Monday, July 28, 2014

What are the implications for PNG of Australia's new foreign aid policy?

My interest in Australian aid to Papua New Guinea was heightened while I was in Papua New Guinea late last year and earlier this year working on a review of agricultural policy implementation for the PNG government. I was surprised to learn that, apart from some ACIAR projects, not much Australian aid money has gone to agricultural development in PNG in recent years. (In case anyone is wondering, the project I was working on was not funded by foreign aid. Work on this post was not funded by anyone other than myself and I have not discussed the topic with anyone prior to publication.)

PNG is still a major recipient of Australian foreign aid. Development grants to PNG are estimated at about $500 million in 2014-15, which is more than half of all allocations for Pacific countries and about 15 percent of total allocations for country and regional programs.

From a PNG perspective, however, development grants from Australia do not now make a huge contribution to the government’s budget. Such grants currently account for about 6 percent of total PNG government spending; development grants from other foreign sources account for a further 2 percent of spending. The amounts involved are substantial when compared with current tax receipts from sources such as GST and personal income tax, but seem quite small when compared with amounts raised by borrowing – amounting to about 34 percent of estimated government spending for 2014. The high level of borrowing reflects the rapid rise in government spending in recent years in anticipation of substantial revenue flows from LNG exports.

The relatively small amount of Australian aid money flowing to agricultural projects can be explained in terms of the priorities established in the “PNG-Australia Partnership for Development” in 2011. This agreement gives priority to education, health, transport infrastructure, and safety and justice (policing, security, access to justice etc.). Those priorities, in turn, reflect the priorities of PNG’s Medium Term Development Plan 2011-2015 (MTDP).

That all seems to make sense in terms of ensuring that aid money contributes to national goals of the recipient country. The priorities of the MTDP also make sense in terms of its objective of laying the foundation for economic growth by addressing supply side constraints. Improvements in law and order and transport infrastructure have potential to reduce costs and improve the competitiveness of export industries. Improved education and health services (e.g. malaria prevention) have potential to make an important contribution to improving productivity. Moreover, while many services in the priority sectors can be most efficiently provided by private firms, those sectors also encompass core functions of government.

So, what is wrong with the idea that foreign aid should be used to help the government to perform its core functions better? Not much really, except that in the context of a country like PNG there is no magic wand that can be purchased, with or without foreign aid, to improve performance of core government functions. I puzzled over one aspect of this question a few months ago in a post entitled “How do peaceful societies come about?”. History seems to tell us that law and order is more likely to be established through the emergence of better economic opportunities for potential criminals than through massive investments in deterrence of crime.

The dynamics of the development process certainly do not require that improvements in core government functions must necessarily precede the development of more widespread economic opportunity. In the PNG context I think such considerations provide a strong case for agricultural policies to be used to help promote more widespread economic opportunity. I don’t want to attempt to explain why that is so in this post. I think it is adequately explained in the report I helped to prepare, entitled “Towards Agriculture Transformation and a New Direction for Enhancing Productivity in Agriculture”, which is now publicly available. The recommendations of the report have been accepted by the PNG government.

So, that provides the context in which I ask myself what are the implications for PNG of Australia’s new foreign aid policy. The new aid policy has a strong focus on private sector development, growth of international trade and the development of agriculture and fisheries.  The new policy links funding to performance: programs and partner organisations that perform well will be rewarded with additional funding.


There seems to be potential for the new framework for agricultural transformation adopted by the PNG government to mesh well with Australia’s new foreign aid policy. It will be interesting to see how much emphasis there is on encouraging innovation in agriculture in PNG as Australia’s new aid policy is translated into Aid Investment Plans over the next 12 months. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Should researchers recognize that emotional states are influenced by life evaluations?

There is nothing novel about the idea that people who have a positive frame of mind about the opportunities and challenges that life offers tend to experience positive emotions as they go about their daily lives. 

We are not surprised that people who smile and laugh a lot, obtain enjoyment from whatever they are doing, feel they are learning or doing something interesting and feel that they are treated with respect tend to rate their lives highly. If such people don’t consider their current lives as close to the best possible, it is likely to be because they are optimistic about the potential for their lives to get even better. It might be reasonable to suppose that their positive emotions reflect frames of mind stemming from their dispositions and their evaluations of their lives as well as from their current experiences.

However, when I looked up “positive emotion”, “frame of mind” and “research” on Google I found a lot of references to research on cognitive approaches to improving well-being, but I didn’t see any on life evaluations as a determinant of positive emotion. Researchers do not seem to have perceived life evaluations – for example, responses to survey questions asking people to rate their lives between best possible and worst possible – as frames of mind. Emotional state variables (positive emotion and negative emotion) are sometimes included in analyses which seek to explain life evaluations, but I am not aware of studies which view life evaluations as a potential explanatory variable.

The question posed in this post is linked to the finding in my last post that average positive emotion ratings in countries in the former Soviet Union are lower, while those in Latin American countries are higher, than might be expected on the basis of negative emotion ratings in those regions. I suggested that the most likely reason for this was the development of shared frames of mind by people in those regions. That poses the question of whether these shared frames reflect life evaluations or something more profound.

Which variables should be included in a regression model to assess the influence of frames of mind on positive emotions at a national level? The most obvious measure of positive emotions to use is the Gallup measure which reflects the extent to which people are well-rested, smile and laugh a lot, obtain enjoyment from what they are doing, are learning or doing something interesting and feel that they are treated with respect. It seemed appropriate to include the Gallup measure of negative emotion (reflecting pain, worry, sadness, stress or anger) as an explanatory variable to take account of experience that might lead people to have a negative frame of mind. Regional variables were included for reasons just discussed. Gallup data was used to reflect average life evaluations at a national level (Cantril ladder).

Three other frame of mind variables were included because they have previously been found to be significant determinants of both life evaluation and positive emotion ratings. (See, for example, the research by John Helliwell and Shun Wang presented in Table 2.1 of Chapter 2 of World Happiness Report 2013.) These variables were satisfaction with freedom, perceptions of social support and generosity. All data was obtained from the online appendix to Chapter 2 of the World Happiness Report.

Separate regional variables were included in the initial regressions but only Latin America, the Former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe and Middle East and North Africa were found to be significant. The final regression model explains about 70 percent of the variation in positive emotion at a national level. The results of the analysis are reflected in the Figure below. (All estimated coefficients were significantly different from zero at the 95% level. Further information can be made available on request.)


Two important points are evident from the Figure:
  • The relatively low positive emotion ratings of people in the former Soviet Union and the positive ratings of people in Latin America are still evident after controlling for several other variables. These anomalies cannot be explained in terms of life evaluations or the other frame of mind variables considered.
  • The influence of life evaluations on positive emotion involves more than just satisfaction with freedom, perceptions of social support and generosity.
Postscript:
I acknowledged above that frames of mind can stem from dispositions as well as from life evaluations. In retrospect, I should also have noted that dispositions can affect life evaluations.
A paper just published by Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald explores the role of genetics in influencing average life evaluations at a national level (“National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A cautious exploration”, July 2014, IZA DP 8300). The paper suggests that genetic distance from Denmark is a significant determinant of life satisfaction.
If the genetic influence on disposition had an impact on positive affect in addition to its influence on life evaluations (and other variables including negative affect and regional variables) that should be reflected in the residuals of the regression described above. However, the residuals for Denmark and countries that are genetically close to Denmark (Norway, Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland) are small and mainly negative.

It would be interesting to see whether inclusion of the genetic variable in the analysis affects the results obtained. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why don't we see a close relationship between low negative emotion and high positive emotion?

Think about how you felt yesterday. Did you feel much pain, worry, sadness, stress or anger? If you felt less of those negative emotions than the world average, then do you think it would be reasonable to predict that your experience of positive emotions might be higher than the world average? The relevant positive experiences are smiling and laughing a lot, feeling enjoyment, well-rested and treated with respect, and learning or doing something interesting.

Apparently that prediction is not as reasonable as I thought it would be. People in countries where average levels of negative emotion are relatively low do not necessarily have relatively high average levels of positive emotion. This is apparent in the Figure below which has been drawn from data from recent polls conducted by the Gallup organisation.



The Figure does show an inverse correlation between positive and negative emotion, but most of the action is at the upper end of negative emotion. It seems to be much less common for people with high negative emotion to also experience high positive emotion than it is for people who experience low negative emotion to also experience low positive emotion.

Interestingly, the chart also shows that the average of positive emotion for people in Bhutan - the home of Gross National Happiness (GNH) - is low by comparison with both of its giant neighbours, China and India. Gallup has suggested that Bhutan’s low score on positive emotion is attributable to the fact that the percentage of the population who feel that they are treated with a “great deal of respect” was the lowest for all countries included in the 2013 survey. Perhaps this reflects the restrictions on individual liberty imposed by the government in pursuit of its GNH objective. It is also possible that the GNH objective gives participants in happiness surveys an incentive to use their responses to tell the government that they are not happy with its performance. 
   
However, the main point I want to make concerns the salient characteristics of the countries which combine low negative emotion with low positive emotion or unusually high positive emotion. Most of the countries in the first category were formerly members of the Soviet Union (shown with red diamonds). By contrast, most Latin American countries (shown with purple diamonds) have unusually high positive emotion scores.

The most likely explanation of the different emotional experiences of people in the former Soviet Union and Latin America is the development of shared frames of mind (cultural framing). Sonja Lyubomirsky has observed that expressions of happiness or success in Russia are often perceived as inviting envy, resentment, and suspicion, at least partly because there is a cultural belief in Russia that anyone who is happy or successful might have used immoral means for achieving these states. (Reported in a recent article on happiness aversion by Mohsen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers). I guess such beliefs could have been reinforced by living under communism and the regimes that have followed the fall of communism. It is also possible that negative emotions would be understated in a culture where people had incentives to adopt a “must not complain” attitude to life.

With regard to Latin America, Jon Clifton, the author of the report of the Gallup survey suggests:
That so many people are reporting positive emotions in Latin America at least partly reflects the cultural tendency in the region to focus on the positives in life”.

There is evidence (for example in a report by Eduardo Loro) that when people in Latin America are asked about their health, they tend to report a higher level of satisfaction than is warranted, given objective indicators of their health status.


The existence of such a cultural bias does not mean that the high positive emotion reported for Latin America is not genuinely felt. Research by Mohsen Joshanloo provides some evidence of lower happiness aversion in Latin America than in many other parts of the world. It seems reasonable to predict that the high positive emotion in Latin America would provide health benefits e.g. lower rates of hypertension, as in other parts of the world (see research by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald). Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find studies that control for the relevant variables to confirm whether that is the case. There are studies suggesting that rates of hypertension are relatively high in some Latin American countries, but that seems to be attributable to obesity and other risk factors.  

Monday, July 7, 2014

We are good?

I was asked that question by a waitress in the restaurant at Holiday Inn in Port Moresby a few months ago. I told her that I was good and asked whether she was good. She responded: “We are good”.

This novel use of the hospital ‘we’ seemed amusing. But the incident came to mind just now because of the potential for ‘good’ to mean different things.

How do you respond when someone greets you by asking: How are you? There was a time when I nearly always said “I’m good”, but I became more conscious of what I was saying after some clever person responded that he was not asking about my morals. In retrospect, I should have told him that I was referring to my emotional state, which was good because I was in good health and also felt somewhat virtuous and competent.

A few years ago I wrote a post on the topic: Is our inner nature good? What I wrote still seems ok; perhaps I could even claim it is good. I ended up more or less endorsing the view that our inner nature must be good because moral beliefs and motivations come from a small set of intuitions that evolution has prepared the human brain to develop. Those intuitions enable and constrain the social construction of virtues and values. 
There is scientific support for that line of thinking, but a scientific approach cannot take us far in considering our inner natures.

It may be worth considering why a scientific approach cannot be particularly enlightening about our own inner natures. One basic reason is that we live our lives as players rather than spectators. If we try to observe ourselves in the way we observe other people we tend to make predictions that get in the way of our intentions. We cannot escape the fact that our perceptions influence our behaviour, and vice versa. If I perceive myself as the kind of person who behaves in a particular way, then that will influence my intentions and how I behave; and if I change my behaviour, that will influence how I perceive myself.

In order to become more like the person you would like to become, you need to know how and to “do it like you mean it” (to use a phrase I heard often as a child while helping grown-ups with farm work). A story told by Tim Gallwey in The Inner Game of Golf comes to mind to illustrate the point (p183). A golfer came to Gallwey for coaching to improve his golf swing. After the golfer demonstrated his dreadful swing, Gallwey asked him how he would like to be able to swing. When the golfer started to explain, Gallwey asked him to demonstrate. That resulted in an immediate improvement in performance.

Now, it is fairly obvious that people can’t become experts in any field by just pretending to have expertise. The golfer only had the potential to improve his swing instantaneously because he knew how to do so.

Going back a step, how do we know we can trust our intuitions about what kind of person we would like to be? Our perceptions about our inner natures must influence our thinking about what kinds of persons we would like to be. There are many different stories we can tell ourselves about our inner natures. If you tell yourself that “the flesh warreth against the spirit” then I guess your goal must be to overcome the temptations of the flesh.  If you tell yourself that your body is just a machine designed to make you happy then I guess your goal would be to keep all the parts in good working order and become a proficient machine operator. If you tell yourself that all sensations are illusory or impermanent and that attachment to them causes suffering, then I guess your goal would be to become equanimous. If you tell yourself that you have an authentic self which grows into a strong, healthy and peaceful presence when you practice unconditional acceptance of all your bodily sensations, then I guess your goal is to get into the flow and let that happen.

Although it must be fairly obvious that I think some of those stories would serve me better than others, I don’t think it is possible to prove any of them to be false. Even so, it seems to me that plausibility is still an important consideration in choosing which stories to accept. As a general rule small leaps of faith are probably better than large leaps of faith. That thought occurred to me as I was reading Michael Winn’s book, Way of the Inner Smile, a few days ago. For example, the following passage explaining how the inner smile differs from feelings of love and compassion seems to me to be a plausible description of personal experience:
“The Inner Smile is probably something closer to the experience of unconditional acceptance. The seed quality of unconditional acceptance is smiled through the outer biological layers of the self in towards the core of one’s being, and this generates a counter-wave of smiling energy that emanates back out from the core and flows in the chi (subtle energy) channels of the body”. (p 55)

The plausibility of that story relies on personal experience rather than on scientific verification of the existence of such things as smiling energy and chi channels. Some ideas in the book seem to me to be less plausible, but it would distract from the points I am trying to make if I elaborate now.


So, what points am I trying to make? Feeling good is about competence and virtue as well as health. Feeling good is about becoming more like the person you want to become. In order to develop a strong sense of what kind of person you would like to become it may be helpful to find a story about your inner nature that you find plausible. When considering your inner nature, the most relevant test of plausibility is personal experience rather than science. And we should not forget to smile.

Postscript:
Lucy Lopez has provided the following comment:
 You wrote: "Feeling good is about competence and virtue as well as health. Feeling good is about becoming more like the person you want to become. In order to develop a strong sense of what kind of person you would like to become it may be helpful to find a story about your inner nature that you find plausible. When considering your inner nature, the most relevant test of plausibility is personal experience rather than science. And we should not forget to smile."

Firstly, the thinking mind is almost never inactive and so intervenes in every experience.  So much so that most people find it hard to distinguish between their thoughts, beliefs and ideas and their FEELINGS.  In fact, most find it hard to actually allow themselves to feel, almost always reporting on what they think rather than how they feel.  

So, for instance, if I ask you how you feel and you say 'I'm good'. that is more than likely an expression of the idea of 'I'm okay' or 'There's nothing terribly wrong with me' rather than an expression of how you're really feeling.

But it is possible to get in touch with our feelings and acknowledge them even when we sometimes may not have any existing words for them.  When you really allow yourself to FEEL, or should I say to ACKNOWLEDGE how you're feeling, it can be quite a revelation.  That's because we have been so conditioned to deny, distrust and hide our feelings.  

When we do allow ourselves to tune into our feelings fully and acknowledge them, we can do two things:

1. We can decide if we want to continue feeling the way we are feeling or not.  If we want to continue feeling the same way, there is nothing more to do.  If we don't want to feel the way we're feeling, we can ask the question: How would I LIKE to feel?  Without presuming we know the answer (in other words, without resorting to thought/ideas, we allow that feeling to arise spontaneously.  Again, it may often surprise us how different that feeling is to what we might THINK we want to feel.  (BTW, this is a technique I teach).

2. We can look for the thoughts and beliefs that underlie our feelings and examine these for their validity, whereupon we might consider different thoughts and different beliefs.

The point to all this is that you don't need to rely on some intellectual concept of the kind of person you'd like to be.  Sure, you may begin by thinking about it but it is far more effective, efficient and natural to FEEL the kind of person you want to be because more than likely, you'll be guided by what feels good i.e. peaceful, joyous, blissful, equanimous even...The kind of states you experience during meditation as Voltaire describes it:

'Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or pure consciousness without objuectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity'.


Always happy to respond to your ideas :)

Lucy's blog:  "Get Enlightened Today"