The topic of my master’s thesis was on the spatial accessibility of healthy and affordable food in Bernalillo County (Albuquerque, NM). I collected a broad range of data to perform three types of analysis: physical proximity; personal mobility; and human perception. The first type of analysis required using a network analysis to find the median nearest network distance by census block group to three types of geo-coded food retail locations. The second type of analysis required the creation of a personal mobility index by census block group using five census indicators. The final type of analysis required the identification of block group clusters with different combinations of the prior two accessibility metrics, and then sending out surveys to these areas to see how perceptions of food accessibility matched up with the quantitative indicators. What I found was that there are clearly some areas which would fit the description of a “food desert”, or areas where poor accessibility adversely affects diet above and beyond cultural norms and income.
It was quite an effort and I am proud of it, but I wonder what the next step would be. My research will likely sit in the UNM library and provide nothing towards the advancement of humanity. It made me wonder how academic knowledge in general can be made useful to people on the ground.
Oxfam’s “Grow” campaign has started today. Here is their report diagnosing a “broken food system” and advancing a new vision, and here is a blog post by Duncan Green nicely summarizing it, and another post by him summarizing the “killer facts” motivating the campaign.
I for one am pretty excited that Oxfam is going in whole-hog for agricultural development and food security. They are joining the Gates Foundation as a high-profile organization that is attempting to reverse the shameful decline in research and investment for developing country agriculture. All in one package, it is advocating reform of global trade and distribution, investment in smallholder access, productivity, and marketing, and investment in sustainable agroecology that actually mitigates resource degradation and global warming instead of causing it.
One thing that I like about their approach is that they do not advocate extreme ideological positions on things like large vs small farms, organic vs non-organic, GMO vs anti-GMO, vegetarian vs not vegetarian, local vs not local, and public vs private research and investment. They seem to be interested in finding what works for the particular context and scaling it up, while also pressuring governments and corporations on the global scale to reform policies that are obviously detrimental.
Twenty-first-century diplomacy is coming to resemble that of the Middle Ages: Rising powers, multinational corporations, powerful families, humanitarians, religious radicals, universities, and mercenaries are all part of the diplomatic landscape. Technology and money, not sovereignty, determine who has authority and calls the shots. This can be a good thing if it means getting all hands on deck to manage challenges that no government or organization can tackle alone. Success in this new world of mega-diplomacy hinges on bringing the key players together-governments, businesses, and organizations-into coalitions that can quickly move global resources to solve local problems. This is not your grandfather’s diplomacy, but today’s Generation Y intuitively get it.
This is from a relatively new book by Parag Khanna, who is also the author of “The Second World”. Khanna is an exciting big picture thinker. He deals in grand sweeping narrative, weaving anecdotes, statistics, and opinion to tell his story. The main theme of this book is that the future of world governance lies not so much with institutions like the United Nations, which are hopelessly ineffectual and bureaucratic, but instead with decentralized actors-corporations, governments, NGO’s, philanthropists, civil organization etc., collaborating quickly and often ad-hoc to solve specific problems. It is relentlessly upbeat, too much so; it gives the reader a sense of blithe optimism. Also, by trying to cover so much ground, from war and terrorism to poverty and sustainability in a relatively short book, it inevitably fails to provide enough perspective or dig very deeply into the challenges of any one issue. Here is just one example.
There is now quite a body of literature that points to the problem of so-called “artificial states” which lack “legitimacy”, due to the fact that they were arbitrarily and haphazardly drawn up by European colonizers in the latter part of the 19th century (in Africa’s case), with very little regard for preexisting human and political geography. Crawford Young, in his book “The African Colonial State in Historical Perspective”describes the impact that African colonialism had in a relatively short period of time in embedding either distorted or completely foreign political structures:
The colonial state in Africa lasted in most instances less than a century-a mere moment in historical time. Yet it totally reordered political space, societal hierarchies and cleavages, and modes of economic production. Its territorial grid-whose final contours congealed only in the dynamics of decolonization-determined the state units that gained sovereignty and came to form the present African polities. The logic of its persistence and reproduction was by the time of independence deeply embedded in its mechanism of internal guidance.
Pierre Englebert, in his book “State Legitimacy and Development in Africa”, explores the idea of “state legitimacy” in the context of Africa. His measure includes vertical legitimacy – the degree to which the state is responsive to the plurality of its citizens, and horizontal legitimacy – the degree to which the boundaries of the state relate to any coherent precolonial logic. He then correlates these measures to measures of good governance and development capacity. He begins his conclusion by saying: