Access to electricity has stalled in many African countries

A Kenyan man in a yellow safety vest stands under a piece of large metallic tubing
A worker at Kenya’s Olkaria geothermal energy plant, via Wikipedia

In a recent article at The Conversation, Carolyn Logan says that the expansion of electrical grids across Africa has largely stalled since 2016.  As she notes,

Survey teams from the African research network Afrobarometer, asked people in 34 countries on the continent about access to electricity, and recorded the presence of an accessible grid. They found that expansion of national electric grids appeared to have largely stalled in recent years. And even in areas where an electric grid was accessible, service often remained unreliable.

About four in 10 Africans (42%) lack an electricity connection in their homes. This is either because they are in zones not served by an electric grid or because they are not connected to an existing grid. In 16 countries, more than half of respondents had no electricity connection. This included more than three quarters of citizens in Burkina Faso (81%), Uganda (80%), Liberia (78%), and Madagascar (76%).

Just getting access to the grid doesn’t guarantee reliable electricity, either.

Across 34 countries, one in four respondents (25%) who have an electricity connection say their electricity works “about half the time” or less (Figure 3). Quality is a particular problem in Malawi, where 88% of connected households do not have reliable electricity, and the situation is only slightly better in Guinea (79%) and Nigeria (79%). … Only 43% of Africans enjoy a reliable supply of electricity.

How much do African countries collect in taxes?

Not very much compared to global standards, according to this Economist article.  As they note,

Government revenues average about 17% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IMF. Nigeria has more than 300 times as many people as Luxembourg, but collects less tax. If Ethiopia shared out its tax revenues equally, each citizen would get around $80 a year. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is so penurious that its annual health spending per person could not buy a copy of this newspaper.

Globally, wealthy countries have tax revenues equivalent to about 34% of GDP, and Latin America averages 22%, according to the OECD.


One of the paradoxes of taxation in many African states is that low tax revenues co-exist with relatively high tax rates, because the overall tax base is very narrow.  Most economic activity goes untaxed, and taxes are concentrated on a small number of firms in the formal sector.  And the largest firms, or those which are politically connected, can often negotiate further tax breaks, further narrowing the tax base.

(H/t to Ken Opalo for this article.)


What happens to Africa if climate change goes unchecked?

Via Susan Comrie, I came across this alarming map of what the world will look like if global temperatures rise by 4°C.  The outlook for Africa is extraordinarily grim.  (The blue dots north of the Sahara reflect potential for solar energy installations, and the red bits are coastline permanently lost to sea level rise.)

A map showing that Africa will mostly be desert at 4 degrees Celsius of global warming, with a bit of greenery in the Sahel

According to Our World in Data, the world’s current set of climate policies will lead to warming of 3.1-3.7°C relative to pre-industrial temperatures by 2100.  That’s not too far off the future depicted in this map.

There’s a desperate need for the countries which emit the most carbon — primarily China, the US, and the European region — to put better policies in place.  African countries also need to plan for climate change mitigation, although it’s unclear exactly how much can be done in the face of 4°C of warming.

Who counts as a household head?

If you’ve done much survey research, you’re probably familiar with controversies over how to map out households, and in particular whether to assume that a married man is by default the household head.  The Center for Global Development and Data2X recently shared the discussion from an interesting event on this topic.  As the authors Mayra Buvinic and Dominique van de Walle note,

Traditionally, the uses of household headship have been both practical and conceptual. First, the delineation of a head is universally used in household surveys as a practical organizing principle to map out the household roster and relationships between household members. Second, comparing households according to the sex of the designated head has been used as a way to assess gender inequalities. Indeed, female headship has been interpreted as a proxy for women’s poverty.

They lay out three reasons why assigning headship according to gender can be a bad idea.

First, headship as a concept is value-laden and reinforces patriarchal gender stereotypes that are important to resist. Gender-biased concepts and measures can perpetuate stereotypical notions that only men should be heads of household. Second, assigning a head also depends on subjective assessments by household members. Finally, headship may also perpetuate gender bias if interviewers are themselves predisposed towards attributing headship to adult males. The conclusion to this line of reasoning is that getting rid of these data and organizing the household around a “primary household respondent” would solve the problem of using a construct that is not reducible.

However, they don’t feel that the concept should be dropped immediately.  One salient point is that many cultures still do in practice designate one adult to make the major household decisions, and ignoring this designation would throw away useful data.  In addition,

We would argue that analyzing households by their head’s gender can be a reliable source of information for:

  1.  Monitoring changes in society and family dynamics. The growing number of women heading households in prime adult age groups can signal social change towards gender equality and away from patriarchal family structures.
  2.  Female headship, when it captures marital dissolution and widowhood (Africa) or unpartnered motherhood (Latin America), often signals vulnerability and disadvantage for women and children.
  3.  The growing numbers of female heads resulting from wars and violent conflict signal both vulnerabilities and economic and political opportunities for women.


Improving birth registration rates in Africa

A map showing birth registration rates in Africa, which vary from 100% in South Africa to less than 20% in Tanzania

Several interesting articles on this topic have popped up lately.  This whole article from The Economist (which also provided the graph above) is worth reading.  Some key points on registration challenges:

Money is another reason many African countries have fallen behind their peers. Extending the state’s reach to remote areas can be expensive. So, too, is paying for skilled labour of the sort required to fill in forms accurately and to operate biometric machines. The technology itself is costly, especially for small countries that do not have much buying power.

Many governments have unwisely bought proprietary systems, meaning that they are forced to go back to the seller for maintenance, upgrades and new components. That can be expensive. When Nigeria’s NIMC wanted to use its own card-printing machines, the firm that had sold it software tried to insist that Nigeria buy its machines as well, says Tunji Durodola, an adviser to the commission. (They eventually got help from Pakistan, which had software that worked on any machine.)

But help may be coming from India, which recently carried out one of the largest identity card registration schemes in the world with its Aadhar program.

When India developed its “Aadhaar” identity programme it invited leading firms to bid—but with the caveat that they provide open-source software, or code that can be examined and changed by others. This allowed engineers to knit together different bits of a system such as databases, enrolment software, fingerprint scanners and so on. The suppliers agreed because they did not want to miss out on the biggest identity bonanza the world had ever seen. Moreover, India’s spending led to a big increase in production, which caused prices to fall across the industry. …  Eleven countries, including Uganda, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali and Madagascar, have signed up to an industry advisory committee to develop these open standards

Interestingly, several African countries have recently gone through big pushes to register adult citizens, but haven’t necessarily built on this to improve registration at birth.  Kenya’s Huduma Namba is a good example, where citizens had only a few months earlier in 2019 to register for a unique government service number.  And here’s a similar critique coming from Ghana, via Joy Online:

The [National Identification Authority] is undertaking a mass registration exercise to capture the information of Ghanaians onto a National Identity Register, following which a Ghana Card is issued.  …  [However,] little or no attempt has been made at establishing an integrated system that captures at birth and allocates permanent identity numbers to Ghanaians and resident foreign nationals born in Ghana

Interesting academic articles for November 2019

Here’s what I’ve been looking forward to reading lately.

Sam Hickey, Tom Lavers, Jeremy Seekings, and Miguel Niño-Zarazúa, eds.  2019. The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa.  UNU-WIDER.

The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa challenges the common conception that [social protection] has been entirely driven by international development agencies, instead focusing on the critical role of political dynamics within specific African countries. It details how the power and politics at multiple levels of governance shapes the extent to which political elites are committed to social protection, the form that this commitment takes, and the implications that this has for future welfare regimes and state-citizen relations in Africa. It reveals how international pressures only take hold when they become aligned with the incentives and ideas of ruling elites in particular contexts. It shows how elections, the politics of clientelism, political ideologies, and elite perceptions all play powerful roles in shaping when countries adopt social protection and at what levels, which groups receive benefits, and how programmes are delivered.

Rumman Khan, Oliver Morrissey, and Paul Mosley.  2019.  “Two Africas? Why Africa’s ‘growth miracle’ has barely reduced poverty.”  RePEc discussions papers 2019 – 08.

Growth improved substantially in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since 1990, but poverty in SSA as a whole has fallen by about a third, compared to by half or more in other developing regions. While some countries have had little or no success in reducing poverty, many have had significant achievements. The paper argues that inter-country differences, traceable to colonial experience, are crucial to understanding this varied SSA performance. This is based on a distinction between relatively labour-intensive ‘smallholder’ colonial economies and capital-intensive ‘extractive economies’ exporting minerals and plantation crops. Because of the more equitable income distribution and African political inclusion generated in smallholder economies, at independence they were in a better position than extractive economies to translate growth into poverty reduction. Since the 1990s (when poverty data are available) the distinction in terms of poverty reduction can be observed. The empirical analysis estimates the growth elasticity of poverty using various specifications, some including inequality. There are two key robust findings: i) smallholder economies significantly outperform extractive economies in poverty reduction; and ii) growth rates do not differ on average between the two groups, but the growth elasticity of poverty is higher in smallholder economies.

Michael Clemens, Helen Dempster, and Kate Gough.  2019.  “Promoting New Kinds of Legal Labour Migration Pathways Between Europe and Africa.”  Center for Global Development.

As Europe’s working-age population continues to decline, sub-Saharan Africa’s is rapidly increasing. Many of these new labour market entrants will seek opportunities in Europe, plugging skill gaps and contributing to economies in their countries of destination. To make the most of these movements, the new European Commission should create and promote new kinds of legal labour migration pathways with more tangible benefits to countries of origin and destination; pilot and scale Global Skill Partnership projects between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa and within Africa; and be a positive voice for migration within Europe, promoting the benefits from migration and ensuring they are understood.

Sohela Nazneen.  2019.  “How Do Leaders Collectively Influence Institutions?”  Developmental Leadership Program.  

How do leaders collectively influence institutions? This question lies at the heart of understanding how actors influence positive change. Social scientists have attempted to answer it from different perspectives. Broadly, these either emphasise the role of actors (both the individual leader and collective bodies) and how they act and what strategies they use, or focus more on how structures and institutions (i.e. rules of the game) define contextual boundaries and create specific opportunities and incentives for actors to behave in specific ways. These two perspectives reveal important aspects of how and why actors engage in collective processes of change. However … unpacking how leaders and coalitions engage in collective processes of change requires a deeper and nuanced understanding of what factors and conditions influence the decisions taken and strategies used by leaders and coalitions at different stages along the lifecycle of reform. Collective processes of change have three interlinked stages: 1) collective formation—when leaders focus on forming collectives and maintaining group cohesion; 2) legitimation—when leaders and coalitions are concerned with framing and justifying their demands and strengthening their position to make claims; and 3) securing institutional change—when the focus is on using different strategies to negotiate an outcome for the constituencies they claim to represent.

Rajeev Dehejia, Cristian Pop-Eleches, and Cyrus Samii.  2019.  “From Local to Global: External Validity in a Fertility Natural Experiment.”  NBER working paper 21459.

We study issues related to external validity for treatment effects using over 100 replications of the Angrist and Evans (1998) natural experiment on the effects of sibling sex composition on fertility and labor supply. The replications are based on census data from around the world going back to 1960. We decompose sources of error in predicting treatment effects in external contexts in terms of macro and micro sources of variation. In our empirical setting, we find that macro covariates dominate over micro covariates for reducing errors in predicting treatments, an issue that past studies of external validity have been unable to evaluate. We develop methods for two applications to evidence-based decision-making, including determining where to locate an experiment and whether policy-makers should commission new experiments or rely on an existing evidence base for making a policy decision.

Caitlin Tulloch.  2019.  “Taking intervention costs seriously: a new, old toolbox for inference about costs.”  Journal of Development Effectiveness.

This paper examines a new set of average cost data from a large international NGO, finding that costs for the same intervention can vary as much as twenty times when scale or context is changed. Despite this challenge to the generalisability of cost estimates, a high proportion of the variation can be explained by observable program and contextual characteristics. Binary questions about whether cost estimates are externally valid do not provide a useful framework for wider inference; instead, researchers can gain analytical traction if they study what factors cause the costs of specific interventions to change, and by how much.