Waylaid Dialectic

September 11, 2013

Where the Devil Isn’t

Filed under: Research for Development — terence @ 1:07 pm

Reading this, very interesting, DFID paper on impact evaluations and causality it strikes me that the beauty if Randomised Control Trials in development isn’t to do so much with their internal validity, or philosophical arguments about causality but rather, simply, that for RCTs the devil isn’t in the details.

With multivariate regressions there’s always somewhere for the bad stuff to hide: weak instrumental variables, Granger Causality, poor quality data, absence or presence of particular control variables, running so many regressions as to eventually get one of those magic stars…

Likewise with qualitative work as a reader you can never be wholly confident that the author hasn’t prioritised some evidence over others, or heard some voices or not others. Or that they’re not extrapolating too far from a small non-representative sample.

With an RCT on the other hand things are pretty simple. External validity issues beyond your population or context of interest, sure. But run enough RCTs in enough places and you start to overcome this. And, crucially, what you do run is simple (usually) treatment versus controls. Fairly simple maths and an obvious effect, or not.

In the tangled world of development research that, I think, is the humble RCT’s most persuasive selling point.

Not the be all and end all, but nice, because they leave a lot less space for hiding things.


September 10, 2013

Pat Robertson and the road to hell…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 12:56 pm

People say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that has always struck me as nonsense. If you look at the sweep of history, all the really awful stuff was born of really awful intentions. Well-intended disasters don’t even make the top ten.

And so it is with aid too. A lot of well-intended aid has failed to work (giving aid well is hard!) and some of it has even caused harm. But most of the worst outcomes, I would contend, came from aid that was not well intended in the first place: tied US food aid, aid to buy the allegiance of dictators. And if the allegations levelled against him by two documentary film makers prove to be true US televangelist Pat Robertson has just done a spectacularly good job of illustrating this point.

Read the rest of this post on DevPolicy here.

And the award for nastiest person ever goes to…

Filed under: Aid,Social Justice — terence @ 7:57 am
Tags: ,

Pat Robertson if the following is true

Televangelist, multi-millionaire, and leader of the religious right, Pat Robertson is a man on a mission. During an escalating refugee crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Robertson took to the airwaves of the Christian Broadcasting Network to raise money for his charity Operation Blessing International. He attracted millions of dollars in donations for relief projects in the Congo. Later, he deemed the mission a success, broadcasting footage of himself being warmly embraced by children in refugee camps.

With Mission Congo, filmmakers David Turner and Lara Zizic conduct a deep investigation based on years of research into what Operation Blessing actually accomplished. They interview aid workers, eyewitnesses and even the pilots of Robertson’s airplanes who describe a different mission: diamonds. With the help of a brutal dictator and ex- Navy SEALS, Robertson was diverting his planes away from refugee camps to a different part of the Congo to extract precious gems. If the devil is in the details, here the details are jaw-dropping as we confront the disconnect between what Robertson promised and what others experienced.

People say the road to hell is paved with good intentions but that’s nonsense. Maybe the odd stuff up or whatever, but the real bad stuff that happens in our world is the product of the opposite: evil.

Pat Robertson take a bow.

update: more in Guardian

August 28, 2013

The Shleifer Affair

Filed under: Aid,Economic Development — terence @ 1:31 pm

A handy link on the Shleifer affair, surely the darkest hour (not without competition of course) in the annals of ‘development economists not exactly practising what they preach.’

August 8, 2013

Impact Evaluations, Coming to a Country Near You?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 12:45 pm

From an interesting CGDEV blog post. My guess is that here in the Pacific we are close to entirely absent such a trend.

July 23, 2013

The PNG “Solution”

Filed under: Human Rights,Migration — terence @ 11:36 am

Kevin Rudd’s PNG “solution” to asylum seekers who try and reach Australia by boat — sending them to Papua New Guinea — strikes me as profoundly immoral. It is also, as Stephen Howes explains carefully on the development policy centre blog, likely to be – practically speaking – impossible to implement. Nice one Kev.

Aid in Antiquity

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:28 am

From page 240 of Carol Lancaster’s book ‘Foreign Aid: Diplomacy, Development, Domestic Politics‘.

“I am grateful to Michael Clemens of the Centre for Global Development for the following observation on the ancient history of relief aid: “The earliest documented instance I’ve seen is from 226BC, when a huge earthquake hit Rhodes, toppling the famous colossus. Rhodes was a main clearing house for Mediterranean trade – something like an ancient Singapore. Led by Ptolemy III of Egypt, several nations around the Mediterranean immediately sent food aid and other assistance to the quake victims” (personal correspondence, December 2004).”

I wonder what monitoring and evaluation was like back then?

Sometimes a reminder is enough?

Filed under: Aid,Development Theory — terence @ 8:10 am

What looks to be a very interesting new NBER paper:

Turning a Shove into a Nudge? A “Labeled Cash Transfer” for Education
Najy Benhassine, Florencia Devoto, Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, Victor Pouliquen

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) have been shown to increase human capital investments, but their standard features make them expensive. We use a large randomized experiment in Morocco to estimate an alternative government-run program, a “labeled cash transfer” (LCT): a small cash transfer made to fathers of school-aged children in poor rural communities, not conditional on school attendance but explicitly labeled as an education support program. We document large gains in school participation. Adding conditionality and targeting mothers make almost no difference. The program increased parents’ belief that education was a worthwhile investment, a likely pathway for the results.

I’m not someone who dismisses the textbook model of humans as rational utility maximisers off hand. Sometimes, we’re close enough for it to be practically useful. And almost always it is a great starting point for thinking. Nevertheless, advances in behavioural economics psychology promise, I think, not only to improve the study of economics and political science, but also to provide all manner of useful insights into aid practice.

July 20, 2013

Krugman, Acemoglu and China

Filed under: Development Theory,Economic Development,Governance — terence @ 11:32 am

To look on the bright side, if Paul Krugman is right, at least Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson won’t have to deal with ‘what about China?‘ type objections so much in coming years.

Setting aside the suffering, and the potential impact on a depressed global economy, the interesting development related question is how will China’s political and social institutions fare through the political stresses caused by a slow down?

Indeed, Rodrik et al’s growth accelerations paper suggested (to me at least) that growth spurts can happen in poorly governed countries but sustained development, which means dealing with the wobbles on the road, is much harder to maintain. What’s more, Rodrik provided pretty convincing evidence in One Economics that democracies weather economic shocks considerably better  than autocracies, which doesn’t bode well for slow down in China.

An optimist might hope (I certainly do) that the Chinese government responds to the pressures generated by economic downturn through democratic opening and redistributive transfers to the poor.

But a pessimist will remind you that there are many, many other potential outcomes.

We’ll see.


July 17, 2013

The unhappy truth – getting worse to be a woman?

Filed under: Development Theory,Random Musings — terence @ 12:44 pm

Huh, I missed this when it came out.

The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness

Betsey Stevenson, Justin Wolfers

NBER Working Paper No. 14969
Issued in May 2009
By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging — one with higher subjective well-being for men.


[gated link sorry]

I haven’t read the paper yet but were I to speculate on causes I would say that societies that place ever increasing pressure on women to look and behave a certain way (simultaneously as sex objects for men; and as virtuous and abstentious) would be a likely cause…


July 16, 2013

Jeffrey Sachs, the Millennium Villages Project, and the — ever underated — evidence

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:48 am

Jeffrey Sachs, arguably the world’s most influential development economist, is no stranger to criticism. From the right, academics such as William Easterly have been attacking his advocacy of aid for at least a decade. On the left his opponents have been just as strident in critiquing his advocacy of privatisation, structural adjustment and trade liberalisation for even longer (for archetypal examples see this review in the Left Business Observer and critical opinion in the Nation Magazine here). Yet the latest round of criticism of Sachs feels different. [My latest post on Devpolicy; read more here.]

July 12, 2013

New Zealand Aid Flows

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 9:22 am

My wife and I sometimes wonder whether other couples are more exciting than us. I mean we’re happy, get on well together, and go surfing when we can. But, on the other hand, we’ve just devoted our weekends for the last several months to a detailed analysis of New Zealand aid flow data. That’s not that exciting right?

Anyhow, the end product, a joint Devpolicy NZADDs working paper is now up for your reading pleasure on SSRN: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2292300

However, unless you’re every bit as boring as we are I suggest you start with the short and snappy Devpolicy blog post. Read the basics in less than 5 minutes:


Importantly, if you’re from an OECD DAC donor country you could emulate this report pretty easily. It would be great if our nerdiness went global. You can contact me via the about page of this blog if you’d like advice.

July 4, 2013

The Little Push reconsidered

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 9:57 am

Chris Blattman is having second thoughts about the Little Push approach to tackling poverty.

By coincidence Horst Bleakly has an interesting new NBER paper looking at the impacts of an 1832 Georgian land lottery that randomly granted tracts of land to men. From the conclusion:

Using wealth measured in the 1850 Census manuscripts, we follow up on a sample of men eligible to win in the 1832 Cherokee Land Lottery. With these data, we can assess the effect of winning that lottery on the distribution of wealth almost two decades after the fact.
We show that winners are, on average, richer, but mainly because the middle of the distribution is thinner and the upper tail is fatter. In contrast, the lower tail is largely unaffected. This stands in contrast with a `mechanical’ short-run effect of the lottery, which would tend to compress the distribution of (log) wealth. The results are also inconsistent with the view that the e ffect of winning would have been greatest on the lower tail because credit constraints had created a wealth-based `poverty trap’. As we see in this episode, it may take more than just wealth to move the lower tail of the long-run wealth distribution “up from poverty.”
For whatever reason this large asset windfall, while helping the fortunes of the already reasonably well off, did little for the poorest. The next question, of course, would have to be ‘why?’


July 2, 2013

Ah yes, fetishism…

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 8:37 am

Meanwhile in the Third World Quarterly…

The fetishism of humanitarian objects and the management of malnutrition in emergencies

Author: Salessi, Sina

Source: Third World Quarterly, Volume 34, Number 5, 1 June 2013 , pp. 929-941(13)

This paper examines two common objects in humanitarian assistance: a therapeutic food called Plumpy’nut, and a tape for measuring malnutrition known as the muac band. It argues that humanitarian relief has become a standardised package reliant on such objects, which receive excessive commitment from aid workers and are ascribed with almost magical powers. Drawing on the Marxist notion of commodity fetishism, the paper proposes a three-part model for examining this phenomenon, in which humanitarian objects are bound up in processes of concealment, transformation and mystification. First, these objects are perceived as rootless, recent discoveries, allowing the complex history and ambivalent results of technology to be concealed. Second, they facilitate a single-minded attention to efficiency and aggregate survival, which transforms the way humanitarian action is understood. Third, these objects are imbued with a mystical and autonomous spirit, redefined as irreplaceable elements of aid. This ‘fetishism of humanitarian objects’, the paper concludes, prevents a more flexible and people-centred approach to relief.

Ok SOIHARTP* but the abstract reminds me: One of the main problems, I think, with so-called critical development theorists is that their fetish for the trivial. Words. Objects. Bits and pieces. It would be wonderful if such things really did provide insights into why the world is such a mess and what we could do about it. But they don’t. Our problems are much more prosaic. Humanitarian relief is (somewhat) ineffective** not because workers involved suffer from commodity fetishes. But rather because:

1. By definition it happens in places which have significant pre-existing issues (war, conflict, remoteness, lawlessness). It ain’t easy to work in these environments.

2. We don’t Actually. Care. That. Much. We care enough to lift a finger to provide threadbare help and keep people alive. And against the the sad history of humanity that’s something, an achievement, an improvement. But we don’t care enough to actually do anything significant like let refugees into our own countries in large numbers. Or to spend 5% of GDP on funding humanitarian work. Limited compassion means limited effort, means limited outcomes. Oh – and by the way – by ‘we’ I mean you and me. Ok so maybe we’re a bit better than average, I vote for the most pro-refugee party in New Zealand for example, but we all possess the trait of not giving a f..k to some extent, so let’s not be too sanctimonious.

3. Power. Not the power of small packets of nutrition. But the power of wealthy and powerful in our own countries and in aid recipient countries to rig the game to their advantage.

I think you can argue perhaps that we don’t face these three truths nearly enough in development. And that maybe we turn to nifty commodities in search of easier solutions. But, if that’s the easiest thing to do and they work, so what? Some people have to get things done. And there is a division of labour. Academics, for example, could be doing more to reveal the challenges of my three points above…


*SOIHARTP — So I haven’t actually read the paper. You can have a refund.

** But actually much more successful than its critics give it credit for.


June 19, 2013

An end to tied US Food Aid

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:45 am

Ok – so I’ve been living in a cave (the cave of PhD write up) but even so can’t believe I was completely unaware of this. It seems like very big aid news, and in need of more coverage in the aid blogs:

These next 48 hours [the blog post is from two days ago] are critical for advancing reform of US international food aid, which I have blogged about previously.  Short version: because current rules essentially demand that we provide aid in food grown in the US via government subsidy, our current aid regime wastes money, delays delivery of aid by weeks, lines the pockets of agribusiness and big shipping, often undermines farmers in the Global South, and leaves 2-4 million people starving who could otherwise be helped.

The basic answer is to allow food to be procured locally; the Obama Administration’s budget proposal did just that, and was given the back of the hand by special interests in the Senate.  The Senate bill, which passed the Upper House, did add some extra money for local procurement, but fell far short of what was really needed.  The pathetic justifications offered by the agribusiness and shipping lobbies show just how weak their policy position is.

And now — maybe the House to the rescue.  The House? The current House?  You gotta be kidding, right?

Wrong.  The hero here is House International Relations Committee chair Ed Royce, a very conservative Republican from Orange County, who studied the way food aid rules work, and got outraged.  That’s hardly odd for a conservative, because farm policy represents about the clearest case of government waste we have.  It didn’t hurt, of course, that allowing for local procurement would also take much food aid from the Agriculture Committee and give it to the IR committee, but that really wasn’t what was happening here: this is an outrage and everyone who looks at it realizes it.

Read more at the link above, and if you live in the states, lobby your congressman! This matters.

June 14, 2013

Suburban Escape Dreaming

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:37 pm
Tags: ,


It seems a cruel thing to wish upon a country: that its suburbs be swallowed by their hinterland. But when that hinterland is as magical as Australia’s it’s hard not to hope, at least on the grey days, and amongst the ugly bits.

Postcard: of Shark Bay, based on a photo taken by Trent Park, from the series Welcome to Nowhere. City: Sydney.

Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit and Ayn

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 10:09 am

Following from my previous effort I now have a more substantial review of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit up at Devpolicy. This time more LRB than Game of Thrones.

There have been a couple of other reviews too: at Why Dev, and at Humansophere. Both take issue with Jonathan’s sermons in the book, Tom at Humanosphere going as far as to call them Ayn Randesque. They’re not. But it is fun to try and re-imagine sections of the book as if Rand had written them (ridiculing Rand is a pass-time of mine; she needs it).

The first thing that struck Mary-Anne was how different he looked. The bar was the same – dreary, sandy, shabby – but Jonathan was turned out in crisp, tailored clothes. A collar. Shoes of distinction. He was drinking single malt. He looked animated, fervent even. Alive!

“The goat is dead. I shot it. Tonight you call me John.”

She went to speak but he waved her into silence.

“You know what’s wrong with development…[insert 4 hour speech in here]…so you might say Easterly’s correct, but not correct enough! He’s soft…[two
more hours and now we're well past curfew; the Australian guy from the Red Cross has passed out in a pool of his own vomit]…A is A! And M and E is for sissies!”

At first she’d wanted to object (what about Robert Chambers? Gender Mainstreaming? Jeff Sachs?) but now all she could think about was growth models: endogenous; the big push; binding constraints – you name it. His truth was so savage. So objective. So true!

She looked at the other men in the bar. Weary, worn, weak. Mediocre! She winced…she looked back into his eyes.

‘John, I’m yours!’

June 12, 2013


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 3:10 pm

The Origins of the Word Vaccinate:

In 1796, Edward Jenner took some matter from a cowpox sore on the hand of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes, and inserted it into the arm of an eight-year-old boy…The boy was “perceptibly indisposed” on the ninth day, but recovered the following day. Six weeks later, Jenner inoculated him with matter taken from a smallpox pustule, “but no disease followed”…Jenner published 23 case studies to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of “vaccination,” as his procedure came to be called: vacca is the Latin term for cow, and vaccinia is another term for cowpox.

Freedman, D. A. (2010). On Types of Scientific Inquiry: The Role of Qualitative Reasoning. Rethinking Social Inquiry. H. E. Brady and D. Collier, Rowman and Littlefield: 221-236.

The Bay

Filed under: Conflict,Human Rights — terence @ 11:53 am

It’s hot, there is no wind, and the sun is starting to melt the day. I am sitting uncomfortably on the deck of a large leaf hut. In front of me are the leader of the local church and two village chiefs. They are asking questions in Pijin and I am doing my best to reply. I’m trying to concentrate. I need to concentrate, not just because of the language, but also because I need their permission to interview people about elections. It is less than 10 years since the Solomon Islands’ civil war swept over this part of Guadalcanal and the last foreigners to visit, who weren’t soldiers or police, were missionaries in the 1990s. So I am trying to explain carefully what I want to do and to reassure them. I’m trying, yet my efforts are being overcome by a distraction. An old, familiar distraction.

Behind the leaders’ heads, out beyond the village, across the shingle beach, on the edge of the South Pacific, a line of swell is bending in around a point, steepening on a shelf of coral reef, and starting to break.

I don’t have a board. I don’t surf anymore. And yet, once you’ve learnt how to read the sea, it’s hard to ignore. The swell is clean. The waves are mostly lefts. They aren’t perfect but they look fun.

In my mind I’m surfing: trimming down the line, racing the wall, swooping through a cutback…The church leader notices me staring.
He is a skinny, bumpy man, with a big, bald head and slightly sunken cheeks. His accent is strong and he speaks in anxious bursts of words that outwit my language skills.
“Luk luk long si?” (You’re looking at the sea?) He frowns.

“Um, yeah, um. Mi luk luk lo olketa waev saed go lo san bis?” (I’m looking at the waves on the other side of the beach.)
And then, because this sounds stupid on its own: “Taem mi iang man mi laek ski lo waev.” (When I was young I liked to surf in the waves.) Ski, according to my dictionary, is the Pijin word for surfing.

“Oh,” his mouth bends into a smile. “Iu laek sof? Mifala savi hao fo sof.”
The easiest sentences in another language are the ones I expect. Anticipation helps when matching sounds to words. On the other hand, I struggle when sentences come out of the blue, even if I know the words being used. And in this instance I have no idea what the ‘sof’ means. Sof?

I’m silent, trying to conjure sense from the sounds. And his smile is starting to fold back towards a frown.
Sof? Sof? Surf! He’s talking about surfing.

“Iu laek sof? Mifala savi how fo sof.” (You like to surf? We know how to surf.)

“Savi ski? Lo waev? Usim wanem? Kanu?” (You can surf? In the waves? What do you use? Canoes?)

“Nomoa. Usim sago fo makim ski.” (No, we make boards from sago palms). “Taem skul finis, bae me talem olketa pikinini mekem ski fo iu and soem iu hao fo kasim waev.” (When school’s finished I’ll tell the kids to make you a board and show you how to catch waves.)

I can still remember the first wave I ever caught. I was thirteen. After school one day I took the bus to Nick Coney’s house and we rode pushbikes in our wetsuits through the rain to the local surf spot. Our boards were ‘pollies’: three feet long, surfboard-shaped polystyrene beach toys brought from a department store. The wave was a shore break, inside Wellington Harbour, that only broke in Southerly storms. We paddled out down the beach from the older kids on fiberglass boards and tried to surf. At first the ocean got the better of me: I missed waves; I got caught inside; I wiped out into churning, sandy water. It was icy cold. My lungs started to rattle with asthma.

Then it happened, a steepening chunk of stormy sea rolled towards me, I spun around, and with a flailing paddle coaxed enough speed out of my polly to have a chance of catching it. The wave sucked me back, right to the critical point of its crest, and for a moment I hung there, on the edge of disaster. Then gravity took over and I was let go. Skimming, I flew down the face and out into the flats in front of the exploding swell. The white water swallowed me and then spat me out again. I shot towards the shore, lying prone, clinging to the bouncing piece of styrene foam and travelling faster than I ever imagined a wave would take me. I rode its surge all the way to the beach, where the swash carried me up the pebbly sand. There, I leapt up, giddy with happiness, and ran round in circles hollering victory to myself. I was so stoked. From that moment my path was set.

I surfed my way through high school, getting a fibreglass board and learning to stand on it. I got my driver’s licence and escaped the harbour. I cruised through university choosing courses that left me free to surf. I worked a bit, saved, and spent six months in Indonesia, followed by a winter in the Canaries. I worked in London and surfed wherever I could. Frozen beach breaks in New York, points in New Hampshire, sandy tubes in Mexico, giant green walls in Madeira, hidden lefts in Chile. There were flat spells and broken boards. And there were crowds and long hours worked in lonely, grey cities. But, all things told, it was a good surfing life.

Surfing Escondido 97

Then, in 1999, while chasing waves off beaches of Harmattan-blown sand in the Cape Verde Islands, I caught dysentery, which led to Reactive Arthritis, an auto-immune disease, and surfing was replaced painful uncertainty. Since then ill-health has come and gone along with doctors, diets and medications. At times I’ve been well enough to surf, other times I’ve been unable to walk. Recoveries are slow, relapses happen overnight. And the inflammation has started to damage my body. In 2008 I had open heart surgery to replace my aortic valve, which had been wrecked by inflammation, and an acute relapse in the wake of surgery lead to permanent damage in my hip. I haven’t surfed a short board since then; I’m too slow to my feet. At times I’ve been able to longboard, but two hours of surfing are followed by a two days of pain. Worth it. But hard. By the time I made it to Solomon Islands, my hip and back were bad enough that I wasn’t even really able to longboard. I guess I could have travelled with a body-board, but that didn’t seem like surfing to me. I didn’t even consider it.
Around all this the rest of my life has kept moving. Travel in developing countries sparked an interest in aid, and work for the New Zealand government’s aid programme. From this I became interested in Solomon Island electoral politics, and that became the subject of my PhD. Fieldwork was the start of a road of its own, taking my wife and I weaving from coast to coast and island to island through Solomons. In November 2011 we travelled along the southern shore of Guadalcanal: the Weather Coast.
When it rains on Weather Coast, paths turn into rivers and rivers torrents. Some years it rains nonstop for months. Trade-winds blow clouds against the island’s jungle-tangled dividing range, and the water falls with a fury. The heart of the Coast is hemmed in between mountains and a shoreline of gravel beaches and surf bashed cliffs. There are no harbours and when the swell is big sea travel is impossible. When the winds blow and the rains come, villages become isolated, islands of their own, and people go hungry. Schools close and health clinics run out of supplies. The soil becomes too wet to grow anything except Swamp Taro.

On fine days the Weather Coast is stunning – big, empty, and beautiful. But it is not an easy place to live. It isn’t far from the bustle of Honiara, Solomon Islands’ capital, which lies on the other side of Guadalcanal, but it might as well be another country.

Indeed, Solomon Islands only became a country thanks to the colonial carve up of the Pacific. There was nothing resembling a nation there before the British arrived and drew lines around a bunch of islands north east of Australia, calling it a colony. Bundled into it were speakers of more than 90 different languages. Villages and clans were the only real coherent pre-colonial political entities and there were thousands of these. In Europe nations grew over centuries, in the Western Pacific they were dreamed up in days.

Colonial rule in Solomons wasn’t as cruel or as bloody as it was in parts of Africa but it wasn’t a time of nation building either. Independence was granted in 1978 and shortly afterwards the logging companies arrived, corrupting politics with money. Life for ordinary Solomon Islanders got worse.

In 1998, this led to conflict. Groups of young men from Guadalcanal drove migrants from the neighbouring island of Malaita off land on which they had settled. And the Malaitans formed their own armed groups. The inter-island conflict quickly reached a stalemate but at this point the armed groups of youths morphed into criminal gangs. On Malaita drunk young men with guns terrorised businesses. In Honiara armed groups extorted money from government departments. In rural Guadalcanal the Weather Coast had the misfortune of becoming a base for the most notorious of all the militant leaders: Harold Keke.

Keke’s troops were based first at the eastern end of the Coast but, harried by armed police, he marched them west to a camp close to the surf spot that would distract me eight years later.
I didn’t ask questions about the conflict years while we were on the Weather Coast, and for the most part people avoided the subject. We heard bits – in Keke’s home village our host kept apologising for not having cutlery, hers had all been lost when police burnt the village – but it was only near the village of the surf spot anyone offered me real detail about the time of Keke’s soldiers. Even then it was just one man. He can’t have been any older than me but he had the frail, stooped posture of a 60 year old. He spoke with a quiet, careful voice and one day he started telling me about Keke’s time at their end of the coast.

“He told us to feed his troops, but we couldn’t. We didn’t have enough food for ourselves. When I told him this he lined some of us up on the beach and gave a gun to one of his soldiers and told him to shoot us. But the soldier wouldn’t. He was just a young boy. He didn’t want to murder people. So Keke took his gun, shouted at him and gave it to another soldier, telling him to kill us. But the other soldier couldn’t either. He started crying. So Keke took the gun and threw it to the ground and told us. ‘You are lucky; god doesn’t want you to die today. Go home.’”
“You see the tree, the large one on the edge of the beach. One time some of his soldiers tried to run away, but he caught them. And he tied them to the tree and beat them to death. He made us watch.”

Finally, after nearly five years of conflict, Australia led a peacekeeping mission into Solomon Islands. Australian troops swept up the Weather Coast, Keke surrendered and the militia disarmed. By that point no one wanted to fight anymore, least of all the soldiers, who were just village boys pumped up on power and promises of victory. Militia men went home to their gardens, and a few of the leaders went to jail. Keke is in prison. The conflict stopped, and people’s lives went back to normal. Which on the Weather Coast meant hard and isolated.
When school ended on the afternoon of our first day in the village kids swept past our leaf house laughing and shouting, and pointing at us. Shortly afterwards a group of teenage boys arrived armed with large machetes. There was some hushed discussion in the local Ko’o language, and they raced off into the jungle, returning ten minutes later with the long slender trunks of freshly cut sago palms. Then the machetes were put to work. Trunks were cut into three foot long pieces and their green outer layer sliced off. Underneath, the wood was light, white and soft, a bit like polystyrene. Then they cut long thin ‘nails’ from the branches of another tree and used these to pin the peeled sago trunks together into rafts about 18 inches wide. And then they carefully rounded the fronts of their rafts. The result was three foot long, light and kind of surfboard shaped. A lot like the polly that I had caught my first wave on all those years ago.


“Now they can teach you how to surf” John, the church leader said laughing. I wasn’t sure that trying to go surfing with the local kids was the best way of convincing him that I was a serious researcher. But, on the other hand, he looked happy, and there was still surf. It had been a long time since I’d ridden waves.


A light onshore had come up but the surf looked alright: small and shifting about the reef, bumped up by wind wobble. The young teenagers couldn’t speak much Pijin and I didn’t know any Ko’o but we didn’t really need to communicate what we were going to do next. I grabbed the board I was given and, along with about ten of the teenagers, paddled out into the line-up.

I wish I could tell you about the great waves I got, and how I amazed the locals by getting barrelled on the inside, but the ocean got the better of me that evening. A three foot long 18 inch wide board is fine when you’re thirteen, but I almost sunk mine. Without flippers I couldn’t kick effectively and if I tried to paddle into waves the board would twist out underneath me. I didn’t catch a single wave. The locals, on the other hand, caught plenty. They knew what they were doing, scooting around sliding into anything that broke.

That night, covered in mosquito repellent sitting under the waning light of a solar powered lamp, I asked John who had taught them about surfing.

“No one. Kids here have always known how to surf”. And so it was, one day I spoke to an ancient old man who told me he’d surfed the reef with his brothers just after the Second World War. Each generation of kids would learn from their older siblings. They’d learn how to ride waves when they were six or seven, eventually giving up in their late teens. Surfing wasn’t considered an adult sport, although the older men did still catch the occasional wave in their canoes as they paddled home after fishing.
John and I spoke some more. They’d never seen fiberglass boards or anyone stand on a surfboard. The only other foreigner who’d tried to ride waves there was a missionary in the 1980s or 90s who’d been made a sago palm board like me.


I asked John if they’d ever seen a surfing magazine. They hadn’t. All that they knew about surfing came from a few photos of men riding waves inside a bible printed by Australian Christian surfers, delivered to the village by a friend of the wave riding missionary. It was the bible that had also given them the word ‘sof’, their attempt to pronounce ‘surf’.
That was their sole connection to the rest of the surfing world. Everything else they had learned about riding waves had evolved in isolation.
Convergent evolution is the term biologists use to describe the process through which different species evolve similar features via natural selection. It explains why hummingbird moths look almost identical to hummingbirds. In an environment rich with nectar filled flowers high up trees there is a niche to be filled by a creature that can hover and extract the nectar. So both a species of bird and a type of moth evolved to fill the niche. Bird and moth look remarkably similar. Form follows function. And, I thought to myself, the next afternoon as I tried again to catch waves, something similar to this explained a lot of what I saw around me. Much that would be familiar to a surfer in Wellington, or Cornwall, had evolved in in the village too. The kids would paddle out through the channel behind the peak – the easiest and quickest way to the line-up. When large waves broke in front of them they duck dived exactly as you or I would do. The kids surfed waves too, rather than white water, and they rode along them angling across the face.

Some things were different. No one stood on their boards. And in between waves I was told tales of the crocodile that had moved into the swamp in the next bay. This, I thought anxiously, was something I hadn’t had to worry about back home. The biggest difference though, was how friendly they were. While they despaired of my surfing ability they kept offering tips and they made me a board. There aren’t many surf spots on Earth where a chubby, limping beginner would be welcomed, let alone offered pride of place.

As I mulled this over, my thoughts were interrupted – the tropical sea finally sent a wave straight to me. I barely needed to paddle. The wave pulled me back, up to its crest, where I hung for an instant, and then let me go with the familiar sensation that every surfer knows: the start of a ride. Sago palm bouncing underneath me, I shot down the face, clinging to the board, marvelling at how fast the water sped by, just inches away.
After the first ride, it became easier. Along with my local companions I surfed for hours.

Later, I stood on the beach, holding my board while the evening light folded gold over the mountains behind the village, and I thought about things. My muscles were aching in a pleasant, exercised way. I was stoked. Riding waves lying down would never bring me the same happiness that surfing had but it promised a lot more joy than a life spent trying to forget about the sea. And so I decided that I would become a body boarder for the time being.
As I thought about this, a slender woman with a shock of curly hair strode down to the beach and started shouting at one of the kids still in the water. She waved her hands and he called something back. She shouted some more.
The conversation was entirely in Ko’o but I knew exactly what was being said.

“Get out of the water Henri, you have chores to do, and dinner is almost ready!”
“Ok mum, just one more wave.”
“No! Get out now!”
“Just one more.”

In a world of conflict and poverty, the freedom to surf is a tiny, trivial thing. And yet often it’s the trivial things that thread much of the happiness through our lives. Likewise, the tale of the point and its return from being a place of fear to a surf spot, is a small story when set amongst the on-going struggles of the Solomon Islands. But, small as it may be, it is also a happy story. From war to surfing.
While his mother continued shouting, Henri paddled out to sea, spinning at the last moment to catch a set wave. He sped down the face, turned, and flew past section after section, taking that last ride the length of the point and into the sunset-coloured bay.

[This story was published in the Surfer's Path earlier this year.]






June 8, 2013

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind (somewhere)

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 8:39 am

Ever wondered what the solutions are to global poverty and conflict? What we know? The state of the knowledge in development economics? In peace studies?*

This video sums it all up beautifully. H/T Humanosphere.


*I know, I know, a little unfair — knowledge is inching forwards and some great insights exist.

June 5, 2013

The Game of Aid

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:00 am
game of thrones

Everyone says Paul Collier looks different when you meet him in person…

When asked what he was trying to achieve in writing his fantasy mega-hit ‘The Game of Thrones’, George Martin said (as paraphrased by John Lanchester) his ambition “was to create an imaginary world with the atmosphere of the Wars of the Roses.” A different type of heroic fiction. Gone are noble Elves and evil monsters. Instead we’re given a realm without saints, where some people are truly vile, but most people are at least a little bit good. A world where problems, fiendish undead aside, are born of normal human failings and complexity.

‘Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit’ (MMMM), is the second novel from J., the more or less pseudonymous blogger behind the humanitarian blog Tales from the Hood, and it is not a book about a magical kingdom, it’s set right here in the distinctly non-magical world within which we live. And set, for the most part, in one of its least magical bits: a refugee camp in Ethiopia, somewhere near the border with Somalia. Which is where we become reacquainted Mary-Anne, the aid worker star of J’s first aid book, currently the employee of a small upstart NGO.

Crisply written, with a plot that pulls you over the pages, it is a very good read. And as I read it I was reminded of the Game of Thrones books. There are no dragons of course. Murder is less frequent. And castles are replaced by aid agency tents. There aren’t any dodgy sex scenes either, and aid sceptics will be disappointed to discover that none of the major characters, not even the UN staff!, are engaged in incest. And yet the genius of the books is similar: people get to be people. Neither villains, nor heroes, just ordinary folk, with ordinary faults.

Actually, that’s not quite correct: in Game of Thrones we find hulking horse lords, kings and princesses, and their failings, while ordinary, are writ large. Whereas in MMMM we have to be content with aid workers, with failings about the size of your failings, or mine. But the main thing, the thing that makes both works interesting, is the reality and ambiguity. Especially in MMMM the characters are just like you or I. Which is a major strength, given that you and I both work in (or are interested in) the world of aid.

And aid is so many people’s fantasy kingdom. It’s the place where they dream of taking their fantastic ideas and saving the world, redeeming themselves in the process. Or it’s a place they gaze at resentfully from their Econ101 classes, outraged that people might have the temerity to IGNORE THE MARKET’S WILL. A place they can disdain while reading the latest author de jure decrying the vested interests that corrupt it. But the thing is, the world of aid is none of that, or — if it’s any of that — it’s all of it. People, with mixed motivations, working hard, occasionally corrupting, amongst corruption, doing good, and f#$king up. People who don’t save the world. Who can’t save the world. But who do quite often, in spite of their failings, in spite of our failings!, make it a better place.

Like Game of Thrones, MMMM also uses the narrative trick of short chapters that hop between different character’s points of view, this not only keeps the pages turning, but also does an excellent job of conveying the coordination problems of humanitarian work. MMMM isn’t a perfect book, and I have a review of it coming up later in the month on Dev-Policy where I’ll point out some of its faults, but for now let me just suggest you read it. Read it especially if you think the problems and solutions of aid are simple ones — you’ll be educated. But read it too if you’re interested in, or work in, the world of aid: you’ll be informed, and entertained.

Highly recommended.

M4 Version 5

[Update: you can read other reviews here and...more to come]
The author’s page on GoodReads.com: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6485147.J
The book’s blog home: http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/2013/06/03/213-missionary-mercenary-mystic-misfit/
The book’s facebook home: https://www.facebook.com/MisMercMysMis

June 4, 2013

Do Amnesty International Campaigns Work?

Filed under: Human Rights — terence @ 8:27 am

I’ve been a member (if that’s what my donations made me) of Amnesty International in the past and will likely rejoin once I have an income again. I support their view of a world where Human Rights are respected. I have always wondered though whether their campaigning on behalf of political prisoners in repressive regimes ever made much of a difference. Not because I think anything bad of Amnesty but success in this is a very hard ask.

Some suggestive evidence from the latest British Journal of Political Science. (Although, caveat lector, I haven’t read the article yet):

When Is the Pen Truly Mighty? Regime Type and the Efficacy of Naming and Shaming in Curbing Human Rights Abuses
Cullen S. Hendrix and Wendy H. Wong July 2013
British Journal of Political Science, ,Volume43, Issue03, July 2013 pp 651-672

Does naming and shaming states affect respect for human rights in those states? This article argues that incentives to change repressive behaviour when facing international condemnation vary across regime types. In democracies and hybrid regimes – which combine democratic and authoritarian elements – opposition parties and relatively free presses paradoxically make rulers less likely to change behaviour when facing international criticism. In contrast, autocracies, which lack these domestic sources of information on abuses, are more sensitive to international shaming. Using data on naming and shaming taken from Western press reports and Amnesty International, the authors demonstrate that naming and shaming is associated with improved human rights outcomes in autocracies, but with either no effect or a worsening of outcomes in democracies and hybrid regimes.

[ungated version here]

June 2, 2013


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:19 am

After a delightful evening out at a cozy restaurant in a safe part of the suburbs Eric Clapton’s music is mugged on the way home by a posse of lesbian cowpunks. Anarchy ensues. And the song Layla becomes much better, and so much more alive.

As one of the audience members cries out: “play forever!”

h/t The Guardian

June 1, 2013


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:21 pm

From the New York Review:

Meanwhile, gun violence in the United States continues to far outpace that in other developed nations. Since 1960, more than 1.3 million Americans have died from firearms, either in suicides, homicides, or accidents. By this grim metric, we are unquestionably a world leader. The US firearms homicide rate is twenty times higher than the combined rate of the next twenty-two high-income developed nations. Between 2000 and 2008, there were more than 30,000 gun deaths a year in the US, for an average of more than eighty every single day. And in 2010 alone, emergency rooms treated more than 73,000 people for nonfatal gunshot injuries.2

We read with horror of terrorist attacks around the world, mostly in far-flung places that regularly endure suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, and the like. We breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to live with such violence, while we spend billions of dollars annually to prevent such attacks occurring here. But every year, about twice as many people are killed in the United States by guns than die of terrorist attacks worldwide. Americans face a one in 3.5 million chance of being killed in a terrorist attack, but a one in 22,000 chance of being murdered.

May 29, 2013

If pro-lifers were really pro-life…

Filed under: Development Philosophy — terence @ 7:33 pm

…wouldn’t they be ardently in favour of promoting birth control?

May 24, 2013

The Little Push

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 11:11 am
Tags: , , ,

Once, back in the dark old days of development economics, the thinking was: to grow, countries need to invest capital, but very poor countries have no capital to invest, so they are stuck in a poverty trap, which is why we should give them aid; with our aid they can invest (in human capital, in infrastructure, in industries), and then they will grow.

Trouble was, we gave the aid and they didn’t grow.

Theory extinct.

Yet here comes Chris Blattman* to exhume it. Except he’s claiming we had the unit of analysis wrong. Don’t give money to countries. Give it to people. And they’ll invest it in training, and businesses, and so develop their countries**. Or, if not, at least develop themselves.

Call this the Little Push.

His evidence looks good. Although, of course, all he’s showing is temporary improvements, not a new trajectory.

My only question would be, how dependent is this result on Uganda (i.e. a country with bad but not terrible institutions and at least some national level economic development taking place)? If you did the same in the PNG highlands what would the impact be? I certainly wouldn’t count on it being positive, but I’m interested enough to want to do the RCT.

*Ok, so this is a simplified narrative (the refund’s yours): the big push never completely died, and others (Sachs, Collier) have exhumed it in interesting ways. And unconditional cash transfers aren’t Chris Blattman’s brainchild.

**Actually Blattman isn’t, in his blog post, making national development claims, he’s just making improved welfare claims, but today is simple narrative day, sorry.



May 22, 2013

Money to Burn

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:52 pm

From the latest issue of Perspectives on Politics (pay-walled):

“By mid-2010, the US Agency for International Development alone was spending [US]$340 million on Afghan reconstruction per month, often on questionable projects (p. 198)—but few were willing to register formal objections.”

US$340 is about NZ$416, which puts the total annual NZ aid budget of a bit over $500M in perspective somewhat…

May 17, 2013

Fun Facts About New Zealand Aid

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 6:07 pm

There’s an amusing buzzfeed thread on the challenges of being a New Zealander. To which I’d add Australia envy. Budgets have just come out in Australia and New Zealand and it turns out that the increase in Australian aid next year will be larger than the entire New Zealand aid budget. My wife and I have some more New Zealand aid budget analysis up at DevPolicy.


Filed under: Economic Development — terence @ 1:45 pm

Paul Krugman:

Noah Smith recently offered an interesting take on the real reasons austerity garners so much support from elites, no matter hw badly it fails in practice. Elites, he argues, see economic distress as an opportunity to push through “reforms” — which basically means changes they want, which may or may not actually serve the interest of promoting economic growth — and oppose any policies that might mitigate crisis without the need for these changes…

I always thought the bad-faith of those pushing for austerity was evidenced by one simple fact: they, almost to a person, suggest budgets be balanced through cuts, or increases in sales taxes when the obvious, least painful, way of balancing the books would be to raise income taxes, particularly at the top. That this never seems to be a significant part of the austerity package suggests to me it’s never really been about balanced budgets. Cutting social spending, which will increase the odds of lower taxes in the future, is the order of the day. Naked self interest posing as policy. Charming.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, discussion of evidence from the book ‘The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills’:

In a powerful new book, The Body Economic, Stuckler and his colleague Sanjay Basu, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiologist at Stanford University, show that austerity is now having a “devastating effect” on public health in Europe and North America.

The mass of data they have mined reveals that more than 10,000 additional suicides and up to a million extra cases of depression have been recorded across the two continents since governments started introducing austerity programmes in the aftermath of the crisis.

In the United States, more than five million Americans have lost access to healthcare since the recession began, essentially because when they lost their jobs, they also lost their health insurance. And in the UK, the authors say, 10,000 families have been pushed into homelessness following housing benefit cuts.

…The consequences [in Greece] have been dramatic. Cuts in HIV-prevention budgets have coincided with a 200% increase in the virus in Greece, driven by a sharp rise in intravenous drug use against the background of a youth unemployment rate now running at more than 50% and a spike in homelessness of around a quarter. The World Health Organisation, Stuckler says, recommends a supply of 200 clean needles a year for each intravenous drug user; groups that work with users in Athens estimate the current number available is about three.

In terms of “economic” suicides, “Greece has gone from one extreme to the other. It used to have one of Europe’s lowest suicide rates; it has seen a more than 60% rise.”



May 14, 2013

Everyone knows the UN’s a Hopeless Failure Right?

Filed under: Governance — terence @ 8:46 am

Forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science:

United Nations Peacekeeping and Civilian Protection in Civil War Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman, Megan Shannon

Does United Nations peacekeeping protect civilians in civil war? Civilian protection is a primary purpose of UN peacekeeping, yet there is little systematic evidence for whether peacekeeping prevents civilian deaths. We propose that UN peacekeeping can protect civilians if missions are adequately composed of military troops and police in large numbers. Using unique monthly data on the number and type of UN personnel contributed to peacekeeping operations, along with monthly data on civilian deaths from 1991 to 2008 in armed conflicts in Africa, we find that as the UN commits more military and police forces to a peacekeeping mission, fewer civilians are targeted with violence. The effect is substantial—the analyses show that, on average, deploying several thousand troops and several hundred police dramatically reduces civilian killings. We conclude that although the UN is often criticized for its failures, UN peacekeeping is an effective mechanism of civilian protection.

The UN has many faults, but when you consider the magnitude of the faults of almost all the states that it is built from, I think it’s actually possible to claim it as a remarkable success. A work in progress, of course, but then again so are all the nation states that I’ve ever lived in.

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