Category Archives: Research

Contextually Comparative: A Conundrum?

I have been home in Ghana (full disclosure) since July, 2015 to carry out fieldwork for my dissertation and work on my research assistantship which is funding me for the next few years till I complete and defend my dissertation hopefully in May, 2017 (GOD let it be so!) For my research assistantship I am affiliated with the DECCMA project which seeks to assess vulnerability to climate change and migration and adaptation in 3 deltas in Ghana, India and Bangladesh. DECCMA is one of 4 consortium research projects under the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) funded by IDRC and DFID. My specific activities with DECCMA are contributing to the activities of the Migration and Adaptation work packages.

Between July 24 and 28, 2015 I spent my time attending the 3rd Whole-Consortium Workshop of the DECCMA project at the University of Ghana, Legon. It was quite a steep learning curve for me the first few days in trying to come up to speed with a project I had only followed from afar. One thing that stood out to me in my furious note taking and incessant picture snapping was that there was a lot of talk of “keeping things consistent across the three deltas.” That bugged me-and it kind of still does. For one who is gung-ho about context-specific and localized interpretive research I just had mental images of layers of rich, high-resolution, nuanced and complex information being glossed over for consistency or comparability. The horror!

Don’t get me wrong at all. I totally understand the need for similarity in order to enable comparison. I needed to set such parameters in my own dissertation research (which I will talk about soon). But I am still plagued by the question of whether we should not be okay with even different research designs or approaches in different places if the ultimate goal of the research is to develop locally-appropriate or relevant policy recommendations and funding proposals (see the Aims tab if you bother to open the link).

Group Photo

Kwame with a cross-section of the Migration Work Page at the 3rd DECCMA Consortium Workshop

My own dissertation research, which seeks to evaluate the success or otherwise of sea defense systems (SDS) as an adaptation to climate change from the perspective of different stakeholders, currently has the presence of a SDS in a particular area of the Volta River Delta of Ghana as the singular variable to include any site in the comparative analysis. Even within one area (the Keta Municipality) I discovered the presence of two SDSes so now I am juggling whether to compare three as opposed to two. Why can’t the object of a delta be enough of a variable of similarity for large consortium-based comparative work such as DECCMA? Granted, in my own research I am borrowing from the LIG approach as research design and method-however even after only 1 full week of fieldwork I am realizing that I will need to tweak my questions based on this approach from person to person let alone between sites.

Interviewing CF

Kwame interviewing a Chief Fisherman in one of the communities along the Keta Sea Defense System

Please do not hear me damming the work of DECCMA. Far be it from me! I am so honored and proud to be part of such a large interdisciplinary and groundbreaking project. However I look forward to seeing, as I engage in my own research and contribute to that of DECCMA, how comparative research can still remain context specific and locally relevant yet not lose its validity of rigor in the eyes of the rest of the scientific community. I guess “rigor” depends on who is assessing – but that is a thought for another blog post.

Why HURDL does what it does

Over on Open the Echo Chamber, I look back at my book Delivering Development in the context of the new World Development Report. Specifically, I look at how the WDR addresses the three big claims behind my book:

  1. Most of the time, we have no idea what the global poor are doing or why they are doing it.
  2. Because of this, most of our projects are designed for what we think is going on, which rarely aligns with reality
  3. This is why so many development projects fail, and if we keep doing this, the consequences will get dire

My conclusion – OK at #1, a recognition of #2, and no attention at all to #3.

Read more at Five years later, and I am proud of Delivering Development again.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa: the implication for food security

As West African nations are grappling with the Ebola Hemorrhagic fever (EVD) outbreak declared in March 2014, and said by Thomas Frieden, Director of the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be “unlike anything since the emergence of HIV/AIDS” and, “the largest and most complex outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976”according to the Word Health Organization. Concerns are growing about the possible spread of the disease throughout the African continent. While it is essential to take stock of the disease itself, its origin, its mode of transmission, symptoms and treatment, it is also important to focus on the dramatic impact of EVD on agriculture and food production in the affected region of West Africa.

In the countries most affected by the current outbreak (Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Now Mali), first cases were recorded primarily in cities and rural areas. These countries have fragile political and economic structures, as they have recently experienced severe civil conflict and are ranked among the poorest countries in the world.  In early September 2014, the UNFAO issued a special alert about the agricultural and food production situation in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The agency was concerned that the scale of transmission of the Ebola virus and the emergency measures taken by local government in both affected and non affected countries in the West Africa region, (establishing quarantine areas and restriction on movement of people) could have a negative impact on crop production for staple crops such as rice, millet and maize that were scheduled to be harvested in October and November.  The epidemic has hit West Africa in waves. In certain localities the EVD outbreak was declared in June, a period during which farmers should plant rice. In some instances farmers started planting several weeks late. As most of crops in this region are rain fed, there is no doubt that crops will be affected. Additionally, farming work is a collective activity executed by different members of a household using all available manpower for cultivating, planting weeding or harvesting, but this has not been the case this year due to the fear of spreading the disease. Farmers are afraid to work in groups. In this region there is high demand for agricultural manpower during the harvest and post-harvest season, and restriction on population movements will result in a shortage of agricultural labor. This has forced farmers to abandon their fields and their food stocks in areas where there is high incidence of infection, while agricultural workers can no longer travel to seek casual jobs because of fears of spreading the disease. Moreover, even if the crop harvest can take place, the spread of the disease also affects the marketing of agricultural products, as the movement of traders in rural areas is also limited.

What is the impact of Ebola on food security of the affected countries?

The price of certain staple foods has started to spike in the affected countries. This is caused by the emergency measures taken by the governments of neighboring countries and foreign states enforcing the closure of land borders with affected countries, the suspension of flights to these countries, and limiting food imports from these countries. All of these measures have contributed to greatly reducing cross-border trade, and have disrupted the internal movement of food. Among government actions that impact the price of food, the ban on consumption of ” bush meat ” should also be mentioned. The third factor influencing the increase in food prices has been the consumer panic, which has caused the bulk buying of food that has caused shortage. The picture painted above shows that millions of people in countries hit by EDV could be affected by food insecurity, and that emergency food assistance is urgently needed.  While we focus on delivering relief/emergency food assistance in affected area, which is a noble way to express compassion and to show the best of our humanity, it is also important to think about the possible negative effects of food assistance. The negative impacts include market distortions, for example freely available emergency food aid has been responsible for reducing the demand for local crops. I call for a more cautious approach from governments in the affected countries to ensure that emergency food aid brings the desired benefits, without compromising the domestic food production and market. My fear is that the long-term provision of food aid to people in need of assistance could create a dependency syndrome. In response to the looming food insecurity situation, I propose that the assistance be channeled through cash transfer, as it will generate a range of indirect benefits to beneficiaries and local economies. Countries in the West Africa region should rethink border restrictions in order to allow the flow of food in the region and at the same time increase surveillance on possible infectious cases.




Gender, adaptation, and development: frontiers or retreat?

I recently attended the WMO Conference on the Gender Dimensions of Weather and Climate Services in Geneva. The topic is one that brings together a lot of the work we do in HURDL, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this event. Specifically, I presented on how the development-as-usual approach to thinking about gender as essential instead of intersectional can make a tremendous difference in how we understand the presumed end users of climate services.

What does this mean? Basically, typical approaches to gender in adaptation tend to do three things:

1) They assume that gender differences are principal determinants of vulnerability to weather and climate shocks and stresses

2) They assume that men and women are unitary categories – that is, they do not generally look for the differences among men and among women, but focus on the differences between men and between women.

3) They assume that women are subservient or otherwise lacking authority and power relative to men, and this produces unique vulnerabilities for men and women.

Of course, anyone who has spent some time in an agrarian or pastoralist community in the Global South already knows that this is a gross oversimplification of gender roles and responsibilities in any setting. The categories “man” and “woman” contain a lot of variation, and that variation shapes the different roles and responsibilities individuals have in the community.

When I argue that gender is intersectional, what I am saying is that who an individual is, in terms of his or her role and responsibilities, is generally shaped in reference to a particular activity or setting. For example, a woman’s roles and responsibilities might be defined one way when talking about domestic labor, and perhaps another when talking about her agricultural activities. This means her identity is situational. Depending on her situation, it could be that her agricultural roles and responsibilities emerge at the intersection of gender and caste, while her domestic roles and responsibilities take shape at the intersection of gender and age.

Thus, talking about “women’s work” in this hypothetical community means different things in different situations. Really, we are talking about the difference between “high caste women’s work” and “low caste women’s work” in agriculture, and “senior women’s work” and “junior women’s work” in domestic contexts. These categories are not the same, for not all senior women will be high caste, and not all junior women will be low caste. Therefore, gender is only one part of the identity that defines particular roles and responsibilities within this community.

This all matters for adaptation and climate services because roles and responsibilities define who does what work, and therefore whose activities are vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and change. Therefore, when thinking about how climate services might help particular populations address the impacts of climate variability and change, we must clearly define how that service will affect a particular activity’s vulnerability to a particular shock or stressor. We cannot say that a climate service will address a community’s vulnerability to climate variability and change – this is too broad to be meaningful. We need to talk about how a climate service might address the vulnerability of a community’s agricultural production to climate variability. This defines the activity in question clearly, and allows us to define the potential users of this activity appropriately – in the case of our hypothetical community, we would look to the roles and responsibilities that emerge at the intersection of gender and caste, as these identities are those that shape individual’s agricultural activities and therefore their vulnerabilities relevant to this particular stressor.

My closing point caused a bit of consternation (I can’t help it – it’s what I do). Basically, I asked the room if the point of paying attention to gender in climate services was to identify the particular needs of men and women, or to identify and address the needs of the most vulnerable. I argued that approaches to gender that treat the categories “man” and “women” as homogenous and essentially linked to particular vulnerabilities might achieve the former, but would do very little to achieve the latter. Mary Thompson and I have produced a study for USAID that illustrates this point empirically. But there were a number of people in the room that got a bit worked up by this point. They felt that I was arguing that gender no longer mattered, and that my presentation marked a retreat from years of work that they and others had put in to get gender to the table in discussions of adaptation and climate services. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are able to ask the sorts of complex questions that mark my ongoing work on gender, adaptation, and development (see, for example, my work on gendered crops, gendered livelihoods, and thereimagination of livelihoods decision-making) because a whole lot of pioneering researchers, many if not most of them women, pushed the very issue of gender onto the table. The work that I have been doing, and the ideas I outlined above, presented at the WMO, and are becoming part of the wider literature on gender and adaptation (see this overview piece) stand on the shoulders of these scholars, complementing and extending their work. I argue that HURDL’s work on gender and adaptation, and gender and climate services, is a logical extension of feminist work in development – feminist theory long ago stopped focusing merely on women, instead shifting to a wider focus on identity more generally. Gender usually matters a great deal when we talk about adaptation and development (though not always – see the Malawi case study in our USAID report). The question is how it matters, and how this particular aspect of identity produces opportunities and challenges we must address as we move forward in the Anthropocene.