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Wrapping up the blog

After nearly 12 years of blogging, I’ve decided that it’s time to close up shop.  There are several reasons for this.

  • The development blogging ecosystem is basically dead.  Fewer people are writing or reading development blogs, and the level of engagement here has been steadily declining for a while.
  • Newsletters are directly substituting for blogging.  If you’ve been enjoying my link round-up posts here, please sign up for Africa Update as well!
  • Social media has higher levels of engagement.  Twitter is now where blogging was a decade ago — many if not most development professionals are engaging there.  I’m sure at some point we’ll all move en masse to another platform as Twitter declines, but so far it’s not clear what that might be.  (Platforms like Instagram, TikTok, etc. aren’t really good for written conversations.)
  • I’m trying to switch my long-form writing to other venues.  I’ve still got a decent blog audience, but the reach of posts published on sites like African Arguments is much higher.  Writing for a site with specific editorial standards also forces me to write more concisely than I would on my own blog, which I like.
  • I need to prioritize my time.  I’ve still been spending time posting here, but it’s started to feel like it’s taking away from other writing projects.

Anyway, all of my old posts will still be up and searchable at rachelstrohm.com/blog.  I’ll also continue updating my Scholarship pages, and will always pin the newest scholarship announcements to the top of my Twitter profile.

Thanks to all of my readers for being such a great audience for the last 12 years!  I’ve met a lot of excellent people and learned a great deal from all of your comments and emails, and I’m very grateful for the sense of community this has offered.  Please come find me on Twitter if we’re not already connected there.

Africa Update for September 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the Nigerian space program, trans-African highways, online therapy in Kenya, why the Sahara is bad for infant mortality, and more.

A long pier stretching out into the sea, viewed from aboveA stunning shot of Malindi pier by Peter Ndung’u

West Africa: In Cameroon, Anglophone separatists have been attacking children who attend government schools in an attempt to force the government to negotiate with them.  Political space is closing in Equatorial Guinea with the closure of a prominent human rights NGO.  Here’s a good background read on Equatorial Guinea’s oil-fueled politics.  In Nigeria, the descendants of enslaved people are still fighting for justice and social inclusion.  This was an interesting history of Nigeria’s space program.  Senegal’s sutura culture of privacy and modesty both constrains queer women and gives them space to pursue relationships.

Central Africa: Rwanda has lots of women in national decision-making positions, but their representation drops at more local levels of government.  In Uganda, paralegals are giving legal aid to trans people who have been arrested for not expressing a gender identity that matches their IDs.  Burundi has lost another independent media house with the forced closure of the BBC’s local bureau. The DRC’s dilapidated phone network briefly made it a hotspot for early mobile phone adoption in the 1990s.

A map showing that forced displacement in Africa is highest in Nigeria, Ethiopia, the DRC and SudanMap of forced displacement via the Africa Center

East Africa: This was an informative thread on the challenges of getting access to government IDs in Kenya.  In Nairobi, “informal housing” often includes multi-story apartment buildings, not just shacks.  One year after Eritrea’s peace agreement with Ethiopia, the borders are closed again and little domestic reform has occurred.  I didn’t know that one of Somalia’s major export products is dried lemons, mostly sent to the UAE for cleaning supplies.  Salaries for Somali army officers take up fully 20% of the country’s defense budget.

Southern Africa: South African has given women in customary marriages the right to inherit property.  Harare is running out of water.  3000 students in Mozambique are back in school after the government lifted a ban on pregnant people attending school.

3 trans african highwaysPerhaps one day we’ll be able to drive across the continent on completed highways (via Facts about Africa)

Economics: Six West African countries have committed to adopting a common currency, the eco, by 2020, but the underlying differences in their economies may make this difficult.  What can be done to get more investment flowing to local African entrepreneurs instead of expats?  This was an interesting long read about the state of the Nigerian banking sector.  Uganda’s high unemployment rates come from a lack of decent formal sector jobs, not low skilled job-seekers.  Here’s all you need to know about industrial policy in Kenya.

Health: In the DRC, high school students with Ebola have still found ways to take their final exams.  A corrupt procurement process left Kenyan hospitals saddled with expensive equipment they didn’t need, even as they were short of basic supplies.  Kenya’s national census is counting intersex people for the first time this year.  Wazi is a new online therapy program based in Kenya.  In Ghana, the national health insurance system is being undermined by the fact that the government rarely pays hospitals on time.  Less than half of Kampala’s toilet waste gets routed into water treatment facilities.

4 rose podcastRose Mutiso, Mawazo’s CEO, recording the introduction to the Nairobi Ideas Podcast

Environment: Check out the Mawazo Institute’s new Nairobi Ideas Podcast about African conservation leaders. Here’s how protecting Africa’s elephants could help to slow climate change.  These Kenyan activists successfully fought back against a plan to build a coal-fired power plant that the country didn’t really need.  Dust from the Sahara substantially increases infant mortality across West Africa, because small particulates damage babies’ lungs.

Arts + literature: Check out Dave Evans’ project to read one book from each African country this year.  African Storybook offers free downloads of kids’ books which are customizable in various African languages.  Don’t miss this new book on women’s activism in Africa.

An ad for the Macondo Literary Festival, which brings writers from Lusophone Africa and Brazil to Nairobi, from 27 - 29 SeptemberIf you’re in Nairobi later this month, don’t miss the Macondo Literary Festival!

Conferences + scholarships: Submit your papers on economics in Africa to the Centre for the Study of African Economies by October 18.  Here’s why all academic conferences should be in Ethiopia.  Apply to be a visiting fellow at the African Studies Centre Leiden.  The Ibrahim Leadership Fellowship gives young Africans the chance to work in various international organizations.  Chevening scholarships for MA study in the UK are open until November 5.  Female scientists in Africa should apply to Science by Women’s visiting fellows program in Spain by September 30.

Prevailing winds across Africa

A map of Africa, showing that airports are mostly oriented perpendicular to coats, and then east-west within the continent

Trails of Wind has created a fascinating global database of the orientation of airport runways around the world.  As they note, “runways generally point in the wind direction, as aircraft take off and land more easily upwind.”  There’s an excellent interactive map at their site which you should check out.

I was really struck by how wind patterns obvious differ between the African coasts and the interior.  As the screenshot above shows, coastal airports have runways that are perpendicular to the coast, presumably reflecting wind coming in off the sea.  Further inland, however, virtually all airports have east-west runways, showing the flow of wind across the continent.  (If it’s difficult to see the runways in the screenshot, try tilting your laptop screen forward a bit, or just click through to the interactive map.)

Interesting academic articles for August 2019

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

George Kwaku Ofosu.  2019. “Do Fairer Elections Increase the Responsiveness of Politicians?”  American Political Science Review.

Leveraging novel experimental designs and 2,160 months of Constituency Development Fund (CDF) spending by legislators in Ghana, I examine whether and how fairer elections promote democratic responsiveness. The results show that incumbents elected from constituencies that were randomly assigned to intensive election-day monitoring during Ghanas 2012 election spent 19 percentage points more of their CDFs during their terms in office compared with those elected from constituencies with fewer monitors. Legislators from all types of constituencies are equally present in parliament, suggesting that high levels of monitoring do not cause politicians to substitute constituency service for parliamentary work. Tests of causal mechanisms provide suggestive evidence that fairer elections motivate high performance through incumbentsexpectations of electoral sanction and not the selection of better candidates. The article provides causal evidence of the impact of election integrity on democratic accountability.

Guillaume Nicaise.  2019.  “Local power dynamics and petty corruption in Burundi.”  Journal of Eastern African Studies.

Based on five months’ field research in two districts of Burundi (Bukeye and Mabayi), this case study analyses tax collectors’ rationales and informal practices during their interactions with citizens. The analysis also examines local governance, in order to understand how informal practices are accepted, legitimised and even supported by local authorities. Field observations reveal a fluctuating balance of power, and the various constraints and room for manoeuvre used by local agents dealing with tax payers. Further, an investigation into tax enforcement provides a basis for measuring the discrepancy between, on the one hand, formal good governance norms and standards of behaviour and, on the other, informal strategies developed by local civil servants and officials. The article demonstrates that corruption is mainly a social phenomenon, far from its formal definition, which generally refers only to the search of private gains. Corruption is systemic and part of the current CNDD-FDD party’s governance framework in Burundi, relying on public administration’s politicisation, solidarity networks and socio-economic factors. More broadly, the article shows that corruption labelling remains topical to spur a State conception and structural changes through ‘good governance’ and anti-corruption norms.

Jennifer Brass, Kirk Harris and Lauren MacLean.  2019.  “Is there an anti-politics of electricity? Access to the grid and reduced political participation in Africa.”  Afrobarometer working paper no. 182.

Electricity is often argued to be a catalyst for a country’s industrialization and the social development of its citizens, but little is known about the political consequences of providing electric power to people. Contributing to literatures on the politics of public service provision and participation, we investigate the relationship between electricity and three measures of political participation: voting, political contacting, and collective action. Our comparative analysis leverages data from 36 countries collected in five rounds of Afrobarometer surveys between 2002 and 2015 (N160,000). Counterintuitively, we find that individuals with access to electricity participate less than those without access to electricity. This relationship is particularly strong for those living in democratic regimes, and with respect to non-electoral forms of participation. We hypothesize that having electricity access is associated with an “anti-politics” leading some citizens to retreat from engagement with the state to things such as the middle-class comforts of cold drinks, cooled air, and television.

Ram Fishman, Stephen C. Smith, Vida Bobić, and Munshi Sulaiman.  2019. “Can Agricultural Extension and Input Support Be Discontinued? Evidence from a Randomized Phaseout in Uganda.”  Institute of Labor Economics discussion paper no. 12476.

Many development programs that attempt to disseminate improved technologies are limited in duration, either because of external funding constraints or an assumption of impact sustainability; but there is limited evidence on whether and when terminating such programs is efficient. We provide novel experimental evidence on the impacts of a randomized phase-out of an extension and subsidy program that promotes improved inputs and cultivation practices among smallholder women farmers in Uganda. We find that phase-out does not diminish the use of either practices or inputs, as farmers shift purchases from NGO-sponsored village-based supply networks to market sources. These results indicate short-term interventions can suffice to trigger persistent effects, consistent with models of technology adoption that emphasize learning from experience.

Jonas Hjort, Diana Moreira, Gautam Rao, and Juan Francisco Santini.  2019.  “How evidence affects policy: experimental evidence from 2150 Brazilian municipalities.”  NBER Working Paper No. 25941.

This paper investigates if research findings change political leaders’ beliefs and cause policy change. Collaborating with the National Confederation of Municipalities in Brazil, we work with 2,150 municipalities and the mayors who control their policies. We use experiments to measure mayors’ demand for research information and their response to learning research findings. In one experiment, we find that mayors and other municipal officials are willing to pay to learn the results of impact evaluations, and update their beliefs when informed of the findings. They value larger-sample studies more, while not distinguishing on average between studies conducted in rich and poor countries. In a second experiment, we find that informing mayors about research on a simple and effective policy (reminder letters for taxpayers) increases the probability that their municipality implements the policy by 10 percentage points. In sum, we provide direct evidence that providing research information to political leaders can lead to policy change. Information frictions may thus help explain failures to adopt effective policies.

David Mwambari.  2019.  “Local Positionality in the Production of Knowledge in Northern Uganda.”  International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

This article examines the positionality of local stakeholders in the production of knowledge through fieldwork in qualitative research in Northern Uganda. While scholarly literature has evolved on the positionality and experiences of researchers from the Global North in (post)conflict environments, little is known about the positionality and experiences of local stakeholders in the production of knowledge. This article is based on interviews and focus groups with research assistants and respondents in Northern Uganda. Using a phenomenological approach, this article analyzes the positionality and experiences of these research associates and respondents during fieldwork. Three themes emerged from these interviews and are explored in this article: power, fatigue, and safety. This article emphasizes that researchers need to be reflexive in their practices and highlights the need to reexamine how researchers are trained in qualitative methods before going into the field. This article is further critical of the behavior of researchers and how research agendas impact local stakeholders during and after fieldwork.

Upcoming conference presentations

I’m presenting several ongoing projects at APSA and the Effective States and Inclusive Development conference.  Come say hello if you’re around!

APSA-Logo-2015

Roundtable on “Increasing Inclusion of African and Africa-Based Scholars in Political Science.”  August 29, 10 – 11.30 am, Hilton (Gunston West).

Political scientists are coming to grips intellectually with challenges to the “entrenched, self-serving privileges and perspectives of global and national elites—economic, social, and cultural” in the United States and around the world. At the same time, the discipline is facing important challenges from within to its own entrenched elite. In the area studies subfields of political science, one manifestation of this conversation is over the inclusion of scholars from, or based in, the regions they study.

In this roundtable, we hope to provide a prominent space to continue this conversation, focusing on the African politics subfield. The roundtable will open space for African and Africa-based scholars to comment on inclusion issues that should be addressed by our subfield group, the African Politics Conference Group; by APSA; and by the discipline as a whole. We have invited junior and senior scholars as well as representatives from organizations that are working to increase inclusion of African and Africa-based scholars in political science. We hope that this will surface ideas that have worked — and challenges that still need to be overcome — from around the community.

Poster on “Building Infrastructure for Generalization in the Social Sciences”.  August 29, 3.30 – 4 pm, Marriott (Exhibition Hall B South).

Generalizability is widely agreed to be a desirable characteristic of social science research.  Many discussions of the topic present it as a tradeoff between a study’s internal validity, and its generalizability, which is best achieved by increasing its sample size.  At present, individual researchers usually bear all the costs of expanding the sample size, which means that generalizable single studies are undersupplied.  I argue that disciplines should subsidize and coordinate generalizable research by building infrastructure for systemic reviews and coordinated multi-site studies.  Both of these techniques expand sample sizes by aggregating data across studies, which lowers the cost to individual researchers.  The biomedical sciences provide a model of infrastructure for generalization within a mature research ecosystem.  Similar infrastructure is beginning to be developed within the social sciences, although it is not as widely used.   The substantive implication of this argument is that researchers should focus on their preferred type of internally valid research, and disciplines as a whole should take responsibility for assessing the generalizability of research findings.

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Panel on “Elite Cohesion and Institutional Development in Weak States.”  September 9, 3.30 – 5 pm.

In order to effectively govern a state, leaders must be able to delegate authority.  Delegation creates a principal-agent problem, as officials may use their power to undermine the leader.  Weak states are often trapped in an equilibrium where leaders do not wish to delegate power, and thus institutions which could facilitate delegation do not develop.  I argue that leaders of weak states may be able to temporarily solve the principal-agent problem if they are a member of a highly cohesive elite.  Cohesion implies that group members have strong norms about supporting each other, which lowers the risk of delegating power within the group.  However, cohesion tends to fade once a group is in power.    States which are able to take advantage of this initial period of cohesion to build stronger institutions may see long-run gains in administrative capacity and economic growth, whereas states which fail to take advantage of the cohesive period do not.  I illustrate this argument with case studies of post-colonial political transitions in Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This study sheds new light on the question of why some state are able to improve institutions rapidly whilst others struggle to do so, and complements the existing literature on institutional development which tends to portray this process as one of slow, long-term improvement rather than rapid, discontinuous improvement.