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April is the Cruelest Month: the Coming Austerity Measures and Elections in Ukraine

March 28, 2014
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Anatolii Stepanov

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Anatolii Stepanov

The International Monetary Fund has offered Ukraine a two-year bailout package of $18 billion in return for steep economic reforms. The long-term goal of the bailout package is to stabilize a Ukrainian economy that is running up expenses and moving toward a debt default. It is hoped that economic stability in Ukraine will lead to the political stability that can then ease Ukraine’s transition to democracy, and more importantly, away from Russia. By opening up to the IMF deal, Ukraine will signal to nations like the US and Japan that they are committed to restructuring their economy and are open to investment. For example, the United States Congress is working on a bill for $1 billion in aid to Ukraine as well as economic sanctions against Russia. The European Union has put $15 billion on the table. It total, Ukraine is in position to receive around $27 billion in aid.

The downside to these deals is that the enforced austerity measures will likely hurt the average Ukrainian citizen by increasing gas prices by 50% and inflating the currency, the hryvnia, by somewhere between 12% and 14%. Therefore, we may see the cost of living rise while the purchasing power of the hryvnia plummets. Ukraine’s interim Prime Minster Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk explained that there would be a minimum-wage freeze and an increase in taxes for Ukraine’s largest companies. All of this spells out hard times for Ukraine in the coming years. But consider the result if Ukraine were not to accept the austerity measures. As The New York Times reported, Yatsenyuk “told the Parliament on Thursday that the country was ‘on the brink of economic and financial bankruptcy’ and that gross domestic product could drop 10 percent this year unless urgent steps were taken in conjunction with the fund.” With such instability, Ukraine’s interim government would not have the time or the legitimacy to set up the proper institutions before the planned election in May.

Photo Credit: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

The top candidates for the election include former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, and Parliamentary leader as well as former professional boxer Vitali V. Klitscho. Tymoshenko, who was born in the industrial and Russian-leaning eastern Ukraine, has support from the western and central provinces. However, it is Poroshenko and Klitscho who lead in the polls. No matter the result in May, the next president of Ukraine is set to face a difficult transition in all aspects of society. Somehow, he or she must ease the pains of economic liberalization, consolidate political factions, and reign in nationalist as well as pro-Russian sentiments. International aid may help, but the real battle for Ukrainian independence must be fought from within. It is a fight to defeat the legacy of authoritarianism; a fight that Ukraine desperately needs to win.

Meshin’ Around

March 27, 2014

Apple engineers may have unintentionally found a cost-effective way to help close the digital divide between developed and developing nations. The new Apple operating system, iOS 7, has an interesting new feature called the Multipeer Connectivity Network, which could provide internet access to developing nations. It allows for the creation of a mesh network that would expand internet and cellular access without requiring cable networks and therefore minimizing the infrastructure improvements and costs required to close the digital divide.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 2.54.19 PMWhat is a mesh network? Very simply stated, each mobile device creates its own internet router that can connect to other devices with the same technology within a certain distance. The devices connect and create their own network that can then create a chain allowing information to travel across several devices connected to the same network. As of right now, the current range is 30 feet from one device to another. But expands to 60 feet or more if users are always within 30 feet intervals from one another.

The benefits of this technology are apparent. If you are at a crowded event where cell service is often overburdened or non-existent, the mesh network would be an easy way to communicate. But the technology’s benefits for development are even more astounding. Infrastructure is often one of the largest barriers to closing the digital divide. Developing countries would no longer need the vast cable and cellular networks the developed world has in order to gain access to information. A wireless network that requires over hundreds of feet of cable instillations would require less than one hundred feet with a mesh network. Citizens of developing nations would also no longer have to pay for an expensive wireless plan.

imgresMesh networks are not entirely new to the developing world. Three African countries already use mesh networks: Ghana, South Africa, and Zambia. Asia contributes another three countries with India, Indonesia, and Nepal. Programs such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) are already taking advantage of mesh network technology to create connections between students and teachers. Often the schools that OLPC operates in lack basic electricity and access to internet, making both Ethernet and wireless connections impossible. But OLPC has found a way to overcome this barrier through mesh networks. Schools running a laptop program have one large, long-range server that can connect to a wireless network. Students and teachers can then connect to the internet through a mesh network with one another and the server.

These countries and programs, however, are pioneers in mesh networks as the technology has yet to gain full acceptance and incorporation in development programs. But this change could happen soon. The technology for mesh networks is expanding as more and more companies realize the potential of mesh networks. Google has begun working on a mesh network initiative, expanding use of the technology in android devices. While the engineers at Open Garden, a tech company, have pioneered the mesh network technology to create a texting app called FireChat that has gained substantial attention since its release earlier this week.

One of the largest barriers to mesh networks in development is the cost of the technology for individuals. While the cost for governments and development programs decreases, mesh networks still require certain technological capabilities from individuals. Users will need a certain standard of technology that may be too expensive for mass dissemination. This will impede the growth of mesh networks and the digital divide will continue to exist until affordable technology reaches developing nations.

Regardless of its shortcomings, mesh networks could overcome the infrastructural barriers that contribute to the digital divide. This would be a huge step in the right direction for development work. Mesh networks could support microenterprise and education in rural communities and would take less time to implement than making large-scale infrastructure improvements.

Money For Nothing: Overstating Official Development Assistance

March 24, 2014
Aid projects can help young children in Africa obtain access to fresh drinking water.

Aid projects can help young children in Africa obtain access to fresh drinking water.

Recently a report by The Guardian exposed the troubling reality that some nations overvalue their ODA. By exploiting the antiquated formula for calculating ODA, which calls for interest rates on foreign aid loans to be less than 10% (grants are held to a 25% rate), countries like Germany, France and Japan, are taking credit for more aid than they actually give. Just how much more? David Roodman, the author of the Guardian article, estimated that billions of dollars in ODA is tacked on each year by manipulating one simple calculation. Last April, former chairman of the DAC Richard Manning warned in a letter to the Financial Times that fewer and fewer loans given by OECD countries are “concessional in character.”

The 2008 Financial Crisis upset the ODA equilibrium.

The 2008 Financial Crisis upset the ODA equilibrium.

After the 2008 Financial Crisis, interest rates fell but the 10% discount benchmark rate for ODA loans stayed the same, causing the imbalance that upset the equilibrium of ODA calculations. Roodman writes, “Today, rich nations can borrow at 2% or 3%, lend at 4% or 5%, and make a profit while calling the loan aid.” Further compounding the problem, the profits made on these loans go back into the financial system of the lending country.  These interest repayments, as they are called, are not subtracted from net ODA like capital repayments, skewing the final figures. In the case of Japan, who in 2011 took in $2.6 billion in interest repayments, a nation can actually receive more money from developing countries than it gives to them in ODA.

But which nations are receiving these loans? Manning explains in his letter that “France, Germany and the European Investment Bank” give loans to the middle-incomes countries of Latin America and Asia. These loans count as concessional ODA, but in reality they do not reflect the “real cost of capital” and rake in huge profits for the lending countries. As more countries have discovered this type of loan practice, Manning writes, we have seen a recent surge in ODA to middle-income countries and a slight drop-off in ODA to sub-Saharan Africa. In their defense, some lending countries argue that the rates also must reflect default risk. And to be fair, default risk is always a factor when lending to countries in dire straits.

Thankfully, Roodman reports, nearly all of the DAC countries employ a more effective calculation method in their handling of export credit arrangements. This method uses calculated differentiated discount rates based on currency values and the rate at which each country pays to borrow money. Unlike the 10% benchmark, which has held steady since 1972, differentiated discount rates are updated yearly to reflect current market forces.  In applied, this could be an effected method of calculating rates for ODA as well. But no matter the ultimate solution, the fact remains that our fifty-year-old method of ODA calculation is in desperate need of an update.

The Beginning of a Beautiful Partnership?

March 21, 2014

The growing importance of the private sector is becoming a widely acknowledged fact in the development community. Now the problem for the development community is deciding how to properly incorporate the private sector into a public sector dominated field. Public-private partnerships seemed to be the solution, but effective and lasting partnerships are few and far between. To address the issue, The Partnering Initiative has released a paper titled “Unleashing the Power of Business: A practical roadmap to systematically scale up the engagement of business as a partner in development”. The paper provides recommendations for how the development community can promote public-private partnerships and ultimately take advantage of the advantages the private sectors provides to development work.

imagesIn order for public-private partnerships to be successful, the paper describes the need for what they call an “eco-system of support”. According to the authors, this eco-system is necessary for the successful fostering of public-private partnerships. The requirements include:

  • Funding organizations – partnerships must have financial support
  • Intermediary organizations – Organizations initiating partnerships
  • Training organizations and universities – necessary for capacity building
  • Consultancies – further support for partnership development
  • Research institutes – measures success of partnerships

Without the above five criteria, it becomes very difficult to foster strong partnerships.

The authors then provide a course of action within the specified ecosystem that will successfully develop public-private partnerships. The authors based the course of action on the perceived barriers including: lack of trust, timelines, communication difficulties, power dynamics, and differing priorities. The five critical steps include:

  1. Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 11.18.14 AMDeveloping trust between sectors – Done through increased communication and prioritization of a common interest
  2. Collaboration and aligning of development priorities – Streamline development process by creating joint development programs centered around combined development goals and resource partnerships
  3. Develop local platforms for partnership – Committees that create collaborative environment and reduce overall risk posed to private companies
  4. Measure partnership results and effectiveness – Evaluation of whether partnerships are having the desired impact
  5. Develop institutional capacity to maintain partnerships – Create support structure and training program to improve organization preparedness for partnerships

With such an extensive action plan, the question of ownership is crucial. Who is responsible for developing and evaluating partnerships? The authors argue that ownership must come from a cross-sectoral group, either created solely for this purpose or already in existence. Public-private partnerships involve a variety of development groups: local, international, public, private. A cross-sectoral group is the most appropriate owner because it will have representatives from the many parties involved in public-private partnerships.

A major concern with the course of action, however, is the bureaucratic nature of developing partnerships. Creating a cross-sectoral group to oversee partnerships, build institutional capacity, and evaluate performance is only going to contribute to the already bureaucratic nature of development work. The authors address this issue in the paper and claim the solution is to prioritize specific action. But this is not a realistic solution. Anyone working in development will say that having a common goal is not enough to overcome the constraints of bureaucracy. This course of action could just add more red tape for development organizations to get through.

images-1A course of action to foster public-private partnerships is absolutely necessary. The public sector needs to embrace the growing importance of the private sector and make room for it in the development sector. But is this approach truly the best way? The added bureaucracy alone seems daunting but the realism of achieving these goals must also be a consideration. The action plan sounds like a fine proposal but does not seem to be strongly grounded in the actual nature of development. The first point alone, improving trust between organizations, is a lofty goal. Those in the public sector do not trust each other after working together for decades. It does not seem realistic to assume private and public actors would suddenly trust one another after simply an increase in communication. Can we also expect these companies to directly align their goals?

Realistic or not, The Partnering Initiative has made a large contribution to the growing field of public-private partnerships by identifying key barriers and possible courses of action. It explores a topic with minimal research and opens the door for future studies on enhancing public-private partnerships.

Breaking Up the Breadwinner

March 20, 2014

For the last few decades, female empowerment has become an ever increasing component of international development. Many studies have proven that conditional and unconditional cash transfers to women have had substantial impacts on human development through education and health. Under Bolsa Familia and Progresa/Oportunidades, cash transfers are given to mothers based on whether their children go to school or get preventive health care. These programs have been proven to increase school attendance. In a different realm, micro-finance institutions, such as Grameen Bank and BRAC in Bangladesh, have focused their lending to women. This is largely because women are considered to invest more wisely and repay loans more often than men.

Much of the research rests on the assumption that men and women have different preferences, generally speaking. The idea is that men prefer to spend more money on consumption goods, like clothes or alcohol, while women prefer to spend money on goods that benefit the household as a whole, such as education or healthcare. Experiments have seen this played out in numerous, creative ways. Esther Duflo and Christopher Udry showed that in Cote d’Ivoire, men and women farmed different crops, with male crops being sold for profit and female crops being used for consumption by the household. Essentially, an increased production of female crops led to more food consumption and nutrition, while male crops had no effect on food consumption and nutrition. In another study in South Africa, grandmothers were more likely improve the nutrition of children, and especially young girls, compared to the grandfathers.

Within this context, a new paper by Matthias Doepke and Michele Tertilt has come out with the provocative title “Does Female Empowerment Promote Economic Development”? The argument behind the article is that different spouses don’t have separate preferences but that they have different comparative advantages in the household. In the model by Doepke and Tertilt, one spouse has a higher wage while the other spouse has a lower wage. Human capital, such as education and nutrition, is considered to be a comparative advantage for the spouse with a lower wage, which tends to be the wife. A transfer from the husband to the wife tends to lead to more investment in education and nutrition, along with consumption by the wife for herself. All this is at the expense of the husband spending money on himself.

OECD gender wage gap

At an economy-wide level, the husband is considered to have more physical capital, such as land or farming equipment, while the wife has more human capital, such as education and child rearing. The distinction between the two is that the land, farming equipment, or other physical assets are passed onto the children. Theoretically, cash transfers between spouses increases spending in general, at the expense of savings and investment that could be used on physical assets. If the economy as a whole is more service-based or dependent on education and knowledge, cash transfers would be more beneficial to economic growth in general. However, if the economy is based more on physical capital, such as farm land or industrial equipment, then transfers to the wife may be slightly detrimental as there would be less to leave to the children. No matter the economic structure, growth is affected by higher inequality between the spouses. Once there is no wage difference between the spouses, there is no effect on transfers, meaning that no matter the situation, wage parity is a desirable outcome.

All cash transfers, conditional or unconditional, are not necessarily bad or should be stopped. The structural context of employment, equity, and capital affects female empowerment’s effect on economic development. Places such as Latin America, where the service sector is a more important component of the economy, are more likely to increase sustained growth through female empowerment. There are many assumptions inherent in this article, particularly since this is an economic model not based completely on empirical evidence. The overall environment is just important as the cure.

Rocking the Vote: Challenges in Election Monitoring

March 18, 2014

Election monitoring is commonplace in the world of democracy promotion today. The men and women who observe elections – hailing from NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) as well as international organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – aim to prevent election manipulation, fraud, and corruption. Short-term election observers arrive in the country under observation a few days before the election is set to begin. They meet with party members, police, election officials, and members of the general population to try to get a sense of what policies are at stake in the coming election and who the front-runners appear to be. On the day of the election, observers visit polling stations to make sure that the legitimacy of the election is not jeopardized in any way by government intimidation, closed polling centers, corrupt vote counters, and suspiciously low (or high) voter turnout. The team of election observers will report any unusual findings. If all is well, the election observers will watch the tallying of the votes, concluding that the citizens freely and fairly elected the winner.

A new report discussed at the Seventh Annual New York University Center for Experimental Social Sciences Conference on Experimental Political Science brings to light some interesting findings on the effectiveness of election monitoring. The authors set out to investigate whether or not election observation actually reduces various types of electoral manipulation. Their case study is the 2012 presidential election in Ghana. Specifically the authors examine “overvoting,” a phenomenon that occurs when more votes are cast in an election than there are registered voters. Secondly, the authors assessed “unnaturally high levels of turnout.” It is well known that even in nations under compulsory voting laws, such as Australia, voting rates rarely venture into the 90 per cent range.

Actors seeking to influence election results impose many complicated strategies for doing so. The authors list a number of methods by which voters can be turned away from the polls. Manipulators can do this by voter intimidation via government forces like the police or military. Political parties can have their own, separate, security forces that scare civilians away from the polls. Even worse, these strongmen can coerce civilians to vote for a candidate they do not support. A vote for the opposition candidate would put the lives and property of the voter’s family in danger. Fearing retribution, the average voter will not risk the lives of his loved ones for the sake of democracy.

The Kenyan presidential elections in December 2007 triggered a wave of violence.

The Kenyan presidential elections in December 2007 triggered a wave of violence.

In the opposite scenario, electoral manipulators seek to add “ghost voters” to the election, running up the vote count for a selected candidate. Ballot stuffing is a common tactic. Sometimes the final results are simply changed to suit a politician’s demands. High voter turnouts increase the victor’s claim to legitimate power, although most citizens recognize it as a sham. Thus, with this two-sided approach, the manipulation of elections can do a great deal of damage to democracy and liberty within a nation.

The results of the case study, the authors write, were positive, though they exposed some new problems that the election monitoring community must address. In sum, while election monitors did reduce electoral manipulation at the polling place at which they were stationed, those seeking to manipulate the election simply moved to unobserved polling places: displaced but not disrupted. The authors explain:

We find that observers reduce fraud at the stations where they are deployed by about 60 percent. We also find evidence that observers displace fraud to nearby but unobserved polling stations. This displacement is concentrated in the historical strongholds of Ghana’s two major political parties. This suggests that parties are better able to relocate fraud in single-party dominant areas where the dominant party enjoys social penetration and where political competition is low. (Asunka et al., pg.3)

Moving forward, placing election monitors at polling stations at which fraud is more likely to occur (rather than randomly selected polling stations) would be a more effective way to prevent fraud. Working from strategic districts around a nation, election monitors can better combat the intimidation and ballot-stuffing that is all too common in today’s emerging democracies.

A Not So Indecent Proposal

March 14, 2014

Last week the White House Administration released the budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15). The proposal included a $700 million (1.4%) overall decrease in foreign assistance compared to the FY14 levels. Some assert this is the manifestation of the American public’s disapproval and disregard for foreign assistance and international development. In reality, however, the new budget demonstrates a continued commitment to foreign assistance and the Obama Administration’s reprioritizing of development goals.

imgresThe overall decrease in aid is largely due to America’s reduced presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose operations formerly made up large parts of the US foreign aid budget. The new budget would not entirely remove aid to these countries, but would remove several on the ground operations focused on post-conflict reconstruction. The country would not necessarily lose its direct monetary assistance from the US, but would lose its technical assistance in infrastructure rebuilding. The decrease in US technical assistance equates to a high monetary loss for each country and makes it appear as though the US is scaling back its overall foreign assistance program. Rather, the US is maintaining its overall monetary assistance but decreasing its capital assistance in certain countries.

The dire picture many paint of the FY15 budget ignores the many strategic aid increases the Obama Administration proposes. The FY15 budget proposal would increase funding for the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) by 22%. This agency’s purpose in foreign assistance is to connect American companies with infrastructure investment opportunities in developing nations. By increasing funding for USTDA, the Obama Administration seems to be encouraging the development of public-private partnerships between US private companies and developing countries. This demonstrates not only a shift in America’s approach to foreign aid but also demonstrates the government’s recognition of the large role private corporations could play in the future of development.

imagesThe proposal would also increase funding for the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which focuses on aid for countries prioritized by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG). While overall funding may fall, the increased funding for the MCC demonstrates a stronger commitment to UN development initiatives. The proposal suggests that the US is beginning to prioritize not only its own development interests but global development issues as well.

What does Obama’s budget proposal indicate about his views for the future of US foreign aid? The budget demonstrates a shift in foreign aid priorities. Previously, US foreign aid focused heavily on infrastructure improvements and post-conflict rebuilding. America was especially involved in rebuilding war torn countries in the Middle East. Just look at Afghanistan or Pakistan or Syria as examples. But with a decrease in technical aid towards those countries and an increase in funding to the USTDA, Obama seems to be outsourcing infrastructure reconstruction to private companies. The administration would instead have the US government prioritize economic development. This becomes especially apparent when also considering the increased funding for the MCC. The MCC and the UN’s MDGs focus more on economic and community development in addition to overall capacity building.

This is an interesting approach to foreign aid because Obama appears to be taking advantage of the growing role of private companies in development. Development is no longer just for DAC donors or federal governments. Public-private partnerships have the potential to transform and improve foreign assistance. Using Obama’s strategy, if the private sector focuses on infrastructure development that leaves the US government free to prioritize economic development.

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