The persistence of extreme poverty in the US

Vox had a thought-provoking article last week on people in the US who live on less than $2 per person per day.  It’s adapted from the book of the same title by Kathryn Edin & Luke Schaefer.  They find that millions of Americans (including up to three million children) have months where they live on next to nothing, frequently going hungry and facing homelessness as a result.  The entire article is essential reading.  Here are some of the main points:

  • There’s no clear demographic pattern among people who face extreme poverty.  As Edin says, “It’s racially and ethnically diverse, it’s regionally diverse. You see both married and unmarried couples in this situation.”  However, poverty tends to be worse in rural areas and in the South, where fewer services are available.
  • People want to work, but find it difficult to hold down jobs.  Edin notes that “almost all of these households actually do have workers… You still see these pretty lengthy spells in extreme poverty, but these people are in and out of the low-wage labor market. Seventy percent of them have had a worker in the low-wage labor market in the past year.”  Schaefer adds that “it’s very hard to find a job. The unemployment rate has been very high for low-educated workers for a long time. These folks are at the back of the line.”
  • Social services and family support networks rarely help.  Many eligible households either don’t apply for TANF, or (in some cases) have been told mistakenly that they’re not eligible.  Only a million people in the entire country receive TANF at present, although 15% of the population or 45 million people live below the poverty line.  In addition, few people seem to receive much assistance from their families.
  • People come up with creative ways to access even small amounts of money if they can’t work.  Selling plasma is one of the most common, followed by cashing out food stamps (which cuts the value of the stamps by about half), collecting scrap metal for redemption, and doing sex work.  Selling sex can be a way to access housing or food as well as cash.
  • And my own takeaway: While the availability of formal employment is different, overall this is quite similar to what extreme poverty looks like in countries around the world.  People find various ways of making claims on others in order to access food, shelter, and clothing, or the cash to buy the same.

Perhaps what’s most striking in this context is that, while we do have a wide range of social safety nets, none of them are designed to address this type of poverty. Nor has half a century of prolonged economic growth done much to reduce it.  I came away from this article thinking that it’s one of the strongest claims I’ve yet seen for the value of a universal basic income grant.

On beginning dissertation research in a new country

I’ve had a fantastic time doing preliminary research for my dissertation in Accra this summer.  I actually didn’t end up traveling around west Africa as much as I’d planned, but I have been able to connect with lots of local researchers, and should eventually be in a position to collect original data on the Ghanaian government’s flagship social protection program, LEAP (more about this in future posts).

Launching a new project here has been an interesting experience.  I spent the better part of a year working in Ghana between 2010 and 2012, but I wasn’t in Accra, and many of the people I knew during that time have since left the country.  The academic network I’ve built in the US is largely composed of people who study central and east Africa, as well, since up until about three months ago I also expected to be studying those regions.  (Also more on this in a future post!)  So whilst Ghana is a familiar place in many ways, I’ve essentially had to start from scratch in establishing myself as a researcher here.

To that end, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about getting a dissertation project off the ground in a new country.  This post was inspired in part by Diana Kapiszewski, Lauren MacLean and Benjamin Read’s new book Field Research in Political Science.  It’s a good resource for young researchers, but I felt a few more concrete examples could be useful.

  • Strong social networks are an essential part of research.  I can’t highlight this enough.  When I arrived I found it nearly impossible to connect with anyone working on LEAP directly.  It was difficult to find contact information for staff at the relevant ministry, the emails I could send would go unreturned, and I wasn’t certain that simply showing up and asking for meetings would be any more useful.  It’s proven much more efficient to connect with other academics, journalists, and NGO employees doing work related to LEAP, and get introductions through them.  In several cases, a reference of this type meant that my unreturned emails and calls suddenly got replies.
  • If you haven’t got a good network, start building.  Much of this can be done before you ever leave home.  Email other scholars in your field, both domestically and in your research country, to ask for recommendations.  (Senior academics often have higher-level contacts; younger professors and PhD students typically have more up-to-date contact lists and advice for settling into a place.)  If there’s an emigrant community from the research country in your current town, connect with them.  Look through your university’s alumni database and your extended contact networks on LinkedIn.  Reach out to local think tanks and NGOs.  Journalists tend to be quite well-connected; read the local papers to see who covers issues related to your topic, and get in touch with them.  Ask the public relations officer at your country’s embassy about other people doing work in your field.  Browse the hashtags related to your country of interest on Twitter and Facebook and speak to the people who seem to be producing the most insightful content.  In general, cast a wide net; it’s worth it to speak to as many people as you can initially, since many people may turn out to have useful contacts even if their own work isn’t directly related to your research.
  • Data collection is about creating relationships.  This is most obviously the case whilst doing key informant interviews, when creating rapport with the other person can help to move the interview along.  (As Naunihal Singh has said to me, it helps to frame an interview not just as “I want this information” but as “I’d like to speak to you because you’re knowledgeable, and I value hearing your side of the issue at hand.”)  But it’s also the case when going through an archive, asking the government for permission to do a quantitative survey, or getting introductions from your contacts.  If possible, it helps to have something to give in exchange.  Offering money for access to data or interview subjects is both questionably ethical and questionably useful, but providing access to information or contacts of your own can be helpful.  I’ve been sharing my list of scholarships for African students and recommendations for applying to graduate school in the US.
  • Don’t forget the “social” part of social networks. Particularly on a short pre-dissertation trip, the temptation to keep working constantly lest you fail to accomplish everything you’d hoped for can be significant, but it’s also important to take time off and make friends as well.  Not only is work-life balance important, but you’re also likely to meet interesting people who could help with your research.  I’ve now met great people working on local governance and cash transfers whilst on hikes, at yoga, playing floorball, and out for drinks.  If you really don’t know anyone when you arrive, look for groups that fit your interests on InterNations and MeetUp, or search Facebook for pages like “Accra Expats” or “Tamale Expats” – nearly every sizable city has a group these days.  Whilst expat circles often make for limited social scenes if you’re staying for a long time, they’re generally quite welcoming, and can be a good place to start meeting people if you’ve just arrived.
  • Be patient with yourself.  The first weeks or even months of a new project can be intimidating.  I’ve found my feet quite quickly on this trip, but during my first days in town – when I didn’t know anybody, got doublebooked by the flat I’d planned to rent, and was spending most of my time sitting by myself in an overpriced hotel trying to get people to respond to my emails – I wasn’t feeling entirely enthusiastic about the project.  Remember that it’s going to get better over time.  And if there are small things you can do to make yourself feel better about the situation, do them.  In my case, I spent some extra money to rent a desk at a local co-working space, just so I wouldn’t be working alone in my room all the time.  It’s brought me a lot of interesting people to talk to, and easy access to a very good smoothie shop as well.

What other advice would you share?

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.

Book recommendations: war and the state in Africa

I’m in the midst of preparing for my first comprehensive exam in African studies, which has been a wonderful opportunity to delve into all the unread Africana on my bookshelves.  Three books in particular have stood out to me as uniquely insightful.

  • Warfare in African History, by Richard Reid.  A concise (180 pages) and engrossing look at changes in the technology of warfare and patterns of African state formation from roughly 500 CE onwards.  Read it along with Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa.  Herbst makes a series of good points about the way that exerting authority over clearly bounded territories was not generally the focus of precolonial African states, but Reid’s work is a valuable reminder that centralized polities with complex military organizations also arose when social and environmental conditions permitted.  Another good book in the same Cambridge series on “new approaches to African history” is Will Reno’s Warfare in Independent Africa.
  • Political Topographies of the African State, by Cathy Boone.  This has been out for more than a decade, and I have no idea why I haven’t seen it recommended more often, because it’s a fascinating piece of theorizing on the relationship between states and rural elites in west Africa.  I read this in the context of the debate about the nature of the colonial state, which (in a stylized way) ranges from Jean-François Bayart’s depiction of a state that was undermined and instrumentalized by traditional leaders, to Mahmood Mamdani’s description of states that captured and manipulated rural power brokers to their own ends.  Boone’s work cuts through this argument by pointing out that the nature of colonial states’ interactions with traditional leaders depended on the strength of those leaders as well as the overall governance strategies pursued by the state.  Even within a single country, colonial and post-colonial officials often dealt with rural elites in different ways.  Some were empowered by the state and granted substantial revenue streams from it, while others (particularly those with independent sources of funding) were undermined, and others were ignored entirely.  Boone’s major contribution is not just pointing out this variation, but establishing a compelling theoretical framework to explain why such variation is observed.  Between this book and Property and Political Order in Africa (which I wrote about here), she’s one of the most innovative American researchers in African politics today.
  • Violence and Social Orders, by Douglass North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast.  Also not a new recommendation, having come out in 2009, but I’ve read a number of books about statebuilding and was particularly impressed by this one.  I am often not convinced by simplification in the name of theory, but in this particular case the sweeping set of generalizations they make in dividing contemporary polities into “natural states” and “open access orders” really rang true for me.  It’s an analytical framework that seems to capture the fundamental growth challenges faced by states as otherwise disparate as medieval France, the Congo in 1965, and contemporary Cambodia (just to pick a few cases I’ve been mulling over recently).  It’s also refreshingly positive rather than normative, pointing out the sheer unlikelihood of establishing secure and equitable systems of property rights rather than faulting countries that haven’t been able to do so.  Probably my new recommendation when someone asks me why some countries are rich and others poor.

For what it’s worth, all three of these books were published by Cambridge.  I’ll be keeping a closer eye on their publication catalogue from now on.

What explains peace?

In case you missed it, Jon Temin had a great article at Foreign Policy last month asking a critically important question: “Why don’t the policymakers and practitioners looking to end the world’s deadliest wars spend more time studying peace?”  This could mean peace at the country level (he compares Niger’s peaceful relationship with its Tuareg minority to the fraught relationship in neighboring Mali), or within a single country (as shown by the surprising stability of the state of Western Equatoria in South Sudan).  At an even more granular level of analysis, one could look at the case of Butembo – a Congolese city which has remained fairly insulated from conflict despite its location in restive North Kivu province.  But the question in any case is the same: why do some places fall into conflict, while others with similar characteristics manage to avoid it?

There’s a large body of literature in political science looking at cases where civil wars have occurred, but much less looking at war’s absence.  Based on my reading of the conflict literature, here are three factors that the study of peace might start exploring.  (Update, 14 July: read the comments, they’re quite good.  I’ve also added a fourth item here based on feedback from Digitaldjeli.)

  • Regional conflict complexes.  Peter Wallensteen (PDF), Idean Salehyan & Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (PDF), and many others have pointed out that many civil wars are not sui generis, but are linked to conflicts in neighboring countries, often through the mechanisms of refugee movements and state support for armed groups next door.  The canonical example is the way that conflicts in Rwanda have spilled over into and exacerbated conflicts in neighboring DRC.  The obvious question here is why some refugee host countries get drawn into the wars of their neighbors, while others (like Ghana, which hosts a number of refugees from Côte d’Ivoire) manage to avoid this.
  • Ideological collective action.  In The Order of Genocide, Scott Straus finds that Rwandan provinces with administrators who belonged to the ruling MRND party acted quickly to start carrying out genocidal killings after the order came down from Kigali, while administrators who belonged to the opposition were sometimes able to delay the start of violence in their area.  The tactics they employed to do this included organizing self-defense militias for vulnerable communities, threatening to punish people who carried out genocidal attacks, and dispersing groups of men who gathered to start hunting victims.  This, of course, touches on the age-old question: why do some groups of people espouse violent ideologies, while others in the same society do not?  And to what degree are peaceful places peaceful because citizens actively worked for peace, as opposed to simply not having the right preconditions for war?
  • Land tenure policies.  Cathy Boone’s recent book Property and Political Order in Africa argues that places where land tenure rights are assigned by the state are more likely to see both violent and non-violent conflicts scale up to become quarrels with the central government.  By comparison, in places where land tenure is administered by tribal leaders or other local groups, conflicts over land tend to stay “bottled up” at the local level, and are less likely to become national political issues.  Boone stops well short of making the claim that systems of land tenure can explain the prevalence of civil war, but I think there are some ideas here that are worth digging into more deeply.  For example, the highly politicized process by which the state granted land use rights in the Kenyan highlands has created lasting and sometimes violent grievances there, while the politicized process of agricultural collectivization in neighboring Tanzania hasn’t led to large-scale violence (as far as I know).  What mitigated against the violent resolution of land access disputes in Tanzania?  And more generally, are places with tribal or other local systems of land allocation less likely to have civil wars?  This would be an interesting counterpoint to the idea that “tribalism” lies behind many conflicts.
  • Stationary bandits.  Digitaldjeli’s point was that “peace” in Butembo looks more like a protection racket, but the idea that protection rackets can grow into (peaceful, Westphalian) states is actually a classic in the American political science literature.  Mancur Olson (PDF) builds on work by people like Charles Tilly (PDF) to argue that the type of mafioso running the racket matters – “stationary bandits” will protect the people and territory under their control so they can continue to tax them in the long run, while “roving bandits” will steal everything they can from people in the short run, and offer no protection.  Put differently, decisions by political elites can matter a lot for the types of violence that occur within a state.  The million dollar question is why some elites are able to look past the short term gains of roving banditry and decide to make longer term investments in protecting their territory.

At this point I’m actually coming up against the precise problem that Temin highlights: the region I’ve studied most thoroughly, central Africa, is comprised exclusively of countries that have had civil wars, and I’m running out of non-war cases to use for comparison.  What other hypotheses or case studies can you think of that might explain instances of peace in regions seemingly predisposed to war?

Property and political order in Africa

I recently finished Cathy Boone’s excellent new book, Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics. She’s motivated by the observation that, while disagremeents over access to land are endemic in Africa, some areas see the issue become highly politicized or spill over into violent conflict, while others end up with low-level disagreements that never escalate.  In seeking to answer this, she looks at the way that different types of land tenure systems created by the colonial and post-colonial state tend to “bottle up” land conflict at the local level, or encourage it to escalate to the national political realm.

A very brief rendering of her argument is that land tenure systems in which chiefs or lineage heads are given the right to allocate land (often along ethnic lines) tend to keep conflict local, because no one above this level of regional governance has the right to challenge the chief’s allocation of land.  Thus, people who are unhappy with their access to land can’t make claims about it within the national political system.  Examples of this type of system include western and central Ghana, northern Cameroon, and western Kenya.

A chiefly or lineage-based land tenure regime contrasts with statist systems of land allocation, where the government directly assigns land to farmers, often for the purpose of raising cash crops (and frequently involving the importation of labor from elsewhere in the country).  Because access to land isn’t mediated by any type of local government, people with complaints about their allocation take the issue directly to the national government.  Examples of this type of system include southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya’s Rift Valley, eastern DRC, and southeastern Rwanda.

I found this analysis very useful in understanding some of the persistent conflict dynamics of the Great Lakes.  In both the DRC and Rwanda, government policies led directly to the displacement of thousands of people from the colonial period onwards.  This seems to have created lasting grievances in both countries that have played off each other in very harmful ways, from cycles of ethnic violence in Rwanda to the way that persistent insecurity of land tenure in eastern Congo has led to the creation of an endless array of militias.  In Ghana, by comparison, chiefly land tenure systems prevailed, relatively few people were forced off their land, and land allocation does not seem to be a highly salient national political issue today.  To be clear, Boone is not claiming that land tenure regimes are the only or even the primary explanatory variable for violent conflict, but her analysis of the ways that land tenure arrangements can mute or amplify tensions within a political system is insightful in ways that simple claims about ethnic rivalries are not.

Coercion and violence in Rwanda

Danny Hirschel-Burns had a great post earlier this month on whether people are violent by nature over at The Widening Lens.  He reviews a number of seminal works on this issue (Stanley Milgram, Christoper Browning, Dave Grossman and Randall Collins) and concludes that while most people are “inherently adverse” to killing others, violent coercion and social sanctioning can lead people to kill.  Notably, he estimates that intergroup coercion is probably more effective in this regard than either authority or ideology.

This fits very well with Scott Straus’ findings about adult men’s participation in the Rwandan genocide.  In his 2006 book The Order of Genocide, he interviews convicted genocidaires* about their actions, and found that the two most common reasons for killing others were “intra-Hutu coercion” and “wartime fear and combativeness” (p. 136). In his telling, the invasion of the Tutsi-led RPF rebels from Uganda in 1990 deeply unsettled ethnic relations, made violence less unthinkable in daily life, and made people more receptive to genocidal political propaganda.  When the genocide began in 1994, however, ideology and fear alone were not enough to convince most men to kill.  Genocidaires were provided with material incentives, like claiming the houses and cattle of their victims, but were also violently threatened by other Hutus if they didn’t participate.

*Straus notes that because his respondents had already been convicted, they should not have felt it necessary to downplay any anti-Tutsi ideology which motivated them, since they presumably couldn’t be punished again.  I think this misses the possibility that prisoners who continued to be openly anti-Tutsi might be socially sanctioned in other ways within the prison system.  However, in general I don’t think this detracts from the plausibility of his overall argument.