Obesity: Is food the new tobacco?

Go on, you know you want to know, even if BMI is only a rough guide

Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kellman describes life in Glasgow in the 1960s as seen by a child from ages four to almost thirteen. Nothing is presented other than Kieron’s thoughts, so what we are told directly is what he finds interesting and what he thinks about it. Indirectly, the novel describes a number of social and other situations that were starting to change, including this: “There was a fat boy in our street. People called him fatso.” At the time, obesity was unusual enough to draw attention. Yet now more than a third of Scottish 12-year-olds are considered to be overweight, a fifth to be obese and over one in ten severely obese. The statistics for adults are even worse, with almost two-thirds of men and more than half of women.

The situation is better in the other OECD countries, apart from the United States, but overweight is a concern almost everywhere. Obesity is one of the few cases where the popular perception that things were better in the old days is supported by a range of objective evidence. The facts also suggest that people are right in blaming the problem on changes in lifestyle and diet. Kellman’s hero is outside as much as possible, and is usually involved in highly physical pastimes like football, climbing or running. He hardly ever has any pocket money and can rarely afford to buy snacks or a soda. Indeed, another boy is remarkable because he can buy chips once a week on the way home from a youth group.

That doesn’t mean his diet was particularly healthy, but hours of physical activity and no income to buy junk food compensated for all the carbohydrates. Diets for lower socio-economic groups have remained just as poor, or have got worse in some respects, at the same time the amount of exercise has declined.

The result is that overweight and obesity rates have been increasing relentlessly worldwide, Obesity-related problems, such as diabetes, now account for 2% to 6% of health care costs in most countries. Even lower-income countries are affected, with some of them actually having problems of obesity and under nutrition simultaneously.

The causes and consequences of obesity and how to tackle it are analysed in Fit not Fat: Obesity and the Economics of Prevention. The book asks how to trigger meaningful changes in obesity trends. The short answer is by wide-ranging prevention strategies addressing multiple determinants of health. The reality is that every step of the process is conditioned not just by public health concerns, but by history, culture, the economic situation, political factors, social inertia and enthusiasm, and the particularities of the groups targeted.

Authors Franco Sassi and Michele Cecchini of the OECD’s Health Division also contributed to a series of articles on obesity in The Lancet, the latest of which are published today. The Lancet’s conclusions are similar to the OECD’s: the changes needed are likely to require many sustained interventions at several levels, and national governments should take the lead.

That includes tougher action – including taxing junk food – but the food industry will resist such changes. Speaking to the BBC about the reports, Terry Jones, of the UK Food and Drink Federation, said “The Lancet fails to recognise the lengths to which the UK food and drink industry has gone to help improve the health of the nation, particularly in relation to rising obesity levels.”

Professor Boyd Swinburn (author of a paper on what’s driving the obesity epidemic), doesn’t agree. In fact he compares the tactics of the food industry – in terms of getting people addicted to their products and in blocking attempts to discourage consumption – to those of tobacco firms in previous decades.

Useful links

Health is one of the topics included in the OECD Better Life Index. The Index allows you to put different weights on each of the topics, and therefore to decide for yourself what contributes most to well-being.

You can create your own index on the BLI site and share it on social media and other platforms.

Aid: Should the OECD hand over to the UN?

Click to find out more about 50 years of DAC work

In May, the Insights blog and The Guardian co-hosted a debate on the OECD’s role in official development assistance (ODA). Jonathan Glennie of the Overseas Development Institute argued that it was time for the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) to hand over to the UN. Brian Atwood, DAC chair, replied.

In July, the ODI organised a debate in London, at the Houses of Parliament. You can listen to Jonathan Glennie and Brian Atwood , as well as His Excellency Ernest Rwamucyo, High Commissioner of Rwanda to the United Kingdom, by clicking on the links below. Daleep Mukarji, ODI Council Chair, introduced the debate.

Among other questions, the debate explored the growing role and influence of non-traditional development actors such as China, and what could be achieved at this year’s Busan conference on aid effectiveness, and beyond.

Audio downloads

Introduction and Jonathan Glennie (MP3, 18.9mb)

Brian Atwood (MP3, 16mb)

Ernest Rwamucyo (MP3, 25.1mb)

 Useful links

OECD work on aid effectiveness including the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda

Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness Busan, Korea, 29 November – 1 December 2011

Please feed the animals

Nature's friend

If you kill all the leopards, don’t be surprised if you get diarrhoea or worse. That’s not because of some convoluted karma (though it might be that, too) but because of the many unexpected consequences of the loss of “apex consumers” – the beasts such as large predators at the top of food chains.

In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, with the leopards (and lions) gone, baboons flourished, and came into contact with humans more frequently, attracted by crops and other food resources. Increased population density favoured the spread of intestinal parasites among the baboons to start with, then to humans.

Although ecological theory had predicted significant impacts on ecosystems from changes in the numbers and distribution of large predators and herbivores, it was hard to show this in practice. First, because the ecosystem has to be disturbed, jolted out of equilibrium, for the interactions among species to be revealed.  Also, the time scales were often too long and geographical areas too wide to be studied.

Now, a team led by James Estes of the University of California has reviewed studies of land, freshwater and marine ecosystems worldwide, and concluded that the loss of apex consumers is arguably “humankind’s most pervasive influence on the natural world”.

Estes analyses  “trophic cascades” – the idea that impacts cascade down the food chain from the apex. However, chain is too simple a metaphor to describe what happens. An ecosystem is dynamical and complex with numerous non-linear interactions and the possibility of rapid changes from one state to another, for instance when a tipping point is reached. And each ecosystem is connected to others biologically, physicochemically and spatially.

Taken together, loss of apex consumers, nonlinearity and connectivity provoke changes in just about every aspect of ecosystems and help to explain a range of phenomena, especially when you add interactions with climate change, urbanisation, and industrialised agriculture. For instance, global distribution and amounts of vegetation are poorly predicted by rainfall and temperature alone, but adding wildfires to the equation improves predictions significantly. Wildfires burn up to 500 million ha of the Earth’s surface each year, and as you’d expect are influenced by herbivores: get rid of the buffalo and more fuel is left for the fires.

Estes’ review doesn’t suggest any easy solutions. More herbivores might not give the results you’d like. Trees have now disappeared from the Scottish island of Rum, because a few hundred years ago, the last wolf was killed and with it natural control of species like deer that damaged saplings. Similar impacts are underway elsewhere, and trees aren’t the only victims of getting rid of the big good wolf. Fish can suffer too because fewer trees mean more erosion of river banks, less shade from the Sun, and less cover for the fish.

Estes and his colleagues argue for a change in ecological thinking away from the view that the influence of large animals, and apex consumers in particular, is anomalous, occurring in some systems, but not in many others. In practical terms, recognising the influence of apex consumers has profound implications for conservation. You can’t restore them on an acre of land here and there. It’s going to require a large-scale approach.

Useful links

OECD work on biodiversity management

 OECD work on green growth

Famine in East Africa: Solutions exist in Africa

Click to see full-size map of food security

Today’s post is by Sibiri Jean Zoundi of the OECD Sahel and West Africa Club

Drought is always put forward as the main cause of repetitive famines in East Africa, but it doesn’t explain everything. Food production is structurally insufficient, even in years with relatively good rains, partly due to lack of means of production and weak incentives for food producers. Distributing surplus food aid at the wrong time can also perturb local markets and does not inspire sustainable investment in local food production. And the armed conflicts that have affected the area for several decades reduce the populations’ ability to face environmental and climate related challenges.

Humanitarian aid is vital in the short term, but it does not tackle the causes of famine. An integrated, regional and inclusive approach is needed. However, a sustainable solution will not come from external actors: the region’s leaders must take more responsibility.

They must: 

  • End the vicious cycle of armed conflicts and political instability.
  • Put in place government-sponsored agricultural and food policies which attract sustainable investments in order to ensure their implementation.
  • Raise agricultural productivity and develop adaptation and mitigation measures in response to climate change impacts (including means to reduce the vulnerability of the region’s pastoral populations).
  • Incentivise local food production.
  • Reinforce the regional market.
  • Reinforce the early-warning and alert systems for drought, food security, and armed conflicts.

East Africa can draw lessons from the experiences of other African regions, West Africa in particular. Following recurrent food crises in the Sahel, notably from 1973 to 1984, the 1990 Food Aid Charter defined the basic principles to which Sahel countries are committed to and that donors and national authorities share and agree on to avoid the negative effects of aid, thus contributing to food aid effectiveness.

Today, the Charter is being revised to respond to the increasingly complex nature of food crises, the arrival of new donors, the stronger impact of the global market, and the rising role of civil society organisations and local actors. The Charter for Food Crisis Prevention and Management shifts from joint food aid management towards prevention and management of crises (mutual responsibility). It clearly affirms the responsibilities of regional organisations and of non-state actors, and enlarges its geographic coverage from the Sahel to West Africa.

The Charter particularly insists upon governmental and intergovernmental responsibilities, including seeking sustainable solutions to address the root causes of food insecurity, such as funding half of food security programmes from regional governments and organisations; and making progress towards the realisation of the “right to food” in accordance with national priorities, particularly through the elaboration of legal frameworks, action plans, and their financing.

Following a consultation process in the 17 countries that are covered by the Charter, the new text will be approved by an ECOWAS ministerial meeting in September 2011. This West African experience could be a source of inspiration for other regions inflicted with food insecurity.

The West African experience also teaches us that a permanent regional dialogue on combating drought and food crises is a way of reinforcing solidarities between peoples and governments. The impact of the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) on the inter-Sahelian policy dialogue is obvious, although it is not quantifiable.

Regular meetings between ministries and Heads of State at the regional level in tandem with close collaboration between local and national administrations facilitated dialogue on other issues, particularly security-related ones. From this point of view, Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) is a precious tool that needs to be preserved and reinforced.

Useful links

The full version of this article can be found in English here and in French here Famine dans la Corne de l’Afrique_fr

The Horn of Africa: Relearning crucial development lessons

Women and children waiting to enter a camp in Kenya (Source: Oxfam)

Stephen P. Groff

Stephen P. Groff is the Deputy Director for Development Cooperation at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

As the international community gathers in Rome to discuss the emergency in the Horn of Africa, it is important to recognize the commitment of the UN system, NGOs and donors to co-ordinated humanitarian action in the region. OECD donors alone have already directly committed USD 1.49bn to the region this year, on top of the core funding they provide through UN agencies and emergency pooled funds.

This said, the crisis in the Horn of Africa is indicative of development failure. Early warning systems predicted it a year ago. Since then, people’s household reserves have been gradually exhausted, forcing them to leave their land in search of food. We also know from experience that the populations hardest hit by disasters such as drought are the most marginalised – in this case hard-to-reach pastoralist communities, difficult to reach and often without access to basic services, development programmes and decision-making processes. Early response could have helped people to stay on their farms and protect their assets, slowing the reversal of hard-earned progress in development.

Yet opportunities to prevent the crisis – by providing timely funding and strengthening community resilience – were largely missed. Early action could certainly have provided much better value for money than today’s costly – although necessary – emergency response. Some studies say that one dollar spent on prevention is worth four in relief. This is particularly important at a time when there is increasing pressure on aid budgets in the major donor countries.

Unfortunately, lessons are always easier to affirm in hindsight. This is why today, as we scramble to relieve the desperate situation in the Horn, we must make sure we don’t look at this merely as an interruption in business as usual. Unless we do things differently by truly prioritising in our development programmes and humanitarian responses the people and communities most at risk –  helping to build resilience into their livelihood systems – we will have to learn this lesson over and over again.

Development efforts need to be more creative, incorporating social protection instruments such as cash or food transfers and public works. These instruments build resilience and productivity, and can contribute to important infrastructure and environmental capital. At the same time, they provide the systems needed to enable speedy response to emergencies before they become crises.

This twin-track approach – of early action balanced with appropriate emergency intervention – is critical. Building long-term resilience – for instance through increased household assets, reserves and safety nets – is the only way to ensure that episodes of drought do not become famines and that natural disasters do not become crises. At the same time, the right type of response to emergencies – including early warning and the ability to respond quickly – is essential to strengthen the capacity of countries and communities to prevent and prepare for humanitarian crises. Climate change research and funding for adaptation also need to focus on livelihood systems like those of the pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in the Horn of Africa. And donors need to take risks, supporting peace through the creation of responsive and legitimate state structures – even where conflict is ongoing and in remote, marginalised areas.

The crisis in the Horn of Africa is still building. While we work to limit its impact and ensure that funding continues to be available, we also need to support the return to sustainable livelihoods. We know that the frequency and severity of drought is likely to increase in the region. While dealing with the present, donors and local governments need to look to the future, planning and investing in a mix of humanitarian and development tools that will build resilience in vulnerable communities, protect productive assets and promote livelihoods.

High and volatile food prices make this job much more difficult, threatening the predictability of financing for ongoing social transfer programmes and driving food insecurity in countries and households that depend on purchases from the global market. Implementing the Agriculture Market Information System proposed by the G20 will be an important measure to curb excessive global price volatility.

The OECD has looked at many of our hard-learned development lessons to produce guidelines for the establishment of forward-looking social protection programmes. It also promotes the Principles and Practices of Good Humanitarian Donorship and has worked with partners to develop recommendations on Transition Financing: Building a Better Response. The Accra Agenda for Action, subscribed to in 2008 by donors and developing countries alike, calls for flexible, rapid and long-term funding modalities to bridge humanitarian response, recovery and longer-term development.

Now is the time to act on these commitments, addressing potential crises effectively – preferably, before they occur.  Aid budgets under pressure and donor focus on value for money may provide an opportunity. The people of the Horn of Africa – and marginalised communities worldwide – make it an imperative.


Climate Finance – Lessons from Aid Effectiveness

ESA’s SMOS satellite showed dry soil in Somalia even in April. Click to see an animation.

Today’s post is contributed by Stephen P. Groff, Deputy Director of the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate

Few will argue that we need to mobilize funds to support developing countries in dealing with the effects of climate change.

At COP16 in Cancun, Mexico, world leaders agreed to a set of “new and additional” pledges amounting to $30 billion in Fast Start Finance between 2010 and 2012, and an additional long-term goal of $100 billion per year by 2020.

This is good, of course, but not good enough. As we have learned over the past 50 years of experience with development cooperation, finance alone is not sufficient. Ensuring that funds are used as effectively as possible, and that they provide the best value for money, is essential for both providers and recipients.

So precisely what have we learned from decades of experience of development cooperation? What can we gather from the growing body of knowledge around “South-South cooperation” to inform how we take forward climate financing? A lot.

Of course, there are differences between climate change finance and development cooperation (or “aid”). Without a doubt, external finance for climate change is unique in terms of scale given the size and complexity of the challenge. Dealing with this will call for the transfer of an unprecedented volume of resources. The projected $100 billion per year, while intended to be from both private and public sources, comes near to matching the record level of annual “official development assistance” (ODA) flows: $129 billion in 2010.

But differences aside, the task of financing climate change action is ultimately about transferring large volumes of finance for specific development objectives across national boundaries – something we have been doing since the Marshall Fund was established to help rebuild Europe after the Second World War.

So what should we be thinking about in the run-up to COP 17 in Durban, South Africa? One of the first lessons we draw from the past 50 years is that greater volumes of development finance do not automatically translate into better development results. Externally led activities that do not build national capacity have proved unsustainable and ineffective.

Over the past decade, the principle of locally-led development has been confirmed and endorsed as the lynch-pin for improving impact from aid resources. In 2005, the Paris Declaration secured commitment from developed and developing countries around country ownership, as well as four more basic principles that are central to better results. The Accra Agenda for Action (2008) reaffirmed the centrality of country-owned development, likewise placing emphasis on the value of heterogeneity in development cooperation partnerships, and on the need for mechanisms to monitor and assess whether development finances achieve their objectives.

The Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea (29 Nov – 1 Dec 2011) will close a cycle that has largely focused on aid and mark a transition to addressing the challenge of how we apply what we know in order to make development – not just development assistance – work better.

These lessons must inform our efforts as we design instruments for climate change finance. In preparation for COP 17, negotiations are underway on a “Green Climate Fund” and other global instruments. They should ensure that external finance is driven by nationally-owned strategies, and channeled through recipient countries’ own institutions and authorities.

Keeping in mind other development principles endorsed in Paris – such as alignment and harmonization – also offers a real opportunity to avoid wheel reinvention. Climate change financing shares characteristics with vertical funds – and faces many of the same challenges – as it is provided to address a relatively narrowly-defined purpose. As negotiators look to build global instruments that will strengthen and support nationally-owned strategies, they should minimize complexity in funding channels and seek to avoid the undesirable characteristics of vertical funds.

Making harmonization of external flows a pre-condition and avoiding proliferation of sources of climate funding can radically reduce transaction costs that undermine nationally-owned plans.

With that said, a national strategy is not enough. Strategies need to be supported by enabling legislation and action plans that make them real. A recent study In Southeast Asia shows that, even where national climate change strategies are in place, the necessary frameworks are often missing. Weak domestic policy can lead to incoherent outcomes and fragmentation of funding channels – a mix that doesn’t bode well for success.

As we move forward, flexibility will be key in responding to evolving arrangements and contributing to institutional development at the country level. The aid effectiveness principles set out in the Paris Declaration can help us retain this flexibility, while ensuring that the design of new instruments is informed by the lessons we have learned from the past 50 years of development cooperation.

Useful Links

OECD work on climate change

African Climate Change Finance and Development Effectiveness Dialogue

In praise of the Luddites

Revolutionary propagandist?

In 1811, there were more British troops on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border in the north of England than there were in Europe fighting Napoleon’s armies. The reason was the Luddites, whose 200th anniversary coincides with our 50th. Is there anything we can learn from them?

As you probably know, the Luddites were ignorant machine wreckers, opposed to progress in general and modern technology in particular. At least that’s what’s implicit in the modern term Luddite, often applied to anybody who doesn’t share the user’s enthusiasm for some gadget or innovation.

In fact, like almost everybody, the Luddites weren’t opposed to change and technological progress they found useful. You’ve no doubt noticed that even the most ardent defender of “life was better in the old days” probably uses electricity, modern medicines and motorised transport, to name but a few advances.

Charlotte Bronte, of all people, gives the best description of the Luddites’ motivation in her novel Shirley. She describes how at the same time as the war closed export markets for Yorkshire’s woollen mills, “…certain inventions in machinery were introduced into the staple manufactures of the north, which, greatly reducing the number of hands necessary to be employed, threw thousands out of work, and left them without legitimate means of sustaining life.”

She then goes on to give a short lesson that every political and business leader should learn by heart. “Misery generates hate. These sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them; they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.”

Not having Facebook to organise and express their discontent, they took other forms of action, notably the well-established sanction of machine wrecking. In fact the earliest “Luddite” actions, in March 1811, received little attention in the media since outbreaks of industrial violence were common as manufacturing industry developed and modern capitalism emerged.

It’s no coincidence that Luddism was born among textile workers. Theirs was one of the first industries to see traditional production methods and working practices threatened by the mechanisation and deskilling of crafts described by Bronte.

The origins of  the name Luddism are unclear, but it may come from Ned Ludd, an apprentice knitter who smashed his frame after being sentenced to a whipping for disobeying his master’s orders to work faster. In any case, the names the Luddites gave their groups – General Justice, No King, Tom Paine – clearly reflect a feeling that they were fighting injustice, not machinery.

They were also fighting within a system where the rules had still to be written and tensions were running high. (In 1812, news of the Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination – for a personal motive –  was greeted by scenes of jubilation.) There was no pretence, on either side, that they shared a common interest. The landed aristocracy feared a French-style revolution, while the Luddites wrote approvingly of “the brave citizens of Paris who…brought a tyrant to the ground”.

The 1799 Combination Acts outlawed unions, with penalties including transportation to Australia with hard labour and death by hanging. This forced the Luddites to become more secretive and better organised. And more radical. In addition to purely economic demands, the explanations they left at factories they attacked became more insurrectionary, as did their other tracts aimed at a wider public. In the end though, they were no match for the sheer numbers opposing them and the movement was smashed. Added to that, they were fighting against economic forces that were far more powerful than a few groups of workers.

To return to my question at the start of this article, I think we can learn a number of things from the Luddite revolt.

The breakdown of established social orders and the rise of new ones is usually accompanied by unrest and violence. First because the old order defends itself with violence, as we see in the Arab world right now. Second, because other means of expression such as democratic elections or trade unions don’t exist. The most reactionary, outdated system still provides some benefits for those at the bottom – even serfs had the right to protection from their feudal masters. In periods of transition, these benefits disappear, but haven’t been replaced by new ones yet, so feelings of anger or despair can push people to violence. On a totally different scale, workers in declining industries would still prefer an “outdated” job to no job at all. A feeling of injustice is the most potent fuel for violence.

Finally, I don’t think our world is so wonderful that we should speak with contempt of people like the Luddites who fought to make theirs better.

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