_link] over the Christmas holiday. Fresco concludes: “Without food there is no evolution and no civilization. We are what we eat, literally. … What it means to be human is concentrated in food and our understanding of it. Inevitably, part of that is the consciousness that many have too little to eat, or cannot choose to have the things tah are associated with a decent meal.”

Happy fish and economic growth

From [amazon_link id=”0415407087″ target=”_blank” ]The Theory of Economic Growth[/amazon_link] by Arthur Lewis (after whom my department building is named):

“[T]he advantage of economic growth is not that wealth increases happiness, but that it increases the range of human choice … We do not know what the purpose of life it, but if it were happiness then evolution might just as well have stopped a long time ago, since there is no reason to believe that men are happier than pigs or fishes. What distinguishes men from pigs is that men have greater control over their environment; not that they are more happy. And on this test, economic growth is greatly to be desired. The case for economic growth is that it gives man greater control over his environment and thereby increases his freedom.”

[amazon_image id=”0415407087″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Theory of Economic Growth[/amazon_image]

Shades of Sen’s [amazon_link id=”0192893300″ target=”_blank” ]capabilities approach[/amazon_link]. Lewis is quoted in H.W.Arndt’s [amazon_link id=”0582712130″ target=”_blank” ]The Rise and Fall of Economic Growth[/amazon_link].

[amazon_image id=”0192893300″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Development as Freedom[/amazon_image]

Lies, damned lies, statistics, and GDP

On the train to Manchester this morning I finished a terrific book I should really have read long ago. I’m very glad I finally have. It’s Morten Jerven’s [amazon_link id=”080147860X” target=”_blank” ]Poor Numbers: how we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it.[/amazon_link] The title made me think it was only relevant to African statistics, when in fact anybody interested in GDP and national accounts should read it.

[amazon_image id=”080147860X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About it (Cornell Studies in Political Economy)[/amazon_image]

The book is short and non-technical, but includes a number of important arguments and examples. Here are the conclusions I take from it:

1. Statistics are the ‘facts’ “states collect to get knowledge about their own economic or social conditions.” Having reliable statistics is a marker of an effective state – “the ability to collect information and taxes are closely related” – and the statistics chosen reflect the power structures and political priorities of states. African states are not effective, their statistics are not reliable. (But this also made me reflect that there is a lot happening in the developed economies for which we have no statistics – and no ability of the state to understand or influence change.)

2. African GDP statistics in the key online databases used by economists – the World Bank, the Penn World Tables, the Maddison database – are inconsistent because of different interpretations of the underlyaing national data, different base years, different price indices. The sources even rank African countries differently in terms of GDP per capita. Econometric work will get different results depending which is used.” Jerven argues that economists need to have a much more detailed understanding of both the data they download and the specifics of individual countries’ circumstances to be able to interpret the numbers.

3. The underlying national level data are unreliable because of a lack of resources and statistical capacity. Surveys are rarely carried out, there is much guesswork, base year changes happen too infrequently, there is political influence.

4. 2 and 3 together mean little reliance can be placed on the standard cross-country regressions using the standard data sets. “These problems undermine any general conclusions drawn about what stimulates or hinders economic development in Africa.’

5. The standard national accounts concepts don’t apply well to developing economies with a large informal sector. The distinction between production and consumption or working and not-working is not as clear. (And may be becoming less clear in developed economies too, as technology blurs these boundaries and working patterns change.)

The book argues that the standard outline of African growth – a dismal 1970s, a better outcome post- structural adjustment remedies, and a recent acceleration in growth is largely ‘illusory’. The recent uplift in particular comes from the World Bank/IMF splicing recent rebased GDP figures onto an earlier series, as Jerven describes it. He argues that more data needs to be collected, in regular surveys, to enable both good statistics and an effective state knowing what is happening in the economy and to its tax base. He also argues strongly for greater transparency by national statistical offices but especially by the international agencies such as the World Bank and IMF, whose say-so determines the methods used to create the statistics and the world’s interpretation of what is happening in each economy.

“Accounting for the national economy is fundamental for government accountability. Without reliable macro data, political transparency is hard to imagine. …. Numbers are too important to be ignored and the problems surrounding the production and dissemination of numbers too serious to be dismissed.”

So don’t make my initial mistake of thinking this is a bit of a specialist book. It’s a fascinating and important read.