Professional development opportunities for African academics

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

  • 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 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

Winner-take-all politics in Ghana

I attended an interesting workshop last week at the Institute of Economic Affairs on the state of “winner-take-all” politics in Ghana.  Given Ghana’s 20 years of democratic alternance, I don’t tend to think of Ghanaian presidents as having nearly the power of some of Africa’s more entrenched leaders, like Kagame or Museveni.  After this workshop, though, I’ve been forced to revisit that assumption, because the Ghanaian executive has a whole range of powers that rather undermine the concept of checks and balances.  Among them:

  • The president directly appoints the attorney general, chief justice, governor of the central bank, head of the electoral commission, and speaker and majority leader of Parliament, with no parliamentary approval needed.
  • The president also appoints the chief executives of all 216 districts in the country, and 1/3 of the members of each district assembly.
  • All legislation must be introduced by the executive, rather than Parliament.
  • Parliament’s fiscal oversight capacity is further weakened by the fact that there’s no independent budget office to provide non-partisan analysis of proposed legislation.

It was an interesting presentation, and the ensuing discussion among the nearly 200 attendees (including official delegations from Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe) was quite spirited.  To take the first point, IEA’s suggestion that the president present a list of 5 possible candidates for these positions who would be reviewed by an advisory committee – barely even denting his overall power of appointment – was received as quite controversial by several speakers who thought this would unfairly limit the president’s ability to carry out his political mandate.  A rejoinder was provided by a commenter who pointed out that it’s not the role of the electoral commission to carry out a political agenda in any case.

The whole topic of electoral quotas for the district assemblies also generated a lot of debate, ranging from support for the current system of 1/3 appointed seats, to calls to abolish the appointments entirely, to demands to have these seats reserved for women and people with disablities – which immediately sparked the comment that this would lead to political parties removing all the female and disabled candidates from the seats they had to contest openly.  And so on and so forth for five hours.  For all the political challenges Ghana is seriously facing, it was impossible not to come out of this workshop feeling that at least the civil society organizations are taking their own watchdog roles quite seriously.

State-building in western China continues apace

This NYT article is a case study in the difficulties that even a strong state faces in projecting power over sparsely populated areas.


In what amounts to one of the most ambitious attempts made at social engineering, the Chinese government is in the final stages of a 15-year-old campaign to settle the millions of pastoralists who once roamed China’s vast borderlands. By year’s end, Beijing claims it will have moved the remaining 1.2 million herders into towns that provide access to schools, electricity and modern health care.  …

The government has spent $3.45 billion on the most recent relocation, but most of the newly settled nomads have not fared well. Residents of cities like Beijing and Shanghai on average earn twice as much as counterparts in Tibet and Xinjiang, the western expanse that abuts Central Asia. Government figures show that the disparities have widened in recent years.

Rights advocates say the relocations are often accomplished through coercion, leaving former nomads adrift in grim, isolated hamlets. In Inner Mongolia and Tibet, protests by displaced herders occur almost weekly, prompting increasingly harsh crackdowns by security forces.

The political dimensions of the campaign are apparent.

Experts say the relocation efforts often have another goal, largely absent from official policy pronouncements: greater Communist Party control over people who have long roamed on the margins of Chinese society.  …

A map shows why the Communist Party has long sought to tame the pastoralists. Rangelands cover more than 40 percent of China, from Xinjiang in the far west to the expansive steppe of Inner Mongolia in the north. The lands have been the traditional home to Uighurs, Kazakhs, Manchus and an array of other ethnic minorities who have bristled at Beijing’s heavy-handed rule. …

“These areas have always been hard to know and hard to govern by outsiders, seen as places of banditry or guerrilla warfare and home to peoples who long resisted integration,” said Charlene E. Makley, an anthropologist at Reed College, in Oregon, who studies Tibetan communities in China. “But now the government feels it has the will and the resources to bring these people into the fold.”

A good reminder that The Art of Not Being Governed should should be higher on my reading list.

The paternalism of behavioral economics

G. Sampath has written a trenchant critique of behavioral economics in The Hindu that’s worth a read if you do work related to this field.  I’m not fully in agreement with it, but he raises some important points.

Behavioural economics uses insights from psychology, anthropology, sociology and the cognitive sciences to come up with more realistic models of how people think and make decisions. Where these decisions tend to be flawed from an economic point of view, governments can intervene with policies aimed at ‘nudging’ the targeted citizens towards the right decision.

All this seems fairly unobjectionable. However, things change when behavioural economists focus their attention exclusively on the behaviour of the poor. Till date, there is no evidence that monitoring and ‘nudging’ the behaviour of the world’s poor is a better route to alleviate poverty than, say, monitoring and ‘nudging’ the behaviour of the financial elite. Surely the latter cannot be deemed as altogether rational economic agents — not after the 2008 crisis?


The report states in all earnestness that poverty “shapes mindsets”. From here, it is a hop, skip, and jump to holding, as the leading behavioural economists of the day do, that the poor are poor because their poverty prevents them from thinking and acting in ways that can take them out of poverty.

Thus the focus as well as the burden/responsibility of poverty-alleviation would shift from the state — from macroeconomic policy, from having to provide employment, health and education — to changing the behaviour of the poor. The structural causes of poverty — rising inequality and unemployment — as well as the behaviour of the owners of capital are evicted from the poverty debate, and no longer need be the focus of public policy.

The point about paternalism here is well-taken.  I don’t think the nudges he references here are harmful or problematic, since they tend to be things like offering people lentils or cash transfers in exchange for vaccinating their children, but it’s also true that these are programs designed by privileged academics and carried out on the bodies of poor people.  This is always, inherently, something to think carefully and critically about.

That said, there are several points on which I would disagree.  The first is that this academic focus on micro-behaviors has somehow silenced conversations on macro-level policies about unemployment and inequality.  There are huge English-language academic literatures on both of these topics in low income countries.  From the policy side, one could also point to the rapid spread of cash transfer programs which are meant to reduce inequality.  These have grown largely on the strength of the microeconomic evidence that people tend to use the money well.  (For two good overviews of this topic, check out the World Bank’s State of Social Safety Nets 2015, and James Ferguson’s Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution.)

The second issue is Sampath’s reading of the causal links between behaviors related to poverty (like high discount rates) and the incidence of poverty itself.  As indicated by the example of the Indian sugarcane farmers, there’s plenty of evidence that living in extreme poverty is very stressful, and tends to change the way that people think and act.  This is quite different to saying that people stay poor because they think and act a certain way.  Severe poverty of the type found in low income countries persists because of market failures, bad institutions, and (in some places) the absence of the type of stable elite bargains which constrain outright war.   Even if you were a benevolent dictator and could nudge people into making lots of small behavioral changes, like saving more and vaccinating their children, this wouldn’t touch most of the structural causes of poverty.  I don’t think any behavioral economist would disagree with this statement.

So why, then, do people keep studying the behavioral correlates of poverty?  For many researchers, I think the goal of their studies is not actually to reduce poverty rates, but rather to find low-cost interventions that can make life slightly easier for people who are still poor.  The goal is to nudge people into having less debt, or vaccinating their children against the most common diseases, or buying weather insurance for their crops.  None of these things, individually or together, is going to pull a family living on less than US$1.25 per day above that poverty line.  But they are still steps towards a slightly better life – and from a policy perspective, they’re often more feasible than making sustained, multi-million dollar investments in electrical and transport infrastructure, or bringing a civil war to a durable close.  These latter two topics are also active areas of research, but we still know very little about how to solve these complex types of coordination problems.

Returning to the second point, though, I’d also differ with the way that Sampath read the study about the sugarcane farmers in particular.  I should say first that I completely understand why he was so offended by it.  IQ research is always politically charged, and concluding that “poor people are stupid” is a recipe for terrible policies that strip people of their agency (which is very different to nudging them to save a bit more).  The only reason I differ here is because I saw Sendhil Mullainathan present this work at PacDev last year, and his interpretation ran in the opposite direction entirely.  The main finding of the study was that the cognitive stress of extreme poverty is considerable, equivalent to experiencing a 10-point drop in IQ, or pulling all-nighters for days on end.  But Sendhil’s point was not that poor people shouldn’t be allowed to make major decisions or anything similar.  Instead, it was a call to empathy.  He pointed out that most people are trying as best they can to provide good lives for their families, and asked his audience of privileged Northern academics to think seriously through the challenges of doing that if you started each day feeling like you hadn’t slept at all.  The interpretation, then, was not that “poor people are stupid” but “poor people are highly stressed,” which seems to me like it would lead to a different set of policy prescriptions aimed at giving reducing that stress by giving people higher and more stable incomes.

On beginning dissertation research in a new country

I’ve had a fantastic time doing preliminary research for my dissertation in Accra this summer.  I actually didn’t end up traveling around west Africa as much as I’d planned, but I have been able to connect with lots of local researchers, and should eventually be in a position to collect original data on the Ghanaian government’s flagship social protection program, LEAP (more about this in future posts).

Launching a new project here has been an interesting experience.  I spent the better part of a year working in Ghana between 2010 and 2012, but I wasn’t in Accra, and many of the people I knew during that time have since left the country.  The academic network I’ve built in the US is largely composed of people who study central and east Africa, as well, since up until about three months ago I also expected to be studying those regions.  (Also more on this in a future post!)  So whilst Ghana is a familiar place in many ways, I’ve essentially had to start from scratch in establishing myself as a researcher here.

To that end, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about getting a dissertation project off the ground in a new country.  This post was inspired in part by Diana Kapiszewski, Lauren MacLean and Benjamin Read’s new book Field Research in Political Science.  It’s a good resource for young researchers, but I felt a few more concrete examples could be useful.

  • Strong social networks are an essential part of research.  I can’t highlight this enough.  When I arrived I found it nearly impossible to connect with anyone working on LEAP directly.  It was difficult to find contact information for staff at the relevant ministry, the emails I could send would go unreturned, and I wasn’t certain that simply showing up and asking for meetings would be any more useful.  It’s proven much more efficient to connect with other academics, journalists, and NGO employees doing work related to LEAP, and get introductions through them.  In several cases, a reference of this type meant that my unreturned emails and calls suddenly got replies.
  • If you haven’t got a good network, start building.  Much of this can be done before you ever leave home.  Email other scholars in your field, both domestically and in your research country, to ask for recommendations.  (Senior academics often have higher-level contacts; younger professors and PhD students typically have more up-to-date contact lists and advice for settling into a place.)  If there’s an emigrant community from the research country in your current town, connect with them.  Look through your university’s alumni database and your extended contact networks on LinkedIn.  Reach out to local think tanks and NGOs.  Journalists tend to be quite well-connected; read the local papers to see who covers issues related to your topic, and get in touch with them.  Ask the public relations officer at your country’s embassy about other people doing work in your field.  Browse the hashtags related to your country of interest on Twitter and Facebook and speak to the people who seem to be producing the most insightful content.  In general, cast a wide net; it’s worth it to speak to as many people as you can initially, since many people may turn out to have useful contacts even if their own work isn’t directly related to your research.
  • Data collection is about creating relationships.  This is most obviously the case whilst doing key informant interviews, when creating rapport with the other person can help to move the interview along.  (As Naunihal Singh has said to me, it helps to frame an interview not just as “I want this information” but as “I’d like to speak to you because you’re knowledgeable, and I value hearing your side of the issue at hand.”)  But it’s also the case when going through an archive, asking the government for permission to do a quantitative survey, or getting introductions from your contacts.  If possible, it helps to have something to give in exchange.  Offering money for access to data or interview subjects is both questionably ethical and questionably useful, but providing access to information or contacts of your own can be helpful.  I’ve been sharing my list of scholarships for African students and recommendations for applying to graduate school in the US.
  • Don’t forget the “social” part of social networks. Particularly on a short pre-dissertation trip, the temptation to keep working constantly lest you fail to accomplish everything you’d hoped for can be significant, but it’s also important to take time off and make friends as well.  Not only is work-life balance important, but you’re also likely to meet interesting people who could help with your research.  I’ve now met great people working on local governance and cash transfers whilst on hikes, at yoga, playing floorball, and out for drinks.  If you really don’t know anyone when you arrive, look for groups that fit your interests on InterNations and MeetUp, or search Facebook for pages like “Accra Expats” or “Tamale Expats” – nearly every sizable city has a group these days.  Whilst expat circles often make for limited social scenes if you’re staying for a long time, they’re generally quite welcoming, and can be a good place to start meeting people if you’ve just arrived.
  • Be patient with yourself.  The first weeks or even months of a new project can be intimidating.  I’ve found my feet quite quickly on this trip, but during my first days in town – when I didn’t know anybody, got doublebooked by the flat I’d planned to rent, and was spending most of my time sitting by myself in an overpriced hotel trying to get people to respond to my emails – I wasn’t feeling entirely enthusiastic about the project.  Remember that it’s going to get better over time.  And if there are small things you can do to make yourself feel better about the situation, do them.  In my case, I spent some extra money to rent a desk at a local co-working space, just so I wouldn’t be working alone in my room all the time.  It’s brought me a lot of interesting people to talk to, and easy access to a very good smoothie shop as well.

What other advice would you share?

More books on development for the interested generalist

I’ve read quite a few fine books on on international development since I last wrote about books on development for the interested generalist.  I still stand by books 1 -4 and 6 on that list.  I suspect that 5, 7 and 8 may now be outdated.  Here’s what I would add to the list.  Please send your suggestions in as well!

  1. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, by Douglass North, Jim Wallis and Barry Weingast.  A succinct and compelling discussion of why some states become rich and stay rich over the long run, while most remain relatively poor.  Does a great job getting past arguments focused on geography or technology to look at the politics of economic growth.
  2. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan.  A fascinating look at the cognitive effects of poverty, which are considerable.  The brief version of the argument is that people who face constant stress about whether they can afford to meet their basic needs often find it difficult to focus on making longer-term investments, such as making sure their children attend school regularly.  Could be read along with James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak as a short course on why behaviors that might look confusing to outside observers are often quite rational.
  3. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, by James Scott.  Essentially a treatise on standardization (of names, languages, railway gauges, what have you) and the role that this has played in many ambitiously large but ultimately unsuccessful development schemes.  Scott is a wonderful writer, and he has a gift for taking topics that might be dull in the hands of a lesser writer (like the standardization of basket sizes for paying grain taxes in medieval Europe) and finding the human drama within them.
  4. More than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm and Stay Healthy, by Dean Karlan & Jacob Appel, and Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Esther Duflo & Abhijit Banerjee.  Both books offer a great introduction to a new type of research in economics aimed at finding effective policies to reduce poverty.  What I appreciate about this type of research is that it represents to me a type of hopeful pragmatism.  It isn’t geared toward identifying the type of big push policies that might lift a whole country out of poverty in a generation (which few states besides China have the capacity to carry out anyway), but it takes an experimental, iterative approach to finding new products and services that are useful to ordinary people in low income countries.
  5. Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  A truly remarkable book about daily life in a small town in the mountains of southern France in the early 14th century.  Many people in the town held Albigensian beliefs, and were subject to an inquisition by the Catholic Church, which produced exhaustive records of their interactions with their neighbors and with visiting Albigensian holy men.  Le Roy Ladurie used these records to reconstruct a richly detailed portrait of personal, political and economic life in rural France nearly 700 years ago.  It’s a poignant reminder that even today’s high income countries were once basically just as poor as anywhere else – but also that poverty doesn’t inherently have to mean isolation, deprivation, or constant unhappiness.
  6. The Zenith, by Duong Thu Huong.  A fantastic recent novel by one of Vietnam’s leading authors.  It’s an imaginative retelling of the end of Ho Chi Minh’s life in an isolated mountain villa, and how it comes to intersect with the daily lives of the people living in the small towns nearby.  Rather like Montaillou, this is a much more complex, interesting, and deeply felt portrayal of rural life in a low income country than people from high income countries are usually exposed to.