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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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.

Recent conference highlights

It’s been a busy few months of conference attendance recently, and I wanted to share some of the papers that really stood out to me.  At ISA:

  • Lior Lehrs had a very interesting presentation on what he calls “private peace entrepreneurs” – people who act without state support to reach out to the opposing side in a conflict and promote peace.  It doesn’t appear that the paper is public, but Ynetnews has a short summary of his work.
  • Olukunle Owolabi also presented a fascinating comparative study on the extension of political rights to former slaves in the US South and the French Antilles.  It’s currently under review, so keep an eye out for it!

Next up was a workshop on “clientelism in comparative perspective,” organized by the Center on the Politics of Development at Berkeley.

  • Nancy Hite discussed her current book project on how economic development changes citizens’ perceptions of the state in the Philippines, building on an earlier microfinance RCT by Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman.  No public paper yet, but I’d definitely look for this book when it comes out – it’s a really interesting micro-level look at how growth affects political behavior.
  • Another highlight for the sheer quantity of data used was Pablo Querubin‘s work with Cesi Cruz and Julien Labonne on political family networks in the Philippines.  Because Filipino surnames contain the family names of both parents (for unmarried people) or a father’s family name plus a husband’s name (for married women), they constructed a database of more than 20 million people and traced family and marriage relationships of everyone in 15,000 villages.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that politicians tended to come from disproportionately well-connected families.

Finally, I had a great time (as always) at PacDev.

  • Berk Özler presented joint work with Sarah Baird, Ephraim Chirwa and Craig McIntosh on a five-year follow-up to a program in Malawi which offered young women cash transfers aimed at getting them to stay in school.  The program had offered conditional grants to women who were already in school, and unconditional grants to women who had already dropped out, both of which were effective in getting them back into school.  Five years later, however, the women who got the CCTs (who might have stayed in school anyway) had marital and economic outcomes that looked similar to the control group, while the UCT group (who otherwise would have dropped out) did have persistently better outcomes.
  • David Yang and Yuyu Chen had a fascinating paper on how people perceive the credibility of the Chinese government in trying to shift the narrative around the Great Leap Forward.  The government blamed the famine of that period on drought, and Yang and Chen find that people living in famine-affected areas where there was in fact a drought reported higher levels of trust in the state than those who didn’t observe drought in their region.  The effects persisted for more than half a century, and tended to get reinforced by marriage, as people who didn’t trust the state disproportionately married each other.

A new must-read site on Ebola and capacity building in Liberia

I don’t know who’s behind the site Codex Lector, but they’re writing about the Ebola response in Liberia through the lens of critical anthropology, and it’s fascinating.  Here are two posts on the World Bank’s descriptions of “traditional” healthcare practices:

[First post] The World Health Organization has a post about why the Ebola outbreak centered in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone has been so devastating that uses a fairly standard term for one of the aggravating factors of the epidemic in a section titled “Reliance on Traditional Healers”:

Traditional medicine has a long history in Africa. Even prior to the outbreaks, poor access to government-run health facilities made care by traditional healers or self-medication through pharmacies the preferred health care option for many, especially the poor.

Some day, I should like to go back to the United States, and tell someone who took the Hippocratic oath, and is proud of her storied alma mater, that it is so nice that she practices non-traditional medicine, lacking in a long history. In this dream, she would also be blessed that none of her patients ever go to a pharmacy to purchase medications over the counter when they feel ill.

[Second post] … Sometimes the World Health Organization post about the aggravation of Ebola risk is not performative, but rather just silly, as when it says, “The traditional custom of returning, often over long distances, to a native village to die and be buried near ancestors is another dimension of population movement that carries an especially high transmission risk.”

Considering how normal going home when you get sick, or have a terminal illness, is in Europe and the United States, I do not imagine it would have terribly harmed the WHO to have not referred to the practice as a “traditional custom” peculiar to West Africa.

This post on the challenges of carrying out a census in rural towns served by bad roads will be familiar to anyone who’s done quantitative data collection in a low-income place.  However, there’s also a novel point here about how “there are fewer lower limits on the size of settlements” in places without schools or clinics, as it suggests that the type of practices used to manage population density in the precolonial era are still in use today.

I’ve spent much of the last two weeks poring over government and NGO tables and maps of settlements in southern Liberia, and having discussions about the same.  …  Part of the issue is that much of rural Liberia is fantastically difficult to survey, with the result that well-meaning statisticians and demographers do their counting in places that are easy to count, and presume that places that are hard to count are rather like them. In other cases, tables include data only from parts of the country where the ministry doing the counting has an office, or has an employee. …  [In addition,] when it is the case that schools, roads, clinics, and so forth are not available for long periods of time (or that their presence is actually a risk factor for violence, as it might be in a civil war), there are fewer lower limits on the size of settlements, and thus great profusion of places that may or may not be counted in a particular tally.

Employee absence as an indicator of patronage

I attended an interesting presentation recently by Michael Callen (UCSD) on the political economy of public employee absence in Pakistan (PDF).  In an observational study of doctors at public clinics in Pakistan’s Punjab region, he and his co-authors found that doctors who personally knew their MPs were almost twice as likely to be absent as those who did not.  Furthermore, doctors in districts which were less politically competitive, and where their sponsoring MPs would thus face less risk of public backlash over poor service provision, were more more likely to be absent than those in competitive districts.  The idea here is that MPs face two conflicting incentives: it’s cheaper to them to provide patronage goods (like jobs in the public health service) to individuals in exchange for votes, but if they face political competition, they instead have an incentive to try to provide higher quality goods to more voters.

Links of the day

  1. Stability, the International Journal of Security and Development, is a new open-access journal which aims to quickly get relevant academic research to policymakers.
  2. Tom Murphy points out that cancer kills many more people in low income countries each year than does HIV, and Think Africa Press writes that the severe lack of opiates in Africa makes palliative care for cancer victims quite difficult.
  3. Must African presidential aspirants go to prison before they take higher office? (In French)
  4. Videos of cash transfer recipients in Kenya and Mozambique telling their stories in their own words.
  5. A new RCT questions the external validity of RCT-proven results (a political economy story about implementing organizations), and a study from Brazil finds that rainfall fluctuations during pregnancy are associated with changes in infant health outcomes, calling the use of rainfall as an instrument for just about everything into question.