A history of homebrewed alcohol in Nairobi

A large plot of houses made of tin, with rubbish on the ground in front of them
Houses in Mathare, via Wikipedia

I’ve written previously about the challenges of accessing justice, clean water, and other basic services in Nairobi’s Mathare neighborhood.  Now another insightful article about the area has come out, with Antony Adoyo, Jackob Omondi, Juliet Wanjira, and Naomi van Stapele’s account at Elephant of the critical role that homebrewed alcohol (or chang’aa) plays in the local economy.

The roots of the chang’aa economy go back to the colonial era.

 As early as the 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa. The colonial capital Nairobi only allowed a limited number of ‘native’ bachelors living in designated housing facilities. This area was also wedged in by the Royal Airforce Eastleigh Base (currently known as Moi Air Base), an askari barrack, and a transit camp for the Kings African Rifles.

These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their increasingly overcrowded homesteads in the ‘Native Reserves’ in the pre-WWII colonial period in search of work for cash to pay for hut tax, among other things. Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men also increasingly came to live here. During the late 1930s, many of the rural-urban migrants also came from other illegalized squatter communities in the Rift Valley, where former farm workers had been displaced from European farms as a result of the gradual mechanization of farm work.

After independence in 1963, chang’aa distilling continued on a smaller scale.  Then the rapid urbanization of the 1990s caused it to expand:

It was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that parts of Mathare gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa. According to several bar owners we spoke with, the influx of rural-urban migrants during this period boosted the selling of chang’aa to unprecedented levels. Demographic records and academic estimates vary greatly but it is safe to say that the population in Mathare rose from a few thousand during the colonial era to many tens of thousands between the 1960s and 1980s.

Today, the chang’aa distillers are regularly shaken down by the police for bribes, and risk having their equipment destroyed if they don’t pay up.  (Manufacturing chang’aa is legal, although basic sanitary standards must be met.  The penalty for not meeting them is supposed to be a fine rather than destruction of equipment.)

Shosho Kingi has distilled and sold alcohol for more than four decades and has raised her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren while doing so. The police had poured her kangara, the distilling mixture, which had been almost ready for cooking. Subsequently, she had lost 4500 shillings [US$45], her monthly earnings, and was left seriously in debt. Thousands of small business owners and their employees and tens of thousands of their dependents suffered the same fate. On Monday, all the jiko’s (‘kitchens’) near the river remained closed; no one could work while the police patrolled in search of alcohol and production tools to destroy.

There are very few other livelihood options in Mathare, which makes the regulation of chang’aa a serious economic issue for the area.

Jean Drèze on the politics of evidence-based policymaking in India

I’m a bit behind on this Ideas for India article, but Jean Drèze has a refreshingly clear and compelling take on the difficulties of translating evidence into policy.  He highlights four political, ethical, and logistical challenges that academics may face in providing policy advice.

First, feasible policies must balance the competing interests of a range of different societal groups, which requires value judgements as well as some apolitical weighting of evidence.

No value judgements are required to conduct an RCT aimed at examining whether adding eggs in school meals helps to enhance pupil attendance or child nutrition. But advocating the inclusion of eggs in school meals is a very different ballgame. It means dealing with the arguments of upper-caste vegetarian lobbies (eggs are considered non-vegetarian in India) and animal-rights activists, aside from those of the Finance Ministry, the Education Department, and teachers’ unions. Commercial interests, too, are likely to come into play as the poultry business eyes big contracts. The debate can easily get very charged. Any ‘advice’ offered in this charged atmosphere may have serious repercussions, good or bad.

Second, the advice one provides to a technocrat who wants to maximize program efficiency and an advocacy group who wants to minimize social harm from a program might be very different.

 It is easy to imagine an economist giving the following sort of advice to the government: Our RCT shows that people essentially treat food transfers as an implicit cash transfer. Considering the high transaction costs of food subsidies, a transition to cash transfers seems advisable…

It is possible, however, that based on the same research a person who addresses herself to poor people would give the following – very different – advice: The government is planning to replace food transfers with cash transfers. You should resist this at all cost. Our work shows that the banking infrastructure is not ready. If you get cash instead of food, you will have to travel long distances and queue for hours to collect your meagre benefits.

Third, it’s not obvious that academics are sufficiently familiar with the deeply particular local political contexts in which every development program must be implemented to give useful advice on them.

Just to pursue the first angle, a development scheme can stand or fall on minor details such as whether the monthly cheques are signed by the district magistrate or village head, whether a government-sponsored latrine has one pit or two pits, or whether biometric authentication is necessary to apply for benefits…

Economists certainly have much to contribute, but in many cases they have no special competence on the relevant details. This has often struck me in the context of discussions of India’s MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), a complex programme that makes exacting demands on the administrative machinery. In my experience, it is possible to have enlightening discussions on the operational details with local administrators, village-level functionaries, and even MNREGA workers… In academic seminars on this subject, by contrast, the ignorance of operational matters is epic.

Finally, there is the very real possibility that advocacy on behalf of a specific policy could backfire.  But it is unclear how well academics can game out the policymaking process and anticipate precisely how their advice will be used.

 If you advise A, you may get a.A (a fraction of A), or A’ (a variant of A), or B (or an alternative to A), or even -A (the opposite of A). In the first case, should one actually advise (1/a).A, in the hope of getting A? That is, indeed, a common tactic among activists – ask for the loaf, settle for a slice. To put this in a different way (familiar to economists), policy advice can be seen as a kind of ‘game’, where the outcome depends on the strategies of all players, and the players must take each other’s strategies into account. Or perhaps it would be unprincipled to look at it that way, and economists should just give the advice they think is right, irrespective of the consequences? It is hard to tell.

The whole article is well worth a read.

 

Working paper on generalizability in the social sciences

Here’s the latest draft of my working paper on generalizability in the social sciences.  Abstract:

Generalizability is widely agreed to be a desirable characteristic of social science research. Many discussions of the topic present it as a tradeoff between a study’s internal validity, and its generalizability, which is achieved by increasing its sample size. I argue that we should view the process of aggregating data and assessing the generalizability of research results as a distinctive step in disciplinary research cycles, rather than something which every study needs to accomplish on its own. This is best done through systematic reviews and coordinated multi-site research projects. The substantive implication of this argument is that researchers should focus on their preferred type of internally valid research, and disciplines should focus on building better systems for assessing generalizability, rather than delegating that responsibility to individual researchers.

Any comments on this are welcome!  I’m also looking for a good publication venue for this, either as an article or as commentary, so please let me know if you’ve got thoughts on that.

Are M-Pesa’s poverty reduction powers overstated?

A Kenyan woman stands in front of a green kiosk with the word MPesa prominently painted on it

Photo via Fiona Graham / World Remit

There’s been a bit of a stir on Kenyan Twitter lately about a new (and ungated) Review of African Political Economy article by Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack, and Nicholas Loubere.  In it, they take on Tavneet Suri and William Jack’s claim in Science that the M-Pesa mobile money platform has led to reductions in poverty in Kenya by making it easier for people to access remittances from family and friends, and consequently giving them more money to start small businesses.

Writing at Developing Economics, Bateman et al. argue that Suri & Jack’s argument falls short in several ways.  First, informal microenterprises are rarely profitable.  In addition, there’s a question of general equilibrium effects:

Some of the purported gains made by M-Pesa clients inevitably come at the expense of existing microenterpriseswhich will contract, lose income, and possibly close. Moreover, the influx of new microenterprises has undoubtedly had negative knock-on effects for entire local economies, driving down already tiny profit margins and exacerbating hypercompetitive markets dominated by the poor acting as producers.

Second, M-Pesa facilitates not just remittances, but also borrowing.  More than 25% of Kenyans have taken out a loan through one of the many mobile money borrowing facilities available, and about half of those borrowers have struggled to make payments on time, according to a CGAP report.  There’s an implicit argument here that trapping poor people in debt is unethical, although it’s not obvious to me that cutting poor people off from credit is ethical either.

Third, Bateman et al. also question Suri & Jack’s methods, suggesting that the observed increased in wealth in areas with more M-Pesa agents is driven by clustering of agents in wealthier areas, rather than changes facilitated by access to M-Pesa.  I’m not as convinced by this.  Suri & Jack used panel data from 2008 – 2014 to measure the impact of M-Pesa expansion up until 2010.  They picked this cutoff date for M-Pesa because the distribution of agents up till that point (but not afterwards) wasn’t strongly correlated with local income levels.

My take on all of this is that I don’t think Suri & Jack have fundamentally misunderstood the economic effects of M-Pesa expansion.  However, I think the point about general equilibrium effects is an important one, and one that’s generally underdiscussed in the literature on microfinance and microenterprises.

Online courses on research impact

If you’re interested in increasing the impact of your research or improving your academic writing, there are several online courses and seminars coming up which you should check out.

Interesting academic articles for June 2019

Here are the articles I’m looking forward to reading!  Also, out of consideration for the many people who don’t have access to gated academic journals, I’m switching to a policy of only sharing articles which have ungated editions available online, whether as working papers or through Sci-Hub.

Lachlan McNamee.  2019.  “Indirect colonial rule and the salience of ethnicity.”  World Development.

Why is ethnicity more salient in some contexts than in others? This paper provides new theory and evidence linking indirect colonial rule to the contemporary salience of ethnicity in sub-Saharan Africa. Using Afrobarometer survey data, I establish a substantively significant cross-national relationship between the indirectness of colonial rule and the strength of contemporary ethnic identification in sub-Saharan Africa. To show that this relationship is causal, I then exploit a sub-national research design leveraging regional variation in direct and indirect colonial rule across the country of Namibia. I show that, controlling for location and ethnicity, indirect colonial rule is also associated with stronger ethnic identification within Namibia both across the country as a whole and within 50 km of the border dividing indirectly and directly ruled areas of Namibia. This paper then disentangles why indirect rule is so robustly associated with the salience of ethnicity. I theorize and provide evidence that the effects of indirect rule can be attributed to the greater importance of traditional leaders and ethnically demarcated customary land rights in formerly indirectly ruled areas. As such, this paper helps uncover the causes of important regional variation in the salience of ethnicity, advances our understanding of the institutional origins of ethnic conflict in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and thus why indirect colonial rule is so often associated with poor developmental outcomes.

Zora Kovacic, Josephine Kaviti Musango, Lorraine Amollo Ambole, Kareem Buyana, Suzanne Smit, Christer Anditi, Baraka Mwau, Madara Ogot, Shuaib Lwasa, Alan C. Brent, Gloria Nsangi, and Hakimu Sseviiri.  2019.  “Interrogating differences: A comparative analysis of Africa’s informal settlements.”  World Development.

Urban development in Africa is a very diverse and ambivalent phenomenon with aspects that do not fall neatly into global standards. Informal settlements therefore challenge governance by standards. We argue that quantifying and interrogating differences offers a better basis for governance. By drawing on a comparative analysis of three different informal settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa, this paper explores what differences reveal about the governance of informal settlements. The paper uses an urban societal metabolism approach, focussed on gender, energy and health, based on questionnaires and focus group discussions in Enkanini (Stellenbosch, South Africa), Mathare (Nairobi, Kenya), and Kasubi-Kawaala (Kampala, Uganda). The contribution of the paper is both empirical and theoretical. Empirically, we provide new evidence about the metabolism of urban informality at multiple levels of analysis: the individual, the household and the settlement. Findings show the gender asymmetries in urban poverty and the intricate links between energy choices, health and economic status. Theoretically, we argue that different levels of analysis produce different understandings of urban informality, and that analyzing informal settlements only by population aggregates means missing information. We conclude by arguing that understanding differences leads to the formulation of modest and localised goals, which are better able to take into account the complexity of urban informality.

Henry B. Lovejoy, Paul E. Lovejoy, Walter Hawthorne, Edward A. Alpers, Mariana Candido, Matthew S. Hopper.  2019.  “Redefining African Regions for Linking Open-Source Data.” History in Africa.  

In recent years, an increasing number of online archival databases of primary sources related to the history of the African diaspora and slavery have become freely and readily accessible for scholarly and public consumption. This proliferation of digital projects and databases presents a number of challenges related to aggregating data geographically according to the movement of people in and out of Africa across time and space. As a requirement to linking data of open-source digital projects, it has become necessary to delimit the entire continent of precolonial Africa during the era of the slave trade into broad regions and sub-regions that can allow the grouping of data effectively and meaningfully.

Sam Hickey.  2019.  “The politics of state capacity and development in Africa: Reframing and researching ‘pockets of effectiveness.”  Effective States in International Development working paper 117.

The role of bureaucratic ‘pockets of effectiveness’ (PoEs) in driving development is generating renewed interest within development studies and, to an extent, development policy. Existing research on PoEs emphasises that politics plays a leading role in shaping the emergence and sustainability of high-performing public sector organisations. However, the field as yet lacks a clear sense of the conditions under which this happens, partly because of a tendency to see PoEs as ‘islands’ that are divorced from their political context, and partly because there has been no attempt as yet to undertake systematic comparative analysis of PoEs across different types of political context. This paper sets out the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of a new project that seeks to address these problems within the context of sub-Saharan Africa. Drawing on an alignment of political settlements analysis with critical theories of state power and African politics, the paper argues that PoEs are both shaped by, and help to reproduce, particular forms of politics and institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. This means that PoEs are not simply interesting objects of enquiry in and of themselves, but also because they can reveal a good deal about how the competing logics of regime survival, state-building and democratisation are playing out in Africa and what implications this has for development. The paper proposes a methodological approach for identifying and exploring PoEs and briefly summarises the results of the expert surveys that we undertook in our four initial countries, namely Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia, which were chosen to represent different types of political settlement. These surveys resulted in our project focusing mainly on the economic technocracy as the key domain within which PoEs have flourished, particularly in terms of ministries of finance, central banks and revenue authorities, along with some other interesting outliers and underlying processes of state-building. Further papers from this project will include in-depth case studies of these specific PoEs and processes in each country, synthesised country analyses and comparative overviews.

Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell.  2019.  “Leader Succession and Civil War.”  Comparative Political Studies.  

Leadership succession is a perennial source of instability in autocratic regimes. Despite this, it has remained a curiously understudied phenomenon in political science. In this article, we compile a novel and comprehensive dataset on civil war in Europe and combine it with data on the fate of monarchs in 28 states over 800 years to investigate how autocratic succession affected the risk of civil war. Exploiting the natural deaths of monarchs to identify exogenous variation in successions, we find that successions substantially increased the risk of civil war. The risk of succession wars could, however, be mitigated by hereditary succession arrangements (i.e., primogeniture— the principle of letting the oldest son inherit the throne). When hereditary monarchies replaced elective monarchies in Europe, succession wars declined drastically. Our results point to the importance of the succession, and the institutions governing it, for political stability in autocratic regimes.

Adrien Bouguen, Yue Huang, Michael Kremer, and Edward Miguel.  2019.  “Using Randomized Controlled Trials to Estimate Long-Run Impacts in Development Economics.”  Annual Review of Economics.

We assess evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on long-run economic productivity and living standards in poor countries. We first document that several studies estimate large positive long-run impacts, but that relatively few existing RCTs have been evaluated over the long run. We next present evidence from a systematic survey of existing RCTs, with a focus on cash transfer and child health programs, and show that a meaningful sub- set can realistically be evaluated for long-run effects. We discuss ways to bridge the gap between the burgeoning number of development RCTs and the limited number that have been followed up to date, including through new panel (longitudinal) data; improved participant tracking methods; alternative research designs; and access to administrative, remote sensing, and cell phone data. We conclude that the rise of development economics RCTs since roughly 2000 provides a novel opportunity to generate high-quality evidence on the long-run drivers of living standards.