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/flickr.com, 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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Tigers, elephants ask: what have royals ever done for us?

This blog is co-authored with and first appeared in the Conversation here
Royal interest in tigers has cut both ways through the years. S. Taheri

On the face of it the British royal family’s commitment to wildlife conservation is unmistakable.

Perhaps the most well-known work is that of Prince Charles, who in May co-hosted a meeting on illegal wildlife trade, just one of many of his endeavours that include high level activities on rainforests and considerable work in Britain.

Both his father Prince Philip, who co-founded the WWF, and his son Prince William (now the Duke of Cambridge), are actively involved in global conservation. Indeed Prince William recently retired from his role as a RAF helicopter pilot to focus on his charity work, launching the United for Wildlife conservation alliance.

Less well known is that Princess Michael of Kent is a patron of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, Mark Shand (the brother of Camilla Parker-Bowles, Prince Charles’ wife) set up the charity Elephant Family, and Prince Andrew has visited game reservation areas in Tanzania.

But their work is far more than just supporting and establishing charitable activities. What the royal family has done historically and continues to do for conservation in Britain is to drive a particular vision of what conservation should be, an influence that continues to this day.

We need to be careful. Any conservation vision is also inherently a social vision. Any battle for wildlife is a battle fought between people, which means people as well as animals will be among the casualties. The royal family is no stranger to these dilemmas and has found itself embroiled in controversy in the past. For example, when a WWF helicopter donated by Prince Philip was used in a shoot-to-kill anti-poaching operation in Sapi safari area in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. The helicopter was quickly withdrawn, but left a PR disaster for the WWF and its royal benefactors.

This is one of the problems of conservation visions, particularly in those overseas issues with which the royal family is associated. On the one hand, it can gloss over the power relations and responsibilities entailed when Britons take an interest in overseas conservation.

For example, as patron of the Tusk Trust Prince William said last year, “Africa’s natural heritage is the world’s natural heritage. We have to preserve places like this… not just for us, but for future generations.” Preserving African landscapes for “us” essentially meant wealthy Britons, for they were the audience. But whose lands are they? If they are part of the world’s heritage, then who in the world gave the Prince William the responsibility to lead conservation efforts? This is the sort of thinking which raises hackles and leads to phrases like “new imperialism”.

On the other hand it can promote particular ideas of what Africa should look like, and where wilderness should be, that obscures the complex, messy politics behind the practicalities of conservation.

The future King Edward VIII at a tiger shoot in Nepal during his Indian tour of 1921. PA

Work with wildlife charities is a mark of respectability, like working with children’s charities or supporting a hospital. It seems apolitical and is unlikely to ruffle any government feathers. Who could argue with wanting to save the elephants or tigers? Well, the national park in Tanzania that Princess Michael of Kent’s charity supports was cleared of several thousand residents by an illegally conducted eviction – but you would be hard put to find details of that from the organisation involved. And the reserve that Prince Andrew visited (a hunting preserve) has since been at the centre of an only recently resolved dispute over evicting thousands more pastoralists.

Let us not forget the royal family is privileged. It moves in privileged circles – indeed, it sits among the pinnacle of the global elite. And ever since William the Conqueror set aside one third of England as personal hunting preserves, conservation has been deeply implicated in the defence of privilege. While the British monarchy and others have been central to the spread of conservation, it is based on elite privilege, exclusion, dispossession and separation of humans from their environment.

Our point here is not that the elite’s interactions with nature are somehow unsavoury, even though it may involve a certain amount of hunting. But while the British public were upset that Prince Philip shot a tiger shortly after founding the WWF, and while the Spanish public were furious that their king went hunting elephants as they struggled with economic woes, there was very little adverse impact to wildlife (besides the trophy victims).

The point is rather that royalty more often draws attention, bringing a certain amount of glamour and excitement to particular experiences of nature. In the 1920s, the East African safaris of the future kings Edward VIII and George VI helped mould the expectations of what such trips should be like. Royal support causes Britons to notice and listen, and many will do so less critically than they might otherwise.

Fortunately, our royal family is, at its core, public-spirited. By this we mean that one of its goals is undoubtedly a society which is more alive to conservation issues. And this ultimately will entail moving away from elitist, white, wealthy people that engage in external interventions in countries and communities far distant from their headquarters. It means a move to more local and grassroots conservation organisations instead, and a recognition that this a fight to shape and determine the terms of the debate, a war of position as the Italian intellectual Gramsci would put it, as much as a battle.

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If we ever have a ‘Green Economy’ would we know that we live in one?

A move to a green economy requires changes in the way we make things, move, allocate resources, produce energy and consume stuff. It requires changes to our planning of cities, trade policy and budget allocations. It requires governments to do things differently and promote policies that encourage citizens, businesses and civil society to behave differently and have different aspirations. And that, these days, also entails some sort of measurements to tell whether or not the new policies are having the desired effects and creating the sort of change that a green economy requires.

There is currently a great deal of attention paid to the measures by which we know about our societies and global change. This is partly because the 169 targets set for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) all have an agreed set of (230) indicators for which governments now have to collect data to monitor their progress towards achieving those goals. It is partly because there is renewed criticism and interest in the accuracy and reliability of many of the measures currently used to assess the state of the world (not least GDP).

SDG Projections: Massive scale projections and  peoples’ voices to celebrate UN70 and visually depict the 17 Global Goals
Projections on Sustainable Development Goals and 70th Anniversary of the United Nations Photo: United Nations Photo under Creative Commons License. Downloaded from Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/un_photo/22825341484/

 

In this context, my contribution to the greenmentality project takes on two tasks:

First, I will examine the construction, robustness and meanings of indicators used to evaluate performance of those aspects of the SDGs which are relevant to assessing progress towards a ‘Green Economy’. I will do this by exploring the construction of national level statistics. This will entail interviews with the government officials who work on these statistics.

Second, I will explore what changes have been taking place in different parts of rural Tanzania. We know that there have been dramatic changes in the country in the last 20-30 years. It is less clear to what extent the changes, which have happened would be compatible with moves towards a ‘green economy’ and to what extent the proposed indicators might be able to capture them.

The SDG indicators and the green economy are not identical but they are related. In the first place some proponents of a green economy hold that their vision is part of the ‘pathways towards the sustainable development goals’ (according to UNEP). In the second there are organisations promoting green growth, which assemble readily available indicators as part of their endeavours in irrigation activity to plot progress towards a green economy. Finally, some of the indicators are plainly relevant to the condition and state of any green economy. These include measures of CO2 production, use of fresh water, management of forests, and presence of forest cover and so on. This means that, as countries try to strengthen their statistical apparatus and surveillance capabilities, so they will be producing official ways of knowing about measures which will be taken as indicative of the strength (weakness) and presence (absence) of the green economy.

We know, however, that these measures can be flawed. Sometimes the indicators chosen are inappropriate (expanding protected areas for example can be inimical to local development). Extent of forest cover is not good for measuring the health of grassland systems. Alternatively, the problem can lie in the systems of state surveillance and monitoring, which are used to determine the condition of society and environment. The data used are sometimes inaccurate, flawed or misleading. It is an interesting and important exercise to consider what those weaknesses are, what misunderstandings they lead to and how well-known these problems are.

The purpose of the first part of this project therefore is to examine, through a study of the construction of SDG indicators, what view of the world is perpetrated by these statistics, and what errors can arise from them. This entails working with the people who produce and compile these statistics and with those who work in quality control and evaluation and those who use them. It entails exploring internal contradictions and complementaries within the data themselves. Outcomes may be that we shed doubt upon the value of these numbers, or, alternatively, that we need to move on from past criticisms about the invalidity of these statistics and recognize their fundamental reliability in core areas. This part of the project could entail some interesting collaborations with government officers who have been tasked with constructing strong and reliable statistical measures.

If the first part of the project is about accuracy, the second is about sensitivity. This element of the research project will build on current work in Tanzania, which is identifying places, which have seen transformations in their local economy (which may or may not have led to changes in local prosperity). This phase of the project explores in more detail the nature of and drivers of these changes and asks to what extent they are captured, and could be captured by current indicators of movement towards a green economy.

This will entail village level fieldwork interviewing key people whose lives and livelihoods have transformed or are meant to have been transformed by green economic measures. It will entail examining the reasons for and agents of change (networks, media, NGOs, government officers, companies selling new seeds etc.). It will entail exploring the local consequences of these transformations (inclusive growth, class formation etc.). It will entail considering on the basis of these data how ‘green’ these transformations have been. This part of the project will build on research projects, which are now completing and which have explored transformations in irrigation activity and in livelihood change and asset ownership in Tanzania.

Finally, having gleaned some understanding of the greenness of changes involved in place, which we know have been subject to forces of change, we can ask how sensitive current indicators of a green economy are to the changes we have observed. This part of the project could entail some interesting engagements with villagers’ own conceptions of the changes and transformations of their lives and what the consequences have been for them.

This blog first appeared on the Greenmentality site here.

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Measuring and Measurement: A new volume of Environment and Society

The most recent issue of Environment & Society explores different practical, theoretical and conceptual problems associated with measuring and measurement across diverse environmental issues. In this blog we have reproduced the introduction to that collection, which is available on open access here. The arguments here should whet your appetite for more, and given some idea as to why this issue is so important.

The imperatives of measurement seem particularly prominent in today’s social environmental concerns. This is partly because of the problems different societies and international bodies have set themselves to solve. Whether these be the monitoring required to meet climate change targets or prevent biodiversity loss, the formulation of indicators to track progress to meet the targets set for the Sustainable Development Goals, concern about the return of high levels of inequality or crises in the validity of political polling, how we measure and monitor the world is increasingly on the agenda.

The prevalence of measurement is also partly due to the new possibilities and ways of knowing that are now being revealed through “big data” that track social media records, mobile phone use, and new abundances of machine-read satellite data. These data are themselves complicated constructs; they combine proxies, signals, indicators, and diverse interpretations and inferences. But this does not make them any less “factual”—after all, that is what fact has almost always constituted. The result is that many parts of the world look different now because we have new tools to see them with.

Measuring, monitoring, and counting have come to be close to the heart of research and academia. In Britain, academics’ research is evaluated periodically in national comparative procedures (now called the Research Excellence Framework), and their teaching is about to be also (the Teaching Excellence Framework). Metrics are increasingly likely to dominate these scorings (Wilsden et al. 2016). And independently of any official surveillance, many academics have a fairly good idea as to our citation scores and h-index. In some disciplines these will even be printed on the back of business cards. The fact that these measures can become such driving goals is a good measure (indicator if you prefer) of the social power of indicators.

Getting measurement right is important because it can become a means of spotting patterns and of holding powers to account. “Without measurement and standards, organizational agents operate under the tyranny of cronyism” (Power 2004: 774). But the means of seeing that measurement affords can also become ways of not seeing, of invisibilizing, of failing to recognize people, places and ways of knowing. As Paige West and colleagues (2006: 254) observed over a decade ago, with reference to a then newly comprehensive database of protected areas, new machines for measurement can become “a way of seeing the world with blindspots and blurred vision not easily perceived by its operators, but these blindspots become darker and fuzzier as the machine becomes better.” Michael Power (ibid) argues that when measurement becomes a means of comparing performance in organizations, “new secret organisational worlds” form that create and exploit invisibility in order to appear better in performance metrics.

More than that, we must understand measurement not just as a way of seeing but also as a creative and organizing project that co-produces the very world it aspires to describe. Theodore Porter (1994) is quite clear on this. Understanding measurement (this discipline is called metrology) is not just about how measurement describes society and nature. We have to understand how it reconfigures relations between and with them, and how it imposes and erases meaning. Understanding this is what metrology is all about. As Mark Cooper (2015: 1789) puts it: “[i]t invites us to question the social, political, and scientific conditions under which agreements about measurement and commensuration do or do not occur, and the consequences or effects of particular metrological systems.” Careful historical approaches are required to reconstruct how measurement came to be and what effects it has had (cf. Jacob 2001).

Measurement was integral to colonial and imperial projects. The quest to govern and the quest to measure and classify were intimately related (Freidberg 2007). Histories of the failures and dramas of colonial rule are replete with failed and violent attempts to create new categories of people or nature and ways for these newly identified categories to behave. Similarly, new forms of auditing and rule by standards are likened to new forms of neo-colonial endeavor.

But the transformations of measurement can also be experienced in subtler ways, and closer to home. Porter gives a useful example of the case of the US Corps of Engineers, which was instructed to ensure that the benefits of flood control schemes exceeded the costs. This sounds innocuous enough, except that the means by which costs and benefits were to be calculated was not explicated. Determining the costs and benefits of different proposed schemes then became the stuff of political battles between corporate interests and different branches of the state. More revealing still, when attempts to reconcile competing visions began, quantifying actual costs and benefits proved to be “startlingly elusive” (Porter 1994: 395). Even the agreed format for doing so that eventually came out was still added to and interpreted in idiosyncratic ways. Measurement could not contain the difference it was meant to arbitrate between.

The case illustrates a broader point. Measurement is not about describing the world. It requires building an apparatus that makes that description possible. As Porter (1994: 404) puts it:

‘To quantify a quality is not merely to solve an intellectual problem. It is to create what Latour calls a center of calculation, surrounded by a network of allies . . . The quantification of qualities is as much an administrative accomplishment as an intellectual one. And no matter what the skeptics may say, many social qualities have already been successfully quantified, in a variety of ways. Those who seek to do it differently, or to spread the net of quantified qualities still wider, need to consider not only epistemological questions but also moral and political ones. There is strength in numbers, and anyone who proposes to wield them more effectively must ask not only about their validity but also about how the world might be changed by adopting new forms of quantification.’

This way of thinking is clearly vital if we are to understand how markets govern, as Cooper (2015) has argued.

But measurement is not just conjured up through marshaling administrative support; it changes the world because, once established, it also entails altering practices to fit with, or respond to, the measurement. Porter gives the example of the US Forest Service, which had been instructed to cut no more trees than were being renewed through regrowth. Regrowth, however, can be boosted if fertilizers and new varieties of fast-growing tree are introduced—which means that more trees and larger trees can still be harvested (Porter 1994: 401). Indeed, the whole point of incentives offered by diverse forms of neoliberal conservation and environmental policy in the form of payment for environmental services is precisely to change the world by changing the behavior of (rational, profit maximizing) individuals. And some of the individuals can even become rational profit maximizers in the process.

The travesties and distortions required to see the world like a market or state can suggest that managing by counting is inherently flawed. But Power (Power 2004) argues that things are more complicated than that. The social processes that constitute measurement, and how people respond to measurement, create cycles of crisis and reform. He distinguishes between first- and second-order measurement, with the former establishing the classifications that make counting possible and the second combining counts into indices and composite indicators, which can forget the social origins and circumstances that produce them. This can result in multitudes of inappropriate numbers and strange uses of them. And this helps to drive the “cycles of reform” that characterizes measurement. According to Power (Power 2004: 778), the social and political responses to different sorts of (flawed numbers) are not about trust or distrust:

‘Dreams of measurement for control purposes are articulated; these are shown to be defective and/or leading to adverse unintended consequences; new measures and refinements are proposed. Any so-called trust in numbers is tempered by the general cultural acceptance of numbers in all aspects of modern society. Equally, specific episodes of distrust and critique lead to the reconstitution and revision of performance metrics, rather than their abandonment.’

Understanding measurement, therefore, is required to understand the societies demanding that measurement, and produced by it. That was the imperative behind this collection. The call for this volume posed a number of challenges. It asked authors to take on a variety of questions, including: How do we approach, measure, quantify, and qualify socio-environmental issues and phenomena? How does what we measure or the way we measure it affect what we know and how we act? How do particular types of, or approaches to, measurement become embedded in epistemic communities and with what consequences? What new things can we learn with new forms and techniques of measurement?

The response was rich, and the eight articles published here capture some of the diversity of interests and approaches. You can read more about what the authors argued and their different approaches in the rest of this open access introduction (start on page 3). In summary there are a number of abiding themes in this collection that are anticipated, and elucidated, in the metrological literature. The first is that measurement is an administrative achievement. The construction of indicators for market governance, community resilience, proxies of performance, heat, fish stocks, and much more requires complicated governing apparatuses and networks of state, private, and civil society interests. A second is that this has unexpected consequences –which perhaps itself should hardly be unexpected at all. The final point is that counting life, whether in societies or environments, is clearly problematic, if not also violent. It does not solve problems but creates a host of new ones.

But it does not follow from the last point that not counting becomes the solution to the problem. It may be a worse fate still not to appear on any register. The issue is not whether to appear, but on whose list, how, for what purpose, and in what circumstances. We cannot avoid measurement. As social beings, we count, calibrate, classify, and measure. How we see ourselves and others, and how we cohere, depends on such processes. It is difficult to imagine societies that do not do any of that. And it is precisely this inevitability and ubiquity of measurement that makes it so necessary to contest it more vigorously.

References

Cooper, Mark. H. 2015. “Measure for Measure? Commensuration, Commodification, and Metrology in Emissions Markets and Beyond.” Environment and Planning A 47: 1787–1804.

Freidberg, Susanne. 2007. “Supermarkets and Imperial Knowledge.” Cultural Geographies 14 (3): 321–342.

Jacob, Margaret C. 2001. “Factoring Mary Poovey’s A History of the Modern Fact.” History and Theory 40 (2): 280–289.

Porter, Theodore M. 1994. “Making Things Quantitative.” Science in Context 7 (3): 389–407.

Power, Michael. 2004. “Counting, Control and Calculation: Reflections on Measuring and Management.” Human Relations 57 (6): 765–783.

West, Paige, James Igoe, and Dan Brockington. 2006. “Parks and Peoples: The Social Impact of Protected Areas.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 251–277.

Wilsdon, James. 2015. The Metric Tide. The Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management. London, Sage.

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