The 20 best longform articles of 2020

Here’s my annual round-up of the year’s best articles! You can also read along with me at Pocket, where I share the most interesting things I read during the year. (Previously: best of 2019201820172016.)

India’s Pickle Queen Preserves Everything, Including the Past. New York Times. “Mango and lime pickles are commonly sold in the United States, but nothing escapes pickling in India: plums and hog plums, cherries and chokecherries, sprouted fenugreek seeds, bamboo shoots, fat gooseberries, hibiscus flowers and green walnuts. Cooks work with all kinds of fruits, vegetables, flowers, roots and seeds, using every edible part of every possible food.”

Facial Recognition for Pigs: Is it Helping Chinese Farmers or Hurting the Poorest? The Guardian. “[Facial recognition technology] is able to differentiate between pigs by analysing their snouts, ears, and eyes. The system used in Guangxi farms constantly tracks pigs’ pulses and sweat rates; at the same time, voice recognition software monitors individual animals’ cough rates. In this way, it is able to spot warning signs before a pig becomes sick or hungry. Being a ‘highly expressive’ animal, the cameras are even capable of recognising distress in the animals’ faces.”

The Battle to Invent the Automatic Rice Cooker. Atlas Obscura. “The automatic rice cooker is a mid-century Japanese invention that made a Sisyphean culinary labor as easy as measuring out grain and water and pressing a button… So long as you add water and rice in the right proportions, it’s nearly impossible to mess up, as the machines stop cooking at exactly the right point for toothsome rice. But creating an automatic rice cooker was not so easy. In fact, it took decades of inventive leaps, undertaken by some of the biggest names in Japanese technology…. [For centuries before,] Japanese women rose at dawn and labored for several sweaty hours to make rice.”

Learning from the Kariba Dam. New York Times. “As the stony facade continues to crumble, the likelihood rises that the Kariba Dam will not just fail but fall. If the dam collapses, the BBC reported in 2014, a tsunami would tear through the Zambezi River Valley, a torrent so powerful that it would knock down another dam a hundred miles away, the Cahora Bassa in Mozambique — twin disasters that would take out 40 percent of the hydroelectric capacity in all of southern Africa.”

A New Master’s House: The Architect Decolonising Nigerian Design. Al Jazeera. “Nwoko began building his own house in Ibadan with the methods that have remained his hallmarks. He created the bricks with laterite soil extracted on-site during the excavation process… Trees removed during construction were repurposed as flooring, doors, window shutters, and the framework for the roofing… Ventilation portals create pathways for breezes to enter from the floor and for hot air to escape at ceiling level. With this passive cooling system, as well as the natural temperature regulation provided by the mud walls, no air conditioning is needed, year-round.”

For Domestic Workers, Apps Provide Solace – But Not Justice. Rest of World. “Driven to desperation, many domestic workers around the world clearly need innovative solutions. Angela Kintominas, a lawyer and researcher for the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the most useful new digital services are those developed in collaboration with migrant-worker organizations. Such groups can provide local context and on-the-ground experience with privacy and data security, she said. Whether all the emerging services follow that prescription is another matter.”

The Strange Reinvention of Icelandic. The Economist. “Icelanders are fiercely proud of their tongue and stay actively involved in its maintenance…. The result is something close to unique—a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian).”

Behrouz Boochani Just Wants to be Free. New York Times. “Everyone staying in Lodge 10 was a refugee awaiting resettlement. These men were brought into the country against their will for the noncrime of seeking political asylum in Australia. They were among hundreds of migrants locked up in an old naval base on Manus Island, which lies off the northeast coast of mainland Papua New Guinea. Now they had been moved to this motel with its shared toilets and atmosphere of stultified trauma…. All the men had started out together in the shared misery of detention, but then Boochani did something extraordinary: Letter by letter, pecked out on contraband telephones while locked up on Manus, he wrote his first book.”

Electric Crypto Balkan Acid Test. The Baffler. “European authorities soon traced the power fluctuations to North Kosovo, a region commonly described as one of Europe’s last ganglands. Since 2015, its major city, Mitrovica, has been under the control of Srpska Lista, a mafia masquerading as a political party. Around the time Srpska came to power, North Kosovo’s electricity consumption surged. Officials at the Kosovo Electricity Supply Company in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital city, told me that the region now requires 20 percent more power than it did five years ago. Eventually, it became clear why: across the region, from the shabby apartment blocks of Mitrovica to the cellars of mountain villages, Bitcoin and Ethereum rigs were humming away, fueling a shadow economy of cryptocurrency manufacturing.”

Inside the Quest for Documents that Could Resolve a Cold War Mystery. Lithub. “Let me explain why, out of the millions of pages of military records from the 1950s, these twenty-one withdrawn memos might matter. It’s not only because any document that a government takes special pains to keep away from historians, using a yellow access-restricted card, is likely to be revealing in some way. It’s also because these documents in particular may help answer one of the big unresolved questions of the Cold War: Did the United States covertly employ some of its available biological weaponry—bombs packed with fleas and mosquitoes and disease-dusted feathers, for instance—in locations in China and Korea?”

Landscape of Fear: Why We Need the Wolf. The Guardian. “Around the same time as the wolves were released, the mountain lion population, once hunted to local extinction, was becoming re-established as well – having crept back in from wilderness areas in central Idaho. Under these twin pressures, over a period of about 15 years, elk numbers halved. Those that did survive behaved differently, too: when the wolves were on the prowl, they retreated to the dimly lit comfort of the woods, where they might wander in clandestine bands. They avoided the cougars, most active at night, by steering clear of landmarks where they might be trapped or surprised from above in the dark – ravines, outcrops, embankments. No longer did they live in an environment defined by its waterholes and pastures, or even by its ridgelines and ravines, but by areas now suffused with danger and relief. A psychological topology, this – one marked with hillocks of anxiety and peaks of alarm. Ecologists know this as ‘the landscape of fear.'”

The Man Who Refused to Spy. The New Yorker. “The prosecution, evidently sensing that the case was not going its way, had quietly informed ICE that it no longer wished to defer Asgari’s deportation [to Iran]: the agency could come collect its prisoner. No sooner had Judge Gwin departed the courtroom than a marshal seated in the gallery approached the defense table to haul Asgari into ICE custody. The turn of events was stunning. Asgari had just been acquitted in a fair trial before a federal judge, but would end the day in prison. By all appearances, the government was acting out of vindictiveness.”

The Abolition Movement. Vanity Fair. “It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.”

Land-Grab Universities. High Country News. “In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. Now thriving, the institutions seldom ask who paid for their good fortune… The Morrill Act worked by turning land expropriated from tribal nations into seed money for higher education. In all, the act redistributed nearly 11 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. But with a footprint broken up into almost 80,000 parcels of land, scattered mostly across 24 Western states, its place in the violent history of North America’s colonization has remained comfortably inaccessible.”

Algae Caviar, Anyone? What We’ll Eat on the Journey to Mars. Wired. “Every pound that NASA transports to and from space costs thousands of dollars, which means food must be lightweight and compact. It also has to last a long time. Like Nespoli’s mashed potatoes, many of the dishes on offer—shrimp cocktail, chicken teriyaki, or one of a couple hundred other options—come dehydrated. And they tend to share another property too, Coleman said: “Everything is kind of mushy.” This is a side effect of NASA’s all-out war on crumbs. On Earth, crumbs fall; in microgravity, they can end up anywhere, including inside critical equipment or astronauts’ lungs.”

The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of. Mental Floss. “For 60 years, American drivers unknowingly poisoned themselves by pumping leaded gasoline into their tanks. Here is the lifelong saga of Clair Patterson—a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb and discovered the true age of the Earth—and how he took on a billion-dollar industry to save humanity from itself.”

Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel. Scientific American. “The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder…. The invention of the wheel was so challenging that it probably happened only once, in one place. However, from that place, it seems to have spread so rapidly across Eurasia and the Middle East that experts cannot say for sure where it originated.”

Egg-Laying or Live Birth: How Evolution Chooses. Quanta. “Live birth evolved later — and more than once. In reptiles alone, it has evolved at least 121 separate times. And although scientists don’t know exactly when the first live animal emerged from its mother, they do know what forces may have been driving the transition from egg laying and what evolutionary steps may have preceded it.”

When Plants Go to War. Nautilus. “Far from being passive victims, plants have evolved potent defenses: chemical compounds that serve as toxins, signal an escalating attack, and solicit help from unlikely allies. However, all of this security comes at a cost: energy and other resources that plants could otherwise use for growth and repair. So to balance the budget, plants have to be selective about how and when to deploy their chemical arsenal. Here are five tactics they’ve developed to ward off their insect foes without sacrificing their own wellbeing.”

Childish Things: The Anguish of Grandparenting in a Pandemic. The Economist. “The knowledge that children are perpetually passing through themselves on the way to becoming someone else is part of the delight and fascination of parenthood. Their behaviours and traits are in a state of constant evolution, so that the very things that once seemed to define them are always slipping into the past and passing out of memory. All this is just a basic premise of being alive. But it’s also devastating when you think about it. Not quite death, but not quite unrelated either.”

Interesting academic articles for September 2020

After a bit of a blogging hiatus, I’m back! Here are the recent articles that I’m looking forward to reading.

James Habyarimana, Ken Ochieng’ Opalo, and Youdi Schipper. 2020. “The Cyclical Electoral Impacts of Programmatic Policies: Evidence from Education Reforms in Tanzania.” RISE Programme working paper 20/051.

A large literature documents the electoral benefits of clientelistic and programmatic policies in low-income states. We extend this literature by showing the cyclical electoral responses to a large programmatic intervention to expand access to secondary education in Tanzania over multiple electoral periods. Using a difference-in- difference approach, we find that the incumbent party’s vote share increased by 2 percentage points in the election following the policy’s announcement as a campaign promise (2005), but decreased by -1.4 percentage points in the election following implementation (2010). We find no discernible electoral impact of the policy in 2015, two electoral cycles later. We attribute the electoral penalty in 2010 to how the secondary school expansion policy was implemented. Our findings shed light on the temporally-contingent electoral impacts of programmatic policies, and highlight the need for more research on how policy implementation structures public opinion and vote choice in low-income states.

Alesha Porisky. 2020. “The distributional politics of social transfers in Kenya.” Effective States in International Development working paper no. 155.

This paper examines the politics of distributing social transfers across four diverse counties in Kenya – Homa Bay, Marsabit, Nakuru and Nyeri – with a focus on three of the nationwide social transfer programmes: the Cash Transfer for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (CT-OVC); the Older Persons Cash Transfer Programme (OPCT); and the Inua Jamii Pension. The paper presents two key findings. First, it finds that state infrastructural power plays a central role in mediating the implementation of social transfer programmes. Where state infrastructural power is high, formal programme guidelines tend to be closely followed. However, where state infrastructural power is low, bureaucrats compensate by relying on local authorities – including administrative chiefs, village elders and clan leaders – to assist with programme functions that are outside of their formal roles within the social transfer programmes. Second, the paper finds that there is less political interference in the local distribution of social transfers than the extant literature predicts. Strong formal programme rules and guidelines, combined with significant central oversight over programme implementation, limit the influence that local politicians have over the distribution of social transfer programme benefits.

Sudhanshu Handa, David Seidenfeld and Gelson Tembo. 2020. “The Impact of a Large-Scale Poverty-Targeted Cash Transfer Program on Intertemporal Choice.” Economic Development and Cultural Change.

We use a social experiment to test whether the government of Zambia’s cash transfer program affects intertemporal choice. A cash transfer program may also alter expectations about future quality of life and make one happier, two conditions that can affect intertemporal decision-making and the desire to invest in the future. We find that the program affects time discounting and that psychological states are also strongly associated with time discounting, but psychological states do not mediate the effect of the cash transfer on time discounting.

Noam Angrist, Peter Bergman, Caton Brewster, and Moitshepi Matsheng. 2020. “Stemming Learning Loss During the Pandemic: A Rapid Randomized Trial of a Low-Tech Intervention in Botswana.” CSAE working paper WPS/2020-13.

The COVID-19 pandemic has closed schools for over 1.6 billion children, with potentially long- term consequences. This paper provides some of the first experimental evidence on strategies to minimize the fallout of the pandemic on education outcomes. We evaluate two low-technology interventions to substitute schooling during this period: SMS text messages and direct phone calls. We conduct a rapid trial in Botswana to inform real-time policy responses collecting data at four- to six-week intervals. We present results from the first wave. We find early evidence that both interventions result in cost-effective learning gains of 0.16 to 0.29 standard deviations. This trans- lates to a reduction in innumeracy of up to 52 percent. We show these results broadly hold with a series of robustness tests that account for differential attrition. We find increased parental engagement in their child’s education and more accurate parent perceptions of their child’s learning. In a second wave of the trial, we provide targeted instruction, customizing text messages to the child’s learning level using data from the first wave. The low-tech interventions tested have immediate policy relevance and could have long-run implications for the role of technology and parents as substitutes or complements to the traditional education system.

Andrew Agyei-Holmes, Niklas Buehren, Markus Goldstein, Robert Osei, Isaac Osei-Akoto, and Christopher Udry. 2020. “The Effects of Land Title Registration on Tenure Security, Investment and the Allocation of Productive Resources: Evidence from Ghana.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 9376.

Smallholder farmers’ investment decisions and the efficiency of resource allocation depend on the security of land tenure. This paper develops a simple model that captures essential institutional features of rural land markets in Ghana, including the dependence of future rights over land on current cultivation and land rental decisions. The model predictions guide the evaluation of a pilot land titling intervention that took place in an urbanizing area located in the Central Region of Ghana. The evaluation is based on a regression discontinuity design combined with three rounds of household survey data collected over a period of six years. The analysis finds strong markers for the program’s success in registering land in the targeted program area. However, land registration does not translate into agricultural investments or increased credit taking. Instead, treated households decrease their amount of agricultural labor, accompanied by only a small reduction of agricultural production and no changes in productivity. In line with this result, households decrease their landholdings amid a surge in land valuations. The analysis uncovers important within-household differences in how women and men respond differentially to the program. There appears to be a general shift to nonfarm economic activities, and women’s business profits increased considerably.

Nico Ravanilla, Dotan Haim, and Allen Hicken. 2020. “Brokers, Social Networks, Reciprocity, and Clientelism.” Working paper.

Although canonical models of clientelism argue that brokers use dense social networks to monitor and enforce vote buying, recent evidence suggests that brokers can instead target intrinsically reciprocal voters and reduce the need for active monitoring
and enforcement. Combining a trove of survey data on brokers and voters in the Philippines with an experiment-based measure of reciprocity, and relying on local naming conventions to build social networks, we demonstrate that brokers employ both strategies conditional on the underlying social network structure. We show that brokers are chosen for their central position in networks and are knowledgeable about voters, including their reciprocity levels. We then show that, where village social networks are dense, brokers prefer to target voters that have many ties in the network because their votes are easiest to monitor. Where networks are sparse, brokers target intrinsically reciprocal voters whose behavior they need not monitor.

Elena Gadjanova. 2020. “Status-quo or Grievance Coalitions: The Logic of Cross-ethnic Campaign Appeals in Africa’s Highly Diverse States.” Comparative Political Studies.

This paper explains how presidential candidates in Africa’s highly diverse states appeal across ethnic lines when ethnic identities are salient, but broader support is needed to win elections. I argue that election campaigns are much more bottom-up and salience-oriented than current theories allow and draw on the analysis of custom data of campaign appeals in Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, as well as interviews with party strategists and campaign operatives in Ghana and Kenya to demonstrate clear patterns in presidential candidates’ cross-ethnic outreach. Where ethnic salience is high, incumbents offer material incentives and targeted transfers to placate supporters, challengers fan grievances to split incumbents’ coalitions, and also-rans stress unity and valence issues in the hope of joining the winner. The research contributes to our understanding of parties’ mobilization strategies in Africa and further clarifies where and how ethnic divisions are politicized in elections in plural societies.

Obie Porteous. 2020. “Research Deserts and Oases: Evidence from 27 Thousand Economics Journal Articles on Africa.” Working paper.

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen an increasing number of peer- reviewed journal articles on the 54 countries of Africa by both African and non-African economists. I document that the distribution of research across African countries is highly uneven: 45% of all economics journal articles and 65% of articles in the top five economics journals are about five countries accounting for just 16% of the continent’s population. I show that 91% of the variation in the number of articles across countries can be explained by a peacefulness index, the number of international tourist arrivals, having English as an official language, and population. The majority of research is context-specific, so the continued lack of research on many African countries means that the evidence base for local policy-makers is much smaller in these countries.


Africa Update for February 2020

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update!  We’ve got 1.4 million resumes to review in Nigeria, the (possible) end of tsetse flies, Kenya’s first online archive of LGBT+ life, anti-colonial acronyms, and more.

West Africa: Ghana is trying to raise US$3 billion in investment with a new bond targeted at the diaspora.  Unfortunately that money might go to vanity projects like replacing all of the country’s still-functional electronic voting machines. Burkina Faso is taking a big gamble in arming local vigilantes to fight Islamic rebel groups. Unemployment is a serious problem in Nigeria, where 1.4 million people recently applied for 5000 civil defense jobs.

Central Africa:  Rwanda is still trying to make English the official language used in schools, despite rich evidence that students learn best in the language they speak at home.  Rwanda is also locking up and abusing children living on the streets in the name of “rehabilitation.”  Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza isn’t running for president again in the next elections, but he is getting a golden parachute with a lifetime salary and a luxury villa after stepping down.

orthodox christmas
Loved this beautiful photo of an Ethiopian Christmas celebration, via Girma Berta

East Africa: Sudan is opening up its gold market and doubling civil servant salaries while slashing fuel subsidies in an attempt to jump-start its moribund economy.  Check out this a great cartoon about the upsides and downsides of urbanization in Ethiopia.  In Kenya, gambling is increasingly seen as a chance to learn a livelihood outside of state-funded patronage networks.  Kenya’s foreign policy towards Somalia has grown increasingly bellicose over recent years.  This was a heartbreaking piece about the civilians killed by US airstrikes in Somalia.

Southern Africa: A new law means that South Africa can block refugees from seeking asylum if they engage in political activism in their home countries.  Meet the activists fighting for the rights of domestic workers in South Africa.  In Lesotho, the prime minister has resigned after evidence came out that his current wife may have had his ex-wife murdered so that she could be the official First Lady.  The billionaire Zimbabwean owner of Econet is paying the country’s striking doctors to return to work out of his own pocket.  Zimbabwe has run out of money to deport undocumented immigrants, leaving many of them languishing in jail for months.  In a landmark ruling, the high court in Malawi has ordered the country to re-run its recent election.

taxes
Tax revenues are quite low in many African countries compared to the OECD average of 34% of GDP (via The Economist)

Politics & economics: Check out this interactive map of upcoming elections across Africa.  Here’s a good summary of the political history of African states before colonization.  What are some reasons to be optimistic about economic growth and life expectancy in Africa?  This is some useful background on West African countries’ plan to replace the CFA currency with the eco.  As transport routes with China are shut due to coronavirus fears, many Ugandan traders are also facing shortages of imported goods.

Environment & resources: Climate change is almost uniformly a bad thing, but one possible exception is that rising temperatures might kill off the tsetse fly and end the spread of sleeping sickness across Africa.  In Uganda, people in gold mining communities are being poisoned by the mercury used to refine the gold.  The DRC’s long-delayed Inga III mega-dam project has just been pushed further down the road with disputes among the major contractors about the dam’s design.

research
Research interlude: here’s some interesting data from Joy Owango

Health:  A new study in Liberia finds that motorcycles are still more efficient than drones for transporting medical supplies.  In Zambia, rates of stroke are rising as the population ages, but there are only five neurologists being trained to deal with this.  Meet the researchers who are coordinating the African fight against coronavirus at the Institut Pasteur in Senegal. This Nigeria researcher is working to develop anti-cancer drugs from indigenous African plants.

Gender: Meet 14 inspiring women in science from across Africa.  What can African governments do to reduce the burden of unpaid care work for women and girls?  Women who run for political office in Uganda can increasingly expect to face online harassment from men.  In Tanzania, women often don’t ask to use contraception because they feel that their husbands won’t approve.  Climate change might increase the risk of premature births in countries like the Gambia, where many women are subsistence farmers who work outside all day and can’t avoid increased temperatures.

colonization
BRB, ROFL, SMH (via Suhayl)

Globalization:  The Oxford English Dictionary is adding dozens of words from Nigerian English in recognition of the language’s global use.  Here’s how American consulting firms helped Angola’s Isabel dos Santos try to legitimize the money her family had corruptly acquired.  Meet the Soviet-era architects who shaped the visual landscapes of Accra and Lagos.  Read about the 10 critical issues which will shape China-Africa relations in 2020.  Here’s why the Gambian Minister of Justice sued Myanmar at the ICC to force the country to stop persecuting the Rohingya.

Culture: Check out KumbuKumbu, the first online archive of LGBT+ life in Kenya.  What are the top 10 things to know about getting young Kenyans engaged in politics?  This was a lovely essay about polychronic time-keeping and food in South Africa.  Meet the first professor with a PhD in African indigenous astronomy.  I can’t wait to watch the Netflix adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy!

Africa Update for November 2019

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update.  We’ve got a new metro system in Abidjan, culinary imperialism in Kenya, plans to refill Lake Chad with a giant canal, how hospitals in Malawi are getting men to do more housework, and more.

A view of Nairobi with Karura Forest in the foreground

A stunning view of Nairobi, via Kenyapics

West Africa: Follow 5 young Nigerian journalists as they travel across 14 West African countries along the Jollof Road.  In Nigeria, former members of Boko Haram and ISIS trafficking survivors have found it very difficult to re-integrate into civilian society.  Hundreds of children, some as young as 5, have been arrested by the Nigerian police on suspicion of involvement with Boko Haram.  Abidjan is getting a metro system.  A new policy that lets cocoa farmers plant in “degraded” forests could lead to widespread deforestation in Côte d’Ivoire.  This is a great resource on the history of West Africa at a glance.

Central Africa:  This was a thoughtful piece about breaking the cycle of motorcycle theft and violent retribution in the CAR.  Members of opposition parties are regularly being killed in Rwanda, although no one wants to point a finger directly at the government.  Rwanda is also getting a new nuclear research reactor with support from Russia.  The Uganda Law Society has released a new app meant to connect women and girls to legal advice.  LGBT+ rights are under threat again in Uganda, with discussion of another law to make gay sex punishable by death.  Check out this incredible mixed media piece about one family’s experience becoming refugees after the Congo Wars of the 1990s.

A cartoon showing a Chinese dragon scaring the crane and impala away from the Ugandan national crest

Here’s Atukwasize ChrisOgon‘s take on Chinese investment in Uganda

East Africa: In Kenya, the urban middle class is increasingly turning to “telephone farming” to diversify their income streams.  Here’s a wonderful piece about khat and precolonial cuisine in Kenya.  See also this piece about the history of culinary imperialism in Kenya.  Meet the the Jehovah’s Witnesses targeting Chinese immigrants in Kenya.  This is a good overview of Ethiopia’s complicated ethnic and regional politics.  There’s an ambitious plan to refill Lake Chad by piping water in from the DRC via the CAR.

Southern Africa: A novel campaign strategy has been spotted in Botswana, where the opposition handed out menstrual pads with the party logo on them.  This was a heartbreaking piece about sexual violence in South Africa and the #AmINext movement.  Check out this photo essay on the mine-clearing women of Angola.  Here’s an insightful long read about what really happened to the billions of dollars that were to be spent on Angola’s post-war reconstruction.  Why is Zambia planning to finance almost 10% of its 2020 budget through a mysterious “exceptional revenue” source?

Sunset on a beach, with a boat and a person in the foreground

Kismayo sunset, by Said Fadhaye

Gender: Meet Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the first female mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone.  Roughly 1/3 of African businesses have no women on their boards, and another 1/ 3 have only one woman.  In Malawi, a program which gives pregnant women housing close to hospitals before they deliver their babies has increased their husbands’ housework commitments while they’re away.  This is a remarkable portrait of three generations of women who have stood up to dictatorship in Sudan.  Kenya’s Gladys Ngetich is breaking barriers about women in STEM with her PhD on improving the efficiency of jet engines.

Business: This is a must-read piece on the political economy of foreign start-ups in Kenya.  Orange is developing a new feature phone for the African market which includes social media apps.  Uber is launching boat taxis in Lagos.  Africa has 15% of the world’s population, but fully 45% of the world’s mobile money activity.  African cosmetics companies are getting acquired by international corporations which want to offer better products for black skin and hair.  Check out my Mawazo co-founder Rose Mutiso’s TED talk on how to bring affordable electricity to Africa.

Maps showing that there appears to be much more poverty in Africa when it's measured at the district level rather than the country level

The geographic distribution of wealth in Africa looks very different depending on whether it’s measured at the country, province, or district level (via Marshall Burke)

Politics:  Africa Check has a great Promise Trackers page checking on the campaign promises of ruling parties in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.  In many African countries, political parties aren’t obliged to disclose private donations, in an area ripe for campaign finance reform.  In Ghana, the “I Am Aware” project successfully helped people push their local governments to improve the quality of public services like sanitation.  More than 45% of African citizens live in a country where the last census was done more than 10 years ago.  It turns out that most of Africa’s “civil wars” are actually regional wars.

Public health: Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe of the DRC discovered Ebola in the 1970s, but has been largely written out of the historical record, until now.  Check out this incredible photo essay about Ebola first responders in eastern DRC. Also in the DRC, snakebites are an underdiscussed public health crisis. A new study finds that more than 40% of women are verbally or physically abused while giving birth in Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria.  Here’s how toxic masculinity can lead to the spread of HIV in Uganda.

A colorful portrait of a man and a woman on a red and pink printed background

Don’t miss Bisa Butler’s inspiring portraits of Black Americans done in African fabrics

Art + culture: A Togolese vintage clothing dealer is making waves in France by re-importing cast-off clothing previously sent to Togo.  Meet Kenyan sculptor Wangechi Mutu, who’s taking over the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until January 2020.  What can be done about the spike in fake South African art?  Check out the first print issue of Cameroon-based Bawka Magazine, about travel stories.  Let’s celebrate these six inspiring young climate activists from low income countries, including Kenya and Uganda.  Learn about all the unusual ways that African countries got their names.  Here are the rising female artists of Kampala.

Fall 2019 conference updates

Here are some of the interesting papers I saw at this fall’s recent conferences.APSA-Logo-2015Carl Müller-Crepon.  “State Reach and Development in Africa, 1965-2015.

The colonial making of African states’ geographies has limited their reach and caused currently low levels of development on the continent. However prominent this argument, no comprehensive data on local state reach and its evolution exists to date. This limits our understanding of the impact of changes in state reach on local development. I measure African states’ reach with travel times from cells on a continuous grid to their administrative capitals. Travel times are computed on the basis of a time-varying digital atlas of roads and national and regional governance units (1965–2015). With these data, I estimate the effect of changes in state reach on local education and infant mortality rates. Within the same location, both improve as travel times to its capitals, in particular the national capital, decrease. Coupled with simulations of counterfactual administrative geographies, the results show that the design of colonial borders and capitals curbed development, in particular in densely populated areas that are currently far away from their capitals.

Melanie Phillips, Leonardo Arriola, Danny Choi, Justine Davis, and Lise Rakner. “The Silent Crisis: Attitudes of Political Elites Toward Abortion in Zambia.”

Legal frameworks are recognized as vital for securing the right to health, however, the relationship between the law and access to safe abortion services is complex. Zambia’s Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1972 permits pregnancy termination on health and other socio-economic grounds. Despite this relatively permissive environment, safe abortion services are not widely available in Zambia, forcing many women to seek unsafe abortions. While the study of abortion is extensive and touches many aspects of social science, little quantitative work has been done in Africa on one of the few actors that can influence abortion legally, culturally, and economically: members of the national and local legislatures. Therefore, in order to understand the disconnect between the liberal abortion policy in the law and the reality of unsafe abortions on the ground, we investigate the overall policy preferences and attitudes towards abortion among candidates for political office. Further, we test the malleability of these preferences in the face of different framings. The main finding presented in this paper is that women candidates are significantly different from men in favoring more liberal abortion policy. This finding is supported by results of a survey experiment that we conducted on political candidates at both the ward and parliamentary level in Zambia. The survey was in the field from March to June 2017 and the final sample was 429 ward candidates and 219 parliamentary candidates. The survey experiment used a vignette design, in addition to a series of descriptive questions, in order to understand how the framing of abortion can affect opinions on liberalizing abortion policies in the country. This finding further emphasizes the importance of increasing the number of women in political office, as they are more likely to promote liberal abortion policy and overall acceptance that may work to remedy the disconnect between the law and reality.

Caroline Brandt. “Divide and Conquer: Exclusive Peace Agreements in Multiparty Conflicts.

Present scholarship dichotomizes rebel group behavior as either at peace or in conflict with the state, obscuring a wide range of possible conflict and post-conflict relationships between governments and insurgent groups. Scholarship on rebel against rebel violence often prematurely truncates the window of observation as groups exit datasets once a rebel group ceases armed conflict against the state. My research shows how the formal integration of rebel groups into the armed forces provides clarity and commitment devises that facilitate rebel groups joining in offensives against the remaining insurgent threat. How combatants are integrated into the military also influences whether rebels join in counterinsurgency activity. Combatants are most likely to attack other insurgent groups when rebel groups are integrated into the armed forces but allowed to maintain their original organizational structure by serving in separate military units.

David Peyton. “The Politics of Property Defense in Eastern Congo’s Urban Centers.”

Conflict has driven urban growth and produced some of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most dynamic real estate markets. Over the course of the Congo Wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2003) and subsequent insurgencies (2003-present), eastern Congo’s urban populations and built environments increased dramatically. In this environment of demographic and spatial augmentation, property owners faced complex and often difficult choices about defending an increasingly valuable asset: urban real estate. This paper looks at the diversity of property protection strategies that emerged during this period of uncertainty and the primary causes of variation between them. In particular, it assesses the extent to which property owners solicited support from civic associations to guard against expropriation. Why did some property owners use the support of religious networks, ethnic associations, and neighborhood groups to secure their land rights and settle disputes, while others sought to work through the state’s land tenure apparatus? Based on interview and focus group data collected in eastern Congo, this paper argues that property protection strategies provide important clues about how conflict-affected populations cope with insecurity and advance their micro-level economic interests. These interactions shape the de facto institutional environment and, importantly, condition the population’s embrace or avoidance of the local state.

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Alesha Porisky. “The state at the margins: The impact of cash transfer programmes on citizen-state relations in rural Kenya and Tanzania.”

Similar cash transfer programmes have had profoundly different effects on the perception and practice of citizenship as a result of divergent post-colonial nation-building strategies in Kenya and Tanzania. In Tanzania, the post-colonial nation-building project constructed a cohesive national identity and made possible a cohesive and duty-based conception of citizenship that is deeply rooted in perceptions of a singular national community and norms of reciprocity. The introduction of means-tested cash transfer programmes in Tanzania, then, did not challenge commonly-held understandings of citizenship and of the state’s role vis-à-vis the citizen. In contrast, in Kenya, the post-colonial era was marked by the distribution of state resources through patronage networks, exclusionary economic and political policies that discriminated based on ethnicity and an absence of a central unifying nation-building project. This fostered an exclusive, entitlement-based conception of citizenship, which is directly tied to the individual and their relationship to various patrons. The introduction of cash transfer programmes, which are distributed based on need rather than patronage, has led to a gradual reconceptualization of citizenship towards one rooted in reciprocal rights and duties.

Niheer Dasandi, Ed Laws, Heather Marquette, and Mark Robinson. “What Does the Evidence Tell Us about ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ in Development Assistance?

This article provides a critical review of the evidence on ‘thinking and working politically’ (TWP) in development. Scholars and practitioners have increasingly recognised that development is a fundamentally political process, and there are concerted efforts underway to develop more politically-informed and adaptive ways of thinking and working in providing development assistance. However, while there are interesting and engaging case studies in the emerging, largely practitioner-based literature, these do not yet constitute a strong evidence base that shows these efforts can be clearly linked to more effective aid programming. Much of the evidence used so far to support these approaches is anecdotal, does not meet high standards for a robust body of evidence, is not comparative and draws on a small number of self-selected, relatively well-known success stories written primarily by programme insiders. The article discusses the factors identified in the TWP literature that are said to enable politically-informed programmes to increase aid effectiveness. It then looks at the state of the evidence on TWP in three areas: political context, sector, and organisation. The aim is to show where research efforts have been targeted so far and to provide guidance on where the field might focus next. In the final section, the article outlines some ways of testing the core assumptions of the TWP agenda more thoroughly, to provide a clearer sense of the contribution it can make to aid effectiveness.

Nabila Idris. “The politics of excluding labour from Bangladesh’s social protection design.”  

[This one isn’t online yet, but it was a fascinating discussion about how many MPs in Bangladesh are business owners, and pushed to exclude workers from access to social safety nets, which would reduce their power over the workers.]

The logo of the African Studies Association of Africa, showing the continent with a rainbow of colors through it

Robtel Neajai Pailey. “Decolonising Africa and African Studies Must Go Hand in Hand.”

The problem with this 21st-century “scholarly decolonial turn” is that it remains largely detached from the day-to-day dilemmas of people in formerly colonised spaces and places…  “Epistemic decolonisation” cannot succeed unless it is bound to and supportive of contemporary liberation struggles against inequality, racism, austerity, patriarchy, autocracy, homophobia, xenophobia, ecological damage, militarisation, impunity, corruption, media muzzling and land grabbing.

Linet Juma. “‘Data for Development’: Querying the role of Open Data in Kenya’s National Development.”

[This isn’t online yet, but it was a very interesting discussion about the state of open data in Kenya, based on research done by the Local Development Research Institute in Nairobi.  Check out more of their work on gender and open data in Africa, and the state of open data in Kenya.]

 

Interesting academic articles for October 2019

Ok, I’ve concluded that I’m not very good at not-blogging!  There are lots of interesting articles that I wanted to share in a format beyond Twitter.  So I suppose I’m off hiatus for the time being.

With that, here’s what I’m looking forward to reading this month.

Rose MbayeRedeat GebeyehuStefanie HossmannNicole MbargaEstella Bih-NehLucrece EtekiOhene-Agyei ThelmaAbiodun OyerindeGift KitiYvonne MburuJessica HabererMark SiednerIruka Okeke, and Yap Boum.  2019. Who is telling the story? A systematic review of authorship for infectious disease research conducted in Africa, 1980–2016.”  BMJ Global Health.

Africa contributes little to the biomedical literature despite its high burden of infectious diseases. Global health research partnerships aimed at addressing Africa-endemic disease may be polarised. Therefore, we assessed the contribution of researchers in Africa to research on six infectious diseases.  We reviewed publications on HIV and malaria (2013–2016), tuberculosis (2014–2016), salmonellosis, Ebola haemorrhagic fever and Buruli ulcer disease (1980–2016) conducted in Africa and indexed in the PubMed database using Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses protocol. Papers reporting original research done in Africa with at least one laboratory test performed on biological samples were included. We studied African author proportion and placement per study type, disease, funding, study country and lingua franca. We included 1182 of 2871 retrieved articles that met the inclusion criteria. Of these, 1109 (93.2%) had at least one Africa-based author, 552 (49.8%) had an African first author and 41.3% (n=458) an African last author. Papers on salmonellosis and tuberculosis had a higher proportion of African last authors (p<0.001) compared with the other diseases. Most of African first and last authors had an affiliation from an Anglophone country. HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and Ebola had the most extramurally funded studies (≥70%), but less than 10% of the acknowledged funding was from an African funder. African researchers are under-represented in first and last authorship positions in papers published from research done in Africa. This calls for greater investment in capacity building and equitable research partnerships at every level of the global health community.

 Caroline Viola Fry.  2019.  “Building Bridges: The impact of return migration by African scientists.”  Job market paper.  

Despite significant interest in the potential for ‘returnee’ scientists moving back to developing countries to connect developed and developing countries, prior work has found limited evidence of success. I shift the focus to the broader network of the returnee, and study the extent to which the return home of Amerian-trained HIV researchers to African institutions impacts publication outcomes of non-migrant scientists in Africa. I find that following the arrival of a returnee in their institution, non-migrants experience increased productivity, mostly in HIV research. I find strong evidence that the mechanism driving this effect is that of the returnee providing a bridge to their central connections and subsequent knowledge and resources thus affecting outcomes. In settings where ‘outsiders’ struggle to access knowledge and resources that are usually reserved for exclusive ‘insiders’, this kind of bridge in the network can help through providing legitimacy to the outsiders. These findings inform a network perspective on the consequences of the mobility of skilled individuals, the development of national innovation ecosystems, and the globalization of knowledge production.

Norma Altshuler and Sarah Jane Staats.  2019.  “A New Look at Impact Evaluation Capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa.”  Hewlett Foundation Research Brief.*

Impact evaluation and other forms of research that have the potential to inform policy decisions are becoming more prominent in sub-Saharan Africa. Andwhile researchers working in their own countries bring contextual knowledge, relationships, and sustained attention that help ensure results are used in policy decisions, many research teams funded by donors do not include them in a meaningful way. This may be due to a common perception that there is a lack of qualified in-country researchers. The results of this study, conducted by Yvonne Erasmus and Sunet Jordaan at the Africa Centre for Evidence, show that perception is mistaken. The study found 1,520 African researchers with African affiliations had authored at least one impact evaluation. These researchers, many of whom were trained at elite U.S. and European institutions, represented 34 different African countries. This brief highlights the study’s high level findings and offers recommendations for leveraging—and building on—existing capacities.

*Full disclosure: the Mawazo Institute is currently in talks with Hewlett about funding.

Susanna B. Berkouwer and Joshua T. Dean.  2019.  “Credit and attention in the adoption of profitable energy efficient technologies in Kenya.”  Job market paper.  

What roles do credit constraints and inattention play in the under-adoption of high return technologies? We study this question in the case of energy efficient cookstoves in Nairobi. Using a randomized field experiment with 1,000 households we find that the technology has very high returns—we estimate an average rate of return of 300% and savings of $120 per year in fuel costs, around one month of income. In spite of this, adoption rates are inefficiently low. Using a Becker-DeGroot-Marschak mechanism we find that average willingness-to-pay (WTP) is only $12. To investigate what drives this puzzling pattern, we cross-randomize access to credit with an intervention designed to increase attention to the costs and the benefits of adoption. Our first main finding is that credit doubles WTP and closes the energy efficiency gap. Second, credit works in part through psychological channels: around one third of the impact of credit is caused by inattention to future costs. We find no evidence of inattention to energy savings. These findings have implications for second-best regulation of pollution externalities using taxes and subsidies. In the presence of credit constraints, Pigovian taxation alone may no longer be the optimal policy. Factoring in financial savings and avoided environmental damages we estimate that a subsidy on the energy efficient technology would have a marginal value of public funds of $19 per $1 spent.

Valerie Mueller, Clark Gray, Sudhanshu Handa, and David Seidenfeld.  2019.  “Do social protection programs foster short-term and long-term migration adaptation strategies?”  Environment and Development Economics.

We examine how migration is influenced by temperature and precipitation variability, and the extent to which the receipt of a cash transfer affects the use of migration as an adaptation strategy. Climate data is merged with georeferenced panel data (2010–2014) on individual migration collected from the Zambian Child Grant Program (CGP) sites. We use the person-year dataset to identify the direct and heterogeneous causal effects of the CGP on mobility. Having access to cash transfers doubles the rate of male, short-distance moves during cool periods, irrespective of wealth. Receipt of cash transfers (among wealthier households) during extreme heat causes an additional retention of males. Cash transfers positively spur long-distance migration under normal climate conditions in the long term. They also facilitate short-distance responses to climate, but not long-distance responses that might be demanded by future climate change.

Kristina M. Bott, Alexander W. Cappelen, Erik Ø. Sørensen, and Bertil Tungodden.  2019. “You’ve Got Mail: A Randomized Field Experiment on Tax Evasion.”  Management Science.

We report from a large-scale randomized field experiment conducted on a unique sample of more than 15,000 taxpayers in Norway who were likely to have misreported their foreign income. By randomly manipulating a letter from the tax authorities, we cleanly identify that moral suasion and the perceived detection probability play a crucial role in shaping taxpayer behavior. The moral letter mainly works on the intensive margin, while the detection letter has a strong effect on the extensive margin. We further show that only the detection letter has long-term effects on tax compliance.

William N. Evans, David C. Philips, and Krista J. Ruffini.  2019.  “Reducing and Preventing Homelessness: A Review of the Evidence and Charting a Research Agenda.”  NBER Working Paper No. 26232.

Homelessness may be both a cause of and one of the more extreme outcomes of poverty. Governments at all levels have a variety of tools to combat homelessness, and these strategies have changed dramatically over the past quarter century. In this paper, we catalog the policy responses, the existing literature on the effectiveness of these strategies, and the major gaps that need to be addressed in future research. We focus on studies from randomized controlled trial evaluations and the best quasi-experimental designs, and discuss outstanding questions that can be addressed with these same methods.

Rosangela Bando, Emma Näslund-Hadley, and Paul Gertler.  2019.  “Effect of Inquiry and Problem Based Pedagogy on Learning: Evidence from 10 Field Experiments in Four Countries.”  NBER Working Paper No. 26280.

This paper uses data from 10 at-scale field experiments in four countries to estimate the effect of inquiry- and problem-based pedagogy (IPP) on students’ mathematics and science test scores. IPP creates active problem-solving opportunities in settings that provide meaning to the child. Students learn by collaboratively solving real-life problems, developing explanations, and communicating ideas. Using individual-level data on 17,006 students, the analysis finds that after seven months IPP increased mathematics and science scores by 0.18 and 0.14 standard deviations, respectively, and by 0.39 and 0.23 standard deviations, respectively, after four years. We also identify important gender learning gaps with boys benefiting substantially more than girls. Our approach not only provides strong causal evidence, but also high external validity. These 10 experiments in four countries allow us to examine the effects of IPP across a wide set of geographic, socioeconomic, teacher background, and age/grade contexts (i.e., preschool and third and fourth grades). The results prove to be robust across these different contexts. The 10 RCTs were registered in the American Economic Association Registry for randomized control trials. See the supplementary materials for trial numbers.

Omar Al-UbaydliMin Sok LeeJohn ListClaire L. Mackevicius, and Dana Suskind.  2019.  “How Can Experiments Play a Greater Role in Public Policy? 12 Proposals from an Economic Model of Scaling.”  Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago.   Working paper.

Policymakers are increasingly turning to insights gained from the experimental method as a means to inform large scale public policies. Critics view this increased usage as premature, pointing to the fact that many experimentally-tested programs fail to deliver their promise at scale. Under this view, the experimental approach drives too much public policy. Yet, if policymakers could be more confident that the original research findings would be delivered at scale, even the staunchest critics would carve out a larger role for experiments to inform policy. Leveraging the economic framework of Al-Ubaydli et al. (2019), we put forward 12 simple proposals, spanning researchers, policymakers, funders, and stakeholders, which together tackle the most vexing scalability threats. The framework highlights that only after we deepen our understanding of the scale up problem will we be on solid ground to argue that scientific experiments should hold a more prominent place in the policymaker’s quiver.