Cold Home-Front: Why development should look inwards

Much of the United States spent the past week shivering through the coldest few days of the last decade. With temperatures well into the negatives and piercing wind chills forcing the mercury to record lows, Americans headed for the hills (colloquially, of course, because a real hill would just be more exposed).

As with any minor inconvenience, the American media reported on the cold snap with its characteristic talent for repetition (ad nauseum) and sensationalism. The storm, named Hercules (of all names), received near constant coverage on all of the 24-hour news stations.

Things took a remarkable turn when Fox News correspondents, and some Republican politicians, began suggest the cold snap disproved the well-researched and documented trend of global warming. I had trouble finding clips of those particular moments on the Fox News website so I have resorted to this montage made by the Daily Show.

One commentator exclaims, “All this snow and still cries over global warming!” with a decidedly smug smile. Another predicts, that “global warming, a phrase we are all familiar with… is going to die this year… given the kind of incredible cold weather we’ve had this weekend.”

I, like many others, was disturbed to hear this sort of rhetoric from an organization with such a huge audience. Studying and understanding climate change has been an integral part my education and professional career. Currently, I am writing a thesis on pastoral herders in the Sahel, a region that has been drastically affected by global climatic change. Annual rains south of the Sahara have slowly declined over the last two or three decades, expanding Africa’s great desert into more heavily populated areas. Similarly, droughts of increasing frequency and severity have plagued the region. Whether part of a longer term trend, or a short term patch of poor weather, the idea that some sort of climatic change is occurring seems fairly certain. These changes have terrible implication for herders in the Sahel, as well as their agriculturalist neighbors.

Lake Chad is the Sahel’s grimmest tale of climate change. Since the 1960’s the lake, a crucial source of water for the four Sahelian nations that border it, has slowly diminished to about a 20th of its original size.

Such shocking changes are hard to ignore. Yet somehow the people at Fox News have managed to do just that.

I was glad to hear many of my development intern peers and classmates were equally distraught this trend of climate change denial in the US. My peers, with their different regional concentrations, were rich in global examples of climate change. I have linked a few below:

What we realized collectively is that as internationally focused development students, researchers, and interns we sometimes forget to give the home-front its due attention. While we have come to admire those in our given regions of interest abroad who lobby for better governance, responsible economic management, and empirically proven policies, we have shirked our own responsibility to participate in domestic affairs.

Further, the experiences we have abroad give us a unique capacity (not to mention responsibility) to inform social policies. By bringing in experiences from across the globe we expand the sample size in humankind’s constant fleshing out of ideas, policies, and projects. Our insights can be valuable because our perspectives are different.




Optimism In Africa

A recent Gallup poll found that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most optimistic region in the world. Obviously confused by a result so counter popular perceptions, Gallup speculated as to the cause of such a strange result, concluding that “optimism may be more widespread in these countries simply because people cannot imagine that their lives could get any worse.”

Mike Mieson on Why Dev recently posted a great critique of that explanation, using Gallup’s data and some insight from the World Bank to depict a much more hearty explanation than this “well it can’t get worse” rationale.

Much of his explanation rests on trends of economic growth and strides in health that have been observed throughout Africa during the decade. Most of the nations that top the list of most optimistic countries, Mieson notes, have experienced periods of high GDP growth in the last five years as well as reductions in their maternal mortality rates.

I think Mieson hit the nail on the head as far as explaining the greatest contributors to this pattern of optimism in Africa. That being said, I think there is still something missing from his analysis.

The specific case of Senegal is instructive. There, a 2% growth rate and minimal reduction in maternal mortality rate do not seem to be sufficient enough to warrant Senegal’s place as the 9th most optimistic nation on the face of this Earth (especially when one considers the fact that Senegal shares this planet with nations like Turkmenistan that have experienced growth of about 20% over the last 5 years). Clearly some other mechanism is at work.

I would add to Mieson’s evaluation a third major contributing factor to Sub-Saharan Africa’s overwhelming optimism; improvements in governance.

This additional factor can help to explain Senegal’s optimism. The last decade has been characterized by some serious advancements in the legitimacy of that nation’s democracy. That is in no small part thanks to a growing youth social movement led by Y’en A Marre (Fed Up), a rag-tag assembly of reformist rappers and journalists. Y’en A Marre gained public support during the 2012 election by helping to dethrone then President Abdoulaye Wade, in favour of his former prime minister, Macky Sall. Turning down high profile government appointments following the election of Sall, Y’en A Marre has thus far been committed to building a Senegalese civil society and breaking down old procedures of reciprocity.

Shortly after losing power, it became clear that Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade and a high minister during his father’s 12 year rule, had been stealing state funds in an embezzlement scheme of quite shocking proportions (the charges add up to about $1.4 billion). Many Senegalese have been surprised to see the trial proceed with what seems to be an intent to punish the politician to the full extent of his crime. It appears Karim Wade will serve some serious time, and rightfully so.

Both of these trends certainly give Senegalese citizens reason for a bit of hope. There remains some well-warranted distaste for the political system. A common joke in Senegal combines the French word for politician (politicien) and dog (chien) into “politichien,” to form a little less than subtle political play on words [Ed: see ‘Politricks’]. That being said, the last decade has seen the ousting of an unpopular President, and the imprisonment of a corrupt politician who likely thought himself above the law; both certainly reasons for hope.

Improvements in government help to explain the data beyond Senegal as well. A recent study using 57 criteria including measures of security, rule of law, and transparency found that governments have been improving in the vast majority (about two thirds) of the countries on the continent. Certainly this plays a part in the continent’s optimism.

Alternatively, factoring in government can also help to explain some of the less optimistic nations on the African continent. In a Pew survey that also evaluated optimism across the globe, Egypt was ranked as the least optimistic nation of the African countries surveyed. Political turmoil there, following the Coup d’Etat that ousted President Morsi, can certainly go a long way in explaining some of that nation’s pessimism.

Cleary government has a role to play in shaping the average African’s expectations for the future.

In a continent too often associated with corrupt officials and autocratic sensibilities, some governments are slowly reforming for the better. As a result Africans are feeling particularly positive about their future prospects, and that of their children. Citizens are noticing positive changes on their continent. It’s time the folks over at Gallup do too.


“The existing measures of [state quality or capacity] have a number of limitations. There is an inherent weakness in expert surveys, especially when trying to create time-series data. Since the concept of [good governance] is not well established, different experts may intend different things when responding to the same survey question.”

Francis Fukuyama, 2013

If you replaced the phrases I have put in square brackets with practically any from the jargon heavy grammar of development, you would be making an equally valid point.

Worth thinking about the next time you read a report or (even worse) some article proclaiming to indicate the consensus on such issues.

Read the full paper here

Terms of Development