Wednesday, 19 December 2012

China – an economic miracle built on sadness

by Gabriele Koehler

China is admired as an economic miracle: it has produced double-digit GDP growth every year, for the past decade, and achieved the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty (measured at 1.25$ per person per day, PPP) ahead of time. In fact, given China´s population size, its progress on economic poverty alleviation has enabled the international development community to celebrate the achievement of its Millennium Development poverty goal, set for 2015, in 2010. Over the past decades, China has completely restructured its economy, raising rural and manufacturing productivities, and positioning itself as a leading global exporter.

But: there are many buts. Despite the country’s enormous economic growth, circa 200 million people in China remain under the $1.25 poverty line – which is, after all, extreme poverty, in a country that had once vowed to eradicate all poverty and class differences. Income inequality has increased visibly; statistically, the Gini coefficient is now around .48, compared to less than 0.3 in 1978.
While the high-powered well-heeled upper income quintiles enjoy a cosmopolitan life style, manual workers in rural areas and urban agglomerations are losing out. In the hutongs (old districts) of Beijing, for example, the simple one-storey courtyard flats lack any family privacy and have no plumbing or proper heating.

The Chinese economic miracle is largely owed to the approximately 250 million labour migrants. As has been well-documented, migrant workers in the special economic zones have only recently begun claiming decent wages after years of massive under-payment and dire work and living conditions. They still have no right to remain in the cities once their employment ends, because of the registration (hukou) system which ties a citizen to their place of birth.

China's children  
One less-reported facet of China’s economic miracle, directly related to migration, is the increasingly complex situation of children. On the one hand, stunting (low height-for-age) which is an outcome of chronic malnutrition, decreased from 33 per cent in 1990 to 11 per cent in 2005;  for urban children, it  dropped from 9 per cent in 1990 to 3 per cent in 2005, and among rural children from 41 per cent to 13 per cent. This is one strong indicator that children’s situations have improved – materially. The success can be attributed to a combination of improved health, water and sanitation, as well as to the higher rural incomes resulting from migrants´ remittances to their home towns and villages.

On the other hand, emotional deprivations are intensifying. Recently released data suggest that more than 25% of the country’s children are affected by migration. An estimated 55 million children are “left behind”: one or both parents work and live in another location. The child is left in the care of relatives, usually the paternal grandparents. The number of such children more than doubled between the year 2000 and 2008 – the years of enormous GDP growth. (see graph). Another 27 million children are migrants, accompanying their parents or migrating on their own.

These children are, on average,  better off financially than preceding generations. But equally importantly, they are affected by the absence of their parents, and often develop a severe sense of loss. Moreover, most are single children because of China’s draconian one-child policy. These are emotionally stunted, lonely childhoods.

Legislation for equality
China now needs to equalise its economic accomplishments. Several governmental efforts for this are underway. In the economic domain, they include wage increases and new regulations on limiting weekly working hours. They include policies, such as the “Go West” initiative in place for a decade now,  to attract domestic and foreign investment to the inner provinces so that jobs would travel to people rather than people having to migrate for jobs. There are job creation strategies, such as new types of “industrial parks”  which nurture the lucrative, professionally rewarding and less draining creative industries – IT, consumer goods design, the arts.

In the social policy domain, there is a minimum income guarantee allowance (dibao), and an effort to introduce universal health insurance. The registration (hukou) system is under review, so that urban health and education facilities might become accessible for the families of migrants; and there is also some reflection on liberalising the one child policy. Child poverty, acknowledged as distinct from adults’ poverty, is incorporated into the National Rural Poverty Reduction Strategy 2011-2020.
Both in policy circles and the country’s many impressive research centres, there is increasing recognition of the need to urgently address income poverty, in terms of population under the poverty line, as well as the growing differences between the richest and the poorest in terms of incomes and assets.

However, China’s main policy orientation  is still towards  “more growth”, with an ambition to  double per capita income by 2020, compared to 2010 levels (Hu Jintao statement at the November 2012 Communist  party congress). This will not solve China’s problems. What is needed is radical income and wealth redistribution. What is needed is transparency, political participation and open debate, and the guarantee of human rights (apart from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch reports, see Liao Yiwu´s interviews with activists from the  1989 Tian An Men. And what is needed is an environment where it is economically viable, and socially the norm, that children grow up in the care of their parents. In other words, it is imperative that economic growth is not bought with a young child’s sadness.

Gabriele Koehler is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Failed ICT development projects: Sweeping it under the carpet and moving on?

by Inka Barnett

The use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has become increasingly widespread. Even in remote villages in developing countries there are more and more people who have access to a mobile phone. ICTs have the potential to make development projects more efficient, lower costs and improve the quality of service delivery. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the development community and national governments have enthusiastically embarked on ever more ICT projects in health, agriculture, e-governance, education and many more. There are certainly a number of very successful projects (see for example m-pesa). However, when I speak to development practitioners, I get the impression that there is an equal (or perhaps considerable higher?) number of failed projects. Unfortunately, only very few share their experiences of a failed ICT project publicly.

Last week I attended a talk by Ben Taylor from Daraja, a NGO in Tanzania, in which he bravely presented the lessons learned from his failed ICT project. Ben and his colleagues founded the Maji Matone (water drops) programme in rural Tanzania in 2010. The aim of their programme was to encourage citizens to put pressure on their local authorities to maintain and repair broken-down water pumps by using mobile phones. Using a simple SMS-message local communities were asked to report on the state of their water supply to the authorities. Local radio stations were simultaneously informed and followed-up the action the local water authorities would take in response to the text message.
The programme received a lot of attention nationally as well as internationally before it had even started. Unfortunately, the anticipated success did not come after the initial pilot phase of the project. The team had anticipated more than 3,000 text messages but received only 53! After Ben and his colleagues overcame their disappointment, they decided to actively investigate what went wrong.

They found the following reasons for failure:
  1. Political reasons: The relationship between local communities and authorities is sensitively balanced in Tanzania and citizens are reluctant to report on their government.
  2. Gender-specific reasons: Water collection is generally the responsibility of women and children who often do not have access to a mobile phone
  3. Lack of electricity and limited mobile network coverage
Ben and his team decided to openly share the reasons for the failure of their project in talks, on the web (including social media such as Facebook and Twitter) and in leaflets.
Openly admitting failure is a relative new but very important development in international development. The annual failure report by the Canadian NGO engineers without borders is another admirable example.

The application of ICTs in development projects is still novel and there are a large number of new and additional variables that need to be considered in comparison to traditional development projects (e.g. challenges of private/public partnerships, development of sustainable business models, negotiations of complex intersections between technology and development). Given the current often slightly uncritical excitement about the potential of ICTs for development, expectations of donors and limited funding, reporting failure is a challenging subject. However, without through investigation of why and how an ICT development project failed and without honestly sharing these experiences, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Social protection: asking too much of the individual?

Keetie Roelen (left) and Martina Ulrichs (right)
By Keetie Roelen and Martina Ulrichs

Social protection is now considered to be an integral part of the response to an array of different development issues. These range from reducing poverty and vulnerability to improving education and nutritional outcomes to increasing the levels of resilience to deal with droughts, unemployment and other shocks.

The toolkit for addressing these different problems includes social transfers, conditional cash transfers (CCTs) and public works, amongst others. The large majority of programmes, however, share a similar characteristic; they are designed based on the assumption that poverty is largely a result of individual constraints, such as low levels of education or physical assets, rather than due to structural factors. Social protection programmes address these individual constraints, thereby providing the poor with the necessary means to pull themselves out of poverty and improve their living conditions. But is this a safe assumption to make?

In a newly published Centre for Social Protection (CSP) working paper ‘Equal opportunities for all? – A critical analysis of Mexico’s Oportunidades’, we argue that despite the many positive contributions of social protection, too much of a focus on individuals or households might overlook the structural causes that keep them in poverty. If someone achieves higher levels of education, this could potentially help them to get a better job and higher income. But what if there is no school nearby? And if there is one, what if the quality of education is so poor that higher levels of education will not translate into skilled employment? The power of the individual in moving out of poverty only reaches so far, and social protection programmes need to be accompanied by more structural and macro-level changes that address the underlying causes of inequality.

The Oportunidades programme in Mexico and its impact on indigenous people is a case in point. Oportunidades is one of the most long-standing and reputable CCT programmes, providing poor households with cash transfers when they fulfil particular criteria with respect to education and health. Indeed, the programme has been found to have many positive impacts such as reducing poverty, increasing school enrolment and improving children’s nutritional outcomes. Its long-term objective is to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty by incentivising parents to send their children to school and thus increase their employment opportunities and wage earning potential. Indigenous people in Mexico have consistently belonged to the poorest of the poor and are strongly represented among the programme beneficiaries. One out of four Oportunidades beneficiaries is indigenous.

The case of indigenous people in Mexico illustrates how the emphasis on the individual’s responsibility in moving out of poverty may be misplaced. Firstly, the educational services that indigenous people have access to are generally of low quality, limiting the extent to which they can build ‘human capital’. Secondly, low social mobility of indigenous people limits their employment opportunities. Finally, persistent wage differentials between indigenous and non-indigenous people limit the extent to which indigenous people can really benefit from paid and formal employment. For indigenous people to benefit from Oportunidades to the same extent as non-indigenous people, and as intended by the programme, structural changes are required that go beyond the individual’s level of responsibility or reach.

Programmes like Oportunidades have been milestones in providing social protection to the poor. They can however only be effective in combating poverty in the long-term if they go hand in hand with more comprehensive social policy agendas that go beyond the individual and address the root causes of inequality and poverty.