The ethics of cash transfer targeting

[Update as of 16 November 2015: this post has been edited to accurately reflect GiveDirectly’s role in the study.  They did not design the randomization scheme and had not seen the results before the paper was released.  Paul Niehaus from GiveDirectly has also informed me that future research with their clients will no longer involve randomization at the household level, and that they are offering cash transfers to the comparison group from the earlier study.]

Is it ethical to give cash transfers to some poor people while their equally poor neighbors get nothing?  Johannes Haushofer, James Reisinger and Jeremy Shapiro just released a new study of this program design with GiveDirectly.  They found that people who received nothing were less happy than they’d been before the program started.  Anke Hoeffler has taken them to task for this, essentially arguing that these negative effects are so predictable that it’s unethical to study them, no matter how clever the research design.

As a basic point of research ethics, I agree that a study should never be designed to knowingly decrease participants’ wellbeing.  However, this wasn’t the goal of this project.  The new paper builds on earlier work by Haushofer & Shapiro (2013), which randomized access to cash transfers at the household level in order to examine both direct effects (on recipient households) and spillover effects (on their non-recipient neighbors).  Ex ante, the expectation was that the  neighbors might still benefit from the program, as recipient households shared resources through informal insurance networks.  While the prospect that the program would create jealousy or unhappiness among the neighbors might seem obvious in one sense, other studies have indicated that transparent eligibility criteria for cash transfers can mitigate unhappiness among non-recipients, so it wasn’t clear that household-level randomization would make non-recipients either economically or psychologically worse off.  Clinical equipose still applied.

As it turned out, the 2013 study found that the spillover group didn’t see any economic benefit from the program.  This might explain part of the 2015 findings – people might be unhappy not only because their neighbors received cash grants, but also because they failed to share their resources.    Finding a negative outcome doesn’t make the research design inherently unethical, but researchers now have an additional datapoint to consider when thinking about how future studies of cash transfer programs might be designed.

Given this new evidence, could there ever be a good reason to distribute cash transfers to fewer than 100% of eligible poor people in a town (as a long-term program design rather than a short-term research project)? It’s not clear to me that there is, although not for the reasons that Hoeffler points out.  Most countries haven’t got the funding to offer a basic income guarantee to all citizens, so distributional questions are an important aspect of program design.  Say a program only has the funding to provide a certain level of grants to 50% of eligible people.  Should the grants be allocated to all the poor people in 50% of towns to avoid conflict among neighbors, perhaps at the cost of conflict between towns (c.f. Bates 1974)?  Or might it be preferable to reduce the value of the grants by 50% and provide them to all eligible people in each town, with the possibility that this makes the amount too low to make a meaningful difference?  Note that this latter solution is a formal version of what Haushofer & Shapiro believed might happen anyway – if recipient households are assumed to share their large grants with their neighbors, it’s simply a less efficient way to give everyone a small grant.  It would be fascinating to see a study comparing these two targeting schemes.

Links I liked

Uncovering researchers’ implicit bias

I loved this post from the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog on uncovering researchers’ own biases in survey design:

Last year, I was in Nairobi, Kenya … to set up the data collection efforts for a four-country study. One of the goals of this study was to replicate results from lab experiments that suggested poverty is a context that shapes economic decision-making amongst households.

One of our replication questions was a vignette proposed by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity. … Shafir and Mullainathan’s findings show that commuters in Princeton, NJ were more likely to say that they would travel to another store for a $50 discount when purchasing a $100 product than when purchasing a $1,000 product. Less affluent individuals at a soup kitchen in Trenton, NJ, however, did not display this kind of inconsistency. For them, the marginal utility of money remained constant, regardless of the cost of the hypothetical product.

With the aim of replicating this question in four developing countries, we took the vignette to … Nairobi. After spending two days field-testing this hypothetical scenario, I was surprised that most of the respondents, particularly those from low-income households, said that they would not travel for the discount. Why was everyone hesitant to travel, regardless of the discount amount? Why are they seemingly exhibiting the preferences of the more affluent in the US?

Somewhat surprised by this discrepancy, I asked multiple respondents’ the reasons behind their choice. One person replied quite plainly, “There is no guarantee that the product will still be there once I go across town. It’s very likely that the product is gone by the time I get there.” Of course! By assuming the availability of the product, we had let our own implicit biases, based on our mental models, influence the design of the question. Since the original question was conducted in the United States, a developed country, implicit in the question was the assumption that availability is generally not a problem. However, for the respondents from less affluent communities, this assumption was not explicit.

Recent articles on conflict

Here’s a handful of interesting articles & books that have passed through my huge pile of unsorted PDFs neatly tagged Evernote notebooks recently.  I’ve included links to ungated versions when available; please let me know if you have access to a free version of any of the gated texts.

  • Chris Blattman’s lecture notes on what American political scientists know about the connection between poverty and violence.  A quick, thought-provoking slide deck.
  • Danielle Beswick on the paradoxes of military capacity building in Rwanda (published version appears to be available for free right now).  Nothing new here if you’ve been watching Rwanda and M23 for a while, but the focus on the risks of a strong military is a useful addition to policy discussions of security sector reform.
  • I haven’t read Severine Autesserre’s Peaceland yet, but it’s high on my list.  Another article covering similar territory to Autesserre’s last book is Jens Stilhoff Sörensen’s piece on the failure of statebuilding.  Key quote: “In its aim to secure, I argue, contemporary state-building and global liberal governance contribute to social and spatial fragmentation in different forms, rather than reconciliation and re-integration.They do so by dismantling previously existing frameworks and introducing market relations where the state has few instruments for attracting cross-sectarian loyalty” (p. 49).
  • Michael Gilligan et al. on how conflict affects social cohesion at the community level in Nepal.  Key point: “We find that violence-affected communities exhibit higher levels of prosocial motivation… We find evidence to support two social transformation mechanisms: (1) a purging mechanism by which less social persons disproportionately flee communities plagued by war and (2) a collective coping mechanism by which individuals who have few options to flee band together to cope with threats” (p. 604)

What explains peace?

In case you missed it, Jon Temin had a great article at Foreign Policy last month asking a critically important question: “Why don’t the policymakers and practitioners looking to end the world’s deadliest wars spend more time studying peace?”  This could mean peace at the country level (he compares Niger’s peaceful relationship with its Tuareg minority to the fraught relationship in neighboring Mali), or within a single country (as shown by the surprising stability of the state of Western Equatoria in South Sudan).  At an even more granular level of analysis, one could look at the case of Butembo – a Congolese city which has remained fairly insulated from conflict despite its location in restive North Kivu province.  But the question in any case is the same: why do some places fall into conflict, while others with similar characteristics manage to avoid it?

There’s a large body of literature in political science looking at cases where civil wars have occurred, but much less looking at war’s absence.  Based on my reading of the conflict literature, here are three factors that the study of peace might start exploring.  (Update, 14 July: read the comments, they’re quite good.  I’ve also added a fourth item here based on feedback from Digitaldjeli.)

  • Regional conflict complexes.  Peter Wallensteen (PDF), Idean Salehyan & Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (PDF), and many others have pointed out that many civil wars are not sui generis, but are linked to conflicts in neighboring countries, often through the mechanisms of refugee movements and state support for armed groups next door.  The canonical example is the way that conflicts in Rwanda have spilled over into and exacerbated conflicts in neighboring DRC.  The obvious question here is why some refugee host countries get drawn into the wars of their neighbors, while others (like Ghana, which hosts a number of refugees from Côte d’Ivoire) manage to avoid this.
  • Ideological collective action.  In The Order of Genocide, Scott Straus finds that Rwandan provinces with administrators who belonged to the ruling MRND party acted quickly to start carrying out genocidal killings after the order came down from Kigali, while administrators who belonged to the opposition were sometimes able to delay the start of violence in their area.  The tactics they employed to do this included organizing self-defense militias for vulnerable communities, threatening to punish people who carried out genocidal attacks, and dispersing groups of men who gathered to start hunting victims.  This, of course, touches on the age-old question: why do some groups of people espouse violent ideologies, while others in the same society do not?  And to what degree are peaceful places peaceful because citizens actively worked for peace, as opposed to simply not having the right preconditions for war?
  • Land tenure policies.  Cathy Boone’s recent book Property and Political Order in Africa argues that places where land tenure rights are assigned by the state are more likely to see both violent and non-violent conflicts scale up to become quarrels with the central government.  By comparison, in places where land tenure is administered by tribal leaders or other local groups, conflicts over land tend to stay “bottled up” at the local level, and are less likely to become national political issues.  Boone stops well short of making the claim that systems of land tenure can explain the prevalence of civil war, but I think there are some ideas here that are worth digging into more deeply.  For example, the highly politicized process by which the state granted land use rights in the Kenyan highlands has created lasting and sometimes violent grievances there, while the politicized process of agricultural collectivization in neighboring Tanzania hasn’t led to large-scale violence (as far as I know).  What mitigated against the violent resolution of land access disputes in Tanzania?  And more generally, are places with tribal or other local systems of land allocation less likely to have civil wars?  This would be an interesting counterpoint to the idea that “tribalism” lies behind many conflicts.
  • Stationary bandits.  Digitaldjeli’s point was that “peace” in Butembo looks more like a protection racket, but the idea that protection rackets can grow into (peaceful, Westphalian) states is actually a classic in the American political science literature.  Mancur Olson (PDF) builds on work by people like Charles Tilly (PDF) to argue that the type of mafioso running the racket matters – “stationary bandits” will protect the people and territory under their control so they can continue to tax them in the long run, while “roving bandits” will steal everything they can from people in the short run, and offer no protection.  Put differently, decisions by political elites can matter a lot for the types of violence that occur within a state.  The million dollar question is why some elites are able to look past the short term gains of roving banditry and decide to make longer term investments in protecting their territory.

At this point I’m actually coming up against the precise problem that Temin highlights: the region I’ve studied most thoroughly, central Africa, is comprised exclusively of countries that have had civil wars, and I’m running out of non-war cases to use for comparison.  What other hypotheses or case studies can you think of that might explain instances of peace in regions seemingly predisposed to war?