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Reflections on bringing a promising pilot of an anti-poverty program to scale in Bangladesh

EvidenceAction_red

Given my background in development economics and political science, it’s no surprise that I’m excited by the work that Evidence Action does to translate rigorous economic research into policy implementation.  Karen Levy and Varna Sri Raman recently published a remarkably frank blog post discussing the challenges they faced when scaling up an anti-poverty program in Bangladesh after a successful pilot.  The post stood out to me not only for its honesty about the difficulties of implementing at scale, but also for the amount of thought that EA and its implementing partner put into diagnosing and correcting the problems at hand.

The intervention at hand was the “No Lean Season” program.  In a pilot project, Gharad Bryan, Shyamal Chowdhury, and Mushfiq Mobarak gave rural residents small subsidies to temporarily migrate to cities to look for work during the hungry season before annual harvests.  They found that this substantially increased consumption in the sending households.  It’s a clever response to the shortage of non-farm employment opportunities in rural areas, and also demonstrates how even small costs can prevent people from accessing better-paid opportunities elsewhere.

EA’s Beta Incubator subsequently worked with a Bangladeshi NGO to expand the subsidy program from about 5000 households per year up to 40,000.  It was switched from a pure subsidy to a loan in the process  However, they found that the NGO employees who were supposed to deliver the loans handed out fewer than expected.  In addition, the loans didn’t seem to have the same effect, as recipients didn’t seem much more likely to migrate than a comparison group which didn’t receive any money.

The section of the EA post that’s really worth reading is the analysis of why the scaling didn’t go according to plan.  It stood out to me for its use of both qualitative and quantitative methods to better understand the newly scaled-up context in which the program operated, and the internal operations decisions of its partner NGO.  Among the salient points, they found that the program had been expanded into new districts which had much higher baseline rates of migration than the district in which it was piloted.  A miscommunication with the NGO also meant that employees had performance targets set for the number of loans to disburse which were lower than the program actually required.

This is arguably the best example I’ve ever seen of why questions about the external validity of social policy RCTs are beside the point.  Any program has to be adapted to its local context — and that context can vary significantly even at different scales of implementation, or between different districts in the same country.

Nanjala Nyabola on the political power of archives

nanjala

Last week I attended the Nairobi launch of Nanjala Nyabola‘s new book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics.  It was one of the best public events I’ve attended since I moved to Kenya.  I could have sat there for hours listening to her discuss everything from the geography of Kenyan Twitter users to why refusing to wear heels in downtown Nairobi is a political act.   Lots of credit also to Christine Mungai, who was an excellent interviewer, and to Kali Media for organizing the event.

I arrived a bit late, and by the time I settled in the conversation had reached the topic of the political nature of archives.  One theme Nanjala kept returning to was the question of whose voices are represented in archives.  She noted that when she was doing research on the 2007 – 2008 post-electoral violence, the sources she found didn’t reflect her own memories of that period.  This is a salient example of the limited availability of Kenyan voices in archival records at all.  She found as well that many Kenyan newspapers don’t digitize their older articles, meaning that anything more than a few years old gets excluded from the digital record.

Nanjala also called attention to the physical location of African archives, many of which are held near the capitals of former colonial powers.  The archives of British East Africa, for example, are located in Oxford.  Given how difficult it is for foreign scholars to get UK visas, as well as the cost of travel, this means that large portions of African history are inaccessible to African academics.  She pointed out that many episodes of anti-colonial resistance like the 1929 Aba Women’s War in Nigeria went undiscussed by scholars until someone happened to stumble across them in the archive, raising the question of how many other key events in African history we might be missing.

All this discussion led to an eloquent summary of her desire to publish this book: “I write to hold space in the archive for people like me and the people I know.”  Writing is a way of creating an alternate archive, one which captures voices that might otherwise go unheard.  Nanjala had some excellent points about citational practices as a type of archiving, asking the reader to pay careful attention to “who’s doing the blurb on the back cover, who’s in the works cited, who’s in the theory section.”  (This point is also made very well by Cite Black Women.)  She also praised the work done by organizations like The Elephant, Bright Magazine, and Popula to provide space for longform writing from African authors, which is generally lacking on the continent.

I came away incredibly impressed by the clear amount of thought and research which had gone into this book.  I really can’t wait to read it!  Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics is available now at Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi or via Amazon.

Matatu politics in Nairobi

A bright pink bus sits in front of a tree at sunset

Image via CNN

I just wrote a piece for African Arguments about Nairobi’s recent downtown matatu ban.  Click on over to read the whole thing!

At the start of this month, Nairobi County governor Mike Sonko banned the entry of matatus into the city centre. The more than 20,000 minibuses which used to enter each day were forced to stop outside CBD and compete for just 500 parking spots. Passengers were dropped off often several kilometres from their final destinations. From there, they had few options but to walk. Cabs are too expensive for most, while cheaper motorcycle taxis were barred from the centre several months ago.

Understandably, there was a massive public outcry, to the extent that the ban was lifted just two days later. However, it’s still important to ask what informed the short-lived policy. While other major cities like Oslo and Madrid have recently banned private cars downtown in an effort to increase the use of buses and public transport, why is Nairobi driving in the opposite direction?

Interesting academic articles for December 2018

I recently figured out that most journals have RSS feeds, which has shifted my strategy for learning about new articles from occasionally remembering to check journals for updates every few months to automatically getting new articles in Feedly.  It’s been great!  Here are some of the things that I’m looking forward to reading in political science and economics.

Peter Van der Windt, Macartan Humphreys, Lily Medina, Jeffrey F. Timmons, Maarten Voors. 2018. Citizen Attitudes Toward Traditional and State Authorities: Substitutes or Complements? Comparative Political Studies.

Do citizens view state and traditional authorities as substitutes or complements? Past work has been divided on this question. Some scholars point to competition between attitudes toward these entities, suggesting substitution, whereas others highlight positive correlations, suggesting complementarity. Addressing this question, however, is difficult, as it requires assessing the effects of exogenous changes in the latent valuation of one authority on an individual’s support for another. We show that this quantity—a type of elasticity—cannot be inferred from correlations between support for the two forms of authority. We employ a structural model to estimate this elasticity of substitution using data from 816 villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo and plausibly exogenous rainfall and conflict shocks. Despite prima facie evidence for substitution logics, our model’s outcomes are consistent with complementarity; positive changes in citizen valuation of the chief appear to translate into positive changes in support for the government.

Arthur Thomas Blouin and Sharun W. Mukand. 2018. “Erasing Ethnicity? Propaganda, Nation Building and Identity in Rwanda.Journal of Political Economy.

This paper examines whether propaganda broadcast over radio helped to change inter- ethnic attitudes in post-genocide Rwanda. We exploit variation in exposure to the gov- ernment’s radio propaganda due to the mountainous topography of Rwanda. Results of lab-in-the-field experiments show that individuals exposed to government propaganda have lower salience of ethnicity, increased inter-ethnic trust and show more willingness to interact face-to-face with members of another ethnic group. Our results suggest that the observed improvement in inter-ethnic behavior is not cosmetic, and reflects a deeper change in inter- ethnic attitudes. The findings provide some of the first quantitative evidence that the salience of ethnic identity can be manipulated by governments.

Viviana M.E. Perego. 2018. “Crop prices and the demand for titled land: Evidence from Uganda.Journal of Development Economics.

I investigate how agricultural prices affect demand for titled land, using panel data on Ugandan farmers, and a price index that weighs international crop prices by the structure of land use at the sub-county level. Higher prices increase farmers’ share of titled land. I also present evidence of a positive impact of prices on agricultural incomes. The effect of prices on land tenure is stronger when farmers have access to roads and markets, when they have undertaken investment on the land, and when households fear land grabbing.

Johannes Haushofer, Jeremy Shapiro, Charlotte Ringdal, and Xiao Yu Wang. 2018. “Income Changes and Intimate Partner Violence: Evidence from Unconditional Cash Transfers in Kenya.” Working paper.

We use a randomized controlled trial to study the impact of unconditional cash transfers on intimate partner violence (IPV) in western Kenya. Cash transfers to women of on average USD 709 PPP led to a significant 0.25 SD increase in a female empowerment index, while transfers to men led to a non-significant increase of 0.09 SD, with no significant difference between these effects. Physical violence was significantly reduced regardless of whether transfers were sent to the woman (0.26 SD) or the man (0.18 SD). In contrast, sexual violence was reduced significantly after transfers to the woman (−0.22 SD), but not the man (−0.10 SD, not significant). Our theoretical framework suggests that physical violence is reduced after transfers to the wife because her tolerance for it decreases, and is reduced after transfers to the husband because he has a distaste for it. We observe a large and significant spillover effect of transfers on domestic violence: non-recipient women in treatment villages show a 0.19 SD increase in the female empowerment index, driven by a 0.16 SD reduction in physical violence. Together, these results suggest that poverty alleviation through unconditional cash transfers can decrease IPV both in recipient and neighboring households.

Marcel Fafchamps and Simon R. Quinn. 2018. “Networks and Manufacturing Firms in Africa: Results from a Randomized Field Experiment.” NBER working paper #21132.

We run a novel field experiment to link managers of African manufacturing firms. The experiment features exogenous link formation, exogenous seeding of information, and exogenous assignment to treatment and placebo. We study the impact of the experiment on firm business practices outside of the lab. We find that the experiment successfully created new variation in social networks. We find significant diffusion of business practices only in terms of VAT registration and having a bank current account. This diffusion is a combination of diffusion of innovation and simple imitation. At the time of our experiment, all three studied countries were undergoing large changes in their VAT legislation.

Margaret McConnell, Claire Watt Rothschild, Allison Ettenger, Faith Muigai, Jessica Cohen. 2018. “Free contraception and behavioural nudges in the postpartum period: evidence from a randomised control trial in Nairobi, Kenya.” BMJ Global Health.

Short birth intervals are a major risk factor for poor maternal and newborn outcomes. Utilisation of modern contraceptive methods during the postpartum period can reduce risky birth intervals but contraceptive coverage during this critical period remains low. We conducted a randomised controlled experiment to test whether vouchers for free contraception, provided with and without behavioural ‘nudges’, could increase modern contraceptive use in the postpartum period. 686 pregnant women attending antenatal care in two private maternity hospitals in Nairobi, Kenya, were enrolled in the study. The primary outcomes were the use of modern contraceptive methods at nearly 3 months and 6 months after expected delivery date (EDD). We tested the impact of a standard voucher that could be redeemed for free modern contraception, a deadline voucher that expired 2 months after delivery and both types of vouchers with and without a short message service (SMS) reminder, relative to a control group that received no voucher and no SMS reminder. By nearly 6 months after EDD, we find that the combination of the standard voucher with an SMS reminder increased the probability of reporting utilisation of a modern contraceptive method by 25 percentage points (pp) (95% CI 6 pp to 44 pp) compared with the control group. Estimated impacts in other treatment arms were not statistically significantly different from the control group.

Elizabeth R. Metteta. 2018. “Irrigation dams, water and infant mortality: Evidence from South Africa.Journal of Development Economics.

Irrigation dams enable farmers to harness substantial water resources. However, their use consumes finite water supplies and recycles agricultural water pollutants back into river systems. This paper examines the net effect of irrigation dams on infant mortality in South Africa. It relies on both fixed effects and instrumental variables approaches to counteract potential bias associated with non-random dam placement, with the latter approach predicting dam placement based on geographic features and policy changes. The analysis reveals that additional irrigation dams within South Africa’s former homeland districts after Apartheid increased infant mortality by 10–20 percent. I then discuss and evaluate possible channels. Dam-induced increases in agricultural activity could increase water pollution and reduce water availability, and I provide supporting evidence that both channels may contribute. These results suggest a potential trade-off between the health costs of agricultural water use and the economic benefits of increased agricultural production.

Ellora Derenoncourt. 2018. “Can you move to opportunity? Evidence from the Great Migration.” Job market paper.

The northern United States long served as a land of opportunity for black Americans, but today the region’s racial gap in intergenerational mobility rivals that of the South. I show that racial composition changes during the peak of the Great Migration (1940-1970) reduced upward mobility in northern cities in the long run, with the largest effects on black men. I identify urban black population increases during the Migration at the commuting zone level using a shift-share instrument, interacting pre-1940 black southern migrant location choices with predicted outmigration from southern counties. The Migration’s negative effects on children’s adult outcomes appear driven by neighborhood factors, not changes in the characteristics of the average child. As early as the 1960s, the Migration led to greater white enrollment in private schools, increased spending on policing, and higher crime and incarceration rates. I estimate that the overall change in childhood environment induced by the Great Migration explains 43% of the upward mobility gap between black and white men in the region today

The economics of political transitions in autocracies

In a black and white photo, Mobutu stands in front of a microphone wearing a printed shirt, dark-rimmed glasses and his trademark leopard skin pillbox hat

A young Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaïre for 32 years.  Photo via Le Congolais

Yomi Kazeem recently published an interesting piece at Quartz Africa about typical outcomes for African autocrats after they leave office.  The four outcomes he mentioned, in rough order of how desirable a now ex-dictator might find them, were trying to reclaim their political power; fleeing the country with a good portion of the national treasury; staying at home without any political authority; or being prosecuted for crimes during their rule. Nowhere do we see the median outcome of US or European heads of state: earning a comfortable living in their own country by giving paid speeches and writing a few books.

This made me reflect a bit on the economics of political transitions.  In many poor countries, there’s relatively little economic activity that isn’t directly tied to the state.  Governments are often the largest formal employers and tightly control the banking sector.  To succeed in business, you need access to a number of things which are rationed by the state and given to political allies, such as export permits, land, and loans.  Losing political favor can mean losing your job or your entire business.

This is a huge disincentive for people with political power to give it up!  Even if they don’t believe they’ll be persecuted by their political enemies or referred to the International Criminal Court, it’s still difficult to earn a good or even a middle-class living without access to state resources in poor countries.  One must only think here of the vast gap between the wealth of Mobutu and the Kabilas in the DRC and the dire poverty of virtually everyone else.  When I worked in Kinshasa, a colleague with that rarest of jobs — full-time employment at an international bank — told me that even he only ate two small meals a day because he was singlehandedly supporting his entire extended family on his salary.  The possibility of earning a good living without access to state resources is an underdiscussed aspect of the way in which economic growth supports democratic governance.

It also suggests some nuance for the observation that corruption levels tend to be lower in wealthier countries.  In poor countries, many people presumably select in to political careers because they offer higher economic returns than working in the private sector.  In rich countries, the opposite is true, and people who are primarily motivated by economic returns select careers in finance rather than in politics.  Of course venal politicians do still exist in rich countries and selfless politicians in poor countries, but the overall share of people who entered politics for ideological reasons rather than personal gain seems to be much higher in wealthier places.

Mobile money firms as fiscal intermediaries in Rwanda

A Rwandan man in a yellow vest holds a mobile phone.  Another man in a red shirt is standing next to him.  They're both under a yellow umbrella with the MTN mobile money logo on itImage via Umuseke

I’ve been thinking about the role that firms play in helping governments to collect taxes ever since Ken Opalo wrote about this a few months ago.  A recent example comes from Rwanda, where MTN mobile money agents are complaining about the company’s new policy of automatically withholding their income taxes, rather than expecting them to self-report their income to the Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA).  According to Global Press Journal, many agents weren’t aware that they needed to self-report their income, and have been caught off guard by these new deductions:

But others say both the end-of-year tax and the withholding tax are unreasonable, because the agents do not earn much to begin with. In July, Nshimiyimana made 80,000 francs ($91), he says. After the withholding tax was deducted, he took home 68,000 francs ($78). He says that many agents, himself included, make far less than what the RRA estimates that they earn in a day. Like any type of sales work, some days are good for business, and some days aren’t, he adds.

Sadiki Nambajimana says the 15-percent tax was deducted from his April earnings, and he later quit his job. “I’m married with four kids, and I couldn’t afford my rent payment anymore,” he explains, adding that Rwanda’s cost of living is getting higher and higher.

Unusually, while the RRA is using MTN to facilitate its tax collection, it’s not basing its tax rates on the firm’s reports of the agents’ actual income.  According to the article, RRA decided to impose the 15% tax on the basis of what they assume the average income for mobile money agents to be — approximately 195,000 Rwandan francs per month — rather than their actual income.  The quoted example of someone earning only 80,000 per month should have put them in a lower tax bracket.  It’s definitely not optimal to have a tax system based on typical income for an employment category rather than actual earnings, as this leads to some individuals in that category being overtaxed and others undertaxed.

It’s also not quite clear how this new withholding scheme fits in with Rwanda’s overall income tax policy.  According to the article, people making between 2 – 4 million francs per month should pay 60,000 in annual income taxes, for a tax rate of 3% on income of 2 million.  That doesn’t line up with either the 15% monthly withholding through MTN, or with other reports of how the income tax brackets are structured.  This PwC report says that the tax rate should be 0% on monthly income up to 30,000 francs, and 20% on income from 30,001 – 100,000 francs.  Under that system, someone earning 80,000 francs should pay (80,000 – 50,000)*.2 = 10,000 francs per month, for an effective rate of 12.5%.  If any of my Rwandan readers want to talk me through this, I’m quite interested in understanding how the tax system actually works.