Bjorn Lomborg at The Long Now – .mp3 file now available

The .mp3 audio is now freely available for Bjorn Lomborg at The Long Now. The talk is called “From Feel-Good to High-Yield Good: How to Improve Philanthropy and Aid”. The “things to do” list starts at 17:00 minutes.

Bjorn Lomborg does cost/benefit analysis on global good. There are surprises when you examine what are the highest-yield targets in the domains of health, poverty, education, reduced violence, gender equality, climate change, biodiversity, and good governance. Reducing trade restrictions floats to the top: $1 spent yields $2,000 of good for everyone. Contraception for women is close behind, with a whole array of benefits. For health go after tuberculosis, malaria, and child malnutrition. For climate change, phase out fossil fuel subsidies and invest in energy research.

The vocal delivery is very very fast, and Bjorn’s microphone is also picking up distracting levels of sibilance. I found myself forced to load the file in Impulse Media Player to: i) reduce tempo (speed) to 80%; and ii) tweak down the sliders on the right-hand side of the graphic equaliser. Even then delivery is way too fast, given the type of content he’s trying to explain.

From the questions…

“We found one really good solution for corruption [in Bangladesh, via online eBay-like government e-procurement. After being tested for two years, we found] 12% less corruption…”.

Factfulness and fish

I see that the great Hans Rosling is reported to be working on a major new book on positive world trends, according to Nature

“It has the working title Factfulness, and they hope it will inform everyone from schoolchildren to esteemed experts about how the world has changed”. The book will try to “erase preconceived ideas”.

Rosling specialises in ideas about poverty and world development, and is well known via his explanatory videos. Judging by those videos his book will certainly be worth reading, and may be especially interesting because he’s recently been outspoken about the use of misleading and tweaked NGO statistics for “advocacy purposes” at the government level. In the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, no less.

But the NGO/government level is just ‘the tip of the iceberg’, I’d suggest. Such statistical twiddling so easily slips over into boosting ‘awareness raising’ campaigns among the general public. Then it becomes essential to ongoing cycles of fund-raising among the pensioners and other regular givers. Eventually the organisational culture becomes so distorted that it normalises those who want to engage in blatant political point-scoring in the media — of the sort exemplified by Oxfam’s ongoing self-inflicted erosion of its brand values via skewed statistics, damaging itself among everyone except a small minority of Social Justice Worriers and other gullibles.

I wonder if all that will start to change, with Planet Trump and a parallel heightened awareness of the left’s ‘fake news’. In which case the wallet-opening headline-grabbing methods that NGOs learned during 1997-2017 may suddenly become less effective. Perhaps Rosling’s new book Factfulness will help to coax NGOs into adopting new and more honest approaches.

sard

Of course sometimes it also happens that an NGO spots a perfectly genuine natural cyclical change, and seizes the bottom of the curve to shriek about ‘extinction’ — such as scary headlines about the extinction of the humble sardine in yesterday’s Daily Express: “Sardines under threat of EXTINCTION as overfishing pushes them towards being wiped out”. According to the NGO report being covered it appears that there is a real and growing threat of overfishing, of all sorts, off the west African coast — due to surging population growth, Chinese trawlers, new technologies, better roads and storage, new ports and canning factories, tourism growth etc. But the intention of Express‘s reporting is to make the casual skimming reader think: “if such a humble fish is set to go extinct, then the end of the world is nigh”. If that was really the intention of the report‘s writers — before the NGO’s press officer and the Express journalists tore into it — is unknown. But there are two factors which make one wonder about that.

Firstly, what the reader didn’t hear from the Express was that the world’s sardine population rolls through immense multi-decade cycles of boom and near-total bust. According to my Google Scholar searches and some reading, the fish appears to be about 18 months past a huge bust point in its global population. In a decade or so it will be becoming abundant again. But by misleadingly screaming in capital letters about “EXTINCTION” the Express newspaper effectively discredits an apparently valid report about overfishing and the need for fish stock conservation.

Secondly, The Express also completely overlooked a huge international plan that has just been funded to try to deal with such problems. Also to stimulate serious aquaculture farming and sustainable inshore fisheries on suitable parts of the vast African coast.

Instead the newspaper shrieks that the good old British ‘sardines on toast’ are soon to be off the menu forever. One thus has to suspect that the NGO involved didn’t do very much to steer the newspaper toward sardine population trends or the World Bank mega-project. Much as I’ve recently come to admire the Express for its pro-Brexit stance, I have to say that its sardines story seems to have stepped across the ‘linkbait’ line and was borderline ‘fake news’ in its approach. In such a context I’d suggest that the profession of newspaper fact-checker could usefully expand its remit, to have its members also ask “… and what optimistic facts have been been left out?”

African agriculture in 2016

Despite the drought, now easing1, “Important wins were notched up for African agriculture in 2016” says a well-researched and positive report by the Mail & Guardian Africa.

1. NOAA Climate Prediction Center’s Africa Hazards Outlook, January 12 – January 18, 2017: “Heavy rainfall is expected to provide relief for several moisture-stressed areas, but increase the risk of flooding in southeastern Africa.” The report’s map shows no areas of Africa are currently suffering “Severe Drought”, and “Drought” status is only affecting a small area of south-east Africa.

Is Africa about to see mass starvation again? Not on present trends.

According to a new end-of-year FAO report “Crop Prospects and Food Situation”

“Global cereal production in 2016 received a further boost, owing to generally favourable growing conditions for the crops harvested later in the season.”

That’s great, and adds to boosts from a host of other factors. Obviously the FAO can’t commit climate heresy by saying so, but you have to suspect this may be a result of the positive effects of global warming and the global greening that arises from it.

There are some interesting insights into Africa in the report, and unlike most international reports the figures are sound. Since the agricultural inputs and outputs are hard for corrupt regional statistics-fiddlers to manipulate, unlike many educational and development aid outcomes, or things like wildlife counts.

There’s one especially positive set of statistics. In the west many people will casually assume that Western Africa and the Sahel nations are mostly desert. But now these nations are…

“about to achieve record production of cereals” in 2017 and rice is also doing well… “growing conditions have also proven conducive across Northern Hemisphere Africa, where the rice output is seen at a fresh peak of 19.8 million tonnes”

While back in the European Union, curiously…

“Significant production declines are estimated in the European Union, with the wheat output falling by 16.5 million tonnes on a yearly basis”.

The trade journal AgriMoney attributes this trend to urbanisation and afforestation of the countryside, and it affects many other crops such as potatoes. According to this trade journal…

“the downward trend in EU crop area [increases] as towns and forests expand, a decline which stretches back to the 1990s.”

The decline may also be something to do with the ageing and declining demographics of the continent, I’d guess? Old people tend to eat less, in aggregate. This rather startling comparison between the EU and the Sahel evokes the surreal image of a future starving elderly Italian pensioner opening their Christmas food aid parcel, to find it stamped: “From the people of Mali”.

But seriously, the FOA report of course reveals hotspots of food stress in the southern hemisphere part of Africa. These are almost all due to the expected local areas of El Nino‑induced drought, but sometimes to socialist politics or some vicious (usually religious) insurgency. Though it can’t be long now before some journalists start lazily eliding the droughts with global warming.

The FAO’s report suggests that the main serious problem areas for 2017 are:

* Malawi where the corn crops failed repeatedly, and where 6.5 million people sound like they could use some regular subsidised corn supplies as food aid in 2017;

* The basket-case nation of Zimbabwe will likely see even more hardship in 2017, with the FOA saying the nation’s dire politics and the 2016 drought will place a biggest-ever 4.07 million people at risk due to severe food shortages. The FAO talks ominously of “large declines” in its cereal production.

* Localised droughts in the far south of the island of Madagascar “have resulted” [in] “up to 850,000 people requiring emergency assistance”, though the rice production there actually increased. It seems unclear if food aid is still needed, or if the local government can keep handling it.

* There is even western media talk of possible problems in a couple of war-torn and inaccessible towns of relatively prosperous Nigeria, following some recently NGO press releases. But the government there rejects the tin-rattling rhetoric being used: “Nigeria accuses aid groups of exaggerating hunger crisis”, stating that…

“aid agencies had been attempting “to whip up a non-existent fear of mass starvation.”

…in order to bring in funds at Christmas. Food prices are high at present in Nigeria due to some exporting, but the Nigerian government’s complaint is clearly supported by the above FOA report which states that…

“above‑average cereal harvests are expected [for 2017] in most coastal countries including Nigeria where the aggregate cereal output is forecast to remain close to last year’s above‑average level.”

* The Horn of Africa is generally stressed, and major food aid may be needed in the spring in some war-torn parts of it such as parts of Sudan and Somalia, but The World Bank is saying of places such as Ethiopia that…

“Economic growth remained at a respectable 8% in 2015/16, which is impressive especially compared to previous drought situations … said Carolyn Turk, World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan.” … “growth momentum will still remain and since 2016 rains arrived as expected, the recent drought will not likely affect Ethiopia’s medium-term economic growth.” (my emphasis)

Overall, the central and southern parts of Africa appear to have coped relatively well with the El Nino‑induced droughts, the worst in several decades, which have in places provided a bitter ‘stress test’ of Africa’s continuing development and growth. From my reading of the FOA report it seems that, with some relatively modest and targeted food aid in early 2017, the dozen or so very real hardship spots in Africa should pull through without mass starvation. None of these hotspots have arisen due to global warming.

The largest ongoing real risk in 2017 appears to me to be a Venezuela-style systemic collapse in Zimbabwe, and a few conflict zones.

There are reasons for optimism, beyond the next few months. Africa’s weather and rains in the south should be back to normal in 2017, and there are now plans and money on the table to try to make future African droughts even more survivable. Such as:

* grain marketing boards made to work in such a way that everyone can see exactly where any corruption or price-fixing is.

* better management of water access, better access to Africa’s huge river systems for generally increased water supply.

* better long-term weather forecasting of drought, and seed distribution systems that enable small farmers to switch crops quickly in response.

* better access to market prices and trends, via a farmer’s mobile phone, encouraging the sort of businesses literacy that will make swopping to drought-resistant crops easier.

* free or very cheap school meals.

* large national grain reserves (such as those held by Morocco and Zambia).

* reserve government funds, held in corruption-free escrow in dollars — for quickly buying and shipping emergency grain to short-term food not-spots and refugee camps. Such as that currently being deployed by Kenya to help people hit by drought.

* better roads for quick transportation of aid, which will also offer more efficient transport of crops to market.

* drought-resistant and GMO crops.

* simply bringing more land under the plough, as Africa’s population grows and young workers are available, thus boosting overall local production.

* increased open access to global markets, such as the UK after Brexit, opening up the possibility of having rows of high-value crop types growing alongside staple crops.

* cutting bio-fuels production, through which the West diverts a significant part of its field crops to make motor fuel. A reduction in bio-fuels would generally decrease global food prices.