Putting the “African” back into African Studies

Exterior shot of the modern, glass-walled library at United States International University in NairobiThe main library at United States International University in Nairobi

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a must-read thinker on issues of decolonization in academia.  She has an excellent recent piece on this topic at African Arguments.  Some of her key recommendations for putting the “African” back in African studies:

This can be achieved when:

  • A [canon] of scholarly literature produced by Africans is established, which would be mandatory reading for all African studies courses across the globe. This canon must include male and female scholars writing in multiple languages across the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities;
  • Non-African scholars defer to authoritative voices and scholars on the continent, by citing them regularly and actively acknowledging their contributions to the field;
  • Open-access publishing on Africa is the norm rather than the exception, so that Africa-based scholars can access, engage with and critique knowledge produced about the continent;
  • More African scholars (based in Africa and elsewhere) serve on editorial boards of top-rated African Studies journals, as both editors and reviewers, in order to influence the research agendas of these publications;
  • African universities value, support, and validate good quality scholarship about Africa, through the provision of research funding for staff, living wages, sabbatical time to write and publish, and paid subscriptions to relevant journals.

These measures and more will compel us to effectively re-insert the ‘African’ in African Studies, not as a token gesture, but as an affirmation that Africans have always produced knowledge about their continent.

The 25 best longform articles of 2017

The image shows a red square with the text "2,952,My year in Pocket

I’ve always been a bookworm, but over the last year or two the number of books I’ve read outside of work has steadily declined.  This was dismaying until I noticed that I’ve just been substituting longform journalism for the other reading I normally might have done.  I do almost all of my reading through Pocket, which recently sent the very reassuring year-end email above.

Here are the 25 most interesting articles that I found out of those almost three million words (!) in 2017, in no particular order.  Check out my 2016 list as well.

Black mothers keep dying after giving birth.  Shalom Irving’s story explains why.  NPR.  “But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.  ‘It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it. It’s everywhere; it’s in the air; it’s just affecting everything,’ said Fleda Mask Jackson, an Atlanta researcher who focuses on birth outcomes for middle-class black women.  …  [Chronic stress] has profound implications for pregnancy, the most physiologically complex and emotionally vulnerable time in a woman’s life. Stress has been linked to one of the most common and consequential pregnancy complications, preterm birth. Black women are 49 percent more likely than whites to deliver prematurely (and, closely related, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday).”

Every parent wants to protect their child.  I never got the chance.  The Cut.  “But no matter whose fault it is, giving birth to a child with a terminal disease is something I did do. This is just as obvious as it is important: I am the one who was pregnant and gave birth to Dudley. That I continued my pregnancy under mistaken pretenses feels like an irreparable violation, one that I don’t think any man — including the one who loves Dudley as much as I do — is capable of understanding.”

How the US triggered a massacre in Mexico.  ProPublica.  “But unlike most places in Mexico that have been ravaged by the drug war, what happened in Allende didn’t have its origins in Mexico. It began in the United States, when the Drug Enforcement Administration scored an unexpected coup. An agent persuaded a high-level Zetas operative to hand over the trackable cellphone identification numbers for two of the cartel’s most wanted kingpins, Miguel Ángel Treviño and his ​brother Omar.  Then the DEA took a gamble. It shared the intelligence with a Mexican federal police unit that has long had problems with leaks — even though its members had been trained and vetted by the DEA. Almost immediately, the Treviños learned they’d been betrayed. The brothers set out to exact vengeance against the presumed snitches, their families and anyone remotely connected to them.”

The best books on Vermeer and studio method.  Five Books.  “There is quite a lot of argument about Vermeer’s working practice, particularly over whether or not he might have used an optical aid, such as a camera obscura.  But he only had the same things available to him as did any other painter of his day. Because his pictures look quite different from his contemporaries, the big questions are whether he worked in an unusual way, and also how he could have used a lens in his studio. There is very little documentation about Vermeer, and so I had to start by finding out what were the suggested methods and materials for artists at the time, and how people were using lenses. There was a bit of an overlap between alchemy, medicine and painting then, and old artists’ treatises give recipes for cures and experiments as well as for paint. They were all fascinating, and so my reading became very wide, and it took a very long time to write this book. This is why the bibliography is so big.”

The African enlightenment.  Aeon.  “In short: many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarised by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632. Yacob’s reason-based philosophy is presented in his main work, Hatäta (meaning ‘the enquiry’). The book was written down in 1667 on the insistence of his student, Walda Heywat, who himself wrote a more practically oriented Hatäta. Today, 350 years later, it’s hard to find a copy of Yacob’s book.”

The hellraisers of Nairobi.  Nairobi Side Hustle.  “From the beginning, Mumbi’s approach was radical and feminist. She realized that women were being excluded from local community associations because of the membership fees, so she set up her own women’s parliament, and made it free to join. Herself a Kikuyu, Mumbi invited women who represented all the different communities around Mathare to join.  Almost immediately, the Parliament got to work on issues that no one else seemed to be touching. ‘For us, we wanted to have a unique platform where women can share and exchange their views about things that are not going right at the community level,’ she said. After a house girl was beaten by her employer and cheated out of her wage, the Parliament helped to form a house girls’ association. And after a woman died in childbirth at the local Huruma Maternity Clinic, they organized a march to demand that the local government shut the clinic down.”

Afghan war rugs and the lossy compression of cultural codingRespectable Lawyer.  This is a Twitter thread, so not so easy to quote here, but it’s a fascinating discussion of how the Soviet and American invasions are visually represented in rugs, and how cultural artifacts get passed between generations of weavers.

India’s Silicon Valley is dying of thirst.  Your city may be next.  Wired.  “Bangalore has a problem: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Banga­lore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, ‘the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.'”

What do slaveholders think?  Aeon.  “While not every one of the slaveholders I spoke with in the course of this research was as frank as Aanan, his approach bears all the traits of contemporary slaveholding: financial distress, emotional manipulation, illegality, and paternalism. At the end of our conversation, I inquired about Aanan with one of my research partners. Yes, they had heard of him. I updated my field notes: ‘Largest contractor in [town].’”

How did Indonesia and Malaysia become majority-Muslim when they were once dominated by Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms?  r/AskHistorians.  “While Islam was spreading, Southeast Asia was experiencing other rapid changes in matters other than religion. Forests were cleared to make farms, while fishing villages turned into humongous cities within a few generations. People began to leave their villages and head out for the wider world. Animism tends to be localized and unpredictable, but Islam is true no matter where you go and says that no matter what, the pious go to Heaven and the evil fall to Hell. Islam was perhaps the most suitable religion in this brave new world.”

The couple who saved ancient China’s architectural treasures before they were lost forever.  Smithsonian Magazine.  “Liang and Lin—along with a half dozen or so other young scholars in the grandly named Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture—used the only information available, following stray leads in ancient texts, chasing up rumors and clues found in cave murals, even, in one case, an old folkloric song. It was, Liang later wrote, ‘like a blind man riding a blind horse.’ Despite the difficulties, the couple would go on to make a string of extraordinary discoveries in the 1930s, documenting almost 2,000 exquisitely carved temples, pagodas and monasteries that were on the verge of being lost forever.”

What would count as an explanation of the size of China? Marginal Revolution. “Currently there are over one billion Chinese in one political unit, and a bit of scattering.  And there are over one billion Europeans, spread in fairly significant numbers across about fifty political units.  How did such a fundamental difference come to pass?”

Rice and banchan — a love affair.  Ask a Korean.  “If you ever visited a Korean restaurant, even just once, you have seen banchan. Before you receive what you ordered—sometimes, before you order anything at all—an array of dishes come in small plates. One of them, without fail, is kimchi. Others can be meat, fish or vegetables. They can be raw, cooked, tossed, pickled, braised, fermented. Those are banchan: literally, ‘companion to rice.’  Eating food with carbohydrates is hardly unique to Koreans. Nor is eating food with rice, as other rice-growing cultures also center their cuisine around rice. But none of those cultures created a cuisine quite like Korea’s, which obsesses over building a constellation of small dishes to orbit around the rice. To be sure, not all Korean dishes come with numerous banchan. Dishes like gukbap (국밥, or rice-in-soup,) noodles, or bibimbap usually come with the maximum of three or so side dishes. But traditionally, Koreans have considered those banchan-less dishes to be the “lower” food that you would eat when you are out-and-about. Bibimbap, for example, originated as a dish for peasants on the field, who would mix in all the banchan into a large bowl with rice and sauce to eat quickly during their mid-day break. Gukbap and noodles were usually served at guest houses for travelers who needed to eat quickly and continue their journey.”

The Japanese origins of fine dining.  Eater.  “There’s little precedent in Europe for the lightly cooked, lightly sauced, yet intricately plated dishes, what the late writer and critic Josh Ozersky called ‘tweezer food,’ before it appeared suddenly and decisively in France in the 1960s. A great deal of nouvelle cuisine’s innovations, in fact, paralleled classical aspects of Japanese dining, especially the movement’s emphasis on shorter cooking times; minimalist, playful plating; and a focus on extracting the essential aspects of an ingredient, rather than transforming it. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the time that French chefs began visiting Japan (and Japanese chefs began training in France) in the mid-1960s, fine dining has become increasingly like Japan’s most formal dining tradition, kaiseki.”

Why would aliens ever bother with Earth?  Literary Hub.  “For these reasons, it strikes me that if there is intelligent alien life out there in our galaxy, they almost certainly wouldn’t pay us a visit in person in huge city-sized motherships, but by sending their sentient robots as emissaries.”

The origin of cities — part 1The HipCrime Vocab.  “Thus, the origin of cities was long before the agricultural revolution as was very much tied together with the activities of ritual feasting. Many of the ancient megaliths show the same ‘cosmological’ orientation as the early temple cities do. The calendrical orientation was associated with the priestly caste who used astronomical observations to determine the timing of the feasts. The design of these sites was intentionally made to represent a cosmic order manifested on earth, a common theme of early ruling classes who were establishing a celestial ‘order’ on earth – ‘as above so below’ in language of hermeticism. Just as the sacred feasting rituals provided the opportunity for the gift exchanges that led to the interest-bearing debt and inequality, so too did the written debt/credit relationships which supplanted them originate in the sacred context of the temples.”

Here be dragons: finding the blank spaces in a well-mapped world.  VQR.  “Until a century ago, Greenlandic hunters would cut maps out of driftwood. ‘The wooden part would be the fjord, so it would be a mirror image,’ Siggi says. ‘Holes would be islands. Compared to a paper map, it was actually quite accurate.’ … A Danish ethnologist, Gustav Holm, noted that notched into the wood, ‘the map likewise indicates where a kayak can be carried’ when the path between fjords is blocked by ice. Unlike drawings, the contoured wood could be felt, useful in a region where the sun disappears for months at a time.”

New exoskeletons will harness the subtle anatomy of human balance.  Nautilus.  “Unlike the rest of us, the [Kenyan] women were supporting the load [they carried on their head] with the structural components of the body, rather than metabolizing tissues of the body. They were balancing it perfectly on their bones, without the aid of any muscle, tendon, or supporting structures. Over time, Heglund showed, the bones and bodies of the African women had adjusted to perfectly support the head weight in the most energy efficient manner. The structure had adjusted so it aligned in an ideal formation to keep the weight off the muscles.”

The science of suffering.  New Republic.  “By far the most remarkable recent finding about this transmogrification of the body is that some proportion of it can be reproduced in the next generation. The children of survivors—a surprising number of them, anyway—may be born less able to metabolize stress. They may be born more susceptible to PTSD, a vulnerability expressed in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes.  After a century of brutalization and slaughter of millions, the corporeal dimension of trauma gives a startling twist to the maxim that history repeats itself. Yael Danieli, the author of an influential reference work on the multigenerational dimensions of trauma, refers to the physical transmission of the horrors of the past as ’embodied history.’ Of course, biological legacy doesn’t predetermine the personality or health of any one child. To say that would be to grossly oversimplify the socioeconomic and geographic and irreducibly personal forces that shape a life. At the same time, it would be hard to overstate the political import of these new findings. People who have been subject to repeated, centuries-long violence, such as African Americans and Native Americans, may by now have disadvantage baked into their very molecules.”

How to raise a sweet son in an era of angry men.  Time.  “Boys have always known they could do anything; all they had to do was look around at their presidents, religious leaders, professional athletes, at the statues that stand erect in big cities and small. Girls have always known they were allowed to feel anything — except anger. Now girls, led by women, are being told they can own righteous anger.Now they can feel what they want and be what they want. There’s no commensurate lesson for boys in our culture. While girls are encouraged to be not just ballerinas, but astronauts and coders, boys—who already know they can walk on the moon and dominate Silicon Valley—don’t receive explicit encouragement to fully access their emotions. Boys are still snips and snails and puppy dog tails. We leave them behind from birth.”

How do you count without numbers?  Sapiens.  “None of us, then, is really a ‘numbers person.’ We are not predisposed to handle quantitative distinctions adroitly. In the absence of the cultural traditions that infuse our lives with numbers from infancy, we would all struggle with even basic quantitative distinctions.”

Why clocks run clockwise (and some watches and clocks that don’t).  Hodinkee.  “The idea that one would need to specify motion one way or the other around a circle doesn’t seem to have been very widespread prior to the development of clocks, and people simply seemed to have said left or right, in most cases. Two old terms in English exist: widdershins (counterclockwise) and deosil or deasil (clockwise) though again, these seem to originally have more had the sense of left and right rather than clockwise or counterclockwise per se. ‘Widdershins’ is first attested in 1545 (notably, well after the appearance of public clocks in Europe).”

Why did life move to land?  For the view.  Quanta.  “Life on Earth began in the water. So when the first animals moved onto land, they had to trade their fins for limbs, and their gills for lungs, the better to adapt to their new terrestrial environment.  A new study, out today, suggests that the shift to lungs and limbs doesn’t tell the full story of these creatures’ transformation. As they emerged from the sea, they gained something perhaps more precious than oxygenated air: information. In air, eyes can see much farther than they can under water. The increased visual range provided an ‘informational zip line’ that alerted the ancient animals to bountiful food sources near the shore.”

The self-medicating animal.  New York Times.  “Animals of all kinds, from ants and butterflies to sheep and monkeys, use medicine. Certain caterpillars will, when infected by parasitic flies, eat poisonous plants, killing or arresting the growth of the larvae within them. Some ants incorporate resin from spruce trees in their nests to fend off pathogenic microbes, employing the same antibacterial compounds, called terpenes, that we use when we mop the floor with the original Pine-Sol. Parrots and many other animals consume clay to treat an upset stomach; clay binds to toxins, flushing them out of the body. ‘I believe every species alive today is self-medicating in one way or another,’ Huffman told me recently. ‘It’s just a fact of life.'”

The secret economic lives of animals.  Bloomberg.  “‘Biological markets are all over the place,’ says Ronald Noë, a Dutch biologist at the University of Strasbourg who first proposed the concept of the biological market in 1994. Scientists have since described biological markets in the African savannah, Central American rainforests, and the Great Barrier Reef. Baboons and other social primates exchange grooming for sex. Some plants and insects reward ants for protection. Cleaner wrasses eat parasites off other fish and behave more gently when a “client” has the option of visiting a rival wrasse.”

Spring conference highlights

It’s been a busy few months of conferences around Berkeley!

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Christine Simiyu.  “Take-up, Use and Impact of Reusable Sanitary Products Provision and Puberty Training on Education and Health Outcomes in Rural Kenya.”  Presented at Berkeley’s Development Economics Lunch.

Michael Mbate.  Partisanship and Decentralized Corruption: Evidence from Kenya.” Presented at Berkeley’s Development Economics Lunch.

Unfortunately neither of these papers is online yet.  I mention them to highlight the excellent work being done by Berkeley’s EASST program in supporting the research of African scholars.  Follow their blog to learn about more great funding opportunities for African academics.

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Gabriel Tourek.  “Simplified Income Taxation of Firms: Evidence from a Rwandan Reform.”  Presented at the Development and Political Economics Graduate Student Conference (DEVPEC).

This paper isn’t public yet, but do keep an eye out for it.  It discusses a 2012 tax reform in Rwanda, and finds interesting results in small firms’ decisions about whether to pay taxes or evade them.

Elisa Maffioli.  “The Political Economy of Slow-Onset Disasters: Evidence from the Ebola Outbreak.”  Presented at DEVPEC.

Another very interesting work in progress.  The paper focuses on Liberia, where elections were held in 2014 in the middle of the response to the Ebola outbreak, and examines whether electoral concerns affected the government’s provision of disaster relief.

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Craig McIntosh, Karen Ferree, Clark Gibson, Danielle F. Jung, and James D. Long.  “Using Technology to Promote Participation in Emerging Democracies: VIP:Voice and the 2014 South African Election.”  Presented at Smart Government: Harnessing Technology for Public Good.

Abstract: Can technology help citizens overcome barriers to participation in emerging democracies? We argue that, by lowering costs, technology brings new participants into the political process. However, people induced to action through lower costs are different from those participating when costs are higher. Specifically, they are likely to have lower intrinsic motivations to participate and greater sensitivity to external incentives. By inducing selection effects, technology thus generates a crowd that is both more responsive to incentives (malleable) and more sensitive to costs (fragile). In this paper, we report on VIP:Voice, a platform we engineered to encourage South African citizens to engage politically through an ICT/DM platform. VIP: Voice recruited South Africans through a variety of methods, including over 50 million ‘Please Call Me’ messages, and provided a multi-channel platform allowing citizens to engage via low-tech mobile phones and high-tech social media. It encouraged purely digital forms of participation like answering survey questions about the election as well as more costly real world activities like monitoring a polling station. VIP:Voice generated engagement of some form in over 250,000 South Africans. Engagement proved sensitive to cost of action, however, with rapid attrition as action shifted from digital to real world forms. Not surprisingly, improving the ease and reducing the price of participation increased participation. Less obviously, these manipulations also influenced the nature of the group participating. Participants who entered the platform through user friendly social media channels and those who joined as a result of incentives were more sensitive to rising costs of action than those who initially engaged through less friendly channels and without material inducements. Our study thus reveals how, more than merely enabling participation, technology shapes the very nature of the crowd that forms.

Kelly Bidwell, Katherine Casey, and Rachel Glennerster.  “Debates: The Impact of Voter Knowledge Initiatives in Sierra Leone.”  Presented at Smart Government.

Abstract: Debates between candidates for public office have a rich historical tradition and remain an integral part of contemporary campaign strategy. There is, however, no definitive evidence of whether debates affect actual voting behavior. Limited media penetration implies that the effects of publicizing debates could be more pronounced, persistent and directly linked to electoral outcomes in the developing world. We experimentally manipulate citizen exposure to debates between Parliamentary candidates in Sierra Leone to measure their impacts on, and the interconnections between, voter behavior, campaign spending, and the performance of elected politicians. We find evidence of strong positive impacts on citizen political knowledge, policy alignment and votes cast on Election Day. We then document an endogenous response by participating candidates, who increased their campaign expenditure in communities where videotapes of the debates were screened in large public gatherings. A complementary series of individual treatment arms unpacks the di§fferent types of information delivered by the debates, and finds evidence that voters respond to both candidate charisma and “hard facts” about policy stance and professional qualiÖcations. Lastly, we find longer term accountability e§ects on elected MPs, where participation in debates led to higher levels of constituency engagement and development expenditure during their first year in office.

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Mahmood Mamdani.  “Between the public intellectual and the scholar: decolonization and some post-independence initiatives in African higher education.”  Presented at CAS.

Abstract: This article focuses on epistemological decolonization, including knowledge production and its institutional locus – the university – in the post-independence African context. The article begins by problematizing both the concept and the institutional history of the university, in its European and African contexts, to underline the specifically modern character of the university as we know it and its genesis in post-Renaissance Europe. Against this background, the article traces post-independence reform of universities in Africa, which is unfolding in two waves: the first on access, Africanization, generating a debate between rights and justice; and the second on institutional reform, epitomized by the debate around disciplinarity. At the same time, the notions of excellence and relevance have functioned as code words, each signaling a different trajectory in the historical development of the university. Lastly, the article explores the role and tension between the public intellectual and the scholar from the perspective of decolonization.

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Melina Platas Izama and Pia Raffler.  “Meet the Candidates: Information and Accountability in Primary and General Elections.”  Presented at EGAP.

Abstract: What is the effect of information on political behavior? This field experiment, conducted in Uganda during the 2015 primary and 2016 general elections, will systematically assess the conditions under which information about candidates and government performance affects voter behavior. We examine two different methods of providing information: debate-like “Meet the Candidate” sessions and a scorecard. “Meet the Candidate” sessions include video-recorded candidate statements on a set of questions related to policy preferences. These sessions will be publicly screened in one set of polling stations and privately to individuals in another set of polling stations. The screenings will take place in both an intra-party and inter-party electoral environment, in the 2015 primary elections of the ruling party, and 2016 general elections. Thus, we examine systematically two factors that we hypothesize will affect the effect of information on voter behavior: the political environment and the public vs. private nature of information provision.

Claire Adida, Jessica Gottlieb, Eric Kramon, and Gwyneth McClendon.  “Can Common Knowledge Improve Common Goods?”  Presented at EGAP.

Abstract: This project provides citizens in Benin with information about legislator performance while varying (1) the salience of the information to voters’ wellbeing, and (2) whether performance information is disseminated privately or in groups.  A random sample of citizens will receive legislator performance information as part of a private screening, and another random sample will receive it as part of a public screening. Additionally, a random sample of citizens will receive a “civics message” in which arguments and examples are provided about the important implications of national legislation and oversight for citizens’ wellbeing in addition to legislator performance information; the rest will receive only the legislator performance information. In control villages, no information will be disseminated either publicly or privately. The electoral behavior of respondents in the different treatment conditions will be compared to the electoral behavior of respondents in control villages.

The image shows a map of the world with Africa highlightedKatrina Kosec, Hosaena Ghebru, Brian Holtemeyer, and Valerie Mueller.  “The Effect of Land Access on Youth Employment and Migration Decisions: Evidence from Rural Ethiopia.” Presented at the Annual Bank Conference on Africa (ABCA).

 

Abstract: How does the amount of land youth expect to inherit affect their migration and employment decisions? We explore this question in the context of rural Ethiopia using data on whether youth household members from 2010 had migrated by 2014, and in which sector they work. We estimate a household fixed effects model and exploit exogenous variation in the timing of land redistributions to overcome endogenous household decisions about how much land to bequeath to descendants. We find that larger expected land inheritances significantly lower the likelihood of long-distance permanent migration and of permanent migration to urban areas. Inheriting more land also leads to a significantly higher likelihood of employment in agriculture and a lower likelihood of employment in the non-agricultural sector. Conversely, the decision to attend school is unaffected. These results appear to be most heavily driven by males and by the older half of our youth sample. We also find suggestive evidence that several mediating factors matter. Land inheritance is a much stronger predictor of rural-to-urban permanent migration and non-agricultural-sector employment in areas with less vibrant land markets, in relatively remote areas (those far from major urban centers), and in areas with lower soil quality. Overall, these results affirm the importance of push factors in dictating occupation and migration decisions in Ethiopia.

Margaux Vinez.  “Division of the Commons and Access to Land on The Frontier: Lessons from The Colonial Legacy in The Democratic Republic of Congo.”  Presented at ABCA.

Abstract: What is the importance of colonial policies in shaping today’s land tenure institutions and inequalities in access to land? This paper sheds light on this question by analyzing ”paysannat”, a colonial intervention in the Belgian Congo attempting to push the evolution of the tenure system from communal toward private property rights. In the context of forced cultivation of cash crops, the Colony imposed the privatization of collectively owned land (forests or fallows) to individual farmers in some villages. Using spatial discontinuities of the implementation of paysannat and a unique combination of contemporary household survey data, geographic data, as well as historic data from both colonial records and contemporary oral history surveys, this paper shows that paysannat had a persistent impact on local land institutions through its impact on the privatization of collective land. We find that paysannat was successful in pushing toward the indivualization of the commons, and that it had important distribution consequences between the clanic groups.

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Philip Roessler, Yannick I. Pengl, Rob Marty, Kyle Titlow, and Nicolas van de Walle.  “The Empty Panorama: The Origins of Spatial Inequality in Africa.”  Presented at the Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE).

This paper isn’t online yet, but definitely keep an eye out for it — it’s a monumental data collection effort which sheds new light on questions of inequality in Africa.

Josephine Gatua.  “Social connections and primary health care: evidence from Kenya.”  Presented at WGAPE.

Abstract: Access and utilization of health services remains low in developing countries despite the documented benefits to health. This paper analyses the local political economy of the health sector which has so far gained very little attention. Particularly, I exam- ine whether social connections between households and locally instituted health care providers affects the number of health care visits and access to essential antimalarial drugs. I also examine how access to health care and social connections affect household health seeking behaviour. I find that households that have strong social connections to the local health care providers within a community get more health care visits and are more likely to receive health commodities for free. The results further suggest that households that get more visits have better health seeking behavior in terms of testing for malaria and complying with the antimalarial treatment regime. However, kin are less likely to comply with the treatment regime compared to non-kin. Evidence suggests that local health care providers fair behavior is influenced by the amount of compensation they get.

Jonathan Weigel.  “Building State and Citizen: Experimental Evidence from a Tax Campaign in Congo.”  Presented at WGAPE.

This paper also isn’t available online.  Here’s an abstract from the pre-analysis plan:

This pre-analysis plan (PAP) outlines a randomized evaluation of the first citywide property tax campaign led by the Provincial Government in Kananga, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The primary intervention randomly assigns certain neighborhoods to receive the door-to-door tax collection program, aided by tablet computers and handheld receipt print- ers. Because collecting taxes on the ground also creates new opportunities for corruption, two cross-randomized interventions are used to study how to limit bribe taking. First, a collector monitoring (‘audit’) intervention is randomly assigned among neighborhoods that receive the program. Second, a citizen-level information intervention is randomly assigned among all neighborhoods in the city.

There are four broad strands of the analysis: (1) the effect of the tax program on citizens’ beliefs about the government and their efforts to hold it accountable; (2) the effects of the top-down audit intervention and the bottom-up information intervention on bribe taking associated with the program; (3) the determinants of productivity, honesty, and effort among state agents in the field; and (4) the citizen-side determinants of tax compliance in poor urban settings.

Let’s build African research centers in Africa

The image shows a photo of LSE and text reading "LSE is the perfect setting for a centre dedicated to Africa and the ongoing education of future generations of African leaders" - Firoz LaljiImage from Africa@LSE

Via Duncan Green, I just learned about the new Centre for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID), which is hosted at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at LSE and funded with a £5 million, five-year grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.  According to LSE’s announcement, CPAID will “study how families, clans, religious leaders, aid agencies, civil society, rebel militia and vigilante groups contribute to governance, along with formal and semi-formal government institutions. The research will mainly focus on the lives of ordinary people, in particular vulnerable and marginalised groups and populations … in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ethiopia.”

These are definitely important topics, and a good corrective to the type of political science research that focuses overmuch on formal institutions in places where the state is weak.  It’s always great to see more research on the DRC and other states affected by conflict, which tend to be understudied.  And LSE’s got a very strong team of researchers.

And.

Why is it seen as neutral and acceptable to build prominent centers of African studies outside of Africa, managed primarily by people who are not from Africa?

Why does the Africa Centre’s founder, who is himself from Uganda, feel that future African leaders are better off being trained in London than in their own countries?

Why are Northern academics so good at studying inequality and uneven post-colonial power dynamics in the South, and so bad at recognizing their own role in perpetuating inequality within the international scholarly community?

Let me be clear: I think it’s really important for every country to have scholars who are interested in international affairs.  Places like the Centre for Africa or Berkeley’s own Center for African Studies do important work making African affairs accessible to their university communities, and to the broader scholarly community.  And I myself am one of those foreign scholars who’s deeply interested in Africa.

My criticism is of the way in which the exclusion of African scholars from knowledge production about Africa is seen as normal and unremarkable.  Even in the field of African studies, where local scholars would seem to have a comparative advantage, only 15% of studies are written by authors based on the continent.  The situation is even worse in the sciences, where less than 1% of the world’s scientific research comes from Africa.  We must be missing so many interesting voices, so many valuable contributions to knowledge, because we’re systematically underinvesting in African academics.  Spending £5 million to set up a research center in the UK rather than somewhere like Accra or Nairobi (or Tamale or Eldoret or Kisangani) only perpetuates the problem.

Fortunately, there are other organizations working to remedy this inequality — and I’m in the process of starting one of them.  Stay tuned for more announcements about this project in the next few days.

Links I liked

The photo shows a bar of chocolate with Ghanaian adinkra symbols printed on itEdible art from 57 Chocolate in Ghana

The image shows a tweet reading, "my dream is to send a rural African village girl to Mars in a spaceship designed, built, and launched in Africa" - Elsie Kanza, WEFDreaming big (source)

  • Song of the week: Run, don’t walk, to listen to “Republique Amazone,” the debut album from new West African supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique.  Angélique Kidjo, Kandia Kouyaté, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly, Mouneissa Tandina, Nneka, Pamela Badjogo and Rokia Koné all in one place!