Visualizing aid flows to Africa

The World Bank recently announced an updated version of its global project map which includes its complete portfolio of projects for the first time.  Of course I had to check out the Africa section.  I definitely didn’t expect Nigeria to be the single biggest recipient of Bank aid, given that it’s currently the largest economy south of the Sahara.  Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique round out the top five.

World Bank - Africa

The AFDB also publishes geocoded data on its projects, along with an interactive map. It’s not quite as attractive as the Bank’s, but does give a more precise breakdown of project locations.  With the exception of South Africa and Somalia, projects appear to basically be distributed in accordance with population density (only logical, of course).

AFDB Africa

Finally, AidData also publishes geocoded datasets and has a useful maps portal, with both interactive and static maps.  The visualization is a bit less intuitive when the interactive map is zoomed out to cover the whole continent – note that the bubble for 1606 projects in Mozambique is the same size as that for 161 projects in South Africa – but ultimately this is the single best source of data on aid flows, as it incorporates the WB and AFDB data as well as data from other donors when available.

aid data africa

Positionality and the study of Africa

I recently updated my positionality page, and wanted to include a note about it here for readers who access my site through an RSS reader or email and might not see the page itself.  If you don’t feel like clicking over, here’s the new text.


As any geographer will tell you, maps don’t just provide information about the territory they depict; they also say a great deal about the ideas held by the people who create and use them. I thought about this frequently as I selected the map in the header of this blog.  It’s a portion of the Cantino Planisphere, which was made in Portugal in 1492, and is the earliest European map to depict the entire coastline of Africa.  Every time I look at the map I’m struck by all the layers of meaning that have accrued to it.  It’s a beautiful piece of artwork.  It’s a marvel of late-medieval cartographic technology.  It’s one of the navigational tools that ultimately facilitated European colonization of the continent.  And it’s a symbol of the sometimes positive and more frequently exploitative relationship between Africans and Europeans, and of a history that I still stand within, as a wealthy white Northerner interested in central Africa.

I value this symbolic idea of the map precisely because it reminds me that the work I do in researching and writing about African countries isn’t neutral.  There are two senses in which I mean this.  First, there’s no such thing as neutral or unbiased observation of the world.  While I seek to share information here that strikes me as interesting and accurate, my perception of what qualifies as such is of course deeply tied to my own experiences, preferences and beliefs.  This is an inherent part of how humans view the world – collecting and interpreting new information through the lens of previous experience – and in many ways it’s a great system.  The challenge then is to keep seeking out the voices of others who’ve had experiences and hold beliefs different than one’s own.

Of course, not every voice is equally likely to be heard.  This is the second part of what I mean in saying that my work isn’t neutral.  There’s an immense amount of privilege that comes with being a white Anglophone with an American passport at a well-known university.  It facilitates travel, gives you access to a wide range of resources, and makes it more likely that you might connect with and be taken seriously by powerful Northern leaders, who still hold a disproportionate amount of influence in the world.  Writing about African countries without acknowledging this privilege and working to reduce it only serves to perpetuate a deeply unequal system.

So what then is to be done?  One thing which anyone can do is to seek out more news and opinions from African sources, rather than Northern ones.  The list of African newspapers and think tanks on the sidebar of this blog is a good place to start.  More resources can be found in my posts on Anglophone African voices in policy analysis and the top 50 African writers I follow on Twitter.  Beyond this, it’s important to note that higher education often serves as a gatekeeping tool for access to discussions about national or international development policy.  Facilitating access to undergraduate and graduate training for African students is vital.  To this end I’ve been compiling a list of scholarships for Anglophone and Francophone students who’d like to study in Europe or the US.  (This isn’t to say that the quality of education there is inherently better, but these universities are generally richer than their African counterparts and seem more likely to offer scholarships.)  There are obviously much larger questions at stake here about uneven development and whether and how people from different countries might help each other to live more fully, but this at least is a place to start.

To return to the question of my own writing for a moment, please feel free to comment critically on anything that I’ve written here.  If you’d like to write a guest post, either in response to something I’ve written or on a different topic, just email me to get in touch.  The goal of both doing research and writing about it here is to keep learning from others, and hopefully to produce information that will be of use in making the world a better place.

Does precolonial political centralization matter in Africa?

7-KumasiKumasi in the late 19th century, from Encyclopaedia Britannica

For a long time, Northern scholars of Africa used to write about the continent as though the colonial period was the beginning of history.  Jean-François Bayart famously argued against this, but even after his book appeared well-known authors like Mahmood Mamdani and Crawford Young made the case that colonization changed everything in Africa.

More recently, however, Northern researchers have started to take precolonial politics seriously again.  I was thinking about this recently when Tanu Kumar sent me a link to this working paper by Mark Dincecco, James Fenske, and Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato.  They argue that precolonial warfare in Africa led to greater levels of political centralization, but is also associated with higher rates of civil war today.  Since civil war is generally bad for state capacity and development outcomes, this suggests that more centralized states in the precolonial era should be less developed today.

How does this argument hold up?  Jacob Hariri suggests that stronger precolonial states outside Europe tended to resist the spread of European institutions which could promote democracy and economic growth, leading to lower income levels and higher rates of autocracy today.  However, a number of other authors find that precolonial centralization in Africa is actually good for development.  Nicola Gennaioli & Ilia Rainer and Stelios Michalopoulous & Elias Papaioannou all find higher rates of local public goods provision in places that had strong precolonial states.  The mechanism here is presumably that strong states are able to solve coordination problems and engage in more economic activity.  Philip Osafo-Kwaako & James Robinson also find that stronger precolonial states lead to better development outcomes today, although they argue that centralization wasn’t driven by warfare like Dincecco, Fenske and Onorato suggest.

It’s a really interesting literature, and I think it would be even stronger with more of a focus on mechanisms, and more explanatory case studies.  If you look at subnational examples within Ghana and Uganda, you do tend to see stronger economic growth in the southern parts of those countries where precolonial polities were strongest (the Asante and Buganda kingdoms, respectively).  But does this mean that the kingdoms were solving coordination problems somehow, or that centralized states simply arose where the economic prospects were better in the first place?  Similarly, the link between precolonial centralization and contemporary civil war isn’t very intuitive to me.  Civil war is badly overdetermined in Africa, in that most countries fit the criteria (poverty and weak institutions) that are thought to increase civil war risk.  Academics still don’t seem to have a good model of why war happens when and where it does, rather than looking at aggregate risk factors, and I think until we understand more about the specificity of civil war it’s hard to know how to add precolonial centralization into the equation.

What’s more expensive, war or murder?

If you guessed war, you’d be wrong.  Anke Hoeffler and James Fearon recently released a fascinating systematic review of the benefits of programs aimed at reducing different types of violence.  There’s a brief summary at the CSAE blog, which was also the source of the graph below.  To quote the introduction to the full report,

Our estimates suggest that the costs of violence are high; the welfare cost of collective, interpersonal violence, harsh child discipline, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse are equivalent to around 11 per cent of global GDP [annually]. The cost of homicides are much larger than the cost of civil conflict. However, violence perpetrated in the home appears to be the most prevalent form of violence. Domestic abuse of women and children should no longer be regarded as a private matter but a public health concern. … We argue for moving beyond a near-exclusive focus on civil war violence – concern with which has increased in the development community and is admirable and important – to recognizing that the costs of interpersonal violence are probably much larger but are almost wholly neglected in current development programming (pp. iii – iv).

The comparison between the estimated costs of civil war and “domestic” crimes like child abuse or intimate partner violence is staggering.

global cost of violenceSo why do academics, policymakers and development actors tend to focus on the form of violence that’s actually least costly?  There’s the obvious point that conflict and terrorism are very public events, while child abuse and intimate partner violence tend to occur in private and often go unreported.  War is also perceived as being more likely to be deadly, which might be true, but fails to account for the fact that domestic violence is much more prevalent.  And I think there’s also a strong component of structural misogyny at play here.  Civil wars and terrorism are seen as serious topics, often analyzed and carried out by men, while domestic violence is described as a women’s issue – something only of importance to a lesser constituency.  (Consider the fact that no one’s asking if the Yazidis somehow deserved ISIS’ violence towards them, while many people claim that female victims of domestic violence must have done something to provoke their abusers.  Now think about how notions of “deserving violence” correlate with the importance we put on crafting good policy responses to violence.)  This report is a really important corrective to our tendency to write off domestic violence, and I’m quite interested to see how policymakers and development practitioners will respond.

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.