Category Archives: Development

Hans Rosling: DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population

Help us cross the river of myths

Hans Rosling is a Swedish development economist, and for very good reasons, a TED superstar. The captioned one hour documentary was on BBC November 2013. His Gapminder Foundation is a data analysis and presentation goldmine – you can get a self-directed education there.

For the cram course see 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes

Instead of studying history one year at the university, you can watch this video for less than five minutes.

Joel Cohen: Malthus Miffed: Are People the Problem, the Solution, or Both?

I highly recommend that you inspect Floating University’s Great Big Ideas: An Entire Undergraduate Education While Standing on One Foot. 

In the Fall of 2011 Big Think teamed up with the Jack Parker Corporation to launch The Floating University, an online educational initiative that debuted at Harvard University, Yale University, and Bard College. Seeking to upset the status quo, evolve the structure of higher education, and democratize access to the world’s best thinkers, FU’s inaugural course, Great Big Ideas, became the most requested class at all three schools where it was offered.(…snip…)

There are twelve lectures, each taught by a leader in the field who is also a great teacher. The first lecture of the series is the captioned Malthus Miffed by Joel Cohen, a mathematical biologist and a professor of populations. It is a suitable topic for the first lecture because an understanding of demography is one of the foundations for understanding how the world works, and especially what policies are likely to succeed (e.g., immigration, development, climate).

Prof. Cohen really is a great teacher – a skill achieved by investing a lot of energy in developing the craft, including practice. Even if you don’t think you are interested in demographics I predict you will be glued to your screen for the duration of this lecture. The course package includes Readings and Discussion Questions. 

Enjoy!

From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to pull together some recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a very current and smart view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe) .

On cities: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that have made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am convinced that the Charter Cities concept will work, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!  

2014 Gates Annual Letter: Myths About Foreign Aid

Converging on a massive breakthrough for humanity

If you are reading SeekerBlog chances are you have already read the 2014 annual letter. If not I hope you will go there now. You will learn that 2014 foreign aid is not your father’s foreign aid. Especially not the way the Gates Foundation does data-driven aid. Bill and Melinda Gates are designing and building a new road for the traditional aid agencies. More and more, those agencies are following the Foundation’s lead.

The above graphic comes from a new Lancet paper. In the chapter on the Aid Dependence myth, Bill writes:

The bottom line: Health aid is a phenomenal investment. When I look at how many fewer children are dying than 30 years ago, and how many people are living longer and healthier lives, I get quite optimistic about the future. The foundation worked with a group of eminent economists and global health experts to look at what’s possible in the years ahead. As they wrote last month in the medical journal The Lancet, with the right investments and changes in policies, by 2035, every country will have child-mortality rates that are as low as the rate in America or the U.K. in 1980.

In the chapter on the Aid Breeds Dependency myth, Bill writes (emphasis mine):

Second, the “aid breeds dependency” argument misses all the countries that have graduated from being aid recipients, and focuses only on the most difficult remaining cases. Here is a quick list of former major recipients that have grown so much that they receive hardly any aid today: Botswana, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, Mauritius, Singapore, and Malaysia. South Korea received enormous amounts of aid after the Korean War, and is now a net donor. China is also a net aid donor and funds a lot of science to help developing countries. India receives 0.09 percent of its GDP in aid, down from 1 percent in 1991

Conclusion:

If you read the news every day, it’s easy to get the impression that the world is getting worse. There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on bad news, of course—as long as you get it in context. Melinda and I are disgusted by the fact that more than six million children died last year. But we are motivated by the fact that this number is the lowest ever recorded. We want to make sure it keeps going down.

We hope you will help get the word out on all these myths. Help your friends put the bad news in context. Tell political leaders that you care about saving lives and that you support foreign aid. If you’re looking to donate a few dollars, you should know that organizations working in health and development offer a phenomenal return on your money. The next time you’re in an online forum and someone claims that saving children causes overpopulation, you can explain the facts. You can help bring about a new global belief that every life has equal value.

In the rich world it’s easy to lose perspective on how much progress is being achieved. Good news is not “news” for the media that most people consume. It’s also easy to stop learning. I’m thinking of the way aid was managed during the Cold War, where the focus was buying political concessions or alignments of nations. In many cases this kind of aid was paid to the nominal government, enabling the leaders to fund their Swiss bank accounts and to pay off their cronies. In particular, when a big proportion of the nation’s income was aid the leaders did not have to fund themselves through taxation. Hence these leaders did not need to listen to their population. I sincerely hope that epoch of foreign aid is behind us.

Summary – the three myths:

  1. Poor countries are doomed to stay poor
  2. Foreign aid is a big waste (including corruption, aid dependence)
  3. Saving lives leads to overpopulation

Tyler Cowen: Forget Europe. Worry About India.

… these economically segregated islands of higher productivity suggest that success is achieved by separating oneself from the broader Indian economy, not by integrating with it.

India continues to have very sticky institutional problems. So argues Tyler Cowen in this NYT op-ed. Standout examples:

  • the reluctance to wholeheartedly embrace advanced agriculture, including GMO opportunities
  • the “license Raj” seems to be returning to “one of the world’s most unwieldy legal systems”
  • free markets are more the exception – example Wal-Mart has been given the cold shoulder

 Imagine how Wal-Mart would stimulate logistics and retail innovation! On agriculture Tyler wrote:

Agriculture employs about half of India’s work force, for example, yet the agricultural revolution that flourished in the 1970s has slowed. Crop yields remain stubbornly low, transport and water infrastructure is poor, and the legal system is hostile to foreign investment in basic agriculture and to modern agribusiness. Note that the earlier general growth bursts of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were all preceded by significant gains in agricultural productivity.

For all of India’s economic progress, it is hard to find comparable stirrings in Indian agriculture today. It is estimated that half of all Indian children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition.

This is fundamentally the outcome of a dysfunctional political scheme. One possible way out is to launch one, hopefully several, of Paul Romer’s Charter Cities. The hungry, hard-working labor is certainly nearby and eager to migrate into such cities for better jobs. Is there suitable coastal land, appropriate for new links to global trade?

KNOWOSPHERE: can MOOCS make a difference?

I think Andy Revkin's KNOWOSPHERE is a useful framing of one of the core development challenges. 18 months ago Andy wrote about how even South African students couldn't access higher education. SA is relatively rich compared to many neighbors.

I also think Tyler Cowen's “Average is Over” is fundamentally correct. So how are the Bottom Billion going to find jobs that lead out of the bottom? The only scalable, affordable pathway I've been able to think of are MOOCS. Remember that the top 72 students in the first Stanford online AI class were NOT Stanford students!

Here's Andy from 2012: What Can U.S. Universities Do About a Student Stampede in Johannesburg?

…To me, there is nothing more tragic than seeing young people who are already eager to learn denied that chance — whether through inequity created by poverty or simply, as in this case, the lack of infrastructure. (I had that same feeling when I first saw photos of kids, lacking electricity in their slum dwellings, doing homework under the lights in an airport parking lot in Guinea.)

From South Asia through much of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, it’d be impossible to build schools or train teachers fast enough to keep up with the “youth bulge” that has given humanity more than a billion teenagers either to nurture or tame — the difference depending largely on access to education beyond elementary grades.

But in these same places, explosive expansion in mobile phone subscriptions and fast-dropping costs for smart phones provide the architecture for a partial end run around such bottlenecks. That’s why the decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to open more courses to online users is probably just a taste of what’s to come. [Stanford University has had remarkable outcomes, as well.]

What’s needed now is the educational equivalent to Paul Polak’s work fostering progress in rural agrarian communities in poor places. His mantra is “design for the other 90 percent.”

Universities in the developed world seeking a place (and a business model) in a century in which knowledge is no longer cached in ivory towers would do well to find ways to “educate for the other 90 percent.”

So here's the question: what do we have to do to enable Nigeria to Somalia to leverage all those free MOOCS into useful education and brainwork jobs? Just a smartphone is not sufficient. We are starting to see some enabling models in the rich world — WGU Western Governors University is great example. Check it out, how could it be adapted to South Africa?

 

The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves

beautifultree_paperback.jpg

In October James Tooley was interviewed by Neal McCluskey at the Cato Institute. I have listed to the 85 minute audio podcast of the interview twice (yes, it's that good). The Cato event was organized to celebrate the paperback release of Tooleys famous 2009 book The Beautiful Tree.

Tooley recounts his personal journey – beginning with his role as a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle. Back then Tooley was a consultant to the traditional education establishment. On one such assignment for the World Bank he was in Hyderabad India doing due diligence for the Indian School of Business. Dissatisfied with working on upper middle class education, on a day off he went exploring into the slums. There he encountered one of the thousands of low cost private schools – that charged about US $1/month. He soon connected to some 500 schools that belonged to a federation of such schools.

He asked parents “Why do you send your children to this private school – when the public schools are free?” They answered “Because in the public schools the children are abandoned”.

Photo! Bharath Sai : Mint.jpg

Tooley was really excited by what he had found. When he returned to the World Bank in D.C. he started promoting research into this alternative approach to education for the poor. Like the other traditional aid agencies, the Bank was not at all interested. Tooley was told “You have just stumbled upon some businessmen ripping off the poor.” That is still the response you will hear from many of the old agencies.

But Tooley's research is starting to make a difference. Unable to get World Bank funding, he found research funding support at the John Templeton Foundation. That research beginning 2006 led to the book in 2009. In addition to his ongoing research, Tooley is cofounder of Omega Schools, a chain of low-cost private schools in Ghana, and Empathy Learning Systems, an educational service company that runs a chain of inexpensive private schools in India.

This is a fascinating story – enjoy the podcast and read the book. And don't jump to conclusions about what would work. E.g., I was thinking “what about government voucher funding via Milton Friedman's favorite vehicle, vouchers?” Some variation of the voucher idea might work, but Tooley is cautious – given his experience of how these developing country politicians and bureaucracies work.

From the Cato event:

The book tells the remarkable story of author James Tooley’s travels from Africa to China, and of the children, parents, teachers, and others who showed him how the poor are building their own schools and learning to save themselves. Publishers Weekly declared it “a moving account of how poor parents struggle against great odds to provide a rich educational experience to their children.” Writing in The Claremont Review of Books, John Blundell called it “a masterpiece.”

In conjunction with the release of the book’s paperback edition, James Tooley will discuss the extraordinary changes in educating the poor that have occurred since The Beautiful Tree was published, as well as his experiences as a cofounder of both Omega Schools, a chain of low-cost private schools in Ghana, and Empathy Learning Systems, an educational service company that runs a chain of inexpensive private schools in Hyderabad, India.

We hope that you will join us to hear James Tooley discuss what’s going right in some of the world’s poorest nations and communities. The entrepreneurial spirit, Tooley makes clear, and the love of parents for their children, can be found in every corner of the globe.

More on Empathy Learning Systems here.

Photo credit: Bharath Sai / Mint

Mark Lynas: Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy

Don’t miss the recent keynote speech by Mark Lynas to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative 2013 Technical Workshop, New Delhi. Norman Borlaug would be proud. Excerpts:

We are gathered here today, under the aegis of an international collaboration that bears his name, to continue Borlaug’s lifelong battle with wheat rust. Rust wiped out his family farm’s wheat when he was a boy, and rust was the reason Borlaug initially established the research station in Sonora.

As we all know, he and his colleagues succeeded eventually in defeating wheat stem rust for many decades, until the emergence of the resistant race Ug99 at the very end of the last century.

Although the progress of Ug99 has not been as dramatic as initially feared, susceptible wheat is still being grown all over the world, and forms a mainstay of humanity’s food supply today. A fifth of all our calories come from wheat, and the global harvest is nearly 700 million tonnes per year.

While European wheat growers keep stem rust at bay with liberal applications of fungicide, this is neither ecologically sustainable nor financially desirable over the longer term.

In south and east Asia, meanwhile, both of which produce more wheat than the whole of North America, most growers cannot afford or do not have access to fungicides.

Billions of people therefore depend on susceptible wheat varieties that are sitting ducks, waiting for an epidemic of Ug99 to be blown over on the winds from the Middle East and Africa.

I was given the mandate to talk today about ‘Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy’, and I cannot imagine a more appropriate area where this applies than the question of tackling wheat stem rust.

Borlaug was an unusual revolutionary in that he didn’t want his revolution to stop with him. He was a lifelong advocate of innovation – and a staunch supporter of biotechnology as the promising new frontier for plant breeding.

You can see why. By today’s standards, Borlaug had to work blind, using guesswork, chance and a lengthy process of elimination with thousands upon thousands of wheat crosses to try to get just the right genetic combination.

I cannot imagine a better embodiment of Norman Borlaug’s philosophy than this successful joint effort.

**************

But unfortunately the progress of good science runs up against the hard rock of bad politics. As perhaps the world’s most political food crop, by virtue of its very nature in supplying our daily bread, wheat has so far been locked out of the biotechnology revolution.

Although many new wheats have been developed using recombinant DNA and even tested in field trials, not a single one has ever been made available to farmers – not because there was anything wrong with the new varieties, but solely because of the worldwide cloud of fear and superstition that surrounds the use of genetic engineering.

Thus, the most powerful tools offered by modern molecular biotechnology must seemingly be permanently discarded – not because of any rational assessment of risks and benefits – but because a tide of anti-science activism has drowned scientists and governments around the whole world in a tsunami of lies.

An explosion of mobiles in the developing world

According to a recent study, adding an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points

The Economist on the explosion of mobiles in the developing world.

The reason why mobile phones are so valuable to people in the poor world is that they are providing access to telecommunications for the very first time, rather than just being portable adjuncts to existing fixed-line phones, as in the rich world. “For you it was incremental—here it’s revolutionary,” says Isaac Nsereko of MTN, Africa’s biggest operator. According to a recent study, adding an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points.

In 2000 the developing countries accounted for around one-quarter of the world’s 700m or so mobile phones. By the beginning of 2009 their share had grown to three-quarters of a total which by then had risen to over 4 billion (see chart 1). That does not mean that 4 billion people now have mobile phones, because many in both rich and poor countries own several handsets or subscriber-identity module (SIM) cards, the tiny chips that identify a subscriber to a mobile network. Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chief executive of Ericsson, the world’s largest maker of telecoms-network gear, reckons that the actual number of people with mobile phones is closer to 3.6 billion.

(…) And Africa is the region with the fastest rate of subscriber growth. With developed markets now saturated, the developing world’s rural poor will account for most of the growth in the coming years. The total will reach 6 billion by 2013, according to the GSMA, an industry group, with half of these new users in China and India alone.

All this is transforming the telecoms industry. Within just a few years its centre of gravity has shifted from the developed to the developing countries. The biggest changes are taking place in the poorest parts of the world, such as rural Uganda.

Much more in this Economist special report: Telecoms in developing markets.

Autocracy and Technology

Alex Tabarrock

(…)

And don’t think that the data being collected by autocracies is limited to Facebook posts or Twitter comments. The most important data they will collect in the future is biometric information, which can be used to identify individuals through their unique physical and biological attributes. Fingerprints, photographs and DNA testing are all familiar biometric data types today. Indeed, future visitors to repressive countries might be surprised to find that airport security requires not just a customs form and passport check, but also a voice scan. In the future, software for voice and facial recognition will surpass all the current biometric tests in terms of accuracy and ease of use.