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Freetown is innovating with property taxes

Low tax revenues are one of the perennial development challenges in many African countries. This is in many ways a data problem, as governments often lack adequate data on citizens’ incomes, places of employment, and addresses to tax them.

Freetown, Sierra Leone is taking an innovative approach to this problem. They’ve introduced a new property tax system which uses satellite data and easily observable visual characteristics of houses, such as the number of windows they have, to estimate the taxable value of property. This has allowed them to expand the number of properties in their database, and appears to be making taxation more equitable as well. Taxes on the top 20% of properties by value have tripled, while taxes on the bottom 20% have dropped by half.

How did this come about?

The new system has been in the works since Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr was elected mayor in 2018 and made improved revenue collection a central component of her Transform Freetown agenda. Like many cities, Sierra Leone’s capital has long been hampered by limited tax revenues. Aki-Sawyerr recognised that in order to expand services, the Freetown City Council (FCC) would need to dramatically increase property tax collection. She convened a working group, which decided to implement a simplified “points based” system [based on observable characteristics of the buildings]…

While it may seem straightforward on the surface, the reformed “points-based” system introduced in Freetown provides crucial advantages over alternative approaches. It is far easier to administer than systems that rely on individual experts to value each property. It is more sustainable than more complex modelling approaches, which require detailed data that is often not available and are dependent on external support. And it is more equitable than systems based on buildings’ surface area, which tend to dramatically under-tax more valuable properties.

Moreover, Freetown’s system is likely to be more acceptable to taxpayers – and more resistant to corruption – because every aspect of the valuation is transparent, readily available, and verifiable. A key objective is to ensure every property is subject to a standardised process that is easily understood and roughly mirrors market values. The goal is to ensure universality and fairness to help build trust with taxpayers.

The politics of Ugandan public transport during the pandemic

Kampala’s downtown Old Taxi Park stands empty during the lockdown, via The Independent

One of the most unusual features of Uganda’s coronavirus lockdown has been a ban on both public and private transport. Only cargo transporters and essential workers with approval from the government are allowed to move around, forcing many people to choose between staying home or sleeping at their places of employment. Many others have been cut off from medical care or social support for domestic violence survivors.

The latest directive says that transport can resume in most districts in early June. However, because of concerns about coronavirus cases being transported from neighboring countries, border districts will have to wait another three weeks, till late June, to resume transport. In Kampala, public transport may also be slowed by ongoing renovations to the Old Taxi Park, which is the largest bus stop in the capital.

There’s a long history of government ambivalence towards the privatized systems of buses and motorcycle taxis which most citizens use to get around. Like neighboring Kenya, the state isn’t really in a position to set up a genuine public transit system, and instead ends up adopting various policies to try to control the existing, rather chaotic system at the margins. These include occasional bans on motorcycle taxis in Kampala neighborhoods, and most recently, a directive saying that all motorcycle taxis must sign up to work with a ride-sharing program like SafeBoda. Expect a booming black market in SafeBoda’s trademark orange vests and helmets to appear shortly.

Kampala’s empty streets have provided interesting opportunities for art, however. Check out this strangely lovely drone video from Storyteld.

Why gender-sensitive social protection is essential for pandemic response

IFPRI has a useful new blog post out on gender considerations for pandemic response. Some key points include the following.

Men and women don’t benefit equally from social protection schemes:

Cash benefits (via e-payments) are widely recommended; cash can also improve household economic security and emotional well-being, which directly benefit women and can contribute to reducing intimate partner violence. However, the feasibility of safely providing additional in-kind transfers (including food or soap) should be considered as well, as women and children are often the first to reduce food consumption in response to food insecurity, and women may be responsible for daily shopping, exposing them to potential infection… When social distancing restrictions are relaxed, implementers of public works programs should ensure dignified work with fair wages where women can safely participate, with exemptions for lactating and pregnant women.

Naming women as the primary household beneficiaries of social protection programs can improve their intrahousehold negotiating positions, but also comes with risks:

Although broader evidence is mixed, a few studies from LMICs indicate that naming female recipients may improve women’s empowerment. We believe the evidence supports considering women as named recipients—while recognizing that particularly acute periods of the crisis (e.g., lockdowns) may intensify household tensions.

Therefore, in settings where existing analysis shows the feasibility and acceptability of targeting women, we see gains in continuing during the COVID-19 crisis. But in settings where targeting women was previously deemed infeasible, we do not recommend starting during the crisis and explicitly challenging norms during a time when tensions are high.

Digital payments can reduce the risk of crowding at banks or cash transfer agents, but can also disadvantage women:

Responses should consider that in many settings women are less likely to have access to mobile phones; existing programs have sometimes provided them for this reason. While mobile phones are a promising platform for providing information, it is important to keep in mind that improving access alone may not be sufficient; women also have lower literacy, lower ability to pay for services, and multiple constraints on their time

Finally, don’t forget the data!

Because these are complex issues and unintended consequences of programming are possible, more research is needed on intersections of social protection, gender and pandemics, where ethically feasible. At a minimum, monitoring statistics should be sex- and age-disaggregated and, where possible, data should be collected to ensure risks to beneficiaries do not increase

Africa Update for May 2020

The latest edition of Africa Update is out! We’ve got mental health in Ghana, home brewing in South Africa, vintage Somali May Day celebrations, Nigerian digital art, and more.

Photos from last year’s Lamu dhow race, by Roland Klemp

West Africa: In Ghana, activists are encouraging men to speak out about their mental health issues.  Ghana is also using drones to efficiently transport coronavirus test swabs for analysis.  Lockdowns are hitting countries like Senegal hard, where 85% of people in a recent survey said their incomes had dropped.  

Central Africa: Uganda has banned the import of used clothing over concerns about coronavirus.  Uganda has also prohibited the use of public transport during the pandemic, even though this is cutting many people off from medical care and increasing rates of domestic violence.  This is a strangely beautiful drone video of Kampala’s empty streets during lockdown.  Here’s how a financier of the Rwandan genocide was captured in France 26 years later.

Some interesting data on revenue performance across the continent, via Amaka Anku

East Africa: Somalia has launched its first ever government-run cash transfer program for over 1 million vulnerable citizens.  Somalia also has few reported coronavirus deaths, but informal reports from gravediggers suggest the real toll is higher.  Kenya has created a new state corporation meant to profit from the labor of people in prisons.  Tanzania appears to be covering up its real number of coronavirus deaths, even as the president has refused to take basic safety precautions.

Southern Africa: Malawi is one of the few countries without a coronavirus lockdown, after the high court blocked it over concerns of its economic impact on poor citizens.  South Africa banned alcohol sales during the lockdown, leading supermarkets to just coincidentally leave all the ingredients for home brewing next to each other.  South African Airways will be divided up amongst its competitors after going into bankruptcy.

Art interlude: check out this amazing vintage Somali May Day Poster, via Faduma Hassan

Coronavirus: Many African countries have limited scientific lab capacity, and had to use it for testing instead of genomic sequencing, which means that any eventual vaccine might not be as effective for viral strains on the continent.  There’s some interesting data here about the varied nature of lockdowns across Africa, including the fact that most countries imposed them unusually early, with fewer than 10 domestic cases.  Reporting on coronavirus in Africa should do more to highlight the many mutual aid groups supporting their communities.

Other health news: A new malaria vaccine being piloted in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi could make the virus less severe.  Only 18 African countries have adequate systems for recording births and deaths.  Putting chlorine dispensers next to communal water sites is an easy way to improve sanitation in Uganda. 

Agriculture: Here’s a good summary of how the pandemic is affecting food systems across Africa.  People used to respond to locust invasions in East Africa by eating them, but new research says that this strategy doesn’t work any longer as the bugs are exposed to too many pesticides. How can regional rice market integration help avoid shortages in West Africa?  Exports of medical marijuana and hemp are growing across Africa, even as many countries still ban recreational smoking.

Countries vary widely in the percentage of their citizens without access to national IDs, via Carlos Lopes

Economics + technology: Global remittance flows are expected to drop by more than US$100 billion as immigrants abroad are affected by the pandemic.  African tax collectors don’t have very many good options for making up lost revenue due to the pandemic. On the bright side, the virus is driving innovations in technology across Africa.

Gender: Check out the great resources at the African Feminism website and the African Feminist Archive.  Meet the female athletes breaking barriers in Somaliland.  Nigeria has some of the world’s strictest abortion laws, and over 60,000 women die annually from illegal abortions or complications during childbirth.  Rwanda has pardoned 50 women accused of having illegal abortions, but hasn’t changed its restrictive abortion laws.

I’m loving Adekunle Adeleke‘s creative digital portraits

Immigration: In China, African immigrants are facing discrimination over fears that they’re spreading the virus.  Israel has nullified a law which discouraged people from applying for asylum by forcing them to deposit 20% of their monthly salaries in savings accounts.  Meet the scholar studying the global fashion history of the African diaspora.  And Astrid Haas and I have written about whether safe rural migration programs could support urban safety nets in African countries during the pandemic.

Snapshots of IPA’s RECOVR research hub

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My partner Tom has done some interesting analysis of the projects listed on IPA’s RECOVR coronavirus research hub as of late April.  His previous research found that most social science research registries focused on coronavirus were focused on high income countries, but fortunately RECOVR is doing better on this front.

Some key points:

There are [56] projects all over the world, with 25 covering Africa, and 18 in Asia. They cover a huge variety of topics — health is naturally in the lead, but there are many studies of Social Protection, Peace and Recovery, and Financial Inclusion. It looks like there’s room for some more studies on education and agriculture…

One other welcome note: almost two thirds of the studies listed have at least one person from (one of) the countries being studied, on the team of named principal investigators.

Also, it’s not just RCTs!

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I should add here (with an inevitable bit of bias) that Tom’s a talented researcher and program manager, with a focus on behavioral science.  He’s currently open for consulting or full-time work based in London.

How are African academics being impacted by the pandemic?

That’s the focus of a new research briefing from the Mawazo Institute.  The project team surveyed over 500 academics, mostly from East Africa, about whether the pandemic had disrupted their research and teaching.  The vast majority said they were experiencing interruptions to their courses and research, while less than 40% said that e-learning was being offered by their institutions.  Combine this with concerns about already-low research output across the continent, and it’s going to be a difficult year for the higher education and research sectors.

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