Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Exploring global energy demand

(Hat tip: Bojan Bozovic)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Monday, May 25, 2009

Thoughts on food aid

Development requires fresh thinking. Throwing money at tried and failed programs is as deplorable as inaction. But new doesn't necessarily mean good.

Cash distribution is something that has been floating around among young(ish), forward thinking development scholars and practitioners for a while. Owen Barder makes the case:
American legislation requires that food aid be bought in the US, that  50 percent of commodities be processed and packed in the US before shipment, and that 75 percent of food aid managed by USAID and 50 percent of the food aid managed by the US Department of Agriculture be transported in “flag-carrying” US-registered vessels. The result is that only 40% of money spent on food aid by the US actually goes towards buying food; the rest goes to US transport companies. Buying the food locally would be better, but best of all might be something even more radical.  Why not give the money itself to people who are hungry?
Not a bad idea, but keep in mind that most countries that really, really need international food aid are often not open to the help: Burma after last year's Cyclone Nargis, Zimbabwe for the past 29 years, North Korea - the list goes on. De-tying food aid from American agricultural producers is a noble cause and a good idea, but that doesn't mean direct cash aid is its' logical, or even possible, conclusion.

What's in a poverty line?

Gini coefficients and poverty lines are helpful for forming estimates. But lest we forget, poverty, as informed by our social life, is contextual.
...being poor in a poor country means having an income that is not just low but variable and unpredictable. At least as much as a family’s average level of income (such as $2/person/day), the volatility around the average drives how the poor manage money. If you make $1 today, $4 tomorrow, and nothing the day after, but need to put food on the table every day, you will engage in complex strategies of borrowing and saving to smooth the mismatch between your income and outflows. Thus out of necessity poor people deploy more complex financial strategies than do the rich.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

As the world turns...

Duncan Green has a thought-provoking, and downright frightening, post on how institutions may shape the climate change debate in the coming years.

I tend to be optimistic that this will not be the case; but more because I think technology will propel us forward, not the magnanimous actions of politicians or the scepter of international cooperation. Climate change is something we here at zzeitgeist are worried about. Let's hope Mr. Green's fiction is much stranger than the truth.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What is happening in Central Asia?

Pakistan is so bad that we're highlighting trash pick-up and the former American ambassador may soon be effectively governing Afghanistan.

Mr. Holbrooke has his work cut out for him...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sentences to envy

It's pretty rare that a blog makes me want to buy a textbook; I've just finished graduate school, have a pretty solid grasp of my subjects (at least I like to think), and am pretty broke to boot. But MR makes me reconsider with one pithy sentence. On cap and trade:
...To make progress against global warming, may require building a political coalition. A carbon tax pushes one very powerful and interested group, the large energy firms, into the opposition. If tradable allowances are instead given to firms initially, there is a better chance of bringing the large energy firms into the coalition. Perhaps it’s not fair that politically powerful groups must be bought off but as Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor, once said,“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” We can only add that producing both laws and sausages requires some pork.
For some reason, I don't remember my 101 class being this exciting...but maybe that's because it was MWF at 9 am.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Will exchange rate competition undermine international cooperation?

An interesting piece by Sebastian Mallaby in which he argues that competitive devaluations could undermine economic recovery. I don't see this as a particularly worrisome problem right now. Currency tensions between the US and China are hardly new. And Germany, as part of the eurozone, has already surrendered its monetary policy to the ECB. 

But I do wonder what this means about the viability of export-led growth going forward. If in five years the global economy has recovered, but countries like China are still running massive trade surpluses, does that mean we will have failed to address the systemic problems which caused this recession in the first place?

Just to the north (and a little to the right)

Have a look at this fascinating interactive graphic comparing key fiscal indicators in the United States and Canada. I had have read stuff detailing Canada's newfound fiscal conservatism but was nonetheless surprised at how similar we are to our northern neighbors.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A revolution in the organization of human knowledge

Watch this introductory video and get excited about the future:

Introduction to Wolfram|Alpha by Stephen Wolfram

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sentences to ponder

Via the World Bank's Private Sector Development blog:
Mongolia is about the size of Alaska and has a population of fewer then 3
million people. This translates into one of the lowest population
densities in the world. With almost half the population living in
Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, and the rest spread out across the country,
it may seem that Mongolia is not the ideal landscape for mobile financial
services...[but] it is actually one of the most banked countries in the

One question worth considering - do all these development finance programs (mobile banking, microfinance, crop insurance) get a free pass on regulation because they are seen as helping the poor? I sure hope not...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Practicing development: reason and results

Chris Blattman asks:

Why don't we write more about worst practices?

Well for one thing, agencies and consultancies that rely on government funds are loathe to air their dirty laundry when future funding is on the line. Even when they do screw up reports are written so as to subtly blame local partners and government participants. Just like politicians, development professionals and NGOs - meant to act in the long-term interests of their supposed constituencies - profit much more from acting in their own short-term interests (exhibit A - schools).

Well, what to do? We must incentivize frank admissions of errors. Those who openly and honestly declare mistakes and poor programs should actually be rewarded - at least to a certain degree. 

The World Bank already has an Independent Evaluation Group and randomized evaluations are all the rage among academics. For markets to be efficient (and yes, proposals for development funding indeed comprise a market), information must be freely available and accurate; let's hold development results to the same standard.

(Picture from Penguin Blog)

You Are What You Share

We live in a world where web 2.0 and massive technological innovations have created unprecedented potential for collaboration with no regard for geographical distances, or any of the traditional divisions of humanity.

Check out this clip from the Us Now film project- a succinct synopsis of our rapidly changing methods of communication:    

Matthew Taylor of the Us Now film project said it best:

"The state needs to understand the potential of these new forms of collaboration and give them the kind of non-intrusive support that they need to grow. "

Monday, May 11, 2009

Voice mail is weak

Good riddance to voice mail. I have seriously been thinking of changing the greeting on my phone to: "You have reached Patrick Thomas. I do not monitor my voice mail - if you need to reach me please send me a text message or email."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Kindle DX

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Timeline of the financial crisis

For those of you keeping score at home, VoxEU has a handy chronology of the financial crisis.

Spread the word. Global education action on HIV/AIDS in Mozambique

[ed. Malgorzata contacted zzzeitgeist and asked us to link to their film on HIV/AIDS in Mozambique.]

My name is Malgorzata Malak and I participated in a 3-month internship in a local Mozambican organisation, Kindlimuka http://www.kindlimuka.org.mz/ in August – November 2008. My sending organisation was GLEN http://www.glen-europe.org/.

During the internship together with my tandem partner, Verena Allinger, we made a documentary about HIV/AIDS in Mozambique. The film is called “Vida Positiva” and is an outline of the situation including reasons for HIV spread, national combat strategies, projects run by NGOs, ways of treating the disease and personal stories of HIV positive people and their relatives.

The film is available at: http://mlume.com/vida

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Engineering an international incident

This article is a great follow up to the post I wrote a few weeks ago. New estimates suggest that the cuts in carbon emissions that would be necessary to halt climate change are much larger than we thought. They may not be politically feasible. Policymakers need to start thinking seriously about the international implications of unilateral climate change plans like geoengineering. 

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Plugin Hybrid

As a technology nerd, I am excited about the prospect of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). General Motors recently sponsored a Society of Automotive Engineers task force to develop a standardized power connector for recharging electric vehicles.  Several major auto makers have agreed to adopt the technology.

Beyond standardization within the industry, environmentalists and techno-nerds alike have reason to be excited about a bright future for cleaner transportation.  First, one can expect that PHEV's won't single-handedly overload the power grid: the Energy Information Administration's 2009 annual energy outlook predicts "Plug-in electric hybrid vehicles are not expected to reverse the trend of slowing growth in electricity demand, which increases by only 0.1 percent for every 1 million PHEV-40 vehicles in operation." Second, batteries from PHEVs will minimally impact the environment.

However, one long-term issue could diminish the environmental benefits of PHEVs. These vehicles shift most emissions from gasoline to electric power plants.  The US needs to make its electricity sources look more like this, instead of this.  Coal provides the U.S. with half of its power, and no, clean coal is not a viable solution. Strip mining and the disposal of coal ash wreak havoc upon the environment.  Society must not trade its problems, but one can hope that the mass adoption of PHEVs encourages a cleaner power generation.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Global spread of swine flu

The Guardian has a handy interactive feature on the spread of the new swine influenza strain, which the WHO warns could become a global pandemic.