The road north to Kilinochchi

March 7, 2012

After Anuradhapura we begin to pass garrison after garrison of government troops: A silent, ominous, quickening drum roll. A war occurred here.

Read my piece about Sri Lanka’s war, rebuilding Kilinochchi and Practical Action’s small-scale irrigation infrastructure and market development work there:


Read my posts on Practical Action’s blog pages

December 20, 2011

Some of the exclusive content on Practical Action’s pages: Recipe for a high nutrient lollipop for cows; text messaging extension service in Nepal.

I try to cross-post, but don’t always keep up. See read it directly from Practical Action’s pages here!

Bermuda Triangle of Economic Empowerment

December 20, 2011

Read my review of the conversations, sharing and  learning that went on at the SEEP Network Annual Conference and find out what the Bermuda Triangle of economic empowerment is all about.

I presented Practical Action’s Bangladesh work in one of the Vulnerable Populations workshops. Alison Griffith and Lucho Osorio were also at the conference, presenting  lessons of engaging with the national level private sector in Nepal and managing complexity in market development, respectively.

Engaging with the elephant in the room – Nepal’s exodus

June 6, 2011

Youth migration, remittances and skill development in Nepal.

Read my latest post here!

Facilitating two approaches to cattle feed in Nepal

May 22, 2011

Another Practical Action comms. blog from me available here. Please read critically 😛

Drama to make a difference

November 25, 2010

Check out my Practical Action blog post about community-based drama in Bangledesh to raise awareness about good agriculture practices.

To get out of poverty, get out of agriculture?

October 19, 2010

Out of all the World Food Day blogs I’ve read, Owen Barder‘s was the most refreshing, thought-provoking, and as always, entertaining. But I do question his argument on two pretty fundamental points.

Expanding on Owen’s stats-speak

…it is not as persuasive as the alternative interpretation of the high correlation between poverty and agriculture: the fact that most poor people work in agriculture suggests that the best way to escape poverty is to get out of agriculture…

I suggest it important to consider the possible omitted variables involved here. Sure, most people who are poor sustain their livelihood through some form of agriculture, but it does not follow that agriculture is the cause of poverty.

One big, fat omitted variable is the glaringly obvious rural context. The distinction between agriculture and rural living is important here because it forces us to think about what it means to live in a rural location other than working in agriculture: restricted mobility due to rougher roads hampering transportation of goods, access to services, opportunities to meet and collaborate, less competition in local markets, limited communication and information availability leading to slow learning of new skills, easy exploitation by the better informed…

These are some the biggest challenges that poor, rural people face, not that they work in agriculture per se. When some of these difficulties that act as bottlenecks to rural development are addressed, then agriculture remains an arduous life, but one that might be occasionally remitting and rewarding.

Of course that’s not to say that heading to the towns and cities isn’t perhaps a quicker way of escaping the isolation of rural life and drudgery of agriculture. Here’s my second point though, we must not forget the reality that many poor people face when they reach urban areas: a higher paying, more secure manufacturing job is the dream that most town-bound migrants fail to find. Many end up in slums, working even more informally for little more that buys a lot less, and certainly living even greater unremitting and unrewarding hardship.

Putting some perspective on ‘Climategate’

April 13, 2010

This post is a reply to Claudio Ruiz-Spohn’s Facebook comment on my United Youth Development Organization article Climate Change Information Mismanagement. I felt it warranted a reply.

First of all, here is Claudio’s comment:

Of course it is. Misinformation on purpose. Read the leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia – therein you will will read, first hand, about the key scientists, working on behalf of the IPCC, and the exact communications which state how the climate change data has been and is being manipulated to arrive at the conclusion that global warming is made-made.

The result of this prefabricated data is: global tax on anything (ranging from the production of your plastic pencil sharpener to how many kids you can have), tax = control over any person and their actions, complete management of any economy, definite stunting to growth of 3rd world countries and reduction in poverty/hunger. Any some of the richest people on the Earth will become even more incredibly vastly richer.

Just Google it, there’s tonnes of information out there:…
e.g. just one:

Thanks Claudio for that post. Not quite the intention of the initial shout, but better some tangental reaction than no reaction.

My initial shout aside, which was about how environmental and development practitioners do not make adequate use of available information about climate change, and incidently needs an urgent update, which I will endeavour to post soon, here’s my reaction to your post:

The emails emerging from University of East Anglia (UEA) are shocking and regrettable.

It is shocking to see the level of misdirection some scientists deem necessary to protect what they see as truth about climate change and its anthropogenic cause (a theory confirmed by overwhelming evidence). It is shocking that they resort to hiding data that conflicts with the consensus from the media and the non-scientific public, for fear that they will misinterpret it.

And it is regrettable because their actions have damaged the climate change expert community in ways that the raw data never would have. It has damaged the reputation of organisations reaching far beyond UEA itself, including the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

I don’t have faith in the IPCC, because faith has nothing to do with it. I do have a strong confidence in its work.

The IPCC brings together the work of thousands of scientists, geographers, and social scientists from around the world to provide a state-of-the-science collation of the best global understanding of climate change and its impacts. No-one gets paid to provide research for the IPCC’s reports. Researchers get paid through their ‘day-job’ positions at universities and research centres around the world to conduct studies. The studies are often published in peer-reviewed journals years before appearing in IPCC material (see bottom of post for explanation of the peer review process). The IPCC then picks from the existing research papers with the greatest methodological merit, through further peer-review, to appear substantively unchanged in its collation reports (the Assessment Reports). The final stage of the IPCC report-writing process is to produce synthesis presentations that summarise the thousands of pages of research. These syntheses are what most people who are not professionally involved with climate change turn to.

Given these existing checks and balances, it is important not to get carried away by the UEA emails. What the emails show is that some scientists worry so much that data that conflicts with the consensus conclusions of the IPCC will be misconstrued by the general public and media, that they are willing to abandon the proper way of dealing with such data in favour of subversion. The irony is that in doing so, and by being found out, they have undermined the IPCC evidence in a way that the raw data never could have. They have fed the ‘climate-deniers’ with ammunition to put into disrepute the entire system. Scientists tend to be their own worst enemies.

Although these scientists were by all standards foolish and weak, it is not hard to see why they may have thought their actions were a good idea. Look at how the media deals with data! The details of science is boring for most people. Non-scientists might like the big scientific stories, but they are not interested in the details.

When scientists find data conflicting with a hypothesis they consider probably true, they know that the data might be due to a methodological weakness, or revealing a special case, or at its strongest warrants a reformulation of the hypothesis that is being put into question. They know how rare it is for one set of data to overthrow an entire theory that has been confirmed by thousand of other methodologically sound studies. But most non-scientists don’t necessarily (care to) understand that, and might prefer the adventure of a huge theory being overthrown, especially if it supports them not having to make a change in their lifestyles, as is the case with climate change. So in the hands of non-scientists, the kind of data that UEA had has potent destructive effect, not scientifically destructive, but politically destructive – which in the case of climate change is just as important. And the media acts as a multiplier for the popular, non-scientific opinion and data distortion.

So in fear of the data being misunderstood, a few foolish scientists at UEA tried to hide it to avoid harming the conclusions of the IPCC. Only it backfired. Monumentally. Let’s note that atmospheric and oceanic scientists and climatologists have had fairly firm confirmation of global, anthropogenic climate change for over 20 years (IPCC was founded in 1989 to compile existing research). So for what has been pretty well understood for a long time by natural scientists to be finally accepted in the mainstream is not something that they want to abandon lightly.

What would have been the appropriate way of dealing with this conflicting data? It would have been to submit it for publishing, have the wider expert community consider it through peer-review, and then either have it rejected if methodological weaknesses were found or if the findings were statistically insignificant, or if the methodology was sound, publish them to counter-weigh the consensus evidence.

Such counter-weight evidence does exist and is presented in the full IPCC reports, and is certainly not omitted (as UEA behaviour, if generalised, suggests). This is not however always apparent from the synthesis reports because the counter evidence is limited and offset with the overwhelming evidence in favour of anthropogenic climate change, and the synthesis reports reflect this net balance.

In conclusion, I am, like you shocked and appalled by the UEA scientists’ actions. But by avoiding the media spin and by considering the IPCC’s process, I continue to have strong confidence in the IPCC and their findings that we are experiencing unprecedented, anthropogenic, global climate change. My original post suggests nothing on the contrary.

Climate change is not a conspiracy to deny us a libertarian ideal by creating some bogus sense of responsibility to our children to ensure our growth is sustainable. Rather, climate change reveals that we do have such a responsibility, no matter how difficult that might be to swallow.

With regard to the right for poor countries to develop, climate change poses immense challenges to this. Unfortunately, wishing climate change away is not going to make these challenges disappear. The sooner ‘climate deniers’ spend time to understand the process that has brought about the overwhelming, global, scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is a reality, and realise that the UEA scandal is not representative of the evidence, the sooner we can have constructive conversations about how we can navigate the political minefield of political climate change negotiations to help poor countries lift themselves into prosperity despite climate change.

On peer reviewing: Peer-reviewing is the process where a researcher’s output is reviewed critically by other global experts in the same field. Given the relatively small size of expert communities in a given field, peer reviewers are not uncommonly past colleagues, collaborators and academic rivals of the researcher under review. However, strict guidelines regarding conflict of interest and anonymity limit review bias. Only if the panel of peer reviewers clear the research output, does it get published.

Roots, perfume, herbal tea and cheese: Ground-up market development in Nepal

March 12, 2010

The debate continues across development studies about the centrality of economic growth as a driver for development understood in wider terms. But from inside Nepal, a country burdened by critical human underdevelopment, stunted by economic stagnation, and hindered by political deadlock, the view is clear enough: economic growth is the engine of development. And although optimal performance requires more than just a big engine, as the BBC’s Top Gear team will tell you, without it a country doesn’t even get moving.

Our understanding of the drivers of growth is still limited, and the application of what wisdom we do have to inform policy decisions is often difficult. After all, designing country-specific policy conducive to sustainable, and ideally inclusive, growth is no simple matter, nor should it be. ‘On the ground’ even benign decision-makers lack the information to foresee how best to manage the economy to achieve sustained growth. The advisors they turn to, while better informed by research, often lack a perspective contextualised enough to withstand the idiosyncrasies of country specificity. Furthermore, this analysis doesn’t even take into account the inevitability of politics in decision-making, and the technical constraints to research.

Notwithstanding the epistemological constraints, law, policy and intervention are being designed across the world to support and enhance economic growth in developing countries. The tools deployed are diverse: macro-economic policies encourage domestic and foreign investment and balance the cost of importing intermediate goods required as inputs in the economy with the relative prices of export-oriented producers; domestic laws and regulations are instituted that help enterprises and business get off the ground and prosper; government funds are directed to help industries overcome expensive hurdles to growth, from start-up costs and difficulties in coordinating within and across industries, to information-gathering activities.

All of these tools are controversial, for more reasons than can be enumerated here. For a few examples though, pro-growth macro-economic policies have in the past been accompanied with strong pressures to minimise the role of the state, leading to vast cuts in health and educational spending. Pro-business law and regulation make concessions in labour protection. And government intervention in industrial development, known as industrial policy, involves supporting some industries over others, and thus can lead to countries ‘betting on the wrong horse’. This results in a misallocation of resources, stunting rather than enabling growth. Industrial policy can also lead to corruption, where government officials support industries they have a political or private  interest in.

Nonetheless, all of these approaches are deployed in some form wherever economic growth is a priority (probably everywhere), with varying success.

Market-chain development is a practical, ground-up approach to industrial policy, often implemented by INGOs and NGOs in partnership with government ministries. In principle underdeveloped markets are encouraged to blossom by enabling a conducive policy, legal and regulatory environment  and by intervening to ensure that the services that support enterprise development are in place and properly functioning.

Effective market-chain development must balance industrial upgrading potential with market viability. Intervention planning must carefully choose potential markets for development that will self-sustain after the project cycle support is removed. In Nepal this means targeting agricultural markets, such as dairy products, forestry related markets, non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) in particular, and the tourism sector. Not only are these the markets that are likely to survive once subsidy support is pulled, but they are the ones that will alleviate poverty directly. In a country where over 80% of the population is rural, and where poverty is strongly correlated to natural resource dependence in particular, market development support in these areas offers opportunities to provide new, sustainable income-generating activities for the poorest in Nepal.

This goes against the growing consensus that the markets that should be targeted are those where there is a potential over time to move into products that have a higher value, and therefore bring greater benefits to the economy. Traditionally these are deemed to be in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. Given Nepal’s infrastructure and international trade relations, this alternative is not currently viable however.

At the time of writing, Kathmandu faces 10 hours of electricity load-shedding a day. This is likely to rise until significant rains replenish the mountain lakes that drive Nepal’s hydro-electricity reliant power grid. This failure in the supply of a good that is used as an essential, and non-substitutable, input for so much of the economy creates a crippling bottleneck for manufacturing, industrial and service sector development. Poor transport infrastructure further compounds domestic and export difficulties – Nepal, being landlocked, has no ports, only one international runway, and few, poorly maintained roads.

Nepal’s free trade accord with SAARC countries floods it with cheap Indian goods, limiting domestic market development. Furthermore, low-value industry and manufacturing struggle to compete internationally without special support which competitors in Africa benefit from through the US African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA). At the beginning of 2005 the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Textile and Clothing (ATC) came to an end, and the poorest countries, who had been exempt from the quota system and thus had preferential market access to the USA and other industrialised countries, were made to compete with less poor countries such as China. AGOA cushioned Africa’s situation but doubled the blow to poor Asian countries such as Nepal. Nepal’s readymade garment (RMG) exports to the USA, its biggest market, collapsed to one-tenth of its pre-2005 level in 5 years. Its RMG exports to India died similarly.

In contrast, markets in tea, coffee, essential oils, plant products used in fragrances and dairy products are underdeveloped domestically in Nepal, and have the potential to be competitive internationally. Furthermore, many of these products tap niche markets where demand is dependable and growing, and are thus somewhat protected from international price fluctuations.

When Education Outpaces Opportunity – Help Me Doctor

February 4, 2010

“I have a PhD in agriculture, an MBA in Finance, 12 years work experience as finance officer for a host of INGOs, 3 of those years were abroad, a 5 page publication list, 2 of those pages are articles in international journals. I am desperate for work, willing to consult on short-term contracts, anywhere in Asia. Please leave me on your consultancy list.”

Or words to that effect.

It is incredible how many people in Nepal have PhDs, MBAs and Master’s degrees. And it is even more staggering that many of them are struggling to make a secure living.

This reality is further evidence of the dangers of an over-expansion in education without a complementary expansion of opportunities for the educated. I relate this to the African post-independence experience:

From 1957 onwards, newly independent African states embarked on ambitious fast-track development agendas. Central to these plans was the rapid education of its citizens. Enormous educational expansion brought steep rises in school enrolment, attendance, and graduation. Literacy and numeracy rates rose sharply, and knock-on impacts were felt everywhere where better education plays a role in outcomes, leading for example to declines in fertility rates and the prevalence of hygiene-related illnesses.

But as more people went to school, expectations of work opportunities grew, nearly always faster than the supply of opportunities for the educated. In part to avoid having a large disgruntled educated tranche of the population, many countries guaranteed university graduates employment in the government and in state-owned companies. Many commentators agree that this was a large contributor to the over-sized, wasteful and inefficient governments and state-owned enterprises in Africa that emerged between the 60s and 80s.

Back to Nepal, and what I see is another impact of education levels outpacing work opportunity. The bar keeps being raised: If for every decent graduate-level job that is made available in Nepal, there are ten suitably qualified Nepalis, then recruiters will obviously look for ways of differentiating applicants. So those with higher degrees will more likely secure the jobs, leaving others, less but still adequately qualified, behind. Over time, having a bachelor’s degree becomes the standard and a master’s is required differentiate oneself.

What is staggering is that increasingly in Nepal, the process has gone a step further. At the moment I work for a development consultancy firm, connecting well qualified and experienced individuals in South Asia to technical development contract work. And the simple truth is, if you don’t have a PhD, you’re not likely to get a call from us.

The impact of this momentum can be devastating. In Nepal parents commit large amounts of their assets, or become heavily indebted to send their children to what they deem are the best private schools and further education colleges. Education in Nepal has become big business, exploiting the hopes and aspirations of students and parents who believe that a further qualification will make them more employable and offer a path out of poverty. But when this path involves two years of ‘sixth form’, four years of bachelor’s, at least two further years of master’s, may keep winding after that, and still does not always offer the promised prize at the end, the whole institution of further education reveals itself to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.