What I’m reading for October 2018

A link roundup cross-posted as usual from my latest edition of Africa Update.  We’ve got Nigeria’s undercover atheists, the electricity pirates of the DRC, Kenya’s top Somali restaurants, the best Rwandan hairstyles, and more.

Map of Africa showing what a mini bus is called in each countryThe wheels on the trotro go round and round… (via Africa Visual Data)

West Africa: In Benin, the government has just raised the fee required to register as a presidential candidate from US $26,000 to US$450,000.  A new wave of travel start-ups is encouraging Nigerians to explore their own country rather than traveling abroad.  Nigeria’s undercover atheists are ostracized for their lack of faith.  Read this special issue of Kujenga Amani about peacebuilding in the Niger Delta.  Ghanaian market vendors fought back after they were targeted for eviction, and ended up getting a new market building so they could keep selling.  Sierra Leone recently implemented a popular new policy of free primary education, but they’re falling short of school seats and teachers.  This is a remarkable thread about how the BBC identified soldiers responsible for killing civilians in a video from Cameroon.  D’Ebola à Zika, un labo tout-terrain en Afrique de l’Ouest.

A selection of street signs from Accra, including Gamel Abdul Nasser Ave, Olusegun Obasanjo High St, Haile Selassie St, Kampala Ave, Sekou Toure Lane, Kigali Ave, and Leopold Senghor CloseAs Charles Onyango-Obbo notes about Accra, “All African capitals, and its independence & post-independence leaders who were minimally anti-imperialist have streets named in their honour. They’ve probably done so in Accra alone more than all the rest of Africa combined!”

Central Africa: Russia has begun supplying arms to and signing opaque cooperation agreements with the Central African Republic.  IPIS has released a new interactive map of armed groups in the CAR.  In the DRC, fees of US$500 for power meters and yearslong waits to have them installed have led many people to pirate electricity from their neighbors.  Burundi has begun suspending NGOs for failing to comply with opaque legal regulations.  La Belgique va rendre au Rwanda les archives de la période coloniale.  Uganda’s former police chief was recently arrested, and there are rumors it was because he might have been fomenting a Rwandan-backed uprising against Museveni.

Three Rwandan men with their hair shaped into swooping, curved figuresSome fantastic Rwandan hairstyles from the early 20th century, via James Hall

East Africa:  This article on Kenya’s Somali cuisine made me hungry!  I’ll have to add those restaurants to my list for my next staycation in Nairobi.  Read this piece on the history of Islam on the Kenyan coast.  Kenya may reconsider its criminalization of homosexuality in light of India’s recent decriminalization of the same.  The IGC has a new report contrasting patterns of statebuilding in Somalia and Somaliland.  This was an insightful description of how Tanzania’s Magufuli consolidated power within the CCM.  Magufuli has also called for a ban on contraception, saying that Tanzania’s population is too small.  A new report estimates that more than 380,000 people have died in South Sudan’s civil war.

Southern Africa: Members of the ANC in South Africa are brutally assassinating each other in an intra-party struggle for control.  South Africa recently legalized personal use of marijuana, but more needs to be done to ensure that the poor rural farmers who grow it also benefit.  The new On Africa podcast is kicking off with an analysis of Zimbabwe’s recent election.  Meet the woman challenging sexist laws about the inheritance of chieftaincy in Lesotho.

hospital

Here’s where every hospital in Africa is located, via Makhtar Diop

Health: Congratulations to Dr Denis Mukwege, who has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work providing healthcare to women affected by sexual violence in eastern DRC.  The Ugandan government has banned all ministers from seeking healthcare abroad.  In Kenya, an estimated seven women die each day from unsafe abortions.  This was a heartbreaking portrait of South Sudan’s best maternity hospital.  Harsh laws against adultery prevent many women in Mauritania from reporting sexual assault.

extreme povertyChart of the day via Justin Sandefur

Academia: Scholars based in Africa are encouraged to submit their papers to the Working Group on African Political Economy by October 21, and to this conference on Gendered Institutions and Women’s Political Participation in Africa by October 15.   Join this free online discussion of state-building in Tanzania with the African Politics Conference Group on October 15.  Don’t miss this essential reading list on African feminism or this new edition of Ufahamu Journal on the African university.  Let’s hold more conferences on Africa in Africa, so that African researchers don’t run into visa problems.

A chart showing that most of Africa's external debt is held by official lenders, and relatively little by ChinaAdditional chart of the day, showing that concerns about Chinese debt in Africa are rather overblown, via Quartz

Fellowships: The Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research at Syracuse has five fully-funded scholarships for African scholars to attend.  The Iso Lomso Fellowship for Early Career African Scholars is open until October 20.  Several scholarships are available for African PhD students and researchers through the Next Generation Social Science Fellowship.

Links I liked

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got Mali’s 35-year old foreign minister, the dodgeball association of South Sudan, accountability for Mozambican mayors over gay rights, the future of nuclear power on the continent, and more.

View of the Nile, with green banks on both sides and a blue sky full of puffy clouds above
Here’s the view I’ve been enjoying in Jinja during Nyege Nyege Festival this weekend

West Africa: Ghana’s plan to build a new national cathedral is coming in for heavy criticism.  Also in Ghana, cocoa companies are working with local chiefs to improve property rights for cocoa farmers.  The Nigerian government is allegedly forcing internally displaced people to return to their dangerous home regions so that they can vote in upcoming primary elections.  Félicitations à Kamissa Camara, qui est devenue chef de la diplomatie malienne agée de 35 ans.  In Niger, farmers are using a nitrogen-fixing tree to improve their soil quality and fight climate change.  Here’s a good background article on current politics in Togo.  The latest edition of West Africa Insights is all about urbanization in the region.

Central Africa:  Read all about the DRC’s upcoming election, including its unusual single-round voting that can allow a president to be elected with a tiny minority of votes, and Kabila’s preferred candidate for the presidency.  Désarmement dans le Pool : le pasteur Ntumi fait « un pas dans la bonne direction », selon Brazzaville.  This article situates Uganda’s social media tax in a long history of unfair colonial taxation.  Museveni has threatened to abolish the Ugandan Parliament after protests over the beating of prominent opposition MP Bobi Wine, whose popularity clearly alarms him.  Listen to this piece about poor conditions on Uganda’s prison farms.  Tanzania is cutting off markets in refugee camps in an apparent attempt to force Burundian refugees to return home.  Rwanda is trying to boost tax revenue by simplifying its tax code at the same time it raises tax rates.

Map showing more than 4 million internally displaced people in the DRC, and flows of hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring nations
Map of the massive population displacement in the DRC, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa:  Tanzania wants to make it illegal to question government statistics.  If you’d like to approach the government with a non-statistical matter, definitely read these insider tips on how policymaking works in Tanzania.  South Sudan’s newest athletic league is a dodgeball association for teenage girls.  Read this insightful article about how John Garang’s death led to the fracturing of the SPLM.  Don’t miss this recent report from the Kenya Human Rights Commission about the country’s high rates of extrajudicial killings.  This article suggests that the Kenyan security forces routinely ignore tips about planned mass shootings, and that perpetrators are rarely arrested.  More than 90% of Somalia’s new cabinet ministers are said to hold MA or PhD degrees, but only 8% are women.

Southern Africa: At some South African universities, nearly 80% of black students report that they sometimes don’t have enough to eat.  A South African court has ruled that marriages between Muslim couples in the country must be legally registered and not simply recorded with religious authorities, giving women legal protection in the event of divorce.  Zimbabwe’s harsh laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV are discouraging people from coming for testing and treatment.

mozambique
A hopeful headline from Mozambique, showing a newspaper asking mayoral candidates in Nampula how they plan to combat discrimination against gay people (via Tom Bowker)

Public Health: I’m excited to hear about sensors.AFRICA, which is using low cost monitors to track air quality in several countries across the continent.  A non-profit organization is offering cash transfers to women who bring their children in for vaccinations in Nigeria.  One Nigerian woman has created a mental health hotline after struggling to access treatment for depression.

Economics: This was a really interesting thread about how legal uncertainty is increasing fuel prices in Kenya — an exemption on VAT for fuel expired on August 31 with no legal guidance on whether it was meant to be extended, leading to strikes by fuel importers.  South Sudan is beginning to bring oilfields back online after production was drastically reduced by the civil war.  An economist discusses how the cedi’s depreciation lead to the recent collapse of several banks in Ghana.  This was an interesting piece on the history of Ghana’s failed attempts to create a local rubber processing industry.  A new book argues that political conflict determines when protests take place in Africa, but economics determines who participates in them.  Is there a future for civilian nuclear energy in Africa?

Map showing what rotating savings groups are called throughout Africa
Great map of regional names for rotating savings and credit associations across the continent (via Funmi Oyatogun)

China in Africa:  This article shared some interesting reflections on the shortcomings of standard “China in Africa” narratives.  Chinese handset maker Transsion is capturing the African market with affordable phones that feature built-in radio reception and cameras calibrated for darker skin.

Arts and Literature:  Check out Robtel Neajai Pailey’s interactive website for her anti-corruption children’s books about Liberia, and Lupita Nyong’o’s upcoming children’s book as well!  Apply to work with the British Library on their collection of African-language materials.  Lots of interesting articles to be found in the Johannesburg Review of Books.   Read this dispatch from the Mogadishu Book Fair.  The Goethe Institut is calling for submissions of young adult literature by African authors in English, French and Kiswahili.  Here are all the African film festivals you can attend in 2018.

Black and yellow print showing a woman with her fist upraised, and a slogan at the bottom reading "Now you have touched the woman you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed.  9 August SA Women's Day"
Art for the day from Medu Art Ensemble, who created this poster for a 1956 women’s march against apartheid (via Women’s Art)

Conferences and Scholarships: Register for the Decolonial Transformationsconference at the University of Sussex — and before you do, read this great curriculum which a group of Cambridge students put together for decolonizing the Human, Social and Political Sciences degree.  Submit a paper to the Africa Social and Behavioral Change conference in English, French, Portuguese or Kiswahili.  The Working Group in African Political Economy is now accepting paper applications.  You can also send your scientific papers or science journalism to the African Science Desk to have them turned into short documentaries and explainers.  Spread the word about this multidisciplinary post-doc for African scholars at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

Burundian army developments to watch

The photo shows members of the Burundian army marching in formationPhoto via Army Recognition

In a new report, the Fédération internationale des droits de l’Homme has observed that the security situation in Burundi has continued to worsen.  Notably, there are claims that Nkurunziza’s government is driving Tutsi soldiers out of the military.  This is particularly worrying because ethnic powersharing in the military has played a major role in supporting the country’s post-conflict stability (such as it is) since the end of the civil war in 2005.

It’s important to keep an eye on Rwanda’s response to these events.  There are persistant rumors that Kagame’s government is already arming Burundian rebels, many of whom were recruited out of the large refugee population that has come into Rwanda since Burundi’s 2015 electoral crisis.  Allegations that Burundian Tutsis are being politically targeted are highly sensitive, and might push Rwanda to escalate.  This type of cross-border support for armed groups is a major predictor of civil war, although it certainly doesn’t make it inevitable.

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.

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!

Links I liked

The image shows a Ghanaian woman in a white shirt and printed dress standing in front of a banana groveOne of a wonderful series of portraits from Ghana’s first female professional photographer

  • Every headline ought to be about the horrific scale of the food crises in South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria.  Here’s how to help.  This portrait of daily life in South Sudan is deeply saddening.
  • Video of the week: in our current geopolitical climate, Gato Preto‘s recent song “Take a Stand” feels very appropriate.  The outfits are totally on point as well.