Just before the Arab Spring kicked off in early 2011, I was happily linking to some really interesting work by Dani Rodrik (one of my development heroes) on ‘muslim tigers’, pointing out that in terms of human development, the top 10 performers since 1970 were not the usual suspects (East Asia, Nordics) but Muslim countries – Oman, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria all featured.
So did the Arab Spring happen in spite of or because of such amazing progress? A new paper from Randall Kuhn of the University of Denver (right, without the hat) explores just that question and comes up with some intriguing hypotheses. Tigerishness in these countries is largely confined to childhood, which then gives way to:
‘“waithood” – the long and precarious path to adulthood facing Arab youth. Potential consequences of youth exclusion include lost productivity, social anomie, atrophying skills, and of course civil unrest. But these particular crises did not occur in a vacuum. While the Arab States experienced the same global economic recession as other nations, the specific crises were conditioned by decades of progress in basic human development.’
The most interesting aspect of this ‘waithood’ is the interaction between the labour market and the ‘marriage market’, which partly as a result of improved education has seen a ‘rapid transformation towards delayed marriage and high marriage costs.’ Female age at first marriage rose from 20.8 in 1966 to 29.2 in 2001 for Tunisia, and from 18.7 in 1973 to 31 in 2007 for Libya, and the changes have been similar for all women (rural and urban, more and less educated). In Egypt, the cost of marriage in 2005 was close to $7,000, or about 11 times annual household expenditure. As a result ‘an increasing number of women were accepting long engagements or delaying marriage in order to earn money to pay for the marriage or to wait for a better match.’ Oh, and by the way, ‘Unlike western countries, premarital sex does not have wide social acceptance.’
The result is a pressure cooker of expectations and frustrations. Young educated people unable to find jobs, seeing the status and fulfilment of marriage and parenthood receding into the far horizons the other side of ‘waithood’. And sex, drugs and rock and roll, which at least provide a temporary outlet for my kids’ generation in the UK, were not really on the menu.
Final word to Randall Kuhn:
‘No developing region had seen such improvements in multiple indicators of human development, reflected in declining child mortality, increased schooling, and increased stature of women. This progress permeated widely throughout most populations and sub-populations. Advances in human development contributed to a fundamental reordering of the relationship between citizen and state. Human development fostered a set of higher expectations, both physiologically and socially determined, that placed considerable pressure on governments, particularly in the context of extended adolescence. As the bond between citizen and state frayed, a new generation of political protest movement emerged, facilitated by the rise of information technologies. In addition to material grievances, the wave of protest reflected a collective sense, emerging throughout the Arab world, that citizens could expect more from their governments, including a right to self-determination. If human development does indeed shape the path to revolution, we may hope that it will also determine the ultimate success of the Arab Spring, which remains a work in progress.’
I’m told that Oxfam’s Middle East and North Africa team are heartily sick of reading what they call ‘Western narratives’ about the Arab Spring. Is this just another one of those or something more interesting? For the moment (until someone puts me straight), I go with ‘interesting’.
Here we go again. Last week, a bunch of us NGO types had an initial discussion with the World Bank on its next flagship World Development Report, the 2013 edition of which will be on jobs (defined as ‘productive activity that is remunerated’), to be published in late 2012. Great subject, and one that is horribly neglected. Income from work is one of the best ways to reduce poverty; decent jobs play a vital role in improving self-esteem and a sense of well-being; and unemployment is rising across the world (and underpinned the uprisings of the Arab Spring).
Dena Ringold, from the WDR team, whizzed us through a 50 slide powerpoint based on the 48 page outline of the report, which is already up on the website. She set out the main messages of the report:
“Jobs are transformational. We tend to neglect jobs when thinking about growth, while in reality they are at the center of development. Jobs connect improvements in living standards, productivity gains and social cohesion.
What is a “good job”? Some jobs do more for economic and social development than others, because they reduce poverty and inequality, strengthen value chains and production clusters, or help build trust and shared values.
Policies through the jobs lens. Understanding how labor markets interact with government and market imperfections, and how this interaction affects development goals, is the key to identifying and evaluating policies for the creation of good jobs.”
In terms of the big picture debate, putting jobs (rather than growth or productivity) at the centre of development (see pic) is a big deal, and may be more important than all the detailed analysis that follows.
As for typically neuralgic NGO issues:
• Yes, the WDR will discuss how jobs affect subjective wellbeing (not just income)
• Yes, there will be lots on the importance of women’s earnings in terms of their bargaining power within households and the way they spend income on food, health and education
• Yes there will be a link to the rights agenda
• But no, not much sign of links to the unpaid/care economy or to planetary boundaries/green economy agendas. Nor much discussion on the power relationships/political economy issues that determine what kinds of jobs are created. I’m also a bit worried that the discussion on social cohesion, while welcome, could become a substitute for talking about inequality.
So if there is so much good stuff, plus the Bank’s ability to synthesize mountains of academic literature and generate new data and insights, along with its laudable commitment to transparency, why did my heart sink as the conversation progressed?
Firstly, it’s the insistence on economic ‘analytics’ as the only permissible source of evidence. This pushes the discussion towards seeing jobs in terms of short-run efficiency. I raised the importance of looking at history, and studying how successful economies (Germany, Korea etc) have created and upgraded jobs over decades, but had the familiar sensation of NGOs and World Bank talking past each other.
This feeling recurs in almost every such exercise, and was brilliantly discussed by Ravi Kanbur, in a paper written after he resigned from directing the Bank’s 2000 WDR on poverty. He argued that the Bank and its critics disagree because of profound ‘differences of perspective and framework on Aggregation, Time Horizon and Market Structure’. By aggregation, he meant the Bank’s preference for large data sets v NGOs’ preference for case studies and specific historical episodes. By time horizon, he meant that the Bank typically works with medium term (2-3 years), whereas NGOs think both more short-term (what’s happening to people now?) and long term (where will they be in ten years’ time?).
By market structure, which Ravi presented as ‘the most potent difference in framework and perspective’, he meant that ‘the implicit framework of [the World Bank] in thinking through the consequences of economic policy on distribution and poverty is that of a competitive market structure of a large number of small agents interacting without market power over each other. The instinctive picture that [NGOs have] of market structure is one riddled with market power wielded by agents in the large and in the small.’ In the intervening decade, I think there has been a bit of convergence on the first two – aggregation and time horizon – but the market structure issue remains a major source of disagreement.
That’s linked to a second issue, the lack of multi-disciplinarity. Work is steeped in cultural, social, historical and political meaning way beyond the question of income, as the report partly acknowledges. But judging by the website, the team is 100% economists. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are economists (really) and they obviously have to be central to any discussion about jobs. But where are the anthropologists to discuss the deeper cultural and social meaning of work, or historians to show how it evolves over time (think of the changing attitude to women’s work or child labour – in 1724 Daniel Defoe said that all children over the age of 4 or 5 could earn their own bread)? Or political economists to discuss the link between the nature of production and political and economic power (for example, how the move away from large-scale Fordist production has undermined both trade unions and the social democratic parties they helped create)? The WDR team will doubtless commission some papers from other disciplines, but if the core staff come from an academic monoculture (OK, I know there’s lots of different kinds of economists, but still….), the danger is that insights from other disciplines will only be adopted if they can pass through the filter of ‘economic analytics’ – a potential missed opportunity to think more deeply about the nature, purpose and human value of work.
One example of why multi-disciplinarity matters: how deeply will the report explore the links between anxiety/insecurity and work? My colleague Moussa Haddad attended the discussion and reckons this is a key area of difference – NGOs focus (sometimes too much, in my view) on highlighting and avoiding the ‘destruction’ in creative destruction, whereas the Bank thinks more about the ‘creation’ part. Moussa asks ‘if the reallocation of jobs across sectors, and increasingly countries is happening quicker and quicker, due to the exponential growth of technological innovation – then at some point are the productivity gains outweighed by the social damage they do?’
Third, great that jobs are presented as the ‘hinge’ of development. But from the presentation, it looks like that hinge will then be explored almost entirely in terms of improving the enabling environment for employers. That could easily end up producing a kinder, gentler tweak of the standard Washington Consensus: make it easier to hire and fire and otherwise ‘flexibilize’ the workforce; trade unions are a ‘distortion’ to the efficient workings of labour markets etc (see Kanbur’s point three). Why not, as Christina Weller from CAFOD suggested in the meeting, focus on the enabling environment for workers, starting by asking them what makes for decent, life-enhancing jobs? Perhaps the Bank could conduct a ‘Voices of the Workers’ exercise – a miniature version of their great Voices of the Poor project – and build the WDR around the priorities it reveals, which would probably be very different from the standard ‘economic analytics’ focus on rigidities, flexibility, productivity etc? (CAFOD did a small exercise on this and found issues like health, social protection and childcare were central concerns). Could the Bank develop a metrics for the ‘social return on employment’ to sit alongside more conventional indicators?
Fourth (and I don’t really have an answer on this), the danger is that the report will trigger another round of an unproductively polarized ‘quantity v quality’ argument. To caricature ‘what we need is jobs, millions of them – even a bad job is better than no job’ versus ‘a rights-based approach means we have to focus on creating decent jobs and avoiding a race to the bottom’. Maybe the previous points could help avoid this, I’m not sure – any suggestions?
To see what I’m talking about, try listening to and critiquing this 6 minute video for the ‘Jobs Knowledge Platform’ that the Bank is launching in the New Year. Excellent on training, skills, partnership, but I couldn’t find a single reference to trade unions, power, inequality or political economy – just a reassuring but highly misleading world of apolitical fluffy bunny collaboration that ignores the role of organized labour in fighting for labour rights and decent jobs.
Brendan Martin of Public World was at the meeting and wrote this commentary on the WDR process. The WDR Team does of course have right of reply……
OMG, nearly three years on and almost everything on this list would still be on today’s version. But at least I could point to progress, in the shape of specific bits of thinking, reseach and/or programming. on nearly all of them. What new additions would go on today’s list, I wonder? Domestic taxation; resource scarcity and planetary boundaries; the damage wrought by an excessively large and powerful financial system – any other candidates?
From Poverty to Power is explicitly not official Oxfam policy, but its combination of literature review, programme experience and extensive discussions, both within Oxfam and beyond, highlights a series of challenges to ‘business as usual’ in the development sector. In response to a number of requests, Penny Lawrence (OGB International Programmes Director) and I put together this initial short-list.
1. What difference does inequality make? Using inequality, rather than poverty, as your starting point takes you in different and potentially more interesting directions. Inequality is about relationships – within households, communities, countries. Reducing inequality by rebalancing power, opportunities and assets is central to development. But how different is that from what we are doing already? If we applied an ‘inequality lens’ to our work, what would we do less/more of? Progressive taxation? Land reform? Birth registration?
2. Do we have a religious blind spot? Religion is a key driver of active citizenship (both good and bad) in many communities. While many believers work in development agencies, and figure prominently among their supporters and overseas partners, the development industry remains largely secular. How could we improve our understanding of the links between faith, religion and development, and engage more constructively with different faith groups?
3. Is it time to go urban? For the first time in history, the world’s population became majority urban in 2007. Burgeoning shanty towns are home to a billion people now, rising to 2 billion by 2030. Yet a glance at their websites will show you that many development agencies continue to focus on rural areas. They argue that this is because most poor people still live in the countryside (and are predicted to do so until 2040). But the shanty towns will probably be home to the new social and political movements in the years to come: urban change is a messy affair, involving some familiar issues – water, education, health and some unfamiliar ones – housing, crime and property rights; do rural-centric development agencies need to follow the migrants into the shanty towns?
4. Is building effective states part of our remit? What is the role of international NGOs in building states (identified in the book as critical to development success)? Do NGOs have an anti-state bias – how many staff see the state as part of the problem, not part of the solution? In both effective and ‘fragile’ states, do we need to work with local government institutions, often following decentralization processes? Where has this been successful? Or should NGOs stick mainly to supporting active citizenship, and their ‘convenor’ role, facilitating dialogue between citizens, states and other actors, such as the private sector?
5. Are we biased against waged labour? Experience suggests that what poor people often want more than anything else is a regular wage: job creation is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. Yet NGOs can often be ambivalent about labour markets – they support (and campaign for) modern, formal, unionised labour, but in other situations, seem to prefer peasants to casual labourers. Would we rather have no jobs or bad jobs? What determines our view? How much are we listening to the communities we work with?
6. How do we integrate humanitarian and development work better? The book gives added urgency to this organizational chestnut, stressing the role of shocks in driving long-term social and political change and pointing out that many of the emerging issues in development (climate change, social protection) sit between the two camps. These may eventually prompt a wholesale restructuring away from separate ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ departments, but in the meantime, perhaps the best way forward is to identify the best forms of integration across different types of emergency and at different stages of the humanitarian cycle. These would require incorporating issues such as partner strengthening, social protection, institutional and policy reform into our humanitarian work as an emergency develops.
7. The future of INGOs: Although the book avoids large doses of navel-gazing on our role, it does raise some difficult issues on accountability (why have agencies often demanded less of themselves than they have of many corporates?) and political engagement (we need greater clarity on e.g. what it means to be ‘impartial but not neutral’; the difference between becoming more politically literate, and becoming political actors)
8. National v global: The book argues that development remains primarily a national process, born out of the interaction between citizens and states. Global forces, including rich world activists and INGOs, can help or hinder, but they are not the main actors in the drama. That analysis holds implications for how we design both our national programmes and our international campaigns (e.g. Make Poverty History), where big “global” messages can seem incompatible with the analysis of where change really happens.
9. We need a better way to analyse change: Oxfam, along with many other NGOs, describes itself as a “change agent” – but agreeing and making explicit our understanding of how change happens is difficult. From Poverty to Power’s annex on change builds on DFID’s ‘drivers of change’ work and proposes an analytical framework covering both drivers (context, institutions, agents, events) and dynamics (e.g. path dependence, lightbulb moments, alliances), which it applies to eight case studies from individual grassroots struggles to the Gleneagles G8 Summit. However it is still pretty abstract and needs to be refined through experience.
10. And finally, (cheating on the ‘10 challenges’ format here…) three other candidates for the short list:
· Migration: we need to understand better its role in development (both internal and international migration) and what policy or programme actions can increase the benefits to both sender communities and migrants themselves
· Democracy: we have a default preference for democracy, but how central is it to development? Does it distort our understanding of active citizenship and development in countries like China and Viet Nam?
· Technology: critical to development, yet many NGOs are instinctively ‘anti’ – stressing issues of risk and control over access to knowledge, and seldom supporting any new technologies (except renewables).
It would be great to hear your views on these (whether you work for Oxfam or not). What stands out? What have I missed? Over to you.
This blog is written and maintained by Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and author of 'From Poverty to Power'. More information on Duncan and the book is available on the From Poverty to Power official website.
It is a personal reflection by the author. It is intended to provoke debate and conversations about development, not as a comprehensive statement of Oxfam's agreed policies - for those, please take a deep breath and read the Oxfam International strategic plan or consult policy papers on a range of development issues.