Interesting academic articles for January 2019

Here are some recent papers which I’m looking forward to reading.  They include updates on the DRC, the political economy of social protection programs in Kenya, taxation in Zambia, and bureaucracy in Peru.

Christoph Vogel and Jason Stearns. 2018.  “Kivu’s intractable security conundrum, revisited.African Affairs 117 (469): 695 – 707.

During this past decade, four developments have altered the contours of the [Congolese] conflict, contributing to a perpetuation of violence and insecurity. First, Congolese political and military elites have become increasingly invested in conflict, rendering it an end in itself. Instead of promoting cohesion and discipline, the government has perceived its security apparatus primarily as a means for distributing patronage, only occasionally prioritizing stability. Second, with the end of the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) rebellion in 2009, and more dramatically since the defeat of the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23) in 2013, regional involvement has decreased and the Kivus have seen few foreign-backed rebellions. This, combined with the national political crisis, has led armed groups to switch the focus of their bellicose rhetoric away from Rwanda towards Kinshasa. Third, there has been a dramatic proliferation of belligerents from a few dozens to over a hundred, while at the same time armed groups have coalesced into often unstable coalitions. Fourth, and most recently, insecurity is becoming increasingly politicized as political turmoil reverberates in the Kivus, prompting elites to bolster their influence through armed mobilization.

Alexander de Juan and Carlo Koos. 2018.  “The historical roots of cooperative behavior — evidence from eastern Congo.”  World Development 116: 100 – 112.

Cooperative norms and behavior are considered to be essential requirements for sustainable stabilization and development in conflict-affected states. It is therefore particularly important to understand what factors explain their salience in contexts of war, violence and displacement. In this paper, we assess the role of historical political legacies. We argue that precolonial processes of nation-building have strengthened people’s communal bonds to an imagined community, and that these bonds continue to positively impact present-day cooperative norms and behavior. We investigate this argument using the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as an empirical case. We combine historical information on the location and the main features of the precolonial Bushi Kingdom with original georeferenced survey data to investigate variation in cooperative norms within and outside of the boundaries of the precolonial “nation.” We exploit information on people’s awareness of proverbs associated with the original foundation myths of the kingdom to assess the role of long-term norm persistence. We find evidence in line with our argument on the historical roots of cooperative behavior.

Marion Ouma and Jimi Adésìna.  2018. “Solutions, exclusion and influence: Exploring power relations in the adoption of social protection policies in Kenya.”  Critical Social Policy.

Power, and how it is exercised within social relations is pivotal in explaining policy change. However, its analysis as an explanatory variable in understanding social protection policy uptake processes in developing countries remains unexplored. Using two cases of cash transfer programmes in Kenya, we examine the dynamics of power relations in the uptake of social protection policies. This article contributes to recent scholarship examining the adoption process in African countries but in departure demonstrates that asymmetrical power relations between actors are/have been central to the uptake of the programmes. The study found that within social relations in the policy space, agents exercised power in three ways. First, by controlling the policy agenda by insertion of experts; second, by excluding other actors through a process of depoliticisation; and third, by influencing the preference of domestic actors through social learning.

David Evans, Brian Holtemeyer, and Katrina Kosec.  2018.  “Cash transfers increase trust in local government.”  World Development 119: 138 – 155.

How does a locally-managed conditional cash transfer program impact trust in government? On the one hand, delivering monetary benefits and increasing interactions with government officials (elected and appointed) may increase trust. On the other hand, it can be difficult for citizens to know to whom to attribute a program and reward with greater trust. Further, imposing paternalistic conditions and possibly prompting citizens to experience feelings of social stigma or guilt, could reduce trust. We answer this question by exploiting the randomized introduction of a locally-managed transfer program in Tanzania in 2010. Our analysis reveals that cash transfers can significantly increase trust in leaders. This effect is driven by large increases in trust in elected leaders as opposed to appointed bureaucrats. Perceptions of government responsiveness to citizens’ concerns and honesty of leaders also rise, and these improvements are largest where there are more village meetings at baseline. One of the central roles of village meetings is to receive and share information with village residents, providing some evidence on the value of a high-information environment for generating trust in government. We also find that records from school and health committees are more readily available in treatment villages. Notably, while stated willingness of citizens to participate in community development projects rises, actual participation in projects and the likelihood of voting do not. Overall, the results suggest little reason to worry that local management of a conditional cash transfer program reduces trust in government or the quality of governance—especially in high-information settings.

Moizza Binat Sarwar.  2018.  “The political economy of cash transfer programmes in Brazil, Pakistan and the Philippines.”  ODI working paper.

Pro-poor policies, such as cash transfers, hold wide appeal for politicians in times of economic crises because of the visibility and high level of international support available for such measures. The political returns to politicians from a widespread pro-poor policy are significant: they potentially expand their voter base. The highly visible link between the politician and cash transfers has mobilised politicians to invest in state capacity and reach eligible citizens. Methods of selecting eligible participants and delivering cash has allowed local politicians to gain electoral mileage from central government actions. In the longer term, it can be very difficult for subsequent regimes to dismantle far-reaching propoor programmes without risking high levels of unpopularity. Consequently, future governments try to establish ownership over the programmes by improving and/or expanding them.

Danielle Resnick.  2018.  “Tax compliance and representation in Zambia’s informal economy.”  IGC working paper.

What drives tax compliance among informal workers and does it affect demands for political representation? While these questions have been posed previously in political economy scholarship, there are few studies that examine these dynamics among informal workers, who constitute the majority of the population in developing countries. Contrary to assumptions that informal workers fall outside the tax net, they often encounter a variety of taxes collected by national and local authorities. Based on an original survey with over 800 informal workers across 11 markets in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, and interviews with relevant policymakers, this paper finds that compliance tends to be higher among those workers operating in markets with better services, providing support for the fiscal exchange hypothesis. Moreover, using a vote choice experiment, I find that those who pay taxes, regardless of how much they pay, are more likely than those who do not to vote for a hypothetical mayoral candidate interested in improving market services and stall fees rather than one interested in broader social goods, such as improving education and schools in Lusaka. The results suggest that even among a relatively poor segment of the population, tax revenue can be mobilized if the benefits of those taxes are directly experienced and that just the process of paying taxes can affect an individual’s demand for representation by policymakers.

Andrew Dustan, Stanislao Maldonado, and Juan Manuel Hernandez-Agramonte. 2018. “Motivating bureaucrats with non-monetary incentives when state capacity is weak: Evidence from large-scale field experiments in Peru.”  Working paper.

We study how non-monetary incentives, motivated by recent advances in behavioral economics, affect civil servant performance in a context where state capacity is weak. We collaborated with a government agency in Peru to experimentally vary the content of text messages targeted to civil servants in charge of a school maintenance program. These messages incorporate behavioral insights in dimensions related to information provision, social norms, and weak forms of monitoring and auditing. We find that these messages are a very cost-effective strategy to enforce compliance with national policies among civil servants. We further study the role of social norms and the salience of social benefits in a follow-up experiment and explore the external validity of our original results by implementing a related experiment with civil servants from a different national program. The findings of these new experiments support our original results and provide additional insights regarding the context in which these incentives may work. Our results highlight the importance of carefully designed non-monetary incentives as a tool to improve civil servant performance when the state lacks institutional mechanisms to enforce compliance.

 

Making x-centric less eccentric

Lant Pritchett’s latest post about the limits of randomized controlled trials in development economics has been making the rounds of the small universe of people who care deeply about randomized controlled trials for a few weeks.  His critique, of course, is that there’s a fad for examining whether “intervention X affects outcome Y” (or “x-centric” research), but researchers often give too little attention to whether the proposed intervention is feasible and cost-effective outside the context of an academic study.

This line of criticism isn’t new, and most people I know who do development RCTs would probably agree with it.  There’s a lot of work already underway to remedy some of these shortcomings.  To take several of Lant’s points in order:

“X-centric can become eccentric by being driven by statistical power.”  Lant’s point here is that many questions we might care about, such as why China grew so rapidly after the 1970s, or why some countries have better educational outcomes than others, aren’t amenable to randomization.  This is very obviously true, and I don’t know a single person who argues that RCTs are the only valid research method for every question in economics. As the graph below shows, RCTs are still a minority of all published research in the discipline. There’s also a lot of interesting case-based research that addresses these issues, although you sometimes have to go next door to political science to find it.  Two examples that come to mind are Douglass North, Jim Wallis, and Barry Weingast’s work on the institutional prerequisites for economic growth, or Stephen Kosack on the politics of education in Taiwan, Ghana and Brazil.

The image shows a graph demonstrating that RCTs are still a fraction of all published papers in most economics journalsGraph via David McKenzie

“X-centric can become eccentric by never asking how big.”  The idea here is that many published development RCTs have results which are statistically significant, but substantively small.  For example, a study might report the headline result that tutoring improves students’ test scores — but the substantive impact might only be a difference of one percentage point.  This is definitely a challenge, and I think it’s exacerbated by economists’ tendency to present their results to non-specialists using statistical terms of art (like standard deviations) rather than more straightforward measures (like percentage point changes in test scores).  One organization that is taking some good steps towards comparing impact size across interventions is AidGrade, which has built an online tool for anyone to carry out their own meta-analysis of aid effectiveness.

“X-centric can become eccentric by ignoring external validity.”  This is the issue addressed by Evidence in Governance and Politics’ Metaketa Initiative, which offers funding for clusters of studies which examine similar interventions in different countries.  Current projects focus on questions of information and accountability, taxation, natural resource governance, and community policing.  There are also one-off initiatives like IPA’s series of Ultra Poor Graduation pilots, which replicated the same social protection intervention in seven different countries.

“X-centric can become eccentric by ignoring implementation feasibility.”  I find this critique a bit curious because it assumes we know ex ante which types of interventions will or won’t work in a given context.  One could easily assume that it wouldn’t be possible to provide biometric identification for 99% of Indian citizens, or get 94% of children in Burundi into primary school — twenty percentage points higher than the regional average, in one of the poorest countries in Africa.  But there is a valid point here that simply knowing that an intervention is effective doesn’t automatically translate into the political will to implement it on a large scale.  Organizations like Evidence Action and Evidence Aid are tackling this challenge by working with governments and NGOs to share information about successful interventions and scale them up.  Rachel Glennerster and Mary Anne Bates of JPAL have also created a new framework for assessing when an intervention can be successfully scaled or used in different country contexts.

Fall conference highlights

Three weeks, three conferences, many great papers to share!

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Ryan Briggs.  “Power to which people? Electoral politics and electrification targeting in Ghana.”  Presented at APSA.

This paper isn’t available yet, and there isn’t an abstract online for it.  However, it focuses on a very interesting puzzle: why do the two main political parties in Ghana differ in their willingness to provide electricity to their core supporters?  I won’t give away the ending here, but the general message is that history and ideology matter more for distributive politics in Africa than is often assumed.  There’s some background in a blog post here.

Abhit Bhandari.  “Political Determinants of Business Formalization.”  Presented at APSA.

This paper also isn’t available yet, which I should take as a sign that I found all the panels where people were presenting genuinely new research!  Another extremely interesting question, though: do the owners of informal businesses have political, rather than economics, reasons to enter the formal sector?  Abhit uses a new dataset of all formal business registrations in Senegal to explore this issue.

Shervin Malekzadeh. Education as Public Good or Private Resource in Postrevolutionary Iran.”  Presented at APSA.

A third great paper that’s not online yet!  It seems to draw from Shervin’s PhD thesis, so I’ll share the abstract for that.

Abstract: This project examines efforts by the Islamic Republic of Iran to produce loyal “Islamic Citizens” through its postrevolutionary school system as way of securing the hegemonic rule of the state. Drawing upon eighteen months of fieldwork in Iran, including archival research of textbooks published from 1979 to 2008, as well as interviews and participant observation in two private Islamic high schools in Tehran, I show that Iranian schools have both emancipatory and disciplinary effects on students. Ordinary Iranians do not blindly accept or internalize the ideology of the state, instead resisting, reinterpreting or even ignoring aspects of the postrevolutionary project taught to them in school. Yet they often do so using the language, practices, and formal procedures of dominant groups. The dissertation demonstrates the incoherent and contested nature of the New Islamic Citizen, a concept that has changed often and dramatically over the past 30 years. Competition between rival groups for the moral authority to insert their vision of the ideal Islamic society into the education system accounts for the variation in the political and religious content of formal education. These ongoing and unresolved conflicts have resulted in a postrevolutionary curriculum layered with contradictions and tensions that in turn provide students with the resources and opportunities to challenge the totalizing project of the state. The dissertation reveals the relationship between the politics of schooling and the politics of nationalism in Iran. Looking beyond the usual antinomies of domination/resistance, modern/traditional, or secular/religious attached to the study of political socialization in postrevolutionary Iran, this dissertation contends that interactions of state and society around the topic of schooling contributes to the production of a mutually produced and shared Islamic-Iranian framework for consent and opposition to state rule. This discursive framework is but the latest manifestation of a 200-year effort in Iran to produce an indigenous modernity rooted in an “authentic” and shared national culture.

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Ken Mitchell.  “Taxation after the Commodity Boom: Argentina, Chile and Brazil.”  [Paper forthcoming.]  Presented at DSA.

Abstract: Latin America’s commodity boom crested round 2010, and the regional terms-of-trade deteriorated thereafter. How commodity price declines might impact the region is a pivotal and potentially a troubling socioeconomic issue. Taxation is a significant area of interest because tax-to-GDP ratios rose fast during the commodity boom (2002-2010) and paid for new social programs (conditional cash transfers, popular sector pensions, etc.) and public employment schemes that expanded the middle class and lowered poverty. More consumer spending resulted, which fueled economic growth. Latin America has been the world’s lowest taxed region post-WWII, and the regional tax-to-GDP ratio flattened during the 1990s, so the end of the commodity boom rightly raises concern that public revenue mobilization might revert to its historical, low norm. Did tax-to-GDP ratios decline with commodity prices? Aggregate taxation combines varied taxes (i.e., income, corporate, consumption, trade, etc.), and here country case studies differ. The Value Added Tax (VAT) merits special attention due to its rising importance as a revenue tool across Latin America. Which national tax strategies managed to maintain commodity boom-era tax-to-GDP ratios? This paper tries to answer the above question by comparing Argentina, Chile and Brazil between 2002 and 2014, with special attention to the period 2010-2014 (i.e., post-commodity boom). Counterintuitive given the literature on taxation specific to Latin America, Argentina, historically an especially low tax country outperforms its neighbors after 2010, something the paper tries to explain. The paper will use OECD tax data to make cross-national comparisons.  [Note: the interesting conclusion is that rising use of credit cards in Argentina explains strong VAT collection even though economic growth slowed after 2010.]

Miguel Niño-Zarazúa.  “Natural resources, electoral behaviour and social assistance in Latin America.” [Paper forthcoming.]  Presented at DSA.

Abstract: The introduction of social assistance in Latin America in the late 1990s coincided with a democratization process in the region and a significant increase in the contribution of revenues from non-renewable resources to the public budgets. This paper provides an analysis of the distributional effects of revenues from the natural resources via social spending. A primary concern is to establish whether the redistribution of income via social spending would have not taken place in the absence of natural resources. Another aspect of this relation is that lessons from Latin America can also provide insights into the political incentives that natural resource rents generate to the incumbent. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies suggest that social assistance programmes can produce electoral gains to the incumbent. Our working hypotheses are the following: H1) revenues from non-renewables have facilitated social spending in Latin America, and H2) natural resources have generated electoral gains to the incumbents in increasingly more competitive political systems. In order to test our hypotheses, we first examine the economics of redistribution via revenues from natural resources, with a particular focus on the incentives that drive incumbent decisions on social spending. Second, we consider a model of income redistribution in which an incumbent can make allocation decisions of public funds in the presence of taxation. We expand the model by allowing revenues from natural resources facilitating social spending without affecting the disposable income of better-off households. We empirically test our hypotheses using fixed effects estimators with instrumental variables in three stages. The results indicate that the expansion of social spending in Latin America over the period 1990-2009 has indeed been facilitated by the natural resource rents; however, the electoral gains hypothesis is not supported by the empirical analysis.

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Nasreen Jessani, Caitlin Kennedy and Sara Bennett.  “The human capital of knowledge brokers: An analysis of attributes, capacities and skills of academic teaching and research faculty at Kenyan schools of public health.”  [Ungated draft here.]  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Abstract: Academic faculty involved in public health teaching and research serve as the link and catalyst for knowledge synthesis and exchange, enabling the flow of information resources, and nurturing relations between ‘two distinct communities’ – researchers and policymakers – who would not otherwise have the opportunity to interact. Their role and their characteristics are of particular interest, therefore, in the health research, policy and practice arena, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. We investigated the individual attributes, capacities and skills of academic faculty identified as knowledge brokers (KBs) in schools of public health (SPH) in Kenya with a view to informing organisational policies around the recruitment, retention and development of faculty KBs. During April 2013, we interviewed 12 academics and faculty leadership (including those who had previously been identified as KBs) from six SPHs in Kenya, and 11 national health policymakers with whom they interact. Data were qualitatively analyzed using inductive thematic analysis to unveil key characteristics. Key characteristics of KBs fell into five categories: sociodemographics, professional competence, experiential knowledge, interactive skills and personal disposition. KBs’ reputations benefitted from their professional qualifications and content expertise. Practical knowledge in policy-relevant situations, and the related professional networks, allowed KB’s to navigate both the academic and policy arenas and also to leverage the necessary connections required for policy influence. Attributes, such as respect and a social conscience, were also important KB characteristics.  Several changes in Kenya are likely to compel academics to engage increasingly with policymakers at an enhanced level of debate, deliberation and discussion in the future. By recognising existing KBs, supporting the emergence of potential KBs, and systematically hiring faculty with KB-specific characteristics, SPHs can enhance their collective human capital and influence on public health policy and practice. Capacity strengthening of tangible skills and recognition of less tangible personality characteristics could contribute to enhanced academic–policymaker networks. These, in turn, could contribute to the relevance of SPH research and teaching programs as well as evidence- informed public health policies.

Taryn Young.  “Policy BUDDIES – BUilding Demand for evidence in Decision making through Interaction and Enhancing Skills.”  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Summary:  Policy BUDDIES is a collaborative project including the Centre for Evidence based Health Care (CEBHC and Health systems and services research unit at Stellenbosch University, the South African Cochrane Centre (SACC), the Centre for the Development of Best Practices in Health (Cameroon) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The collaborations draw on partners experience in working in the area of knowledge translation. The collaborations draw on partners experience in working in the area of knowledge translation. The project is being conducted in South Africa and Cameroon. The project consists of 5 phases  and commenced with a situational analysis which informed subsequent phases. The situational analysis aimed to understand policymakers’ capacity, as well as enablers and constraints related to demanding evidence during policy formulation and implementation, and to map existing communication between policymakers, research intermediaries and researchers. Health programme managers and programme coordinators in programmes related to MDGs 4, 5 and 6 at provincial level in Cameroon and South Africa were purposively selected and interviewed. One of the aspects which emerged is the need for capacity development in evidence informed policy making and the use of systematic reviews.  We drew on experiences in offering similar workshops as part of the Effective Health Care Research Consortium and the SUPPORT Collaboration and offered workshops in both Cameroon and South Africa in January 2014 and November 2013 respectively. We are currently implementing the buddy model linking researchers and policymakers to work together towards promoting evidence-informed policy making.

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Yvonne Erasmus.  “What works to build capacity to use research evidence in South Africa and Malawi.”  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Summary: The use of research evidence in decision-making by policymakers in the health sector is critical for enabling the formulation and implementation of the most effective policies and programmes. Despite that reality, many scholars have documented that policymakers often do not sufficiently use research evidence to inform their decisions because of several common barriers (see Innvaer et al 2002; Oliver et al 2014). One of the well-documented barriers to research use is the lack of knowledge and skills in finding, appraising, interpreting and applying evidence as part of the policymaking process.  The DFID-funded Strengthening Capacity to Use Research Evidence in Health Policy (SECURE Health) programme being implemented in Kenya and Malawi has designed a training programme for policymakers in the health sector to strengthen their knowledge and skills in accessing, appraising, synthesising and applying research evidence in policymaking (i.e. the SECURE Health evidence-informed policymaking (EIPM) training programme).  Through these workshops, 76 policymakers comprising Ministry of Health (MoH) and parliament staff from the two countries were trained.  The training workshops effectively increased the knowledge and skills of policymakers in finding, assessing, synthesizing and applying research evidence in their work.