This post brought to you by the department of really weird survey questions

I’ve written about Theodore Trefon’s article on public administration in the Congo before, but rereading it now, I’ve come across a striking sentence that I missed the first time around (p. 13):

The only certainty is that personal opportunism governs [the] actions [of state employees]. It is for this reason that administrative service providers in Congo are perceived as unmanageable, undisciplined, mercenary, corrupt and, quite simply, useless. A recent survey on how the Congolese perceive the state included the question: ‘if the state were a person, what would you do to him?’ ‘Kill him’ was the unequivocal reaction of most respondents (World Bank 2005, p. 22).

I kind of expect this to show up on a future UChicago undergraduate admissions essay.  Perhaps respondents can choose between this one and “How do you feel about Wednesday?”.

Does development aid lead to overpopulation?

The GiveWell team has apparently been asked this question with such frequency that they commissioned David Roodman to do a study on it for them.  Specifically, the question is whether lowering death rates in low-income countries by providing better access to insecticide-treated bednets for malaria prevention could lead to a boom in population growth.  The existence of the demographic transition is accepted by everyone here, so the research focused on how people’s fertility choices respond in the short term to having a lower lifetime risk of death for their children.  Key point from the GiveWell team’s description of Roodman’s work:

Overall, it appears that life-saving interventions unaccompanied by other improvements, where access to contraception is weak, are likely to lead to some acceleration of population growth. With that said, we wish to note the following:

  • No intervention takes place in isolation, and we expect population growth to slow in the future in most low-income areas as poverty falls.
  • Acceleration of population growth should not necessarily be associated with overpopulation and its connotations of a net decline in standards of living.

Frankly, I was surprised that someone would ask this question in the first place, since the clear implication is that letting people die of malaria might be a better policy option than facing overpopulation.  I’m trying and failing to think of a way that someone might ask this that isn’t undergirded by the belief that the lives of the poor (who face the risk of malaria) are inherently worth less than those of the rich (who don’t).  Aside from the morally problematic nature of this statement, it also fails to account for the fact that most low-income countries have a very long way to go before they have consumption rates anything like those of high-income countries.  The average American uses 100 times more electricity each year than the average Nigerian.  If you as an aid donor are concerned about pressure on global resources from overpopulation, the question you ought to be asking is about your own behavior, not about whether the poor ought to have access to bednets.

What’s the right analogy for Rwanda?

As the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide approaches on April 7, people who don’t usually pay much attention to African politics will be seeing two main types of commemorative stories about the country.  The first will focus on the incredible progress that Rwanda has made in areas like fighting corruption, promoting economic growth, and rolling out universal health insurance.  The second will acknowledge these domestic policy achievements, but note that Kagame’s government has also been repressing political expression, physically attacking its opponents, and fostering rebellions in the neighboring DR Congo.   Underlying some of these concerns about domestic repression is the fear that ethnic grievances from the genocide era have only been partially addressed, and that these could spill over into renewed conflict in the future.

These two sets of stories present such diametrically opposed visions of the country that I think many people will feel that they can’t both be equally true.   One must trump the other in the final analysis, right?  Either the big development goals are being met, at the short term cost of lesser goals like freedom of speech, or these gains are secondary to the threat posed by the RPF’s willingness to use violence to achieve its ends.  I too find myself struggling with this tendency to weigh the two narratives against each other.  I am generally concerned about the patterns of repression that can be seen today, but I’m also aware that this leads me to discount some amazing development achievements that I’m sure I would be endlessly commending if they had took place in, say, Ghana.  It feels uncharitable at best and dishonest at worse to look past these accomplishments.

Since it’s hard to weigh the situation in Rwanda on its own merits, it’s common to try to explain it through analogy.  Kagame himself is fond of saying that he’d like Rwanda to be the Singapore of Africa – a tiny country that punches far above its economic weight.  Singapore, of course, has achieved its own growth through a similar combination of good governance and repression of dissent.  However, when most foreigners think of Singapore today, I suspect they’re contemplating its role as an international financial hub, its insanely expensive rents, and its great culinary diversity rather than its freedom of the press.  The obvious conclusion here, if you believe that Rwanda really is on a path to emulate Singapore, is that in 50 years no one will care about a spot of repression today, because it won’t have any negative long term effects.

On the other hand, there are analogies which express more concern over the RPF’s authoritarianism.  Laura Seay tweeted last month that “Rwanda today is terrifyingly like Rwanda circa 1992.  Power held by a tiny minority, no real freedom.  Development is better, but fragile.”  The point here is not that Kagame’s government is using its power to start planning a genocide, as the Habyarimana government was doing in 1992 – whatever its faults, the RPF is definitely not out to kill every citizen it perceives as a threat to its power.  Rather, the point is that extreme concentration of power can be politically destabilizing, and potentially lead to renewed conflict.  In 1992, Rwanda was in the middle of a civil war between the Hutu-led Habyarimana government and Kagame’s RPF, at that point a rebel group based in Uganda.  Kagame and many of his companions were the children of Tutsis who had been driven out of Rwanda when a Hutu government came to power at independence in 1962. Lacking any impartial or democratic means to redress these ethnic grievances, they formed an armed group instead, and invaded in 1990 after a series of economic crises had weakened Habyarimana’s authoritarian control.

There are several implications of this analogy.  Most obviously, it suggests that there’s a problem with the RPF’s ban on discussions of ethnic identity, which means that ethnicized grievances among both Hutu and Tutsi can’t be openly resolved.  At this point both sides have complaints about everything from the RPF’s behavior during and after the genocide to contemporary land policy.  It’s by no means guaranteed that these issues will spill over into violent rebellion, of course – they might simply simmer at a local level, or even fade away as shared economic growth and the passage of time reduce some of the sting of current grievances. However, the other lesson of this analogy is that conflict doesn’t always happen immediately.  After 1962, exiled Tutsis made a handful of attempts to invade Rwanda, but it was nearly 30 years before the RPF succeeded.  Authoritarian stability today doesn’t necessarily predict stability in the future.

So which is the “right” analogy?  I still don’t really know.  For a number of reasons, I think it’s harder to finance a violent rebellion in most African countries today than it was in the mid-1990s.  The RPF’s control of the countryside is strong, as is the Rwandan military.  It’s hard to imagine how they could become sufficiently disorganized that other armed groups could form within the country, or even pose a real threat across its borders.  Of course, if a severe schism formed within the party (as happened with the SPLM in South Sudan recently), this could change the balance of power.  Ultimately, the analogy you prefer may come down to your tolerance for risk.  Mitigating the chance of a worse-case outcome under the “Rwanda in 1992″ analogy may seem like a better policy choice for some people than trying to maximize the chance of high economic growth under the Singapore scenario.

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The team at the Development and Aid World News Service (DAWNS) recently asked me to review their email digest and write a blog post with my comments.  The daily email features a selection of development-related news stories from around the world, as well as a round-up of blog posts, opinion pieces, and recent academic research on development.  Proceeds from the $2 monthly subscription go to fund a grant program for journalists with humanitarian stories to tell.  So far journalists from the Philippines, Yemen, India and Cameroon have won grants of $500 – $1000 each.

I’m a regular reader of English-language development blogs and African newspapers, so I was initially skeptical about whether the digest would provide me with much new information.  Happily, it defied my expectations.  Each digest features detailed summaries of two top news stories (generally focused on humanitarian emergencies), and 1 – 5 headlines from a variety of regions around the world.  I was pleased to see that the regional focus was pretty specific, including East & Central, West, and Southern Africa; the Middle East & North Africa; Central & South Asia; East Asia; the Americas; and other global news.  The blog posts and research reports cover an equally broad range of countries.  Many of the Africa stories weren’t entirely new to me, but I found it very useful to see consistent coverage of development stories from other regions, since I don’t otherwise tend to seek this information out.

Most of the news pieces came from major American or British newspapers (NY Times, Associated Press, Guardian) or humanitarian news sources such as IRIN, although most regional coverage included at least one headline from local newspapers as well.   One of the only things that I would have liked to see done differently would be the inclusion of more articles from local newspapers.  If possible, it would also be nice to have more articles in languages other than English, or (keeping with the Anglophone audience) English translations of pieces in other languages, like the Wilson Center’s Africa Program does.  However, the global scope of the digest does mean that the number of languages to choose from could be rather overwhelming, so I acknowledge that this might be difficult to do equitably.

In general, though, DAWNS has been great.  After my free one-month trial was over (which everyone, not just reviewers, is eligible for), I signed up to continue the service.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone working in development.

Five essential facts about Africa

My husband put an interesting question to me the other day: what are the five essential facts about Africa that the average American ought to know?  To keep it simple, he asked that each fact be limited to one or two sentences.  I tried to come up with responses that were concise but also acknowledged the great diversity of people and practices on the continent.

  1. Precolonial diversity: People have, of course, lived in Africa for thousands of years.  Before European colonization started around 1890, people lived in many different types of political units, from tribal groups to city-states to empires, and had active trade and cultural relations with the rest of the world.
  2. Problems of colonization: Most places in Africa were colonized by Europeans from about 1890 to 1960. Colonizers often used violent means to try to control Africans, disrupting existing social and political structures in the process.  While some colonizers did build transportation infrastructure and promote basic social services like education, relatively few African citizens ever benefitted from them.
  3. Independence and its discontents: Many countries won their independence around 1960.  Because the colonizers had put lots of different political units together into modern countries, most places didn’t have well-established national political institutions, and it was common for dictatorships to arise (generally supported by the US and USSR, which directed a lot of aid to their ideological allies during the Cold War).
  4. Transitions & crises of the 1990s: By the 1990s, many countries were facing economic and political crises after years of bad economic management, and the end of Cold War-era aid from the US and USSR.  There was a lot of pressure from both citizens and aid donors (like the World Bank) for countries to implement economic reforms and transition to democracy.  Some countries managed this successfully, while others couldn’t navigate this political crisis and fell into civil war.
  5. Recovery & growth: By the mid-2000s, most civil wars had ended, and the majority of countries were enjoying higher rates of economic growth and better governance.  Although citizens and aid donors are still pushing many governments to provide better social services, things are generally looking better for most countries than they have in a while, and several African countries have GDP growth rates that are among the highest in the world.

I have to say that part of the value I found in this exercise was precisely that I didn’t initially want to do it.  One could write a book – many books – on the thousands of years of history encapsulated here, or at the very least shrug off a request for such a stark summary with the stock phrase “it’s complicated.”  But I did end up finding it an interesting experiment in trying to think about some of the main political trends on the continent over the last 100 years in fairly general terms, and (hopefully) in a way that would be accessible to people who didn’t already know much about the region.

What would your responses be?

RCTs and the democracy of the poor

If you’re even mildly interested in RCTs for international development, you’ve probably seen Lant Pritchett’s post on development as a faith-based activity by now, as well as Chris Blattman’s insightful reply.  I had an interesting conversation about this with Michael Clemens, Gabriel Demombynes, and Rohit Naimpally on Twitter today, which was useful in helping to parse Lant’s views more closely.  (Storified in case anyone would like to read along).  But what this discussion really made me think further about was the way in which RCT results have become a privileged type of knowledge in development.  I’m still a big supporter of using RCTs to compare the effectiveness of different development programs, but the point remains that this type of information is largely produced by academics in high-income countries, for major aid donors from high-income countries.  And I think this raises some major questions of voice and agency in international development that don’t usually come up in discussions about whether RCTs are worthwhile.

As an example of the latter debate, Evidence Matters had a thoughtful post recently about “how much evidence is enough.”  They made the excellent point that even well-conducted studies aren’t generalizable on their own, and that replication and systematic reviews should be the minimum standard for claiming to have verified the impact of a development program.  Of course, even great results from a worldwide replication aren’t sufficient to ensure that policymakers actually pay attention to them, and hence we also have people like Heather Lanthorn and Suvojit Chattopadhyay thinking critically about how policymakers work, and when evidence is likely to get used.

All really good stuff, which, if done well, should ideally increase the supply of effective development programs in the world.  And yet, whose voices come out in this?  Comments from individual users of development programs rarely make their way into quantitatively-oriented RCT results (I see signs that this is starting to change, but still very slowly).  And if they do get to voice their opinions, those users – whether favela residents in Sao Paulo or smallholder farmers in Mali – don’t effectively have any say on whether the program is continued, or whether it was remotely close to the type of program they wanted for their town in the first place.  Working towards program effectiveness via RCTs is very useful, and it generally doesn’t touch on these political questions about whether impoverished people get to make these important decisions about their own lives in the first place.  (I am using “and” as the conjunction here instead of “but” quite purposefully.  I think both facts are true; they don’t cancel each other out.)

There’s obviously no easy way to empower everybody and bring truly inclusive democracy to the people who systemically get excluded in every country – the poor – in the short term.  And even in an inclusive democracy, there would still be a great place for RCTs, because there will always be questions about which design of a social program is more effective.  But I think development practitioners, and especially randomistas, need to think much more critically about making sure that the push for evidence doesn’t displace opportunities for citizens of low-income countries to have a real say about the type of “development” they’re participating in.