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.

Creating meaningful narratives for policymakers

Anyone who’s interested in doing policy-relevant research knows that making your findings accessible to information-overloaded policymakers is a challenge.  Duncan Green has written a good summary of a recent paper by Paul Avey and Michael Desch on this topic.  To further summarize Duncan’s points:

  • The more politicians know about a subject, the less they believe “experts”
  • Public visibility (including social media and blogging) is important for credibility
  • However, most policymakers still prefer to get information from major newspapers rather than more specialized (but possibly less credible) online sources
  • The best narrative, and not the best evidence, will win

The takeaway?  “Tell clearer, shorter stories and you may actually be listened to.”

(I also wrote about some of Avey & Desch’s work a few months ago, focusing on the types of academic work that policymakers felt most accessible.)

African voices in policy analysis

As I noted in my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how important it is for African governments and aid agencies to listen to their citizens, and view them as valid producers of knowledge about development.  This is clearly not a new insight.  And yet a lot of what passes for “listening” within the democratic sphere or by development agencies is limited and stylized, from the high-level data provided by national vote counts or Afrobarometer polls to the context-specific practice of participatory development projects, where the perspective shared matters for that project and nothing else.  Furthermore, African scholars and policymakers are generally not well-represented among the think tanks which guide development policy, or within the aid agencies that control funding flows.  (There’s a real shortage of funding for tertiary education within Africa as well as study abroad, which is probably the underlying problem, but there are still plenty of African scholars who could have more exposure.)

On the academic side of policy analysis, some of the best sources I’ve found are the African think tanks listed in the links on my home page (under “Think Tanks,” of course).  The African Women’s Development Fund maintains a list of experts in a variety of thematic areas.  Internationally, the Brookings Institute’s Africa Growth Initiative is run by three African scholars, and the Wilson Center offers an occasional Southern Voices program, which features monthly policy analysis pieces by African scholars.  Jonathan Bhalla has pointed my attention to Africa Research Institute’s Policy Voices series.  The Social Science Research Council also runs a site called Kujenga Amani (“to build peace” in Swahili) featuring essays by African analysts.

One of the main avenues for citizen engagement with African politics and development is radio, since it’s accessible in places where poor infrastructure or illiteracy hinder the reach of print media.  I don’t have any specific recommendations here, but if any readers have stations they’d like to recommend, it would be great to hear about them.  I do have a list of national newspapers from a variety of countries on my homepage (as well as the one-stop-shop AllAfrica.com), and have obviously missed loads of local papers.  GlobalVoices also aims to capture citizen media stories about sub-Saharan Africa.  The Mail & Guardian’s Voices of Africa series also sources stories from around the continent, although they tend to be more focused on social issues and less political.

Finally, there’s some really exciting work going on among diaspora networks.  While not aimed at policy analysis per se, Africans in the Diaspora is working to engage Africans abroad with development at home, and providing funding and training to domestic NGOs.  The Diaspora African Women’s Network also looks like a great resource, with articles like this one on how diaspora organizations can influence the global development debate.

Development priorities for 2014

Six months after leaving IPA for Berkeley, I’ve found myself thinking less about the uses of RCTs and more about the big picture questions of what developing country governments and aid agencies ought to be focusing on.  I’m still a huge fan of RCTs for policy evaluation, and believe that there are many evidence gaps that need to be filled in.  I’m also impressed by the work that organizations like AidGrade and GiveWell are doing to synthesize existing research and compare cost effectiveness across interventions.  However, there’s a more basic question that isn’t answered by these organizations: if you know that both cash transfers and school-based deworming are effective, how do you decide which to prioritize?  And how do either of these compare to the benefits of building a road, or restraining a military prone to abusing civilians?  Even with better evidence now available for many interventions, choosing among them is still at heart a political act.

Below are some of my admittedly impressionistic thoughts on what I think it would be effective for various development actors to prioritize this year, sorted by the type of actor they pertain to.  They don’t include some seemingly basic development priorities, like building stronger education or health systems, because nearly everyone already has a strong commitment to that.  Read this in light of Nancy Birdsall’s and Beth Schwanke’s development wish lists for 2014 at CGD, and tell me what you think.

Developing country governments + aid agencies

Developed country governments (note that all of the below are very politically challenging)

  • Substantially expanding migration quotas for low-income countries.  Remittances have substantially outstripped official development assistance or private philanthropic giving to developing countries for the last fifteen years (see figure 1).  There’s also considerable evidence that migration is good for the receiving countries’ economies as well.
  • Ending agricultural subsidies, which promote poor nutrition at home and hinder developing countries from using one of their largest economic sectors, agriculture, to compete in global markets.
  • Preferential trade agreements for low-income countries.  Industrialization is an inescapable step on the path to economic growth, despite how little attention it receives in the development community, and giving developing countries incentives to invest in export industries is important.

Residents of developing countries (obviously not speaking from experience here, so please tell me if I’ve made a foolish point or missed something important)

  • Organize!  It could be around any issue that seems important, on the local, provincial or national level.  This is probably so obvious that it goes without saying, since loads of people are already doing it around the world, but it’s clearly a priority.
  • Vote, even if it doesn’t seem likely to change the result of the election.
  • Keep writing, speaking, and sharing your opinions.  The other three categories of actors here all need to be much better about listening to people who live in low-income countries outside the narrow formats of participatory development programs, and the more people who are writing op-eds and engaging in debates on Twitter, the better.  (There are also clear power dynamics in simply being able to engage in any debate online, in English, and the broader questions of internet access, literacy, and translation that this touches on should be acknowledged here.)

Residents of developed countries

  • Push your elected representatives to support the three policies discussed above, or support advocacy organizations in these sectors.  Historically speaking, it’s a pretty incredible privilege to get any voice in government decisions, and the chance to push for better development policies shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste.  Within the US, you can find your state and national representatives hereMichael Clemens has recommended two US-based organizations supporting immigration reform to me: FWD.us and Partnership for a New American Economy.
  • Make donations to evidence-backed non-profits.  Both Giving What we Can and GiveWell have useful recommendations, especially for US-based NGOs.  I’m going to support GiveDirectly this year.

Marx on economic development

From The Germany Ideology (1846), critiquing other social thinkers of the time who saw “liberation” as a purely philosophical question:

Nor will we explain to them that is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means, that slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity.  ‘Liberation’ is a historical and not a mental act (p. 169).

Presages the Lewis-Ranis-Fei model of agricultural productivity by a good century.

What do American policymakers want from academics?

Paul Avey and Michael Desch had an interesting post on this question at the Monkey Cage a few weeks ago.  While the authors focused on American policymakers, I suspect that these findings are generalizable to policymakers outside of the US, and, on a slightly different set of topics, to managers at development NGOs as well.   The graph of their findings is striking (click to enlarge):


The categories with a clear preponderance of “very” or “somewhat” useful results are area studies, case studies and policy analysis.  Respondents appeared more divided over quantitative and theoretical analysis and operations research, but still generally favorable.  The only category to receive majority unfavorable responses was formal modeling.

Note that the favorability of these approaches increases linearly with the amount of context and detail they tend to provide.  Formal modeling is based on the idea that a set of simplified yet powerful assumptions about human nature can yield predictions about behavior which would apply to any actor in the same situation, regardless of context.  This is about as far as it gets from the types of qualitative, richly detailed works which often show up in area studies or policy analysis.

The point I took away  was not that formal modeling is useless, but that research which provides detailed, contextualized descriptions of the problem at hand is more likely to be accessible to policymakers.  Barbara Walter’s book on the use of third parties to enforce civil war settlements is a great example of a work which uses formal modeling to derive its conclusions, but then highlights their policy relevance with a series of case studies.  It’s clearly not the case that policy-oriented research should sacrifice rigor, but rather that even the most rigorous research isn’t worth much if practitioners can’t understand it.

That said, even research which does not immediately appear to have policy implications can turn out to be useful in the long run.  Walter’s work was based on research like Bob Powell’s article on war as a commitment problem, which is a heavily mathematical study of “the inefficiency puzzle in the context of complete-information games” (p. 195).  Sounds about as far removed as possible from the messy real world, no?  And yet, while the policy implications of Powell’s article may not have been clear to practitioners, later researchers were able to build on it to make well-informed policy recommendations.  It’s the political science version of developing an incredible adhesive from biomechanical studies of gecko feet.

Working in development is a political act (Part 7)

I feel that I can’t conclude this development career series without touching on why one might consider working in development in the first place.  The desire to assist people in the developing world who have less than oneself is commendable – but this doesn’t make it unproblematically good in all situations.  It’s important to think carefully about how you conceptualize and want to engage with the people you’d like to help.  Doing so doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do good in the world, because human society is large and messy and often resists even the best of intentions, but it does lessen the risk that you’ll end up unintentionally doing harm.

Now, notice who the active and passive people were in the last paragraph.  You, the Anglophone, Internet-enabled, probably wealthy-by-global-standards reader, might “assist,” “engage with,” “do good” or “do harm” to others – all transitive verbs.  Residents of the developing world, on the other hand, are implicitly assumed to be poor, and to be the passive receipients of the “good” or “assistance” (or, sometimes and unfortunately, the “harm”).   This way of thinking about development is not just a neutral description of a world where the citizens of some countries are rich and others poor.  It is deeply political.  It suggests that development workers, by virtue of “trying to help,” should naturally and unquestionedly get the right to make decisions about the lives of other people.  This is the type of power that’s often reserved for elected officials in Northern countries.

It’s also problematic to suggest that citizens of developing countries (only some of whom are poor) are simply waiting around for aid to show up.  It’s insulting, but even more critically, it’s untrue.   People everywhere take active steps to get their children better educations, access quality healthcare, organize their communities, find meaningful work, voice displeasure with corrupt officials, practice their religion as they see fit, and of course relax and enjoy themselves.  The results may look different in places constrained by poverty, discrimination or violence, but this doesn’t mean that people aren’t actively managing their environments to improve their quality of life.

This has important implications for why and how people ought to work in development.  If you want to work for an aid agency because you feel that the developed world ought to do something, anything, for people in developing countries, pause for a moment and think about why you feel this way.  How do you know that the issue you perceive to be a problem is also seen as such by the people it affects?  If your agency has a solution in mind, how do you know that it will fit well into the lives of the intended beneficiaries?  If the beneficiaries don’t like your plan, how will you respond?  No matter the moral clarity you feel about some issue, you must first keep in mind the people you’d like to assist are people – not disaster victims, not refugees, not persecuted minorities, nor any other collective noun or essentialized “other.”  They are individuals with their own complex lives which existed before you came onto the scene and will continue after your organization leaves.

I still believe that people around the world can work in partnership to change their societies for the better.  But any such partnership has to be, in a fundamental way, about being respectful.  It must be about being vividly aware of the limits of one’s own knowledge, and of the power dynamics inherent in being a foreigner distributing goods and services in places where they’re not otherwise easily available.  It must be about realizing that every place is complex, and that even successful development interventions will only change a small part of people’s larger lives in society.  It must be, for all of these reasons, about humility.  If you let these principles waver over into some type of white savior complex, or serve primarily to impress your friends with photos of cute kids in remote towns, you will give up the desire to see the world clearly, and that doesn’t help anyone.