Links I liked

 tumblr_nk923azevv1rb4yfjo1_1280Thought for the day (via Tumblr)

  • I’ve been paying more attention to North Korea ever since I picked up a copy of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy a few years ago and found myself reading the entire thing in one sitting.  Daniel Tudor & James Pearson’s North Korea Confidential picks up where Demick’s book ended and provides a fascinating update on the country.  Here’s a representative section of the index.  As Tyler Cowen would say, self-recommending.

north korea confidential

Updates from GiveDirectly


A few weeks ago, I participated in an open conference call with the staff of GiveDirectly.  They discussed their performance in 2015, and plans for future expansion.  A recording of the call and their notes on the discussion are both available.  Some of the things that stood out to me from the discussion were as follows:

  • Expanding outside of Kenya has led to new operational challenges.  For example, in Uganda, one issue has been getting people set up with national IDs in order to access mobile money.
  • They recently began operating in Rwanda, and launched their first collaboration with an institutional funder (USAID).  They’re also working with MTN and Centenary Bank, and looking for additional partners.
  • They’re looking at additional institutional partnerships with DFID and the World Bank, although it wasn’t clear which countries might be involved.  One of the goals of these partnerships is institutionalizing the idea that cash transfers are a benchmark to which other aid programs can be compared.
  • The current wave of interest in cash transfers has led to some changes in the branding (though not the implementation) of other types of humanitarian programs.  For example, some aid organizations are now describing the use of vouchers for asset transfers as “cash based.”  However, the whole point of giving people cash is that it’s fungible, and assets are often less so.
  • GiveDirectly isn’t currently planning to work with governments to implement state-run cash transfer programs.  They’ve been approached by the Kenyan government about this, but their concern is that it would undermine state capacity.  In addition, it’s difficult to start a program and then transfer it back to the state.
  • They’re driven by the idea of doing “crazy things” which initially seem impossible with cash transfers.  For example, they’re thinking of piloting a lifetime basic income guarantee project in a few towns in Kenya.  There may also be new ways for large donors to think about having an impact.  As Paul Niehaus said at one point, “With that kind of money [that places like the Gates Foundation have], you could realistically eliminate poverty in a mid-sized African country.”

If you’d like to support GiveDirectly, Rock River Inn is offering to match all donations up to US$13,000 through 31 December.

Links I liked


Mobility patterns during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, using mobile phone data, via CNN.  As Kevin Fridy said, “Could have been labeled ‘Colonial borders be like serious yo!’


Non-violence and the political marketplace


Women protesting against the government in Khartoum in 2013 (NBC News)

Alex de Waal has an excellent recent post at Reinventing Peace on non-violence and the political marketplace in weak states.  It fits very well with North, Wallis & Weingast’s statebuilding framework in Violence and Social Orders, which I’ve previously written about here.  The major point is that violence in weak states is not an anomaly but an important type of “currency” in the marketplace for political power, which makes non-violent political change rather difficult.  Some key quotes:

First let me define a political marketplace. It is a system of governance that is driven by personal transactions of loyalty for reward. All political systems have this element: what characterizes a political marketplace is that all institutions, rules and laws are subordinate to this kind of bargaining…

[In a political marketplace,] politics are driven by the three principles of political budget (cash for renting loyalties), the political market (the prevailing price of loyalties) and skill in political business management. Skilled political managers are entirely instrumental and deal with individuals in an opportunistic manner: there are no permanent friends or enemies, only peers, rivals, clients and contractors. Ethnic and sectarian loyalties are mobilized on an instrumental basis. These political systems are typically highly turbulent, unpredictable from week to week, but maintaining recognizable patterns over a long period of time.

Violence is a standard tool within a political market. It is a signal of presence in the market; it is a means of bargaining and especially a signifier of determination in pursuing the best price (highest for the claimant, lowest for the ruler). It can also be a means of reducing or eliminating a rival’s constituency, by killing, raping, robbing and destroying. Excessive violence is a risky strategy as it disturbs any near-equilibrium in the market and risks inviting in new players.

On peacebuilding:

What is peace under these circumstances? Most peace agreements are bargains struck among players in the marketplace, to share resources and reconfigure alliances. They divide the cake and construct a new configuration according to which they share out the rents. A peace agreement is as good as the market conditions in which it is made. It also typically involves the parties to the agreement organizing violence against those who have not joined. Often, such peace agreements actually see an upsurge in violence, as the signatories enforce their deal on those they describe as ‘spoilers’. A ‘successful’ peace deal in a political market is not an end to violence: rather it means that violence no longer matters (specifically, it is no longer a problem to those in power)…

Non-violent political mobilization can take several forms.  First is for an individual to act out of personal integrity to uphold justice and non-violence. An individual judge, chief, administrator, journalist, teacher, religious leader, etc., can uphold non-violence in a limited sphere. There are cases of principled individuals defying the pressure of political leaders and resisting financial inducements. An example is the decision by high court judges in South Sudan to throw out treason charges against political opponents of the government. In order to do this, the individual concerned needs many of the same qualities and capacities as an effective political entrepreneur: a wide network, skills in judging character and circumstance, and resources. Those individuals are also typically selective in applying their principles: they do enough to generate a reputation and a following, which protects them, but they cannot uphold principle on every occasion…

A second approach is to make a political market more efficient. In principle, a well-run political market could be made to function with reduced violence, if the functions of signaling entrance into the political market and bargaining could be carried out by other means, for example through elections or non-violent demonstrations, violence would be reduced. As countries urbanize, and as communication improves, this may indeed be a long-term trend. Some initiatives have enhanced this feature, for example the use of the internet and social media by Ushahidi in Kenya. Communication among elites increases the possibility that they will conduct their business with limited violence. Another approach to this is to enhance the coordination of political finance: if those who provide the funds for political entrepreneurs to operate coordinate to insist that politics is conducted with less violence, then politicians will comply.

The entire piece is essential reading.

Dinner with John Githongo


John Githongo (source)

I’m quite behind the times on this, but in April, I had the chance to attend a dinner at Stanford for visiting scholar John Githongo.  It was a fascinating chance to hear from a noted anti-corruption campaigner and insightful political analyst.  His wife Mshai Mwangola also attended, and spoke about her activism with Ni Sisi! and work with the Africa Peacebuilding Network. Here are some of the main points I took away from the conversation with both of them.

On the future of the EAC:

  • Githongo originally held strongly pan-African aspirations, and was hopeful about ECOMOG’s intervention intervention in Liberia.  However, achieving the requisite level of coordination between states to make regional governance work is quite difficult
  • The EAC is different to other regional organizations in that it’s the only one with a Parliament that can pass laws
  • He’s optimistic that further economic integration between EAC countries will strengthen the alliance.  However, coordination problems remain a challenge.  At the time of his visit, the EAC wasn’t able to agree on a response to Nkurunziza’s attempts to seek a third term

On China in Africa:

  • Chinese roads are bad in Angola but good in Ethiopia.  The effects of Chinese investment depend on the relationship with the state and control of corruption
  • The US has soft (cultural) power in Africa which China can’t match at present, although they are beginning to import new TV shows and music
  • Most middle class families in Nairobi have at one member who’s spent some time in China
  • There’s speculation that the Chinese peacekeeping troops in South Sudan are really there to protect their oil investments

On corruption (of course):

  • Corruption can be a security threat — “why not steal from the road sector instead of law enforcement?”
  • The idea of embezzling millions is too abstract to provoke popular discontent, but conspicuous consumption is looked down upon
  • In Tanzania, Nyerere set an influential example of avoiding corruption
  • However, there are limits to importing anti-corruption techniques from other countries.  “If you put Kagame in the Kenyan context, it wouldn’t work — Kenyans are used to their freedoms”

On citizen activism:

  • Mwangola runs a course on citizen activism, I believe through Ni Sisi.  She pointed out that there are three main paths to change: reform (slow and incremental), transform (getting the middle class involved), or revolt (which rarely works)
  • One important function of the course has been giving people a space to vent and organize
  • As the media opens up, stand-up comedy is booming across Africa in response to continued political and economic crises

Links I liked


Toussaint L’Ouverture, who helped to lead Haiti to independence in 1804.  France forced the new country to pay reparations for destroyed property until 1947.  (Image source)

Fall 2015 conference highlights

The omnibus conference blog post has returned!  Loads of interesting papers to report on from this fall.

indexMelissa Dell, Nathan Lane, and Pablo Querubin. “State Capacity, Local Governance, and Economic Development in Vietnam.” Presented at the Berkeley Center for Economics and Politics.

Abstract: There has been a large divergence in economic prosperity between Northeast and Southeast Asia since the mid-20th century, and the governance organizations and norms of Asian societies plausibly help explain this divergence. This study examines the impacts of dierent historical governance norms on development using Vietnam as a laboratory. Northern Vietnam (Dai Viet) was ruled by a bureaucratic state inherited from China. It governed through a centralized, competitively selected bureaucracy, and the village was the fundamental administrative unit. Southern Vietnam was a peripheral tributary of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire. It followed a patron-client model with weaker, more personalized power relations and no village intermediation. The Khmer region was not brought under Vietnam’s control until just prior to French colonization. We use a regression discontinuity design across the Dai Viet-Khmer boundary to compare villages that had a bureaucratic state to nearby areas that had a patron-client state. We find that areas historically under the bureaucratic state have higher living standards today. Using rich data from South Vietnam and the unied Socialist Republic of Vietnam, we document that in villages with a bureaucratic historical state, citizens have been better able to organize for public goods and redistribution through stronger local governments and civil society. However, today foreign companies are less likely to invest in historically bureaucratic areas, which have a long history of being relatively closed towards outsiders. Overall the study suggests that the bureaucratic state in East Asia – deeply embedded in civil society – played a central role in this region’s growth.
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Christopher Blattman, Julian Jamison, and Margaret Sheridan. “Reducing Crime and Violence: Experimental Evidence on Adult Noncognitive Investments in Liberia.”  Presented at the Berkeley comparative politics colloquium.
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Abstract: We show self control and self image are malleable in adults, and that investments in them reduce crime and violence. We recruited criminally-engaged Liberian men and randomized half to eight weeks of group cognitive behavioral therapy, teaching self control skills and a noncriminal self-image. We also randomized $200 grants. Cash raised incomes and reduced crime in the short-run but effects dissipated within a year. Therapy increased self control and noncriminal values, and acts of crime and violence fell 20–50%. Therapy’s impacts lasted at least a year when followed by cash, likely because cash reinforced behavioral changes via prolonged practice.
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Sara Lowes, Nathan Nunn, James Robinson, and Jonathan Weigel.  “The Evolution of Culture and Institutions: Evidence from the Kuba Kingdom.”  Presented at the Berkeley comparative politics colloquium.
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Abstract: We use variation in historical state centralization to examine the impact of institutions on cultural norms. The Kuba Kingdom, established in Central Africa in the early 17th century by King Shyaam, had more developed state institutions than the other independent villages and chieftaincies in the region. It had an unwritten constitution, separation of political powers, a judicial system with courts and juries, a police force and military, taxation, and significant public goods provision. Comparing individuals from the Kuba Kingdom to those from just outside the Kingdom, we find that centralized formal institutions are associated with weaker norms of rule-following and a greater propensity to cheat for material gain.
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Abstract: What accounts for political violence in competitive electoral regimes? Why do elites instigate violence, and how does it aect voting behavior? Most theories of elite-instigated political violence make a crucial yet untested assumption: that if politicians employ violence as a tactic, then it must accord them some objective strategic benefit. Employing experimental and qualitative survey and interview data from Kenya, I argue that, in fact, violence is often the result of strategic miscalculation on the part of elites. In particular, I nd that politicians overestimate the electoral benets of violence and more crucially underestimate its costs, particularly with respect to their core voters. The same is true of heated ethnic rhetoric, which I show to be ineffective in garnering coethnic support yet an important predictor of future violence. The results highlight an important yet overlooked explanation for political violence in competitive electoral regimes and raise thought-provoking questions about when and why office-seeking politicians fail to accurately infer voter preferences over salient political issues.
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Abstract: The Islamic insurgency in the Sahel followed different trajectories and led to varying outcomes: in Mali a powerful Islamic insurgency emerged and lead to the collapse of the state whereas in Mauritania the state was able to defeat the insurgency, and in Niger no cells of Islamic insurgents emerged at all. This variation of trajectories and outcomes constitutes the puzzle of this paper. The paper makes three major claims: first, the root causes of the Islamic insurgency in the Sahel can be traced in the sociopolitical and religious transformations that resulted from the democratization process (1990-2012). Second, after 20 years of democratization, the growing discontent vis-à-vis the state combined with a rising religiosity and ethno-racial tensions created a fertile ground for the incidence of Islamic insurgency in all of Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Yet Islamic insurgency emerged only in Mali and Mauritania where greater political and strategic opportunities incentivized jihadist leaders to frame a discourse that collectivized the grievance of the masses. Success of the insurgency in Mali and its failure in Mauritania were determined by the level of popular support and the state repressive capacity in each of those two countries. Third, state capacity, particularly repressive capacity, is to a greater extend the determinant of the onset as well as the success of an Islamic insurgency.
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Alexandra Minnis, Evan vanDommelen-Gonzalez, Ellen Luecke, William Dow, Sergio Bautista-Arredondo, and Nancy Padian.  “Yo Puedo – a conditional cash transfer and life skills intervention to promote adolescent sexual health.”  Presented at the Berkeley Population Center.
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Abstract: We designed and evaluated for feasibility an intervention – Yo Puedo – that addresses social network influences and socioeconomic opportunities in a neighborhood with substantial gang exposure and early childbearing.  Yo Puedo combined conditional cash transfers for completion of educational and reproductive health wellness goals with life skills sessions, and targeted youth 16 to 21 years old and same-aged members of their social network. We conducted a 2-arm study with social networks randomized to the intervention or a standard services control arm. We evaluated intervention uptake, adherence and safety; and assessed evidence of effects on behavioral outcomes associated with unintended pregnancy and STI risk.  Seventy-two social networks comprised of 162 youth enrolled, with 92% retention over six months. Seventy-two percent of youth randomized to the intervention participated in intervention activities: 53% received at least one CCT payment; and 66% came to at least one life skills session. We found no evidence that cash payments financed illicit or high-risk behavior. At six months, intervention participants, compared to controls, had a lower odds of hanging out on the street frequently (OR = 0.54, p = 0.10) and a lower odds of reporting their close friends had been incarcerated (OR = 0.6, p=0.12). They reported less regular alcohol use (OR = 0.54, p=0.04) and a lower odds of having sex (OR = 0.50, p = 0.04).  The feasibility evaluation of Yo Puedo demonstrated its promise; a larger evaluation of effects on pregnancy and sustained behavioral changes is warranted.
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Abstract: Property rights are important for economic exchange, but in much of the world they are not publicly provided. Private market organizations can fill this gap by providing an institutional structure to enforce agreements, but with this power comes the ability to extort from the group’s members. Under what circumstances will private organizations provide a stable environment for economic activity? Using original survey data collected from 1,900 randomly sampled traders across 292 markets, 68 market leaders, and 55 government revenue collectors across 57 local governments in Lagos, Nigeria, along with market case studies, I find that strong markets maintain sophisticated institutions to support trade not in the absence of government, but rather as a response to active interference. I argue that market organizations develop and enforce pro-trade institutions when threatened by politicians they perceive as predatory, and when the organization can respond with threats of its own. Under such a balance of power, the organization will not extort because it needs the support of the traders it represents in order to keep threats credible.
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Abstract: Both Benin and Ghana are amongst Africa’s most celebrated examples of democratic success, but there is growing divergence in the capacity of their state institutions to act as effective agents of development. Why? This dissertation argues that modes of party financing are integral to understanding patterns of patronage-based recruitment to public office, and that these patronage practices have consequences for the broader developmental capacities of the state.  The first part of the dissertation shows that leaders use political patronage not only as a means of “buying” votes, but more fundamentally as a means of exerting control over the state’s resources. How leaders choose to access and control these resources depends on the size of the private sector and the strength of party organizations, both of which vary considerably across African countries. Where party organizations are strong and the private sector large, patronage is likely to be concentrated primarily at the elite level to facilitate the exchange of contracts for financial support to the party [as seen in Ghana]. Conversely, where private capital is more scarce, leaders will concentrate patronage at the public service level, enabling political supporters to access state revenue and rents for their party [as seen in Benin].  These varying patronage practices have consequences for the broader developmental capacities of the state. Elite level patronage leads to more stability and cohesion in the executive which, among other things, strengthens commitment to development programs over time even in the face of serious implementation challenges. High levels of public service patronage, by contrast, heighten organizational problems including technical deficiencies amongst public personnel, the frequent disappearance of state resources for political use and excessive control over bureaucratic agencies. This latter environment is particularly challenging for the implementation of development programs.
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