Category: Politics

The Developmental Paradox

I have been working on a paper on the political economy of agricultural protection in the United States with my colleague Nick Carnes. For his dissertation (and forthcoming book White-Collar Government, which you should go pre-order now if you haven’t already done so), Nick has assembled a nice data set on the legislators of the 106th to the 110th US Congresses (i.e., for the period 1999 to 2009) which, with a little bit of research assistance, allows us to look at the roll-call votes of US legislators on the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, among other outcomes.

I will dedicate a post to that paper when we have a manuscript that is presentable, but I wanted to talk about the “developmental paradox,” since this is something that has been coming up frequently in my research and teaching, and because most readers of this blog are probably unaware of the paradox. Continue reading

Getting Food Aid Right

How many of us read a story of disaster striking people half a world away and respond by getting out our checkbooks?  Tens of millions of us in any given year, and Americans are especially generous. Relief agencies received more than $1.2 billion in the wake of the disastrous 2010 earthquake in Haiti and $3.9 billion following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  But is anyone foolish enough to go to the local grocery store, buy food and ship it to communities devastated by disaster? Of course not. That would cost much more, take too long to reach people in need, risk spoilage in transit, and likely not provide what is most needed.

Yet with only minor oversimplification, this is precisely what our government’s food aid programs have done since 1954. Our main international food aid programs are authorized through the Farm Bill and must purchase food in, and ship it from, the United States. This system was originally designed to dispose of surpluses the government acquired under farm price support programs that ended decades ago.  These antiquated rules continue today thanks to political inertia in Washington.

As a result, only 40 cents of each taxpayer dollar spent on international food aid actually buys the commodities hungry people eat; the rest goes to shipping and administrative costs. And the median time to deliver emergency food aid is nearly five months. We can do better.

From a longer piece by my friend and frequent coauthor Chris Barrett on CNN’s Global Public Square blog. Chris is also the author with Dan Maxwell of what is without a doubt the best book anyone can read on food aid.

More on British vs. French Colonial Institutions

An email from Chuhang Yin, a former student of mine:

I just read your newest blog post and I am fascinated by this topic. I found a recent [Quarterly Journal of Political Science] paper by Alexander Lee and Kenneth Schultz at Stanford titled “Comparing British and French Colonial Legacies: A Discontinuity Analysis of Cameroon” and think it might be relevant. Their focus is on public goods and individual wealth, but not on land productivity. The abstract is here:

“Colonial institutions are thought to be an important determinate of post-independence levels of political stability, economic growth, and public goods provision. In particular, many scholars have suggested that British institutional and cultural legacies are more conducive to growth than those of France or other colonizers. Systematic tests of this hypothesis are complicated by unobserved heterogeneity among nations due to variable pre- and post-colonial histories. We focus on the West African nation of Cameroon, which includes regions colonized by both Britain and France, and use the artificial former colonial boundary as a discontinuity within a national demographic survey. We show that rural areas on the British side of discontinuity have higher levels of household wealth and local public provision of piped water. Results for urban areas and centrally-provided public goods show no such effect, suggesting that post-independence policies also play a role in shaping outcomes.”

Specifically about results:

“Using data from the 2004 Demographic and Health Survey of Cameroon, we compare communities near the former colonial border using both a regression discontinuity research design and a comparison of neighboring villages that straddle the boundary. We show that rural households on the British side have higher levels of wealth and are more likely to have access to piped water, a locally provided public good. These results do not hold for urban areas or for centrally-provided public goods like roads and education, suggesting that the effect of colonial-era differences can be attenuated by post-colonial policies.”

I also found a paper published in 2000 in Comparative Politics titled “Institutions, Context, and Outcomes: Explaining French and British Rule in West Africa” which might also be useful:

“I seek to solve this puzzle by tracing the origin of class formation in Ivory Coast’s and Ghana’s rural areas. Specifically, French and British colonial institutions generated different property rights and landholding patterns, forming the basis for different patterns of class formation.”

On page 258 to 260 the author discusses the differences of British and French institutions.

James Scott on Why We Should Study Agriculture

You are an agrarian by training; yet all of your texts are decisively political. What’s so political about agriculture? And what are the policy implications for state-making and development in the Third World?

I think that as the major way of sustenance, as the major resource over which people struggle—questions of land and irrigation water and food supply and famine—are at the very center of the history of political struggles. They are the elementary version of politics and that’s why it seems to me that a concern with such issues as farming is directly and immediately a concern with politics.

Back to the ‘modern, developed world’: in Western Europe and the US, the agricultural section makes up typically 5% of the population. Yet they tend to be heavily overrepresented politically in respect to their demographic weight in many respects because of questions of rural policy, political districting, subsidies… Smallholders and petty bourgeoisie are very important for right-wing parties. They are protected and subsidized to a point where surpluses accumulate and we actually make it difficult for the Third World to export. In a truly neoclassical world, we wouldn’t be subsidizing agriculture and we’d be getting most of our agricultural supplies from poor countries on the periphery of Europe and Latin America. Even in a place like India, which is industrializing and urbanizing rapidly, the fact is that the rural population and the people that live off of agriculture and related activities has never been higher than it is today—even though the proportion is declining, the population is growing at such a rate that this tendency can be marked.

That’s James Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University and author of The Moral Economy of the PeasantSeeing Like a State, as well as quite a few other influential social science books, on why social scientists should study agriculture, agrarian societies, and agricultural policy. Continue reading

In Which I Talk About Food Prices

While I was in Montreal for the McGill Conference on Global Food Security a few weeks ago, I was interviewed by CKUT — McGill’s student-run radio — for their Health on Earth program.

I spoke with CKUT’s Lorraine Wong about the difference between rising food prices and food price volatility and the social consequences thereof, and about various other food-policy-related topics. Though Lorraine aired the interview unedited, I managed to sound semi-coherent. Continue reading