Links I Like [CfBD]

cfbd-logo-0023This month’s list of Links I Like will be dedicated to the smashing new development blog, The Campaign for Boring Development. Inspired by Marc F. Bellemare’s piece in Foreign Affairs entitled Development Bloat: How Mission Creep Harms the Poor. (P.S. Marc, if you are reading this, I’ve applied to your program at the U, show me some love!) The goal of CfBD is to bring back the “heretical” idea that the main reason people are poor is because they don’t have enough money.

Twice in the last month The World Bank’s Development Impact Blog featured CfBD for it’s blunt wit and sharp intellect; it is time I did this same. Here is a rundown of the top ten posts from the first month of the blog’s existence. Enjoy:

1. Are We Helicopter-Parenting the African State? 

This quazi-review of Angus Deaton’s newest book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality is insightful and witty. I say, “quazi-review” because it is mostly an essay on the West’s assistance…erm involvement in the day-to-day existence of African public action. Using the analogy of parents paying the rent for their 34 year old child, the point is made, “At some point…you need to see with full clarity that that 34 year old is never going to go out and get a job until you stop paying his rent.”

The piece ends with this, umm, zinger: “When [Angus Deaton] one of the field’s founders and giants starts making an argument functionally indistinguishable from the one your drunk republican uncle makes over Thanksgiving when you say you’ve been working on an aid project in Senegal, you know things have come to a head”.

2. On Cook Stoves, There is No Need for Hyperbole

Ah, yes, hyperbolic discounting. This just goes to show: if you want to do something helpful, keep things simple but don’t be afraid to learn about something complicated. Said differently, focus on just raising income levels and learn about how human beings discount the future. Start by learning about present-bias discounting; it will go a long way in understanding why people do what they do when (they think) nobody is watching.

Oh right, what does this have to do with clean air cook stoves? Ok so, if I’m only making $1.25 per day it is entirely rational for me to only value the benefit of that clean air cook stove at $0.65 today. That is if I happen to be thinking rationally at the moment, which I’m probably not… because I’m a human being… and I am only making $1.25 per day.

3. The Guardian Cracks It: Kenya’s Problem is Too Much Rural Investment

I hope it is clear the title of this piece is sarcastic. Here, CfBD takes a stand against liberal guilt and The Guardian’s feel-bad piece on Blood Roses and Chocolate before Valentines Day. Evidently it is an atrocity that Kenyan farmers must leave the (so-called) ideal of subsistence—or even sub-subsistence—farming to experience the (so-called) drudgery of a flower plantation worker. But, “Shhhhhh, don’t ask too many questions about rural Kenyans’ actual lives, lest you realize the conditions you’re casually condemning as “harsh” and “low paid” are an immense improvement on the alternatives – the real alternatives, not your fantasy alternatives”.

“The notion that you can somehow improve the lives of the world’s poorest people by cutting off the few, tenuous economic links normal people in the west have with them is – how to put this politely? – Totally insane.” Let’s make this simple: “the only known cure for [material] poverty is economic activity. If you want to make a Kenyan farmer less poor, buy something she grows. 

4. Mobile Layaway for Farm Inputs: A Silver Bullet for the Silver Bullet

When people say, “There are no silver bullets in development”, it is supposed to make them sound wise and supposedly signals an understanding of the world’s complexity. This banal platitude, however, has become a cliché. Which means that those who actually don’t understand the complexity of the world can state this statement with sincerity. Saying, “there is no such thing as a silver bullet”, has become axiomatic and has prevented most of us from looking for that elusive silver bullet.

“Take agricultural inputs. A large majority of the “Bottom Billion” are smallholder farmers. Nearly all of them have abysmal incomes as a direct result of working with sub-standard inputs: low yield “saved seed”, old-fashioned farming methods and, too often, no fertilizer at all”. Warning! Potential development heresy ahead! “… For very poor smallholders, better agricultural inputs are a silver bullet. Improved seed, fertilizer and extension services would be enough, on their own, to help millions overcome the most extreme forms of poverty”.

5. M-Pesa is the Very Boring Tip of a Very Big Iceberg

Speaking of using innovations in mobile technology… M-Pesa! If you don’t know, M-Pesa is a money transfer service used in Kenya to send remittances, pay bills, send money to children for school, etc. Oh yea, and it is run by the mobile telecom company, Safaricom. If you don’t know about it, learn about it (here, here, or here). If you already know about M-Pesa and are wondering why it works so well in Kenya, but similar structures crumble in other countries, read this article.

(Side note: I just bought my very own light-up M-Pesa sign. You know, as a wonky souvenir from my time in Kenya.)

6. The Brutal Math of the One Acre Farm

Sometimes development can seem so complicated that we miss the most simple of facts. “70% of the world’s poorest people live on very small farms. Their poverty is nothing but straightforward: if you’re farming the size of farm the poorest farm, with the kind of technology the poorest have access to and getting the yields that pass for normal in the poorest countries, you just don’t produce enough calories to feed even two adults”.

“For 70% of the world’s poorest people, 70% of the development game is just about [figuring out how to purchase and plant hybrid seed rather than saved seed]. How about we start there?”

7. Roads Before Bros

Roads. Everybody needs them and contrary to what Dr. Brown says in Back to the Future, where we are going, we need roads. Here is the problem: Building roads is boring and hot and sweaty and doesn’t necessarily involve a “photo opp” of smiling children.

With many countries in Africa being landlocked (or double landlocked) roads are simply one of the only ways things that are bought and sold are, well, bought and sold. Chew on this fact for a while, “It costs twice as much to move a cargo container from the south of Mozambique to the north of Mozambique as it does to ship it from Dubai to Mozambique in the first place.” Ok I know, I know, economies of scale are at work, of course shipping one container by truck will be more expensive than 1000 by boat. Then again, that is kind of the point.

8. What Microcredit Is… And What It Isn’t

This post makes it into the top ten because it disseminates the brilliance of Abhijit Banergee. Yes, a lot of “the global poor” are “entrepreneurs” in the sense that they own a business. But not only are most of these people self-employed, their businesses only self-employ. Most poor business owners own their business because of the lack of viable economic alternatives. Oh, yea, and THAT is why microcredit doesn’t work as well as it does on paper.

Seriously, if you work in development, are on a board of directors of an organization that works in development, financially support a nephew who works in development, or have heard of microcredit ever, you should spend at least 36 minutes (and probably an hour) listening to the imbedded video.

9. Kilimo Salama: Crop Microinsurance For Dummies

If you are actually reading through these pieces in order you’ve just fallen off the microcredit wagon. Well, here comes the crop microinsurance wagon just in time to pick you back up again. That’s right, this month’s (or this year’s or this decade’s, I can’t decide) pop-development intention fad is crop microinsurance. Farming is risky, especially in 2014 because of… well… you know. Where there is risk there is usually a market for insurance. The problem has always been how do you get poor subsistence (and even sub-subsistence) small-scale farmers to willingly buy insurance. Well, It looks like Kilimo Salama has figured it out!

10. LivingGoods: Waking Up to the Distribution and Marketing Bottleneck

In the real world, nothing is actually textbook. There is perhaps no place where this statement is more true than most of the countries in Africa. Markets don’t work like they should. Businesses operate at head scratching scale. And NGOs do some pretty crazy stuff. Which is why it is kind of embarrassing that the “Avon model” for distribution and marketing of both essential and nonessential goods is only catching on now. Anyway, LivingGoods is an organization doing some pretty innovative stuff.

Oh and for those wondering, THIS is a pro-poor business model for fighting poverty, not microcredit.

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