African Fiction for Older Children

Publishing has an obdurate diversity problem that it is slow to address. The publishing industry in the US is persistently too white. In the UK, Booker prize winner Bernandine Evaristo has complained that there are still too few Black British novels published. The hastag #ownvoices which seeks to promote marginalised voices is only a recent creation.

This problem is plainly apparent in children’s literature. Indeed in the UK the first survey of diversity in children’s books was only conducted as a late as 2017, revealing that just 1% of books published in that year had a main character who was a person of colour. In the US there are more data, which also demonstrate a sustained lack of diversity that is only beginning to shift.

An important part of the diversity problem is the lack of attention given to African authors, publishers and writing. James Murua’s influential blog tackles that head on – and the fact that it had to do so, and gets so much traction for doing so – demonstrates the significance of the gap it addresses. I want in this blog to examine a particular type of children’s literature: books, published in English, which feature African main characters in African settings and are aimed at children aged 10-13. I shall call this type of book ‘African fiction for older children’. I began exploring this topic after writing my own book for this age group (called The Grymcat Conspiracy) that is centred on a Tanzanian family and storyline.

Books like this are really important. Fiction in which African children’s lives, dilemmas, issues, themes and settings are dominant, is vital for children’s creative and personal development. As Ruby Goka, the prize-winning Ghanaian novelist observed, ‘the more African children see themselves reflected in the pages of books they read, the more they will dream and know they can be anything they want to be.’ In preparing my book I sent a copy of the MS to children at a Tanzanian international school and one of them said ‘I want to read more because this is an African story’. Pule Lechesa complained that, ‘[w]e must be honest about it, many – if not most – of celebrated children’s literature in the western world leave our African children cold and disinterested’ (quoted by Raphael).

We must put this English literature in context. Many children will enjoy stories in their mother tongue, told by families and friends. There are amazing stories published in Swahili and Arabic. Novels written in English (or French and Portuguese), in languages of colonisation, will not be the only answer to children’s creative and imaginative needs. But books in English for children still matter. English provides access to some of the most powerful African literature not to mention multiple career advantages.

The production of African fiction for older children in the UK or US is not great. The two surveys which track diversity in these countries do not even record whether racial diversity features African characters. But it would be a mistake to think that the absence of such literature in these markets means that it is rare. Pule Lechesa went on to observe that ‘the great thing is that some African writers have managed to produce very fine work for African kids’ (quoted by Raphael). I have set out below a partial list of some of these writers who have written books for children from early readers to young adult.

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From these authors, and hundreds of others, I have put together a list of nearly 700 works for older children that have been published since 1960 (available here). This will keep even assiduous readers busy for some time.

But it is also the case that there could be much more of this literature. Much of it is now out of print. There are currently around 20-30 titles in this age group published each year. Much of it comes from national presses based in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. The major international presses produce relatively little – in part because they have diversity problem.

The leadership demonstrated by African publishing houses with respect to publishing African fiction for older children is welcome. But I suspect that authors, and readers, would welcome more outlets. Authors would welcome opportunities to get their work to larger, international markets. And children beyond the continent need to read these stories too.

There are three reasons why this could be, and should be, a growth industry. First, because this magic age group (also called upper middle grade, or tween) represents the time in children’s lives when they read the most. For example, here are graphs of books read, and time spent reading, in the US and UK respectively.

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We do not have similar data for African nations, but the available comparative data tell us that children in the US and UK in fact read substantially less than many of their counterparts. The peaks of reading reported in the US and UK may be higher and larger in other countries.

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It is quite possible, therefore, that older children in many African countries are ceteris paribus already reading more than those in the US and UK. We do not have the data to tell either way. The point remains: the available data suggest that this is the age when children can be reading the most

Second, the sheer numbers involved mean that publishers neglecting African markets risk being foolish. Currently there are 85.8 million children and young adults aged 5-19 in the combined markets of US, UK, Canada and Australia and New Zealand. In 2035 the young population in these five wealthy countries have increased to 86.3 million. But in Anglophone Africa there are currently 200 million children and young adults. In 2035 this will increase to 256 million people. Neglecting a market that size does not really demonstrate the best business sense.

These numbers mean that growth will be much easier here than in the older markets. Some 3000 new children’s/YA books are published each year in the US. This is for a market of 61 million potential readers. There is clearly an opportunity to grow demand for more books if only 20-30 African fiction books for older children are currently published every year. It is unlikely that this market is saturated.

A sceptic may be suspicious of these numbers, if high levels of poverty mean that these large numbers of children do not create effective demand. I would encourage such sceptics to be more sceptical of the data which underpin those beliefs. Data on wealth and economic activity in many African nations can be inaccurate. Ghana and Nigeria famously revised their economic status from low income to upper middle income overnight following improvements in government statistics. New research also shows that even respected data on poverty systematically ignore important assets in which rural people are investing (such as their children’s learning). Given that reading for pleasure obviously makes you cleverer, it is likely that families investing in their children’s education (and there are many of these) will also want to buy books.

The idea that there is insufficient effective demand also does not accord with the historical pattern in the production of African fiction for older children. As the graph below shows, this first peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s (when effective demand was lower than it is now). It then declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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The patterns here suggest that major publishers have difficulty comprehending the potential in these markets. For instance the most successful series on the continent which catered for the needs of younger readers is Pacesetters. But its creator, Agbo Areo, an editor with Macmillan Nigeria, had to write the first book in the series to convince his (UK) bosses that there was demand for these works (!) Marie Umeh describes how Flora Nwapa was marginalised by her publisher for being a ‘Third World’ author and had to establish her own publishing press to distribute her pioneering works.

Third, there is the fact that markets for children’s literature can be self-reinforcing. Demand grows demand. This is visible partly in the sheer numbers of books sold. In apparently saturated markets such as the UK (shown in the graph below) demand for children’s books is growing stronger and stronger. The population of book buyers in the UK is not growing, but the book market is.

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It is also visible in the way that literature trends work. Writing about one particular topic does not make it harder for others to do the same, it makes it easier. H.G.Wells invented time travel – and whetted public appetite for more. No one seems to have thought, after Tolkein, that there is no more space for works featuring  dragons, wizards and dwarfs. The Worst Witch made it easier, not harder, for J.K. Rowling to invent Hogwarts. So as more African fiction for older children is produced, demand for it will grow accordingly. This is already visible in the flourishing of new genres like Africanfuturism.

The resurgence of publishing for this age group in recent years suggests that this need is beginning to be recognised. There are new global initiatives, and schemes in specific countries, which are finding ways of bringing exciting books to children who can access screens more easily than printed text. Prizes such as the CODE Burt Award for Young Adult Literature awards (now ceased), the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, the MacMillan Writer’s Prize for Africa, the World Reader Inspire Us Project and the Children’s Africana Book Awards have raised the profile of these books and their authors.

African authors will be writing the vast majority of African fiction books for older children that will be published. But they will not be writing all of them. Authors from many backgrounds will join in; I hope to be among them. But it is ground we, who are not #ownvoices, will need to approach incredibly carefully. Particularly for authors with European or North American backgrounds, writing about African characters and settings is replete with dangers of appropriation, mis-representation and white gaze. We have to recognise the biases and predelictions we bring to our subject matter.

In my own case, I have found that despite decades of learning about Tanzania, of working there as an anthropologist in remote rural areas, despite living there as a family, despite learning Swahili (and speaking it at home), despite working on research projects with colleagues across the country for years – all that still does not ‘deal’ with my white gaze. It doesn’t work like that. White gaze does not go away; we unlearn it very very slowly. Writing brings out deeply concealed prejudices because writing is such an intimate task. It lays us bare. We best to recognise this reality, the better to address it as it appears.

As publishing companies wake up to the possibilities that abound in African fiction for older children, who knows what amazing stories, series and books will emerge. This field could lead to a flourishing of rich and varied representations, of empathetic characters and settings in which older children across the continent delight to immerse themselves. The more books like this that come into existence, the more demand there will be for them – and the greater the number of new authors who will be forged by the enchantments they read.

Dan Brockington,
Author of The Grymcat Conspiracy
Represented by Van Aggelen African Literay Agency
August 2020

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MDPI Journals – 2015 to 2019

In a previous blog (published December 2019) I explored the performance and changes of the MDPI journals, examining their growth up to the end of 2018. Since I wrote that blog, data for 2019 are now available – and they are more remarkable than before (Table 1). Submissions in 2018 were over 140,000. In 2019 they were just under 240,000. Over 64,000 papers were published in 2018; in 2019 over 100,000. Estimated gross revenues (see note below Table 1) have increased by nearly 60 million Swiss francs. A downloadable PDF of this blog and the source data are available at the end of the document.

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In this blog I reflect on what these trends mean for the arguments of my last blog – specifically, does growth demonstrate signs of vanity publishing? I also reflect on the responses to the first open letter that I wrote to the MDPI. The headline findings are that I believe that the growth has continued at the same rate (if not greater) because the journals provide a service that increasing numbers of academics find useful. At the same time the experience of publishing with an working for these journals remains uneven.

Figures are derived from a subset of the more established journals for which data are available (N=154). Not all 218 journals in the portfolio are included because the more recent journals do not have sufficient data to present.

A. Trends in publications 2015-2019.

1. The sustained growth in submissions and publications are shown in Figure 1 below. They speak for themselves. It is worth, however, highlighting the dramatic financial returns MDPI is realising (Table 2). I would be surprised if there were many other sectors that can demonstrate these levels of sustained growth.

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  1. The growth, and revenues, have not been achieved by lowering rejection rates. The journals with the lowest rejection rates have continued to count for only a small minority of publications and fees (Table 3 and Table 4). Indeed the number of journals with the lowest rejection rates has declined, and publications in them also dropped. 69% of published papers and 73% of fees derive from journals with rejection rates of over 50% (Table 5). These rejection rates are still not high compared to the strictest journals managed by other publishing houses (with rates of over 95%).

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  1. Growth in 2019 was driven by already popular journals becoming more popular. The largest journals have continued to thrive, but there has also been a surge in submissions to the smaller journals (publishing between 100 and 1000 papers per year). A notable minority of these have seen publications more than double compared to 2018. The journals which show declines tend to be the smallest.

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  1. MDPI journals are becoming ever increasingly mainstream, 137 are now covered by the Web of Science (up from 85 in 2016), 134 by Scopus (up from 60 in 2016) and 70 by SCIE (up from 27 in 2016).

In this respect my conclusions in the previous open letter remain unchanged. Despite doubts to the contrary, the success of MDPI journals cannot be explained by lax standards. They have grown because submissions to them have grown. They offer a fast service, relatively cheap, open access publication, and their reputation, as measured in citation data and listings on indices, continues to grow.

B. Responses to the first open letter.

There was considerable interest in the first letter I wrote, and it tended to fall into three camps. First, a number of observers were surprised. They, like me, were not expecting the results I produced.

The second camp proved more critical. These responses came from authors who had found the experience of managing special issues problematic because too many papers were published in them. They surmised, correctly, that I have never lead a special issue in an MDPI journal. I was directed to online discussions about the journals’ flawed processes (here and here) which dismiss them inter alia as ‘a predatory outfit’. Others pointed me to the protest resignation of one journal’s editorial board, and the temporary black-listing of the MDPI on Beal’s list.

I have found these engagements really useful. But they have not changed my mind about my conclusions. This is partly because a number of other editors and authors also got in touch with precisely the opposite sentiments. They were the third camp. They valued working with and publishing in MDPI. I was also not persuaded by all the criticisms. The MDPI were indeed on Beal’s list, but they are now removed from it. They are not found on any predatory publishing black list, and in fact listed on the DOAJ ‘white-lists’ (see here and here). One set of editors did resign, but there are over 200 other journals where the leadership are more content.

When I disagree with the critics it is not because I deny the validity of their experiences. It is rather that I do not think that this is the only story that can be told about MDPI. There have clearly been a series of problematic encounters between researchers and these journals. But I cannot see how these justify the conclusion, even on twitter, that therefore all the journals are flawed. These individual cases of bad practice do not amount to any systematic refutation of the data I have presented above. If these experiences were the general rule then why has there been this extraordinary increase in demand for publication that appears to derive from diverse research communities themselves? I was also concerned that one of the negative write-ups of MDPI journals was tinged with racism.

However while the critics do no persuade me, some of the criticisms certainly land. Most seriously there have been recent cases of inappropriate allocation policies of APC waivers (see here and here), in which journal managers have deliberately excluded authors from the global South. Full kudos to WASH colleagues for drawing attention to this. Because they did so MDPI central management apologised and reversed the journal’s decision.

In a recent tweet Arun Agrawal, who serves as editor of World Development, listed a series of complaints that render the publishing house problematic. First there is the problem of unwanted emails. In case anyone from MDPI is reading this then here are a couple of examples of unwanted emails which I have protested and which very few academics ever want to receive. Reminders to join Editorial Boards with already hundreds of board members are also problematic.

Then Arun questioned the lack of service to academic societies. MDPI reports that it works with 95 academic and professional societies. It is not clear however what financial relationships are involved. So Arun may well have a point, but then the same is true for many publishing houses. Are we happy for example, with the sums that Elsevier gives back to academia? How can we know at all what those sums are? There is a general lack of transparency across publishing houses as to what they give back to the academe which provides them with so many free papers to publish.

Finally, I found this comment of Arun’s particularly interesting: ‘remarkably high acceptance rates are major problems in @MDPIOpenAccess model. They are freeriders – If we all did same, quality would plummet.’

As I observed in my previous blog the speed of the MDPI review and revision process will make it easier for mistakes to happen. Median time from submission to publication is now 39 days. It is strange that MDPI has not moved to set up a more exclusive journal, such as a ‘best of’ format which promotes the best papers across its journals. It is also strange that it has not sought to limit the size of some of its largest journals. The more papers you publish, the more mistakes are likely.

However I do not believe that high rejection rate journals are policing quality alone. The history of academic is one of proliferating journals. New ones are set up by new epistemic communities because they cannot get past the gatekeepers of existing journals, or because existing journals do not focus enough on the discussions and issues that new schools of thought want to investigate. Journals, in short, do not just police quality. They police fashion and trends. MDPI’s model is to eschew all questions of fashion, scope or significance. It will publish anything that can get past its peer review. It is up to academic communities to determine how interesting and important these publications are.

This means that the journals are more likely to contain work that is rather inconsequential – and unfashionable. They will house fewer prestigious findings. But then it seems to me unreasonable to set up the upper ends of a hierarchy and dislike the lower ends from establishing themselves. Journals like those the MDPI house are the logical consequence of a broader system of hierarchical publishing prestige. They are not free-riders on the system. They are a corollary of competitive, prestige-driven, restlessly energetic researchers who will not believe that that rejection means that their work is unpublishable. The explosive growth of these journals was, in some respects, waiting to happen.[1]

As Universities grow in number and size globally, as researchers proliferate, and as we continue to insist that our work is not as boring and irrelevant as everyone else finds it, so it will become harder for existing journals and their epistemic communities to contain our enthusiasms and energies. This, I suspect, explains some of the demand for MDPI journals.

The success of their model does not, for me, invalidate the work they contain. Instead it poses a series of questions about how MDPI has coped with its own success. As Delia Mihaila (MDPI’s CEO) reply to my first blog indicates (at the bottom of this page), their growth has required hiring large numbers of new staff simply to process the MSes that the demand has generated. But learning how to do that, and the mores of dealing with papers and reviewers, is hard.

So the questions I would like to understand are:

  • How does the back-offices of MDPI cope with these dramatic increases?
  • How are standards maintained, how do they learn from their mistakes?
  • What best practices do they cultivate and how?
  • Where has the pursuit of volume compromised quality?
  • What internal management mechanisms are producing so many unwelcome emails and such questionable APC waiver decisions?

If we could explore these questions I think it would take us into more interesting territory than questioning the validity of these journals’ existence. MDPI’s growth and size is bound to be making other academic publishing houses, that we already know are seriously problematic, take note of their practices. It is possible that MDPI’s success could become a means of leveraging progressive change.

For instance it could raise standards of transparency. MDPIs practice of accessibly publishing rejection rates and APC charges for each journal is not standard practice in the sector. It should be. As I have urged before it could make a standard practice of publishing the APC revenues received and waivers given for each journal.

And finally MDPI’s success is worth understanding because it does pose a challenge. One relatively small company has gone from publishing obscurity (26 journals and 2000 papers per year in 2009 ) to over 200 journals and over 100,000 publications in just a decade. And this has demonstrated considerable revenue raising potential. What would happen if University libraries and academics were to organise themselves into a similarly powerful operation, but one in which all the revenues were returned to the research communities which produced them?

Dan Brockington,
Glossop, 24th July 2020


I copied data for submissions and publications for 154 journals from the MDPI website that began business on or before 2016 and which handled more than 10 papers in that year.

I took APC charges from the website but have had to estimate likely charges in some instances where APC for early years were unavailable. In 2018 and 2019 APC changed every 6 months. I have therefore calculated average APC for the year and applied that average to all papers published in that year. This is inaccurate as the lower fees apply to papers published in the first half the year, and higher fees in the second half. Nevertheless it provides a satisfactory short hand in the absence of better data.

The raw data I have used are available here.

A PDF of this blog is available here.

[1] I should add that I have only the highest respect for Arun. The fact that I have repeatedly failed to write anything good enough for World Development in recent years, despite multiple attempts, is entirely co-incidental to my argument here 😉

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The apparent decline of ‘overseas development / famine relief’ charities in the UK

What do changing patterns in charities’ declared purpose and geography of activity tell us about the health of charities working on international development? In the records of the Charity Commission, charities describe their purposes according to a fixed number of categories. One of these is ‘overseas aid / famine relief’. The graph below shows a decided and dramatic decline in the registration of charities with that label. In the 2000s thousands of new organisations were established to support that cause. But, since 2012 enthusiasm for new charities with that purpose has waned. Only 25 (!) new organisations reported that purpose in 2017, and less than 10 in 2018. And yet more charities are being established each year now than ever.

The beginning of the end?


Source: Charity Commission records downloaded June 2018

How do you respond to a graph like this? We suspect that a number of readers will think that this graph indicates that the development NGO sector is in decline. What had once been a vibrant cause stimulating new charity establishment has virtually disappeared. For these readers this graph captures a wider insularity across the country that is reflected in Brexit and the increasingly hostile environment to development aid.

But that conclusion would be hasty and quite possibly just wrong. These results surprised us, but they do not challenge the main conclusions that are emerging from our research project into the changing trends and fortunes of the development NGO sector in the UK. That work shows the development NGO sector is growing and thriving (both in number and finances), that the public is the mainstay of growth, and that public financial support is growing even as available household income is declining.

Instead this trend more likely indicates that the development sector, and especially its new entrants, are not well characterised by the ‘overseas aid / famine relief’ label. An education charity working in Tanzania will be doing development work – but may chose the label ‘education’ rather than ‘overseas aid’. Our database of nearly 830 development NGOs registered with the Charity Commission includes 320 who do not describe themselves as working on ‘overseas aid/famine relief’. Almost 70% of these were established since the millennium. The labelling has moved on.

So too has the marketing. It is possible that the development sector is thriving because it is re-inventing itself as a whole series of new, more specialist organisations. These new charities do not do ‘overseas aid’ generally, but, for example, combat malaria, or the abuses of children homes, or promote ‘the girl effect’. One reason behind the success of the sector may be its repositioning of its causes, the appeal of these to new audiences, and associated investment in the fundraising and branding. This in turn fits with a more general shift of development: it is less about aid to poor countries, and more a series of interlinked global challenges, as the SDGs demonstrates.

Moreover new charities are more ambitious geographically. Charity Commission records show that in the first five years of the millennium the average number of countries charities worked in overseas was 4.5. Since 2015 it is over 9.3. The turn away from ‘overseas poverty and famine relief’ does not signal a more general insularity.

But it is important to understand what lies behind these trends. The people who set up new charities are some of the most active members, the core if you will, of the ‘civic core’ that underpins the charitable sector in this country. There was something interesting going on in the mid-2000s in the minds of this group: a clear and determined shift from new charities which had a UK-only focus, to more concern for poorer countries (as the graph below shows). We realise this may be a sore point (for reasons clear here and here), but perhaps this was a consequence of ‘Make Poverty History’? After the financial crash that trend reversed, but we still have a situation in which more charities focussed only on DAC listed countries are being established now than at the start of the millennium. Even if no more charities are set up to pursue ‘overseas aid or famine relief’, we contend that there are still hundreds of charities being established that will sustain the development NGO sector in the future and lead it in new directions. As our work proceeds, we look forward to understanding how trends in new organisations shape the sector as a whole.

The changing configuration of international interest in new NGOs


Source: Charity Commission records downloaded June 2018

This blog first appeared here.

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An Open Letter to MDPI publishing

(For an updated analysis of more recent MDPI data please see here)

Dear MDPI,

Your journal publications have grown dramatically, and quite extraordinarily. But there are sceptics who suggest that this reflects low standards and distorting financial incentives. I was one of them. To prove my views I explored trends in publications of 140 journals for which data were available from 2015 onwards. But doing so proved me wrong; I could not sustain my sceptical view. Instead I think I have a better understanding of why researchers are so keen to publish with you. But my exploration also makes plain challenges that you will face in the future, that are caused by your remarkable success. In this letter I describe your growth, the lack of substance to sceptics’ criticism and the challenges which your success creates. I also describe potential solutions to them. Here is the word version of it.

  1. The Remarkable Growth of MDPI

MDPI’s growth is phenomenal. In barely ten years it has transformed from a small bespoke publisher managing a few journals to a major player publishing over 200 journals and tens of thousands of papers (Figure 1A). Moreover this growth is not due to new titles; it is driven by the popularity of its older journals (Figure 1B). 2018 in particular was a remarkable year for the company in which a major rise in submissions across almost the entire portfolio drove dramatic increases in the number of papers published. That fact is most plainly seen in Figure 1C. This shows that in 2018 the vast majority of the journals saw submissions increase by at least 50%, sometimes much more, resulting in thousands of extra MSes.

This growth reflects a number of unusual features. Processing times are short – in 2018 median time from submission to publication was only 39 days (!) The journal is entirely open access with all costs paid for by Author Processing Charges (APC). APC range from 350 and 2000 CHF. The median value charged per journal is 1000 CHF. The more popular journals charge more, and most published papers in 2018 paid 1700-2000 CHF. But these rates still make the journals both relatively cheap to publish in (for gold standard open access). Furthermore as open access journals the finished products are easily accessible and citable. Growth has been facilitated by the large number of special issues each journal promotes. These are curated by guest editors. It easier to identify speedy reviewers of special issues as they leverage the networks of the guest editors. The journals also have (I am told) an excellent journal management system that is easy to work with. Finally, MDPI are also more transparent compared to other publishers. Their website is easily navigable and presents useful material about all its journals, such as rejection rates, which others do not make so easily available.

These features suggest that MDPI has become an increasingly attractive venue for researchers to publish because of the quality of service it offers. This service means that increasingly large numbers try to place their work in its journals. It publishes more papers because more and more people are sending in papers to review.

But it is also possible that the growth in papers reflects low standards. In some academic quarters there is scepticism as to the quality of MDPI journals. The speed of review and the abundance of papers makes it harder to maintain the highest academic standards. Good science can be slow. Hundreds of special issues, each with their own editors, will make it keep consistent standards across such diversity. Similarly the variety of topics covered within individual journals also makes overseeing the same high standards of review across so many different subjects harder. The more popular journals also have hundreds of editorial board members. Again this raises problems of consistency. Finally a sceptic might also suggest that the APC for published papers introduces an incentive to publish weaker papers. Because any paper, however poor, brings in revenue. I myself held those views before writing this document.

We can examine the sceptic’s case by considering how rejection rates have influenced the growth in publications and by exploring changes in revenue across the portfolio. I present these data below. Methods are described at the end of this document.

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Figure 1- The growth of MDPI journals, papers and submissions (click here to see a pdf version)


  1. Growth is not associated with lowering publication standards

On average MDPI journals are relatively generous with acceptance rates across the portfolio of older journals of just under 50%. However their more popular journals tend to have higher rejection rates. Rates have not changed significantly over the previous four years of growth (Figure 2A). These averages conceal a high range of rejection rates from below 10 to over 80. These are shown in Figure 2B, which show annual rejection rates for each journal against total submissions for that journal in each year.

More important than the headline rejection rates is what happens to these rates as submissions increase. When journals become more popular they have two choices. They can get bigger and publish more papers. Or they can raise their standards and increase their rejection rates. The former increases revenues from APC, the latter can raise reputations and standards. High rejection rates in good journals are generally over 80% with the best journals enjoying rates of over 90 or even 95%.

MDPI journals have generally not sought to become more exclusive as they have become popular. Few journals have rejection rates over 70%. At the same time they have not grown the larger journals by lowering standards and decreasing rejection rates. The most popular journals tend to have acceptance rates which have remained stable and between 50 and 70% even as interest in these journals has mushroomed (Figure 2C & D).

There is a tendency for the smaller journals to have lower rejection rates and for those rejection rates to have declined from 2015-2018 (Table 1). However this is a tendency not a rule. Some smaller journals have high rejection rates which have become more stringent with time (second panels of Figure 2C & D). Editors clearly have freedom to respond as they wish to increasing interest in their journals.

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There is no evidence therefore to support the sceptic’s view that MDPI journals have grown because they have become easier to publish in. The journals with higher rejection rates publish more articles than those with lower rejection rates (Table 2). MDPI journals have become substantially more popular without lowering rejection rates of their largest journals.

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Screen Shot 2019-12-04 at 22.29.29Figure 2- Change in rejection rates. Area of bubbles proportionate to 2018 submission (click here for a pdf of this figure)


  1. Increased popularity brings in more money, but pursuit of APC does not drive publications.

The growth of interest in MDPI journals has presented a considerable commercial opportunity, and the company has made good use of it. The company structures APC such that the more popular journals are more expensive to publish in (Table 3).

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As a result of increasing demand, APC have risen across the portfolio (Table 4) to some consternation in the open access community. When a journal is younger and smaller it is cheaper to publish in. But when it receives more interest, the price rises.

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The value of APC and their importance to the business model of the company raises the prospect that it may be tempting to use journals as a means of raising revenue by accepting dubious papers. Papers may be accepted because of the APC they will generate rather than their scientific merit.

This is not the case. Journals with the lowest rejection rates raise the lowest revenues (Table 5). The value of rejected papers substantially exceeds the revenues of published papers. The commercial benefits of low rejection rates are negligible compared to the returns from journals which are harder to get into. The more exclusive journals are more lucrative for the publishers.

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There is no evidence therefore to support the sceptic’s view that MDPI publishes more because it has a financial incentive to do so. Revenues have grown because charges change as researcher interest grows, not because low standards let in too many papers.


4. Scope, Significance and the Place of MDPI in the Publishing Ecosystem

At first sight is difficult for a sceptic to understand how such an increase in the quantity of publications cannot be associated with low standards. Where could all these publication standard articles have come from so quickly? For sceptics the speed of the review process, the diversity of topics covered and the plethora of special issues and editors must mean that quality is not always be maintained. In 2018, for example, 14 journals I have examined were accepting over 70% of all submissions, leading to just under 2,400 published papers.

But these low rejection rates are relatively uncommon. We cannot explain the growth of MDPI simply be claiming undue haste in the publication process. Another possible answer is that as the journal reputations have grown so they have attracted more interest from better researchers who are keen to get their work into these growing new, open access journals. The guest-editing-special-collection model that MDPI use to bring in content can easily be scaled up. This makes it possible to keep reviewing times short, and make it easier to locate willing reviewers. The journals benefit from the free labour and networks that special issue editors are so keen to provide. In this scenario MDPI is just capturing a greater market share of the publishable research articles. This interpretation has added forced because 63 professional scientific associations had partnered with or affiliated to MDPI journals by the end of 2018.

Another indication of quality – although I have not assembled the data here – is that MDPI journal citation rates are rising, and they are increasingly being listed on the large journal and citation databases. More scientists want to talk about the work that MDPI journals are producing. In 2018 117 journals were covered by the Web of Science Core collection, 54 by SCIE and 111 by Scopus.

The sceptic’s view of MDPI is just not supported by the data I have analysed. Indeed the stance is obtuse because it will not help us to understand the nature of the service offered by these journals or their appeal to the researcher community. MDPI journals have grown because submissions to them have grown. Therefore we have to understand why they have become more popular.

It may be helpful to conceptualise the publication choices of academics as a market place – offering various degrees of accessibility, reputation, prestige and ease of publication. MDPI journals have generally not used the increased submissions they have enjoyed to make themselves really hard to get into. After all, some of the better journals pride themselves on rejection rates of over 90%. This is not MDPI territory. They will not become the most prestigious journals in academia while rejection rates are so generally low.

There is a risk that the high rates and speed of the process increases the risks of journals making mistakes, and thus bringing down the value of publishing in them. But the risk of being associated with mistakes is deterring few people. The rising level of submissions clearly demonstrates that any doubts about quality do not inhibit many researchers from submitting their work to these journals. There is clearly an appetite for journals which are relatively easy to get into, and then more accessible to more people to read. That is why it is a mistake to see the growth and popularity of MDPI journals as a sign of poor quality. This view simply fails to recognise the value that other researchers find in the services MDPI offers.

It is better instead to recognise that MDPI may herald a new approach and philosophy to academic publishing. MDPI journals are not published physically; they only appear in electronic form. When journals were printed space was at a premium – it cost more to publish longer papers. The best papers were those which made significant scientific advances, but by using minimal words, diagrams and space. Progress was concise.

However, without space constraints it is possible for editors to argue that if something is true and valid then it deserves to be published. The electronic-only format means that space is never an issue. They never have to worry about less important papers displacing more important papers. Instead there is room for everyone.

Another way of putting this is that the scope and significance of scientific advances individual papers make need not be criteria for publication. I once wrote a paper that reviewed conservation spending by conservation NGOs across all of sub-Saharan Africa over a three year period, and compared its distribution to conservation priorities. This work was completely original, no one had ever tried to do anything like it before. It could have substantially improved our understanding of where conservation effort was directed. Yet the journal I sent it to rejected it within 24 hours because it did not have adequate ‘scope’. Important as I thought my work to be, there were more important things for time-pressed scientists to be reading.

This approach to scope and significance is most transparently clear in the ethos of a new multidisciplinary journal ‘J’ that MDPI launched in 2018. I have reproduced the full text describing the journal and its hopes below (Box 1). The important text is highlighted in bold. It states that reviewers will not be asked to consider the significance of contributions, merely their validity. The larger community of readers will determine how much any particular findings matter. Scientific progress has no longer to be defined by its combination of insight and concision. The most long-winded and minor advances can still be published. Scientific progress can be made if a paper merely adds insight, without any consideration of space, concision or efficiency.

Box 1: J — Multidisciplinary Scientific Journal (emphasis added)

J (ISSN 2571-8800) is an international, peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary, open access journal, which provides an advanced forum for high-quality original research across the entire range of natural, applied, social, and formal sciences. J is dedicated to publishing all types of research outputs, including negative and confirmatory results in all disciplines and to make these results available to the relevant scientific communities shortly after peer-review. Our goal is to improve fast dissemination of new research results and ideas, and to allow research groups to build new studies, innovations and knowledge without delay . . . . Reviewers will be asked to evaluate only the soundness of the research approach, to detect the presence of any major flaws, and to make a recommendation regarding publication. They can choose between acceptance, minor revision, major revision or rejection, but only evaluating the validity of the scientific content. The significance of the contributions will be assessed by the appropriate scientific community at large, not by the two reviewers or the academic editor. We encourage scientists to publish their experimental and theoretical results in as much detail as possible so there is no restriction on the length of the papers.

The arrival of J means that there is now an outlet that can publish any sort of work that derives from any combination of disciplines, at any length, about any subject at all. If it takes off, J could become a rather large and all-inclusive journal. It is possible that its rejection rates could be low. Or put differently, rejection rates are almost irrelevant as a measure of success. They are more likely to measure the clarity of the journal’s instructions to authors. Success would be measured post-hoc, by the authority and use that publications acquire.


  1. Remaining Challenges for MDPI journals

The reputation of MDPI journals is bound to grow. The mud that sceptics throw will not stick. After all, I have tried harder than most (just try recreating the figures and tables I made above) and, as a result, have failed all the more spectacularly. Occasional mistakes notwithstanding, these journals will be publishing too much interesting science for their content to be dismissed. Anyway there are ample cases of much more stringent journals publishing mistakes, and/or rejecting content that later formed the basis of Nobel prizes. MDPI is no different from the rest of the field.

 The same logic applies commercially. With current rejection rates as they are, the MDPI model is relatively inured from mistakes and damage to the brand. It is still possible for mistakes to be made. But journals that are meant to be the best still drop absolute clangers, or miss amazing work. For MDPI a poor paper, published inappropriately, makes no difference to income. No one will unsubscribe from a free journal. The revenue from it is already earned and the deficiencies of any individual article are diluted by the sheer volume of other material. Bad work is buried in the mountain of other publications.

A died-in-the-wool sceptic may suggest that lowered standards, or the perceived risk of lowered standards, may provoke an institutional responses from Universities. If promotion or appointment committees are unimpressed by MDPI publications in a CV then this will dampen some of the enthusiasm. But it is difficult to see how this could make any dent in the vast number of publications which MDPI journals receive. Many academics are enthusiastic publishers. They will try for both more exclusive publications and for papers which are more accessible and can reach larger audiences. The trend is for journals to proliferate. Very high rejection rates mean, by their very nature, that most academics do not succeed in reaching those journals most of the time. They have to publish somewhere and MDPI journals provide a good outlet to do so.

 There are, however, two central challenges that will become increasingly apparent, especially now that MDPI journals have become more popular and more mainstream. These are

  1. Creating ever more content, in which scope and significance are not counted, and paper length is not controlled, creates unsupportable reading demands on researchers. MDPI may be able to publish more and more work. But we will not be able to read it.
  2. The increased financial returns creates increasing expectations to give back to the researchers producing these papers.

Each challenge presents obvious solutions. The response to the first is to create more exclusive journals. MDPI’s reputation is of a generalist publisher with relatively low rejection rates and as a relatively easy place to get material out quickly. It could create more exclusive outlets which are cheaper to publish in (and hence more popular with respect to submissions) but where rejection rates are much higher. This would mirror the trend for more exclusive brands (Nature) to establish less exclusive versions of an exclusive brand.

It is easy to image a system whereby authors, or editors, who thought submissions had the scope and significance to merit broader readership could pay a small supplemental fee (50 CHF) for their MS to be considered in the more exclusive journals. Papers which were accepted would be waived all APC. This arrangement would be likely to result in a much more exclusive journal, full of more significant papers and with likely high rejection rates.

So, MDPI, why not set up a ‘flagship’ journal (you could even call it that) in which the best papers of your stable are co-published in the flagship. This would be a more prestigious journal than your others, and particularly appealing because it would be free to publish in.

Another means of helping researchers to cope with excessive content is to produce bespoke review papers. The gold standard are provided by the Cochrane reviews, which consider both published and unpublished work, recognising that important negative results may not be publishable by normal standards. However MDPI changes the standards, it publishes negative and confirmatory results. But this makes it more important to produce reviews and digests which summarise ever more voluminous material.

The response to the second is to ‘give back’ more. The headline estimated figures of MDPI’s growth in recent years are rather eye-watering (Figure 1). Few commercial operations are able to demonstrate those levels of growth. They are a testimony to remarkable success.

These figures are also only estimates. They do not include 51 more recently created (and smaller) journals. But they also assume that all APC are paid in full. This is not the case. APC are often waived or reduced. A former CEO of MDPI recently stated that 20% of APC are not paid (see the comments on this thread). Good articles, editors, reviewers and members of affiliated professional societies all receive APC rebates. Moreover these are only estimated gross, not net, revenues. MDPI has also had to establish extensive physical and commercial infrastructure in order to service its journals. It’s website and journal management system are complemented by three offices (in Switzerland, China and Spain) and, as of 2018, 1248 employees. Nevertheless the success of the model, and the ability of these journals to scale up publications without adding overheads and costs means that this is a system which is geared towards profitability.


Screen Shot 2019-12-04 at 22.35.33

Figure 3: Estimated Gross Revenues – APC of accepted papers 2015-2018 from 140 journals.

Publishers generally suffer from popular perceptions that they are exploitative and free-ride on academics labour. They do free-ride, but can counter-act this by supporting more academic activities. Many of the activities publishers support (workshops, conferences, awards, sponsorship to attend conferences etc) then tend to generate more content for their journals.

MDPI is active in this space. To give just one example the APC rebates it offers to reviewers, could, theoretically, have reached 28 million CHF from just the 140 journals I have examined. But MDPI is not as transparent about its giving as it could be. Given that its transparency on other aspects of its activity already raises the bar for other publishers it could be similarly forthcoming with respect to its sponsorship of academic activity. That could drive welcome change across the sector.

Another possibility would be capping or reducing the APC charged for the most popular journals. A similar effect could be achieved by rewarding authors with rebates on the APC on future submissions. The size of these rebates could be linked to the journal’s performance in the year of publication – and thus authors share in the success that their writing helps to create.

Again, MDPI, there are concrete suggestions here to which I would like you to respond. Please could you publish what APC revenues you earned from each journal in each year – and what APC subsidy you have given out to authors and reviewers. Please make clear what other forms of support you are giving. I think if you lead on this then other publishers will have to follow. And, while you are at it, please could you make your data downloadable – it took me a while to copy them all out. Finally, please offer authors an APC rebate on future submissions that is linked to the success of the journal in which they have published – share the love!


  1. Methods and Acknowledgements

I copied data for submissions and rejection rates for 140 journals from the MDPI website that began business on or before 2015 and which handled more than 10 papers in that year. I assumed that rejection rates in a given year applied to all papers submitted in that year. Rounding of some of the rejection rates means that minor discrepancies appear in the accepted papers in this spreadsheet and the published data.

I took APC charges from the website but have had to estimate likely charges in some instances where APC for early years were unavailable. In 2018 and 2019 APC changed every 6 months. I have therefore calculated average APC for the year and applied that average to all papers published in that year. This is inaccurate as the lower fees apply to papers published in the first half the year, and higher fees in the second half. Nevertheless it provides a satisfactory short hand in the absence of better data.

The raw data I have used are available here.

My thanks to Clive Phillips for constructive engagement, key insights and critical commentary throughout.


Your Faithfully,

Dan Brockington,
Glossop, UK,
December 2019



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Exploring the UK’s NGO sector

By Chris Jordan, Communications and Impact Manage. This Blog first appeared at the GDI site here: 

[Visit the NGO explorer site here]

After setting out to better understand the UK’s development NGO sector, Dan Brockington and Nicola Banks soon realised that pulling together the data on thousands of charities would be a huge challenge.

After heroic amounts of filtering and crunching data, their research produced some fascinating insights into the health of the sector as a whole. While working closely with a range of charities, the researchers soon realised there was a real desire (particularly on the part of smaller NGOs and those based outside of London) to access similar information and connect with their counterparts.

While the funding environment strongly encourages (and often necessitates) collaboration across charities, there is very little support in place to facilitate that.

To help plug this gap, Dan and Nicola began working on a simple, accessible website that would allow people to search and interrogate publically available data on the vast number of UK charities working overseas. They linked up with open data enthusiasts who have already been active in this area, including Dan Kwiatkowski and David Kane, as well as like-minded colleagues in the sector in Bond (particularly Sarah Johns), the FSI and the Small International Development Charities Network Facebook group.

A combination of their enthusiasm, experience and expertise meant after only a few months of development, the NGO Explorer was unveiled at BOND and quickly put through its paces by a range of small charities.

Using the NGO Explorer to search for a country such as Malawi and you’ll find the details of 802 UK-based NGOs working in the country. You can quickly see what sectors they work in, where else they work and who they work with. The dashboard links to IATI data on projects in the country, as well as a host of other online resources. A list of all the charities and their contact details can be seen and all the data can be downloaded directly from the site. And, in what is perhaps the best feature, the site permits searches of key words used in NGOs’ own descriptions of themselves which provides a much more informed way of searching for specific activities and interests.

The same search can also provide fascinating insights into patterns within the UK. A search for NGOs in Sheffield brings up 100 different organisations, who work in 146 different countries, spending a total of £175 million a year. You can drill down into the size of these organisations by income and expenditure, with links off to a host of more detailed information.  All searches can be refined by size, activities and locations for a clearer view.

As Dan Brockington points out “providing onward links to other similar sites and networking devices is essential because a site like this can only really work if it fits into a broader ecosystem of networking activities and organisations. After all, it is only a website. To be a success it will have to be used as a spring-board for contacts, interactions and exchange.”

So far, the feedback suggests it has been playing this role. The response from contacts in DfID was “WOW!!!!” – and yes, that was four exclamation marks. Pauline Broomhead, CEO at the Foundation for Social Improvement remarked, “Whatever thoughts or ideas you’re having, you can go off and find different things. It’s a tool you can play with, which really assists with networking. In a sector that’s increasingly stretched, greater collaboration has to be the answer.”

Vic Hancock Fell, director of Raising Futures Kenya echoed these thoughts: “The future of the sector is through collaboration: we can’t exist in isolation. I’ll be using the NGO explorer to find out the other charities where I’m based in Sheffield who also work in Kenya and using it to connect with people who are doing similar work.”

The site is based on Charity Commission data for England and Wales, made accessible and kept updated via Charity Base (created by Dan Kwiatkowski). Finding ways to include Scottish and Irish NGOs in the tool is the next priority.

We’re fascinated to hear if people find the site useful and how it could be improved – so please let us know!

The NGO Explorer project was funded by the ESRC and the Global Challenges Research Fund and supported by the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester.


Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.
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Half-Earth is Half-Hearted. Make way for Thanos and The Half-Universe

Megademophobia – fear of overpopulation – has a lot to answer for. Malthus is serious enough, Ehrlich almost as bad. But now there is new problem: Marvel’s Infinity Wars. This film spectacularly unites multiple comic book heroes in an orgy of destruction which culminates in the annihilation of precisely half of the people in the Universe (including many of the weirdly abled protagonists). And all this because the Bad-guy-in-chief, Thanos, fears that overpopulation causes too much suffering.

But is this the first time this idea has been circulated? A few years ago, EO Wilson, one of the most prominent biologists of the 20th century, and an evangelist for conservation, came up with the idea of Half-Earth: the notion that half of earth was to be set aside for nature. This is based on the principle that humans are not part of nature, and that for the Earth to be able to preserve its biodiversity and sustain itself, humans had to be removed from one entire half of it.

Despite the similarity of these ideas, we don’t think that the Marvel script writers are half-earthers, or that Wilson is a secret Avengers fan (unless of course of Antman). The filmmakers and conservationists are no doubt independent, original thinkers. No one has copied anyone else.

But our views are not so important here. We understand that an irate Half-Earther has been pressing the Half-Earth movement to sue Marvel comics for plagiarism. This is, of course, absurd. First, there is no plagiarism. Second, never pick a fight with Thanos. So we would like the Half-Earth movement to distance itself from such foolishness, and release the following statement:

The Half-Earth movement would like publicly to disassociate itself from any resemblance or comparison with the Marvel film Infinity Wars. Thanos’ evil plot to destroy half of all human life, and our own cunning plan, have nothing in common.  They share no affinity. Any sane observer could tell that one of these plans is a complete fantasy. It is socially (not to say politically) illiterate. It disregards the lived fabric of our lives and the role of people in creating life around us. It is only possible to conceive with new advances in computer modeling. No prizes for guessing which one that is.

Just to underline the point further we would like to point out a few of the balmier elements of Thanos’ plan compared to our own. Thanos vapourised a random half of the universe. Our plan will deliberately target the places where poorer people live. It is cheaper to move them. It is politically safer to leave the rich alone. Thanos only appeared to have human interests at heart when he abolished half of life. Our plan is not about people. It will make life better for the richer half of humanity, but, more importantly, it will also make sure that these people can continue to enjoy the best ecosystem services and the biodiversity that their wealth deserves. Also, Thanos was utterly uncompromising. We are vague and ambiguous when it comes to what sort of life will be possible in the half where people are not around.

So there is no similarity whatsoever between Thanos’ evil plan for domination and our own hopes to clear the land of people who get in the way of our understanding of nature.

To avoid all possibility of doubt we would also like to point out that none of us cheered at the end of Infinity Wars. We have not we named any of our offspring or pets ‘Thanos’ in appreciation of his achievements. Nor do we gain any succour from news that an intergalactic message has been intercepted from one Zaphod Beeblebrox to Thanos indicating that to, due to a clerical error, the wrong half was destroyed and would he accept a further 25% reduction to life in the Universe, at discounted rates?

We hope that this press release will erase all possibility of confusion and allow the rest of us to get on with the business that matters – halving all known cases of megademophobia.

For a sensible rendition of these arguments see:


This blog is written by Kartel Shockington is a failed comic book creation with special powers of rapid hair loss. He sometimes appears as Kartik Shanker, and at other times as Dan Brockington. It first appeared here.

Kartik Shanker is at Indian Institute of Science & Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, India. Email:

Daniel Brockington is at the University of Sheffield, UK. Email:

Illustrator: Amit Kaikini

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The Strange Neglect of Diversity within Microfinance Institutions

This blog was written by Dan Brockington, SIID Director.

One of the vices of poverty is not being able to access that little bit of extra money when you need it. An opportunity comes up, such as a job interview, or a useful animal you can buy, but you do not have the savings to make best use of it. The inevitable happens (relatives get married) and you cannot contribute to the celebration expenses. A tragedy strikes, such as illness, and you cannot raise the funds to deal with it. Your capacity to cope with these problems is made further complicated by the fact that, given your low income, you tend to be over-exposed to them. Alternatively a little bit of extra money can ease the expenses of being poor. The poorest families pay to save money, they pay more for basic goods (as they only purchase in small quantities), they pay very high interest rates (>100% interest on loans). But whether for major events or everyday needs, part of the condition of being poor (as research on financial diaries shows) is simply not having the liquidity– the disposable cash – that you need, when you need it.

Microfinance was intended to be revolutionary because it promised to tackle exactly this. Poor people would be able to access funds in the form of small lump sums because they could call upon their friends and relatives, who knew their risk profile rather intimately, to act as guarantors. They could then invest these loans in different small business projects, or else in just the easing the day-to-day grind of getting by. The crises of liquidity could become surmountable.

But that promise of microfinance remains unfulfilled in two respects. First, in terms of its operation it does not necessarily reach really poor families. These are, after all, the riskiest groups to lend to. It is all too easy for microfinance groups to support loans to their richer members and exclude the poorest. Gradually, over time, microfinance lending groups can themselves exclude poorer families – and the loan officers who run the group, and managers of those loan officers allow that to happen.

On the other hand, the counter-veiling tendency is that microfinance companies face severe pressures to increase the number of clients on their portfolio and make a profit. This means focussing on microcredit (rather than savings) and aggressively selling loans to the wrong people who can take on debt they are unable properly to cope with. This is particularly apparent when loans are made only to women (a common practice in many instances) who are encouraged (or forced) by male relatives to take the loans, then forced to hand the money over to men who have no intention of repaying. Once again this practice is overseen by loan officers and driven by incentives and governance by microfinance managers.

Another way of putting these points is that the performance of microfinance staff must matter a great deal for the success of the organisation and implementation of its policies. We hope that you are thoroughly unimpressed by this point. It should be plain obvious. The importance of ‘HR’ and staff management was discovered decades ago. One of the reasons why management and business schools prosper around the globe is because good leadership of companies, and the people who work in them, is really important. Employees matter for organisational performance.

But if our previous paragraph was unsurprising and banal it makes the persistent absence of research into performance withinmicrofinance organisations rather strange. While there are some authors who explore this topic, it is not a popular one in the microfinance literature. Indeed much of the microfinance research industry is founded on the assumption that organisations are homogenous and can be treated as single entities. Researchers instead concentrate on the three axes of difference that have dominated research up until this point: the nature of the clients, the broader economic and regulatory environment that surrounds them, and the sorts of loans, or products offered.

We think that more attention is needed on the work and performance of microfinance staff in microfinance research. An analogy of a play may be helpful here. Any actor will tell you that the audience (clients), stage (environment) and the quality of the dialogue and plot (products) are all important elements in any good performance. But the same actor is also likely to insist that the actors’ own work (the organisation’s staff), as well as their stage direction and production (the organisation management), also matter a great deal. We do not think that enough attention has been given to variation of performance within organisations in the microfinance community.

We have recently published a paper which illustrates the central importance of understanding diversity of organisational performance. We studied the success of BRAC’s microfinance scheme in Tanzania. BRAC originates in Bangladesh. It is the largest and one of the most successful NGOs in the world and has recently set up operations in a number of African countries. On the surface the microfinance scheme in Tanzania has been phenomenally successful, lending to tens of thousands of Tanzanian women. It had rapidly become the largest organisation of its kind in the country (as the graph below shows), at a time when most other microfinance organisations in the country were not growing. We wanted to understand why.

Cumulative surplus from BRAC microfinance loans

However we came to realise that there was not, in fact, a single story to be told about that organisation, rather there were several. Branch performance varied considerably (as the next graph shows), and seemed to reflect the influence of strong or weak area managers. This seemed to reflect the fact that BRAC seems to have been good at winning clients, but not necessarily at retaining them. This in itself was strange as many of the senior staff marvelled at the business acumen of their Tanzanian clients. Yet there were too many microfinance groups which were disintegrating and staff who were leaving. We felt that this reflected processes of institutional learning that BRAC and its (mostly Bangladeshi) senior management had to go through in order to understand how to operate in Tanzania, and to work with, and promote, Tanzanian staff. Shortly after our work was completed there was a complete overhaul of the upper levels of management with many more Tanzanian staff promoted, and trained for promotion. We suspect that this will make it easier for BRAC to perform better in the country.

Average monthly surplus of weak (n=28) and strong (n=32) branches over time

But the main point we want to make here is that diversity of performance within microfinance organisations matters. It has been neglected and this could cause problems later. For example, the current swathe of randomized controlled trials (RCTs– and see here or here for an interesting critique of them) hinge on robust designs that can construct sufficiently large samples to explore the impact of explanatory variables. However if important explanatory variables are omitted then RCTs may be poorly designed. It follows that, if organisational heterogeneity has not been adequately factored into RCTs, so therefore their power will be reduced. It also means that, in order properly to cope with organisational variety, RCTs will become larger and yet more expensive.

This neglect of diversity also runs counter to good practice in understanding development challenges. It becomes difficult to search for the positive outliers, and understand what makes them a success, if our conceptual frameworks does not allow for diversity, difference and outliers in the first place. We look forward to more explorations of diversity and heterogeneity within microfinance organisations, in order that the products they offer can be better delivered to the clients who need them despite the environmental challenges they face.

This blog was first published on the SIID site in August 2018.

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The Sesame Seed Cash Injection: Asset Investment and Economic Change in Mtowisa Village, Rukwa Region 2000-2016

At the heart of the long-term livelihood change project is the question ‘is Tanzania’s growing national economic prosperity visible in its rural areas?’. If ever there was an archetypal place to seek answers to this question, it would be the village of Mtowisa, down in the Rift Valley, close to Lake Rukwa in Rukwa region (southwest Tanzania), where I lived there for almost a year between 1999 and 2000 as part of a post-doctoral research fellowship. The village is not far, as the crow flies, from the regional capital of Sumbawanga, which is barely 15km away. But the flying crow has an easier route than humans, as it can soar over the 1200m escarpment that separated the town from the village. Residents had to walk between the two, else brave a long and difficult journey on bad roads. This was a village that felt far from anywhere, where most people were small-scale farmers, cultivating 2 acres or so. Only 20% of families owned cattle and then but small herds. Most lived in simple grass-rooved houses. Mtowisa in 2000, had not really been touched by 10 years of economic growth that had already occurred in Tanzania – how has it fared in the 16 years of strong economic growth between 2000 and now?

I returned to Mtowisa in August 2016 interviewing 64 domestic units, local shopkeepers and government officials, travelling to neighbouring villages and fishing camps with friends, visiting new irrigation schemes and holding two village meetings (for women and men). Revisiting the place was a wonderful experience. All through the visit I had people complaining that I was not coming to their house to do the survey: ‘njoo uniandikie mimi pia’, (come and write about me, too) was a common refrain (only one person refused to take part). It was unusual to have to think up reasons why I could not do so. I’m afraid my Swahili was not up to explaining the importance of a random sample.

At first sight the changes to the village appeared remarkable. Transport to the place is much improved with year round bus-services. The village centre was transformed. I had known it as a sleepy place with one major shop and a small hospital, where cars came infrequently, and motorbikes were rare. Now there were numerous shops, nearly 20 bodaboda (motorcycle taxis), gas and electric welding (the latter run on a powerful generator), several phone shops and a well-equipped hardware store. The hospital had an operating theatre and there were lots of solar powered lights (and stereos, making the place a much louder one at night). There is a large phone tower in the village (since 2008).

There was an abundance of metal roofed homes, and many single rooms being rented. Numerous pigs roamed the streets or were kept in small compounds near people’s houses (these had also been unusual in 2000). The small irrigation furrows I had left behind were still present, and indeed had expanded in number. In the dry season they were used (since about 2012) to cultivate tomatoes, cabbage and onions and there were around 10 petrol powered pumps which withdrew river water to pump to near by farms.

 But the presence of these changes, does not answer the question posed above. What matters is how this apparent wealth and new business had affected the lives of the poorer farmers of Mtowisa. Were these changes welcome to them? Did them benefit from them?

To explore this I drew upon a survey of 800 plus domestic units I had conducted in 2000. I selected 64 units to revisit and compared their asset ownership to their state in 2000, and to the asset ownership of domestic units with similarly aged heads in 2000. My original survey did not include many wealthy Sukuma immigrants, and the new sample included no domestic unit heads below 35 years old. But it still provides useful insights into the condition of older domestic units.

The differences can be very simply stated. Older families in Mtowisa now enjoy higher levels of prosperity, as measured in assets, than they did 16 years ago. They enjoy higher levels of prosperity than their counterparts of an equivalent age expected to achieve in 2000. They are wealthier because of their farming, and, in particular because they are selling more cash crops, specifically sunflower seeds and sesame, with the latter providing the most substantial change.

The evidence for this change is as follows. First, with respect to key measures of herd and plough ownership the sample visited is wealthier than it was in the past, and compared to the group of similar aged domestic unit heads in 2000 (see Table 1). Oxen ownership has increased by half (and if we include oxen borrowed from wealthy Sukuma patrons it doubles to 41%). Pig ownership has increased dramatically, and ownership of ploughs has more than doubled.


Second, with respect to farming activity, people are simply farming more. They are farming larger areas than they were previously, with fewer 2 acre farms in particular and more farms over 5 acres. Younger families (of those over 35) are more industrious than they were previously. All families are farming more cash crops, with proportionally less maize is grown than before. The decline in the proportion of maize is due to more farming of sunflowers and sesame. Third, housing quality has improved, particularly with the spread of metal roofing, as these pictures show.

These depict houses in 2003, 2010 and 2013 with houses built in the interval between the photos ringed in blue and yellow respectively.

The other source of evidence on housing change are the narratives that I was told repeatedly by many people: that they had been able to invest in their houses because of their farming activity. It is a very simple story, but no less heartening for that. The narratives demonstrates when the changes in people’s homes and other assets occurred and why. Figure 1 shows what people were purchasing, and when.

This figure demonstrates that the scale of the investments are considerable, if quite recent. The main reason for that growth in investment, as shows, is the increased sales of sesame and sunflower seeds.

After 2010 farmers were able to yield fantastic returns, of, I was told, between 250,000/= and 300,000/= per sack of sesame. This is more than enough for a roll of metal roofing, and only two rolls would be required to roof a standard sized house. One story illustrates well the joy and surprise that these returns caused to farmers in Mtowisa. I was told that one farmer (we will call him Darius), who I met in the survey work and who had not been particularly industrious or wealthy in 2000, went up to Sumbawanga to sell his sesame in 2011. This was a collective enterprise, with many farmers loading their harvest onto the lorry of the local shop owner to take it to the depot in Sumbawanga where better prices can be realized. On receiving his payment for two sacks of sesame (500,000/=) Darius was simply left shock (amekaa bubuwazi). He sat down in a corner of the weighing room, still full of the hustle and bustle of heavy sacks being moved, weighed and paid for, because he had never in his life expected to have so much money. His friends had to guide him to a guest house where he could safely spend the night. The next day he had recovered sufficiently to buy metal sheets for a new house (which are also much less easily stolen than money). He built a new house that year and extended it the year after following further sales. It is because of repeated stories like Darius’ that the appearance of Mtowisa, and the daily lives of so many of its residents have been so thoroughly changed. Higher sesame seed prices have given a substantial cash injection to many people’s livelihoods.

A Universal Improvement?

Altogether 66% of the sample had experienced an increase in assets in some way over the previous 16 years – but what subtler changes does this bald statistic conceal? There are two general trends to note. First, the improvement in assets is general across most wealth groups, but richer, more industrious families, have tended to be able to benefit from the cash crop returns more than families who were poorer and farming less in 2000.

Older people, female headed domestic units, and smaller families tended to improve their asset base less than younger, male-headed, larger units. This trend reflects changes in the lifecycle of domestic units where older people farm less, where widows also farm less, and where both tend to support fewer dependents.  This means that, had the sample been more representative of village society, and had fewer older people and fewer domestic units headed by widows then it is likely to have had more instances of successful asset growth.

Nonetheless the general conclusion from these trends is that, within the constraints of age and senescence, the injection of resources that the recent cash crop boom has provided has been remarkably catholic. Access to this resource was not restricted to existing asset rich households (although an existing asset base clearly helped). Any family able to manage its affairs wisely, and enjoying a modicum of good luck, was able to benefit.

Finally, it bears repeating that assets are but one aspect of prosperity. The families I visited, in the main, had enjoyed a recent cash injection from which they had invested in assets. But there are many other dimensions of poverty that remain untouched by this welcome change. The standards and ease of accessing health and educational services, care for the long term sick and elderly, basic measures of dignity and so on are all ignored by this survey. Our methods and sources do not allow us to make the long term comparisons required to document the changes (or lack thereof) that have occurred here. But that does not make them any less important.

Answering the Question: the national economy and rural prosperity

Assets matter. Many of the Fipa families with whom I spoke place considerable significance on the major purchases that they will need to make in order to have a good life and provide for their children. They will need to buy a plot (150,000/=), build a good house (300,000 – 500,000/=), buy land (400,000/= an acre for unirrigated land), buy oxen (200,000/= a head) and a plough (150,000/=). And most of the families in this sample were taking significant steps in building that asset base.

But how do these changes answer the original question with which we began? To what extent are rural areas benefitting from economic growth in the nation as a whole? The answer in the case of Mtowisa, is rather ambiguous. The direct connections between economic growth and local changes in prosperity are surprisingly hard to demonstrate.

Some of the changes that took place here do not seem to depend on changes to transport provision and road quality. The sesame seed price rise took place some time after the local road had been completed, and before the metalled road between Mbeya and Sumbawanga had been built. Many of the assets (land, burned bricks, timber for rooves and oxen) can be locally sourced. Moreover the continued lack of provision of key services that are the state’s responsibility (water, TASAF social security payments for the elderly and extremely poor) mean that despite the state’s growing prosperity residents of Mtowisa remain as disadvantaged as ever.

Other aspects of the changes are likely to be connected to national economic change. The availability of metal roofing sheets and ploughs, and the price of some crops will reflect national change. But it is unlikely that these are well connected to the sectors which have, apparently, been driving Tanzanian economic growth in recent years.

But if this has been a case of separate development it is likely that, in the future, the fortunes of this village will be tied to the country’s more powerfully than before. Agricultural activity will continue to intensify. The changes in Mtowisa between 2000 and 2016 have been dramatic, and most of them are less than five years old. They are nothing, however, to those that are about to unfold over the next ten as this once remote village becomes increasingly integrated into the national economy.

This blog first appeared on the Long term livelihood CHange project here.

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The evidence suggests that support for UK development NGOs is actually growing

International development NGOs are facing interesting times in the UK. We live in a rising tide of nationalism, parochialism and suspicion of, not care for, distant strangers. Austerity measures make charities, and the giving public, poorer. And this was all before the safeguarding scandal put the entire sector on the back foot. The public mood appears more hostile to international development than ever.

At the risk of being heretical, we want to suggest that these threats may be exaggerated. Support for development NGOs is not merely resilient; it is growing. Entrepreneurial NGOs are creating new constituencies that champion new development causes. Far from being a sector under threat, we see a rich diversity of development NGOs flourishing in the UK, sustained by influential minorities.

These are the inescapable conclusions of our study of the changing fortunes of 898 development NGOs in England, Wales and Scotland as part of a collaborative project by the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester, with considerable consultation across the sector. Here are four key findings from the main report, which we should bear in mind as we think through current challenges

1. There are more and more development NGOs. Numbers have been increasing, not decreasing over time. This is despite mergers and declines of a prominent few. There seems to be a sustained appetite for new organisations. Moreover newer organisations can grow quite quickly – age is no guarantee of size.

2. They are spending more and more money. Expenditure by these organisations has increased from just over £3.5 billion to over £5 billion per year by 2015, with scarcely a blip

Note: excludes STC International and the British Council for reasons we explain in the full report

3. The sector expands through entrepreneurship not cannibalism. Development NGOs are expanding in size and financial health by finding new sources of funds, not by stealing supporters from their colleagues. The increases in the number and budgets of the larger organisations cannot be explained by declines in other organisations. This means that these organisations are finding new sources of funding from new supporters, not raiding existing supporter bases. This in turn suggests that fundraising is really important for expansion. NGOs which sustain high expenditure almost all invest in fundraising.

4. This growth has been possible primarily through the generosity of the British public, which is by far the largest source of funds for the sector. It has given just under £10 billion from 2009-2014. It is currently the most important single source of funding, accounting for over 40% of income. The dominance of public giving is plain for all sizes of organisation. And, if that’s not enough, income from the public is increasing even as public disposable income falls as this article shows.

Source of income for NGOs of different size classes

The vigour of the sector puts a different gloss on current travails. It does not make the opposition any less painful or politically dangerous. We are particularly keenly aware of the challenges to the 0.7% commitment. But it does change the challenge facing development NGOs – for it means that the hostility of other elements of the British public is less financially threatening than is often assumed.

We know that overall, UK charities are not sustained by the general public as a whole. Rather, as John Mohan’s work has shown, the sector is primarily supported by a ‘civic core’ of about 31% of the nation which is responsible for 79% of giving and 87% of volunteering. Development NGOs appear to be a special instance of this bespoke supporter action. They may even have their own civic core, for while the rest of the charitable sector has been struggling in recent years, development organisations have been enjoying healthy growth. They are, relatively, austerity proof.

There is something rather remarkable about the development NGO sector as we have described it here. Even in the aftermath of the safeguarding scandal there is evidence to suggest that support for development NGOs has remained resilient. In an era of Brexit, growing insularism, anxiety about refugees and pressure on the Aid budget, the number of charities which work on famine relief and overseas poverty increases at double the rate of other charities. Perhaps this is not a sector which should be understood in terms of what average Britons think or believe, or even dominant political discourses. Perhaps this is the outpouring of a rather stronger vein of cosmopolitanism and concern for distant strangers that runs deep in such a significant minority of people that the creativity and resources of that minority are yet to be exhausted. Perhaps the sector, by virtue of its growth and vigour, creates the very markets and audiences that it seeks funding and support from.

These findings may surprise many colleagues are facing difficult fund-raising environments and hostile media. One of the reasons we have published this blog is that we want to ask ‘do they resonate with your experience’? We would love to hear your views as we pursue our next steps. On our part one challenge is that we cannot tell who this giving public is from current data, or how supporter constituencies are formed, and what conducive environments produce them. We want to understand who constitutes the giving public for development NGOs.

Development NGOs still face some of their most challenging times. There is good evidence that the consequences of episodes of hostility and opposition are felt many years in the future, not in the immediate aftermath. And a far more robust response to the safeguarding crisis is essential. But our point is not that these challenges do not exist, or are somehow irrelevant. Rather our research suggests that the sector can face them with a strong tail-wind of core believers who back them still.

This blog is co-authored by Nicola Banks and first appeared on the FP2P blog here.

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Aid scepticism isn’t damaging donations to international charities – but it might in future

Getting aid to those who need it in Kenya. Oxfam International/, CC BY-NC-ND

Christmas is a time for giving, when people think about how to extend their generosity to those in greater need. We put additional items in our trolley to donate for food banks, have a clear out of blankets, warm clothes or toys for local charities, or search for unique charity gifts that help disadvantaged people overseas.

Since the financial crisis, international aid and development spending has been in the firing line. The British government’s pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid has acted as a lightning rod for criticism from the right-wing media, who claim the money is mispent and that it should be spent in the UK.

My colleagues and I were interested in exploring the effects of austerity and the continuing narrative of aid scepticism on the development sector. So we embarked on a quest to map the UK’s development NGOs, including charities who help in emergency situations as well as those funding longer-term development projects.

We’ve now produced a database of over 900 development NGOs that spend over £10,000 a year, tracking their incomes and expenditures from 2009 to 2015 (the last year of publicly available data). In 2015 alone, we found that the British public contributed 40% of the sector’s overall income of nearly £7 billion – equivalent to around half of aid spending of £12.2 billion by the government in that year.

Public keep on giving

The public is by far the major donor to British NGOs working in international development, contributing more to the sector than government grants, other charities and business combined.

Donors have remained committed to this generosity, even as incomes have been squeezed. Public giving did not followed downward trends in real household income – their peaks and troughs have been diametrically opposed across the period we looked at. At first we thought these sustained and increasing contributions were largely driven by rich philanthropists whose incomes may have been largely protected since the financial crisis. But at a recent event we held on public attitudes to international development we were challenged on this.

Fundraisers told us they were not surprised that donations have increased even as incomes have been squeezed, highlighting ancedotally that regular members of the public, rather than major donors, have always – and remain — their biggest funder.

Changes in giving from the public to development NGOs and real household disposable income available in the UK. Author provided, Author provided

International development is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to the UK’s overall charitable funding. An analysis of Charities Commission data highlights that most charitable expenditure – £53 billion out of £68 billion in 2015 – is spent by charities that operate only in the UK. Charitable expenditure on international development is less than 10% of the total of what charities spend.

The British public has provided the backbone to a sector that has shown sustained growth since the early 2000s – in both the number of organisations and in total funding. Up until 2015, the last year of data available for our analysis, there was no sign of a decrease in the number of organisations or overseas expenditure. Income across the sector is distributed highly unevenly, with the 77 largest organisations (8% of the 900 NGOs in our database) accounting for over 90% of the sector’s expenditure. Our data shows government funding going almost exclusively to NGOs with incomes over £1m and a large increase in government funding to NGOs spending more than £100m since 2010. This makes income from the public particularly important for small to medium-sized development NGOs earning less than that.

Concerns for the future

Our research may show a largely positive situation for the UK’s development NGOs, but the picture is not universally rosy. These findings are at odds with growing concerns within the sector, include unease around a funding environment that is getting harder and harder, with growing competition and a public that are getting less receptive or more hostile to international development causes.

The data is not yet available to look at how funding trends continued across the sector in 2015 and 2016, but the people in NGOs we’ve spoken to feared that the sustained commitment they had seen until recently was no longer looking as robust, and that new data protection changes could hinder their fundraising and campaigning activities.

Our findings only track trends until 2015, the latest year when income data is universally and publicly available. There have seen many changes since, including a Brexit vote that deepened the “charity begins at home” narrative. Both academic colleagues and those working in NGOs fear this will weaken the British public’s engagement with the overseas charitable sector.

The Gates Aid Attitude Tracker project has been tracking changes in attitudes to aid across the UK, revisiting the same households every six months since 2013. Their findings suggest that the number of people in its sample donating money to international development causes dropped in the second half of 2015 and has remained lower ever since. Economic issues and attitudes to immigration were found to negatively influence public engagement in the sector.

Changes at home will be exacerbated by UK-based NGOs potential losses from EU development funding, for which they may no longer be eligible after Brexit. A post-Brexit weakened exchange rate has also increased the costs of funding projects and infrastructure overseas: a double-whammy. Now is the time to reaffirm our commitments internationally as well as at home.

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