Thursday, 11 December 2014

Governance and Development blog will no longer be updated but you can read all the latest opinions from the IDS community on our website

This will be the last post to be published on this blog. The Institute of Development Studies now publishes all our members’ and guest bloggers’ posts directly onto our website.

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The IDS Communications and Engagement Unit

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

In defence of agency

The concept of ‘agency’ was recently dismissed on this blog as an "academic affectation" that keeps policymakers and practitioners from "simpler, cleaner and more evidence-based thinking about development options".

Wouldn’t development be so much easier if we could just ignore complex research into the workings of human agency – our ability to think and act to change our conditions and achieve our goals – and reduce it to something that we have either more or less of, depending on our circumstances?

Such a simplified model of human behaviour would no doubt make the work of development professionals easier, but would it really produce more realistic policies and programmes?

The need to understand human agency is at the very heart of good development thinking and practice


While undoubtedly abused and misunderstood by some, "agency" is no less an artefact of academic jargon than notions of being "innovative", "entrepreneurial", "adaptive" or "politically smart" in explaining how people deal with structural realities (as put forward by the blog's author, David Booth). To reduce agency to the exercise of choice, or to being clever enough to make good choices, within limits afforded by structure, rather than recognising it as a part of human nature that can be cultivated and deployed in creative ways to reproduce, resist or reshape structure, is to misread the agency-structure resolution posed by Giddens.

In structuration, agents do not simply make individual choices available to them among the options dictated by structure; they also think and act in ways that either confirm or disconfirm that structure. That is, they act upon the social norms that define what options are currently permissible to them (PDF). This is one of the central lessons that can be drawn from theories and methods of power analysis (PDF) (as opposed to political economy, which often equates agency with choice) and of feminist analyses of gender and women’s empowerment.

Power analysis recognises that agency is often subordinated by ideology, discourse, values, belief systems and social constructs, and that it can be transformed by practices of critical and reflexive awareness (PDF) and freeing of the imagination to envision alternatives (PDF). The outcome of such processes is not ‘more’ or ‘less’ agency, as something actors have more or less of in some inverse relationship to a structurally-defined set of choices.  Rather, it is forms of thinking and action that either reproduce or critically challenge structure, defined for example as "networks of social boundaries that enable or constrain freedom".

This is agency and structuration with a power lens.


Connections between individual agency and collective agency


Feminist scholarship and activism has long recognised and validated these dynamics, revealing the connections between individual agency (power within) and collective agency (power with) as people recognise, reimagine and enact differently the gendered power relations in society (PDF). Such empowerment practices typically iterate between the intimate, private and public spheres of personal and collective experience, ultimately transforming the scope of choice. These processes for example put women’s rights on the table as a legitimate issue, so that they will eventually be taken up in legislation and in individual moments of choice.

Views of women’s empowerment grounded in economics, which emphasise women’s access to resources, their achievements, and their agency understood as the power to make strategic life choices, recognise the structural limits to women’s options posed by the conditions and consequences of choice in the socio-cultural context. Empowerment therefore requires collective solidarity as well as individual assertiveness to act in transformative ways upon those conditions and consequences.

Agency in this view is not something women have more or less of in order to exercise choice; it is action on the field of possible choices.

These understandings and practices, well documented by activists and scholars over many decades, conceptualise agency as more than quota per person, a variable determined by circumstances, or a degree of choice within the options afforded by structure.

Instead agency is manifest in qualities of thought and action – individual and collective – that either reproduce or challenge those very structures. It would be a sad loss if these appreciations of agency’s role in social change were silenced by a "simpler, cleaner and evidence-based" paradigm, and dismissed as "academic affectation" in favour of "innovative, adaptive and entrepreneurial" jargon to explain human behaviour.

Jethro Pettit is a Director of Teaching and Learning at the Institute of Development Studies. He is interested in the use of participatory learning methodologies to create and communicate new knowledge and ways of being, which lead to changes in power relations.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Who cares about child rights governance?

Promoting child rights is what drives all good development programmes for children. One way to institutionalise this, support its positive impact and long-term sustainability, is through that magic word ‘governance’.

So what exactly is Child Rights Governance?

My friends asked me this before I took up a job in the field.

At the time, I didn't know the full answer, so I made something up, based on what I’d learnt from my Masters in Governance and Development at IDS. I said it was about strengthening the institutions that govern societies so that children's rights were better realised. I suggested this would include improving public service delivery for children, especially at the local levels of government that are 'closest to the people'.

Seven months on, I find I my educated guess was more or less correct although the reality of 'child rights governance' is far more complex and nuanced.

Child Rights Governance is like vitamins in fruit: it is one of the most wholesome elements but is mostly invisible to the eye. Its benefits are sometimes equally intangible or unglamourous. Because of this, some people question the value of Child Rights Governance.

Translating Rights into Realities


Nelson Mandela once referred to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as “that luminous, living document that enshrines the rights of every child, without exception, to a life of dignity and self-fulfillment”. His lyrical description hints at the lofty ideals that brought every member of the UN General Assembly together except two to ratify the Convention in 1989. Twenty-five years on, it is still the most widely and rapidly ratified treaty in history. It also includes a ground-breaking commitment by states to invest in children ‘to the maximum extent of resources available’.

Last week, we celebrated what a grand and visionary treaty the Convention is on its 25th Anniversary. Its 54 articles cover virtually every aspect of a child’s life from infancy through childhood to adolescence. But how much is the right to an education worth if the road to the school is constantly flooded during the monsoon season, preventing children from accessing that right? The state is the primary duty bearer of the rights under the Convention; yet without a commitment to mobilise public resources for child-friendly programmes, child rights mean very little.

This is where Child Rights Governance can add real value. It asks for budgets to be disaggregated to show how allocations benefit children, and then seeks to hold policymakers to account for the promises they make. These transparency and accountability initiatives are what translates rights into realities.

Decentralisation: Not Just for Grown-Ups


Decentralisation is crucial for enabling child-friendly governance at the local level. Localising decision-making processes increases opportunities for everyone, including children, to take part and for government officials to be more responsive to their community’s needs. Together these are believed to lead to better public service delivery and accountability.

The child’s right ‘to express opinions, to have them taken into account and to participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives’ (Article 12) reinvigorates this framework. It allows for one of the most practical realisations of the Convention’s revolutionary premise: a child is not just a passive object of care or subject of adult power but a citizen in his or her own right. Children who are capable of forming and expressing their views should have as much opportunity to contribute to their community’s development as adults. This could be through open budget sessions, dialogue with the mayor or other public consultations where they can speak and be heard.

Local government officials are also often the unwitting gatekeepers of child rights. They control budgets that can be used to build parks and playgrounds. They sometimes also hold the power to select families in their communities to benefit from national social protection programmes. Adult advocates can and should lobby for these child rights to be realised. But their advocacy pales in comparison to the power of children raising their voices and trying to claim their rights themselves.

Child Rights Governance can facilitate children’s empowerment by developing their knowledge and confidence for meaningful public participation. Equally, it can sensitise local actors so they are more aware and responsive to children’s needs and rights.

What Is Crucial Isn’t Always Cool


Child Rights Governance isn’t cool. It doesn’t tug at our heartstrings in the way that classic child protection issues like child marriage or child labour do. Nor does it pull the donors’ purse strings like the giants of health and education. It often takes place quietly behind closed doors. This could be at awareness-raising sessions for government officials or capacity building workshops for children. It could also be at high-level meetings with Ministry big wigs about improving investment in children.

But, as Eleanor Roosevelt said – "universal human rights begin in small places, close to the home, where they cannot be seen, and unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

Child Rights Governance doesn't have to be cool, but it does need to follow effective frameworks and be fit for the context. For me, personally, my work is also driven by the conviction that the principles of good governance should accommodate and benefit all citizens, including children. I think my MA in Governance and Development at IDS taught me to appreciate these distinctions more than anything.

Suralini Fernando is a lawyer, writer and MA Governance and Development 2012/13 alum. She now works as a child rights advocate in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Against ‘agency’, an academic affectation that does not help development practice

Why do so many, otherwise rational and well-informed, people in our field have such a bee in their bonnets about 'agency’?

To me, slogans like "making space for human agency" and "recognising women’s agency" are attempts to convey some useful messages from social science to the world of development practice. But they do that job badly.

By peppering our prose with "agency", we may make our writing seem more profound. However, this is spurious – an academic affectation, with questionable intellectual credentials, which gets in the way of clear, evidence-based discussion of an important set of real-world issues.

People do not have less agency when they have fewer choices


There was a time when social scientists genuinely needed to make an issue of agency.

That was when sociology and political science were significantly influenced by types of functionalist or structuralist theory that purported to be able to explain human behaviour without any reference to people’s intentions, motives or reasons.

That so-called structure/agency problem was put to bed definitively by Anthony Giddens and others at least thirty years ago. The then mainstream sociological and Marxist functionalisms have now all but disappeared. They have been replaced by a range of dominant perspectives – mostly 'new institutionalisms' of various kinds – that, whatever their other failings, do not have this particular weakness.

A core point in Giddens’ philosophical resolution of the structure/agency problem was that human beings have 'agency' simply by virtue of being human. This is not in conflict with the observation that human behaviour is typically quite structured. It is only in conflict with the notion that structures explain what people do in spite of (rather than by way of) their intentions, motives or reasons – for example, because the social order or the capitalist system has both ‘needs’ and the ability to secure them.

The Giddens position is consistent with ordinary language: agency is the quality that agents have. People do not have less agency when they have few choices (e.g. because they are poor, oppressed or enslaved); they just have fewer choices. Great leaders don’t have more agency than average leaders; they just use their agency differently.

Academic jargon infecting development practice


The notion that agency is something people have more or less of according to circumstances is contrary to both the Giddens solution and ordinary language.

Yet it has become the custom to use the word in exactly that way. In much academic and even practice-oriented writing, agency has become an empirical variable, something that varies inversely with the extent of structural constraint on behaviour – and something researchers and practitioners can appreciate or fail to notice depending on where and how they look.

I am aware that there is a back-story to the academic trend. This is about the way Giddens’ influence was blunted by a stream of less lucid sociological writing while the ink was still fresh on the page. I think it’s a pity that Giddens did almost nothing to defend his corner against this type of critique, then or since, unwisely counting on the sheer power of his argument. Someday, perhaps, someone will have the dedication to tell this story as it should be told. In the meantime, I submit, we should let ordinary language settle the matter.

Unfortunately, the nonsensical, either-or, language of structure and agency is now entrenched in many of the books and journal articles new generations of social scientists are made to read. As advisers to social development and governance programmes, young graduates have carried this into the world of practice.

As a result, the philosophical allure of ‘recognising agency’ is often hard to resist, pushing aside simpler, cleaner and more evidence-based thinking about development options.

Doing development differently


Why is this worth saying now? Because there are some currently rather exciting messages that social science needs to convey to development practice that will get blunted if they get mixed up with ‘agency’.

Often, appeals to "bring back agency" are substantively about recognising the historical roles of visionary, rebellious or entrepreneurial leaders. Or they are about the way the oppressed sometimes decide to exercise the little power they have in courageous, innovative or otherwise unusual ways.

Another valid concern sometimes conveyed in these terms is about complexity and uncertainty in human affairs: because of uncertainty, people may have more choices than they habitually admit, meaning that there is more room for change, and a greater role for ideas, than predicted by prevailing explanations.

These issues about uncertainty – and the implied scope for politically smarter, more adaptive or more entrepreneurial development work – are really important. They are at the heart of the lively debate now going on about doing development differently. The central ideas of this discussion very much need to be communicated to practical people, such as officials in development agencies who exaggerate the extent to which development or governance reforms have to be, and can be, planned, blueprint style.

We need better evidence on the circumstances in which innovative choices can be made by different sorts of individuals and organisations. We need to be capable of explaining clearly how smarter forms of development practice can help discover promising pathways of change. It will be easier to rise to this challenge if we are not encumbered with ‘agency’.


David Booth is a senior research fellow in the Politics and Governance Programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), UK.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Fieldwork reflections from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project. Part II.

‘You men, do you even know what goes into a meal?’, changing food habits in Burkina Faso

As part of the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, each year I try to visit one or two of the ten research countries, and meet our partners there. This year, at the onset of the third round of research, focusing on how food habits and customs are being influenced by processed foods and foods perceived to be unsafe, I got to go to Bolivia and Burkina Faso. Here are some reflections on the second part of my trip.


In order to understand what is happening to food habits, the national research teams ask a multitude of question pertaining to the way people eat, such as ‘Why and when do you choose to eat out?’. Of course, there are many ways to answer this question. In Burkina Faso, one woman was very direct and didn’t hide her disregard for our silly question: ‘Why do we eat out? Because we want to! Sometimes you feel like having skewers. You could have sardines from a tin at home, but what you want is skewers.’

During a focus group with some youths in Kaya, 100km north-east of Ouagadougou, the discussion got pretty heated. 

In the course of the discussion, one of the men explained that when he can’t afford to pay good tasty food for his family of three, he will just eat out after work and then head home for dinner. The important thing for him was that at least he would be satisfied that day. Better him than no one.

Now, one of the good things about my role in the research is that I have access to the anecdotes and stories from all ten countries. Thanks to that, I knew that in some countries this story could never have been shared without hanging one’s head in shame. There are places where mothers in particular but fathers often as well will go hungry to ensure that their children have enough to eat. However, my ‘friendly observer’ role that day did not allow me to dig deeper and see whether I was the only one in the room to be startled by such an easy statement.

A few minutes later, another of the men explained that the main reason why people (read ‘men’) choose to eat out is because women can’t cook. When prompted further as to why he thought women couldn’t cook, he explained that a lot of women take the money given to them by their husband, but then use some of it to buy fabrics and dresses. In turn this means there isn’t enough money left to buy ingredients that will make a meal tasty. The other two men all agreed and referred to this phenomenon, this divestment of cooking funds, as ‘cutting’.

This time, I couldn’t help it. I very politely asked whether the story that had been shared previously about eating out prior to having dinner at home was also a form of ‘cutting’. As soon, as I asked that question, thereby challenging what had hitherto been an incredibly male-dominated discussion, it’s as if a screen had been shattered. One of the women sat opposite was unstoppable.

‘Do you think anyone can cook a meal with 500CFA? With 1000CFA?’

‘You men, do you even know what goes into a meal?’

So yes, let’s talk about that. What goes into a meal in Kaya?

The answer: Maggi cubes or one of the many other food flavour substitutes. A civil servant in her fifties went as far as to say ‘If you don’t put Maggi in your dish no one will even look at it.’

When I asked her and her colleagues why Maggi was so important, and whether their mothers would use Maggi when they were growing up, I was told by one of them that the first time she saw a Maggi cube was after her mum had come back from a trip to France 44 years ago.

And besides, back then with 100CFA you would get enough meat to feed a family.

And that’s exactly the hunch we had when we decided to investigate the emergence of processed foods and flavourings that we saw creep up in all the food photos we got sent in the past two years.

And indeed, there are some other, more concerning, ingredients that people add to their dishes for a wide range of reasons. Adding petrol to your sauce helps it cook faster, which means saving time, and saving firewood. Adding ‘Maggi blanc’ (artificial glutamate, best way to scour off metal) to a soup gives it that extra texture and taste.

These are just some of the examples (extreme I hope) of what people do to deal with food prices which no matter what they look like at the global or macrolevel, on the street still feel like they keep getting higher and higher.

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is researcher currently working with Naomi Hossain and Patta Scott-Villiers on the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, a collaborative study between IDS and Oxfam.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Fieldwork reflections from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project. Part I.

'All the good things are going out' (Todas cosas buenas estan yendo a fuera)

As part of the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, each year I try to visit one or two of the ten research countries, and meet our partners there. This year, at the onset of the third round of research, focusing on how food habits and customs are being influenced by processed foods and foods perceived to be unsafe, I got to go to Bolivia and Burkina Faso. Here are some reflections on the first part of my trip.

Over the course of the first two years of research, we have gathered a substantial amount of pictures from the research sites. As such during my visit in Bolivia, along with the team we decided to organise an informal meeting in the periphery of Cochabamba with some of the participants to show them pictures of the other sites, the people whom, like them, we disturb year after year asking the same old boring and obvious questions.

Part of what I enjoy about my role in this project, is the fact that I have both a general view of the overall trends, and at the same time I have access to the infinite number of anecdotes and stories that help make sense of some of those trends.

For example, in 2012, we found out that the sharp rise in coffee prices since 2008 has had deep cultural impacts in one of our research sites in Ethiopia. Indeed, prior to the shock, it was customary for people to make coffee with doors and windows open and for passers by to stop for a cup of brew before carrying on. Today, high and volatile coffee prices mean that for many it is no longer possible to make coffee every day, let alone every week, so now many doors and windows are closed. This has impacts on the wider social relations within the community our partners are working in.

When I told this story to the people who had gathered around the old ping-pong table used for most community meetings, the response was immediate: 'It’s like quinoa here!'

Quinoa, which contains almost double the amount of protein as rice has seen its popularity soar over the past few year (The UN has even named 2013 International Quinoa Year!). The unsurprising flipside of this increase in ‘global’ (although, it’s more global north, than global global) demand is that domestic prices have risen sharply, pricing out the local population.

One man explained that at the local women’s refuge, quinoa used to be on the menu at least once a week but has now been replaced by other –cheaper- cereals. Similarly, talking about her children, one woman explained ‘Before I could give them nutritious things like cereals, but not anymore’.

One after the other, the people who had gathered that night started telling stories of how their food habits were changing, starting with the disappearance of quinoa and moving on to other subjects.
A selection of seasonings

'We’re filling our bellies, but not feeding ourselves. This is not alimentation.', said one.

'When potatoes are expensive, I cook without potatoes. But what can you cook without potatoes?', added another.

'Cochabamba use to be the "grain attic" (granero) of Bolivia. We had wholegrain foods. Wholegrain bread stays in your belly for hours, in a way that white bread simply doesn’t', was one man’s reflection.

Of course this isn’t just about supply and demand. There are other complex factors at play, not least climate change and changing tastes. In fact, one woman compared changing food habits and the fact that more and more people prefer white wheat bread to roasted cereals (despite Bolivia importing 90 per cent of its wheat) because it is seen as more ‘sophisticated’, to young people not wanting to dress’ indigenous’.

In the past two years, we picked up on several stories relating to changes in food habits, food safety and quality. For that reason, this year the central theme is ‘fast foods and fake foods’. When we started, we assumed that the theme wouldn’t always make sense to people, that worries about the quality of food, hygiene and processed foods were an inherently middle-class thing. But sitting there in Kami, it became clear that people from the urban and the rural area alike had a lot to say about that. All knew about chemicals, bad oils, hygiene, what they should and what they shouldn’t eat. And interestingly to me, there was no way not to frame all of this as part of a wider, global context.

Talking about the global context, the only quinoa I ate during the trip was in a tiny cereal bar provided by the airline on my flight out of the country.

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is researcher currently working with Naomi Hossain and Patta Scott-Villiers on the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, a collaborative study between IDS and Oxfam.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Do you want to learn how to design a rigorous impact evaluation?

Over the last 10 years I have worked on the evaluation of development programmes and seen how the use of evidence-based policy making in international development has evolved. In March 2013 I ran the first Impact Evaluation Design short course at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the response was overwhelming! The course held the following year was equally successful and I’m delighted to announce that the course will run again next year from 20 April to 24 April 2015.

Participants’ feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. This year’s evaluations highlighted, for example:

‘The superb quality of all facilitators… quantity of examples and resources. Learning the difference between experimental quasi-experimental designs as well as the group presentation on these themes..’

‘The course has been insightful in improving my understanding of IE and assist in determining which areas to apply it on and when.’

‘My course objectives were excellently met as it gave me a lot of input to the planned IE. The mixed methods concepts is very valuable.’

And IDS Alumni Ashley Kuchanny attended the course and has written eloquently about how she is applying the knowledge and experience gained in her work with Children on the Edge.  

About the Impact Evaluation Design short course
The course is particularly targeted at researchers, managers, and practitioners of development. The focus is on how to design a rigorous impact evaluation in a developing country. This includes things like theory of change, experiments and quasi-experiments, and sampling. My expertise is in quantitative methods and I will be joined by Professor Robert Chambers (IDS) and Dee Jupp who are experts in qualitative approaches. They will illustrate the use of old and new qualitative evaluation techniques such as reality checks. The goal is to design an evaluation that incorporates the best of qualitative and quantitative research.


So if you’re interested in learning more about Impact Evaluation design, take a look at our short course web page.

Finally, we’re glad to announce that three bursaries will be offered for participants from low income countries, two from the International Initiative for Evaluation 3(ie) and one from IDS. As you can imagine demand for these limited places is very high!

About the author
Edoardo Masset is a research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and is leading the Impact Evaluation Design short course.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Food riots and food rights: reflections from researchers on the front line

Over the last two years IDS has been leading a research project exploring the causes and consequences of food-related riots and right-to-food movements in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique. In this blog researchers working on the Food Riots and Food Rights project share some of their experiences from the field.

We asked for wheat and got bullets instead

Shreya Bhattacharya, India: 'Gom chayite gechilam, gooli khelaam' (We went to ask for wheat and got bullets instead). For me, the Food Riots and Food Rights study is summed up in this quote from one of the action-takers in a village in West Bengal, India where rioting for food took place. It’s a state where political consciousness is ingrained among everyone, where food is not just a question of survival, but is seen as an important entitlement.

The field work experience was really insightful in terms of class and gender dynamics especially in one of the villages where rioting happened. After spending almost a whole day in the rioting village, and having numerous discussions with people, we were directed to the action-takers who had taken part in the riots, with a wary eye from representatives of political parties. The articulation of villagers on macro- economic issues like monopoly in agriculture, high inflation and it’s links to the power corridor (even from a high school student) was another aspect that stood out. Overall, being part of this study reinforced my personal belief in the strength of mobilisation and in people’s movements, which alone can lead to building a just society.

Power of listening

Muhammad Ashikur Rahman, Bangladesh: The Food Riots and Food Rights project was my first ever research involvement. I was excited by the topic, and once I looked through the methodology, I became even more interested. I came across some new and intriguing methods to obtain inputs for the research that helped me rethink academic approaches to social research.  The ‘Listening Post’, in particular attracted my attention as, I think, it was new for almost all of us. I personally enjoyed listening to the people talk about issues that were relevant to them without probing them with pre-determined questions.

Direct impact on citizen action

Noble Khan, Bangladesh: In my personal experience, I have encountered few research projects that have direct and immediate impact on their area of concern. Interestingly, I discovered a direct impact of our Food Riots and Food Rights project on market operations in Gaibandha, one of our sites of fieldwork in rural Bangladesh. After our discussions with people selling goods in a Haat (local market) of Gaibandha in the second phase of this project (discussions that we personally found immensely engaging and insightful) we discovered that due to our presence and discussion with people in the first phase over popular mobilisation and protest against market mismanagement and domination of Ijaradar (who take lease of the market), Ijaradars reduced tax imposed on every goods and commodity sold in the market. The fact that there was strong organisation amongst the sellers in the market also meant that they were able to pressurise Ijaradars more effectively to take steps to reduce selling tax. This direct and visible change produced through our project fieldwork has been very interesting to me, even if it was not consciously intended or planned.

Realities of patriarchy

Khobair Hossain, Bangladesh: On 13 July 2013, during the holy month of Ramadan, we held a focus group discussion with female garment workers who were activists, at Jamgora Asuliya in Savar, Dhaka. The discussion started off with them citing some almost unbelievable realities. But when we moved to the section of the interview about their collective mobilisation against the garment authority, one of their husbands began to shout from the room. At the sound of his shouting, men from other rooms came out to us and commanded their wives to stop the discussion. The women obediently stood up to leave the session. The aggressive behaviour of the men scared us somewhat. However, after we had a calm discussion with the husbands, which went on for at least 15 minutes, they agreed to allow their wives to continue the session. This was a grim reminder for us about the realities and operations of patriarchy in the household that continue to lie behind the militant protests by women garment workers that we admired in the photos and videos shown my the media.

When the mafureira grows upside down? Beer and Riots

Michael Godot Sambo, Mozambique: During the exciting fieldwork time, I had the opportunity to interview many people from different ages in three neighbourhoods. I heard many interesting stories and interpretations about the riots and a multiplicity of contested facts emerged. One of the most striking refrains frequently repeated by people of almost all ages, regarded an advertisement for cheap beer entitled "três cem" (the advert offered three beers for 100MT, approximately U$3,30). The chorus came in different tones and facial expressions with a big question mark: 'Why is it that the beer price is always falling, whereas food, food which is our necessity, the price is always rising?! Why?", they asked.

The beautiful and heart-breaking poetic explanation given to me by a old shoemaker about this scenario still rings clear in my mind. The shoe-maker had seen a massive decline in his status and earnings over the last few years. He now lives off the meagre earnings he gathers from his shoe-polishing bench in his neighbourhood. He claimed that this neighbourhood, which was one of the first residential sites in the capital's periphery, is one from which a number of current government officials emerged and some still have family members residing there. After a long and friendly conversation, where the shoemaker continuously meditatively nodded his head, he exclaimed in disbelief 'Chamankulo (the neighbourhood's name) means the bathing place for big people!" And he laughed grimly and said: "it's only for you to see that the mafureira (local fruit tree) is now growing upside down'. I could only nod my head in agreement.

Navigating media spin

Bonface Oduor, Kenya: I was in charge of developing the political event catalogue, which was a difficult process, as archives of newspapers were not very easily available or well-organised. My analysis of the patterns of media reporting on food mobilisations strongly affirmed the presence of media bias when it comes to reporting activities of food protest. Reports were typically biased in such a way that instead of reporting on the issues raised by the protesters, they tended to spin the protest and the stories in a way that aligned them with or sold a particular ideological narrative. Very often, food related protests were completely ignored. The political events catalogue gives a very limited and distorted idea of the extent of mobilisations around food.


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Aid watchdog report on petty corruption should not panic DFID into making [wrong] policy decision

The latest report from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) threatens to push British aid policy in the wrong direction.

Published last week, DFID’s Approach to Anti-Corruption and its impact on the Poor received a lot of media coverage, and, like, most public discussions in Europe on bribery and corruption in developing countries, the debate has been at times sanctimonious, alarmist and opinionated – and mostly devoid of evidence. The Sun newspaper published a brief piece suggesting that British aid is actively encouraging gangs of criminals to prey on poor people!

Readers should note at this point that the report was not investigating the possibility of corrupt use of British aid (this was the subject of an earlier ICAI earlier report - PDF), although this is not evident from some of the coverage. 

While ICAI cannot be entirely responsible for this media reaction, it did over-simplify the story and the background evidence; and exceeded its own terms of reference by making a strong policy case rather than carefully assessing alternatives. It looks like an effort to push British aid policy down one particular, narrow ‘anti-corruption’ track without a proper appraisal of the evidence.

The report only makes cursory mention of efforts being made to tackle corruption at the global level



Perhaps somewhat disingenuously, the report only gives a cursory nod to DFID’s – and the UK government more generally – current and extensive efforts to stamp out corruption at the global level. This includes financial and technical support for multilateral anti-corruption initiatives such as the implementation of the UN Convention Against Corruption; transparency and accountability initiatives, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Medicines Transparency Alliance; and international efforts to combat illicit financial flows, such as the International Centre for Asset Recovery. It labels – and implicitly devalues – these as ‘indirect’ anti-corruption activities, although it is hard to see what is indirect about, for example, the measures coordinated by the Financial Action Task Force to reduce international money laundering.

So what was all the fuss about?

The report focused on routine so-called ‘petty corruption’ – that is, small payments made by poor people to the locally powerful in the penumbra of projects that DFID is funding. For example, the Commission were told that poor people have to pay bribes to get access to the benefits of projects in Nepal and it is alarmed that DFID is making no determined effort to identify and stamp out such activities.

Given limited resources to tackle endemic and deeply complex issues in the world’s poorest countries, ranging from malaria and Ebola, to bonded child labour, infant malnutrition, and sexual abuse of vulnerable women, amongst many others, should DFID’s current anti-corruption portfolio be expanded to “specifically target the everyday corruption experienced by the poor and educate the population about the ill effects of corruption”, as recommended by the Commission?  

The answer would depend in part on a thorough appraisal of DFID’s skills and comparative advantage, and should not be influenced by a missionary impulse to make DFID responsible for solving any problem affecting poor people in any country in which it operates.

Two good reasons why DFID should not be panicked into making a policy decision


  • Firstly, there is simply no evidence that DFID has the capacity or the comparative advantage to run such programmes effectively. In ignoring this issue the Commission comes close to contradicting itself. Indeed, it cites research by the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, funded by DFID, showing that “…there is little strong or conclusive evidence that the (anti-corruption) interventions that have been pursued have been effective”.

    If we don’t yet know how to do the job effectively, why pour money into it?

  • Secondly, if DFID were to allocate more resources to anti-corruption, why not consider the option that it is better placed to deal with corruption on a global scale – the activities that the Commission labels ‘indirect’?

    Since Britain is such an important global centre of financial, banking and legal expertise, it is a good place from which to try to stem grand global corruption. If the President’s Number One Son can no longer park his billions uncounted, unrecorded and untaxed in London, Luxembourg, Zurich or the British Virgin Islands, then he may not charge the Chief of Police such a high monthly rate for his post, and the police service might be under less pressure to squeeze everything they can from each poor person who crosses their path.    

The agreed goals of this review (PDF) were considerably more nuanced, and judiciously written to inform anti-corruption policymaking. Yet, ICAI over-stepped the mark in the way it has summarised its conclusions, and cannot be said to be behaving entirely responsibly toward the British public and Parliament. Additionally, managing large anti-corruption programmes in low income countries is now a rather big business.

If my taxes are to be spent on this, I would like to be sure that the decision was taken on the basis what works best for those in low income countries where DFID is working with, rather than a resource-intensive business opportunity.

Mick Moore is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, and Chief Executive Officer of the International Centre for Tax and Development. An abbreviated version of this blog was published in the Guardian

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Revolting Ringtones: 5 Developments in the Art of the Food Riot

Four hundred years ago, food riots meant underpaid English labourers upturning the horse-drawn cart of a bolting trader to redistribute the spoils more fairly. What’s different now?

1. Revolting communications

No surprise here – tech matters. Even people on low incomes use text/SMS to organise. But transport systems play a big role too – people hang around bus stands, info travels en route. Everyone learned from the images of Tahrir Square (… Occupymany, Taksim, the FIFA riots, London’s unruly shoppers … ). (If the social network mattered much we haven’t seen evidence yet – the networks we saw were all real). But the 21st century food riot has its own meme: who can ever forget Bread Helmet Man, the Yemeni protestor in 2011? Our favourite story was that the Mozambican riots even got their own soundtrack – rap star Azagaia’s Povo no Poder (Power to the People)  was the hit ringtone for months.

2. Precarious cosmopolitans

All this development the aid world enjoins us to celebrate is giving us a hangover: a lot of these young folk bustling into the big ugly cities to do economic growth (low-paid insecure jobs to you and me) lose their ties to the land and to others in the process. Some get jobs that give them an identity and networks and a sense of place. Others, less so. All have fewer and weaker ties to the paternal sources of protection they once had. How should they cope when prices rise? No wonder they are becoming the 'new dangerous class' as Guy Standing calls 'the Precariat'.

3. Discontent and its democrats

Yes its deeply flawed, but democracy, that twice-decadal business of having your say on who gets to be the big boss, really matters. Most people know they just have to wait five years to show the government exactly how outraged they are by food crises left untended. Yes, democracy and discontent go together like cigarettes and alcohol. That’s why even gold-encrusted politicians like Nairobi’s Mike Sonko come out for the food rioters (not that they were universally thrilled about it). And that’s why the ever-popular Bangladeshi military seems to have permanently lost its sheen when, in effective power in 2008-09, its solutions to the rice price spike included to 'let them eat potatoes'.

4. Scapegoats are global

21st century governments blame the global economy when prices shoot up  - nobody believes them, but hey, it’s worth a shot – and in smaller countries it is often true. Go on, blame it on Chicago, why not. It’s all so complicated nobody really understands it anyway. You’ve got nothing to lose but your Presidency (see Point 3).

5. Lies, damn lies and international news media 

Four hundred years ago a food riot was reported locally and maybe nationally, if you and the archive-hunting historian were lucky. Nowadays all you need is a warning from Jeffrey Sachs or the Food and Agriculture Organization et al about rising prices, Oxfam piling in with some scare-tistics, and any and all protest involving poor-looking third worlders is a food riot and a headline. Not many people will bother to look more closely and the headlines will promptly be poured into the numbers-generating machine of the International Monetary Fund and the like to prove that a hungry mob is an angry mob. The imagery is, of course, perfect for a western audience desirous to know the worst of the rest.


This is why we selected this image for the cover of our report – he is so ferocious, so young, so militant – like something out of Central Casting for third world food riots. That digital camera that captured his angry little face and turned it into international news headlines was not invented 400 years ago. So the then-prosperous Mozambicans would never have known how the English starved and rioted.

Of course, a hungry mob is an angry mob. But you will need to read our research to understand why that is true. Don’t believe the hype, believe the researchers who have just spent two years finding out what really happened. How times have changed. Or have they?

Find out more on the Food Riots and Food Rights website, where you can download the country and synthesis reports.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and coordinator of the Food Riots and Food Rights research project funded by UK Aid and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Image credit: Getty images



Friday, 17 October 2014

Farewell to food riots?

It has been a good year by the generally dismal standards of world food security.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation reports that perennial hunger hotspots - Bangladesh, Ghana, Nicaragua - have halved under-nourishment in a generation. In India, where one-quarter of the world’s hungry live, citizen activism is helping make the right to food a reality. World food price inflation recently dropped to its lowest level in four years, after a bumper cereal crop.

So as the FAO convenes its Committee on Food Security this week, celebrating 10 years of Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food, they might be inclined to pat themselves on the back.

Not so fast.

Ten years of guidance on the right to food hardly set the world alight – let alone put food on the table.

Hungry people rarely protest, so what sparks food riots?


What did set the world alight– and put hunger back on the policy table - was the turbulent unruliness of the global food crisis.

Map of 2008 global food crisis https://www.flickr.com/photos/wheatfields/2920729039/in/photolist-5s6uZe-ghNeYg-ghMVe5-ghMSGG-ghMJnz-7i58d8-7i584z-7i57Sv-7i5qXT-5kk29W-bF7FzV-5RhJ93-4Nkx5n-ghMBcG-7i9ksq-7i57K4-7i58nT-nhPE7-4WUNde-nhNq2-nhMcG-nhLHU-nhLHy-nhLHf-nhLJ4
Map of 2008 global food crisis hotspots. Credit: Christian Guthler - Flickr

Basic food costs nearly trebled and staple prices spiked at unimagined levels in 2008 and then, unbelievably, again in 2010-11.

Food riots erupted in dozens of countries and Port-au-Prince, Maputo and Ouagadougou saw heavy street action – often met by an even heavier police response. Lives were lost, people were hurt, economic life disrupted, property damaged, regimes toppled, elections lost. Some say the Arab Spring was triggered by fury over bread prices. The after-shocks of the protests still reverberate through the global system.

The signals sent by food rights are loud but they are not clear. It should be no great mystery as to why people protest when prices spike or food is scarce: food absorbs half of the incomes of most people in poor countries, so that people went from having wages left over to rumbling bellies in a matter of weeks.

Yet, as we know, hungry people rarely protest. (It is one reason they go unfed.)

So what about the food crises of 2008 and 2011 brought people onto the streets?

Struck by resemblances to food riots in other key moments of capitalist history, researchers in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Mozambique and the UK decided to look behind the headlines. We were not convinced that these were the desperate reflexes of hunger. We saw these as struggles for the right to food – whether politely civil society-backed or via riot. We wanted to know what they achieved.

Food riots work (usually)


The research found that riots (usually) work. All protest is dangerous - nobody takes the fight to a state armed with water cannon and tear gas without an excellent reason. But in 2008 and 2011 the reasons were as good as they get. Prices were accelerating in an out-of-control way that had nothing to do with how much food was grown or sold. People recognised this as the sign of rigged markets, believing that the rice-dealers of Dhaka and the millers of Maputo were getting fat on their hunger.

Not everyone suffered from higher prices, but for some this was the thin edge.

Protestors were mainly urban folk, often recently detached from the rural livelihoods that once guaranteed them basic food security. They were not the poorest, but they live lives of great precariousness (as we saw in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh). These people walk the tightrope of the flexible global economy, largely without a safety net. They are mostly young, concentrated, articulate, connected and growing in numbers. They are sometimes hungry. Their views of the food system diagnosed its problems with the clarity that comes with life-and-death situations.

It's not about cheaper food


Protesters were not just after cheap food: they wanted assurance of control, or as the peasants’ movement La Via Campesina has it, sovereignty, over food.

UK campaigners (2012). Credit: World Dev Movement (Flickr)
Resistance to the idea of a right to profit from someone else’s hunger was widespread and robust: in times of scarcity, profiting from hoarding or speculating or colluding is beyond the pale.

If they listened better, global policy elites would know that the limits of tolerance to unfairness had been reached.

But the channels for these political ideas were tuned to the wrong frequencies.

Political parties, consumer associations, civil society organisations all failed to take governments to task. Food riots opened the airwaves to a new sound. (This was literally true when hip hop artist Azagaia’s Povo no Poder, a tribute to Maputo food rioters, became a hit ringtone).

Protesters saw apparently endless price rises going unchecked by governments, whose main response was to bleat on about ‘global markets’. Food riots cut through worries about market discipline and fiscal space to restate the terms of the compact between states and citizens. They reminded the political classes of their responsibility to protect the right to food above the right to profit from hunger.

As the world’s food policy elite gathered in Rome this week, they should not want to rest on their laurels or think too fondly of voluntary guidelines, or of civil society partners. Food prices are low now, but as urban precariousness grows so do the profit margins from hunger. The right to food will not be replacing the food riot any time soon.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. She coordinated the research into food riots and food rights movements funded by the UK Department For international Development-Economic and Social Research Council joint scheme. 

Other blogs on Food Price Volatility:

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Aid and tax in Ethiopia: is there a crowding out effect?

Ethiopia is (still) one of the major aid recipient countries in the world.

This year the World Bank has reached a record in terms of both the number of projects and the amount of loans to Ethiopia, totalling 1.6 billion USD in 2014. In 2011/2012 the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) disbursed more bilateral aid in Ethiopia than it has ever spent on any other country in a year.

Many argue that all this is good news for Ethiopia.

With a population of over 90 million, the country remains one of the poorest in the world and it still faces huge challenges in social development and economic transformation.

“Aid enthusiasts” would argue that it is at least partly thanks to aid monies that much progress was achieved in recent years for example in terms of education, access to electricity and the development of new public infrastructure. However “aid critics” would argue that there may be great dangers associated with the disbursement of such high and increasing amounts of aid. Some observers suggested that aid can have detrimental effects on domestic institutions and others argued that developing countries would be better off without aid altogether.

Continue reading this blog...

Giulia Mascagni is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies.To learn more about the issues discussed in this blog, why not apply for a place on the IDS short course on Tax and Development

Friday, 3 October 2014

Handbags and tear-gas - profit versus the moral right to protest in Hong Kong

Two current events remind us to reassert the moral right to revolt.

First, from England, where the ghosts from the Conservative (Tory) Party past announce:

"From the dark cloud falls an acid rain that eats into liberty…"

In such purple prose did the Iron Lady plan to describe the UK miners’ strike of 1984-85, in a Tory Party conference speech abandoned after the Brighton bombing. The Guardian newspaper reports today that Thatcher felt "the enemies of freedom and democracy itself" (the Left) were behind "calculated chaos planned for the mining industry". (Note: ordinary Brits might not have had either jobs or fuel, but it was the chaos for the mining industry that was the worry).

The second event to get you thinking is the worry that Hong Kong protests may cost retailers HK$2bn says ANZ bank.

Yes, thousands of young folk have braved the displeasure of the world’s biggest authoritarian state in historic pro-democracy protests.

Credit: Mario Madrona - Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
But a key concern, according to BBC news, is the lack of shopping: "Sales of luxury goods, cosmetic products, and consumer durables are definitely hard hit’" according to (of course, of course) a banker.

These responses to protest are separated by a quarter century but united by a strong thread of logic (and handbags): the right to profit triumphs over the right to protest.

Both say that the right to profit – which in this view is naturally and always about the public good – is morally superior to the ‘right’ to disruptive types of protest.

In this view, there is no such ‘right’ to protest, because for groups of people to get together to disagree with how they are ruled might stop someone else from making money; as that is the original and natural right, anything that prevents it must be wrong.

No surprise here: all governments hate protests


They disrupt, cost the economy, give ‘the markets’ the jitters, hand power to trigger-happy riot police. And they are deeply embarrassing. The symbolic power of a good protest is that it lets everyone see how thin is the veneer of legitimacy on which public authority is exercised. Suddenly everyone can see that the emperor is stark-bollock-naked.

The Hong Kong banker and his ideological mother share a moral economic logic: the right to profit over all else – in particular over the right of the hoi polloi to protest. We have got so used to hearing this kind of tripe, which so easily takes over our airwaves to the great shame of the BBC, that it is easy to forget that there is a live and real alternative moral economic logic.

Rather more pressingly than the needs of industry or luxury brand retailing, food rioters and food rights activists of recent years give a very different view of the right – the necessity – to protest. Their moral economy is both more enduring and more relevant to a time of grotesquely rising inequalities and volatilities.

This is that people must be able to protest when their governments fail to protect them against crises of subsistence. In particular, our research shows that even though they fear the rubber bullets and the tear gas, people are still likely to protest when their governments protect the rights of powerful elites to profit over the right of everyone to eat. But only if they think they are right to.

We should not be too surprised that the moral economic logic of Thatcher is the dominant logic of the day in the UK with its über-elite ruling class, and also in Hong Kong, with its breathtaking record of crony capitalism. The successful infection of this thinking might be why the UK population increasingly eats from charitable food banks rather than taking to the streets as they might have done a couple of hundred years ago.
Credit: Jessica Watkins - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


We must stand guard against the handbags, constantly reminding ourselves that the right to profit is the undisguised right of politically connected elites to, as they did the British trades unions, shut us up for good.


"Food Rights or Food Riots? Moral and political economies of 21st century hunger", the final report from the Food Riots and Food Rights project will be published in late October.

For information about launch events and outputs, please contact Nick Benequista, and for for any other information, please contact Devangana Kalita.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. 

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