Recent conference highlights

It’s been a busy few months of conference attendance recently, and I wanted to share some of the papers that really stood out to me.  At ISA:

  • Lior Lehrs had a very interesting presentation on what he calls “private peace entrepreneurs” – people who act without state support to reach out to the opposing side in a conflict and promote peace.  It doesn’t appear that the paper is public, but Ynetnews has a short summary of his work.
  • Olukunle Owolabi also presented a fascinating comparative study on the extension of political rights to former slaves in the US South and the French Antilles.  It’s currently under review, so keep an eye out for it!

Next up was a workshop on “clientelism in comparative perspective,” organized by the Center on the Politics of Development at Berkeley.

  • Nancy Hite discussed her current book project on how economic development changes citizens’ perceptions of the state in the Philippines, building on an earlier microfinance RCT by Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman.  No public paper yet, but I’d definitely look for this book when it comes out – it’s a really interesting micro-level look at how growth affects political behavior.
  • Another highlight for the sheer quantity of data used was Pablo Querubin‘s work with Cesi Cruz and Julien Labonne on political family networks in the Philippines.  Because Filipino surnames contain the family names of both parents (for unmarried people) or a father’s family name plus a husband’s name (for married women), they constructed a database of more than 20 million people and traced family and marriage relationships of everyone in 15,000 villages.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that politicians tended to come from disproportionately well-connected families.

Finally, I had a great time (as always) at PacDev.

  • Berk Özler presented joint work with Sarah Baird, Ephraim Chirwa and Craig McIntosh on a five-year follow-up to a program in Malawi which offered young women cash transfers aimed at getting them to stay in school.  The program had offered conditional grants to women who were already in school, and unconditional grants to women who had already dropped out, both of which were effective in getting them back into school.  Five years later, however, the women who got the CCTs (who might have stayed in school anyway) had marital and economic outcomes that looked similar to the control group, while the UCT group (who otherwise would have dropped out) did have persistently better outcomes.
  • David Yang and Yuyu Chen had a fascinating paper on how people perceive the credibility of the Chinese government in trying to shift the narrative around the Great Leap Forward.  The government blamed the famine of that period on drought, and Yang and Chen find that people living in famine-affected areas where there was in fact a drought reported higher levels of trust in the state than those who didn’t observe drought in their region.  The effects persisted for more than half a century, and tended to get reinforced by marriage, as people who didn’t trust the state disproportionately married each other.

On trial & error in development policy

Chris Blattman had an excellent post recently on the importance of trial and error in creating effective development policies.  It’s worth quoting at length:

One trouble I have is that I think even very smart and experienced people are profoundly bad at knowing what the problems are in the economy, where the political winds are blowing, and what will work. This needs to be said out loud as well.

To take an example from a smaller scale: I spend a lot of time studying local labor markets in Africa, especially when people opt for crime or mercenary work rather than farming and business. I try to figure out what holds back legal work and test programs that deliver those things: skills, capital, socialization, and so on. And I get it wrong almost every time.

What I mean is that the experiments never end like I expect them to. Even (maybe especially) when they work out. I was blindsided by how frequently the poorest young men in slums of Nairobi have a home robbery or theft, meaning it’s almost impossible to accumulate capital. I was amazed that, yes, with a little skills and capital that a young woman can become the 183rd tailor in her community and turn a good profit.

This isn’t a defeatist point of view. I’d make a different point: the way I’ve learned how things operate is to work with a government or organization to try out a policy and succeed or fail. …  This sounds like a good way to figure out the way your world works (your model), and then to reform. A lot of people would say this is China’s secret to success: informal experimentation on a grand scale. The problem, as I see it, is that most governments and aid organizations I’ve worked with are really, really bad at this. They don’t use the lessons from past failures to try again a different, better way. They don’t throw out bad programs.

The key point:

To me the important question is not “what is the right policy?”, but “what is the process for generating good policies over time?”.

Human rights advocate Nicholas Opiyo at Berkeley

The Center for African Studies and the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley are sponsoring a discussion with human rights advocate Nicholas Opiyo on April 21.  Nicholas is a constitutional lawyer who led the legal challenge to Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law last year.  He’s also the founder of Chapter Four Uganda, a human rights and civil liberties advocacy organization. Please take a look at Chapter Four’s recent work on the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda, and stop by the lecture if you’re in the area!


What counts as “policy relevant evaluation”?

Heather Lanthorn recently wrote a great post about defining “policy relevant evaluation” that really pushed me on my priors on this concept.  As she points out:

just because research is conducted on policy does not automatically make it ‘policy relevant’ — or, more specifically, decision-relevant. it is, indeed, ‘policy adjacent,’ by walking and working alongside a real, live policy to do empirical work and answer interesting questions about whether and why that policy brought about the intended results. but this does not necessarily make it relevant to policymakers and stakeholders trying to make prioritization, programmatic, or policy decisions. in fact, by this point, it may be politically and operationally hard to make major changes to the program or policy, regardless of the evaluation outcome.  …

jeff hammer has pointed out that even though researchers in some form of applied work on development are increasingly doing work on ‘real’ policies and programs, they are not necessarily in a better position to help high-level policymakers choose the best way forward. this needs to be taken seriously, though it is not surprising that a chief minister is asking over-arching allocative questions (invest in transport or infrastructure?) whereas researchers may work with lower-level bureaucrats and NGO managers or even street-level/front-line workers, who have more modest goals of improving workings and (cost-)effectiveness of an existing program or trying something new.

I think this is a great step towards an acknowledgement that different types of research will be useful to policymakers at different levels of government and with different policy goals.  Most of the RCTs I’ve seen operate within a fairly narrow set of parameters that correlate to the types of programming decisions made by senior managers at social welfare ministries, like health or education.  There’s a specific policy goal that someone wants to achieve (improving primary school children’s reading performance), a known segment of the population targeted by the policy (children ages 5 – 16 currently enrolled in school), and a strong sense of the limits of the type of solution that can be proposed, particularly financially (we can afford one hour of tutoring per day by a literate adult, but can’t build fully equipped libraries in every town).  Within these parameters, RCTs can be a great way to evaluate the effectiveness of different types of programs that might meet this policy goal.

That said, if you change any of the parameters, RCTs are often no longer efficient way to make programming decisions.  Outside of social welfare ministries, many important policy choices either can’t be randomized (providing military support to an ally, deciding whether to invest in nuclear power) or don’t need to be (it’s already quite well-documented that expansionary monetary policy leads to inflation).  As Heather noted, RCTs frequently can’t offer much guidance to policymakers making the inherently political choice between different policy goals.  And they often don’t generate new insights effectively when the underlying process that produces a social problem, and the particular segments of the population affected by this process, aren’t known.

This is especially visible in recent RCTs examining the effects of institution-building after civil war.  While people frequently speculate that the combination of poverty, inequality, and unemployed young people increases the risk of civil war, the majority of countries fitting this description don’t ever experience war.  And even among those which do, the question of why some people choose to rebel and what can be done to prevent these people or similar ones from fighting again in the future is basically unanswered.  Virtually every country caught up in civil war has a large population of poor, politically excluded young people, but only a tiny minority of those people will ever join a rebellion, making it very difficult to figure out how to target programs aimed at reducing the likelihood of future conflict.

The point here isn’t that RCTs are useless, but that “policy relevant research” might take very different forms depending on the type of question being answered and the underlying base of knowledge about the issue.

Why don’t African governments invest more in infrastructure?

Brian Klass has shared some interesting speculation on this question at Good Governance Africa.  He makes several good points, but I don’t think this is the whole story.  From his article:

Only 16% of roads in sub-Saharan Africa are paved—the world’s lowest rate by a wide margin (58% of South Asia’s roads are paved), according to the World Bank.

African governments have not built needed roads or maintained existing ones. This sluggishness runs against strong evidence that financing infrastructure is a valuable long-term investment that creates almost immediate payoffs. Every $1 of public infrastructure spending can contribute up to $0.25 in annual GDP, according to a 2012 World Economic Forum study. This means that savvy investments can pay for themselves in as little as four years.

So why do African governments neglect infrastructure while claiming to search for ways to lift their economies? Two major reasons: constituencies and a penchant for grand projects.

First, “development funding is driven by constituencies,” explained Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, DC-based think-tank, in a 2013 report on donor aid efficacy. “There’s a strong constituency for health and education funding but there’s no constituency for infrastructure.” It is hard to imagine a TV ad in the US asking for money to pave a road in rural Mozambique the same way it might plead for funds to sponsor a sick child in Somalia. Similarly, when a road is built, statistics cannot back up its impact the way that a public health NGO might showcase the number of vaccinations it has provided. …

Second, government investment in infrastructure—and foreign donor support—is disproportionately skewed towards “big ticket” items rather than smaller projects and ongoing maintenance. Whether it is an African government or a donor-led aid programme, both entities benefit more from grabbing headlines by funding a massive new dam than upgrading a network of roads lost in the hinterland.

While I’m sure both of these things contribute to underinvestment in infrastructure, this can’t possibly explain all of it.  One point here is that there should be an obvious domestic constituency pushing for better roads – business owners.  Even if most businesses are state-owned, no enterprise benefits from high shipping costs and late deliveries, so you don’t need an independent middle class of small business owners for this prediction to work.

The other point is that construction is a great tool for patronage.  Most countries produce the materials that go into roads (cement, gravel, etc.) domestically, since they’re bulky and low-value.  Setting up a political ally with a cement firm and a paving contract seems like a really defensible way of promoting local industry and improving infrastructure while also reinforcing one’s patronage network.  I can’t find the citation now, but I’ve heard that Japan has proportionately more roads than other countries because construction contracts are such a mainstay of patronage there.

What else do you think might lead to underinvestment in infrastructure?

Why I’m not doing “fieldwork”

I’m approaching the end of the second year in my PhD program, and the topic of dissertation research comes up in conversation constantly.  “Are you doing any fieldwork this summer?”  “How long do you think you’ll be in the field?”  “How many field sites will you have?”  And the answer is that while I do hope I’ll be spending part of the summer in Africa, I won’t be going to “the field,” because I think that phrase reflects a lot of odd things about how researchers and development workers interact with places in the global South.  (It’s not confined to Northerners working in the South, either; I’ve met plenty of people from large cities in Africa who would use similar language about going to rural areas in their own country.)

What strikes me here is that if you’re going to the field, you have to be coming from somewhere else.  Particularly among people who work in Africa, the field is often discussed as a place of opportunity – all that data to be collected, all those programs to be run! – but also of great challenge – poor infrastructure, corruption, the risk of disease, and so forth.  Semantically, saying that you’re going to the field doesn’t just mean that you’re physically coming from another location, but also implicitly sets up that location as one which doesn’t suffer from those problems.  You’re coming from a different type of place, off in search of knowledge.  Just think about whether you would use the phrase “field visit” to describe both a trip to rural DRC and to the colonial archives or an NGO’s headquarters in Belgium.  The latter being in the North, I think most researchers or development workers wouldn’t call that “the field” even if they had to travel from another country to get there.  But functionally, what’s the difference?  You’re coming from a different place, off in search of knowledge.  (In many ways this echoes the expat vs immigrant debate.)

The problem I see here is that using “the field” like this essentializes low-income countries (and particularly rural or conflict-affected areas within them) as places that are fundamentally different to anywhere else.  They’re not places where people live or work or go on holiday like any other; they’re sites of research and development programming, because they’re poor and they have all these problems that need to be fixed.  They are defined by their poverty and its associated challenges before anything else.  And when you start conceptualizing a place primarily in terms of absence – of health, of security, of good roads – you’re likely to miss a great deal of what’s actually present.  Moreover, and perhaps more essentially, this strikes me as disrespectful.  No one wants to be seen primarily as a problem to be solved, be it in international development or in interpersonal relationships.  I think being respectful is about trying to look at people as individuals instead, with their own stories and their own inherent worth.

It’s a very small thing, to avoid saying “the field,” and obviously it doesn’t change any of the other unequal power dynamics between development workers and the intended subjects of development.  But language has power, and I think it’s important to avoid these semantic shortcuts which suggest that people in certain places are fundamentally different to those elsewhere.  So no, I’m not going to the field this summer, and I haven’t got any research subjects.  I’m going to Kinshasa, or Nairobi, or Kampala (research plans still clearly up in the air!), and I’ll be doing interviews or piloting survey questions with people who are polite enough to take time out of their work days and talk to an inquisitive foreigner.

(If you want some additional takes on the idea of the field, a number of other development bloggers have written about this recently as well.  Check out these reflections from J., Tobias Denskus, Duncan Green, and Dave Algoso, who has my favorite title of the lot – “everyone’s office is someone else’s field.”)

Uncovering researchers’ implicit bias

I loved this post from the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog on uncovering researchers’ own biases in survey design:

Last year, I was in Nairobi, Kenya … to set up the data collection efforts for a four-country study. One of the goals of this study was to replicate results from lab experiments that suggested poverty is a context that shapes economic decision-making amongst households.

One of our replication questions was a vignette proposed by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity. … Shafir and Mullainathan’s findings show that commuters in Princeton, NJ were more likely to say that they would travel to another store for a $50 discount when purchasing a $100 product than when purchasing a $1,000 product. Less affluent individuals at a soup kitchen in Trenton, NJ, however, did not display this kind of inconsistency. For them, the marginal utility of money remained constant, regardless of the cost of the hypothetical product.

With the aim of replicating this question in four developing countries, we took the vignette to … Nairobi. After spending two days field-testing this hypothetical scenario, I was surprised that most of the respondents, particularly those from low-income households, said that they would not travel for the discount. Why was everyone hesitant to travel, regardless of the discount amount? Why are they seemingly exhibiting the preferences of the more affluent in the US?

Somewhat surprised by this discrepancy, I asked multiple respondents’ the reasons behind their choice. One person replied quite plainly, “There is no guarantee that the product will still be there once I go across town. It’s very likely that the product is gone by the time I get there.” Of course! By assuming the availability of the product, we had let our own implicit biases, based on our mental models, influence the design of the question. Since the original question was conducted in the United States, a developed country, implicit in the question was the assumption that availability is generally not a problem. However, for the respondents from less affluent communities, this assumption was not explicit.