Deconstructing Green

Genetically modified crops use fewer pesticides than conventional crops. Far fewer. That’s not me saying it, that’s an enormous meta-analysis of 147 studies published just a couple of weeks ago. The difference is not small: we’re talking 37% less by volume, compounded over this huge range of studies.

It’s interesting how little play this story gets in the media. So much environmental reporting is intent on placing any story on a simple, green/not-green scale, which is really code for virtuous/vicious. The assumption is that these things move together: everyone knows GMOs are not green, and therefore they must use more pesticides, produce more GHG emissions, kill bees, the lot.

Reality isn’t that neat by a long shot. No-till agriculture sounds great, until you realize not-tilling raises weed pressures, which farmers respond to by just nuking them with extra herbicides. Organics sound great, but of course they give you lower yields, which means you need more land to produce the same amount of food, land that you can’t then use to plant trees, which trap carbon.

As “Green” turns into a marketing category, the culture’s ability to process this kind of complexity wanes. Who wants to buy a loaf of bread marked “GMO Free! Grown from wheat using 18.3% more pesticides and 14.9% more carbon emissions due to extra land-pressures arising from lower yields!”

As transgenics mature and more ambitious transformations are attempted in plants, these kinds of tradeoffs are likely to become more prominent. Some GMO research is now aiming at improving crop roots’ capacity to take up phosphorus from the soil, which will of course reduce the amount of fertilizer you need to reach a given yield level.

Hate fertilizer overuse? Here is Monsanto, with this transgenic maize that will help stamp it out!

Of course, for lots of activists GMOs aren’t really the issue, Monsanto is. Those guys could develop a GMO crop that ends global warming while giving Malala an education and people would still picket against it. Plenty of anti-GMO activists have a problem less with gene-splicing itself than with the economic system it’s part of. The easy “Monsanto-paid-you-didn’t-they?!” attack is now so ingrained for people it comes automatically, pretty much regardless of what a participant in one of these debates says. (Look for it in the comments section below!)

But even that’s not as straightforward as it once was, either, because some amazing genetic research is now being done by public research institutes with impeccable social credentials and no shareholders to speak of.

Take striga, the pretty purple flower pictured at the top of this post as it munches away on nutrients taken directly out of the roots of the sick maize plants in that field. Striga-resistant maize is now being developed by the same organizations that brought us the original Green Revolution. For my money, striga-resistant maize is the hardest transgenic crop to object to out there. It takes real bloody mindedness to harrumph the development of crops that ward off a pest that’s been destroying African livelihoods for as long as anyone can remember, doesn’t it?

Then there’s IRRI’s insanely ambitious C4 Rice project, which would remake the rice plant at its most fundamental level – the way it photosynthesizes – yielding a plant that looks like rice, produces rice, but eats sunlight like maize. The botanic equivalent of dropping a new, far more powerful engine into an old car, C4 rice promises to be vastly more productive than existing C3 varieties. The upshot would be much, much more food coming out of the same amount of land.

You can be against striga-resistant maize and C4 rice, of course, but then the onus is on you to say where all the extra land to produce the same amount of food should come from. We could chop down some forests, maybe. Or we could get all Malthusian and accept famine as a birth control method. I don’t find either of those alternatives especially appealing.

More and more crops  like these are going to be developed, and as they come online, I think intellectually honest people are going to have to reconsider their opposition to GMOs in light of new evidence.

That’s a process that’s only now starting, and it won’t be quick. But maybe accepting the idea that there are tradeoffs involved and that our cognitive shortcuts for figuring out what’s green and what isn’t can lead us astray is as good a starting point as any.

300,000 Ethiopian Farmers Can’t All Be Wrong

I almost choked on my cheerios the other morning when I ran into  this amazing story in The Guardian:

Ethiopia’s farmers are flocking to a hotline that provides free agricultural advice about planting crops, using fertiliser and preparing land as part of a government initiative to turn subsistence farmers into surplus sellers.

The automated hotline has received nearly 1.5m calls from more than 300,000 farmers since it launched 12 weeks ago, according to Khalid Bomba, CEO of the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), an internationally backed government initiative. The 90 lines are now taking an average of 35,000 calls a day.

This is huge. One thing you very quickly learn when you look at hunger in Africa is that farming is a knowledge industry, and lack of access to proper advice is a major stumbling block for small farmers as they try to break out of the poverty cycle.

“Extension services” – state bureaucracies set up to provide this kind of advice are often cumbersome, corrupt, unresponsive, or all three. In plenty of cases, they do little more than distribute patronage ahead of elections. Extension pilots do succeed now and again, but scale-up is elusive.

And so, shockingly, very basic knowledge on how to plant (“sow seed in rows, regularly spaced” say) fails to reach the ground. The upshot is real hunger.

Finding an implementable, efficient, cost-effective, scalable solution to the problem of how to get good advice to poor farmers is one very big step on the road to guaranteeing food security in Africa. Ethiopia may be on the cusp of achieving this.

Is the wider sector listening?

Funding the Submerged Bit of the Humanitarian Iceberg

The Guardian Professional Development network runs my piece on Invisible Crises today. Go have a look at it!

Given a funding architecture where the bulk of humanitarian donations are earmarked for use in a specific emergency, second-tier crises like the one in South Sudan face major obstacles to fundraising and third-tier crises like those in Chad often don’t get any direct funding. “We have plenty of operations that attract no earmarked funds at all,” says Alex Mundt, senior donor relations officer for the UNHCR. In those cases, the agency allocates non-earmarked contributions, typically from private donors, or “loosely earmarked” funds from donor governments directed at a broad region, rather than a specific place or activity. For the WFP, just 11% of donations come with no strings attached.

In general, I think it’s useful to divide humanitarian operations into three tiers.

The Top Tier involves large scale suffering in places of geostrategic significance, or in places with relatively empowered populations. They command sustained media interest and, partly as a result, sustained donor engagement. Syria, Iraq, Gaza, The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. The world only has attention span for one Top Tier crisis at a time, usually: it’s the confluence of four of them over the last 12 months that’s created this sense of “disaster overload”.

The Second Tier involves major crises in places of little geostrategic value (South Sudan, CAR), or comparatively smaller crises in highly visible places (Ukraine). They can command a solid humanitarian response (Humanitarian System-Wide Emergency Activation, in the jargon) though that doesn’t mean it’ll be properly resourced. Some journalists will go there, and lots of aid workers.

The Third Tier involves “minor” (in the scheme of things) crises in places of little strategic value. They command virtually no media engagement at all, because in a real sense there’s no “news” to report there: just chronic, grinding conflict and/or (usually “and”) environmental degradation taking place over a period of decades, with impacts that are incremental and cummulative. This is the underwater part of the Humanitarian Iceberg, and though the Sahel is its World Capital, it spreads around the globe, from Myanmar to Western Algeria to Paraguay to Mozambique.

The third tier is the submerged bit of the humanitarian iceberg: much bigger than the visible bit, but utterly out of sight. In my piece, I wanted to ask what happens to funding for the Third Tier when the top two tiers go haywire as they have this year.

This is an empirical question, and my article can’t answer it, only pose it.

What’s troubling, though, isn’t so much what’s happening now but what’s going to happen over the next generation or two. As climate systems change, we’re likely to see many, many more or these third tier crises…or, rather, we’re likely to not see them, because as they become more prevalent, they’ll tend to draw even less media attention than they do today.

Because the same chaotic climate, land degradation and population pressure that’ll drive the growth in third tier crises is also likely to drive growth in First and Second Tier crises.

The question for me is, how you manage disaster risk in the long tail as “disaster overload” becomes the new normal?

All major donors are theoretically signed up to the Principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship already. Principle 13 explicitly calls for more flexible funding of the type needed to address third tier crises. But that doesn’t seem to translate into a trend to more flexible giving. So what happens to funding for the long tail in the summer of 2028, when you have five Top Tier and nine Second Tier crises at the same time? Who goes there?

Blattman on Spain

When Blattman is on, he’s really on. 

The tricky part with this: the people who choose the leaders (the masses) aren’t the ones who control the wealth or weapons or other institutions, and they might have little education or civic organization. So the people who are powerful remain powerful, but now have to work through the quasi-democratic system and the masses, who now have a little more power than before. Thus you get patronage and party boss systems, or the rolling back of rights from the least powerful. At least for a time.

Preach it.

The Farce in Addis

South Sudan’s peace talks in Addis Ababa descended into outright farce yesterday as the rebels disowned an agreement that regional mediators had announced just hours earlier and that Ban Ki Moon had publicly welcomed.

A furious rebel chief negotiator denied ever having signed the agreement while, back home, “rebel” forces – more on those scare-quotes below – registered their views on the deal by shooting down a UN cargo helicopter outside the benighted town of Bentiu, killing three of its four crew members.

It was a day to cement the Addis Ababa Peace Process’s reputation as a bit of a joke. But South Sudan is in no mood for jokes. The country’s facing total state implosion, absolute lawlesness and an unprecedented famine. A country in as much trouble as South Sudan really can’t afford a botched peace process, but that’s what it’s getting.

One problem is that the talks led by regional block IGAD are technically a “mediation” rather than a facilitation. That means IGAD diplomats take an active role in proposing a settlement and pushing the parties to adopt it, rather than merely bringing them together.

That sounds ok until you realize a leading IGAD member, Uganda, has thousands of its soldiers stationed in South Sudan and actively sides with one of the warring parties – the government. Is it any wonder then that the rebel side perceives the mediator as openly aligned with the government side?

But more is wrong with this peace process than IGAD’s lack of credibility as a neutral broker.  

For one thing, IGAD has chosen a broadly inclusive “multi-stakeholder roundtable” approach to the negotiations. That sounds nice. In practice, though, it means that all kinds of groups that don’t actually command any of the men fighting have a seat around the table: women’s groups and church groups and civil society groups and former detainees and any number of other “stakeholders” who don’t have the authority to call off the violence because they’re not really active participants in the war.

The result has been a sprawling, unwieldy, bureaucratized gab fest with lots of grandstanding, lots of formal position papers, lots of pious statements meant for the microphones, and really none of the down-and-dirty bargaining and horse-trading between warring parties that might lead to a real political settlement. It’s no wonder the talks keep spinning their wheels or reaching deals that never have any purchase on the ground.

But it’s not just that some of the people around the table don’t belong there, it’s that some players now actively controlling territory on the ground aren’t properly represented at all.

Remember that UN chopper shot down by “rebel” forces? The reason we needed those scare quotes is that the likely culprit here is Peter Gadet. Gadet is a notorious Nuer warlord with a genuinely ghoulish reputation for vicious, sociopathic violence, but also as an able field commander. He spent most of the 1983-2005 civil war fighting on the side of the arabs, for one thing, and switched sides again and again during that war.

Gadet is undoubtedly fighting against the government in Juba this time around, which is why he’s usually glossed as a “rebel leader” in press accounts. But don’t fall into the trap of interpreting that to mean Gadet is part of a unified rebel chain of command. He’s not.

The guy is basically a free agent, fighting against the government and broadly allied with notional rebel leader Riek Machar, but certainly not answering to him or, banish the thought, taking orders from him.

The rumour I’ve heard is that Gadet hasn’t even met with Machar once since the current war started, even though his forces now control large swathes of territory in the strategically crucial, oil rich Unity State.

Now, the fiction in Addis is that Riek’s negotiators “speak for” Gadet too. But you can’t find anyone in South Sudan who actually believes that, including, incidentally, President Salva Kiir, who has repeatedly criticized the lack of a unified rebel chain of command in public statements recently.

Whether Riek’s negotiators did or did not initially sign the “matrix” agreement in Addis yesterday we may never know. Whether Gadet ordered that UN chopper shot down specifically to scupper the agreement or not is something else we’ll probably never know.

What’s clear is that the thing happening in Addis Ababa that’s generally referred to in the press as “peace talks” is no such thing. It’s a talking shop where people who don’t have the power to call off the fight make pretty speeches while people who do have the power to call off the fight pay no heed. It produces fine words about inclusivity, accountability and justice while the guys with the guns keep shooting at each other and anyone else who gets in the way. It’s a farce.

There’s been some talk in international circles about cutting off budget support to the South Sudanese government if it doesn’t get serious about peace negotiations. Understandable as the urge to be seen to do something is, this is the wrong target.

Western powers could achieve much more by taking concerted action to end to the farce in Addis and to convene a serious peace process, one that puts all the warring parties and only the warring parties around a table, far away from the microphones, under the leadership of a credible, seasoned, neutral facilitator.

Enough is enough. The time has come for serious, sustained, professional diplomacy to help end the South Sudanese conflict.

Like Putting the World on a Four-Pack-a-Day Habit

Dart-Throwing Chimp Jay Ulfelder makes a reasonable(ish) point that the hype about disaster overload this year is based on not-enough-data, so claims that it’s unprecedented are shaky. That’s right, as far as it goes: it’s always possible to overegg these things, and perhaps that’s a trap I fall into.

But if this Campaign is guilty of not looking at the past with enough depth, Herr Doktor Chimp may have a blindspot in the opposite direction: it’s the future when the Age of Disaster Overload looks really dire.

The IPCC has been telling us unambiguously for some time that we’re putting the whole world on the disaster-risk equivalent of a four-pack-a-day smoking habit.

 The IPCC’s latest leaked report would make this point clearly, if we hadn’t all gotten so desensitized to IPCC reports already. Whatever you want to say about the prevalence of disasters right now – and nobody’s denying that prevalence is high – what’s unmistakable is that disaster risk is rising, and virtually certain to keep rising at an accelerating rate for decades to come.

All sorts of well established risk factors for disaster impact are unmistakably on the rise. Desertification and land degradation, overpopulation, prevalence of major storms, prevalence of drought and flood, coastal erosion, slum-urbalization, falling water tables, population pressures on marginal agro-ecologies, these risk factors build on one another in intractable ways.

The outcome goes beyond violence and conflict. Disasters come in all different shapes and sizes, and maniacs-wielding-kalashnikovs is just one flavour. Plenty more are either “natural” (which, of course, increasingly is just a longer-time-span take on “man-made”) or lie at the intersection between the natural and the political, with weak institutions failing to help vulnerable populations to adapt to new circumstances.

Disasters that “start out natural” can turn into violent political conflicts, as has arguably already happened in Somalia and Syria. And the strategies people use to cope with political disorder can fuel the kind of environmental degradation that magnifies the impact of extreme climate events. In fact, the whole conventional separation between “natural” and “man-made” disasters is analytically suspect, not just because the same set of risk factors can lead to both types of disaster, but also because disasters of one kind can end up exacerbating risks for the other kind. 

Here the public health analogy is useful. Epidemiologists know you can never really pin one person’s heart attack or diabetes to his or her smoking habits. But you can say, with startlingly high levels of statistical precision, that if a population as a whole smokes more, its all-causes mortality rate will rise in a determinate, predictable way.

In part, that’s because diabetes and heart disease build on one another. Smoking is a major risk factor for both. And we know that diabetes itself is a risk factor for heart disease and that heart disease, once it takes hold, complicates the treatment of diabetes. 

The IPCC has been telling us unambiguously for some time that we’re putting the whole world on the disaster-risk equivalent of a four-pack-a-day smoking habit.

We can’t say, with any real certainty, which bits of the world will suffer which types of disasters as a result, or when. We don’t know where exactly the wars will be, where we’ll have slow-onset famines and where we’ll have complete CAR-style state implosions.

But we can say that each of those things is likely to happen more often, as will previously extremely-rare events like Haiyan-style monster storms as well as a whole new breed of never-before-dealt-with disasters arising from rising sea levels. And we can be fairly confident in predicting that in more and more cases, disasters of one type will compound disasters of another in ways likely to swamp efforts at adaptation. 

So let’s keep the big picture clearly in focus here. Can we really say whether 2014 is the most disastrous year ever? Not at all. But we can be pretty darn certain that over the next several generations, the level of disaster impacts that seems extraordinary now will seem “routine” at best and, more likely, will come to look like “the good old days”.

Now, if you knew for a fact that over the next several decades, your entire population would start smoking more and more, year after year, indefinitely, with no end in sight…wouldn’t you want to review your hospital infrastructure? Your cardiologist training programmes? Your entire response infrastructure?

But here’s the kicker: the humanitarian infrastructure the world has built for itself to deal with disasters – the WFP and the UNHCR and UNICEF and the big NGOs – are already totally overwhelmed and unable to cope with the disasters we have now, let alone 20 years from now. WFP alone is billions short of its funding target, and hundreds of thousands are now on starvation rations as a result.

What worries me is that donor countries just don’t seem to be getting that message at all. The collective penny hasn’t dropped. Western politicians don’t appear to have any clue that we have a dangerously undersized humanitarian sector dealing with risks certain to balloon.

The EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Response, Kristalina Georgieva, has called the extreme overstretch the Humanitarian sector faces in 2014 “the new normal.” If only! The phrase suggests a chronic but at least stable underfund, a kind of equilibrium of the intolerable. This dangerously soft-balls the real situation, where humanitarian spending is growing geometrically while humanitarian need is growing exponentially.  

So let’s think twice before shrugging off the disaster crush of 2014. This isn’t a blip. It’s an amuse-bouche. 

Shouldn’t “anti-poverty” and “pro-middle class” be synonyms?

Standard Bank’s landmark study of the growth of the middle class in Sub-Saharan Africa offers some welcome clarity. In the 11 key African economies they look at, they find 15 million households living on more than $15 per person per day, while 95 million households living on less than that. That’s probably 50-60 million middle-class people: a small minority, yet three times as many as 15 years ago, and not far off from the size of, say, Britain’s. Better yet, on current trends, those numbers will rise quickly  by 2030. 

Now, this is fantastic news. Once it gets going, the process of middle-class formation is formidable and, if not quite irreversible, certainly hard to stop. A mass middle class is the force for political stability and growth: the glue that keeps political settlements from growing apart. But that’s all frosting: the cake is definitional. Because there’s one thing you definitely aren’t when you are middle class, and that’s poor.

This is a really, really simple idea, and one that you couldn’t really argue with. Yet it seems to get lost so often. When people “overcome poverty” they’re not launched into some vague olympian category of non-poorness, they become something new. They become middle class.

In some really basic sense, then, being “anti-poverty” should be functionally indistinguishable from being “pro-middle class”. But, of course, in current usage, that’s very far from being the case. All kinds of “anti-poverty programs” are not so much “pro-middle class” but, as the sinister-in-ways-we’ve-stopped-recognizing-due-to-familiarity phrase has it, “pro-poor”: aimed not at making the poor not poor, but at helping craft a more bearable type of poverty. “Poverty alleviation” much more often means “help coping with the negative consequences of being poor” than “help stopping being poor”

It’s this, and not the other thing, that’s overwhelmingly now the goal of the development aid industry. And it’s not surprising, because the toolbox of the development aid industry has relatively little to offer for middle class creation. The processes that drive middle class creation are macro in origi, national in scope and general in application. The development industry toolbox is full of micro-level programs that are local in scope and specific in application.  

There’s never been a recorded case of a country transitioning from poor to middle-income on the basis of a concatenation of local level interventions. That’s a fallacy of composition that should’ve been put to bed decisively by Nina Munk. It hasn’t been. It probably never will be. 

Conceptual clarity would help. I understand that “make poverty history” resonates in ways that “make middle-class universal” never will. But I also know this: until we stop treating them like the synonyms they are, real progress against poverty in Africa will keep happening alongside our engagement, at best, despite it at worse, but seldom if ever because of it.

Hug a Humanitarian Today

Today, as we celebrate the crazy people doing one of the world’s scariest day, let’s take a moment to remember those who are not around to receive our thanks this year:

The advisory group, Humanitarian Outcomes, said the number of attacks on aid workers in 2013 set an annual record, at 460, the most since the group began compiling its database, which goes back to 1997. Known as the Aid Worker Security Database, it is widely regarded as an authoritative reference for aid organizations and governments in assessing trends in security threats.

The new figures show that 155 aid workers were killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 abducted in 2013, representing a 66 percent increase in the numbers of victims from a year earlier.

More than half the fatalities were in Afghanistan, where aid workers faced particularly acute dangers from a potent Taliban insurgency even after more than a dozen years of war and American-led occupation.

The sector is going through one of its roughest patches in recent history. It’s fitting we take one day to offer thanks.

Bentiu Puts in Its Bid for Worst Place in the World Right Now

The northern four-fifths of South Sudan are taken up by the Nile floodplain: a flat-as-a-pancake seasonal swamp that’s about the size of Spain. For several months each year, after the heavy rains come, virtually all of it is under water. Then, as the water drains first into the Sudd marshlands and eventually into the Nile itself, the land goes bone-dry for the rest of the year.

Traditionally, the people of the flood plain are semi-nomadic: they roam around in search of pasture in the dry months, then gather into temporary villages on the few ridges and (slightly-)higher ground to avoid the waters during the rainy season.

But what happens when war cuts people off from the higher ground during the rainy season?

This happens:

Much of the [United Nations Mission in South Sudan] camp in Bentu was flooded in July with the first heavy downpour of the rainy season. Over one thousand makeshift shelters filled with sewage contaminated floodwater. People used cooking pots to scoop up the water, tried to build mud dams across doorways to prevent water entering, but to no avail.

With few possibilities for drainage, current living conditions in the camp are horrifying and an affront to human dignity. Most of the camp is now knee-deep in sewage, thousands of people cannot lay down and therefore sleep standing up with their infants in their arms.

Let that sink in for a second.

It’s not exactly a surprise that the burden of infectious disease in these conditions is extreme. More so is the UN’s total inability to safeguard people even one meter outside the camp’s perimeter fence.

The MSF press release closes on an especially galling note:

Understandably, camp residents are angry and resentful. While not easy, drainage is possible with a determined effort. Existing resources and UNMISS equipment onsite such as excavators and diggers must be made available as a priority for this purpose. Furthermore, there remains unused land in the zone and the immediate allocation of land that is less susceptible to flooding would alleviate some of the current suffering. What’s clear is that the current situation is untenable without improvements. People should be safe from disease as well as safe from violence.

South Sudan is just going to dominate the Worst Place in the World stakes for the foreseeable future. Because, don’t forget: as all this happens, a major famine is brewing in the wings as well.
 [Hat Tip: JM.]

 

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