Interesting academic articles for May 2019

Here’s what I’m looking forward to reading this month!

Jürgen René Blum, Marcos Ferreiro-Rodriguez, and Vivek Srivastava. 2019. Paths between Peace and Public Service: A Comparative Analysis of Public Service Reform Trajectories in Postconflict Countries.  The World Bank.

Building a capable public service is fundamental to postconflict state building. Yet in postconflict settings, short-term pressures often conflict with this longer-term objective. To ensure peace and stabilize fragile coalitions, the imperative for political elites to hand out public jobs and better pay to constituents dominates merit. Donor-financed projects that rely on technical assistants and parallel structures, rather than on government systems, are often the primary vehicle for meeting pressing service delivery needs. What, then, is a workable approach to rebuilding public services postconflict? Paths between Peace and Public Service seeks to answer this question by comparing public service reform trajectories in five countries—Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Timor-Leste—in the aftermath of conflict. The study seeks to explain these countries’ different trajectories through process tracing and structured, focused methods of comparative analysis. To reconstruct reform trajectories, the report draws on more than 200 interviews conducted with government officials and other stakeholders, as well as administrative data. The study analyzes how reform trajectories are influenced by elite bargains and highlights their path dependency, shaped by preconflict legacies and the specifics of the conflict period. As the first systematic study on postconflict public service reforms, it identifies lessons for the future engagement of development partners in building public services.

Pritish Behuria.  2019.  “African development and the marginalisation of domestic capitalists.”  Effective States in International Development working paper no. 115.

This paper has two core objectives. The first is to explain why the study of African capitalists – popular in the 1980s and 1990s – has remained relatively dormant since then. Dominant narratives – through neopatrimonalism and dependency-inspired arguments – have been pessimistic about the potential of African capitalists to deliver structural transformation. Gradually, these narratives, alongside intellectual trends within mainstream social science and African studies, have discouraged the study of politics of state–business relations in Africa. Yet African capitalists have become increasingly prominent in popular culture. Many of the wealthiest and most prominent capitalists have emerged through owning diversified business groups across the continent. This paper argues that more attention should be dedicated to the study of the politics of the emergence and sustenance of African diversified business groups (DBGs). To achieve this goal, a fluid categorisation of DBGs is introduced, building on Ben Ross Schneider’s previous work. By examining three country case studies – Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania – this paper highlights how a range of DBGs are emerging across three very different political contexts.

Travis Baseler.  2019.  “Hidden Income and the Perceived Returns to Migration: Experimental Evidence from Kenya.”  Working paper.

Urban workers in Kenya earn twice as much as rural workers with the same level of education. Why don’t more rural workers migrate to cities? In this paper, I use two field experiments to show that low migration is partly due to underestimation of urban incomes by rural Kenyans, and that this inaccurate information can be sustained by migrants’ strategic motives to hide income to minimize remittance obligations. I first show that rural Kenyans underestimate big city incomes considerably, despite the fact that two-thirds of households have a member who has migrated in the past. Parents underestimate their migrant children’s incomes by 50% on average, and underestimation is larger when the migrant’s incentive to hide income is high— in particular, when parents believe remittance obligations are high and when migrants have no stated desire to induce additional migration. In a first experiment that provides rural households with urban labor market information, treated households update their beliefs about the returns to migration and are 8 percentage points more likely to send a migrant to Nairobi. In a second field experiment, I test whether hidden income is directly distorting the decision to migrate by randomly informing rural households about the extent of hidden income among migrants in Nairobi. I find that hidden income dampens migration aspirations: learning about the average degree of hidden income increases planned migration to Nairobi by 13 percentage points.

Catherine Boone, Alex Dyzenhaus, Ambreena Manji, Catherine W Gateri, Seth Ouma, James Kabugu Owino, Achiba Gargule, and Jacqueline M Klopp.  2019. “Land law reform in Kenya: Devolution, veto players, and the limits of an institutional fix.”  African Affairs.

Much of the promise of the good governance agenda in African countries since the 1990s rested on reforms aimed at ‘getting the institutions right’, sometimes by creating regulatory agencies that would be above the fray of partisan politics. Such ‘institutional fix’ strategies are often frustrated because the new institutions themselves are embedded in existing state structures and power relations. The article argues that implementing Kenya’s land law reforms in the 2012–2016 period illustrates this dynamic. In Kenya, democratic structures and the 2010 constitutional devolution of power to county governments created a complex institutional playing field, the contours of which shaped the course of reform. Diverse actors in both administrative and representative institutions of the state, at both the national and county levels, were empowered as ‘veto players’ whose consent and cooperation was required to realize the reform mandate. An analysis of land administration reform in eight Kenyan counties shows how veto players were able to slow or curtail the implementation of the new land laws. Theories of African politics that focus on informal power networks and state incapacity may miss the extent to which formal state structures and the actors empowered within them can shape the course of reform, either by thwarting the reformist thrust of new laws or by trying to harness their reformist potential.

Vanessa van den Boogaard, Wilson Prichard, and Samuel Jibao.  2019.  “Informal taxation in Sierra Leone: Magnitudes, perceptions and implications.”  African Affairs.

In low-income countries, citizens often pay ‘taxes’ that differ substantially from what is required by statute. These non-statutory taxes are central to financing both local public goods and maintaining informal governance institutions. This study captures the incidence of informal taxation and taxpayer perspectives on these payments. We find, first, that informal taxes are a prevalent reality within areas of weak formal statehood in Sierra Leone, with households paying an equal number of informal and formal taxes. Second, we find positive taxpayer perceptions of the fairness of informal taxes relative to formal taxes, despite informal taxes being regressive in their distribution. We explain this by the fact that taxpayers are more likely to trust the actor levying these payments and are more likely to believe that they will be used to deliver benefits to the community.

Michelle N. MeyerPatrick R. HeckGeoffrey S. HoltzmanStephen M. AndersonWilliam CaiDuncan J. Watts, and Christopher F. Chabris.  2019.  “Objecting to experiments that compare two unobjectionable policies or treatments.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Randomized experiments—long the gold standard in medicine—are increasingly used throughout the social sciences and professions to evaluate business products and services, government programs, education and health policies, and global aid. We find robust evidence—across 16 studies of 5,873 participants from three populations spanning nine domains—that people often approve of untested policies or treatments (A or B) being universally implemented but disapprove of randomized experiments (A/B tests) to determine which of those policies or treatments is superior. This effect persists even when there is no reason to prefer A to B and even when recipients are treated unequally and randomly in all conditions (A, B, and A/B). This experimentation aversion may be an important barrier to evidence-based practice.

Jake Bowers and Paul Testa.  2019.  “Better Government, Better Science: The Promise of and Challenges Facing the Evidence-Informed Policy Movement.”  Annual Review of Political Science.

Collaborations between the academy and governments promise to improve the lives of people, the operations of government, and our understanding of human behavior and public policy. This review shows that the evidence-informed policy movement consists of two main threads: (a) an effort to invent new policies using insights from the social and behavioral science consensus about human behavior and institutions and (b) an effort to evaluate the success of governmental policies using transparent and high-integrity research designs such as randomized controlled trials. We argue that the problems of each approach may be solved or at least well addressed by teams that combine the two. We also suggest that governmental actors ought to want to learn about why a new policy works as much as they want to know that the policy works. We envision a future evidence-informed public policy practice that (a) involves cross-sector collaborations using the latest theory plus deep contextual knowledge to design new policies, (b) applies the latest insights in research design and statistical inference for causal questions, and (c) is focused on assessing explanations as much as on discovering what works. The evidence-informed public policy movement is a way that new data, new questions, and new collaborators can help political scientists improve our theoretical understanding of politics and also help our policy partners to improve the practice of government itself.