Poor Lives Matter, But Less

Yves here. Sundaram discusses how the obsession with metrics, a long standing favorite topic of ours (see Management’s Great Addiction) produces policies that give short shrift to the poor and poor countries. One of the big fallacies is treating money as the measure of the value and quality of life. For instance, reducing the instance of cancer is worth more in rich countries because their lives are valued more highly in these models. Similarly, they often fall back on unitary measures like lifespan, and so don’t capture outcomes like diets heavy in low nutrient foods (think simple sugars) producing higher rates of non-communicable diseases and hence less healthy citizens

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, who was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. Originally published at his website

Current development fads fetishize data, ostensibly for ‘evidence-based policy-making’: if not measured, it will not matter. So, forget about getting financial resources for your work, programmes and projects, no matter how beneficial, significant or desperately needed.

Measure for Measure

Agencies, funds, programmes and others lobby and fight for attention by showcasing their own policy agendas, ostensible achievements and potential. Many believe that the more indicators they get endorsed by the ‘international community’, the more financial support they can expect to secure.

Collecting enough national data to properly monitor progress on the Sustainable Development Goals is expensive. Data collection costs, typically borne by the countries themselves, have been estimated at minimally over three times total official development assistance (ODA).

Remember aid declined after the US-Soviet Cold War, and again following the 2008-9 global financial crisis. More recently, much more ODA is earmarked to ‘support’ private investments from donor countries.

With data demands growing, more pressure to measure has led to either over- or under-stating both problems and progress, sometimes with no dishonest intent. ‘Errors’ can easily be explained away as statistics from poor countries are notoriously unreliable.

Political, bureaucratic and funding considerations limit the willingness to admit that reported data are suspect for fear this may reflect poorly on those responsible. And once baseline statistics have been established, similar considerations compel subsequent ‘consistency’ or ‘conformity’ in reporting.

And when problems have to be acknowledged, ‘double-speak’ may be the result. Organisations may then start reporting some statistics to the public, with other data used, typically confidentially, for ‘in-house’ operational purposes.

Money, Money, Money

Economists generally prefer and even demand the use of money-metric measures. The rationale often is that no other meaningful measure is available. Many believe that showing ostensible costs and benefits is more likely to raise needed funding. Using either exchange rates or purchasing power parity (PPP) has been much debated. Some advocate even more convenient measures such as the prices of a standard McDonald’s hamburger in different countries.

Money-metrics imply that estimated economic losses due to, say, smoking or non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including obesity, tend to be far greater in richer countries, owing to the much higher incomes lost or foregone as well as costs incurred.

Development Discourse Changes

The four UN Development Decades after 1960 sought to accelerate economic progress and improve social wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, for decades, there have been various debates in the development discourse on measuring progress.

The rise of neoliberal economic thinking, claiming to free markets, has instead mainly strengthened and extended private property rights. Rejecting Keynesian and development economics, both associated with state intervention, neoliberalism’s influence peaked around the turn of the century.

The so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ of US federal institutions from the 1980s also involved the Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, both headquartered in the American capital.

In 2000, the UN Secretariat drafted the Millennium Declaration. This, in turn, became the basis for the Millennium Development Goals which gave primacy to halving the number of poor. After all, who would object to reducing poverty. The poor were defined with reference to a poverty line, somewhat arbitrarily defined by the Bank.

Poverty Fetish

Presuming money income to be a universal yardstick of wellbeing, this poverty measure has been challenged on various grounds. Most in poorer developing countries sense that much nuance and variation are lost in such measures, not only for poverty, but also for, say, hunger.

Anyone familiar with the varying significance, over time, of cash incomes and prices in most countries will be uncomfortable with such singular measures. But they are nonetheless much publicised and have implied continued progress until the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rejection of such singular poverty measures has led to multi-dimensional poverty indicators, typically to meet ‘basic needs’. While such ‘dashboard’ statistics offer more nuance, the continued desire for a single metric has led to the development, promotion and popularisation of composite indicators.

Worse, this has been typically accompanied by problematic ranking exercises using such composite indicators. Many have become obsessed with such ranking, instead of the underlying socio-economic processes and actual progress.

Blind Neglect

Improving such metrics has thus become an end in itself, with little debate over such one-dimensional means of measuring progress. The consequent ‘tunnel vision’ has meant ignoring other measures and indicators of wellbeing.

In recent decades, instead of subsistence agriculture, cash crops have been promoted. Yet, all too many children of cash-poor subsistence farmers are nutritionally better fed and healthier than the offspring of monetarily better off cash crop or ‘commercial’ farmers.

Meanwhile, as cash incomes rise, those with diet-related NCDs have been growing. While life expectancy has risen in much of the world, healthy life expectancy has progressed less as ill health increasingly haunts the sunset years of longer lives.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Meanwhile, as poor countries get limited help in their efforts to adjust to global warming, rich countries’ focus on supporting mitigation efforts has included, inter alia, promoting ‘no-till agriculture’. Thus attributing greenhouse gas emissions implies corresponding mitigation efforts via greater herbicide use.

Maximising carbon sequestration in unploughed farm topsoil requires more reliance on typically toxic, if not carcinogenic pesticides, especially herbicides. But addressing global warming should not be at the expense of sustainable agriculture.

Similarly, imposing global carbon taxation will raise the price of, and reduce access to electricity for the ‘energy-poor’, who comprise a fifth of the world’s population. Rich countries subsidising affordable renewable energy for poor countries and people would resolve this dilemma.

Following the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, the UN proposed a Global Green New Deal (GGND) which included such cross-subsidisation by rich countries of sustainable development progress elsewhere.

The 2009 London G20 summit succeeded in raising more than the trillion dollars targeted. But the resources mainly went to strengthening the IMF, rather than for the GGND proposal. Thus, the finance fetish blocked a chance to revive world economic growth, with sustainable development gains for all.

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  1. Birch

    Arithmomorphism, that’s what Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen called it. Probably the most devastating thing that has happened to the planet since Pythagaros started pushing it. If you can’t measure it, you ignore it. Arithmomorphism explains why science and religion don’t get along, why climate change took so long to catch on, why economists can’t understand the economy, and many other things.

  2. Kengferno

    Normally no-till ag means relying less on herbicides as the farmer would use more natural means of production. Kind of the basis for the whole regenerative farming thing. If you’re going to try and use the ground to capture carbon and build up your soil and water use efficiency, which no-till does, then using herbicides is idiotic

    1. HotFlash

      Holy moley. Yes, I was confused by this as well. I did a quick check (Swiss Cows) and found this:

      https://pesticideguy.org/tag/no-till-farming/ “a resource for documenting the value of pesticides in crop production around the world”. I did not know that pesticide mfrs had claimed the no-till mantle!

      and this from The Regeneration Institute:

      Conventional vs. organic no-till farming

      One of the common misconceptions about no-till farming is that farmers can use this practice only if they grow genetically engineered (GMO) crops, which require the use of herbicides. To clear up this confusion, it’s important to understand that there are two types of no-till farming: conventional and organic.

      In conventional no-till farming, farmers use herbicides to manage the weeds before and after sowing the seeds. The amount of herbicides used in this approach is even higher than the amount used in tillage-based farming, which causes a threat to the environment and human health.

      Me, I thought it was this sort of stuff: Gabe Brown keynote at Farming for the Future 2020 (held in Michigan). Gabe and the no-till people I have known (of) not only do not till but do not use chemical anything.

      Well! Dog my cats and call me Priscilla, but this herbicide/pesticide/fungicide heavy (ie, corporatized, financialized, globalized, neoliberal) version of no-till that Prof. Sundaram speaks of has floored me. I will be very wary from now on of “No Till” effusions unless I hear the circumstances.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        If the no-till is also Certified Organic, one may be sure that no herbicide burndown has been used on the cover crop preceeding the cash crop.

        ( Unless it comes from China. Anything goes in China.)

  3. Sound of the Suburbs

    The globalists found just the economics they were looking for.
    The USP of neoclassical economics – It concentrates wealth.
    Let’s use it for globalisation.

    Mariner Eccles, FED chair 1934 – 48, observed what the capital accumulation of neoclassical economics did to the US economy in the 1920s.
    “a giant suction pump had by 1929 to 1930 drawn into a few hands an increasing proportion of currently produced wealth. This served then as capital accumulations. But by taking purchasing power out of the hands of mass consumers, the savers denied themselves the kind of effective demand for their products which would justify reinvestment of the capital accumulation in new plants. In consequence as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When the credit ran out, the game stopped”

    This is what it’s supposed to be like.
    A few people have all the money and everyone else gets by on debt.

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