Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What do the Bangladeshi cricket team and onions have in common?

Here in Dhaka, onions make the front page of the local paper as often as the Bangladesh cricket team does.  Both can make you cry, although the cricket team has been a cause for celebration lately!
If they published this every day,
it could really help with my negotiations at the market!
Source: Front page, Daily Star, Aug 7, 2015

Why are onions such a topic of interest?

Most produce in Bangladesh is grown domestically.  It's seasonal.  Sometimes you can get spinach and butternut squash, at other times okra and eggplant.  Just like most local farmers' markets.

A few staples, like onions, are available all year, and are not always locally sourced.  But the prices are far from consistent, which means that they provide interesting insight into Bangladesh's social and economic activities.

The demand
Onions are a key ingredient in most tasty Bengali dishes.  It's hard to forego them.  The average Bangladeshi consumes about 2 pounds of onions per month, maybe four pounds during Ramazan.

During holidays, such as last month with Eid and Ramazan, onion prices skyrocketed. And consumption still increased!  In 2014, onion prices hit an all-time high of 100tk ($1.28) during Eid. This year, in Dhaka the average price passed tk60 ($0.64) for a kilogram, compared with last year's tk40 ($.51). 

The supply
Two weeks ago, the price of onions rose for other reasons, including: a blockade on the bridge over the Buriganga because local transport drivers were angry about the toll hike,  Cyclone Komen in Chittagong displaced 300,000 people, and the heavy monsoon rains throughout Bangladesh deterred many trucks from making their normal deliveries to Dhaka.

Between 20-40% of onions are imported from India. They are typically cheaper, bigger, and considered by some to be less tasty than locally-grown onions.

Heavy rainy seasons can also lead to low onion production and supply.  Last year India had heavy rains, this year rains here in Bangladesh seem neverending.

And the prices of onions from India are rising, so Bangladesh is exploring alternative options with Myanmar and China to make sure we have enough to make our meals delicious year-round, as well as to maintain their affordability.
This weather makes me want to curl up in a rickshaw too.......
The bottom line
Affordability of onions appears to be a fairly sensitive indicator of peace, economic prosperity, happy relations with India, the weather, and more.  There's a PhD dissertation idea for the taking.

Thinking about onions has made me hungry. Guess what's for dinner?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Taking the easy way to measuring hard things

When I'm out on the streets of Bangladesh, sometimes I wonder: where are all the women?

Does your program empower women?  It's always a tough question to answer.

Measurement is expensive. 
It takes time to collect information, compile it, analyze it, and implement changes from it.   For empowerment, even identifying the most important indicators can be a big challenge.

Part of a good evaluation system is identifying those indicators that really tell you whether or not there is a problem. They may be surprising ones; not the indicators that you thought would be the most informative or relevant, but ones that seem less intuitive but are actually very correlated to change and very easy to measure; and they can hopefully serve as proxies.

For example, I met a public health specialist working in South Africa who worked on the immunization program.  While they collected 43 indicators, including the dose number, vials opened, age of people vaccinated, and more, they couldn't tell how many people were "fully vaccinated" or the overall "immunization coverage," which of course was the goal.  So he suggested that they replace it with three simple indicators: 
  • Infants fully immunized by age one
  • Tracking stockouts of the "most vulnerable vaccine" (i.e. the one that historically had run out the most)
  • (My favorite) Was the refrigerator working?
An interesting proxy I learned about a few years ago was about surgical conditions. Some of my surgeon friends said that if you wanted to know about quality of surgical staff, infection control, and post-operation follow-up at a given facility, look at the mortality rate for cesarean sections.  If it was low, then the hospital knew what it was doing.  If it was high, then something was wrong.

Today one of my colleagues suggested that after giving clients antibiotics, we should follow up and ask them: did you finish your treatment course?  If they say yes, then we know that they have a decent level of health awareness.

These types of measurements only tell you if there is a problem.
They don't tell you where to look or what the root cause is.  But what's helpful about them is that they are simple, verifiable, and easy to collect.  It's a great trade-off: less time gets wasted on routine data collection, so more can be spent into diving into those places where there are issues.

Last month, I went to a global meeting on microfinance where we briefly touched on how we might measure empowerment among our clients, most of whom are poor women. One of the interesting questions we tossed around was: are there proxies for empowerment?  A few good ideas I heard included:

In Nicaragua: Does a woman gets a PAP smear?  
Despite having one of the highest mortality rates for cervical cancer, only 35% of women ever get a PAP smear (or related test, like careHPV).  Likelihood of getting a PAP smear correlates strongly with education, income, and access to healthcare.  Educating disempowered women about the importance of a PAP smear will likely not lead to changes in behavior.  But empowered women may be likely to translate the information into action, particularly if the test is made readily available.
(Note: this proxy may be broadly applicable--nice essay from Goats and Soda's Nsikan Apan about low screening rates in Africa)

In India: Does a woman get to sleep in? (I would rephrase to ask if she and her husband get up at the same time) 
Much less data here.  But given that women typically are responsible for making breakfast for the family, which may require getting water, using a wood stove that takes time to heat up, and cooking from scratch, it can take a long time.  Perhaps empowered women share the burden with their husbands, or have husbands that will settle for a simple breakfast.  I'm not sure exactly how this one would work.

Dinner for two?
Will you be dining sequentially or together?

In the Bangladesh context, how about: Does a woman eat meals with her husband or after he finishes?
Or: Does she have freedom to go to the market?

Like all proxies, none of these are a perfect substitute for measuring empowerment, but they can be easily captured by frontline officers and others that have regular contact with clients. They won't necessarily tell us the full story, but could quickly provide a decent pulse on the empowerment situation with minimal costs.

What is a good proxy measure for empowerment in your context? 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Halloween candy or humanitarian aid? I know what I'd pick.....

In 2014, the United States was the largest contributor of international humanitarian aid, according to a recent report (and fun interactive graphics) from Irin and Local2Global Protection.

Out of the global humanitarian funding of $22 billion in 2014, the United States accounts for almost $8 billion. But before we get too excited about our generosity, as a point of comparison, Americans also spent almost $3 billion on Halloween candy last year.

Of that $22 billion pie (yum, pie.....), half of it went to three major players: the World Food Programme, United Nations Refugee Agency, and UNICEF.  Only a tiny percentage of the aid was supplied directly to NGOs and charities in the most affected countries. In general, before reaching the ultimate recipients, funding usually goes through 3-4 levels of subcontracting.  It'd be fascinating to know what percentage actually gets to the front line!

Would it be better just to send all of our Halloween candy instead?  

Hopefully not, but I'm not sure.

Overseas development assistance (ODA), as general development funding is often referred to, totalled a global $135 billion in 2014.  That's roughly $61 per person to cover education, health, water, sanitation and safety for the roughly 2.2 billion people living on under $2 a day, or an extra $0.16 per day.  With those kinds of funds, there's no need to concern ourselves with efficiency and effectiveness of spending, right?  (That's my sarcasm font!)

The point is, there's a lot we don't know about where the dollars go.

Since our aid spending (humanitarian + development) is relatively small relative to the scale of poverty, how we spend it matters a lot.

Spending and efficiency are often scrutinized heavily at the non-profit level.  What is our overhead? How can we maximize impact? But before the money ever gets to an actual service provider, many decisions are made on allocations - and many of these decisions cut huge chunks of funding out of the actual assistance bucket.  A consulting firm gets hired to do a market study and develop a strategy.  Jobs are promised to contractors in the donor country.  And so forth.

These diversionary allocations are potentially justifiable (sometimes), but I'm in favor of making them more transparent.  Christian Seelos and I wrote a piece in Stanford Social Innovation Review a few weeks ago arguing that we need Wikileaks in development (or a "WikiLIDS" as we call it).  Personally I'd go for more of an "overheard in New York" meets Wikileaks model, since it's as much about the decisions and consequences in the field as what's on paper.  Not to mention, which development worker doesn't have some great donor stories they'd love to share? Anonymously, of course!

Hey SEAWL, maybe you can put up a sister wikiLIDS site?