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Traffic tickets and statebuilding in Kenya

Last year I had my first experience with the Kenyan courts when I got a traffic ticket for making a left turn into a street against a “no left turn” sign, which I hadn’t seen.  Paying it cost me Ksh 20,000 / US$200 in cash, and took four hours at three offices over two days. It was quite a contrast to the last time I got a traffic ticket in the US, where I paid about $60 by mail after speaking with a police officer for about 10 minutes.  The whole experience left me thinking about the enormous investments in administrative capacity which are necessary to simplify this type of bureaucratic interaction with the state.

Traffic tickets in Kenya

The Kenyan process was logical, if also quite slow.  After an officer stopped me for the turn, he took me to a nearby police station, where I waited for half an hour while someone wrote up my charges in a massive paper ledger.  I also had to pay Ksh 5000 / US$50 in cash bail, and promise to come to traffic court the next day. Anyone who skips court has a warrant put out for their arrest, although I’ve heard that these are rarely enforced.

The bail system is in principle an improvement over an older system where people accused of traffic violations were jailed until their day in court.  However, in practice half of Kenyans live on less than Ksh 10,000 / US$100 a month, and might end up getting jailed until their court date anyway.  It’s also not possible to just plead guilty to the traffic offense and pay at the station, as all accused traffic offenders have to come to court to plead their case.  I assume this rule is in place to centralize financial flows and avoid the risk of officers charging fines and then failing to remit them to their stations.

I came to the Milimani Courts the next day for my hearing.  After waiting for an hour and a half, the judge entered the packed traffic courtroom and began reading through people’s names and offenses.  Common charges included having expired insurance, failing to wear a seatbelt, and failing to immediately remove a car from the roadway after it broke down.  No one could leave the room until everyone’s charges had been read, almost an hour later.

People who agreed with their charges had to pay fines of anywhere from Ksh 20,000 / US$200 to Ksh 60,000 / US$600.  This is under the maximum legal fine of Ksh 100,000 / US$1000, but is still high in light of average income levels, and also seems high given the fairly minor offenses with which people were charged.  I was fined $200, and had to pay it in cash, on the spot, before I could leave the courtroom. People who can’t pay are jailed until they come up with the money.   Finally, I spent another 45 minutes wandering through the courthouse until I found a representative of the police station where I had paid my bail, and was able to reclaim that money.

Traffic tickets in the US

It’s quite a big difference to the ticketing process in the US.  The last time I got a traffic ticket there was around 2007, when I got stopped for speeding on a country road in New Hampshire.  As far as I can recall, the police officer scanned my license, printed the ticket with a $60 fine on the spot, and then let me go 10 minutes later.  There were options to pay online or by mail within two weeks if you didn’t contest the charge, or to go to traffic court if you did.  If you fail to pay, punishments include having the fine sent to a debt collector or losing your driving privileges, with arrest warrants only issued for people who continued driving on suspended licenses.  I mailed in a check within the week, and that was the matter resolved.

The US ticketing process wasn’t simpler because we’re a more trusting or law-abiding society.  It’s because the US has systems of identification and options for punishment which don’t require physically holding someone in jail or the courthouse in order to be effective.  This requires a lot of investments in different aspects of administrative capacity, many of which on the face of it have nothing to do with traffic enforcement.

State capacity and the payment of fines

Let’s think through what it would look like to implement the US system of pleading guilty to a traffic offense via the payment of a fine (by mail or online) in Kenya.  The officer stops you, writes down your license information, and gives you a handwritten ticket with the proposed fine and a payment date within two weeks. We’ve already hit obstacle #1: as far as I can tell, there isn’t a digital record of the ticket integrated into any master database of traffic offenses, which means police can’t check on the spot to see whether this is your first offense.  (Free research idea: digitizing the absolutely massive stacks of handwritten police ledgers at local stations would provide really fascinating information about patterns of ticketing and arrests.)

Giving people two weeks to get together the money to pay the ticket is a good idea.  And these days, over 80% of Kenyans have M-Pesa, so it is possible to pay digitally.  But even a few years ago, this would have been impossible, since most Kenyans haven’t got bank accounts, which are required to pay by mail (with a check) or online.  That’s obstacle #2: assuming everyone has access to payment modalities other than cash.

Now we’re getting to the biggest issue: how do police enforce payment of the fine?  In the US, it’s technically illegal to jail people simply for failing to pay a fine.  This means that there are other civil penalties applied, such as turning the fine over to a debt collector, or suspending one’s license until the fine is paid.  (You can still be jailed for driving on a suspended license, so in practice many people are still eventually jailed for failing to pay, which is a significant problem.)  This approach assumes that there’s a robust credit reporting and debt collection system in place, and also a national system for flagging people with suspended licenses. Credit reporting and debt collection systems, in turn, only work well when individuals have fixed addresses, known places of employment, registered bank accounts, and identifiers such as a Social Security number to tie these disparate pieces of information together.

Informality and debt collection in Kenya

A lot of the infrastructure that facilitates debt collection doesn’t exist in the same way in Kenya.  More than 80% of Kenyans work in the informal sector (thus with no wages to garnish), 57% haven’t got bank accounts, 38% haven’t got any formal ID, and an unknown but presumably large number haven’t got formal addresses.  This means that a large amount of debt collection is done through highly personalized means, like having loan guarantors pressure the debtor, or by alerting the debtor’s family and friends that they’ve defaulted on a payment.  There is a credit bureau which blacklists people who default on loans, but it’s unclear how this information is used for debt collection efforts, as collection is rarely mentioned in articles about default.  Shopkeepers, who are a major source of non-bank credit for many Kenyans, seem to lose a lot of money on defaulted loans, suggesting that debt collection isn’t working very efficiently.

I don’t intend to sound overly friendly to debt collectors here.  However, this also explains the rationale for immediate payment of fines in traffic court.  If someone walked away without paying, there don’t seem to be good civil means like debt collection to enforce the fine, and presumably police don’t want to spend their time tracking down people whom they previously had conveniently collected at the courthouse.  Thus the pressure to pay immediately, which in practice must be a great hardship for most people who are issued a traffic ticket — and probably forces them further into debt elsewhere.

Upcoming Nairobi events

There are lots of great events on in Nairobi soon!  Check out these upcoming shows and conferences if you’re around.

June 6 – 16.  Nairobi Film Festival at Prestige Plaza.  Buy tickets at their website.

June 7: Panel discussion at the British Institute in Eastern Africa on “Land Governance and Subnational Dynamics in Kenyan Politics.”  Open to the public.

June 10.  Panel discussion at the Rift Valley Institute on “Research Collaboration in Conflict.”  Register online.

June 12.  Panel discussion on evidence-informed policymaking in Africa, sponsored by The Conversation Africa.  Email lavani.balipursad@theconversation.com by June 5 to register.

June 25: Panel discussion at the British Institute in Eastern Africa on “Securing the Local: The Role of Non-state Security Groups in the Struggle against Violent Extremism in Kenya, Nigeria and Indonesia.”   Open to the public.

June 25 – 26: Conference at the Catholic University of East Africa on “Power Narratives in Kenya’s 2017 Elections and Citizens’ Democratic Development Aspirations Beyond the Polls.”  Registration and payment due by June 24; follow link for more information.

July 22 – 23: 8th Annual East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative (EASST) Summit, sponsored by the Center for Effective Global Action at Berkeley.  Register online.

Africa Update for May 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the export of Ugandan mercenaries, Kenya’s geothermal energy investments, Cameroonian refugees in Mexico, Ethiopia’s first female chief justice, and more.

West Africa: Political tensions continue to simmer in Sierra Leone as the current government has set up a commission to investigate corruption under its predecessor. I can’t wait to read this book on empires in medieval West Africa.  Learn about why the ubiquitous “Ghana-must-go” woven plastic bag takes its name from a conflict between Ghana and Nigeria in the 1980s.  Anglophone refugees from Cameroon who have fled into Nigeria are struggling to survive with limited support from the government or aid donors, whilst others have fled as far as Mexico in their quest for asylum.

Central Africa: Distrust of the state and the inability to perform rituals that will appease the spirit of a dead person are among the many reasons people in the DRC have been resisting Ebola treatment.   This was an evenhanded look at why it’s so difficult to source “responsible” minerals from eastern DRC. Uganda has doubled its military spending for the 2018/2019 fiscal year, and is now officially exporting more mercenaries than coffee.  In Kigali, Burundian journalists are still trying to publish their news in exile.  The Rwandan Supreme Court has ruled that it’s a crime to insult President Kagame.

Chart showing that a majority of Kenyans say the high cost of living is the biggest problem in their countryKenyans are really concerned by their country’s high cost of living (via Twaweza)

East Africa: Drought and crop failures have left many people in northern Kenya on the brink of famine, but neither the government nor other citizens seem to be paying much attention.  This was an insightful long read about Kenya’s many unsuccessful attempts to create reliable national ID and credit reporting systems.  Former US diplomats are lobbying the Trump administration not to push for the creation of a war crimes court in South Sudan, even though this is mandated under the current peace deal.  Sudan’s revolution shows the importance of trade unions in organizing civil dissent.  Saudi Arabia is offering funding to Sudan’s interim government out of concerns that regional revolutions could spark unrest at home.

Southern Africa: The UN is investigating allegations that community leaders in Mozambique have forced women to pay them or have sex with them in order to access aid after Cyclone Idai.  In South Africa, news coverage of protests tends to assume that poor people won’t participate unless they’re manipulated into doing so, which denies them political agency.  Read this summary of a very good piece about Mandela’s legacy, 25 years after the end of apartheid.  Studies in Zimbabwe have been key to challenging the assumption that depression doesn’t affect people in low income countries.

Map showing that elections will be held in 15 African countries in 2019Map of upcoming African elections via Africa Research Centre

Spotlight on urbanization in Nairobi: Check out this new documentary about the social justice working groups which are documenting human rights abuses in poor neighborhoods across the city.  This was an insightful piece about the Sudanese history of Kibera.  Meet the Kibera woman running one of the neighborhood’s only therapy centers for children with disabilities.  In Mathare, perpetual water shortages mean that residents must choose between drinking water or bathing their children.

Health: Senegal’s air pollution, caused by cars and harmattan dust, is sending increasing numbers of people to the hospital.  In Kenya, low quality healthcare and easy access to antibiotics mean that antibiotic-resistant diseases are on the rise.  Nigerian doctors are increasingly moving abroad, frustrated with a national healthcare system which pays less than US$600 per month.  Ghana, Kenya and Malawi are rolling out pilots of a new malaria vaccine.  Kenyan soldiers who’ve developed PTSD from operations in Somalia have been court-martialed for misbehavior rather than receiving treatment.

Four young men push a barrel of oil up a sandy beachThis Guardian photo essay on the black market for fuel in Togo and Benin was really gripping

Doing business: Read about the first running shoe company designed by and for Kenyans.  This looks like an interesting ethnography about Heineken’s phenomenal business success in Africa.  New studies in Ghana and Tanzania find that people overestimate how much time they spend working on their farms if they’re asked at the end of the planting season, rather than week by week during the season.

Environment: Meet the Nigerian women tackling urban waste disposal problems by starting recycling companies.  Kenyan scientists are developing low cost solutions to help fishermen avoid catching endangered or low value species of marine life.  Kenya is increasingly switching to geothermal energy, and could be one of the biggest producers in the world once a new plant opens in July.

Social protection + poverty reduction: This was an interesting piece about the process of distributing cash transfers in Liberia, where low-denomination bills are common and many people are still outside the cash economy.  Nigeria’s national cash transfer program has finally gotten off the ground.  Are patronage handouts and national cash transfer programs really all that different in Nigeria?  Experience from Niger suggests that people’s unwillingness to talk about their savings may lead researchers to overestimate poverty rates.

A Sengalese man carrying a sleepy baby on his back
Senegalese men are challenging gender stereotypes by carrying their children for a photography project (via BBC)

Gender equality: Studies in Uganda and Nigeria have found that “edutainment” TV shows can reduce rates of gender-based violence among viewers.  A landmark legal case in Kenya has allowed an intersex child to be issued a birth certificate without a gender marker.  This is a remarkable piece from Kenyan activist Rahma Wako about her experiences with early marriage and female genital cutting.  Women in the Ethiopian diaspora are discussing gender-based violence on a new Instagram page called Shades of Injera.   Meet Ethiopia’s first female chief justice, Meaza Ashenafi.

Food + travel: If you’re in London, don’t miss the delicious Ghanaian food at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen.  Nairobi’s Mexican food scene is expanding.  Here’s what to do for 36 hours in Dakar.

Academia: The Evidence to Action 2019 conference is being held at the University of Ghana from July 9 – 12, with travel bursaries available.  The East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative is holding a research summit in Nairobi from July 22 – 23.  If you’re an African woman who studies economics, sign up for FEMNET’s new database!

Bringing researchers and knowledge brokers together for greater impact

research-to-action-logo

I’ve got a guest post at Research to Action about how policy-oriented researchers don’t have to build relationships with policymakers themselves, but can also work in partnership with organizations which already have these relationships, like think tanks and advocacy groups.  It features the great work that J-PAL Southeast Asia is doing to connect their researchers to policymakers in Indonesia.  Here’s the main takeaway:

Academic researchers and knowledge brokers can bring complementary skills to bear on the process of evidence-informed policymaking. Studies have shown that policymakers are most likely to listen to information which comes from credible sources, and which is delivered at a point in the policymaking cycle when it’s most useful to them. As experts in their fields, the researchers lend credibility to their policy recommendations. Meanwhile, knowledge brokers have a long-term presence in low-income countries, and are explicitly committed to influencing policy. This means that they have more time to learn about how the policy process works in their country, and to meet with policymakers.

Interesting academic articles for May 2019

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

Jürgen René Blum, Marcos Ferreiro-Rodriguez, and Vivek Srivastava. 2019. Paths between Peace and Public Service: A Comparative Analysis of Public Service Reform Trajectories in Postconflict Countries.  The World Bank.

Building a capable public service is fundamental to postconflict state building. Yet in postconflict settings, short-term pressures often conflict with this longer-term objective. To ensure peace and stabilize fragile coalitions, the imperative for political elites to hand out public jobs and better pay to constituents dominates merit. Donor-financed projects that rely on technical assistants and parallel structures, rather than on government systems, are often the primary vehicle for meeting pressing service delivery needs. What, then, is a workable approach to rebuilding public services postconflict? Paths between Peace and Public Service seeks to answer this question by comparing public service reform trajectories in five countries—Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Timor-Leste—in the aftermath of conflict. The study seeks to explain these countries’ different trajectories through process tracing and structured, focused methods of comparative analysis. To reconstruct reform trajectories, the report draws on more than 200 interviews conducted with government officials and other stakeholders, as well as administrative data. The study analyzes how reform trajectories are influenced by elite bargains and highlights their path dependency, shaped by preconflict legacies and the specifics of the conflict period. As the first systematic study on postconflict public service reforms, it identifies lessons for the future engagement of development partners in building public services.

Pritish Behuria.  2019.  “African development and the marginalisation of domestic capitalists.”  Effective States in International Development working paper no. 115.

This paper has two core objectives. The first is to explain why the study of African capitalists – popular in the 1980s and 1990s – has remained relatively dormant since then. Dominant narratives – through neopatrimonalism and dependency-inspired arguments – have been pessimistic about the potential of African capitalists to deliver structural transformation. Gradually, these narratives, alongside intellectual trends within mainstream social science and African studies, have discouraged the study of politics of state–business relations in Africa. Yet African capitalists have become increasingly prominent in popular culture. Many of the wealthiest and most prominent capitalists have emerged through owning diversified business groups across the continent. This paper argues that more attention should be dedicated to the study of the politics of the emergence and sustenance of African diversified business groups (DBGs). To achieve this goal, a fluid categorisation of DBGs is introduced, building on Ben Ross Schneider’s previous work. By examining three country case studies – Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania – this paper highlights how a range of DBGs are emerging across three very different political contexts.

Travis Baseler.  2019.  “Hidden Income and the Perceived Returns to Migration: Experimental Evidence from Kenya.”  Working paper.

Urban workers in Kenya earn twice as much as rural workers with the same level of education. Why don’t more rural workers migrate to cities? In this paper, I use two field experiments to show that low migration is partly due to underestimation of urban incomes by rural Kenyans, and that this inaccurate information can be sustained by migrants’ strategic motives to hide income to minimize remittance obligations. I first show that rural Kenyans underestimate big city incomes considerably, despite the fact that two-thirds of households have a member who has migrated in the past. Parents underestimate their migrant children’s incomes by 50% on average, and underestimation is larger when the migrant’s incentive to hide income is high— in particular, when parents believe remittance obligations are high and when migrants have no stated desire to induce additional migration. In a first experiment that provides rural households with urban labor market information, treated households update their beliefs about the returns to migration and are 8 percentage points more likely to send a migrant to Nairobi. In a second field experiment, I test whether hidden income is directly distorting the decision to migrate by randomly informing rural households about the extent of hidden income among migrants in Nairobi. I find that hidden income dampens migration aspirations: learning about the average degree of hidden income increases planned migration to Nairobi by 13 percentage points.

Catherine Boone, Alex Dyzenhaus, Ambreena Manji, Catherine W Gateri, Seth Ouma, James Kabugu Owino, Achiba Gargule, and Jacqueline M Klopp.  2019. “Land law reform in Kenya: Devolution, veto players, and the limits of an institutional fix.”  African Affairs.

Much of the promise of the good governance agenda in African countries since the 1990s rested on reforms aimed at ‘getting the institutions right’, sometimes by creating regulatory agencies that would be above the fray of partisan politics. Such ‘institutional fix’ strategies are often frustrated because the new institutions themselves are embedded in existing state structures and power relations. The article argues that implementing Kenya’s land law reforms in the 2012–2016 period illustrates this dynamic. In Kenya, democratic structures and the 2010 constitutional devolution of power to county governments created a complex institutional playing field, the contours of which shaped the course of reform. Diverse actors in both administrative and representative institutions of the state, at both the national and county levels, were empowered as ‘veto players’ whose consent and cooperation was required to realize the reform mandate. An analysis of land administration reform in eight Kenyan counties shows how veto players were able to slow or curtail the implementation of the new land laws. Theories of African politics that focus on informal power networks and state incapacity may miss the extent to which formal state structures and the actors empowered within them can shape the course of reform, either by thwarting the reformist thrust of new laws or by trying to harness their reformist potential.

Vanessa van den Boogaard, Wilson Prichard, and Samuel Jibao.  2019.  “Informal taxation in Sierra Leone: Magnitudes, perceptions and implications.”  African Affairs.

In low-income countries, citizens often pay ‘taxes’ that differ substantially from what is required by statute. These non-statutory taxes are central to financing both local public goods and maintaining informal governance institutions. This study captures the incidence of informal taxation and taxpayer perspectives on these payments. We find, first, that informal taxes are a prevalent reality within areas of weak formal statehood in Sierra Leone, with households paying an equal number of informal and formal taxes. Second, we find positive taxpayer perceptions of the fairness of informal taxes relative to formal taxes, despite informal taxes being regressive in their distribution. We explain this by the fact that taxpayers are more likely to trust the actor levying these payments and are more likely to believe that they will be used to deliver benefits to the community.

Michelle N. MeyerPatrick R. HeckGeoffrey S. HoltzmanStephen M. AndersonWilliam CaiDuncan J. Watts, and Christopher F. Chabris.  2019.  “Objecting to experiments that compare two unobjectionable policies or treatments.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Randomized experiments—long the gold standard in medicine—are increasingly used throughout the social sciences and professions to evaluate business products and services, government programs, education and health policies, and global aid. We find robust evidence—across 16 studies of 5,873 participants from three populations spanning nine domains—that people often approve of untested policies or treatments (A or B) being universally implemented but disapprove of randomized experiments (A/B tests) to determine which of those policies or treatments is superior. This effect persists even when there is no reason to prefer A to B and even when recipients are treated unequally and randomly in all conditions (A, B, and A/B). This experimentation aversion may be an important barrier to evidence-based practice.

Jake Bowers and Paul Testa.  2019.  “Better Government, Better Science: The Promise of and Challenges Facing the Evidence-Informed Policy Movement.”  Annual Review of Political Science.

Collaborations between the academy and governments promise to improve the lives of people, the operations of government, and our understanding of human behavior and public policy. This review shows that the evidence-informed policy movement consists of two main threads: (a) an effort to invent new policies using insights from the social and behavioral science consensus about human behavior and institutions and (b) an effort to evaluate the success of governmental policies using transparent and high-integrity research designs such as randomized controlled trials. We argue that the problems of each approach may be solved or at least well addressed by teams that combine the two. We also suggest that governmental actors ought to want to learn about why a new policy works as much as they want to know that the policy works. We envision a future evidence-informed public policy practice that (a) involves cross-sector collaborations using the latest theory plus deep contextual knowledge to design new policies, (b) applies the latest insights in research design and statistical inference for causal questions, and (c) is focused on assessing explanations as much as on discovering what works. The evidence-informed public policy movement is a way that new data, new questions, and new collaborators can help political scientists improve our theoretical understanding of politics and also help our policy partners to improve the practice of government itself.

How do you compare programs with disparate outcomes?

If you’re a funder of development programs, you’ve got to make some tough choices about which organizations and programs you’ll support.  Most foundations and bilateral donors pick some key sectors in which to work, and then focus within those.  But what if your goal is to maximize impact across various sectors?  How can you compare the benefits of investing in, for example, healthcare vs. education vs. the rule of law?

Sarah Lucas recently pointed me to some interesting work that the Global Innovation Fund is doing in this area.  GIF describes themselves as a “hybrid investment fund that supports the piloting, rigorous testing, and scaling of innovations targeted at improving the lives of the poorest people in developing countries. Through our investments, we support a portfolio of innovations that collectively open up opportunities and improve the lives of millions of people across the developing world.”

I really liked their approach to thinking about the magnitude of the benefits which different programs provide.  It doesn’t appear to require quantification of disparate outcomes, which can be difficult, but it still provides a structured way for making comparisons across sectors.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 15.19.26

As they note about the middle scale, which is the “depth” of the benefit:

Choosing among competing proposals inescapably means comparing health, education, and income outcomes.  The depth scale makes these relative values explicit.  For easier estimation, the scale is relative to a typical beneficiary’s annual income or consumption.  Lives saved and illness avoided are scaled using Value of a Statistical life. This summarizes people’s willingness to pay for risk reductions, [although] it doesn’t represent the intrinsic value of life.  Education is scaled using typical economic returns to increased education.

Their whole impact assessment section is worth checking out.