Wednesday, February 23, 2005

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Help out the Millennium Challenge Corporation!

I received the following e-mail from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government entity designed to administer the Millennium Challenge Accounts proposed by President Bush during his first term. Here's the key parts of the e-mail:

[W]e believe that you may be able to help us identify or develop a cross-national indicator or index that measures sustainable natural resource management policies. MCC currently uses a set of sixteen indicators developed by independent third parties to measure governments' policies in three categories: ruling justly, investing in people and promoting economic freedom. Using these indicators, the MCC's Board of Directors has already selected seventeen countries as eligible for assistance. MCC's selection methodology and scores of candidate countries are available at

In its authorizing legislation, MCC is also asked to use "...objective and quantifiable indicators of a country's demonstrated commitment to economic freedom, including a demonstrated commitment to ... economic policies that promote ... the sustainable management of natural resources." Thus far, we have not been able to identify an indicator or index that meets MCC criteria in this area. As set out in our FY05 selection methodology and elsewhere, in selecting and evaluating any indicator, MCC favors indicators that:

· are developed by an independent third party;

· utilize objective and high-quality data;

· are analytically rigorous and publicly available;

· have broad country coverage and are comparable across countries;

· have a clear theoretical or empirical link to economic growth and poverty reduction;

· are policy-linked, i.e. measure factors that governments can influence within a two to three year horizon; and

· have broad consistency in results from year to year.

To identify an indicator, MCC announced plans today for a Natural Resources Working Group (NRWG) that will explore existing metrics and discuss new possibilities. On February 28, 2005, MCC Board Member Governor Christine Todd Whitman will chair a public session to explain the NRWG process, our criteria for proposal evaluation, and our timeline. She will also invite comments and proposals.... Throughout this period, we will also be accepting proposals from the academic community, public and private sector practitioners, and researchers at think-tanks and non-governmental organizations for indicators or indices that measure a country's natural resource management policies....

Finally, we would like to underscore the policy significance of this endeavor. MCC, unlike many other donors, is willing and able to put up large sums of money in exchange for meaningful and verifiable policy reforms. By making the sustainable management of natural resources an MCC policy indicator in its own right, we believe that MCC can raise the profile of environmental issues in developing countries and provide a powerful financial incentive for improving natural resource management institutions. We also hope that this new legislative mandate will stimulate discussion and improve data quality.

As many of you know, despite a large qualitative literature on natural resource management in developing countries, unreliable time-series environmental data have hindered the accumulation of knowledge in this field and led to tired and sterile policy discussions. Sadly, as a result, policy makers are many times not able to allocate scarce taxpayer dollars efficiently. Thus, we believe that the MCC's NRWG represents a unique opportunity to pool our collective knowledge and inform U.S. government decision-making with systematic, objective, and detailed data.

I'm happy to hear useful suggestions on this front. The indicators that I've seen on this issue are mostly the macro-historical stuff coming from the world polity paradigm in sociology. I suspect that even the progenitors of these measures would acknowledge that they wouldn't be of much use for the MCC.

posted by Dan on 02.23.05 at 01:38 PM



This is what makes your blog SOOO much cooler than anybody else's--every now and then (quite a bit, now that you think about it) someone talks to you in your professional capacity, and you turn right around and show it to your readers, just like a kid with a new toy gives his buddies first peek at it. Thanks, from all of us. I'll have to poke around a bit more to see if I have anything useful to say (probably not) about the question at hand. Good on you, Dan.

By the way, might I suggest that you and other Chicago-based readers who hope to have a snowball's chance of seeing contender-Cubs in action this year get their butts down to Wrigley, pronto. I am sporting this week's latest accessory--a green wristband that will (God willing) give me the right to stand in line AGAIN Friday morning to get tix to (among other games) the much anticipated Red Sox-Cubs matchup in June.

posted by: Kelli on 02.23.05 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

Let me get this straight: mcc agrees to fund countries where the efficacy of natural resource protection policies are "developed by an independent third party," "utilize objective and high-quality data," and "are analytically rigorous and publicly available." Good thing the US is not applying to receive these funds. We would be turned down.

posted by: the exile on 02.23.05 at 01:38 PM [permalink]


Could Alfred Nobel have won a Nobel Prize?

Would either of the MacArthurs have qualified as a genius?

When I was applying for jobs in academia I was not the first to note that few of the older faculty members would have survived the rigorous winnowing process they now routinely subject job/tenure candidates to.

When you're in the club, you don't need to look as good as would-be members.

Last example: men looking for trophy wives are often the most physically revolting specimens around.

Out of curiosity, what lofty shores have you chosen to replace your deeply flawed native land? I'm looking for a nice, utopian destination for my retirement.

posted by: Kelli on 02.23.05 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

I'm guessing the authorizing legislation was unhelpfully silent on the definitions of "sustainable," "management" and "natural resources." I hate it when that happens.

You don't have to have had much experience in natural resource policy -- and that can mean anything connected with agriculture, fisheries, forestry and a wide variety of other subjects -- to understand that one can follow the absolute state of the art best practices and still end up with some fairly appalling disasters. Remember Smoky Bear's "Only you can prevent forest fires" campaign, stretching over decades and now considered party responsible for large areas of the West being in mortal peril from wildfires?

This wasn't the result of bad management or unsustainable practices. It was a policy mistake. USDA's very popular Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to set aside highly erodible land, has from its inception paid some farmers not to farm land they would not have farmed anyway (because highly erodible land is often not very productive land, among other reasons). This was an unavoidable if undesirable side effect of a very successful program, even though it looks like sheer waste viewed in isolation.

The point is that if you are going for "objective and quantifiable measures" you need some means of distinguishing the bad things that happen as a side effect of good programs or as a result of policy mistakes from the consequences of bad management and unsustainable practices.

I have no idea how you do this. In the absence of objective and quantifiable measures making these distinctions is often quite simple provided you have knowledgable Foreign Service Officers assisted as needed by experts from other departments and backed by responsible officials willing to make decisions. But that doesn't seem to be what Congress was shooting for here.

My guess: Congress was looking to throw a bone in legislative language to the environmental groups, who were glad to get it because they expect to do most of the defining of objective and quantifiable measurements of sustainable natural resources management themselves. I'm not saying the Natural Resource Working Group idea has no potential value at all, but if Ms. Whitman is worried about tired and sterile policy discussions she hasn't seen anything yet.

posted by: Zathras on 02.23.05 at 01:38 PM [permalink]


The first place I'd look would be the Environmental Sustainability Index ( -- I almost certainly wouldn''t use the index in its entirety, since it's quirky in ways and not all of it is designed to get at what the Millennium challnge folks want to get at, but the ESI folks are quite transparent about what their subvariables are and how they've measured things.

Wish I had more time to weigh in right now - this is a great assignment to take on!


posted by: Beth DeSombre on 02.23.05 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

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