Interesting academic articles for February 2020

Here’s what I’m looking forward to reading this month!

Kobina Aidoo and Ryan Briggs.  2019.  “Underpowered: Rolling blackouts in Africa disproportionately hurt the poor.”  African Studies Review.

Electricity demand exceeds supply in many parts of Africa, and this often results in rolling blackouts. This article argues that blackouts tend to concentrate on poorer places within countries, due to both economic and political factors. This argument is tested with an analysis of electricity availability across thirty-two neighborhoods in Accra and survey data from thirty-six African countries. Across these analyses, poorer people with a grid connection experience lower electricity supply than richer people. This article concludes by discussing implications for research on electricity availability, policymakers working on energy, and the distributive politics literature.

J. Andrew Harris, Catherine Kamindo, and Peter Van der Windt.  2020.  “Electoral Administration in Fledgling Democracies: Experimental Evidence from Kenya.”  Journal of Politics.

We examine the effects of national voter registration policies on voting patterns with a large-scale experimental study. Together with Kenya’s electoral commission, we designed an experiment in which 1,674 communities were randomized to a status quo or treatment group, receiving civic education on voter registration, SMS reminders about registration opportunities, and/or local registration visits by election commission staff. We find little evidence that civic education improves registration. Local registration visits improve voter registration, a relationship that increases in poorer communities. Moreover, local registration increased electoral competition and vote preference diversity in down-ballot contests in the 2017 Kenyan elections. Our results suggest that status quo voter registration policies constrain political participation and competition, and that inexpensive policy changes may attenuate the effects of such constraints.

Jeremie Gross, Catherine Guirkinger, and Jean-Philippe Platteau.  2020.  “Buy As You Need: Nutrition and Food Storage Imperfections.” Journal of Development Economics.

In this paper, we investigate whether and how a more steady supply of foodgrain in local markets impacts the nutritional status (measured with body-mass-indexes) of both children and adults, in a context characterized by large seasonal fluctuations in the price and availability of foodgrain. Taking advantage of the random scaling-up of a program of Food Security Granaries in Burkina Faso, we reach three conclusions. First, especially in remote areas where local markets are thin, the program considerably dampens nutritional stress. The effect is strongest among children, and young children in particular, for whom deficient nutrition has devastating long-term consequences. Second we argue that it is a change in the timing of food purchases, translated into a change in the timing of consumption, that drives the nutritional improvement. A simple two-period model shows that, once we account for various forms of storage costs, an increase in nutrition does not necessarily require larger quantity of food purchases or even consumption. Our last and unexpected conclusion is that the losses associated with foodgrain storage do not stem from physical losses in household granaries but rather from inefficient seasonal bodymass fluctuations. One plausible mechanism behind this particular storage imperfection rests on the households’ urge to consume readily available foodgrain.

Moses Khisa.  2020.  “Politicisation and Professionalisation: The Progress and Perils of Civil-Military Transformation in Museveni’s Uganda.”  Civil Wars.  

Problems of civil-military relations have been at the centre of recurring political crises in contemporary Africa. Routine military intrusion in politics characterised the first four decades of independent Africa. Citizens suffered at the hands of the armed forces, infamous for widespread human rights violations. One key response to this dual civil-military problem was to pursue a strategy of politicising the armed forces in order to make them a) subordinate to civilian authority and b) organically close to the public and protective than predatory. This also entailed the militarisation of politics ostensibly to bring the political class into closer conversation and collaboration with the military. To what extent did this strategy contribute to transforming civil-military relations? Taking the Ugandan case, this article argues that transformation was attained in making the military more respectful of citizens’ rights while simultaneously creating a fusion with the ruling class thereby subverting the very goal of professionalism.

Josephine Ahikire and Amon A. Mwiine.  2020.  “Gender equitable change and the place of informal networks in Uganda’s legislative policy reforms.”  Effective States in International Development working paper #134.

Uganda has had an uneven history and experience around gender equity policy reforms, particularly, from the late 1980s and early 1990s to-date. These range from the countrywide constitutional review processes of the early 1990s, legislative activism and reforms around domestic relations, land/property rights, and women’s access to public position, to mention but a few. While some of these gender reforms (commonly promoted through women’s collective mobilisation) were successful, other legislative initiatives faced intense resistance. This paper compares three policy cases – the 1997 Universal Primary Education policy, the 1998 legislative reform around spousal co-ownership of land and the 2010 Domestic Violence Act. Drawing on feminist institutionalism, the paper explores how gender norms operate within institutions (both formal and informal) and how institutional processes construct, reproduce or challenge gender power dynamics in policy reforms. The paper examines the place of informal networks and raises critical questions regarding ways in which women emerge as critical actors in securing and consolidating gender change, the strategies they draw upon to negotiate resistance, and whether the nature of policy reform influences the kind of resistance and (in effect) counterstrategies used to negotiate resistance to gender change. We also assess the implications these legislative processes have for activism around gender equity reforms. Findings indicate creative ways through which women draw on informal networks and networking practices to influence gender equitable change, often revealing the micro, subtly gendered dynamics that animate success or failure of a particular policy reform. We argue that the nature of policy reform, e.g. gender status policies or doctrinal policies, determines the nature and process of policy adoption.

Eric Mvukiyehe and Peter van der Windt.  2020.  “Assessing the Longer Term Impact of Community-Driven Development Programs: Evidence from a Field Experiment in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”  World Bank Policy Research working paper #9140.

Community-driven development programs are a popular model for service delivery and socioeconomic development, especially in countries reeling from civil strife. Despite their popularity, the evidence on their impact is mixed at best. Most studies thus far are based on data collected during, or shortly after, program implementation. Community-driven development’s theory of change, however, allows for a longer time frame for program exposure to produce impact. This study examines the longer term impact of a randomized community-driven development program implemented in 1,250 villages in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo between 2007 and 2012. The study team returned to these villages in 2015, eight years after the onset of the program. The study finds evidence of the physical endurance of infrastructure built by the program. However, it finds no evidence that the program had an impact on other dimensions of service provision, health, education, economic welfare, women’s empowerment, governance, and social cohesion. These findings suggest that, although community-driven development programs may effectively deliver public infrastructure, longer term impacts on economic development and social transformation appear to be limited.

Cyril Brandt and Tom De Herdt.  2020.  “Reshaping the Reach of the State: The Politics of a Teacher Payment Reform in the DR Congo.”  Journal of Modern African Studies.

We analyse the politics of the reform of teacher payment modalities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in light of the uneven territorial reach of the DRC state. The reform focused on extending this reach by paying all teachers via a bank account, replacing longstanding shared governance arrangements between state and faith-based organizations with a public-private partnership. By using qualitative and quantitative data, we map the political practices accompanying the implementation of the reform. While the reform itself was officially deemed a success, its intended effects were almost completely offset in rural areas. Moreover, governance of teacher payments was not rationalized but instead became even more complex and spatially differentiated. In sum, the reform has rendered governance processes more opaque and it deepened the existing unevenness in the geography of statehood.

Michel Thill and Abel Cimanuka.  2019.  “Governing local security in the eastern Congo: decentralization, police reform and interventions in the chieftaincy of Buhavu.”  Rift Valley Institute.  

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC or Congo), security governance is competitive, fragmented and marked by violence. Multiple actors—state and non-state—vie for influence and many areas of the country lack effective structures to ensure that their residents live in safety and security. In this context, the threat and use of violence has become central to the state’s efforts to maintain social control and public order. This tendency has come to shape the troubled relationship between Congolese citizens and the army and police, reflected in numerous fraught day-to-day interactions. Two ongoing processes— administrative decentralization and police reform—have been designed to turn a page on past practices, bring government and security closer to the population and, consequently, improve this relationship. While they have had some successes, they also risk the re-creation of existing governance dynamics within newly empowered local administrative and security-related entities.

Mary Hallward-Driemeier, Anna Kochanova, and Bob Rijkers.  2020.  “Does Democratization Promote Competition? Indonesian Manufacturing Pre and Post Suharto.”  World Bank Policy Research Group working paper #9112.  

Does democratization promote economic competition? This paper documents that the disruption of political connections associated with Suharto’s fall had a modest pro-competitive effect on Indonesian manufacturing industries in which his family had extensive business interests. Firms with connections to Suharto lost substantial market share following his resignation. Industries in which Suharto family firms had larger market share during his tenure exhibited weak improvements in broader measures of competition in the post-Suharto era relative to industries in which Suharto firms had not been important players.

Anne Buffardi, Samuel Sharp, Sierd Hadley and Rachel A. Archer.  2020.  “Measuring evidence-informed decision-making processes in low- and middle-income countries.”  Overseas Development Institute.

The evidence base on the practice of evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) in international development is limited. Previous work has identified multiple roles that evidence could play; principles and desirable decision-making practices; and individual, interpersonal, organisational and contextual factors thought to influence the interpretation of evidence and decisions. Despite a proliferation of frameworks and guidance, there is a relative dearth of research on the extent to which and how they are applied in practice, at what cost and with what effects. EIDM faces measurement challenges, including investigation into largely undocumented and sometimes unobservable processes, multi-finality and equifinality (multiple pathways to multiple outcomes), often along extended time horizons, in addition to difficulties establishing counterfactuals. In the health sector, current indicators tend to cluster around two ends of a long change pathway: tracking upstream activities and immediate outputs, and downstream changes in health coverage and outcomes. Building on existing systems, future efforts could be directed at the ‘missing middle’ in measurement, filling notable gaps in defining what constitute quality EIDM processes, minimising biases in measuring these processes and investigating how evidence-informed recommendations make their way through the policy process.

Matteo Alpino and Eivind Moe Hammersmark.  2020.  “The Role of Historical Christian Missions in the Location of World Bank Aid in Africa.”  World Bank Policy Research Group working paper #9146.

This article documents a positive and sizable correlation between the location of historical Christian missions and the allocation of present-day World Bank aid at the grid-cell level in Africa. The correlation is robust to an extensive set of geographical and historical control variables that predict settlement of missions. The study finds no correlation with aid effectiveness, as measured by project ratings and survey-based development indicators. Mission areas display a different political aid cycle than other areas, whereby new projects are less likely to arrive in years with new presidents. Hence, political connections between mission areas and central governments could be one likely explanation for the correlation between missions and aid.

Abhishek Nagaraj and Scott Stern.  2020.  “The Economics of Maps.”  Journal of Economic Perspectives.  

For centuries, maps have codified the extent of human geographic knowledge and shaped discovery and economic decision-making. Economists across many fields, including urban economics, public finance, political economy, and economic geography, have long employed maps, yet have largely abstracted away from exploring the economic determinants and consequences of maps as a subject of independent study. In this essay, we first review and unify recent literature in a variety of different fields that highlights the economic and social consequences of maps, along with an overview of the modern geospatial industry. We then outline our economic framework in which a given map is the result of economic choices around map data and designs, resulting in variations in private and social returns to mapmaking. We highlight five important economic and institutional factors shaping mapmakers’ data and design choices. Our essay ends by proposing that economists pay more attention to the endogeneity of mapmaking and the resulting consequences for economic and social welfare.

When do Bus Rapid Transit systems make congestion worse?

Harmoni_Central_Busway_Transjakarta_1
A bus station in central Jakarta, via Wikipedia

That’s the question posed by a recent(ish) VoxDev article by Arya Gaduh, Tadeja Gračna, and Alexander Rothenburg.  They studied this topic in Jakarta, and found that the TransJakarta BRT system took lanes away from cars without attracting enough passengers to substantially reduce the number of cars on the road.  This is also due partly to the fact that the popularity of motorcycle taxis soared over the implementation period, pulling many people off public transit entirely.

What are the implications for African BRT projects, like those in Nairobi, Accra, or Dar es Salaam?  One clear takeaway is that the effect of the BRT system depends on the quality of its implementation.  As the authors note,

A ‘gold standard’ BRT in Curitiba, Brazil, includes GPS-based service planning, multiple networked routes, peak frequency buses, comfortable stations, and feeder bus integration. On the other hand, Lagos’ BRT lacks off-board fare collection and platform-level boarding at stations, and does not meet basic international BRT standards. Overall, more BRTs are similar to the latter than the former…

As a result, how a BRT system impacts congestion and travel time varies across settings. Findings from the experiences of systems such as those in Bogota, Lahore, or Mexico City demonstrate that a well-implemented BRT can increase public transport use, reduce air pollution, and increase output and labour market access (Tsivanidis 2019, Majid et al. 2018, Bel and Holst 2018). On the other hand, poor implementations have led to failure and eventual disbandment in the case of BRT systems in Delhi and Taichung (Pojani and Stead 2017).

Bringing researchers and knowledge brokers together for greater impact

research-to-action-logo

I’ve got a guest post at Research to Action about how policy-oriented researchers don’t have to build relationships with policymakers themselves, but can also work in partnership with organizations which already have these relationships, like think tanks and advocacy groups.  It features the great work that J-PAL Southeast Asia is doing to connect their researchers to policymakers in Indonesia.  Here’s the main takeaway:

Academic researchers and knowledge brokers can bring complementary skills to bear on the process of evidence-informed policymaking. Studies have shown that policymakers are most likely to listen to information which comes from credible sources, and which is delivered at a point in the policymaking cycle when it’s most useful to them. As experts in their fields, the researchers lend credibility to their policy recommendations. Meanwhile, knowledge brokers have a long-term presence in low-income countries, and are explicitly committed to influencing policy. This means that they have more time to learn about how the policy process works in their country, and to meet with policymakers.

How do Indonesian policymakers seek out research?

Ajoy Datta had a good post at Research to Action recently about how Indonesian policymakers interact with research evidence.  Here are some of his key points.  First, policymakers are interested in evidence, but they tend to look for data rather than papers initially:

Our results show that when mid-level Indonesian policymakers in both large ‘spending ministries’ and smaller ‘influencing ministries’ are tasked with, say, developing or revising a regulation or law, their first priority is to acquire not research, but statistical data. Seen as objective, policymakers feel data will, for instance, identify current trends, recognise issues that need to be addressed, assign targets, and/or demonstrate impact.

However, the reality is that some policymakers find it difficult to access high-quality data, while others struggle to make sense of the huge volume of data that exists. Data on its own fails to show  the causes of trends and does not point to potential solutions. This is where research can help.

Second, if policymakers want more context for the data they find, they’re fond of inviting experts in for discussions:

Most importantly, however, when policymakers did seek out research, rather than commission or read comprehensive research papers, they are more likely to invite experts they already knew to provide advice through social processes (which some policymakers consider as research). These processes usually feature formal and informal meetings or phone conversations, focus group discussions (FGDs), or seminars.

Part of this is because of constraints on the ability to either rapidly access existing research, or commission new papers on specific topics:

Procedures to procure research from internal research and development units, where they exist, is lengthy and cumbersome. This usually discourages them from making a request at all. In any case, these internal units often lack the capacity to produce high-quality research. Meanwhile, other procedures constrained policymakers from hiring top-end researchers from outside government to undertake research.

The main takeaway is that the social process of building trust between researchers and policymakers matters a great deal.  This certainly poses a challenge for academics, as creating these relationships takes time, and unfortunately doesn’t count towards one’s tenure packet.

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.”

What works in promoting governance reform in low income countries?

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An anti-corruption campaign in Rwanda, via This is Africa

I’ve recently come across a series of excellent articles on what works in promoting governance reform in low income countries.  Two of them have come out of UK-based ODI, which is sponsoring some very interesting research on institutional development.  The politics of institutional reform haven’t received as much attention in American political science, although there’s a promising panel on this topic at APSA later this week.

My current go-to paper on governance reform is the “Developmental Regimes in Africa” synthesis report.   Some key points:

  • “States like Ethiopia and Rwanda whose leaders are forcing the pace of
    national and rural development [appear to be doing so because there is] an acute rural threat to the future of the elite in power” (p. 3).  Similar explanations have been put forward for the exceptionally strong post-war state-building observed in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.  Most African states do not have organized, class-based rural interest groups which can credibly threaten urban leaders
  • There is “no support for globally influential claims about the positive contribution of inclusive institutions or a ‘golden thread’ linking rule of law, absence of conflict and corruption, and strong formal property rights. … The combination of factors that was present in all six successful episodes [of high growth] and absent in all four unsuccessful ones contained just three elements. They were an intermediate level of ‘systemic vulnerability’ … a broadly market-friendly policy approach, and a policy-making process embedded in one or other of two types of strong institution: a political party with a tradition of consensual decision-making and leadership succession; and a strong, organic state bureaucracy with the ability to insulate policy from changes in political leadership. [This suggests] that the institutional character of the dominant party is the most generally relevant issue in Africa today” (p. 5)
  • Pockets of administrative effectiveness do exist in many African bureaucracies.  They may be particularly important for the outcomes of rural subsistence farmers, who are the majority of the population in many countries.  However, “the typical form of competitive clientelism in Africa today does not and perhaps cannot deliver the political protection that an effective agricultural transformation agency would require” (p. 6)
  • In comparative perspective, “Southeast Asia’s development successes were [emphatically not] the work of a particular type of political regime. Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam achieved comparable development outcomes under very different sorts of regime. What their governments shared was a pragmatic approach to an immediate problem – summarised in the phrase ‘urgency, outreach and expediency’. The change process was not driven by a bold vision for national economic transformation, but by a consistent incrementalism. [Conversely,] ambitious visions for economic transformation were more often found in Africa, where they contributed to a policy climate that systematically avoided providing the needed support to agriculture” (p. 6)

The DRA report takes an admittedly broad approach to the question of institutional change, focusing more on the outcomes of particular institutions than the the question of how those institutions arose in the first place.  Useful perspective on this issue is provided by the the “Change in Challenging Contexts” report, which focuses on the DR Congo, Liberia, South Sudan and Uganda.  To quote the executive summary (p. 7),

Strengthening capacity and systems for public financial management and service delivery in challenging contexts is possible. Attention needs to be placed on fostering genuine behavioural change if such change is to contribute to improved development outcomes.

Reform is messy in practice. The actions which deliver genuine change tend not to be pre-planned but responses to local problems and opportunities. Reforms need to be relevant to those problems and adapted based on experience, and must fit within the available space for reform and capacity.

Senior officials in authority provide and protect the space for change. Yet change is typically taken forward by mid-level bureaucrats who convene teams to deliver reform and build coalitions in support of change.

External actors can play an integral role in fostering genuine change. If this is to be more common, donors need to encourage governments and providers of technical assistance to address local problems and adapt solutions to them.

Another good bit of perspective is offered by Martha Johnson in “Donor Requirements and Pockets of Effectiveness in Senegal’s Bureaucracy.”   (The article is gated, but if you’d like a copy, I can pass it on.)  Here’s the abstract:

Donors increasingly value the work of statistics, project assessment and related offices in developing countries, but can they ensure these offices are able to do their work? This article assesses donors’ efforts to do so in Senegal’s ministries of finance, health and agriculture in the mid-2000s. It contends that donors’ impact is greatest if they generate political incentives for governments to create ‘pockets of effectiveness’ in these areas. The health and agriculture case studies indicate that direct donor involvement, particularly if incompatible with domestic political forces, produces disappointing results, while the finance case studies suggest donors can induce political support for the work of specific offices if donor incentives coincide with domestic political imperatives.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the series of excellent case studies of specific reform efforts collected by Innovations for Successful Societies at Princeton.