Access to electricity has stalled in many African countries

A Kenyan man in a yellow safety vest stands under a piece of large metallic tubing
A worker at Kenya’s Olkaria geothermal energy plant, via Wikipedia

In a recent article at The Conversation, Carolyn Logan says that the expansion of electrical grids across Africa has largely stalled since 2016.  As she notes,

Survey teams from the African research network Afrobarometer, asked people in 34 countries on the continent about access to electricity, and recorded the presence of an accessible grid. They found that expansion of national electric grids appeared to have largely stalled in recent years. And even in areas where an electric grid was accessible, service often remained unreliable.

About four in 10 Africans (42%) lack an electricity connection in their homes. This is either because they are in zones not served by an electric grid or because they are not connected to an existing grid. In 16 countries, more than half of respondents had no electricity connection. This included more than three quarters of citizens in Burkina Faso (81%), Uganda (80%), Liberia (78%), and Madagascar (76%).

Just getting access to the grid doesn’t guarantee reliable electricity, either.

Across 34 countries, one in four respondents (25%) who have an electricity connection say their electricity works “about half the time” or less (Figure 3). Quality is a particular problem in Malawi, where 88% of connected households do not have reliable electricity, and the situation is only slightly better in Guinea (79%) and Nigeria (79%). … Only 43% of Africans enjoy a reliable supply of electricity.

Interesting academic articles for January 2020

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

Shelby Grossman.  2019.  “The Politics of Order in Informal Markets: Evidence from Lagos.”  World Politics.

Property rights are important for economic exchange, but in many parts of the world, they are not publicly guaranteed. Private market associations can fill this gap by providing an institutional structure to enforce agreements, but with this power comes the ability to extort from group members. Under what circumstances do private associations provide a stable environment for economic activity? The author uses survey data collected from 1,179 randomly sampled traders across 199 markets in Lagos, Nigeria, and finds that markets maintain institutions to support trade not in the absence of government, but rather in response to active government interference. The author argues that associations develop protrade policies when threatened by politicians they perceive to be predatory and when the organizations can respond with threats of their own. The latter is easier when traders are not competing with one another. To maintain this balance of power, an association will not extort; it needs trader support to maintain the credibility of its threats to mobilize against predatory politicians.

Sabrina Karim.  2020.  “Relational State Building in Areas of Limited Statehood: Experimental Evidence on the Attitudes of the Police.”  American Political Science Review.  

Under what conditions does state expansion into limited statehood areas improve perceptions of state authority? Although previous work emphasizes identity or institutional sources of state legitimacy, I argue that relationships between state agents and citizens drive positive attitude formation, because these relationships provide information and facilitate social bonds. Moreover, when state agents and citizens share demographic characteristics, perceptional effects may improve. Finally, citizens finding procedural interactions between state agents and citizens unfair may adopt negative views about the state. I test these three propositions by randomizing household visits by male or female police officers in rural Liberia. These visits facilitated relationship building, leading to improved perceptions of police; shared demographic characteristics between police and citizens did not strengthen this effect. Perceptions of unfairness in the randomization led to negative opinions about police. The results imply that relationship building between state agents and citizens is an important part of state building.

Sarah Brierley.  2019.  “Unprincipled Principals: Co-opted Bureaucrats and Corruption in Ghana.”  American Journal of Political Science.

In theory, granting politicians tools to oversee bureaucrats can reduce administrative malfeasance. In contrast, I argue that the political control of bureaucrats can increase corruption when politicians need money to fund election campaigns and face limited institutional constraints. In such contexts, politicians can leverage their discretionary powers to incentivize bureaucrats to extract rents from the state on politicians’ behalf. Using data from an original survey of bureaucrats (N = 864) across 80 randomly sampled local governments in Ghana, I show that bureaucrats are more likely to facilitate politicians’ corrupt behavior when politicians are perceived to be empowered with higher levels of discretionary control. Using qualitative data and a list experiment to demonstrate the mechanism, I show that politicians enact corruption by threatening to transfer noncompliant officers. My findings provide new evidence on the sources of public administrative deficiencies in developing countries and qualify the presumption that greater political oversight improves governance.

Raúl Sánchez de la Sierra.  2019.  “On the Origins of the State: Stationary Bandits and Taxation in Eastern Congo.”  Journal of Political Economy.

A positive demand shock for coltan, a mineral whose bulky output cannot be concealed, leads armed actors to create illicit customs and provide protection at coltan mines, where they settle as “stationary bandits.” A similar shock for gold, easy to conceal, leads to stationary bandits in the villages where income from gold is spent, where they introduce illicit mining visas, taxes, and administrations. Having a stationary bandit from a militia or the Congolese army increases welfare. These findings suggest that armed actors may create “essential functions of a state” to better expropriate, which, depending on their goals, can increase welfare.

Pedro Carneiro, Lucy Kraftman, Giacomo Mason, Lucie Moore, Imran Rasul, and Molly Scott.  2019.  The Impacts of a Multifaceted Pre-natal Intervention on Human Capital Accumulation in Early Life.”  Working paper.

We present results from a large-scale and long-term randomized control trial to evaluate an intervention targeting early life nutrition and well-being for households residing in extreme poverty in Northern Nigeria. The multifaceted intervention provides: (i) information to mothers and fathers on practices related to pregnancy and infant feeding; (ii) high-valued unconditional cash transfers to mothers, each month from pregnancy until the child turns two. We document two- and four-year impacts among 3600 pregnant women and their children. The intervention leads to large and sustained improvements in anthropometric and health outcomes for children, including an 8% reduction in stunting by endline. These impacts are partly driven by information-related channels (such as improved knowledge, practices and health behaviors of mothers towards new borns). However, the value and certain flow of cash transfers is also key: these induce labor supply responses among women, and allow them to undertake investments in livestock. These are both a source of protein rich diets for children, and generate higher earnings streams for households long after the cash transfers expire. The results show the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of scalable multifaceted pre-natal interventions in even the most challenging and food insecure economic environments.

Kanika Jha Kingra, Francis Rathinam, Tony Tyrrell, and Marie Gaarder.  2019. Social protection: a synthesis of evidence and lessons from 3ie evidence-supported impact evaluations.”  3ie working paper #34.

The paper synthesises evidence from evaluation of transfer programmes in Ecuador, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe and from public works programmes in Ethiopia and India.  [Key findings include the following.] Cash versus in-kind or food transfers and conditional versus unconditional transfers are issues of extensive debate amongst implementers of social protection programmes. Transfers can positively affect non-beneficiaries and the wider economy. Information on cost-benefit remains a gnawing gap. Analysis of gendered outcomes remains limited.

How much do African countries collect in taxes?

Not very much compared to global standards, according to this Economist article.  As they note,

Government revenues average about 17% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IMF. Nigeria has more than 300 times as many people as Luxembourg, but collects less tax. If Ethiopia shared out its tax revenues equally, each citizen would get around $80 a year. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is so penurious that its annual health spending per person could not buy a copy of this newspaper.

Globally, wealthy countries have tax revenues equivalent to about 34% of GDP, and Latin America averages 22%, according to the OECD.


One of the paradoxes of taxation in many African states is that low tax revenues co-exist with relatively high tax rates, because the overall tax base is very narrow.  Most economic activity goes untaxed, and taxes are concentrated on a small number of firms in the formal sector.  And the largest firms, or those which are politically connected, can often negotiate further tax breaks, further narrowing the tax base.

(H/t to Ken Opalo for this article.)


What happens to Africa if climate change goes unchecked?

Via Susan Comrie, I came across this alarming map of what the world will look like if global temperatures rise by 4°C.  The outlook for Africa is extraordinarily grim.  (The blue dots north of the Sahara reflect potential for solar energy installations, and the red bits are coastline permanently lost to sea level rise.)

A map showing that Africa will mostly be desert at 4 degrees Celsius of global warming, with a bit of greenery in the Sahel

According to Our World in Data, the world’s current set of climate policies will lead to warming of 3.1-3.7°C relative to pre-industrial temperatures by 2100.  That’s not too far off the future depicted in this map.

There’s a desperate need for the countries which emit the most carbon — primarily China, the US, and the European region — to put better policies in place.  African countries also need to plan for climate change mitigation, although it’s unclear exactly how much can be done in the face of 4°C of warming.

Who counts as a household head?

If you’ve done much survey research, you’re probably familiar with controversies over how to map out households, and in particular whether to assume that a married man is by default the household head.  The Center for Global Development and Data2X recently shared the discussion from an interesting event on this topic.  As the authors Mayra Buvinic and Dominique van de Walle note,

Traditionally, the uses of household headship have been both practical and conceptual. First, the delineation of a head is universally used in household surveys as a practical organizing principle to map out the household roster and relationships between household members. Second, comparing households according to the sex of the designated head has been used as a way to assess gender inequalities. Indeed, female headship has been interpreted as a proxy for women’s poverty.

They lay out three reasons why assigning headship according to gender can be a bad idea.

First, headship as a concept is value-laden and reinforces patriarchal gender stereotypes that are important to resist. Gender-biased concepts and measures can perpetuate stereotypical notions that only men should be heads of household. Second, assigning a head also depends on subjective assessments by household members. Finally, headship may also perpetuate gender bias if interviewers are themselves predisposed towards attributing headship to adult males. The conclusion to this line of reasoning is that getting rid of these data and organizing the household around a “primary household respondent” would solve the problem of using a construct that is not reducible.

However, they don’t feel that the concept should be dropped immediately.  One salient point is that many cultures still do in practice designate one adult to make the major household decisions, and ignoring this designation would throw away useful data.  In addition,

We would argue that analyzing households by their head’s gender can be a reliable source of information for:

  1.  Monitoring changes in society and family dynamics. The growing number of women heading households in prime adult age groups can signal social change towards gender equality and away from patriarchal family structures.
  2.  Female headship, when it captures marital dissolution and widowhood (Africa) or unpartnered motherhood (Latin America), often signals vulnerability and disadvantage for women and children.
  3.  The growing numbers of female heads resulting from wars and violent conflict signal both vulnerabilities and economic and political opportunities for women.