Scholarship updates for February 2021

I’ve just added 17 new opportunities to my lists of scholarships and research & travel funding for African academics. Check it out!

The 20 best longform articles of 2020

Here’s my annual round-up of the year’s best articles! You can also read along with me at Pocket, where I share the most interesting things I read during the year. (Previously: best of 2019201820172016.)

India’s Pickle Queen Preserves Everything, Including the Past. New York Times. “Mango and lime pickles are commonly sold in the United States, but nothing escapes pickling in India: plums and hog plums, cherries and chokecherries, sprouted fenugreek seeds, bamboo shoots, fat gooseberries, hibiscus flowers and green walnuts. Cooks work with all kinds of fruits, vegetables, flowers, roots and seeds, using every edible part of every possible food.”

Facial Recognition for Pigs: Is it Helping Chinese Farmers or Hurting the Poorest? The Guardian. “[Facial recognition technology] is able to differentiate between pigs by analysing their snouts, ears, and eyes. The system used in Guangxi farms constantly tracks pigs’ pulses and sweat rates; at the same time, voice recognition software monitors individual animals’ cough rates. In this way, it is able to spot warning signs before a pig becomes sick or hungry. Being a ‘highly expressive’ animal, the cameras are even capable of recognising distress in the animals’ faces.”

The Battle to Invent the Automatic Rice Cooker. Atlas Obscura. “The automatic rice cooker is a mid-century Japanese invention that made a Sisyphean culinary labor as easy as measuring out grain and water and pressing a button… So long as you add water and rice in the right proportions, it’s nearly impossible to mess up, as the machines stop cooking at exactly the right point for toothsome rice. But creating an automatic rice cooker was not so easy. In fact, it took decades of inventive leaps, undertaken by some of the biggest names in Japanese technology…. [For centuries before,] Japanese women rose at dawn and labored for several sweaty hours to make rice.”

Learning from the Kariba Dam. New York Times. “As the stony facade continues to crumble, the likelihood rises that the Kariba Dam will not just fail but fall. If the dam collapses, the BBC reported in 2014, a tsunami would tear through the Zambezi River Valley, a torrent so powerful that it would knock down another dam a hundred miles away, the Cahora Bassa in Mozambique — twin disasters that would take out 40 percent of the hydroelectric capacity in all of southern Africa.”

A New Master’s House: The Architect Decolonising Nigerian Design. Al Jazeera. “Nwoko began building his own house in Ibadan with the methods that have remained his hallmarks. He created the bricks with laterite soil extracted on-site during the excavation process… Trees removed during construction were repurposed as flooring, doors, window shutters, and the framework for the roofing… Ventilation portals create pathways for breezes to enter from the floor and for hot air to escape at ceiling level. With this passive cooling system, as well as the natural temperature regulation provided by the mud walls, no air conditioning is needed, year-round.”

For Domestic Workers, Apps Provide Solace – But Not Justice. Rest of World. “Driven to desperation, many domestic workers around the world clearly need innovative solutions. Angela Kintominas, a lawyer and researcher for the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the most useful new digital services are those developed in collaboration with migrant-worker organizations. Such groups can provide local context and on-the-ground experience with privacy and data security, she said. Whether all the emerging services follow that prescription is another matter.”

The Strange Reinvention of Icelandic. The Economist. “Icelanders are fiercely proud of their tongue and stay actively involved in its maintenance…. The result is something close to unique—a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian).”

Behrouz Boochani Just Wants to be Free. New York Times. “Everyone staying in Lodge 10 was a refugee awaiting resettlement. These men were brought into the country against their will for the noncrime of seeking political asylum in Australia. They were among hundreds of migrants locked up in an old naval base on Manus Island, which lies off the northeast coast of mainland Papua New Guinea. Now they had been moved to this motel with its shared toilets and atmosphere of stultified trauma…. All the men had started out together in the shared misery of detention, but then Boochani did something extraordinary: Letter by letter, pecked out on contraband telephones while locked up on Manus, he wrote his first book.”

Electric Crypto Balkan Acid Test. The Baffler. “European authorities soon traced the power fluctuations to North Kosovo, a region commonly described as one of Europe’s last ganglands. Since 2015, its major city, Mitrovica, has been under the control of Srpska Lista, a mafia masquerading as a political party. Around the time Srpska came to power, North Kosovo’s electricity consumption surged. Officials at the Kosovo Electricity Supply Company in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital city, told me that the region now requires 20 percent more power than it did five years ago. Eventually, it became clear why: across the region, from the shabby apartment blocks of Mitrovica to the cellars of mountain villages, Bitcoin and Ethereum rigs were humming away, fueling a shadow economy of cryptocurrency manufacturing.”

Inside the Quest for Documents that Could Resolve a Cold War Mystery. Lithub. “Let me explain why, out of the millions of pages of military records from the 1950s, these twenty-one withdrawn memos might matter. It’s not only because any document that a government takes special pains to keep away from historians, using a yellow access-restricted card, is likely to be revealing in some way. It’s also because these documents in particular may help answer one of the big unresolved questions of the Cold War: Did the United States covertly employ some of its available biological weaponry—bombs packed with fleas and mosquitoes and disease-dusted feathers, for instance—in locations in China and Korea?”

Landscape of Fear: Why We Need the Wolf. The Guardian. “Around the same time as the wolves were released, the mountain lion population, once hunted to local extinction, was becoming re-established as well – having crept back in from wilderness areas in central Idaho. Under these twin pressures, over a period of about 15 years, elk numbers halved. Those that did survive behaved differently, too: when the wolves were on the prowl, they retreated to the dimly lit comfort of the woods, where they might wander in clandestine bands. They avoided the cougars, most active at night, by steering clear of landmarks where they might be trapped or surprised from above in the dark – ravines, outcrops, embankments. No longer did they live in an environment defined by its waterholes and pastures, or even by its ridgelines and ravines, but by areas now suffused with danger and relief. A psychological topology, this – one marked with hillocks of anxiety and peaks of alarm. Ecologists know this as ‘the landscape of fear.'”

The Man Who Refused to Spy. The New Yorker. “The prosecution, evidently sensing that the case was not going its way, had quietly informed ICE that it no longer wished to defer Asgari’s deportation [to Iran]: the agency could come collect its prisoner. No sooner had Judge Gwin departed the courtroom than a marshal seated in the gallery approached the defense table to haul Asgari into ICE custody. The turn of events was stunning. Asgari had just been acquitted in a fair trial before a federal judge, but would end the day in prison. By all appearances, the government was acting out of vindictiveness.”

The Abolition Movement. Vanity Fair. “It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.”

Land-Grab Universities. High Country News. “In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. Now thriving, the institutions seldom ask who paid for their good fortune… The Morrill Act worked by turning land expropriated from tribal nations into seed money for higher education. In all, the act redistributed nearly 11 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. But with a footprint broken up into almost 80,000 parcels of land, scattered mostly across 24 Western states, its place in the violent history of North America’s colonization has remained comfortably inaccessible.”

Algae Caviar, Anyone? What We’ll Eat on the Journey to Mars. Wired. “Every pound that NASA transports to and from space costs thousands of dollars, which means food must be lightweight and compact. It also has to last a long time. Like Nespoli’s mashed potatoes, many of the dishes on offer—shrimp cocktail, chicken teriyaki, or one of a couple hundred other options—come dehydrated. And they tend to share another property too, Coleman said: “Everything is kind of mushy.” This is a side effect of NASA’s all-out war on crumbs. On Earth, crumbs fall; in microgravity, they can end up anywhere, including inside critical equipment or astronauts’ lungs.”

The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of. Mental Floss. “For 60 years, American drivers unknowingly poisoned themselves by pumping leaded gasoline into their tanks. Here is the lifelong saga of Clair Patterson—a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb and discovered the true age of the Earth—and how he took on a billion-dollar industry to save humanity from itself.”

Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel. Scientific American. “The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder…. The invention of the wheel was so challenging that it probably happened only once, in one place. However, from that place, it seems to have spread so rapidly across Eurasia and the Middle East that experts cannot say for sure where it originated.”

Egg-Laying or Live Birth: How Evolution Chooses. Quanta. “Live birth evolved later — and more than once. In reptiles alone, it has evolved at least 121 separate times. And although scientists don’t know exactly when the first live animal emerged from its mother, they do know what forces may have been driving the transition from egg laying and what evolutionary steps may have preceded it.”

When Plants Go to War. Nautilus. “Far from being passive victims, plants have evolved potent defenses: chemical compounds that serve as toxins, signal an escalating attack, and solicit help from unlikely allies. However, all of this security comes at a cost: energy and other resources that plants could otherwise use for growth and repair. So to balance the budget, plants have to be selective about how and when to deploy their chemical arsenal. Here are five tactics they’ve developed to ward off their insect foes without sacrificing their own wellbeing.”

Childish Things: The Anguish of Grandparenting in a Pandemic. The Economist. “The knowledge that children are perpetually passing through themselves on the way to becoming someone else is part of the delight and fascination of parenthood. Their behaviours and traits are in a state of constant evolution, so that the very things that once seemed to define them are always slipping into the past and passing out of memory. All this is just a basic premise of being alive. But it’s also devastating when you think about it. Not quite death, but not quite unrelated either.”

Social protection research centers

Continuing on my SP data kick, I wanted to highlight some of the key research centers and publications that are useful for understanding the contemporary social protection landscape.

The World Bank’s Social Protection Unit: A major funder of SP programs around the world, the WB also offers a wealth of data and analysis. Key publication: Sourcebook on the Foundations of Social Protection Delivery Systems (2020).

ILO Global Flagship Program on Building Social Protection Floors for All: The ILO advocates for social protection floors and offers policy analysis to partner governments. Key publication: World Social Protection Report 2017 – 2019 (2017).

The IADB’s Social Protection Unit: Major funder of SP programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. Key publication: The Unequal Burden of the Pandemic: Why the Fallout of Covid-19 Hits the Poor the Hardest (2020).

The Transfer Project: A research center which carries out rigorous evaluations of cash transfer programs around the world. Key publication: A Mixed-Method Review of Cash Transfers and Intimate Partner Violence in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (2018).

ODI Equity and Social Policy Unit: Research and commentary on global social protection programs. Key publication: Cash Transfers: What Does the Evidence Say? (2016).

Centre for Social Protection at IDS: A research center which carries out program evaluations and shares commentary on social protection. Key publication: Linking Social Rights to Active Citizenship for the Most Vulnerable: the Role of Rights and Accountability in the ‘Making’ and ‘Shaping’ of Social Protection (2019).

Centre for Social Science Research at UCT: The research center covers a range of topics, but filtering the publication list by “CSSR” brings up a strong focus on social protection in southern Africa. Key publication: The politics of social protection policy reform in Malawi, 2006-2017 (2020).

ERIA’s Social Protection Unit: A research institute focused on SP in East Asia and ASEAN countries. Key publication: Social Protection Goals in East Asia: Strategies and Methods to Generate Fiscal Space (2018).

Maintains: A five-year research program on adaptive social protection in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. Key publication: Conceptual framework for studying social protection responses to COVID-19 (2020).

The Political Economy of Social Protection Expansion in Africa at ESID: A research program focused on Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Key publication: The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa (2019).

Research at GiveDirectly: GD implements programs which are designed to answer pressing questions about the impacts of cash transfers. Key publication: The impact of unconditional cash transfers on poor households in rural Kenya (2016).

SocialProtection.org: Online portal for events, courses, and publications related to social protection. Key publication: Options for rapid delivery (payment) of cash transfers for COVID-19 responses and beyond (2020).

3ie’s Social Protection Unit: Shares impact evaluations, systematic reviews, and evidence gap maps related to social protection. Key publication: Household and economy-wide impacts of a public works programme in Ethiopia (2017).

GDSRC’s Social Protection Unit: Shares impact evaluations and systematic reviews related to social protection, and has a topic guide for people new to the sector. Key publication: Social Protection Topic Guide (2019).

Social protection data sources

I’ve been digging into different data sources on social protection recently and wanted to collate some of them here. There are lots of great public resources available. If you know of any other useful datasets that I’m missing, do let me know!

Atlas of Social Protection: Indicators of Resilience and Equity (ASPIRE)

  • Data source: World Bank
  • Geographic coverage: 125 countries
  • Temporal coverage: 1998 – 2019
  • Regularly updated: Yes
  • Main indicators: Adequacy of benefits (as a percentage of total monthly consumption), transfer size, income level of beneficiaries, program coverage, cost-benefit ratio, poverty gap reduction
  • Notes: Indicators are broken down by program type, urban vs. rural beneficiaries, and income quintiles

Social Assistance in Low and Middle Income Countries (SALMIC)

  • Data source: University of Manchester
  • Geographic coverage: 110 countries
  • Temporal coverage: 2000 – 2015
  • Regularly updated: No
  • Main indicators: Program type, target population, targeting method, transfer value and frequency, transfer modality (cash vs. digital), implementing agency, program budget

World Social Protection Report 2017 – 2019

  • Data source: ILO
  • Geographic coverage: 189 countries
  • Temporal coverage: 1995 – 2018
  • Regularly updated: Yes
  • Main indicators: Program coverage, program funding, implementing agency, benefit type
  • Notes: Indicators are broken down by beneficiary type (children, mothers, people with disabilities, unemployed people, the elderly)

Social Security Programs Throughout the World

  • Data source: US Social Security Administration
  • Geographic coverage: 170 countries
  • Temporal coverage: 2002 – 2019
  • Regularly updated: Yes
  • Main indicators: Regulatory framework, target population, source of funding, implementing agency
  • Notes: Individual country case studies are provided for each year. Not available as a single dataset

Partnership for Economic Inclusion (PEI) Data Portal

  • Data source: World Bank
  • Geographic coverage: 75 countries
  • Temporal coverage: Not stated, but the portal launched in 2020, so the data is recent
  • Regularly updated: Yes
  • Main indicators: Program objectives, program components, cost of program components, target population, implementing partners
  • Notes: Focuses on economic inclusion programs, a.k.a. graduation programs, which offer bundled interventions (such as cash transfers + asset transfers + training) to vulnerable populations. Data can be accessed through their portal but not downloaded

HelpAge Social Pensions Database

  • Data source: HelpAge
  • Geographic coverage: 111 countries
  • Temporal coverage: 1890 – 2016
  • Regularly updated: Yes
  • Main indicators: Benefit levels, targeting, population coverage, program cost

Global Social Protection COVID-19 Response Database

  • Data source: World Bank
  • Geographic coverage: 212 countries
  • Temporal coverage: 2020 (obviously!)
  • Regularly updated: Yes
  • Main indicators: Program type, number of beneficiaries (planned & actual), program budget, adequacy of benefits (as a percentage of total monthly consumption)
  • Notes: Updated versions of this database and accompanying paper are regularly published through Ugo Gentilini’s website

Non-Contributory Social Programs Database for Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Data source: UN
  • Geographic coverage: 21 countries
  • Temporal coverage: 1919 – 2019
  • Regularly updated: Yes
  • Main indicators: Target population, targeting method, payment modality, transfer value, implementing agency, legal framework, program budget
  • Notes: Data is provided for multiple years, not just the most recent year. Individual country case studies and datasets are provided, but there isn’t a single dataset for the entire region.

Realizing the Full Potential of Social Safety Nets in Africa

  • Data source: World Bank
  • Geographic coverage: 48 countries
  • Temporal coverage: Snapshot of country programs in 2017
  • Regularly updated: No
  • Main indicators: Poverty headcount, national social protection strategy, implementing agency, program type, targeting method, program coverage, program expenditure (as % of GDP and government revenue), funding sources, administrative costs, transfer value
  • Notes: Data is provided in the tables in appendices C – J of this book. It’s not available for download as a separate dataset

Social Cash Transfer Payment Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Data source: UCT
  • Geographic coverage: 44 countries
  • Temporal coverage: 1927 – 2020
  • Regularly updated: No
  • Main indicators: Targeting method, program coverage, payment value, payment frequency, payment modality
  • Notes: Data is provided in the tables in the appendix of this paper. It’s not available for download as a separate dataset.

Social Protection Indicators for Asia and the Pacific

  • Data source: ADB
  • Geographic coverage: 42 countries
  • Temporal coverage: 2005 – 2015
  • Regularly updated: Yes
  • Main indicators: Program coverage, program expenditures, adequacy of benefits
  • Notes: Data can be viewed through their interactive portal and downloaded as a separate dataset for each indicator

World Social Protection Data Dashboards

  • Data source: ILO
  • Geographic coverage: 220 countries
  • Temporal coverage: Snapshot of country programs in most recent year for which data is available
  • Regularly updated: Yes
  • Main indicators: Program coverage (by total population and also by different categories of vulnerable people), expenditure as % of GDP

“Tuna Haki Pia / We Also Have Rights”: living with disability in Nairobi

The Mathare Social Justice Centre has a new report out on the experiences of people with disabilities in Nairobi’s poor neighborhoods. The summary findings from a survey of 82 disabled people are stark:

  • 90% of respondents who require sign language and braille training did not have access to it
  • Despite many respondents living with physical disabilities, 0% had access to a disabled toilet
  • 78% required some form of supportive equipment – of these:
    • 96% did not have all the equipment they require
    • 59% need mobility equipment (e.g. wheelchair) which they do not have
  • For those of working age, 53% were unemployed and 13% relied on begging for an income
  • 54% were aware of the PWD card, yet only 40% had one. Of those who had a card, very few received any benefit from it

The full report offers a rich portrayal of individual stories, interviews with government officials, building audits, and a review of the legal environment for supporting disabled people. It closes with a moving reflection:

To us, disability is not a point of individual or social tragedy, but a natural and necessary part of human diversity.  The tragedy of disability is not our minds and bodies but oppression, exclusion and marginalization.  we do not need to be cured.  We do not need charity.  We need respect, equality and access.  moving forward, the same way we have police stations everywhere, we should have centres for people with disabilities.