The Great Manhattan Africa Luxury Coffee Tour

Welcome to Manhattan, tourists! Today's tour will accomplish three things: (1) you will find great coffee places, (2) you will find great coffees from Africa, and (3) you will end poverty in Africa. OK, both coffee people and aid people tend to exaggerate, so don't take (3) literally, unless you are from the Earth Institute.

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What better place to begin Manhattan coffee mania than at Stumptown Coffee Shop? This place takes African coffee so seriously, there are two varieties from Burundi and two from Rwanda, and if you give up your first born child,  you can take back a pound of beans to Ohio.

Next is Café Grumpy, where they have a $10,000 machine to brew the clean, sweet, complex $12 cup of coffee from Nekisse, Ethiopia.

Down 7th Avenue to Irving Farm (Go Rwanda!). {Full disclosure: I have a personal connection to Irving, but they're great anyway.} On to Third Rail, rated the best coffee in Manhattan by somebody, and also selling killer Yirgacheffe from the birthplace of coffee. And no, they don't have a bathroom -- this is Manhattan, you can pee when you get back to Iowa.

Moving east we get to La Colombe, accidentally discovered by coffee-illiterate Chris Blattman next to his office. They sell coffee labelled Afrique, which I am pretty sure is in Africa. Sometimes there's a bit of a wait. What part did you not understand about "no bathroom"?

And then just a little further east is Gimmee Coffee, which turns Rwandan coffee into espresso so delicious and thick that you stir it with the hunting knife you brought from Idaho.

Even farther east is the Roasting Plant in a gentrifying former immigrant slum on the Lower East Side.  It embodies the coffee-phile obsession with fresh roasted coffee, so your $24/lb Ethiopian Harrar turned brown right before we walked in.

Now that you've drunk enough coffee, reach with your shaking hands for your Gold Card to buy yet more coffee beans. Whole Foods, Dean and Deluca, and even Murray's Cheese Shop sell Fair Trade, which is almost as good as Unfair Trade for transferring income from rich NYC to Kayanza, Burundi.

If you want to keep things simple, tourists, our last stop is Porto Rico Coffee Importers, which sells many African coffees,  but no spiel on "helping the poor Africans".

Manhattan's pampered and discriminating coffee fanatics don't buy from African producers out of pity, they buy from African producers because they supply wonderful coffee.

Thanks for coming, tourists, have a nice trip back to Indiana. Don't forget mail order.

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Happy Midwest; New York Stressed

Catharine Rampell in NYT has a great feature on variations in happiness in the US, including the great pictures below. The overall US picture on happiness shows a surprisingly happy northern Midwest/Plains; New York City area not so much

Maybe it's the stress. In Manhattan, rich downtown and mid-town are stressed out, Harlem is more relaxed (see legend below).

Your present author originated in that happy slice of northwest Ohio and is now in unhappy, stressed out Manhattan -- but please don't send me back!

P.S. Economists have done a lot of great research on income and happiness, but I will save that for a subsequent blog post.

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Third World America

UPDATE 11:20AM: accused of Detroit "poverty porn", see response below. As you may have noticed, this blog sees America itself as an interesting development laboratory. Others seem to agree, as a new report applies the Human Development Index to the US.

The site has a cool mapping function. Here is a map of health that locates Third World America in the Deep South and its borderlands.

The South as Third World holds up controlling for race and gender, as the same area shows the highest concentration of white females with less than high school education.

Of course, in metro areas we have an inner city Third World hiding in plain sight.  Here is Detroit for example, right next to "First World" Pontiac:

Commenters accuse Aid Watch of some kind of "poverty porn" on Detroit.

OK, I already apologized for my catastrophic bonehead mistake of carelessly applying the label "downtown" to the negative picture (now removed).

As further recompense, here is a nice happy positive picture of the real "downtown Detroit." Unfortunately, I have to stick by the original characterization of much of Detroit as belonging to the "Third World" part of America, based on all the evidence on unemployment, poverty, etc. that I have examined in detail. It's going to take more than a few happy pictures to fix that.

Have fun on your own exploring Third World America on this great site.

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Cool maps: Measuring growth from outer space

For many of the world's poorest countries, figures measuring economic growth are unreliable, and in some cases they don't exist at all.  In an NBER working paper, Brown University professors J. Vernon Henderson, Adam Storeygard, and David N. Weil came up with an interesting proxy for GDP growth: the amount of light that can be seen from outer space.

Of course, the light intensities pictured in this world map reflect both income and population density. The authors explain:

In the United States, where living standards are fairly uniform nationally, the higher concentration of lights in coastal areas and around the Great Lakes reflects the higher population densities there. The comparison of lights in Western Europe and India reflects huge differences in per capita income, as does the comparison between Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While GDP figures are almost always reported at the national level, the night lights allow us to see the growth of cities and regions too. The lights may be better able to show activity in the informal economy, and can be captured far more frequently, and with less of a time lag, than GDP figures.

Growth in light intensity not only "gives a very useful proxy for GDP growth over the long term;" the authors also found that it "tracks short term fluctuations in growth." One example shows the dramatic contrast in long term growth between North and South Korea, and gives a picture of how quickly South Korea has developed over the last two decades:

Another example illustrates how genocide literally darkened Rwanda in 1994:

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Aid Watch Rerun: The lure of starting from scratch

NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: Over the holidays, we'll be publishing reruns of some of our posts from the first 2 years of Aid Watch. This post originally ran on June 17, 2010. It is an acknowledged national characteristic that Americans believe in self-reinvention. One of our founding myths—inspired by the once unexplored and sparsely populated expanse of the North American continent—is the idea that you can head out of town, leave the encumbrances of the past behind, and start over in a new, unspoiled place.

What would happen if we brought this sensibility to development plans for poorer, more crowded nations? What if we already do?

The ingredients for Paul Romer’s solution to global poverty include an unoccupied tract of land, a charter to lay out a new set of just and commerce-promoting rules, and two or more sovereign governments. Just as Hong Kong was created as an island of prosperity by the British in China (only voluntarily this time), poor countries would lease a piece of their land to a richer, benevolent government or group of governments that would agree to administer the new city according to the rules of the agreed-upon charter.

From a new article in Atlantic Monthly by Sebastian Mallaby, we learn that Madagascar might have become the first testing ground for Romer’s charter cities idea—if not for a coup that ousted the Malagasy President in March 2009.

Madagascar’s government was anxious to attract foreign investment, and it understood that a credibility deficit held it back…Faced with this obstacle, the Malagasy authorities were open to unconventional arrangements. To boost investment in agriculture, they were ready to lease a Connecticut-size tract of land to Daewoo, a South Korean corporation, for 99 years…Romer’s proposal fit in with these adventurous ideas.…

Romer made his pitch for a charter city, and Ravalomanana responded that he wasn’t sure one was enough; if Romer could identify two rich countries willing to play the role of government trustee, it might be better to launch two parallel experiments. The president and the professor agreed that the new hubs should be open to migrants from nearby countries as well as to locals. They rose to examine a map of Madagascar on the study wall. Ravalomanana suggested building the first city on the island’s southwestern coast, which was largely uninhabited because of its dry heat. To Romer, the site sounded very much like the coastal locations that appeal most to the world’s affluent as vacation spots.

Ravalomanana’s government was toppled before any of these plans could go forward, in part as a result of violent protests over the perceived threat to national sovereignty represented by the Daewoo deal. As Mallaby points out, this failures suggests at least one flaw of the charter cities idea—that land ownership and sovereignty are explosive issues that may not be easily or peacefully negotiated away by leaders on behalf of their people. But Romer remains optimistic, and is talking to other African leaders, possibly ones with more staying power.

The charter cities idea appeals because it is bold. It promises a fresh start for people mired in the muck of old conflicts, inequality, and bad government. When Mallaby concludes “When African teenagers do their homework under streetlights, isn’t Romer right to think the unthinkable?,”  he is arguing that while there may be legitimate concerns about the ethics or feasibility of the charter cities, those concerns are made irrelevant by the overwhelming gravity and scale of global poverty and inequality.

In other words, big, desperate problems call out for big, radical solutions. Solutions that sweep away the detritus of past failure, promise to replace it wholesale with something new and better, and perhaps even alter the boundaries of the world as we know it.

The discussion about rebuilding Haiti has been full of ideas about the earthquake as an opportunity to ”start over,” “reboot,” “wipe the slate clean” and finally “get things right” (some stellar examples here). Two recent proposals brought the call for slate-cleaning back to Africa: We already blogged Professor Pierre Englebert’s suggestion in the NYT for the international community to “move swiftly to derecognize the worst-performing African states” like Chad, the DRC, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan, and in Foreign Policy, G. Pascal Zachary submitted that “no initiative would do more for happiness, stability, and economic growth in Africa today than an energetic and enlightened redrawing” of Africa’s colonial borders.

Call it the “let’s just scrap this mess and start over” approach to development.

Unfortunately, in earthquake-devastated Haiti as in troubled central Africa, the promise of starting from scratch is an illusion. It has always been true that no matter where you go, you take yourself with you—culture, history, habits, attachments and animosities come along like a skin you can’t shed. But these days there are fewer and fewer territories on our taxed and shrinking planet beyond the reach of someone’s determined claim.

These ideas share an overly-optimistic belief in a neutral, benevolent international community and its power to peacefully oversee imposed changes. All are tone-deaf to the very real degree of nationalism that does exist in basically all countries by now, regardless of whether they were misbegotten colonial creations or not. They also violate sovereignty as conventionally defined, which may be good or bad but is sure to provoke a nationalist reaction.

Early development economists working at the hopeful dawn of colonial independence believed that they really were starting from scratch. The last fifty years have shown us that they weren’t, and this has been—and remains—one of development’s biggest blind spots.

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Census 2010: Voters more Republican, more Texan, Fatter

The exciting Census headlines:  Texas is the big winner in gaining Congressional seats, Texans vote Republican, Republicans win! Except -- the additional Texans are Hispanics, Hispanics vote Democratic, Democrats win! What a nice illustration of a serious problem in development empirics, known by the lusty, sensuous name of "heterogeneous effects."  If  you find handing out free bed nets lowers malaria, that still only applies ON AVERAGE to the group covered by the study. Within this group, the effects are likely heterogeneous behind the average positive effect, and there could be some sub-group for which the effect is zero.  This is analogous to the Texas effect on voting-- on average, being Texan makes you vote Republican, but this is an average of heterogeneous groups, some of whom -- like the burgeoning Hispanics -- vote Democratic.

You could solve this problem by analyzing all the possible sub-groups. Unfortunately, both in politics and in development, this is unlimited, while research budgets and data are limited.

To illustrate imaginative sub-group possibles, my own pathbreaking insight is that one reliable group of Republican voters  is, well, how to be polite about this(!?), are persons with somewhat larger belt sizes. Notice how many of the most brownest, reddest states are Red States, while the Blue State strongholds are in the relatively thinner Northeast.  

Also some sub-group effects could be spurious correlations. During my own struggles against middle-aged spread, I have not noticed any more inclination to vote Republican when my jeans size increases.

If this is all too methodological and obscure for you, then, congratualtions, you are normal.   On the off chance that you are willing to work hard on this stuff, you can get many unexpected lessons. For example, if you want a roly-poly Santa for the office party, ask a Republican.

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Instead of the Iron Curtain, the Facebook Curtain

This map shows the pattern of Facebook friendship links across places around the world, with lots of white where there are very dense links across nearby places. The map was created by a Facebook intern, and I learned about it (where else?) on Facebook (HT Mari Kuraishi).

One interesting pattern is a kind of Facebook Curtain somewhat related to the old Iron Curtain. The whole area including the former Soviet Union and China, along with other adjacent autocracies like Burma and North Korea, is pretty much a Facebook void (see zoomed map below). This reflects some combination of language barriers, preference for other social networks in Russia and China, and some (rather unclear) role for Internet censorship by the authorities, which either prevents or lowers the payoff to participating in Facebook.

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The US Map of Prices of Pot

UPDATE: just got the question on Twitter: "what does this have to do with development?" Answer: nothing, except that you will never understand development if you are so quick to ask that question. When I first saw this map, I immediately thought legalize pot! what a great teaching tool for my Intro students! So students, please explain using the concepts of supply, demand, and transport costs (including in this case smuggling costs) the pattern of prices you see here.

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QDDR: we can hardly contain our excitement

Aid Watch is as excited as everyone else to get a leaked, advance summary of the Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review, (HT Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy) which is a critical part of the US government process to set its priorities  on Development.

We love to seize occasions where we can be more positive to reward positive things happening, and not be our usual snarky selves.

Today is not one of those occasions.

Some highlights of the QDDR:

It would concern us that the QDDR is as aggressive as previous efforts we have complained about that want to merge Defense, Diplomacy, and Development. Fortunately this alarming militarization of development only covers actual or potential Failed States which according to the above Map in the QDDR is the entire developing world.

The review recognizes that US suffers from “insufficient internal coordination”of existing officials, offices and bureaus and so proposes to…create new officials, offices, and bureaus: Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights; a new Office of the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environmental Affairs; a Special Coordinator for Sanctions and Illicit Finance; a Bureau of International Energy Affairs.

The QDDR is very persuasive that the US government needs to set priorities, that it should focus on development issues where the US government has a comparative advantage, which turn out to be…all development issues: sustainable economic growth, democracy and governance, food security, global health, climate change, and humanitarian assistance.

We could go on, but let's mercifully draw this discussion to a close, and move on to something more useful, like trying to think of an iPod playlist of songs most relevant to development.

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OK let's get really rigorous about using local knowledge on US regions

One great response to Friday's post on David Brooks' less-than-perfect-knowledge about the Midwest was a Discover Magazine blog post by Razib Khan that provided the following evidence-based map:

and for those who missed it in the comments section, here's a story from my favorite news source:

'Midwest' Discovered Between East And West Coasts

"I long suspected something was there," said Franklin Eldred, a Manhattan native and leader of the 200-man exploratory force. "I'd flown between New York and L.A. on business many times, and the unusually long duration of my flights seemed to indicate that some sort of large area was being traversed, an area of unknown composition."

Though the Midwest territory is still largely unexplored, early reports describe a region as backwards as it is vast. "Many of the basic aspects of a civilized culture appear to be entirely absent," said Gina Strauch, a Los Angeles-based anthropologist. "There is no theater to speak of, and their knowledge of posh restaurants is sketchy at best. Further, their agricentric lives seem to prevent them from pursuing high fashion to any degree, and, as a result, their mode of dress is largely restricted to sweatpants and sweatshirts

"We must remember that these people are not at all like us," Conde Nast publisher and Manhattan socialite Lucille Randolph Snowdon said. "They are crude and provincial, bewildered by our tall buildings and our art galleries, our books and our coffee shops."

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Red states & Blue cities: Divided we'll endure anyway

Happy election day! Aid Watch is unable to maintain any pretense of doing its normal business in the midst of all the excitement. Please vote early and often for the candidate of your choice, as long as they passed 8th grade science.

This cool 3-D map shows the Red - Blue split in a way that captures the large Democratic vote in large urban areas. Thanks a lot, cool mapmaker, now we seem even more divided.

We now see that there are really no Blue States, there are only Blue Cities. The rural blue areas are mostly reflecting concentrations of blacks (South), Hispanics (Southwest), or native Americans (West), along with the remaining 11 rural white people voting Democratic somewhere in West Virginia. Otherwise, if you see a patch of blue, it's probably a lake.

Yet after all that, thanks to a certain Seattle-based franchise, supporters of The Coffee Party from either red or blue areas can find drinkable French Roast in just about every last rural or urban square inch of the US. Some will win and some will lose today, but both winners and losers will still enjoy the same cheap caffeine and the same Bill of Rights.


Photocredit: Alexander O'Neill via Climatico

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World according to Blattman

Honoring Stealing from Chris Blattman's great blog, I am reproducing some of his recent posts because they have been unusually fun & good and because I'm just too lazy to write my own blog today. Favorite distorted maps of Africa:

Favorite wordle on which countries are mentioned in Journal of Development Economics shown below.

I'm fascinated by this. One idea that I am investigating in my own research is that success stories are over-sampled, a brilliant thesis for which there is a spectacular lack of confirmation in this wordle (3 out of the Gang of 4 are MIA, what's going on?) One paper already written shows a very strong association between per capita income and being studied by economists, which confirms another favorite personal hypothesis -- the poor get the worst of everything, including the worst economics.

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The plight of the African intellectual – a moral fable

Once upon a time, there were two great lands: Donorlandia and Africa. Donorlandia had many intellectuals who opined about the solutions for Africa, who received much attention in the media of Donorlandia. Few African intellectuals received as much, or even any, such attention when they discussed their own land. Donorlandia’s intellectuals could work for great universities, or for think tanks, or for aid agencies. What’s more the aid agencies and charitable foundations often gave no-strings-attached funding to the independent intellectuals at think tanks or universities who worked on Africa, or created new Research Centers on Africa. Independent African intellectuals had small cash-starved African universities or think tanks, and they received hardly any no-strings-attached funding from Donorlandia’s aid agencies or charitable foundations.

The main option for African intellectuals was to work for aid agencies, where they would no longer be independent, be reporting to non-African bosses, and where their insider perspectives on Africa were seldom appreciated. Independent African intellectuals who criticized aid agencies were vilified and marginalized.

Intellectuals from Donorlandia led individual aid projects or research studies for Africa. Intellectuals from Africa could work for these projects or studies or research centers, but they had little hope that their insights about local culture or conditions would be respected or reflected in the projects and studies. Projects or studies or research centers led by independent African intellectuals did not receive funding from aid agencies or charitable foundations.

Some of the very best African intellectuals left Africa and became independent in the great universities or think tanks or research centers of Donorlandia. But the aid agencies and charitable foundations disqualified these African intellectuals from leading projects or research centers, due to Fear of the evil spirit called Brain Drain.

Donorlandia had once given international scholarships to encourage even more intellectuals in other lands like America-Latina -- so much so that by later times, such intellectuals were now making policy and dealing as equals with aid agencies in America-Latina. But Fear of Brain Drain had paralyzed aid agencies and charitable foundations in Africa in later times, and there were few or no international scholarships to encourage African intellectuals.

African intellectuals bravely persisted under such adverse conditions, believing that one day many more of them also could be independent, that one day they could lead their own projects, think tanks, and research centers, that one day they could be the ones to comment on their own continent and receive the attention they deserved.

Editorial note: This fable is based on many informal discussions I have had over many years with African intellectuals, who for obvious reasons do not want their names used (with the occasional rare exception). I use the literary form of a fable precisely because of this restriction, which means none of the statements can be verified. If it resonates with you the reader, then maybe it’s of some use. If not, then feel free to dismiss it for lack of verifiable proof.

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Lant Pritchett on what Obama got right about development

by Lant Pritchett, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University Obama's speech at the MDG conference and the announced US Global Development Policy are the result of long preparation and internal discussions within the administration as part of the Presidential Study Directive, lead out of the NSC, announced a year ago, and the QDDR, prepared by State, both processes having been watched over by the Washington think tanks and advocacy groups.

While one could immediately focus on the "architecture" part of the speech and read the Beltway tea leaves of who is up, who is down, and what that means for this organization or that, it is worth at least first stepping back and asking where this first official US development policy came down on the big debates on development, where, I think it comes out a big winner on four big ideas.

First, the speech and policy put economic growth front and center as objectives of development and development policy.  It might seem obvious that economic growth that increases people's command over resources is the single most powerful force to improve nearly any indicator of well-being -- from poverty to food security to health to education -- but, surprisingly, that point can get lost.  The "development is about more than growth" backlash, which had important elements of truth, easily got carried away into "development isn't at all about growth" and it is good to see economic growth back front and center of development objectives.

Of course growth these day must carry some adjectives as baggage -- "sustainable" and "broad based" can never be too far away -- but both of those are perfectly legitimate qualifiers and a small price to pay for the primacy of growth.

Second, the speech came down hard, and right, on the debate between improving systemic capability and programmatic action.  This was of course not easy to do in the context of a speech on the MDGs, which lend themselves to a programmatic vision of development.  Functioning systems of education have multiple and complex objectives -- spreading a common socialization, improving learning of the basics, identifying and promoting excellence.  The goal of development is that a country can have an education system that, as a natural part of its operation as a system composed of many actors and pressures, sets and achieves goals, some of which are then mapped into particular programs.  The same is true of all other spheres of social and governmental action -- infrastructure, law and order, health, economic policy.  The speech clearly identified building this capability as a central (and difficult) part of development.

This resists a very powerful tendency to reduce development to a series of specific targets, each of which can be addressed by the implementation of sufficiently resourced programs (programs which can be cocooned or stove piped around systemic dysfunction), which can be crudely caricatured as the "show me the money" approach.

The MDGs are correctly interpreted as what will be accomplished when there has been development -- not vice versa.

Third, the speech gets right the need for innovation, with rigorous evaluation as an important component of an environment for innovation.  The endeavor of "development" as a conscious acceleration of the progress of nation-states is now at least 50 years old.  If it were easy and obvious then as a social movement it would have disappeared under the weight of its own success and be a historical curiosity, like abolitionists.

The paradox of the external organizations that attempt to support development is that people tell them "we'll give you your budget if you tell us for sure what you are doing will work."  This leads to a powerful culture of pretending that much more is known about the "theory of change" that leads to development that really is known.  The fact that the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world has just spent eight years devoting fantastically high level of resources to "develop" Afghanistan (with security as one element of that) with results that range from mixed to shambolic should make it obvious that we need much greater openness within the development community to an approach of structured experimentation -- on all fronts.

The same skepticism about "one size fits all" that made "Washington Consensus" two dirty words should be taken to the range of "expert" advice in sectors from education to health to public sector governance to "institution building." All of which is mostly just repeating the conventional wisdom and closing off, rather than opening up, space for novelty and innovation.

Fourth, one thing the speech gets right it does so by omission.  There is no dollar figure.  The message "lets do more" is always popular because it also means "business as usual" for what is already going on.  "Let's do better at what we are doing" is a tough internal sell, but one that is useful -- including, I believe, to people who are actually on the ground, doing the work.  Anyone who has actually worked inside the development industry knows how much better things, at least potentially, could be, but also how tough achieving that will be given the inertia of massive organizations.  So while tackling policy and "architecture" might seem arcane relative to the apparent obvious gain of spending more money.  More is better, but better is better too and more is even better after better is better.

As to whether the proposed changes can advance the correct development agenda of growth, expanded public capability, innovation with evaluation, and improved assistance...well, that's a topic for another day.

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Diary of a serial summit attendee

One week. Two development summits. Hundreds of heads of state, development luminaries, CEOs, and social entrepreneurs. Celebrity star power. No poor people. Aid Watch spent three days trying to make sense of the greatest show on earth to help the world’s lowest. TUESDAY

0930 hrs: I am crammed into a press box at the back of the world’s most glamorous development meeting, craning over the photographers to catch a glimpse of this year’s distinguished guests as they file into the room. At last, the charismatic master of ceremonies takes the stage, and the annual Bill Clinton Admiration Clinton Global Initiative comes to life. The meeting is to match people with big ideas with people with big money, and the pace of networking is furious.

1230 hrs: USAID administrator Raj Shah speaks at a CGI lunch on the topic of agriculture. While the Green Revolution saved hundreds of millions of lives in Asia, it never spread to Africa because aid agencies “actually just failed to try.” That doesn’t square with the World Bank’s finding that “Much energy has also been wasted in trying to replicate Asia’s Green Revolution model in Africa….”

1330 hrs: Introducing another “new” solution to world poverty, Hillary Clinton announced a $60 public-private partnership to replace dirty cooking stoves that spew toxic smoke with healthier, environmentally-responsible ones. (Read Alanna’s ideas on what this initiative will need to do differently to succeed where many previous efforts have failed, and these reflections from experience in India and rural Africa.)

1700 hrs: The best debate of the day is between Mohammed Yunus, who asks that the term microcredit not be used for firms that loan for profit, and Vikram Akula, of SKS Microfinance, who thinks only a commercial model can reach all the people who need and deserve loans, through access to capital markets. Here’s a summary from Forbes.

1830 hrs: My first “Tweetup,” at a bar in midtown, is much more fun than I anticipated. Lots of bloggers, aid workers, entrepreneurs and students whom I knew only by their Twitter handle now have faces and voices.

The best summary post of the day comes from Laura Seay, aka Texas in Africa, who articulates the uncomfortable sense that something essential is missing from these meetings:

… the presence of the poor is limited to pictures in slide shows while wealthy people hobnob over cocktails and abundant buffets. Am I the only one who would rather hear about what life as a poor woman in Ethiopia is like from an actual poor Ethiopian woman?


0900 hrs: The “UN Digital Media Lounge” is where they keep the bloggers who couldn’t get real press credentials to attend the UN summit. There’s wifi, coffee and bagels, but at 47 blocks north of the actual UN building it feels a bit removed from the MDG summit. All day, different heads of state are speaking at the UN on “integrated and coordinated implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields; and follow-up to the outcome of the Millennium Summit: draft resolution.” Some of these are broadcast on the screen at the lounge; I browse though others on the UN live feed site.

1430 hrs: The most hyped event of the day is the launch of a new global health strategy for child and maternal health, “Every Woman, Every Child.” Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon promised a “clear road map for making a fundamental difference in millions of lives.” Then he opened the floor to two-minute speeches from practically everybody in the room: poor countries, rich countries, foundations, corporations, NGOs, all making promises and pledges, which the UN announced amounted to “over $40 billion in resources for women and children’s health.”

Oxfam UK questions whether the funds pledged for women and children are actually additional funds or just “promises with a seemingly big price tag in a new shiny UN wrapper.”

1700 hrs: Meeting fatigue is setting in. Since I’m not invited to the MDG Gala, where attendees will celebrate pledges to fight poverty in New York’s swankiest Plaza Hotel, I’m grabbing a beer, going home, and watching President Obama’s speech from the comfort of my couch.

…Wait a minute, did President Obama really just admit the US approach to food aid is creating dependence, not development, and that our aid policies have focused on short term gains at the expense of sustainable development? Did he just become the world’s latest aid skeptic? Did he just pledge to be guided by evidence, “to invest in programs that work, and end those that don’t”? Judging from immediate reactions, people watching are starting to get that some of that old “Yes, we can” feeling.


1045 hrs: It’s Raj Shah again, stopping by the UN Digital Media Lounge. Wow, did you know he’s only 37 years old, a medical doctor with a degree in health economics? The guy is impressive. But he doesn’t address the most obvious follow-up question to Obama’s speech last night: What happens next so that Obama’s hopey-changey speech gets translated into actual change in our 50-year-old aid legislation and at USAID and the 25 other government agencies involved in US foreign assistance? Will development really be elevated on par with diplomacy and defense when the White House’s new policy says that Shah will report to the Secretary of State, and will have a seat on the National Security Council only “as appropriate”?

1400 hrs: And, we’re back at CGI for a special panel on Haiti’s reconstruction. Uh-oh, is Haiti’s President René Préval really inviting Wyclef Jean on stage? President Clinton talks investment climate with the CEO of Royal Caribbean, the cruise line that brought in more than half of Haiti’s tourists last year. He describes a Coca-Cola/IDB/TechnoServe project sourcing Haitian mangos for a new Odwalla mango-lime juice, and speaks movingly about the resilience of the Haitian people.

Coca-Cola is everywhere this week, in the speeches of Melinda Gates, Raj Shah, in multiple panels at CGI. The prominence of corporations in this week’s events led to at least one wry comment about “saving the world with high-fructose corn syrup” and an observation that we’re hearing “more and more about mutual benefit and less about the moral requirement to help those in need.”

Given the overlap in timing, topics and headline speakers (Hillary Clinton, Mohammed Yunus, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Melinda Gates and Pres Obama all spoke at both events), comparisons between the two events are inevitable, with one journalist suggesting the CGI could be “the new UN.” It does have far better production values, better food, and better (though still spotty) press access. Come to think of it, Bill Clinton would make a bit more inspirational SecGen than the mild-mannered one we have now. But let’s not forget that CGI members fork out $20,000 per year for the privilege to attend what is still, despite the roster of impressive accomplishments, a club for very privileged people.

1730 hrs: The leaders of the MDG summit have issued their “outcome document,” whose long stretches free of content, by custom, were agreed upon before the delegates even arrived:

We underscore the continued relevance of the outcomes of all major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields and the commitments contained therein, including the Millennium Development Goals….We strongly reiterate our determination to ensure the timely and full implementation of these outcomes and commitments.

Clinton is creating more of a pulse closing his show, which I’m watching from the press pen since they couldn’t fit half the press people into the mobbed closing session. Looking out at the audience (Oh my God that’s Mick Jagger!), Clinton quips that while “politics is show business for ugly people,” work in the non-governmental sector is “show businesses for nerds.” For this week, at least, he’s right, it’s been quite a spectacle. Thank goodness there’s 12 months until the next one.

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Beautiful fractals and ugly inequality

UPDATE 4pm: is there any point to this post? see end of text UPDATE II: 4:30pm Critic cuts me some slack. see end of text

UPDATE III 11am, 9/10/10: Paul Krugman says he had the idea first (see end of text)

In our ceaseless search for trendy themes, let's consider today the beauty of fractals. The picture below shows one fascinating kind of fractal called a "Koch snowflake." Fractals have the same amount of "jaggedness" or "unevenness" at every scale. Income inequality behaves like a fractal: income is very uneven at large scales and at small scales. Here's a mapping exercise that illustrates this, with a tastefully chosen color scheme that is consistent across all maps (rich is red or brown-red, poor is pale yellow, in between is orange). We are going to go from global to the US to the New York City metro area to the neighborhood of NYU in Manhattan. At each scale, there is a remarkably high level of inequality across space. The rich coastal cities in the US and the poor rural South. Rich lower and midtown Manhattan and poor South Bronx. Rich West Village and Soho and poor Lower East Side. Inequality is one of the hardest policy problems, so more later. A simpler insight of economics is that the most obvious answer to inequality is exactly wrong -- complete redistribution (i.e. a 100 percent tax on everyone above average to go to everyone below average) would destroy incentives for wealth creation and make everyone worse off.

UPDATE: a commentator on Facebook asked me what the implications are. Reminds of the World Bank research managers, who if you told them it was raining, they would ask "but what are the policy implications?"  Finally a chance for revenge through my favorite Mark Twain quote (from preface to Huckleberry Finn):

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author.

Please be content every now and then to just contemplate how the world is, which is kinda necessary before you immediately try to fix it.

UPDATE II: my Facebook critic and also @viewfromthecave grant permission for me to meditate on this for a while, and just try to convince you IT'S INTERESTING; note that fractal genius Mandelbrot thought cotton prices were interesting.  (If you do want my Comprehensive Solution, see here.)

UPDATE III: Paul Krugman noted this post and self-deprecatingly notes he had the idea first of the fractal nature of inequality. No problem, Professor Krugman, you can have it. As a long-time fan of your theoretical research, could I request that you take some time out from NYT to come up with a nice theory of why inequality behaves fractally?

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Constructivist cartography

The development blogosphere recently lit up with news of South Sudan's plan to rebuild some of its urban centers in the shape of various animals.

The plan elicited no shortage of guffaws, as is appropriate. But in the interest of maintaining AidWatch's contrarian reputation, this post argues that we should be careful about focusing our ridicule on the Sudanese. Criticism should to be leveled at the appropriate target: cartography! constructivism.

Cartography actually suffers from the same schizophrenia that besets economics. At its best, it provides striking depictions of and keen insights into the bottom-up forces shaping social reality. (Even the burgeoning subdiscipline of cartozoology--obviously salient to the Sudanese plan--usually focuses on this important descriptive work.)

But, like economics, cartography has also been employed as a tool of central planners. The Sudanese are not alone in having put to paper visions of grandeur that seem goofy upon reflection. At least one such cartographical monument to the hubris of constructivist planning actually exists: Evita City in Argentina.

The point is this: we can and should mock the absurdity of the Sudanese scheme. But it should be mocked for its faith in central planning. Reinforced stereotypes of incompetent African rulers are at their most harmful when they serve as an excuse for wealthy governments and international agencies to throw their weight around, for that merely replaces domestic planners with foreign planners. These maps are a fine example of the absurdity of constructivism and the demeaning character of collectivism; it would be shame for them to contribute to more of the same.

Besides, I'm less worried about actual cartographical collectivism than the figurative kind.

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This just in: there was a flood in Pakistan

We have chronicled here on Aid Watch how media coverage of disasters influences disasters, and how late the US media has been to the story of the disastrous flood in Pakistan, with apparently anemic donor response as a result. Puzzlement deepened this morning at 7:30 am when I picked up my NYT off my doorstep and saw the four column front-page headline: Much of Pakistan's Progress is Lost in Its Floodwaters.  The NYT devotes not only the huge front-page space to the flood, but also two prime pages inside of the first section. Could somebody please explain the mysterious alchemy by which a tragedy going on for a month already finally become a huge story?

In praise of the NYT, the story is great, and also has great pictures and maps like this one shown here. So please go back and read Laura's many posts on Pakistan flooding.

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Our internal foreign aid program

The US Recovery Act (aka “stimulus package”) has put out this great map of where the money is being spent by Congressional District.

As I looked at where the money is being spent in the part of the country pictured (the part I know best), there did not seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason between Congressional Districts as far as population or need. Is it random? Could it be (shock!!!) that where the money is spent depends on the party, power, and skill of the Congressperson from that district?

The other interesting thing about the graph is the summation of total spending $218.737 billion and the creation of 749,142 jobs. Did it occur to them that somebody might divide the first number by the second and come up with the number per job (slightly less than $300K). Did anything think of just paying workers $300K directly, and letting them stay home and read poetry?

Of course, I am outside my area of expertise here. Perhaps the main point that I can make is that it is really GREAT that the US government was so transparent as to put these maps up (and many more – go to the web site!), so that citizens (hopefully including more intelligent commentators than me) can give feedback. When will foreign aid spending have maps like this? I hear rumors the day may be coming…

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