Going the last mile in ending extreme poverty

Brookings had an excellent blog series last month on going the last mile to end extreme poverty.  The posts were adapted from a book of the same name which was just released.  I was most struck by Raj Desai’s article on the role that welfare programs played in ending extreme poverty in today’s high income countries.  As he pointed out, when the US, UK, and Germany adopted major welfare programs in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they had the same GDP per capita (in real terms) as India, Indonesia and China do today.  Welfare subsequently played a major role in eliminating extreme poverty in these countries.  So why haven’t today’s middle income countries done the same?

His answer is worth quoting at length.

The earliest social protection programs in Western Europe were of the contributory variety—financed out of taxes on wages—as a way of preventing social conflict. Otto von Bismarck’s pension, sickness insurance, and worker compensation programs were, after all, created to pre-empt a Social Democratic victory in Germany. These systems, combined with the political changes taking place in the continent, would lead to dramatic expansions in social protection in later decades. Even as industrialization initially caused poverty, it also created rising wages for workers. Eventually, organized working classes formed a strong alliance with the fast-growing, urban middle class. This political coalition sought policies that would protect itself from economic cycles—especially after the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s—that would eventually result in the postwar welfare system. Indeed, the durability of these welfare programs may be attributed to the participation of the middle class, which shaped program design: welfare programs provided universal coverage so that the middle class itself was not excluded from benefits.

Many of today’s developing countries have followed a very different path. Labor tends to be less organized and have weaker relative bargaining strength. Much of the labor force remains in the informal sector and is left out of any contributory schemes, which tend to have limited scope. Social protection is more reliant on a fragmented system consisting of a large number of non-contributory programs financed out of general revenues. More importantly, the preferences of both governments and donors are mainly for programs that target particular sub-populations to achieve cost efficiency.

Consequently, an opposite political dynamic appears to be playing out in developing countries. Instead of middle class “buy-in” resulting in broader and more comprehensive programs, targeted and fragmented programs are inhibiting median-voter support for social protection and leading to middle-class exit. The consequences are familiar to designers of targeted social protection—their vulnerability to shifts in political winds, their susceptibility to abuse or capture by elites, and their occasional failure to outlive the aid programs that may finance them. The overall result is that the demand for comprehensive welfare programs in middle-income countries remains weak.

One of the best succinct descriptions of the political economy of social protection that I’ve yet come across, and an interesting consideration thinking about novel social protection delivery mechanisms like GiveDirectly’s potential partnerships with regional governments in Kenya.

An ethnography of economics

Sorting through the articles I’m reading for my comparative politics exam, I rediscovered an old favorite – Mike McGovern’s 2011 review of Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion and War, Guns and Votes. It’s a wide-ranging critique of quantitative studies of civil war which is quite broadly applicable beyond these two books.  I agree with a number of his points, but wanted to highlight here one that’s not made often enough: that the sharply drawn divide between quantitative and qualitative methods collapses when looked at more closely.

As McGovern puts it,

What is striking to me as an anthropologist, however, is that much of the fundamental intellectual work in Collier’s analyses is, in fact, ethnographic. Because it is not done very self-consciously and takes place within a larger econometric rhetoric in which such forms of knowledge are dismissed as ‘subjective’ …  it is often ethnography of a low quality. (p. 346)

He goes on to read both books in this light, looking for the places where Collier imputes his respondents’ motivations or understandings of the world in order to interpret his quantitative results.

At one point, while summarizing Jeremy Weinstein’s work on rebel group recruitment in Mozambique and Sierra Leone, he lapses into an imaginary account of would-be rebels’ states of mind:

‘Others will be attracted by the prospects of power and riches, however unlikely; if the reality of daily existence is otherwise awful, the chances of success do not have to be very high to be alluring. Even a small chance of the good life as a successful rebel becomes worth taking, despite the high risk of death, because the prospect of death is not so much worse than the prospect of life in poverty.’ (BB: 29)

How do we know these things to be true? They must either come from conversations with the fighters themselves, a type of source that is usually excluded from Collier’s account … or from the author’s own imagination. There are many aspects left unexplored, and no justification given for privileging one explanation over another. [Based on McGovern’s own work, he knows that in] Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire, some young men joined ‘prophylactically,’ trying to protect their home communities from attack. Others joined one militia group to avenge the deaths of loved ones at the hands of that group’s enemies. Others, including some women, joined by their own accounts partly for the fun and adventure of being fighters. (p. 349)

After the de rigeur swipe at taxi cab anthropology, he concludes with a very strong call to restore the role of ethnography in policy-making:

Ethnographic nuance is neither a luxury nor the result of a kind of methodological altruism to be extended by the soft-hearted. It is, in purely positivist terms, the epistemological due diligence work required before one can talk meaningfully about other people’s intentions, motivations, or desires. The risk in foregoing it is not simply that one might miss some of the local color of individual ‘cases.’ It is one of misrecognition. Analysis based on such misrecognition may mistake symptoms for causes, or two formally similar situations as being comparable despite their different etiologies. To extend the medical metaphor one step further, misdiagnosis is unfortunate, but a flawed prescription based on such a misrecognition can be deadly. Policy interventions are already risky in the best circumstances. (p. 353)

If you need me I’ll be memorizing this quote in its entirety for the obligatory large-N vs small-N question on my upcoming exam.

(Update: Ed Carr also makes a good point about how establishing causality is not the same thing as understanding causal mechanisms.  Qualitative research is well-suited to the latter task.)

The resurgence of small-scale manufacturing in Ghana

My dad recently sent me an excellent Roads and Kingdoms article by Yepoka Yeebo on Suame Magazine, an industrial park near Kumasi where 200,000 workers manufacture everything from nails to trucks.

Suame Magazine emerged around a colonial-era armory in central Kumasi in the 1930s. For a while, it was just big companies—local giants and multinationals repairing cars. They grew rapidly and were moved to the outskirts of Kumasi in the 1960s. Then in the 1970s, with Ghana’s economy faltering, and a bunch of new trade restrictions almost banning imports, the big companies collapsed, leaving hundreds of skilled workers. They became the first wave of small firms in Suame Magazine.

They slowly turned this into the best place in the region to overhaul a fleet of trucks or get heavy machinery made. People come from as far away as Burkina Faso and Nigeria to do business here, and there’s a sprinkling of foreigners from further afield wandering around: Chinese traders clutching spare parts, and Indian businessmen haggling with mechanics. There are 12,000 businesses here now.

Joyce Darko sells nuts, bolts and washers in Suame Magazine

There must be similar places elsewhere in Africa – where would one look to find them?

Informed consent vs control of information

I was really struck by Lua Wilkinson’s recent post on the ethics of photography in low income countries.  She included a fascinating anecdote about Dorothea Lange’s famous photo of a California sharecropper and her children, which later turned into one of the iconic images of the Great Depression:

According to reports, [Florence] Thompson and her family were not happy that they had unknowingly become the poster children for poverty. They voiced concern that the information surrounding the photo wasn’t even accurate… Thompson gave permission for the photo to be taken but was under the impression that the photos would never be published publicly, and even Lange herself notes that she failed to send the final prints to the family as promised.

The point is this: Lange asked Thompson if her photo could be taken and Thompson said yes. The problem was not lack of permission. The problem was that Lange had control over that photograph, and there was little communication about what that actually meant. Lange controlled where the photo ended up, as well as how Thompson and her family were portrayed.

The Thompson family was turned into a symbol of poverty. Lange, widely respected for her work in social justice, likely saw the family as such and knew the power that symbol would have on policy-makers and humanitarian aid. But in doing so, by turning the Thompson family into a symbol, she also took away their power. She controlled their identities. They had just one story, and that story was of poverty, whether they (as the story’s central characters) agreed or not.

There are some obvious similarities here with the process of gaining informed consent in survey research in low income countries.  Every researcher I know is scrupulous about getting consent before beginning an interview, but I don’t think most respondents really know what will happen to the data they provide after the interview is finished.  The consent form never mentions that information about their household and others like it will be discussed by academics and policymakers at high-flown conferences around the world in a few years.  Call it partially informed consent – lots of information provided about the circumstances of the interview, but very little about who controls the data and how they interpret it afterwards.

Should Lange not have published that photo?  Its publication did help spur an increase in food aid to depressed areas of California, and it’s a truly striking piece of art as well.  But it remains the case that Thompson’s consent was only partial – to have the photo taken, but not to have it published.  Lange ought to have asked for her permission before releasing it.

And what of informed consent, then?  Admittedly the parallels are not exact.  Thompson and her family were easily identifiable and upset precisely because they could be identified in a way that they didn’t want, while IRB requirements mean that survey data is kept rigorously anonymous, and that respondents are promised that they won’t face any other problems as a result of participating in the study.  The fact that there’s a power imbalance between the respondents (who provide the information) and the researchers (who control its use) doesn’t inherently mean that the interaction is unethical.  Indeed, there’s a strong ethical case for research that aims to reduce poverty.  But it’s still important to think critically about the power dynamics present in this work, and particularly the question of whose voices get heard in development.  What might respondents say differently if they knew that their information wasn’t just of interest to the researcher, but might be presented on a global stage?

The political economy of mass atrocities

This recent post from Alex de Waal on the structural causes of mass violence should be required reading.  I’m quoting here a bit out of order because it ranges rather widely, but there are several important main points.

On targeting prevention activities:

The Enough Project has a habit of targeting the well-known gallery of rogues. It wasn’t news to anyone that Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir ran a government responsible for mass atrocities against civilians. A project aimed at stopping mass atrocities needed to point out that Bashir’s challengers—the leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army—did not have a better record. Since the eruption of civil war in South Sudan in December 2013, that fact has become painfully obvious—but the depths of corruption and militarization, and South Sudanese leaders’ sense of impunity and recklessness were evident beforehand. Similarly, everyone agrees that Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army is a villain. But in terms of sheer numbers of people harmed and damage done to the fabric of society, the Ugandan army is comparably destructive. The Ugandan defense budget is the black heart of corruption in that country—and remains a valued partner for U.S. security cooperation. South Sudan’s pathological political economy appeared on American advocates’ radar only after mass atrocities occurred—let that not be the case for Uganda.

On the internationalization of the US war on terror:

The firehose of counter-terror funding—now increasingly blended with peacekeeping operations—is generating out-of-control security establishments across the world. Army generals and security chiefs receive hard currency for which they do not need to account. We shouldn’t be surprised to find that these security entrepreneurs have an interest in keeping crises bubbling away, and are networked in both to counter-insurgency and insurgency.

Corruption, violence and impunity are not anomalies: they are how individuals respond to the incentives and opportunities they face. The black budgets of the U.S. national security establishment, the monies associated with arms deals, and the blanket secrecy that covers all of these, are the fuel in this engine.

And on the US role in supporting brutal dictators:

Sarah Chayes in her recent book Thieves of State describes how U.S. money and license to act with impunity changed Afghanistan from a corrupt patrimonial system into a vertically-integrated and transnationally-linked criminal cartel. The Pentagon and the CIA were the chief accomplices in the criminal takeover of the Afghan state. Repeatedly, when anti-corruption officers identified a highly-placed person responsible for thievery, they found that individual was protected by the CIA—purportedly indispensible for America’s war on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

It is no different in Africa. Chad’s president Idriss Déby is a ruthless dictator who runs his country as a personal business. But his troops are valued by France and the U.S. for military operations against militants in Mali and Nigeria, so he gets a free pass.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan, international interventions have made a bad situation worse. … We have a closed security establishment that considers itself above the rules that govern society as a whole. Their worldview subordinates public interest to greed and fear, and their prescriptions for global problems don’t challenge this formula.

Recent work on the contentious politics of development

If you’re interested in the politics of public service reform or the creation of stable elite settlements in low income countries, do have a look at the Developmental Leadership Program.  They’re the only research initiative I know of which takes the contentious politics of development as the main focus of their work.  Here are the six propositions which underpin their research:

  1. The forms and processes of leadership directly influence the nature and quality of institutions and the patterns of state-building.
  2. Developmental ‘leadership’ is a political process, involving the legitimacy, authority and capacity to mobilise people and resources, and to forge coalitions, in pursuit of developmental goals.
  3. Coalitions (formal and informal) are groups of leaders and organisations that come together to achieve objectives they could not achieve on their own.
  4. Coalitions are the key political mechanisms that can resolve collective action problems, and are often based on prior networks.
  5. Institutions matter, but more attention needs to be given to issues of politics, power and agency, and therefore to the role of leaders, organisations and coalitions in shaping effective institutions.
  6. Domestic leaders, elites and coalitions are the agents required to contest, negotiate and devise legitimate, effective and durable institutions.

Their publications all seem like essential reading.  Some of the papers I’m especially excited to get to:

Are there other great research initiatives on the politics of development that I haven’t heard about? (Update: Sarah O’Connor has since pointed me to the Effective States and Inclusive Development program, and ODI’s Politics and Governance centre.)

Professional development opportunities for African academics

[Updated 24 August 2015]

While there are a decent range of scholarships available for African students doing MAs and PhDs, the professional development opportunities for African academics appear more limited.    I’ve listed what I could find, but I’m sure there are more – please send any recommendations my way!   This post will be continually updated as I find new scholarships, with the newer opportunities at the top of the list.

Post-Docs and Residential Fellowships

Funding for Research, Travel and Conferences

Mentorship and Training

  • Residents of Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are eligible for the Eisenhower Fellowship, which offers two months of leadership training in the US for mid-career development professionals
  • Global Colleagues is an initiative from Academics Stand Against Poverty which connects junior scholars from low income countries with senior colleagues around the world
  • AuthorAID also connects academics from different countries who are looking for mentoring or assistance with specific aspects of the research and publication processes.  (I’m a mentor there, so look me up if you might like to work together.)
  • WOMID is a new initiative which connects women doing PhDs in development-related fields with other women currently working in development
  • The Partnership for African Social and Governance Research offers an intensive training course in research methods for African academics (also via Jon Harle)
  • The African Studies Association of the UK offers writing workshops where early-career African academics can work on a paper with the editor of a journal
  • The African Institutions Initiative lists training courses throughout Africa in public health and infectious disease