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Here come the robots!

July 23, 2014
by Brian Keeley
Hi guys!

Hi guys!

In the first of two postings, we look at the impact of artificial intelligence on our societies and economies.

How do you feel about robots? Do you look forward to one day lying by the pool sipping a piña colada mixed by your beaming electronic buddy? Or do you expect to die cowering in your hovel as an army of metal men batter down the door?

Wherever you stand, it’s hard to feel completely indifferent about robots. That’s no accident: Today, robots are real – think of the Roomba vacuum cleaner – but for most of human history they were figments of our imagination. Long before the word “robot” was coined by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in the 1920s, humans told tales of artificial life – from the Golem of Jewish culture to Frankenstein’s monster. By serving up an image of a creature that was like us, but not one of us, these fictions reflected, in part, on what it means to be human.

In the 20th century, this fictional role switched, and the robot became increasingly a “way of exploring human feelings about technology,” according to The Economist’s Oliver Morton. By and large, those explorations have gone in one of two directions – either towards a utopia where robots serve humanity or a dystopia where they steal our jobs.

Over the coming years, we’re likely to need to think even more about these questions as robots – and artificial intelligence more generally – move out of the pages of fiction and into our lives. This past year has bought a wave of evidence that this is happening much faster than we might have expected.

When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe visited OECD Week back in May, he referred to robots and robotics several times in his speech as he pledged to “create a ‘new Industrial Revolution’ through the use of robots”. Japan is not alone: In July, a British agency unveiled a robotics strategy targeted at helping the UK to “win a much bigger share of a potential £70bn global robotics market by 2025,” according to the Financial Times.

Business, too, shows growing signs of interest. In recent months Google has bought eight robotics companies, while a couple of years ago Amazon bought robot-maker Kiva Systems for an eye-popping $750 million. Even China, which built an economic miracle in part on cheap human labour, is turning to robots. Officials in Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub in the south of the country, report that demand for factory robots is rising by 30% a year, the China Daily reports.

Why all the interest? To a large extent it reflects the fact that the cost of physical “robots” and software “bots” is falling rapidly while their capacity is soaring. As Richard Waters notes in the FT, three key factors are helping to bring this about.

First, the cost of computing power is falling relentlessly, fulfilling Gordon Moore’s long-ago prediction of a doubling in such power every two years. Second, digital data is becoming increasingly abundant, allowing the development of ever more subtle pattern-recognition software. Humans are highly skilled in pattern recognition – it’s why we’re so good at chess and at spotting minute differences human faces. Computers are still playing catch up, but the gap is narrowing – they can already beat us at chess. And, third it’s becoming ever-easier for us poor humans to communicate and interact with complex software systems – if you’re one of those lucky people with an accent that Siri actually understands, you’ll know all about this.

Indeed, the role that smartphones are playing in driving robot technology is notable. “Most of the components in smartphones are [the] same ones you need in robots—sensors, cameras, batteries, processors,” according to Dmitry Grishin, who runs a fund that invests in robotics. “The biggest difference between now and 20 years ago is that the components have become cheap.”

Of course, no technology can thrive unless it meets a need. And, here again, it looks as if the robot’s moment has come. The success of gadgets like robot cleaners, drones and robot cow-milkers (yes, really) is likely to drive demand for more. But other factors, such as our ageing societies, are also playing a role. The European Union’s Silver project is investigating the use of robots to support old people living independently, while in Japan, one of the best-known robots is Paro, a cuddly seal for the elderly and the ill.

So, whether we like it or not, the robots really are coming. A good thing or not? We’ll return to that question soon.

Useful links

OECD work on science, technology and innovation

 

Half of all ODA should go to the least developed countries

July 21, 2014
by Guest author

UN logoToday’s post is from Gyan Chandra Acharya, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States. This is one in a series of ‘In my view’ pieces written by prominent authors on issues covered in the Development Co-operation Report 2014: Mobilising resources for sustainable development.

The UN classifies as “least developed countries” those nations that are the bottom of the development ladder from all perspectives. The category was created in recognition of the deep-seated structural constraints these countries face, resulting in low per-capita income, weak human capital and high economic vulnerability. Without help, they are unable to adequately address their development challenges, irrespective of the efforts they may make. Moreover, they are the most exposed to economic shocks and degradation of natural capital, including through climate change. Their need for enhanced and targeted support from the international community is obvious.

Of the 48 least-developed countries, 34 are in Africa, 13 in the Asia-Pacific region, and one, Haiti, in Latin America and the Caribbean. Together they are home to about 900 million people, with a relatively high share of young people among their populations. Over the past decade, the least developed countries have made progress in many of the areas targeted by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): they have reduced child and maternal mortality, increased enrolment in primary education, and improved gender equality and women’s empowerment. Yet they still have a very long way to go, and around 50% of their population remain poor.

These countries hold great potential and are rich in human and natural resources – two inseparable characteristics for their people, who live close to nature. A holistic focus on improving health and education, building productive capacity and protecting natural capital would greatly contribute to transforming their economies, enabling them to leapfrog to green economies with relatively few trade-offs.

The least developed countries are and will continue to be — at least in the short and medium term — among the countries most dependant on ODA. This source of development finance constitutes more than 50% of their inflows and public finances and except in the mineral-rich countries, foreign direct investment in these countries is minimal. While they have been gradually widening their domestic resource base through tax reforms, on average across the least developed countries the ratio of government revenues to GDP stands at about 13% and gross domestic savings reach only 15% of GDP. Yet the investment required for poverty eradication and sustainable development is at least 25-30% of GDP over a long period of time.

In my view — which is also shared by the least developed countries — much of this shortfall must be filled by ODA. From both a moral standpoint, and in the interest of the long-term wellbeing of the global community, those that are in danger of slipping should be given foremost priority. It is urgent that the level, quality and focus of ODA to the least developed countries be scaled up and consolidated. Channelling 50% of total ODA to the least developed countries will be an important step in that direction. At the same time, ODA can have a strong leveraging impact on other sources of development finance (Chapter 11).

In this day and age it is unacceptable that so many remain below the poverty line in the least developed countries. We have the means to help them. We need to summon the necessary collective will to do so. The alternative is continued deprivation for a large number of people, which also represents a threat to global peace, security and environmental sustainability.

Useful links

Aid statistics from the OECD

The New Deal for Fragile States: a reply to Cedric de Coning

July 15, 2014
by Guest author
Click for Fragile States 2014 report

Click for Fragile States 2014 report

In today’s post, Yannick Hingorani of the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate replies to yesterday’s article by Cedric de Coning on the New Deal for Fragile States

Cedric de Coning’s article yesterday, “Can the New Deal Live Up To Its Promise to Significantly Shift Agency to the Local?” reminds us that the New Deal is meant to be a “game changer” in the way countries and organisations undertake development cooperation in fragile states. The New Deal calls for national ownership over the development process, involving “country solutions” to the challenges of peacebuilding and statebuilding. However, in fragile states, national ownership cannot be taken for granted. It needs to be built up, and this may require significant time and resources. It is not just about what countries and organisations do, but also how they go about doing it. The process counts.

As de Coning points out, a government – particularly one with weak and fragmented institutions – needs time to mobilise the required expertise to undertake many of the initiatives called for by the New Deal, like conducting fragility assessments, setting clear national priorities, and forging relevant indicators to measure progress against them. Through such initiatives, the government may be better able to not only “own” the development process, but also to make it more inclusive of local stakeholders, e.g. civil society, traditional leaders, local businesses, etc.

National ownership is predicated on such an inclusive process. Yet, it is also a complex undertaking that requires a minimum level of institutional capacity and resources. This is where international partners can help. To do so, they need to avoid the temptation to substitute local partners in favour of speeding up – or having undue influence over – the process on the ground. For example, the real value of a fragility assessment is not only to have a report for feeding into policy making and programme design. It is also about stimulating an on-going dialogue at several levels in a war-torn society, particularly as a way to help reset state-society relations.

De Coning rightly notes that the New Deal should not be seen as a blueprint involving a rigid sequencing of steps with each one being a “one-off exercise”. Rather, it describes a dynamic, iterative peacebuilding and statebuilding process in which a widening range of stakeholders have the opportunity to participate. Dialogue, participation and inclusiveness lie at the heart of the New Deal, given that “transitions” and “post-conflict reconstruction” are essentially a renegotiation of the social, political and even economic order in a country. This is no mean feat since it will inexorably affect a complex web of existing obligations, interests and agendas. There are bound to be “winners” and “losers”.

In fragile states, local politics can be volatile and international engagement may entail high risks. But the risk of non-engagement may be even higher. Therefore, international partners should be prepared for possible setbacks but find new ways to continue their engagement regardless. For donors, this requires political sensitivity, programme flexibility, and openness to striking up new partnerships. This may require some major reforms of donor policies and practices, including institutional incentives, for adapting programming and financing operations to the need for strengthening, and increasing the use of, country systems and forging new partnerships.

Compacts can help governments, donors, civil society and other partners to agree on core priorities and set up new partnerships. They can promote political dialogue, new partnerships, and pooling resources in a broader effort to build national ownership and ensure mutual accountability for taking forward agreed priorities.

In September 2013, donors pledged $2.7 billion in support of the Somali Compact. While not perfect, the Compact is a good start to a long conversation among national stakeholders (e.g. the government, regional authorities, civil society, and local businesses) on how they can best work together on shared goals such as a functioning federal state, and how international partners can best support their efforts in this direction. As Coning states, however, the Compact could be periodically reviewed and revised. This would require further dialogue and participation of local stakeholders. If fragility assessments are designed and managed as an on-going process, they can contribute significantly to the review and revision of the Somali Compact. Multi-level political dialogue among national stakeholders, and with international partners, is also necessary to improve the focus of the Compact over time. While this may involve some hard choices, it can also strengthen national ownership over it, and contribute to the renegotiation of the social and political order over time in Somalia. This is a tall order, but a necessary one.

Useful links

OECD work on peacebuilding, statebuilding and security

 

 

 

 

Can the New Deal for Fragile States Live Up To its Promise to Significantly Shift Agency to the Local?

July 14, 2014
by Guest author
Click for Fragile States 2014 report

Click for Fragile States 2014 report

Today’s post is by Cedric de Coning, head of the Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Research Group at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and Special Advisor to the Head of the Peace Support Operations Division of the African Union Commission. Tomorrow, Yannick Hingorani of the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate will reply.

On a recent visit to Mogadishu I was reminded again of the overwhelmingly complex set of challenges facing the government and people of Somalia, and their regional and international partners. The legitimacy of the government is challenged and its capacity to deliver is weak. At the same time, this government represents the best chance the people of Somalia have had in decades to benefit from some level of stability, rule of law and provision of basic services.

If it is to succeed, the government will have to go beyond liberating territory with the help of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). It will need to deliver order, justice and livelihood opportunities that out-perform those offered by Al-Shabaab. In a country that is clan-based, governance needs to be hyper-local. Physical security may be imposed, but sustainable order has to emerge and be maintained by local communities. Consequently, a strong federal-local partnership has to be forged.

At the same time, the international community has to face its own demons. Despite efforts at fostering coherence and aligning international support behind government owned plans, dozens of international partners and organizations are still by and large each pursuing their own national or organizational interests. The result is predictably self-destructive: an international community that, despite its stated principles, is unwilling to give its local partners the space they need to take full ownership of their own project, as Peter Fabricius argues. In the process, the international community ends up contributing to the very fragility it was meant to address. These challenges are not new and the consequences are not unknown, but they have proven to be more structural, inherent and resilient than our theories of change assumed.

A new initiative has been underway since 2011, and it now focuses on the specific development challenges and opportunities faced by countries affected by conflict and fragility. It seeks to transform the way international assistance to these countries is managed by placing the countries themselves in the driving seat when it comes to determining what causes their fragility, setting their own priorities, planning their own paths to resilience and managing the relationship with their international partners. The New Deal was agreed in 2011 in Busan, Korea at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness by donors and self-identified fragile countries that have organized themselves into a grouping called the g7+. The donors and g7+ countries come together in the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding.

The New Deal is a mutual pact. The g7+ countries take the lead in doing their own Fragility Assessments and based on these, develop their own Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs) and indicators. In turn, donors align their support behind the agreed PSGs and offer improved predictability and transparency in the assistance they provide. Together, they enter into a Compact that serves as a strategic framework for the government and its international partners.

The New Deal is more than an important step forward – it is a potential game changer. It has the potential to address most of the local ownership and aid coordination challenges I have highlighted above. It acknowledges that local agency is a pre-condition for sustainable peace. It has identified specific mechanisms that serve as vehicles for realizing local ownership, as well as for aligning international support behind these locally-led peacebuilding processes.

Nonetheless, implementing the New Deal has proved challenging. As the Somalia case so clearly demonstrates, early in the recovery process these societies typically lack the individual expertise and institutional capacity to fully engage in the Fragility Assessment and the other New Deal processes they are meant to lead. Yet these governments and donors are under pressure to complete these processes as soon as possible because they serve as precursors for the Compact. Significant aid can only flow once these assessments, goal setting and planning have been done. Because of this time pressure, consultants and other external actors are often brought in to overcome the capacity gap; and while they they do their best, the result is just not as homegrown and locally owned as the New Deal intended.

The fact that the New Deal Compact has to be in place before significant assistance can be disbursed has unintended consequences: most importantly, it reduces the Compact to a resource mobilization tool, when it should be the vehicle for a genuine, locally owned vision and plan for peacebuilding and statebuilding. If the emphasis is on resources, it makes sense for the ministry of planning to bring in external experts to help it get the Fragility Assessment, PSGs and Compact in place as soon as possible. However, if the ambition is truly to shift agency to the local, then, as Helder da Costa argues, the programming needs to reflect the upfront investment needed to build local capacity and the time and patience needed for meaningful political engagement at all levels.

In order for the New Deal to live up to its full promise, solutions have to be found for the dilemma caused by this time-capacity deficit: the New Deal Compact should not be a once-off exercise. It should be regularly revisited, and each time there should be a target for significantly increasing input from local expertise. Likewise, Fragility Assessments should be an iterative process, closely linked perhaps to the monitoring of the PSG indicators. The PSGs, their indicators and the Compact need to be regularly reviewed and adapted. The goal should be to progressively build capacity to manage these New Deal processes with local expertise. Similarly, if initially the process has to be rapid and small, it should be expanded over time so that within a few years it can be much moreparticipatory, representative, and inclusive. The New Deal should thus include a clear programme for building-up and phasing-in local expertise, so that it can result in a real shift in agency from the international to the local, underpinned by a significant increase in local capacity to manage and staff the processes needed to operationalize the New Deal.

In doing so, we will have to be sensitive to the inherent tension in the act of building local capacity from the outside. Too much external intervention undermines the ability of a society to self-organise because it inhibits the feedback local institutions need to learn and adapt, and it builds dependence. There is a threshold beyond which influence becomes interference and where it starts to add to fragility. This threshold is much lower than widely acknowledged. Consequently, many external actors make the mistake of interfering too much and endup undermining the ability of local systems to self-organise.We need a code of conduct that will help international actors to self-regulate their tendency to overreach.

The most distinguishing feature of the New Deal is that it recognizes that peacebuilding has to be essentially local. However, for the New Deal to move from an aspiration to a reality there would have to be a significant shift in agency from the international to the local. Achieving this will require nothing less than a paradigm-shift in the way fragile states, international organizations and international development partners understand their respective roles and responsibilities in peacebuilding.

Useful links

OECD work on peacebuilding, statebuilding and security

Malthus wrong again says OECD

July 11, 2014
by Patrick Love

Agriculture Outlook 2014-2023Even if you know nothing about the French Revolution, you’ve probably heard of Marie-Antoinette’s reaction on being told the people had no bread: “Let them eat cake”. In fact, the infamous catch phrase was probably invented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who attributes it to an unnamed princess in his Confessions, written before the 14 year-old Austrian princess even married the future Louis XVI. As far as the course of events went, it doesn’t matter whether she said it or not, since the people believed that it was the kind of thing she would say. The doomed monarchs could have learned a few lessons in the art of good government from the founder of the Bourbon dynasty. One goal of the reforms instigated by Henri IV, King of France from 1589 to 1610, was a chicken in every pot, on a Sunday at least. This slogan was to reappear in the United States in the 20th century, with “a car in every garage” tacked on to some versions.

Food riots are thing of the past in most OECD countries, but in 2007-08, various places around the world would see people taking to the streets as food prices rose suddenly in response to the interactions among a number of factors, including high oil prices forcing up production costs, drought in major producing areas, diversion of land to biofuels, and a very low level of stocks.

The food price crisis in 2008, the renewed price hikes in 2010, and depressingly regular reports since of people facing famine (the latest in South Sudan) have raised questions about whether agri-food markets could be relied on in future to deliver sufficient quantities of food at affordable prices. And not just in sensationalist media with their love of explosions in food prices and population growth. In 2009, Sir John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientist, warned of “Food, energy, water and the climate: a perfect storm of global events?

As we pointed out in this article, there have been predictions that the world will face mass starvation ever since Malthus published his famous essays on demography. As Malthus himself put it in An Essay on the principle of population: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”

And yet it hasn’t happened. The UK’s population for example doubled over 1750-1800 (the year in which Malthus published The present high price of provisions), and tripled over the next century. This demographic surge couldn’t have happened without the interaction of a number of elements. We often talk about the agricultural “revolution”, suggesting sudden overthrow of the old systems. But even in Britain, the initial changes to agricultural techniques and practices such as enclosing common land and introducing crop rotation were spread over centuries, and what accelerated the pace of change was interaction with the industrial revolution. Improved communications and storage and preservation techniques allowed producers to serve markets far from home. A well-functioning financial system provided capital. And a feedback loop was created whereby improved food supplies supported a bigger population that in turn provided labour for emerging industries and markets for farmers.

Likewise, when looking at the prospects for food production and consumption today, we have to look at the whole picture. The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2014-2023 doesn’t expect a Malthusian crisis to materialise. The report argues that the world’s farmers and fishers will be able to satisfy demand over the next 10 years. Rising incomes, urbanisation and new eating habits will reinforce the transition to diets richer in protein, fats and sugar. . In real terms, prices are expected to fall (slightly) but remain higher than the historical lows seen in the early 2000s.

This year’s report has a special focus on India, the world’s second most populous country with the largest number of farmers and also the largest number of “food-insecure” people. The Outlook proposes a relatively optimistic scenario for India, with the expansion in the production and consumption of food both projected to continue, led in particular by higher value added sectors, even for staples, for instance consumers preferring basmati rice rather than inferior varieties.

At least two major issues still need to be addressed though.

First, any rise in food prices can affect the food security of the poor. An OECD working paper shows that developing countries with very different levels of economic development, population size and geographical location have succeeded in reducing poverty and improving nutrition. Despite the significant differences among them, they share some characteristics. During the period when they had the greatest success in reducing poverty, the macroeconomic context became progressively more favourable. Their own governments were lowering export taxes, reducing overvalued exchange rates and dismantling inefficient state interventions in agricultural markets. Meanwhile, the governments of rich country trading partners were reducing the kinds of support to their farmers that distorted production and trade the most.

Second, as argued by the OECD in Climate Change, Water and Agriculture that we featured last month, climate change poses challenges on a different scale from the variations that can affect crops and livestock during the course of a season or even a year or two. Future changes in the climate could have significant impacts on land use, commodity production, and where different activities are viable; and the implications of expanding food production for the natural resource base and climate change.

Useful links

OECD work on agriculture and fisheries

 

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