Roads, funerals, and the risk of Ebola in West Africa

Note: this is a guest post from D.S. Battistoli.  We were chatting about the Ebola vaccine in the DRC, and he sent me an email that was so interesting that I asked to reproduce parts of it here.  D.S. is an international development specialist who has worked around West Africa and the Caribbean.  He managed field operations for a healthcare NGO in Liberia starting in November 2014, just before the outbreak there peaked.

After the West African Ebola outbreak started, there was the infamous rediscovery of Knobloch et al 1982, which found Ebola antibodies in the blood of 6% of assayed Liberians less than a decade after the virus was first identified in Zaïre.  This indicates is that in late twentieth-century Liberia, Ebola was both present and less likely to spread uncontrollably than it was at the same time in the Congo.  Conversely, by 2014 Liberia was a place seemingly more convenable to uncontrollable person-to-person spread than the DRC.

The rub lies in what changed in the interim. There are a number of factors at play, including the growth of the natural resource extraction industry, which increased rates of human-animal contact; marginally improved transportation networks between urban and rural areas; and of course the civil war, which gutted the healthcare and other governance systems and reduced trust in what remained. Shifts in funerary practices may also play an important role. I believe that many pre-colonial funerary practices once “priced in” the risk of mortality arising from contact with the corpses of people who died from hemorrhagic fevers and other deadly communicable diseases, and helped survivors minimize the risk of transmission.

As a point of comparison, let’s take the funerary practices of Surinamese Maroons, an Afro-American people living in that part of the Amazon rainforest spread over the Guiana Shield. They still have a number of ritual praxes which their ancestors brought over from West and Central Africa in the eighteenth century, including funereal praxes of corpse-washing, corpse-divination, and delayed interment. Over the last century, even as changes to core Maroon funerary practice have been only fairly minor, certain praxes that are barely even classifiable as funereal have changed in a way that would increase societal risk if they were in an Ebola-endemic area. For example:

  • Prior to the 1960s, before transport and communication revolutions made it so that related people would be expected to travel halfway across the country to make it in time for a person’s funeral, attendance at funerals was lower, and fewer attendees then travelled great distances to get “home”.
  • At the same time, it became more normal to transport corpses across-country to be buried, whereas earlier, there were clear distance horizons beyond which only hair and nail samples would be moved.
  • The set of “dangerous deaths”, types of decease requiring immediate burial, without transport to a cemetery, and almost without ceremony, decreased to near nothingness, as economic development made it possible to accord almost everyone full funeral honors.
  • Norms preventing gravediggers and corpse-washers from cohabitating and otherwise socializing with other villagers during funerals also fell by the wayside; before this, non-gravediggers were forbidden from cohabiting, socializing, or even sharing food with gravediggers and corpse-washers until after the “second funeral”, which was usually several weeks after the interment of any adults.
  • More than a few adult deaths in a short period of time would cause the total abandonment of the village where the deaths took place; it would often be months or years before a “broken” village’s diaspora would rejoin permanent settlements (this was prior to the 1880s, at which point new norms of the amount of property by households made such relocation increasingly uneconomical).
  • And starting in the 1990s, thanks to advances in Western medicine, it became far more common to transport the critically ill from one place to another to seek treatment.

During my eighteen months in Liberia, I wasn’t able to fully establish beyond any doubt that local rural populations had similar perifunerary practice adaptations that would have increased their risk, but there were strong indications that such was the case, including the fact that Ebola transmission rates were lowest in the counties with the lowest HDI (an exception to this correlation was Bong County, where the way of life was transformed by intensive mining operations). Thus traditional funereal praxes weren’t in and of themselves as dangerous as mixtures of tradition and modernity that often left people between two stools when it came to protection from this disease.

Admittedly, social praxes vary from one people to the next, and even from one village to the next, and Surinamese Maroon funereal and funeral-adjacent praxes are not direct total-system transplants, but rather amalgamations of praxes sourced from all over West and Central Africa.  However, it remains important to understand that the fact that nothing like Ebola ever, in 400 years, entered the historical record as a disease of which Arabs or Europeans were aware. All this combines to suggest that in the past, “traditional” African funerals included infection-risk-management procedures whose efficacy was greater than contemporary medical professionals assume.

Sneak peek: generalizability in the social sciences

One of my current research papers looks at how social scientists think about the idea of generalizability.  It’s not quite ready for public consumption, but in the meantime I wanted to share some of the interesting papers which have influenced my thinking on the topic.

Mary Ann Bates & Rachel Glennerster.  2017.  “The Generalizability Puzzle.”  Stanford Social Innovation Review.

At J-PAL we adopt a generalizability framework for integrating different types of evidence, including results from the increasing number of randomized evaluations of social programs, to help make evidencebased policy decisions. We suggest the use of a four-step generalizability framework that seeks to answer a crucial question at each step:

Step 1: What is the disaggregated theory behind the program?
Step 2: Do the local conditions hold for that theory to apply?
Step 3: How strong is the evidence for the required general behavioral change?
Step 4: What is the evidence that the implementation process can be carried out well?

Mark Rosenzweig & Chris Udry.  2019.  “External Validity in a Stochastic World.”  Review of Economic Studies.

We examine empirically the generalizability of internally valid micro estimates of causal effects in a fixed population over time when that population is subject to aggregate shocks. Using panel data we show that the returns to investments in agriculture in India and Ghana, small and medium non-farm enterprises in Sri Lanka, and schooling in Indonesia fluctuate significantly across time periods. We show how the returns to these investments interact with specific, measurable and economically-relevant aggregate shocks, focusing on rainfall and price fluctuations. We also obtain lower-bound estimates of confidence intervals of the returns based on estimates of the parameters of the distributions of rainfall shocks in our two agricultural samples. We find that even these lower-bound confidence intervals are substantially wider than those based solely on sampling error that are commonly provided in studies, most of which are based on single-year samples. We also find that cross-sectional variation in rainfall cannot be confidently used to replicate within-population rainfall variability. Based on our findings, we discuss methods for incorporating information on external shocks into evaluations of the returns to policy.

Karen Levy & Varna Sri Raman.  2018.  “Why (and When) We Test at Scale: No Lean Season and the Quest for Impact.”  Evidence Action blog.

No Lean Season, a late-stage program in the Beta incubation portfolio, provides small loans to poor, rural households for seasonal labor migration. Based on multiple rounds of rigorous research showing positive effects on migration and household consumption and income, the program was delivered and tested at scale for the first time in 2017. Performance monitoring revealed mixed results: program operations expanded substantially, but we observed some implementation challenges and take-up rates were lower than expected. An RCT-at-scale found that the program did not have the desired impact on inducing migration, and consequently did not increase income or consumption. We believe that implementation-related issues – namely, delivery constraints and mistargeting – were the primary causes of these results. We have since adjusted the program design to reduce delivery constraints and improve targeting.

Tom Pepinsky.  2018.  “The Return of the Single Country Case Study.”  SSRN.

This essay reviews the changing status of single country research in comparative politics, a field defined by the concept of comparison. An analysis of articles published in top general and comparative politics field journals reveals that single country research has evolved from an emphasis on description and theory generation to an emphasis on hypothesis testing and research design. This change is a result of shifting preferences for internal versus external validity combined with the quantitative and causal inference revolutions in the social sciences. A consequence of this shift is a change in substantive focus from macropolitical phenomena to micro-level processes, with consequences for the ability of comparative politics to address many substantive political phenomena that have long been at the center of the field.

Evan Lieberman.  2016.  “Can the Biomedical Research Cycle be a Model for Political Science?”  Perspectives on Politics.

In sciences such as biomedicine, researchers and journal editors are well aware that progress in answering difficult questions generally requires movement through a research cycle: Research on a topic or problem progresses from pure description, through correlational analyses and natural experiments, to phased randomized controlled trials (RCTs). In biomedical research all of these research activities are valued and find publication outlets in major journals. In political science, however, a growing emphasis on valid causal inference has led to the suppression of work early in the research cycle. The result of a potentially myopic emphasis on just one aspect of the cycle reduces incentives for discovery of new types of political phenomena, and more careful, efficient, transparent, and ethical research practices. Political science should recognize the significance of the research cycle and develop distinct criteria to evaluate work at each of its stages.

Updates on Tshisekedi’s DRC

A heavyset Congolese man in a suit standing in front of a blue background

(Photo source: Daily Maverick)

There’s been a lot going on in the DRC since Félix Tshisekedi came to power in a transparently rigged election.  Here are a few key updates.

Ex-president Joseph Kabila is technically out of the picture, but behind the scenes he still holds a lot of authority.  Members of his Front Commun pour le Congo alliance won 80 of the 100 seats in the Senate, which is the upper house of Parliament.  Tshisekedi initially refused to seat the Senate at all, ostensibly over allegations of vote-buying, but eventually backed down.  However, Tshisekedi did win a victory in turning down Kabila’s preferred candidate for Prime Minister, a former head of the state mining company named Albert Yuma.  The PM position is still vacant one month later.

Meanwhile, Tshisekedi’s political allies are complaining that they’re not being given enough government jobs.  Martin Fayulu, who appears to have been the real winner of the election, has been sidelined and is touring Europe speaking as the country’s “president-elect.”  In an interesting development, Tshisekedi’s government has dropped an investigation into opposition leader Moïse Katumbi which was preventing him from returning to the country.  Katumbi supported Fayulu, which makes this sudden leniency a surprise.

In other news, Tshisekedi’s been focusing on improving Kinshasa’s infrastructure during his first 100 days in office.  A number of armed groups in the east have recently surrendered, although this probably doesn’t indicate coming drops in overall levels of violence.  Mistrust of the medical system has led to major setbacks in attempts to contain the Ebola epidemic in the east, although the use of a new vaccine against the disease does show promise.

Interesting academic articles for April 2019

Here are some recent papers I’m looking forward to reading!

Esther Ademmer, Julia Langbein, and Tanja A. Börzel.  2019.  “Varieties of limited access orders: the nexus between politics and economics in hybrid regimes.”  Governance.

This article advances our understanding of differences in hybrid stability by going beyond existing regime typologies that separate the study of political institutions from the study of economic institutions. It combines the work of Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast (NWW) on varieties of social orders with the literature on political and economic regime typologies and dynamics to understand hybrid regimes as Limited Access Orders (LAOs) that differ in the way dominant elites limit access to political and economic resources. Based on a measurement of political and economic access applied to seven post‐Soviet states, the article identifies four types of LAOs. Challenging NWW’s claim, it shows that hybrid regimes can combine different degrees of political and economic access to sustain stability. Our typology allows to form theoretical expectations about the kinds of political and/or economic changes that will move different types of LAOs toward more openness or closure.

Christopher Paik and Jessica Vechbanyongratana.  2019.   “Path to Centralization and Development: Evidence from Siam.”  World Politics.

This article investigates the role of colonial pressure on state centralization and its relationship to subsequent development by analyzing the influence of Western colonial threats on Siam’s internal political reform. Unlike other countries in the region, Siam remained independent by adopting geographical administrative boundaries and incorporating its traditional governance structures into a new, centralized governance system. The authors find that the order in which areas were integrated into the centralized system depended on the interaction between precentralization political structures and proximity to British and French territorial claims. The authors show that areas centralized early in the process had higher levels of infrastructure investment and public goods provision at the time the centralization process was completed in 1915 than those centralized later in the process. They also show that early centralization during the Western colonial era continued to be strongly associated with higher levels of public goods provision and economic development, and that this relationship persists today.

Kenneth Schultz and Justin Mankin.  2019.  “Is Temperature Exogenous? The Impact of Civil Conflict on the Instrumental Climate Record in Sub-Saharan Africa.”  American Journal of Political Science.

Research into the effects of climate on political and economic outcomes assumes that short‐term variation in weather is exogenous to the phenomena being studied. However, weather data are derived from stations operated by national governments, whose political capacity and stability affect the quality and continuity of coverage. We show that civil conflict risk in sub‐Saharan Africa is negatively correlated with the number and density of weather stations contributing to a country’s temperature record. This effect is both cross‐sectional—countries with higher average conflict risk tend to have poorer coverage—and cross‐temporal—civil conflict leads to loss of weather stations. Poor coverage induces a small downward bias in one widely used temperature data set, due to its interpolation method, and increases measurement error, potentially attenuating estimates of the temperature–conflict relationship. Combining multiple observational data sets to reduce measurement error almost doubles the estimated effect of temperature anomalies on civil conflict risk.

Portia Roelofs.  2019.  “Beyond programmatic versus patrimonial politics: Contested conceptions of legitimate distribution in Nigeria.Journal of Modern African Studies.

This article argues against the long-standing instinct to read African politics in terms of programmatic versus patrimonial politics. Unlike the assumptions of much of the current quantitative literature, there are substantive political struggles that go beyond ‘public goods good, private goods bad’. Scholarly framings serve to obscure the essentially contested nature of what counts as legitimate distribution. This article uses the recent political history of the Lagos Model in southwest Nigeria to show that the idea of patrimonial versus programmatic politics does not stand outside of politics but is in itself a politically constructed distinction. In adopting it a priori as scholars we commit ourselves to seeing the world through the eyes of a specific, often elite, constituency that makes up only part of the rich landscape of normative political contestation in Nigeria. Finally, the example of a large-scale empowerment scheme in Oyo State shows the complexity of politicians’ attempts to render distribution legitimate to different audiences at once.

How do political handouts and cash transfers differ from each other?

That’s the insightful question posed by Portia Roelofs at the Democracy in Africa blog.  She’s talking about Nigeria, where politicians routinely provide food or cash for their supporters, and where the government is also rolling out more structured cash transfer programs.  As she notes:

Two recent empowerment schemes from Nigeria, and subsequent debates about their legitimacy, demonstrate the relevance of these debates. In January 2019 the federal government’s TraderMoni scheme, whereby N12 billion of loans were distributed to over a million recipients, was condemned by opposition and civil society groups as ‘sophisticated voter-inducement’. However, the grounds on which the scheme was judged to be illegitimate varied: was it wrong because it was too close to the election, because it was not in the party’s manifesto or because it constituted the use of public funds for party-specific aimsThe Bank of Industry defended the programme arguing that the loans were simply a means to the larger end of financial inclusion. Thus the question of how to draw the line between legitimate distributive strategies that win votes and illegitimate vote-buying strategies is a live topic in Africa’s biggest democracy.

She has an upcoming article on the same topic at the Journal of Modern African Studies which looks well worth a read.  A preprint is available as well.

Writing systems across Africa

The African history blog Lisapo ya Kama has written an interesting post about precolonial writing systems in Africa. One of the best known, of course, is the Ethiopian script Ge’ez, which has been attested since the 8th century CE, and is still widely used within Ethiopia and Eritrea.


Image source: Ethioforum

In Nigeria, nsibidi inscriptions date as far back as 400 CE.  (They play a prominent role in Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch series, if you’ve been following your Afrofuturisic sci-fi.)


Image source: Wikipedia

And here’s the Bamum script from Cameroon, which was used at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.


Image source: Wikipedia