Recent conference highlights

It’s been a busy few months of conference attendance recently, and I wanted to share some of the papers that really stood out to me.  At ISA:

  • Lior Lehrs had a very interesting presentation on what he calls “private peace entrepreneurs” – people who act without state support to reach out to the opposing side in a conflict and promote peace.  It doesn’t appear that the paper is public, but Ynetnews has a short summary of his work.
  • Olukunle Owolabi also presented a fascinating comparative study on the extension of political rights to former slaves in the US South and the French Antilles.  It’s currently under review, so keep an eye out for it!

Next up was a workshop on “clientelism in comparative perspective,” organized by the Center on the Politics of Development at Berkeley.

  • Nancy Hite discussed her current book project on how economic development changes citizens’ perceptions of the state in the Philippines, building on an earlier microfinance RCT by Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman.  No public paper yet, but I’d definitely look for this book when it comes out – it’s a really interesting micro-level look at how growth affects political behavior.
  • Another highlight for the sheer quantity of data used was Pablo Querubin‘s work with Cesi Cruz and Julien Labonne on political family networks in the Philippines.  Because Filipino surnames contain the family names of both parents (for unmarried people) or a father’s family name plus a husband’s name (for married women), they constructed a database of more than 20 million people and traced family and marriage relationships of everyone in 15,000 villages.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that politicians tended to come from disproportionately well-connected families.

Finally, I had a great time (as always) at PacDev.

  • Berk Özler presented joint work with Sarah Baird, Ephraim Chirwa and Craig McIntosh on a five-year follow-up to a program in Malawi which offered young women cash transfers aimed at getting them to stay in school.  The program had offered conditional grants to women who were already in school, and unconditional grants to women who had already dropped out, both of which were effective in getting them back into school.  Five years later, however, the women who got the CCTs (who might have stayed in school anyway) had marital and economic outcomes that looked similar to the control group, while the UCT group (who otherwise would have dropped out) did have persistently better outcomes.
  • David Yang and Yuyu Chen had a fascinating paper on how people perceive the credibility of the Chinese government in trying to shift the narrative around the Great Leap Forward.  The government blamed the famine of that period on drought, and Yang and Chen find that people living in famine-affected areas where there was in fact a drought reported higher levels of trust in the state than those who didn’t observe drought in their region.  The effects persisted for more than half a century, and tended to get reinforced by marriage, as people who didn’t trust the state disproportionately married each other.

Malawi’s missing economic growth

Lise Rakner, who’s visiting Berkeley from the University of Bergen for the year, recently gave an interesting talk on how competitive elections haven’t done much to improve development outcomes in Malawi.  As a rough measure of this, I compared Malawi’s economic growth since the mid-1980s to its neighbors – Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.

GDP Per Cap(Data from the World Bank, via the Google Public Data Explorer. The graph looks different depending on whether you use current dollars or a PPP adjustment, but doesn’t change the fact that Malawi hasn’t grown as fast as the other two since 2000.)

I asked Lise what she attributed these divergent outcomes to, and her hypothesis was natural resources.  This clearly accounts for Zambia’s higher GDP, but doesn’t explain why every country except Malawi saw a steady increase in GDP since 2000.

All four of these countries are considered “partially free” by Freedom House, so it’s not clear that the political environment is substantially worse in Malawi than elsewhere.  They also looked very similar on the World Governance Indicators’ measures of government effectiveness, regulatory quality and rule of law in 2012.  (Look at the error bars on the estimates – they’re all overlapping.)

WGI(Data from WGI.  I didn’t include data from 2000 or earlier to keep the graph easy to read, but they looked fairly similar at that point as well.)

So what’s going on?  I don’t know Malawi at all, so any explanation would be appreciated!