Tag Archives: Development policy

Last Week Today: The Global Legacy Award goes to?

The week in global news

The Global Legacy Award goes to…?

Cue drum roll.

Tony Blair.

Right. Naturally. Of Course. We totally picked him too.

We don’t understand why people are so outraged at Save the Children’s decision to choose an accused war criminal to receive the award. He totally deserved it for his “leadership on international development.” And while this may signify that we can no longer rely on political activism from large and professional charities, we don’t believe any mistake was made, because if a mistake had been made, surely STC would have said, right?

Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister

Americans are protesting across the country due to a grand jury’s decision not to prosecute white police officer Darren Wilson for shooting dead Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson.

Police cleared large protest sites in Hong Kong on Wednesday, but protestors returned and violent clashes continue.

And 40,000 Masai people will be evicted from their homeland in Tanzania, because the Dubai royal family bought the land to hunt big game.

This week on the blog

Volunteering abroad with children: A game of double standards?

Working with children in Western countries requires qualifications and background checks. Not so in developing countries. Ruth Taylor asks what’s with the double standards?

Fair trade: All it’s cracked up to be?

Fair trade-certified companies are ethical and sustainable, and they pay their workers a living wage. Right? Liza Moiseeva investigates how fair trade really affects farmers.

Coffee farmers in El Salvador. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Coffee farmers in El Salvador. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This week in globaldev

Pictures: Workers in the informal economy

The death of international development

Say ‘burn rate‘ one more time

Raising the minimum wage isn’t enough

Doing development differently

Video: Why are some people poor and others are rich? (08:47)

Current opportunities

Community Manager: Use your experience in content and community management to grow the AidSource network. | WhyDev

Fundraising Director: An experienced fundraiser is wanted to raise much needed funds for a Speech Therapy program in Cambodia. | OIC: The Cambodia Project

You can also check out our events and listen to the MissionCreep podcast.

Featured image is Tony Blair, UK’s former Prime Minister. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

MDG 5a: An update on maternal mortality

With two years left, it is highly unlikely that Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 5a – in the clunky verbiage of the UN: “Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio” – will be met worldwide.

But, substantial progress has been made, which in human terms, means that hundreds of thousands of maternal deaths have been prevented. It’s worth taking a step back to understand the scope and scale of the problem, and to think through the interventions that have been successful in myriad developing and developed countries.

The Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) is calculated as the number of pregnancy-related deaths (from any point in the pregnancy to 42 days post-birth/termination) per 100,000 live births. In 2010, an estimated 287,000 mothers died from pregnancy-related causes, or 210 deaths per 100,000 live births; it’s an almost 50 percent reduction from 1990, when an estimated 543,000 mothers died, or 400 per 100,000 live births.

These roll-up figures mask a wide variation in the distribution of maternal mortality. In 2010, an astounding 99% of deaths occurred in the ‘developing world’ (56% in sub-Saharan Africa alone), and the MMR in developing countries is, on average, 15 times higher than in developed countries. According to the World Bank, the country with the highest MMR in 2010 was Chad, the lowest Estonia, at 1,100 and 2 per 100,000 live births respectively. A chart showing the 40 countries with the highest MMR is below, with the United States – at 21 – added for reference:

Bar Graph


Scan the list of countries and it becomes clear that the MMR problem is clustered in Africa, with few exceptions. There’s wide variation among these countries too. The question is: why?

Worldwide, the leading direct causes of maternal mortality are: Post-Partum Haemorrhage (PPH); Pre-eclampsia and eclampsia; and sepsis (see the Figure 2 below). Together, these three conditions account for 60% of maternal deaths.

Pie Chart
Figure 1

At the patient-level, interventions to prevent or treat all three are well-understood, cheap, and straightforward:

  • Prevention of PPH is facilitated by following a protocol known as Active Management of the Third Stage of Labor (AMTSL), which involves the administration of an uterotonic (e.g., oxytocin, ergometrine, misoprostol) and massaging/monitoring for two hours post-birth. A Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) found that women who received AMTSL experienced PPH 6.8% of the time vs. 16.5% with passive/conservative management; almost a 60% decrease
  • Treatment of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia involves the injection of magnesium sulphate, a cheap compound (in the West, the non-pharmaceutical preparation is known as Epsom salt). A highly-regarded RCT found that magnesium sulphate halves the risk of eclampsia in pregnant women
  • Prevention of puerperal fever*, or sepsis more generally, is a matter of maintaining proper sanitation before, during, and after a birth. If a mother develops sepsis, a full course of antibiotics can be administered as treatment.

Here’s what’s clear: the devil isn’t in the details. It’s in the diffusion of pharmaceuticals, health care workers, and knowledge through health systems, and in improving those systems holistically. It goes deeper than the health system of course; to administer AMTSL, for example, requires the drug being available (partially a supply chain/regulation issue), a health care worker who is trained to administer the drug (an education issue), and a health care worker who has the time to administer the massage every 15 minutes for two hours (a financing issue). And keep in mind, that’s only if the mother has a trained health care worker by her side, which in sub-Saharan Africa puts her in the minority, with only about 46% of births attended by skilled health personnel in 2008.

The complex task of reducing maternal mortality demands a multifactorial solution that draws on a wide coalition of government departments and private organizations; and each country has to find a solution that meshes with its own cultural and structural realities. Nevertheless, there are broad themes that transcend these inter-country differences and show up in the success stories of many positive deviants:

  • Increase access to family planning and contraception
  • Strengthen demand for antenatal check-ins through education campaigns, conditional cash transfer programmes, or easier access to skilled professionals
  • Increase the percentage of births attended to by a skilled professional; ensure skilled professional is able to provide necessary care (e.g., equipment, pharmaceuticals, knowledge) for non-complicated birth and is able to refer complicated cases
  • Ensure Emergency Obstetric and Neonatal Care (EmONC) services are comprehensive and of high quality, and that health centres are staffed with skilled workers; stocked with maternal medicines, antibiotics, and proper equipment; and accessible to remote populations
  • Establish or strengthen monitoring systems to highlight successes and areas of opportunity.

All of which goes a long way towards our understanding of why some countries have already reached MDG 5a and others are unlikely to do so; the interventions require sustained political will, ‘soft’ infrastructure (e.g., regulations, communication), consistent funding, and a systems approach to process improvement. Unfortunately, it may take more than 20 or 25 years to build out this basic scaffolding on which to build sustainable change.

The imminent failure to reach the goal of reducing the MMR by 75% by 2015 shouldn’t obscure the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of mothers alive who, without the focus on maternal mortality, may not be otherwise. Much more can – and will – be done in the next two years, and in the next two decades.

In many ways, 2015 is just the start.

Text Box
Figure 2


*If you’re a public health or history of medicine wonk, you may recall that puerperal fever (or childbed fever, as it was known) was the disease that led Ignaz Semmelweis to call for basic hygiene measures in his Viennese hospital pre-Germ Theory of Disease – and was promptly rejected from the establishment for his heresy. As one contemporary doctor put it, “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean.”


Goals are good, but do the MDGs need to be simplified?

If the recent US presidential campaign felt more acrimonious and hard-fought than ever before, remember, there’s probably good news for global development. According to the UN, the world has met two critical Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including halving extreme poverty and doubling access to clean water. Although success is not evenly spread and some of the MDGs will probably not be met, we have considerable reason to celebrate the most significant gains we have seen in our lifetime.

In order to ensure that this progress is equitable and accelerating, our goals for the post-2015 framework must take a different shape. Simplifying the MDGs to just four goals encompassing global well-being, extreme poverty, health and climate change will make the MDGs more memorable and reportable.

Although global well-being may not seem to fit in the context of the MDGs, it makes sense to measure what we’re actually trying to impact by examining the degree to which we’re improving lives. This will require new resources and thought around what is an acceptable measure of well-being, as Bhutan’s interpretation of “Gross National Happiness” illustrates, but these are details that deserve to be debated in the full light of greater research and commentary. Importantly, creating an MDG that aims to raise overall global well-being will not only spur research and aid funding to more accurately assess whether our anti-poverty efforts are achieving this goal, but also receive attention from some who may not otherwise pay attention to global development.

But in this respect, attracting attention to the MDGs, simplifying our broader aims to just four will give us more freedom to make the MDGs a cause to advocate for in and of themselves. Currently, activists advocate for the end of AIDS or the capture of Kony, but few clamour for the achievement of MDG five, if anyone can even name what it actually is (improving maternal health). But by consolidating our aims to a distinct four, MDG progress can be sped along by activists advocating for the end of climate change, for example. Making the MDGs marketable for the purpose of activist involvement isn’t about reaching for inclusion where it doesn’t exist, but finding alternatives to waiting for governments to chip in.

And though I’ve earlier called the MDG gains the most significant of our lifetime, exaggerating successes and drowning in failures is probably an unhelpful trait of development writing. Although it’s wonderful that extreme poverty has been halved since 1990, China’s recent growth has much to do with this, which is largely not a product of humanitarian development dollars. If our post-2015 MDGs are destined to merely measure our overall progress against poverty, then there is nothing wrong with claiming success when we succeed as a result of a factor we didn’t expect. But this isn’t the goal of the MDGs. The MDGs should seek to compel individuals and nations to up their contributions to development. This is only possible if we judge success by the amount we increase our commitments every year—in dollars, contraceptives, bed nets, medicines, and anything that improves lives.

Certainly, this approach will encourage help of all kinds, but it’s crucial that we aren’t misled to believe that charity given regardless of context or need is a victory. The MDGs should not just be a reflection of where we wish to see the world in the near future, but how we should prioritise our spending. For example, the Copenhagen Consensus, an organisation that attempts to gauge which development interventions are the most cost-effective, ranked providing malaria treatment as one of the best ways to save lives and improve health in 2012. Although HIV/AIDS is arguably a more pressing issue than malaria if judged by a simple number of deaths, money spent treating malaria will have a greater impact than treating HIV/AIDS according to their research. Many people are understandably uncomfortable with the premise of determining who lives and dies on the basis of cost-effectiveness, but compassion does not justify ineffective approaches.

While the MDGs may not contain the adrenaline and energy of a costly election, activist engagement may allow us to achieve success where government funding hasn’t. Four MDGs, encompassing most of the interests of the current MDGs, will pull us through every MDG success, every failure and every unsatisfying outcome in between.


Literacy in Development: the flaws with using literacy rates to inform development policy (part 3)

Parts one and two recap: Literacy is not a universal skill gained through schooling with culture and home practices as irrelevant, especially in a minority language community. Nor is literacy an automatic catalyst for economic development. But a lot of development policy assumes so. This is a particularly complicated (but interesting) concern in China.

This week, the world’s first World Literacy Summit is being held at Oxford, and making a convincing economic argument for investment in literacy is high on the agenda. However, what may not be on is how we measure literacy and design appropriate interventions. Literacy rates are one such measurement, but do they tell us what we think they tell us?

Do literacy rates measure what we think they do?

Literacy measures often use school attendance as a proxy, i.e. they measure things like how many community members completed primary school. This is because reading and writing at a grade 6 level (for example) is seen as “being literate”. This misses what sociolinguists call “subaltern literacies”, which are those ways of engaging with text that happen outside the classroom. These often go very much under the radar because the people involved are the poorest of the poor and the most excluded. In particular, these “illiterates” are excluded from Culture with a capital “C”: they don’t glow with learning and literature and refinement. They speak dialects, they do manual work, they are adults without much education. So what these people do with text isn’t valuable to those deciding on the standards and collecting the data. In fact, schooling measurements don’t acknowledge that these Others engage with text at all.

Nevertheless, in many countries, many people like this are actually more literate than their “betters” assume. They are the “literate poor”, but if they are not visible in measurements, development policies are unlikely to be directed to them.

Schooling-centred monitoring also fails to explain the shared practices between literate and illiterate community members which determine when literacy skills will be made available to others. Such monitoring is therefore deficient as a basis for designing programs to harness literacy’s instrumentality, because the data doesn’t clearly reveal all those for whom literacy is an instrument. And such monitoring fails to tap into home and community practices and attitudes which might stymie children’s acquisition of schooled literacy: does everyone completing primary school have the same literacy? And why are some communities’ children less likely than others to even get to that point?

How can you maximise the use of literacy for development if you don’t actually understand how it is used by people together?

There is discussion amongst scholars – some of whom are also practitioners – about how improving the understanding and measuring of literacy could improve economists’ policies for development. It’s an interesting strand within broader debates about the quantification of development. (I know many whydev readers have an interest in those debates; please share your thoughts below.)

Here’s the difficulty: how can we get the quantitative data development agencies want if we accept that we have to start looking outside the neat boundaries of formal schooling to harness important literacy practices? Bryan Maddox, of the University of East Anglia, suggests moving to a statistical methodology using a transparent, multiple thresholds in a “set of valued literacy functionings”, which would  index the varied literacies in a person’s life to his or her development.  This thresholds approach sits more comfortably with Sen’s influential Capabilities Approach to development, which

“argues that illiteracy is a ‘focal feature’ of capability deprivation and human insecurity. Illiteracy is viewed as a pervasive feature of capability deprivation and inequality, and literacy (particularly women’s literacy) as a source of agency, autonomy and socio-economic mobility” (Bryan Maddox and Lucio Esposito)

That is, it provides a more nuanced measure of the range of deprivation but also agency one person can have in different parts of their life.

However, for the moment, the bulk of monitoring still treads lead-footed through governments’ literacy/illiteracy rates, themselves built upon the outdated ideas of autonomous skills and school attendance. One example of this is UNESCO’s monitoring of whether we reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015. This happens because evaluating situated literacy is more complicated, but this approach loses a lot by prioritising simplicity.

Literacy t-shirt
And does anyone care if your parent can?

Anna Robinson-Pant, also of the University of East Anglia, suggests this approach to monitoring leads to perceptions that literacy and schooling are the same, and therefore that adult literacy should be about acquiring the formal literacy missed through lack of childhood school opportunities, without giving weight to many other important literacy practices in adults’ lives. She suggests this results in smaller development grants for adult literacy programs. To me, that brings home a problematic, real-world outcome of the datedness of the literacy thinking which informs development policy.

More nuanced views on literacy, and more nuanced data, require effort.  Monitoring methodology can be seen as the dull, back-office side of development work. But the room for methodological improvement is real, just as real as the changes such improvements could precipitate in the world beyond the stats.

Literacy in development: economics and social sciences converge, uneasily (part 1)

Intuitively, lots of policy-makers assume literacy is crucial for development, but it’s an increasingly interesting site of convergence between two major disciplines underpinning development work: economics and ethnographic social science, because the inadequacy of a simplistic understanding of literacy is more and more apparent.

The topic piqued my interest during some recent academic research, and I’d like to give people a window into the debate. I’ll follow up with an analysis of how literacy is under-utilised in development policy, using China as a case study, in a second post in this series (that one’s more punchy, less scholarly, trust me). We’d love your case studies or comments on literacy-related development work too.

Education, and particularly literacy, is a central preoccupation in domestic governments’ approaches to poverty and regional development, in international relations and for the international agencies like UNESCO and UNDP. But the place of literacy within development is under-theorised. Let’s review the central goals and principles of development and what is meant by literacy in this context (chances are, your definition of literacy can be expanded).

A narrow, conventional understanding of literacy sees it as skills of reading and writing existing “autonomously”, to be taught independently of learners’ lives. However, more recent scholars question whether “literacy is a ‘universal’ skill that is devoid of class specificity” (Maddox 2001:144) and, as Bryan Maddox points out, this “has implications for understanding the role of literacy in economic and social development”.

These scholars are part of the ‘New Literacy’ school. They criticise functional literacy because literacy is not “an independent variable that can be separated from social context” (Street 1999:35). Their understanding of literacy sees it as a set of social practices inferred from events mediated by written texts i.e. much more than just the standard reading and writing skills on the school syllabus. It is important to New Literacy scholars to note the different forms of power which affect what counts as ‘literacy’, who uses literacy, and for what purposes. This analysis of power is highly relevant when understand literacy’s role in development, as a major concern of development is redressing power inequalities.

As the DEV Blog noted on 2011’s World Literacy Day,

“UNESCO statistics tell us that there are some 796 million adults who cannot read and write.  These figures are an important reminder of global literacy inequalities…[however] They are imprecise, and tell us little about what it means to be literate, or to have ‘enough’ literacy.”

There is not yet any great accord between linguists and development policy-makers on the meaning and purposes of literacy.  Anna Robinson-Pant (2008: 779-796) gives an interesting first-hand account of the tensions that arose when she was part of the team writing a recent UNESCO Global Monitoring Report on literacy, and how this tension undermines development work:

“The starting point – and undisputed assumption – for many policy discussions is that literacy (or schooling) is a ‘good thing’ and the terms are often used synonymously with ‘education’. By problematising ‘literacy’ and presenting evidence that literacy (and schooling) interventions do not always lead to greater equality or positive social change, the researcher can be seen as the opposing voice in a policy debate that is polarised around evidence ‘for’ (or against) literacy.” (Robinson-Pant 2008:781)

Narrow and broad development

And now to ‘development’: there is a division between seeing development narrowly as the economic advancement of a people towards the market economies characteristic of the developed world, and broad progress towards empowered lives for people, including affirmation of their culture, political voice, and economic progress that can be sustained over generations. The dominant view in development policy-making is an “instrumental view of policy as rational problem solving” (Robinson-Pant 2008:780) and this favours policy using literacy (narrowly understood) as an instrument.

In contrast, the “critical view [of development] sees policy as a rationalising discourse concealing hidden purposes of bureaucratic power or dominance, in which the true political intent of development hidden behind a cloak of rational planning” (Robinson-Pant 2008:780). Power dynamics of decision-making in development and the need for increasingly empowered grassroots communities has been discussed from other angles on whydev before (+here, here). From this perspective, policies about literacy have to have a broader base, taking into account the social practices of literacy.

There is an increasing reclamation of development policy and practice by developing countries’ governments and grassroots organisations, so that development does not continue as another form of exploitation or paternalism. Formal, schooled literacy is an ill-fit with this view. Rather, literacy is developed as a community resource and to amplify political voice. The role of literacy in creating, affirming, or denying cultural identity comes into play here. In many countries, this is particularly relevant to minority-language communities.

Drawing together two literatures

An ‘ethnographic perspective’ on literacy has not sat comfortably with the largely economics-centred discipline of development studies because linguists document literacies rather than evaluating or participating in social change (Basu et al 2008:770,772). From a development modelling perspective, however, the social practices of literacy are externalities and the full value of these externalities is not often tapped.

To illustrate, consider this typical example: a scholar called Minglang Zhou (2000) notes adults’ formal illiteracy has had a negative impact on formal literacy across the whole Lahu minority-language community in South China. It’s this kind of scenario economists describe as a vicious cycle:

“Illiteracy in one generation means poverty for that generation, which in turn means an inability to educate the children, thereby giving rise to another generation of illiterate adults and the cycle is ready to be repeated, trapping a whole dynasty in low human capital” (Basu et al 2008:773).

Linguists, in contrast, are likely to document the scenario and comment that the Lahu have social practices which do not involve many literacy events.

Zhou contrasts the Lahu to the neighbouring Naxi, who have above-average formal literacy. He suggests this is due to successful adult literacy campaigns in the 1950s, but his doesn’t analyse how adult literacy differently affected younger generations in these two communities. That is exactly the insight an ethnographic account could give. That insight could be key to working out how to improve literacy campaigns or analysing what is stopping development policy achieving its goals in Lahu communities.

Naxi written script

Despite the tension over what literacy means, in recent years Robinson-Pant and others have laid good ground work to integrate literacy studies into the development studies discipline: she, Bryan Maddox and Kaushik Basu edited a special issue of the prominent Journal of Development Studies in 2008 (vol.44 no.6). Maddox’s earlier work is an engaging read about his involvement with literacy and development projects in Bangladeshi villages.

The LETTER Project (Learning for Empowerment Through Training in Ethnographic Research), which began in India, is a good example of this cross-over scholarship being put into practice. It’s

“a training programme that brings together ethnographic approaches to researching local literacies and educational approaches to learning and curriculum development…such an approach is more effective, for the gap between what is learned in the classroom and what is practised at home is now being used as a tool of learning, not an obstacle to learning.”  (Rogers and Street, 2011).

What is important is that development work supports people who are formally illiterate to increase their capability to live more fulfilling and self-directed lives. This involves not only improving literacy, but just as importantly, breaking down the perceptions amongst both the ‘illiterate’ and ‘literate’ that illiteracy is a sign of stupidity, that illiteracy in a national language is a sign of the innate backwardness of a minority group, or that the lack of a script in a minority language is a sign of a minority group’s inherent inability to become literate. These perceptions often pervade minority group members’ self-image as strongly as they pervade the views of the dominant culture. Revealing and affirming existing micro-literacies beyond the classroom is a great place to start changing opinions. But even if the goal of development is not as broad as cultural affirmation, reading and writing classes should take into account the students’ various cultural purposes for literacy, simply in order that teaching be more relevant, and therefore more successful.


References and Suggestions (+links to author bios)

This list of publications of the University of East Anglia’s Literacy and Development Group

Barton, David and Hamilton, Mary (1998). ‘Understanding literacy as social practice’ in Local literacies: Reading and writing in one community. London: Routledge.

Barton, David (2007). Literacy. An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language (2nd edition), Malden, MA: Blackwell

Basu, KaushikMaddox, Bryan & Robinson-Pant, Anna (2008). ‘Literacies, Identities and Social Change: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Literacy and Development’, Journal of Development Studies, 44:6, 769-778.

Freire, Paulo & Macedo, Donaldo (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World, London GB: Routlege and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Grant, Rachel A & Wong, Shelley D (2003). ‘Barriers to literacy for language-minority learners: An argument for change in the literacy education profession’ Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46:5 pp386–394.

Gray, W.S. (1956). The Teaching of Reading and Writing: an International Survey. Paris: UNESCO.

Iversen, Vegard & Palmer-Jones, Richard (2008). ‘Literacy Sharing, Assortative Mating, or What? Labour Market Advantages and Proximate Illiteracy Revisited’ Journal of Development Studies, 44:6, pp 797–838.

Maddox, BryanEsposito, Lucio (2011). ‘Sufficiency Re-examined: A Capabilities Perspective on the Assessment of Functional Adult Literacy’, Journal of Development Studies, 47:9, pp1315-1331.

Maddox, Bryan (2001). ‘Literacy and the market: The economic uses of literacy among the peasantry in north-west Bangladesh’. In Brian Street (ed.) Literacy and development: Ethnographic perspectives. London: Routledge, pp137-51.

Robinson-Pant, Anna (2008). ‘ “Why Literacy Matters”: Exploring A Policy Perspective on Literacies, Identities and Social Change’, Journal of Development Studies, 44:6, pp779-796.

Rogers, Alan & Street, Brian (2011). ‘Using Ethnographic Approaches to Understanding and Teaching Literacy: Perspectives from both Developing and Western Contexts’, Viden om Læsning (Knowledge About Reading) special issue ,World Literacy Day 8 Sept 2011: ‘Jorden læser (Literacy Around the World)’.

Sen, Amartya K (1985). Commodities and Capabilities, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Street, Brian (1999). ‘The meanings of literacy’ in D Wagner, R Venezky and B Street (eds.) Literacy: An International Handbook, Colorado: Westview Press, pp34–42.

Tong, Ho Kin & Cheung, Lin Hong (2011). ‘Cultural identity and language: a proposed framework for cultural globalisation and glocalisation’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 32:1, pp55-69.

Wang, Yuxiang & Phillion, JoAnn (2009). ‘Minority Language Policy and Practice in China: The Need for Multicultural Education’ International Journal of Multicultural Education, 11:1, pp1-14.

Zhou, Minglang (2000). ‘Language Policy and Illiteracy in Ethnic Minority Communities in China’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 21:2, 129-148.

Zhou, Minglang (2001). ‘The Politics of Bilingual Education and Educational Levels in Ethnic Minority Communities in China’, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 4:2, 125-149

Banking on the poor in China

Earlier last week, it was announced by the central bank of Bangladesh that the Banker to the Poor, the Father of Microfinance, Professor Muhammad Yunus was being sacked. The details, motivations, and ramifications are unclear and it remains to be seen whether he will step down. It appears to be politically motivated and based on the legal technicality of retirement. It is the latest in a string of events that are shaking the very foundations of microfinance. If you want to catch up, I highly recommend following the Center for Global Development’s David Roodman.

Professor Muhammad Yunus, Bangladesh and India are synonymous with microfinance. The Microcredit Summit Campaign estimated as of 2006, over 3,100 microfinance institutions (MFIs) were providing financial services to more than 113 million poor people worldwide. Indeed, the Indian subcontinent accounts for the majority of the world’s MFIs and borrowers. However, where is the world’s largest microfinance market? Bangladesh? India?

It is well-known that the majority of the world’s poor now live in Middle Income Countries (MICs), most notably China and India. In 1990, about 93% of the world’s poor people lived in Low-Income Countries (LIC). However, recent research suggests that three-quarters of the world’s approximately 1.3 billion poor live in MICs and the remaining quarter, about 370 million people, live in the 39 LICs, which are largely in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not that they have moved, but that consistent and stellar economic growth rates have pulled countries such as China up the World Bank’s classification system.

Poverty in China is often overshadowed by average annual GDP growth rates of 9%. According to World Bank and UN statistics, around 200 million Chinese live on less than US$1.25/day; Bangladesh has a total population of 162 million. Furthermore, 482 million people live on less than US$2/day; greater than the populations of the US, Germany and UK put together. Although many are quick to point to the number of people lifted from poverty in China over the past few decades, poverty reduction is slowing down and a gap is opening up.The rural-urban divide is the new Great Wall and can certainly be seen from space. The average income of one of the 750 million who lives in rural China is less than 1/3 of that of a person living in an urban area. Then there is the 35 million, who have an average annual income of US$176. That is equivalent to the population of Canada living on about $0.48 a day. 66% of these extremely poor live in the Western Region and only %5 in the Eastern Region. This rural-urban divide can be found not only in wealth distribution and income, but also across human development indicators in education, health, and gender.


‘Microfinance must be an enormous sector in China’, I hear you saying. Think again.

Microfinance in China is an extremely underdeveloped and overlooked sector that deserves more attention than it is getting. Despite the numerical demand for microfinance services, China has only 22 microfinance institutions (MFIs) with approximately 1.6 million borrowers. China’s financial and banking regulation makes it difficult for entrepreneurs and small business owners to access loan credit, especially in rural China. This data would seemingly make a strong case for continued and targeted aid programs to China. However, DfiD, in light of its recent aid review, has cut aid to China, and Australia’s own aid review and program in China is relatively small.

Discussions of Australia’s aid review have been largely exclusive of China’s development challenges despite the above figures and Australia’s strong bilateral relations. Should Australia’s aid program be targeting pro-poor growth initiatives and poverty reduction strategies in China? In 2010-11, the total Official Development Assistance (ODA) to China will total about A$37 million or about 0.8% of the aid budget. The programmatic focus in China is predominately on health and environment. Not unsurprisingly, the overlooking of China’s rural poor by governments both east and west has created opportunities for social innovation from the non-government sector.

Gaps in the market, unseen opportunities and tough regulation spur innovation and entrepreneurship. Step in peer-to-peer (P2P) platforms in microfinance, which leverage online tools and global networks to connect contributors with borrowers. Some commentators on microfinance see P2P platforms on a precipice. It is predicted that by 2013, P2P lending will exceed US$5 billion. P2P microfinance was recognised in by Harvard Business Review as one of the top 20 breakthrough ideas of 2009. P2P has global demand, contributor confidence because of its transparency and accountability measures, lender interest and technological support through web architecture.

Such platforms are redefining where charity actually begins. Prior to advances in communications technology and globalisation, you could really only donate to organisations within your own community. Now, you can take matters of development assistance into your own hands and donate to organisations and projects across the world. Global communities, migration and social networks are also redefining where ‘home’ is. Wokai, a peer-to-peer microfinance platform for China, provides new architecture for mobilising people to decide how they want to address the world’s most pressing issues

Although largely benefiting from contributors outside of China, Wokai is in the process of establishing a partnership with a Chinese foundation that will enable it to scale-up, fundraise, advertise and leverage the potential of the Chinese market. More importantly, it will offer a South-to-South (or in China an east-to-west) model of development cooperation and participation, which mobilises civil society and enables Chinese to support China. Young Chinese professionals in Shanghai will be able to support low-income entrepreneurs in rural Sichuan, and watch online as businesses and well being grows. Such organisations and platforms offer a way to bypass traditional aid flows and channels, allowing everyone the opportunity to participate in development assistance and see the results.

This is a cross-post with Lowy Institute’s Interpreting the Aid Review

1,250 reasons to love the NFL

World Vision recently announced the names those communities identified as suitable and in-need recipients for its annual Superbowl t-shirt giveaway. The lucky countries are Zambia, Armenia, Nicaragua, and Romania. For insightful analysis of this practice, there are plenty of other commentators to read first. Most notably, @saundra_s of @goodintents, who explains the financial incentives for such an arrangement and also provides links to many of the other posts written in response. In turn, World Vision’s response to this criticism (and probable nomination for this year’s #SWEDOW awards) has been underwhelming. I do not wish to rehash any of the arguments for or against. There are far more well-informed writers that you should read. Instead, I want to address a glaring omission in this debate.

The NFL has been rocked in recent weeks, by what some are calling ‘Seatgate‘.  The host of Superbowl XLV, the Dallas Cowboys’ new US$1.2 billion stadium, were being fitted with temporary seating on game day. Little did 1,250 unsuspecting fans know that the music had stopped and there were no more seats left. These 1,250 Superbowl ticket-holders were told, upon arriving at Cowboys Stadium for the game, that their seats were not ready.

Each of the temporary seats was priced at $800. According to the Associated Press:

“About 1,250 seats were declared unsafe hours before the Super Bowl, and the NFL scrambled to find new seats for about 850 fans. The remaining 400 were forced to watch from standing-room areas or on television from places with no view of the field”.

One fan has described this experience as “a nightmare“.

“A couple of people stood in the center of groups of us speaking loudly about what was going on, but anyone in the back of the area couldn’t hear them,” he said. “It became almost a riot-type atmosphere. Some people were so upset they were ready to do something. . . It started getting kind of ugly.”

The NFL moved quickly and took full responsibility for the forced displacement of the Superbowl fans. The League first offered the 400 fans, who had to watch the game on television screens in standing-room areas, $2,400 (three times the face value of their tickets) and free tickets to next year’s Superbowl. The league soon added a second option of a ticket to any future Superbowl of their choice plus airfare and hotel costs. However, this compensation is unsatisfying for some, who believe that the trauma suffered during such a harrowing experience deserves more. ‘Seatgate’ has ignited at least two lawsuits against the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys. Lead Attorney for these suits, Michael Avenatti, argues that the League is not compensating for all expenses incurred by the fans or addressing those who were delayed or relocated. On Tuesday earlier this week, the League upped the ante, announcing it would offer either $5,000 or reimbursement for documented Superbowl XLV expenses, whichever figure is higher.

It is heartening to read that those fans, who suffered tremendous difficulties, are being fairly compensated and treated with respect. The NFL is doing a wonderful job promoting the well-being of those forcibly displaced by the mismanagement of time and resources. They did not take the easy way out. The NFL could have just distributed one of 100,000 misprinted t-shirts to each of the 1,250 fans as compensation. Not such a bad idea. The fact that the t-shirts have a Steelers logo would not be particularly relevant. These fans would have been only a handful of Americans to possess such authentic and valuable memorabilia. Thankfully, “I went to the Superbowl, and all I got was this crappy t-shirt” is not a slogan these fans with be chanting any time soon. The manner in which the League responded to ‘Seatgate’ gives 1,250 reasons to love the NFL.

Bricks and mortar (or why Kanye West is right)

“Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you. Imma let you finish. But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” (MTV Video Music Awards, 2009)

Well, he was right. However, this is not the topic of this article.

The Australian government has allocated some $222 million of its $500 million education aid for Indonesia for the construction of 2,000 secondary schools. This aid package of $500 million represents that largest single allocation by the Australian government to any single country. It is obvious, and I think has been for a number of years, that Australia’s aid policy is closely tied with geopolitical realities and foreign policy. However, from a development and education perspective, that is a lot of new schools and potential new students.

2,000 secondary schools = 300,000 new places, new students.

In a response to this allocation, Robert Cannon, and education and development consultant, responds with a number of critical ripostes, citing Indonesia’s lack of transparency, corruption, the relief this provides the Indonesia government in reforming its tax system and budget, and questions of long-term sustainability. “The problem is school building programs do very little for long-term, sustainable development unless there are funds for ongoing maintenance programs and the technical expertise to deliver them”.

Cannon asks a fairly simple question, which belies the complexity it implies, “Why can’t Indonesia build its own schools?”. The provision of education intersects numerous agendas, issues and contexts in the complex realms of government public services, international aid, bilateral relationships, family income et al. In other words, it is complex and the building of schools alone may be a bridge to nowhere. Indonesia’s primary enrolment rate for boys and girls is 97% & 94% respectively, with a 69% and 68% enrolment rate for secondary education . However, this does not necessarily mean that a lack of infrastructure, schools, is the cause for lower secondary enrolment rates or that more schools are needed. There are two things I would like to explore within this: the MDGs and complexity.

In the first instance, this is representative of the global focus on primary education as encouraged by the Millennium Development Goals. 57% of the government’s expenditure on education goes to primary schooling, with only 37% going to secondary. There is a problem on the horizon that I identified in an earlier post. What are countries going to do with a surplus of students completing their primary schooling and not having the means  to advance to secondary schooling? How are countries and the international community going to approach secondary education post-2015? Just build more schools? By 2015, many of the children currently enrolled and attending will be completing their primary schooling. They will not have the opportunity to complete their secondary education nor even the hope of higher education. Not only does every child have the right to access school, but they also have the right to a quality education. Schools are not inherently imbued with quality. Take the US for example. A recent report found that while funding for public education in the US has tripled over the past four decades, overall achievement has remained flat.

In the second instance, this is also representative of a misunderstanding of the complexity of development. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ben Ramalingam’s interview with Dennis Whittle. In particular, I found this section on aid and development architecture amazingly acute in its clarity and insight:

“The whole system disguises rather than navigates complexity, and it does so at various levels – in developing countries and within the aid system. This maintains a series of collective illusions and overly simplistic assumptions about the nature of systems, about the nature of change, and about the nature of human actors.

So the end result of all of this is that poverty, vulnerability, disease are all treated as if are simple puzzles. Aid, and aid agencies are then presented as the missing pieces to complete the puzzle. This not only gives aid a greater importance than perhaps it is due, but it also misrepresents the nature of the problems we face, and the also presents aid flow as very simple.

Instead of engaging with complexity, it is dismissed, or relegated to an afterthought, and the tools and techniques we employ make it easy for us to do this. We treat complex things as if they were merely complicated. A good definition of this difference was provided by the Millennium Ecosystem project, launched by Kofi Annan in 2000. It involves over 1300 experts worldwide, and it provides a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems. And it has distinguished between complicated systems, which can be modeled mathematically, and complex systems, for which there is no mathematical model which can say, if X is the situation then do Y. Sustainability, healthy communities, raising families have all been given as examples of such complex systems and processes. Peacebuilding would be another, women’s empowerment, natural resource management, capacity building initiatives, innovation systems, the list goes on and on. Complexity science pulls back the curtain on these processes and it can force you to think about the world you live in in a different way”.

Education is also a complex process, not just the provision of, but also at the level of the child, teacher, school environment, family, the list goes on. The allocation of $200 million to build 2,000 schools in Indonesia falls into this trap of seeing development issues as ‘simple puzzles’. It fits a nice, simple narrative on aid and education impacts – 2,000 schools, $222 million, 300,000 new places. Most importantly, from my point of view, is student learning that is filtered and that will take place within these new schools. Surprisingly, Kanye West eloquently identifies the challenges of student learning in his new song, Dark Fantasy (you’re welcome Mr. West):

Hey, teacher teacher tell me, how do you respond to students/
and refresh the page and restart the memory?/
respark the soul and rebuild the energy?/

 I know this is a tacit admission that I listen to Kanye, but he is right. The foundation of education rests in the answers to these questions. Even if he is not completely aware of it, and is referring to his own formal education experiences, his words encompass the sum of learning theory and pedagogy. How do you motivate and engage students, each who has her/his own learning style, needs, profile and history? How do you encourage students to work together, learn from each other and grow emotionally, intelligently? Placing a student in a school does not necessarily mean learning will occur. The 10/80/10 rule is common lore in teaching. 10% of any given class do not really need a teacher and will learn and develop quite independently; 80% are in need, generally diverse, attentive, shy, intelligent, obedient, but in need of a teacher who can facilitate and support their learning; and 10% are a lost cause, the back row. This is very cynical, but generally quite representative of many classrooms. It is this 90% of students in any given classroom that need more than a classroom. It depends on a complexity of factors: what happens inside the classroom; what happens in the family; the teacher’s salary, dedication, learning; school administration and funding; and the list goes on. These issues are then often exacerabted in development contexts and especially so in girls’ education.

This brings us to learning more about complexity and complex systems. In particular, about deterministic chaos, in which systems, like an education system, lack any sort of random element and are unpredictable. Under the circumstances of deterministic chaos there is no way that a teacher, student, administrator, politician or parents could be better informed than one another. So, education, particularly within any given classroom, will be very sensitive to small changes because they will be unpredictable: a student’s misbehaviour, the teacher’s punishment, the parents’ reaction. Put this within the a broader political, cultural, economic and social context where actions are driven by deterministic forces, not randomness, and you have chaos.

“Processes which are very sensitive to small fluctuations are called chaotic. This is because their trajectories are in general very irregular, so that they give the impression of being random, even though they are driven by deterministic forces (F. Heylighen).”

If Indonesia lacks secondary schools then should Australia necessarily provide the means to build them? I think conventional wisdom would state, and has stated, ‘yes’. But, is this what Indonesia, its eduction system, students, families and teachers need? I know this may be contributing to the development of “complexity” as a buzzword, a fear well articulated by @ShotgunShack in a recent article that is very worthwhile reading.

It takes more than bricks and mortar to build a house.


Alternative approaches to nano-innovation and global health equity

If nanotechnology  — engineering on the level of atoms and small molecules — is to play an appropriate role in addressing many of the health-related targets set by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there needs to be greater focus on some of the more equitable ways it can be developed.

The health-related benefits of nanotechnology are said to exist directly in terms of providing cleaner water, enabling more rapid and accurate disease diagnosis, and creating more efficient drug delivery systems (relating to MDGs 1: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 4: reduce child mortality;  5: improve maternal health; and 6: combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases). But nanotechnology is also envisaged as having indirect benefits, such as providing ‘cleaner’ energy, thereby reducing respiratory diseases caused by the use of less clean fuels (linked to MDG 7: ensure environmental sustainability).

It has also been suggested that health benefits will trickle down from the ability of nano-innovation to spur economic growth in the global South, through various levels of engagement with research and development (R&D). Countries as widespread as Costa Rica, Nigeria and Thailand, are already engaging in nano-innovation, with the Thai government having allocated 300 million baht (around US$10 million) to nanotechnology R&D in 2010. The country has already produced nanotechnology products for export in areas including food.

However, many of the optimistic claims accompanying the emergence of nanotechnology are eerily reminiscent of those made for biotechnology and its attempts to address global inequities. This presents considerable challenges.

First, presenting nanotechnology as offering blockbuster ‘solutions’ for the MDGs gives little consideration to the complex socio-political nature of health challenges. Such challenges demand more than technological ‘fixes’ — they also need awareness of the gender, geographic, cultural, societal, philosophical and religious biases that are built in to technologies throughout the various phases of R&D.

Second, harnessing nanotechnologies for the MDGs is largely presented as a process of transferring nanotechnologies from rich, developed settings to poor, undeveloped ones. International debates say little about the potential for local, village development of ‘appropriate’ nanotechnologies. This is despite recent acknowledgement that many traditional Chinese medicines contain metal nanoparticles, as do certain bhasmas — ayurvedic traditional medicines resulting from the combination of metals with herbal extracts, and used for millennia in India.

In this way, mainstream approaches connecting nanotechnology to the MDGs perpetuate deficit thinking within international health, technology and development policy. The immense knowledge already existing across the South is unconsciously denied, as is the ecological wisdom inherent in subsistence lifestyles.

Finally, little consideration is made for what Southern populations might lose through trade liberalisation (MDG 8A: part of developing a global partnership for development) accompanying developments in nanotechnology. If carbon nanotubes replace copper wiring, for example, what detrimental impacts might this have on the economies of Chile, Indonesia, South Africa and Zimbabwe if such countries have little recourse for protecting their important markets in such commodities?

In a similar vein, the international patent system presents immense barriers for accessing relevant nano-innovations. The world has already experienced a ‘land grab’ in nanotechnology patenting that far surpasses what was seen in the equivalent historical period for biotechnology patenting. These matters are all the more critical because the value of nano-enabled products was US$166 billion in 2008 and is anticipated to rise to US$2.6 trillion by 2014.

However, more equitable avenues for the development of nanotechnologies already exist. For example, the process of constructive technology assessment — in which technological development is simultaneously influenced by technology users, developers, investors, procurers and decision-makers — is already being used in the Netherlands for the development of nanotechnology-based treatments in oncology. Similarly, the 2006 ‘Nanodialogues’, held in Zimbabwe, sought to inspire bottom-up approaches to nano-innovation by concurrently engaging local community groups and scientists from both the South and the North to assess the appropriateness of nanotechnologies for community needs.

To bypass the inequity-creating patent system, the open source movement offers new avenues for the distributed creation of health-related nanotechnologies. The nanoHUB, for example, is an online gateway providing over 100,000 annual users from more than 150 countries with information and tools, largely free of charge, for use in nanotechnology R&D. Furthermore, sites such as Open Source Nano provide do-it-yourself instructions for creating simple nanotechnology-based devices for use in addressing challenges such as the removal of arsenic from water.

A more critical approach to nano-innovation that consciously considers the concept of in-built bias and the prospect of alternative paths towards its development could offer a beacon for new approaches to science and technology, and boost the role of innovation in achieving many of the MDGs. Ultimately, such changes could fuel broader movements for global health equity, and the possibility of innovation that is de-linked from national economic growth yet remains meaningful to people’s lives — ‘innovation without growth’. Such an approach would seem the only realistic alternative for humans living in a world with biophysical and productivity limits.

This article first appeared at SciDev.net

Sustainable development in the Australian policy context: a contest of values.

We all know that sustainable development is a contestable concept. The origins of this contest go right back to the original Brundtland Report and subsequent Rio Earth Summit, which gave the world a supposedly ‘credible’ new vision of a development ‘pathway’ that could be both socially and ecologically sustainable.[1] This vision was not concrete – instead of a “detailed blueprint”, it offered guiding principles of continued growth, reductions in international inequality, precaution when dealing with ecological systems and preservation of resources for future generations.[2]

So, the authors of the vision gave us a purposefully broad concept that is understandably open to interpretation. What we need to do as aspiring development practitioners is to look beyond these interpretations and understand the value systems that drive these differences. In a policy context, understanding these values is crucial in order to understand what truly drives policy-making processes.

At the heart of the contest lies a polarising tension between proponents of economic growth and proponents of natural conservation. Proponents of growth have interpreted the ‘managerial exercise’ of sustainable development to mean incremental changes within existing societal structures. These changes use technology as the diffusing mechanism that will allow the seemingly incompatible goals of economic growth and resource conservation to be achieved. Proponents of natural conservation argue that sustainable development is impossible without radical changes to the structures of society and a shift in priorities from economic growth to ecological sustainability. [3]

These two viewpoints are informed in turn by two core values: the place of human beings in nature and the importance of economic growth. Anthropocentric values inform expectations of resource utilisation – sustainable development in this context is about sustaining the utility value of the environment at a constant level for the next generation. Of prime importance is the ability of both current and future generations to enjoy an increasing level of material affluence, as measured by economic growth. Biocentric values place humans as a single, equal, species, within a natural environment that is “fragile, integrated and in a certain sense unknowable”[4]. Individuals and groups with biocentric values understandably place less emphasis on economic growth.

The goal of economic growth is unequivocally accepted by all major political parties and institutions in Australia.[5] As such, any mainstream interpretation of sustainable development will necessarily focus on continued growth as a major element. This interpretation then necessarily excludes those who believe that economic growth cannot continue to be our fundamental objective as a society.

When setting policy – whether within Government, multilateral institutions or NGO’s – a crucial element is what is termed as problem-framing. In its simplest form, this process involves understanding the problem that the policy is aiming to address. A key part of this problem framing exercise is attempting to gain an understanding of the underlying values and knowledge that inform public opinion. [6] Looking at sustainable development in this context, we see that the political goal of continued economic growth is underpinned by societal goals of increasing ‘quality of life’ and rising material affluence. These goals are explicitly anthropocentric – as a society, the primary value is placed on human (our own and other humans) welfare. In this context, policy that currently endorses the incrementalism of the dominant interpretation of sustainable development would be politically appropriate.

Dominant conceptualisation of sustainable development

An original feature of sustainable development from the Rio Summit was the “deliberate attempt to transcend differences, construct shared understandings, and build a winning coalition for reform”.[7] This emphasis on a united front remains an integral part of the dominant paradigm of sustainable development and has been translated in a domestic context to widespread agreement between business, government and environmentalists about the concept.[8] This coming together is framed within existing societal structures of power, influence, institutions and politics. As such, the inherent biases in these structures have helped to re-interpret the meaning of sustainable development. Beder illustrates this point in noting that business groups in Australia “endorse sustainable development as long as it does not unduly interfere with business goals and practices”.[9] This mainstream meaning of sustainable development expresses the ideas of the ‘managerial exercise’ through the language and concepts of economics – the integration of the environment into the economic system is seen as the key factor in enabling efficient resource management.[10]

The discursive power of mainstream sustainable development language has an immediate effect on the exercise of problem-framing. If sustainability issues are framed within an economic context, solutions will necessarily be economically contextualised and market-driven. Both institutions and the media play a large role in disseminating these ideas. The marginalisation of alternative environmental views by moderate civil society participation in sustainable development[11] reinforces the dominant conceptualisation. Within this paradigm, only incremental reforms are possible, as the meaning of sustainable development is taken to be change within pre-existing societal structures. The difficulty in passing even shallow sustainability measures, such as the current emissions trading scheme, are much better understood when we consider this social context.




Beder, Sharon (1993) The Nature of Sustainable Development, Scribe Publications, Newham.

Beder, Sharon (2006) Environmental Principles and Policies, UNSW Press Limited, Sydney.

Dovers, Stephen (2005) Environment and Sustainability Policy: Creation Implementation Evaluation, The Federation Press, Sydney.

Harding, Ronnie (1998) Environmental Decision-making: the roles of scientists, engineers and the public, The Federation Press, Sydney.

Harding, Ronnie, Hendriks, Carolyn M and Mehreen Faruqi (2009) Environmental Decision-making: Exploring Complexity and Context, The Federation Press, Sydney.

Meadowcroft, James (2000) ‘Sustainable Development: A New(ish) Idea for a New Century’ in J Dryzek & D Schlosberg, Debating The Earth: The Environmental Politics Reader, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p267-284

WCED (1987) ‘From One Earth to One World: An Overview by the World Commission on Environment and Development’ in J Dryzek & D Schlosberg, Debating The Earth: The Environmental Politics Reader, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p259-266

[1]Meadowcroft, 2000: 267

[2] WCED, 1987: 259-265

[3] Beder, 2006: 31

[4] Harding, 1998: 70

[5] Beder, 1993: 12

[6] Dovers, 2005: 76).

[7] Meadowcroft, 2000: 267-268

[8] Beder, 1993: 6

[9] 1993: 280

[10] Beder, 1993: 9

[11] Beder, 1993: 286