International Facebook

http://www.facebookstories.com/stories/1574/interactive-mapping-the-world-s-friendships#color=continent&story=1&country=LK

The venerable Lawrence Watson alerted me to this fantastic demonstration of the power of mega-data that has been neatly displayed with appropriate graphics.

The amazing thing is that Facebook friends do not happen at random, and despite what many think, reflect something of the true social structure in the world.  What this shows is a trace left behind by migration, holidays, and study abroad stints.

As Michael Clemens points out on Twitter, this presents massive research potential.  Simply making these connections should be almost impossible, and yet people have volunteered to enter it into an accessible database.  All that remains is to ask it questions.

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Bonds

There has been a lot of chatter in the last few weeks about social development bonds. Basically, they are financial investments that are spent on social-welfare development which pay-out at a fixed point only if there is good evidence that the social-welfare efforts were successful, and not at all if not.  They are currently being pioneered in England by the group Social Finance.

There are two queries that I have about these bonds.  First is that since they are linked to a cost-benefit measurement before paying out they are really a cross between a bond  and a share.  The bond holder will be expected to take great interest in the service delivery etc to ensure a return, but that is hardly current bond holder practice. Second, can the impact of an intervention be determined reliably and even if it could be how would we determine what is a ‘successful’ project?  There is more mileage in the ‘share’ analogy here since there will be a price-over-earnings consideration that is not normally considered by bond holders.

Which brings me to the question of risk.  If these complex bonds, which have share-like dependency on performance, are to be commercially traded, who is going to take on the additional risk?  To make the bond attractive the interest rate will have to be high, and that additional risk will be paid for by the government when it pays out.  The externalities are positive (successful project) but the whole thing rests on the idea that the benefit from private sector involvement is greater than the additional cost to the government in borrowing.  I am not so sure that this argument is sound.

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Accountabiltiy

Interesting debate here at LSHTM last night: “Does development assistance help or hinder?” with Rifat Atun, Imperial College London,  Andy Haines, LSHTM and Nuria Molina, Save the Children.

Everyone agreed that there was a need for greater accountability in the aid industry.  Which led to the inevitable calls for more governing bodies, and impartial seers.

But what, then, of the idea that poverty is a lack of choice?  All of this planning is just another imposition on poorer (less powerful) people.  The aid industry has huge power – through NGOs or governments – and is not inclined to give it away to the people.  A selfish bureaucracy reigns.

Would it be so terrible to side-step the bureaucrats and give the money directly to the people who need it?  Not top down, literally a monthly or yearly living allowance in their pockets.  Without all that schmoozing to do and wasting time fighting at summits, aid agencies could focus on attracting people’s custom by offering the best services.  Investors might invest in promising start-ups who could show innovation in the field of helping people.  The people who are supposed to be gratefully receiving the benevolence of the aid industry would have, for the first time, a position of power and a position to choose.  The aid agencies would answer to them.

Radical? Right wing? Not really.  This is about shifting power from the richest to the poorest people in the world.  While we’re falling over ourselves to please donors, do we ever stop to think about how we’re pleasing the people we claim to want to help?

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Old problem

To give away money is an easy matter in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.

— Aristotle (Ethics, 360 BCE)

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Opportunity Child

Happy helping people is not enough when the factors that determine resource allocation are improper.

The the previous posts we have seen that resource allocation is based on a number of things – proximity, emotions, timing – but that efforts to define and measure actual outcomes are lacking.  The result is that resources are likely misdirected such that sizable opportunity costs can be measured in actual children killed (not saved) because of the action of badly determined criteria.

Let me explain.  An NGO is spending $100m on children in a crisis in Africa.  We don’t know exactly what effect this will have (because it is not measured) but the NGO hopes to save $4m children.  That’s $25 per child, which sounds pretty good.  But is it?  First of all, $25 might not be all that cheap, despite huge healthcare costs in the West it might be possible to help a child for much less in a different context and for a different ailment.  Second, we haven’t really defined ‘life saved’ (see previous post), although we could just do that.  Let’s say it is that the child lives beyond childhood and reaches 16.  That doesn’t solve the problem since, third, we haven’t measured what actually happens and the ‘confidence interval’ on our 4m saved estimate is very wide, wide enough that resource allocation goes from cheap and effective to extremely expensive, even wasteful.  So a number of things have to come together for the $100m for 4m claim to hold up and without it there is a good chance that our $100m is not helping as many children reach 16 as it would do if it were spent elsewhere.  What seems like a rational basis for action – maximum number of children reaching 16 per dollar spent – is not the basis at all.

As a result, children needlessly fail to reach 16 – are saved – when we have the funds to help them.

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Critical ALNAP

The  Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), established in 1997, is probably the most respected inter-agency body looking at accountability in the humanitarian sector.  So, you can imagine how I responded to this update on the Humanitarian Performance Indicators Working Group in their annual report:

Launched in 2009, the ALNAP Working Group  on Humanitarian Performance Indicators set out to provide a forum for members to share their experiences and thoughts on approaches to organisational and programme performance indicators within the humanitarian system. After discussions in the group about the difficulty of establishing a clear direction, it was decided to dissolve the group for the time being and to incorporate discussions on performance indicators into the development of the methodology for the next iteration of ‘The State of the Humanitarian System: Assessing performance and progress.’ In 2011/12, ALNAP will decide whether there is additional value in reconvening the Working Group

If you can stifle your laughter or manage not to choke on your coffee then you’ve done well.  The group convened, discussed difficulties and the dissolved within two years.  Reminds me of another critical issue.

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Can’t give, won’t give

In the last few years a lot of effort has gone into evaluating the effectiveness of charities. The organization Giving What We Can emphasis that cost-effectiveness in charities is essential:

…even restricted to the field of health programs in developing countries, research shows that some are up to 10,000 times as effective as others.

The site divides charity giving into categories, such as health, education and empowerment.  Within the health section,  the site gives a nice breakdown of disease priorities according to the effectiveness of their treatment (largely based on the DCP2 from the Disease Control Priorities Project), where effectiveness is measured in disability adjusted life years per dollar spent.  All well and good.  However an interesting thing happens when you click on the Emergency Aid section:

It is a very difficult intervention type to assess, because it is so wide-ranging, there is little quantitative data, and because each emergency is unique. At this point in time, we have no information on the cost-effectiveness of different types of emergency aid, but we hope to rectify this in the future.

For a more detailed analysis of an intervention-type, see our pages on health.

For all their work, this charity cannot find any data to estimate the effectiveness of emergency relief.

There is no basis on which to separate emergency and health programs.  Both are concerned with saving lives, they have the same outcome of interest.  Emergency conditions appear differently to us, the giver, but to the patient who is dying the conditions don’t seem that different.  Yes, we see/hear/feel more about emergencies than ‘normal’ health problems and emergencies have a sort of ‘Biblical’ significance, but from the point of view of a child dying of malaria, or the mother of a malnourished baby, I don’t imagine there is a distinction.

What this site and others show, in high contrast, is the peculiar position of humanitarian aid in our thinking.

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