An African Solution to an African Problem

I was just reading this great blog by Marcelo Giugale from the World Bank. He writes about why Africa has so many food insecurity issues despite having 400 million hectares of agricultural land yet to be cultivated. What is the issue behind this?

new report shows that the problem is mainly man-made — you can’t really blame fate or nature. It has to do with laws, regulations, policies and institutions that shut African farmers, especially small farmers, out of the urban centers where consumers are. [Mind you, that’s even before you consider the old handicap that has held back agriculture in the region: a land ownership structure that makes it difficult for large agricultural enterprises to set up shop and deploy the kind of modern technology and equipment that small, individual farmers can rarely access.] The entire way from the farm to the kitchen table, red-tape, monopolies and corruption block food trade within Africa, even within each African country. 

But more importantly, the post then goes on to recommend a few ways in which Africa, in a completely autonomous way, can help itself to turn this around. The main advice: better integration between the countries.

By some estimates, lifting barriers to food trade, from the farm to the market, could double Africa’s production of cassava and rice, triple maize, millet and sorghum, and quintuple wheat. 

Tags: africa food

The (True) Cost of Carbon

A new paper by Laurie Johnson and Chris Hope studies the social cost of carbon. The paper comes as a response to the U.S. government , who in 2010 published its first estimates of the benefits of reducing CO2 emissions, referred to as the social cost of carbon (SCC). Using three climate economic models, an interagency task force  concluded that regulatory impact analyses should use a central value of $21 per metric ton of CO2 for the monetized benefits of emission reductions. These estimates have been criticized for relying upon discount rates that are considered too high for  intergenerational cost–benefit analysis, and for treating monetized damages  equivalently between regions, without regard to income levels.

The new study:

reestimate the values from the models (1) using a range of discount rates and  methodologies considered more appropriate for the very long time horizons associated with climate change and (2) using a methodology that assigns “equity weights” to damages based upon relative income levels between regions—i.e., a dollar’s worth of damages occurring in a poor region is given more weight than one occurring in a wealthy region. Under our alternative discount rate specifications, we find an SCC 2.6 to over 12 times larger than the Working Group’s central estimate of $21; results are similar when the government’s estimates are equity weighted. 

Life After MDGs

The Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) are supposed to be met by 2015. Although some of the objectives will not be met by then, others have already been satisfied. Exactly how effective have they been? Charles Kenny and Andy Sumner have a paper which measures the impact f MDGs. They conclude that:

We argue that the MDGs may have played a role in increasing aid and that development policies beyond aid quantity have seen some limited improvement in rich countries (the evidence on policy change in poor countries is weaker). Further, there is some evidence of  faster-than-expected progress improving quality of  life in developing countries since the Millennium Declaration, but the contribution of  the MDGs themselves in speeding that progress is—of  course—difficult to demonstrate even assuming the MDGs induced policy changes after 2002. 

Bringing awareness may seem like too small of a result for a project who’s aim was to eradicate all the major development problems in the planet today. But, honestly, who thought that would be the outcome? In a recent article, Dani Rodrik praises the impact MDGs has had on development and on setting the agenda, but more importantly begins outlining key issues for the next round of MDGs.

First, a new global compact should focus more directly on rich countries’ responsibilities. Second, it should emphasize policies beyond aid and trade that have an equal, if not greater, impact on poor countries’ development prospects.

A short list of such policies would include: carbon taxes and other measures to ameliorate climate change; more work visas to allow larger temporary migration flows from poor countries; strict controls on arms sales to developing nations; reduced support for repressive regimes; and improved sharing of financial information to reduce money laundering and tax avoidance.

Venice Biennale on Architecture

Great article in the NY Times on the architectural and urban side of the Venice Biennale. They praise the work of lesser-known architects who are working on more sustainable type buildings. The article brings forward two great points, which I copy below:

The exhibition still positions architects as producers of surplus value through aesthetic quality, less so as players at the decision-making table, organizing cities and communities. Cautious, dated, with too many cooks (Mr. Chipperfield farmed out many sections to friends like Mr. Foster), the show suggests above all an uncertainty about how to unpack, evaluate, present and tame the messy, multilayered social, political, economic and architectural processes that go into making good buildings and places today.


That many of the projects here skirt authority and don’t involve architects suggests not that architects aren’t important or that cities don’t depend on top-down plans. It suggests that cities and architects still have a ways to go to catch up with an increasingly restless public’s appetite for better design and better living. 

No Lesson Learned

Very interesting issue of Foreign Policy with a special focus on cities. There are a few interesting articles, but this one on the urbanization of Chinese cities really caught my attention. 

China’s most dynamic cities are growing at rates unheard of and are obviously having some trouble managing the huge inflow of population. But what is extremely worrisome is that they seem to be repeating many of the mistakes that US cities made in their post-war boom. Mainly focusing urban transportation around cars and highways. 

Like the U.S. cities of the 1950s and ’60s, Chinese cities are working to accommodate the explosive growth of automobile travel by building highways, ring roads, and parking lots. But more than any other factor, the rise of the car and the growth of the national highway system hollowed out American cities after World War II. Urban professionals fled to their newly accessible palaces in the suburbs, leaving behind ghettos of poverty and dysfunction. As Jane Jacobs, the great American urbanist, lamented, “Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.”

Life on two wheels

New article on The Economist on the increasing number of bike users in the US. This is a giant step for North Americans, who seem to love their cars (SUV’s to be more precise). According to the article, between 1977 and 2009 the total number of annual bike trips more than tripled. Nonetheless, total bike share of all trips is only 1% in the US compared to 30% in some parts of northern Europe. 

But change can happen fast. According to the article, Chicago is planning on becoming a bike-friendly city: building protected bicycle lanes and installing a bike-sharing program. I have seen the transformation these type of policies has brought to Washington DC, and I can testify that change can happen quicker than expected. 

Where do the poor live? Why does it matter?

The Economist just released a new article which summarizes a few recent papers on the geography of where the poor live. This is a crucial question for development policy. One study found that four-fifths of those living on less than US$ 2 a day actually live in middle-income countries. Why does this matter?

His finding reflects the fact that a long but inequitable period of economic growth has lifted many developing countries into middle-income status but left a minority of their populations mired in poverty. Since the countries involved include giants like China and India, even a minority amounts to a very large number of people. That matters because middle-income countries can afford to help their own poor. If most of the poverty problem lies within their borders, then foreign aid is less relevant to poverty reduction. A better way to help would be to make middle-income countries’ domestic policies more “pro-poor”.

But another paper argues that this is just a passing phase and that by 2025 most of the poor will be living in low-income countries. They argue that as middle-income countries continue to make progress against poverty, its incidence there will fall. However, the number of poor people is growing in “fragile” states, which the authors define as countries which cannot meet their populations’ expectations or manage these through the political process.

The Economist summarizes the differences between these two stances quite nicely:

The two accounts do reflect different and important ways of thinking about poverty. One, Mr Sumner’s, focuses on income and says the big dividing line lies between poor and middle-income countries. The other, associated with Messrs Kharas and Rogerson, focuses more on politics; its dividing line is between fragile and stable countries. If Messrs Kharas and Rogerson are right, aid donors need to concentrate on governance and try to move countries from the fragile to the stable category—a daunting task. If Mr Sumner is right, the role of donors should probably be to work with local governments in middle-income countries to ensure benefits from public spending are equitably distributed to the poorest, wherever they may live.

Preparing for the Unpredictable

Interesting blog by World Bank economist Jose Cuesta. He gives a more practical stance on the food crisis and what can be done to contain its effects. 

One cannot prepare sufficiently early to prevent a future crisis (food related or other), but when it comes to an appropriate response to an unfolding crisis, these can also be tricky: late responses tend to be much less effective and more expensive, while a response that comes too early may be responding to a “false positive.” Moreover, the varying types of crises – ranging from severe but transitory food insecurity caused by an unprecedented drought to predictable and cyclical food supply declines during lean seasons to recurrent emergencies related to structural issues such as conflict and migration, as seen in the Horn in Africa and the Sahel – can make it even more difficult to craft an adequate response.

Once the Flame Dies Out

Given my love for sports and urbanism, I find this to be a fascinating discussion:is hosting the Olympics beneficial for a city in terms of infrastructure and urban development?

Before we get into the discussion, let me start by explaining why I would just focus on the Olympics and not any major sporting event, say the World Cup. First of all, the Olympics are hosted by cities (not countries like in the WC) so it is easier to measure the impact. Second, and more important, the Olympic Village constructed for the games offer a great opportunity for housing projects and urban developments. On the other hand, host countries for the WC usually just build new stadiums (many times too many and too big for later use -South Africa is a great example of this-) and players usually stay at hotels.  

So, with this discussion in mind, I came across this article from the Columbia University Earth Institute which clearly favors the motion:

Mega-events like the Olympics have had a long-term impact on host cities. Beyond the prestige associated with hosting the Olympics, building the necessary infrastructure to literally welcome the world during the two weeks of the Games offers the host city a legitimate pretext and catalyst for the transformation of parts the city, in line with the city’s broader urban renewal vision.

But Andrew Zimbalist seems to differ. In this article from The Atlantic, he states something a bit different:

Once the 17-day extravaganza is over, the city must then attempt to find productive use of the dozens of venues it has built. These projects often cost hundreds-of-millions of dollars to construct, take up 10 to 20 acres of valuable urban real estate (frequently for decades), and cost tens-of-millions of dollars to maintain each year. Despite this, many of these former Olympic venues are scarcely used, as is the case with Beijing’s Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, or many of the venues built for the Athens games. The list of white elephants is long.

There are obviously no clear conclusions. I’m sure it depends heavily on individual experiences and on the objectives the planning committee has in mind when thinking of the long-term outcomes the investments will bring to the city. What’s your opinion?  

I Live my Life in the City

Rio+20 came and went without leaving behind any relevant effect in its way. The summit many were expecting to change the face of sustainable development, only launched (another) report on where we want to get to (report, here). 

But now, some are saying that the earth summit deemed more useful for it’s off-site meetings and conferences, were figures from different sectors joined and discussed social and environmental problems and the urgency to act on them.

And according to this article, it was mainly the cities (through the mayors) which stole the spotlight. (Just a cautionary note on my behalf: some of the mayors they are referring to truly aren’t the face of the change I would be hoping for).

“The cities are really where the action is,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at the Earth Institute and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Rosenzweig is co-director of the Urban Climate Change Research Network, a consortium of more than 400 researchers and practitioners who focus on climate change adaptation and mitigation from an urban perspective. She attended a series of events in Rio, including the Rio+20 Mayors Summit, where she talked about the findings of the research network’s First Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities, published in 2011. Cities, Rosenzweig said, are emerging as the “first responders” on climate change and sustainable development.

That’s in part because cities have to: More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas; 20 cities have populations over 10 million, and the proportion of urban population is growing. Mayors of many of the world’s metropolises are directly confronting pressing problems in transportation, energy, waste treatment, housing and basic services. They also are often on the front lines of issues related to climate change, including sea level rise and increasing risks from extreme weather events.