What do Ethiopian civil servants know about the districts they serve?

That’s the question asked in a new paper by Daniel Rogger and Ravi Somani.  In a VoxDev writeup of the piece, they find that civil servants are often fairly far off the mark about even basic facts like the size of the districts where they work.  A few key findings:

47% of officials claim that their district’s population is 50% bigger or smaller than it is.

The mean error in estimates of the proportion of pregnant women who attended ANC4+ during the current pregnancy (the ‘antenatal care rate’) was 38% of the benchmark data.

Agriculture officials overestimate the number of hectares in their district that are recorded as used for agricultural purposes by almost a factor of 2.

Why so many misunderstandings?  Part of it apparently has to do with how officials are getting their information.

 We surveyed 1,831 public officials across 382 organisations spanning all three tiers of Ethiopia’s Government.

The most frequently cited source of information for these officials was ‘Formal field visits’, with 63% of officials stating that this was a key source of information. Discussions with frontline colleagues, and informal interactions with colleagues in their organisation were the second and third most cited sources of information, with 51.9% and 45.9% of officials stating their significance respectively.

Only 12.8% of officials state that they use management information systems (MIS) as their primary source of information. Field visits and informal interactions are therefore three times more likely to be in the top three most important sources of information than MIS, and ten times more likely than external media sources.

Interesting academic articles for March 2019

Here are some recent papers which I’m looking forward to reading!

Justin Esarey and Leslie Schwindt-Bayer. 2019. “Estimating Causal Relationships Between Women’s Representation in Government and Corruption.” Comparative Political Studies.

Does increasing the representation of women in government lead to less corruption, or does corruption prevent the election of women? Are these effects large enough to be substantively meaningful? Some research suggests that having women in legislatures reduces corruption levels, with a variety of theoretical rationales offered to explain the finding. Other research suggests that corruption is a deterrent to women’s representation because it reinforces clientelistic networks that privilege men. Using instrumental variables, we find strong evidence that women’s representation decreases corruption and that corruption decreases women’s participation in government; both effects are substantively significant.

Jesse Cunha, Giacomo De Giorgi, and Seema Jayachandran. 2019. “The Price Effects of Cash Versus In-Kind Transfers.” The Review of Economic Studies.

This article examines the effect of cash versus in-kind transfers on local prices. Both types of transfers increase the demand for normal goods; in-kind transfers also increase supply in recipient communities, which could lead to lower prices than under cash transfers. We test and confirm this prediction using a programme in Mexico that randomly assigned villages to receive boxes of food (trucked into the village), equivalently-valued cash transfers, or no transfers. We find that prices are significantly lower under in-kind transfers compared to cash transfers; relative to the control group, in-kind transfers cause a 4% fall in prices while cash transfers cause a positive but negligible increase in prices. In the more economically developed villages in the sample, households’ purchasing power is only modestly affected by these price effects. In the less developed villages, the price effects are much larger in magnitude, which we show is due to these villages being less tied to the outside economy and having less competition among local suppliers.

Brian Palmer-Rubin. 2019. “Evading the Patronage Trap: Organizational Capacity and Demand Making in Mexico.Comparative Political Studies.

When do organizations broadly represent the interests of their economic sectors and when do they narrowly represent the interests of members? This article investigates how agricultural and small-business organizations in Mexico make demands for programmatic policies or patronage benefits. Contrary to explanations based on the class of members, I show that the source of organizational capacity shapes demand-making strategies. Organizations that generate selective benefits internally are able to engage in programmatic policies that shape sectoral competitiveness, whereas organizations that fail to solve membership challenges internally are vulnerable to the patronage trap, a self-reproducing cycle wherein they become specialized in demand making for discretionary private goods. I generate this argument through process tracing of two agricultural organizations in Mexico. Analysis of an original survey of economic interest organizations provides broader evidence that organizational capacity is a better predictor of policy demands than social class.

Christopher Blattman, Donald Green, Daniel Ortega, and Santiago Tobón. 2019. “Place-based interventions at scale: The direct and spillover effects of policing and city services on crime.” Innovations for Poverty Action working paper.

In 2016 the city of Bogotá doubled police patrols and intensified city services on high-crime streets. They did so based on a policy and criminological consensus that such place-based programs not only decrease crime, but also have positive spillovers to nearby streets. To test this, we worked with Bogotá to experiment on an unprecedented scale. They randomly assigned 1,919 streets to either 8 months of doubled police patrols, greater municipal services, both, or neither. Such scale brings econometric challenges. Spatial spillovers in dense networks introduce bias and complicate variance estimation through “fuzzy clustering.” But a design-based approach and randomization inference produce valid hypothesis tests in such settings. In contrast to the consensus, we find intensifying state presence in Bogotá had modest but imprecise direct effects and that such crime displaced nearby, especially property crimes. Confidence intervals suggest we can rule out total reductions in crime of more than 2–3% from the two policies. More promising, however, is suggestive evidence that more state presence led to an 5% fall in homicides and rape citywide. One interpretation is that state presence may more easily deter crimes of passion than calculation, and place-based interventions could be targeted against these incredibly costly and violent crimes.

Heather A. Knauer, Pamela Jakiela, Owen Ozier, Frances Aboud, and Lia C.H. Fernald. 2019. “Enhancing Young Children’s Language Acquisition through Parent-Child Book-Sharing: A Randomized Trial in Rural Kenya.” Center for Global Development working paper.

Worldwide, 250 million children under five (43 percent) are not meeting their developmental potential because they lack adequate nutrition and cognitive stimulation in early childhood. Several parent support programs have shown significant benefits for children’s development, but the programs are often expensive and resource intensive. The objective of this study was to test several variants of a potentially scalable, cost-effective intervention to increase cognitive stimulation by parents and improve emergent literacy skills in children. The intervention was a modified dialogic reading training program that used culturally and linguistically appropriate books adapted for a low-literacy population. We used a cluster randomized controlled trial with four intervention arms and one control arm in a sample of caregivers (n = 357) and their 24- to 83-month-old children (n = 510) in rural Kenya. The first treatment group received storybooks, while the other treatment arms received storybooks paired with varying quantities of modified dialogic reading training for parents. Main effects of each arm of the trial were examined, and tests of heterogeneity were conducted to examine differential effects among children of illiterate vs. literate caregivers. Parent training paired with the provision of culturally appropriate children’s books increased reading frequency and improved the quality of caregiver-child reading interactions among preschool-aged children. Treatments involving training improved storybook-specific expressive vocabulary. The children of illiterate caregivers benefited at least as much as the children of literate caregivers. For some outcomes, effects were comparable; for other outcomes, there were differentially larger effects for children of illiterate caregivers.

Chris Mahony, Eduardo Albrecht, and Murat Sensoy. 2019. “The relationship between influential actors’ language and violence: A Kenyan case study using artificial intelligence.” International Growth Centre working paper.

Scholarly work addressing the drivers of violent conflict predominantly focus on macro-level factors, often surrounding social group-specific grievances relating to access to power, justice, security, services, land, and resources. Recent work identifies these factors of risk and their heightened risk during shocks, such as a natural disaster or significant economic adjustment. What we know little about is the role played by influential actors in mobilising people towards or away from violence during such episodes. We hypothesise that influential actors’ language indicates their intent towards or away from violence. Much work has been done to identify what constitutes hostile vernacular in political systems prone to violence, however, it has not considered the language of specific influential actors. Our methodology targeting this knowledge gap employs a suite of third party software tools to collect and analyse 6,100 Kenyan social media (Twitter) utterances from January 2012 to December 2017. This software reads and understands words’ meaning in multiple languages to allocate sentiment scores using a technology called Natural Language Processing (NLP). The proprietary NLP software, which incorporates the latest artificial intelligence advances, including deep learning, transforms unstructured textual data (i.e. a tweet or blog post) into structured data (i.e. a number) to gauge the authors’ changing emotional tone over time. Our model predicts both increases and decreases in average fatalities 50 to 150 days in advance, with overall accuracy approaching 85%. This finding suggests a role for influential actors in determining increases or decreases in violence and the method’s potential for advancing understandings of violence and language. Further, the findings demonstrate the utility of local political and sociological theoretical knowledge for calibrating algorithmic analysis. This approach may enable identification of specific speech configurations associated with an increased or decreased risk of violence. We propose further exploration of this methodology.

Vincent Hardy and Jostein Hauge. 2019. “Labour challenges in Ethiopia’s textile and leather industries: no voice, no loyalty, no exit?” African Affairs.

A state-led industrialization push inspired by the East Asian ‘developmental state’ model is at the centre of Ethiopia’s recent economic success. This model has historically proved potent for achieving rapid industrialization, but the business-state alliance at the heart of the model generally aimed to curb the power of labour. Focusing on textile and leather manufacturing in Ethiopia, this article addresses two questions: are workers capable of extracting gains from the process of industrialization, and have the actions of workers affected global value chain integration in the two industries? Our data show that opportunities for collective voice among workers are limited. However, workers have expressed their discontent by leaving employers when working conditions fail to meet their expectations. The resulting turnover has generated significant obstacles for local and foreign firms attempting to participate in global value chains. In response, the Ethiopian state and employers implemented a number of measures, including restrictions on emigration and more generous non-wage benefits. Recent research on global value chains and labour highlights how workers are able to influence work practices through individual action. The present article builds on these ideas, but shows that firms and governments have the ability to respond and limit this power.

Nicki Kindersley.  2019.  “Rule of whose law? The geography of authority in Juba, South Sudan.” The Journal of Modern African Studies.

This study asks: in the general absence of a functioning and effective civil administration in Juba’s huge suburbs, how have people negotiated personal disputes and neighbourhood management since conflict began in 2013? Who arbitrates in Juba, and on what terms? This study challenges top-down analyses that see political-military elites managing their ethnic enclaves of followers and fighters through nepotism and gifts. Such patronage requires the complex negotiation of responsibilities and rights, including over community safety and order. In Juba, the local authorities who mediate this have been built by men and women with extensive expertise and connections in South Sudan’s long history of ‘civil-military’ governance systems. These local authorities have established lasting institutions by negotiating rights to residence in, arbitrating over, and knowing the human geography of their neighbourhoods. Their authority is rooted in this deep politics, drawing on their detailed knowledge of topographies of power in these multi-ethnic, highly military neighbourhood spaces.

Peer Schouten. 2019. “Roadblock politics in Central Africa.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

A frequent sight along many roads, roadblocks form a banal yet persistent element across the margins of contemporary global logistical landscapes. How, this article asks, can we come to terms with roadblocks as a logistical form of power? Based on an ongoing mapping of roadblocks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, it sketches a political geography of “roadblock politics”: a spatial pattern of control concentrated around trade routes, where the capacity to disrupt logistical aspirations is translated into other forms of power, financial and political. While today’s roadblocks are tied up with the ongoing conflict in both countries, the article shows, roadblock politics has a much deeper history. Before colonization, African rulers manufactured powerful polities out of control over points of passage along long-distance trade routes crisscrossing the continent. The article traces how since precolonial times control over long-distance trade routes was turned into a source of political power, how these routes were forcefully appropriated through colonial occupation, how after the crumbling of the colonial order new connections were engineered between political power and the circulation of goods in Central Africa, and how control over these flows ultimately became a key stake in ongoing civil wars in the region.

Louisa Lombard and Enrica Picco. 2019. “Distributive Justice at War: Displacement and Its Afterlives in the Central African Republic.Journal of Refugee Studies.

One of the defining features of the crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2013 has been massive displacement. Currently, about a quarter of the country’s population is displaced. People who have been forcibly displaced, whether internally or abroad, and people who stayed behind this time (but frequently have their own memories of displacement) provide particular kinds of information about war and its not particularly peaceful aftermath. In this article, based on interviews with a broad range of people affected by displacement, we show that Central African views about the prospects for peace are deeply affected by how displacement has shaped tensions over the political senses of distribution (who has a right to what, and on what basis). Who should pay for war, in senses both material and otherwise, and who should be compensated? However, distribution and belonging are not the issues prioritized in the aftermath of war, when elite deals, punitive justice and technocratic recovery plans crowd out treatment of the material justice and belonging questions that dominate neighbourhoods. The political dimensions of material justice in the aftermath of war require more thorough treatment, as listening to people who have experienced displacement makes abundantly clear.

Wenjie Hu, Jay Harshadbhai Patel, Zoe-Alanah Robert, Paul Novosad, Samuel Asher, Zhongyi Tang, Marshall Burke, David Lobell, and Stefano Ermon. 2019. “Mapping Missing Population in Rural India: A Deep Learning Approach with Satellite Imagery.” AAAI / ACM Conference on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics and Society working paper.

Millions of people worldwide are absent from their country’s census. Accurate, current, and granular population metrics are critical to improving government allocation of resources, to measuring disease control, to responding to natural disasters, and to studying any aspect of human life in these communities. Satellite imagery can provide sufficient information to build a population map without the cost and time of a government census. We present two Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) architectures which efficiently and effectively combine satellite imagery inputs from multiple sources to accurately predict the population density of a region. In this paper, we use satellite imagery from rural villages in India and population labels from the 2011 SECC census. Our best model achieves better performance than previous papers as well as LandScan, a community standard for global population distribution.

Africa Update for January 2019

Here’s my latest link round-up from Africa Update.  We’ve got Angolan goat delivery apps, contraception compromises in Rwanda, a deep dive on the Congolese election, postdocs for African physicists, and more.

A skyscraper with fireworks exploding behind itHappy New Year from Nairobi!  (Photo by Sarah Kimani)

West Africa: Meet the only bookseller of Guinea-Bissau.  Read about one Nigerian man’s horrifying experience in captivity in Libya as he tried to emigrate to Europe.  This all-female biker gang in Nigeria drives around the country doing health education for other women.  Here’s some useful background on the current protests in Togo.  Listen to this podcast on statelessness in West Africa from the Center for Democratic Development in Ghana. Across West Africa, women are increasingly likely to ask for divorces if their marriages aren’t going well.

Central Africa: In Rwanda, where the Catholic Church runs many hospitals, the government has come to a compromise with them about birth control by providing access to contraception in tiny clinics right outside the hospitals.  Tim Longman recommends this profile of Rwanda’s Kagame (in French) as balanced and insightful.  Burundi has officially moved its capital from Bujumbura to the small city of Gitega.  North Korean soldiers are training elite army forces in Uganda.  Secondary schools in Uganda are also piloting new Mandarin language classes before rolling them out nationwide.  In the Central African Republic, carrying out surveys is a dangerous pasttime.  Check out these data visualizations of Kinshasa’s population and flight patterns.

Congolese elections:  Here’s a detailed overview of the political landscape in the DRC in the runup to the Dec. 30 election.  Human Rights Watch and Christoph Vogel have written about widespread human rights abuses during polling. Election monitors organized by the Catholic Church have announced that opposition candidate Martin Fayulu gained a majority of votes.  The government complained that the Church shouldn’t have announced their results before the official results, widely expected to favor the president’s preferred candidate Emmanuel Shadary, were in.  Laura Seay and Jason Stearns have both shared informed speculation about how the situation will evolve on Twitter.

Map listing uprisings against colonization across AfricaMap interlude: this is a remarkable map of selected anti-colonial uprisings from Paperless History

East Africa:  Kenyans are speaking up about extrajudicial killings by the police.  In your unusual political dispute for the day, Kenyan salt companies are complaining after the water regulator said they should have paid for the use of sea water in their factories.   Here are some good overviews of the last year in politics in Kenya and Tanzania.  Ethiopian refugees in Sudan have accused UNHCR of demanding bribes before they can be listed for resettlement elsewhere.  What can the popular uprisings of 1964 and 1985 tell us about Sudan’s current protests?  The Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen is hiring teenage soldiers from Darfur to fight on the front lines.  Eritrea’s secretive president rarely tells his ministers anything about policy before it’s implemented.  This is why cycling is so surprisingly popular in Eritrea.

Southern Africa:  This was an insightful post about the politics of cholera control in Zambia.  In Mozambique, pregnant students at secondary schools can now attend classes during the day instead of being forced to attend night classes “where they cannot be seen.”  Madagascar’s prisons sound really horrifying.  As the tobacco market shrinks, farmers in Malawi are considering switching to marijuana instead.  Angola now has an app for delivering live goats to your door.

Politics + economics: Apolitical is curating stories of young people’s experiences in the civil service across Africa.  Don’t miss this new book about the rich histories of medieval trade in Africa.  African activists are taking on climate change.  Here’s why medium-scale farms have quietly been on the rise across Africa.

Research + conferences: The National Academic Digital Repository of Ethiopia is a making all research from Ethiopian universities available online.  African physicists should apply to this Fields Institute postdoc by January 31.  Apply to the East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative at Berkeley by March 1.  Read about why conferences on Africa should be held in Africa.  Nigerian magazine The Republic is soliciting essays about the experience of conducting research in Africa.

The Kan festival requests artwork related to Pan Africanism. No fee required. Submit to kanfestival dot com by Jan 15Calling all African artists!  (Via KAN Festival)

Art + innovation: The Nigerian publisher Kachifo has a call for manuscripts open till March 31.  Check out five inspired inventions from African engineers.  Africa Science Week Kenya produced a lot of fascinating material, including the Faces of Kenyan Science and this book of interesting facts about Kenyan science.  African edutainment programs for kids are on the rise.  Here are the must-read books of 2018 by African authors.

What I’m reading for November 2018

Here’s my latest link roundup, cross-posted from Africa Update.  We’ve got evangelical real estate in Lagos, the Boy Scouts of Bangui, Kinshasa’s dodgy voting machines, Julius Nyerere’s translations of Shakespeare, and more.

West Africa: Read about the three women running for president in Nigeria, in the first election which has ever had more than one female candidate.  BudgIT is making strides in using publicly available budget information to track the completion of infrastructure projects across Nigeria.  Here’s what happens when evangelical churches get into the real estate business in Lagos.  This was a great discussion of how the #BringBackOurGirls movement has expanded into other types of activism, thanks in part to a decision to reject all outside funding.  In northern Nigeria, mosque attendance is dropping as Boko Haram’s attacks make people more skeptical of organized religion.  Dakar has elected its first female mayor (in French).  In Cameroon, women and girls are disproportionately bearing the cost of the conflict in the country’s Anglophone region.

A colorful green and pink background with stylized images of Burkina Faso's president Thomas Sankara, surrounded by young men holding pink assault rifles

Via Mohamed Keita: “Artist Pierre-Christoph Gam’s mixed media series pays homage to Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s president from 1983 – 1987”

Central Africa: Rwanda is one of the first African countries to offer cashless payments on buses.  This was a gripping article about the violence of daily life in a refugee camp in the CAR, and how the extreme fragmentation of rebel groups undercuts attempts at disarmament.  Despite the CAR’s challenges, the Boy Scouts continue to support young men in Bangui.  In northern Uganda, citizens are protesting after they were displaced from their homes during the LRA war and their land subsequently gazetted into a wildlife reserve, leaving them without any homes to return to.  Do unions have a future among informal workers in the DRC?  Some good news on the Congolese ebola crisis: experimental treatments have been proving fairly effective at reducing death rates.

Congolese presidential elections: If you read one article about next month’s elections, make it this one on Kabila’s intentional choice of a weak candidate as his replacement.  For a deep dive, read about the politicization of the country’s electoral institutions, its selection of easily hackable voting machines, the new archbishop who promises to hold the government to account (in French), the latest polling results on support for opposition candidates (in French), and the rapid demise of the opposition’s promise to pick a single candidate.

Map of Africa showing the percentage of women in Parliament.  It ranges from nearly zero in Sudan and Nigeria to 50% in Ethiopia and RwandaMap of gender parity in African legislatures via the UN Economic Commission for Africa

East Africa: Kenya is considering privatizing its prisons, a policy which has been roundly criticized as an attempt to profit from prison labor rather than improving conditions for inmates.  The military has been deployed to buy cashew nuts in Tanzania after farmers in an opposition stronghold complained of low prices.  An Ethiopian company is betting on the growth of coffee consumption in China with plans to open dozens of cafés across the country.  Tourism pushed women out of Zanzibar’s public spaces, but one NGO is helping them reclaim their access.  South Sudan wants to build a new capital called Ramciel in an uninhabited area which lacks any infrastructure.  In Somalia, Al Shabaab earns millions of dollars annually by illegally exporting charcoal through Iran.  This is essential reading on the way that the US supported the Siad Barre regime in Somalia in the 1980s even as it killed over 200,000 citizens.  Somalia’s persistent insecurity even affects responses to academic surveys, as people more exposed to violence are less likely to answer questions about their clan identity.

Southern Africa: In South Africa, participating in a peaceful protest for better service delivery could land you in prison without bail. Zambian doctors are warning women to stay away from herbal Chinese contraceptives, which are inexpensive but poorly regulated.  Zambia has also indefinitely suspended all junior and senior secondary school exams after the questions were leaked on social media.  Lesotho’s sheep farmers are up in arms over a decision to ban wool exports and require them to sell all their wool to a single firm.  Zimbabwe is making up for its lack of mental health support by training older women to provide informal therapy to people in their neighborhoods.

Map of eastern Africa showing the proposed route of the standard gauge railway, which would connect inland countries to the coast at Lamu, Mombasa and Dar es SalaamSome context on where the standard gauge railway (SGR) is supposed to extend in east Africa, via Africa Confidential

Industry + infrastructure: Uganda is balking at extending the SGR to Kampala, although Rwanda and Tanzania are pushing on with their portions of the railway.  Several Chinese and American firms have signed deals to assemble mobile phones in Uganda.  The Kenyan government has set up a fund to encourage local mobile production as well.  Kenya’s newest tech jobs focus on creating training data for AIs.  Somalia’s e-commerce scene is tiny but growing.  The Mombasa airport is switching to solar power.  This Kenyan start-up is producing smart meters for natural gas canisters, which should lower the cost of access to canisters and encourage people to switch away from relatively more polluting charcoal.

Arts + literature: Here are five African documentaries you’ll want to see.  Read about the Ottoman heritage of Somaliland’s architecture.  All of the stories by African authors shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Awards are freely available online.  If you read Kiswahili, check out Julius Nyerere’s translations of Shakespeare’s works.  This is the essential reading list on African feminism.  Don’t miss Nanjala Nyabola’s new book on digital democracy in Kenya.

A South African woman dressed in a red gown and black velvet cap, with a South African man in a black academic robe standing behind herCongratulations to Nompumelelo Kapa, who is one of the few South African academics who has received a PhD for a thesis written in isiXhosa (via Sure Kamhunga)

Scholarships: Mawazo has a new page with updated fellowship opportunities for African scholars posted each month.  African citizens who would like to pursue a PhD in anthropology should apply to the Wadsworth fellowship.  Encourage the African scientists in your life to apply for the Next Einstein Foundation fellowship.  The Center for Global Development is recruiting post-docs.  If you’d like to apply to Oxford, check out the Africa Society’s Mentorship Programme for tips on navigating the application process.  The European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership offers funding for health research by early career African scholars.  East African citizens between the ages of 20 – 30 should apply for the LéO Africa Institute’s Young and Emerging Leaders Program.  Check out the Africa Peacebuilding Network’s individual research grants.

Links I liked

Lately I’ve been sending out link-roundups via my monthly Africa Update newsletter.  I thought I’d have a go at cross-posting them here as well.  Here’s what I found interesting in July.

West Africa: Aliko Dangote is building an oil refinery of staggering size in southern Nigeria.  Peugot will start assembling cars in northern Nigeria in 2019.  Here are 23 things to know before you to to Freetown.  Read about the Ghanaian paradox of rapid economic growth with continuing inequality and high unemployment.

Central Africa: A new report shows that conflict minerals legislation in the US didn’t reduce conflict in the DRC, but rather increased infant mortality rates as miners were thrown out of work.  Decentralization in the DRC may be changing the way that ethnic coalitions work in politics.  This was a strong piece of analysis about why the Congolese government has incentives to sign contracts for oil but not to allow companies to actually start drilling.

East Africa:  Read all about East Africa’s heroin coast.  Eritreans has been told that there will be time limits for national service, which currently involves a forcible recruitment process of unlimited duration.  Hostages are more likely to be released from Somali pirates when negotiators pay the pirates’ expenses, but not necessarily the whole ransom.  Peace deals in South Sudan keep failing because the SPLM still thinks it might win a military victory.  The latest edition of the Otherwise podcast addresses extrajudicial killings in poor Nairobi neighborhoods.  30,000 Kenyans are now homeless after the government demolished their houses in Kibera to make room for a new road.

Tweet from Shailja Patel reading "We don't need more roads. We need safe, efficient, zero-emissions, mass transit. We need good, humane, green, high-density public housing. We need universal access to renewable power, clean water, sanitation, free healthcare, free education."
Shailja Patel on the recent forced evictions in Nairobi

Southern Africa: Zimbabwe is re-opening its Literature Bureau to promote works in indigenous languages.  Lisez la légende retrouvée de Yasuke, un originaire de Moçambique qui est devenu le premier samouraï noir du Japon.  Angola has given legal recognition to a gay rights group.

A large suspension bridge with yellow, red and green lights projected on it
Africa’s longest suspension bridge is now open in Mozambique (via James Hall)

Politics and economics: You can now read the 2018 African Economic Outlook report in Kiswahili, Hausa and Arabic.  This was a refreshing take on Chinese investment in Africa, including the observations that many Chinese firms are risk averse and demand multiple types of insurance before they’ll take on new projects.  Don’t miss these engaging summaries of African researchers’ perspectives on peacebuilding, and this alternative economics reading list featuring work by women and people of color.

A map of Africa showing various legal limits on presidents' terms in office
Infographic on term limits via Facts About Africa

Taxes: Rwanda is using satellite data to increase collection of property taxes.  Read this in-depth post about how the Lagos state government launched a “wicked, satanic” attempt to change its land valuation practices in order to increase tax revenue.  Al-Shabaab is surprisingly good at collecting taxes.  This was a gripping read about the politicized dismantling of South Africa’s tax agency.

Women’s rights:  The mother of a Kenyan teenager who died after having a backstreet abortion is suing the government for not making the procedure accessible, as the Constitution requires.  Rwandan men are offering more support and autonomy for their wives after participating in workshops led by other men about the importance of women’s rights.  In the DRC, pharmacists often deny birth control to women who aren’t married.  Nigeria has its first tech accelerator exclusively focused on women’s start-ups.

Impact evaluation:  IDS is running a workshop on engaging evidence and policy for social change in January.  Submit your studies to the new African Education Research Database.  This was a good interview with Evidence Action about the political processes of scaling up pilot projects.  JPAL has published a new set of guidelines for measuring women’s empowerment.

Tweet from Dina Pomeranz reading "Amid lots of heading debates among development economists about many methodological issues, one debate seems glaringly absent: why is our discipline still so dominated by researchers without roots in developing countries, and what are we doing to change that?"
Important questions from Dina Pomeranz

Research:  “The uncomfortable truth is that some Western scholars too readily dismiss the intellectual labor of Global South partners to research assistance and facilitation.”  If you’re an African scientist, you can submit preprints of your work in local languages to the new open-source archive AfricArXiv.  Read this passionate critique of the idea that “there is no data in Africa,” then go check out the freely available data from the Sauti za Wananchi survey in Tanzania.  If you’re looking for survey research support in Kenya, one of my partner’s colleagues just founded Kenya Research Aid Services.  I’ve donated to send Rebeccah Wambui to present her work on reducing road deaths in Kenya at the International Youth Science Fair — please consider supporting her as well!

Arts and literature: This looks like a lovely documentary about the West African poets Syl Cheney-Coker and Niyi Osundare.  Here are five Sudanese books you should read.  Stream the forgotten films of Sudan online.  This piece considers the ethics and logistics of returning stolen Ethiopian artwork to its country of origin.  Don’t miss these African Instagrammers documenting the continent’s hidden hotspots.  Congratulations to Makena Onjerika for winning the 2018 Caine Prize for her short story “Fanta Blackcurrant”!

alvin
Stunning photos from Kenyan artist Kabutha Kago, via Alvin Abdullah

Twitter: Interesting people I followed recently include Yvonne Oduor (Kenya), Caroline Njuki (Kenya), Halimatou Hima (Niger), Zaahida Nabagereka (Uganda), Namata Serumaga-Musisi (Ghana), and Akosua Adomako Ampofo(Ghana).

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.”