Interesting academic articles for January 2020

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

Shelby Grossman.  2019.  “The Politics of Order in Informal Markets: Evidence from Lagos.”  World Politics.

Property rights are important for economic exchange, but in many parts of the world, they are not publicly guaranteed. Private market associations can fill this gap by providing an institutional structure to enforce agreements, but with this power comes the ability to extort from group members. Under what circumstances do private associations provide a stable environment for economic activity? The author uses survey data collected from 1,179 randomly sampled traders across 199 markets in Lagos, Nigeria, and finds that markets maintain institutions to support trade not in the absence of government, but rather in response to active government interference. The author argues that associations develop protrade policies when threatened by politicians they perceive to be predatory and when the organizations can respond with threats of their own. The latter is easier when traders are not competing with one another. To maintain this balance of power, an association will not extort; it needs trader support to maintain the credibility of its threats to mobilize against predatory politicians.

Sabrina Karim.  2020.  “Relational State Building in Areas of Limited Statehood: Experimental Evidence on the Attitudes of the Police.”  American Political Science Review.  

Under what conditions does state expansion into limited statehood areas improve perceptions of state authority? Although previous work emphasizes identity or institutional sources of state legitimacy, I argue that relationships between state agents and citizens drive positive attitude formation, because these relationships provide information and facilitate social bonds. Moreover, when state agents and citizens share demographic characteristics, perceptional effects may improve. Finally, citizens finding procedural interactions between state agents and citizens unfair may adopt negative views about the state. I test these three propositions by randomizing household visits by male or female police officers in rural Liberia. These visits facilitated relationship building, leading to improved perceptions of police; shared demographic characteristics between police and citizens did not strengthen this effect. Perceptions of unfairness in the randomization led to negative opinions about police. The results imply that relationship building between state agents and citizens is an important part of state building.

Sarah Brierley.  2019.  “Unprincipled Principals: Co-opted Bureaucrats and Corruption in Ghana.”  American Journal of Political Science.

In theory, granting politicians tools to oversee bureaucrats can reduce administrative malfeasance. In contrast, I argue that the political control of bureaucrats can increase corruption when politicians need money to fund election campaigns and face limited institutional constraints. In such contexts, politicians can leverage their discretionary powers to incentivize bureaucrats to extract rents from the state on politicians’ behalf. Using data from an original survey of bureaucrats (N = 864) across 80 randomly sampled local governments in Ghana, I show that bureaucrats are more likely to facilitate politicians’ corrupt behavior when politicians are perceived to be empowered with higher levels of discretionary control. Using qualitative data and a list experiment to demonstrate the mechanism, I show that politicians enact corruption by threatening to transfer noncompliant officers. My findings provide new evidence on the sources of public administrative deficiencies in developing countries and qualify the presumption that greater political oversight improves governance.

Raúl Sánchez de la Sierra.  2019.  “On the Origins of the State: Stationary Bandits and Taxation in Eastern Congo.”  Journal of Political Economy.

A positive demand shock for coltan, a mineral whose bulky output cannot be concealed, leads armed actors to create illicit customs and provide protection at coltan mines, where they settle as “stationary bandits.” A similar shock for gold, easy to conceal, leads to stationary bandits in the villages where income from gold is spent, where they introduce illicit mining visas, taxes, and administrations. Having a stationary bandit from a militia or the Congolese army increases welfare. These findings suggest that armed actors may create “essential functions of a state” to better expropriate, which, depending on their goals, can increase welfare.

Pedro Carneiro, Lucy Kraftman, Giacomo Mason, Lucie Moore, Imran Rasul, and Molly Scott.  2019.  The Impacts of a Multifaceted Pre-natal Intervention on Human Capital Accumulation in Early Life.”  Working paper.

We present results from a large-scale and long-term randomized control trial to evaluate an intervention targeting early life nutrition and well-being for households residing in extreme poverty in Northern Nigeria. The multifaceted intervention provides: (i) information to mothers and fathers on practices related to pregnancy and infant feeding; (ii) high-valued unconditional cash transfers to mothers, each month from pregnancy until the child turns two. We document two- and four-year impacts among 3600 pregnant women and their children. The intervention leads to large and sustained improvements in anthropometric and health outcomes for children, including an 8% reduction in stunting by endline. These impacts are partly driven by information-related channels (such as improved knowledge, practices and health behaviors of mothers towards new borns). However, the value and certain flow of cash transfers is also key: these induce labor supply responses among women, and allow them to undertake investments in livestock. These are both a source of protein rich diets for children, and generate higher earnings streams for households long after the cash transfers expire. The results show the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of scalable multifaceted pre-natal interventions in even the most challenging and food insecure economic environments.

Kanika Jha Kingra, Francis Rathinam, Tony Tyrrell, and Marie Gaarder.  2019. Social protection: a synthesis of evidence and lessons from 3ie evidence-supported impact evaluations.”  3ie working paper #34.

The paper synthesises evidence from evaluation of transfer programmes in Ecuador, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe and from public works programmes in Ethiopia and India.  [Key findings include the following.] Cash versus in-kind or food transfers and conditional versus unconditional transfers are issues of extensive debate amongst implementers of social protection programmes. Transfers can positively affect non-beneficiaries and the wider economy. Information on cost-benefit remains a gnawing gap. Analysis of gendered outcomes remains limited.

The 25 best longform articles of 2019

A drawing of a rocket with the text "top reader, one percent" next to it, and the text "you're a top reader" below it
A snapshot of my year in Pocket

Here’s my annual round-up of the year’s best articles!  If you’d like to read more articles like these, come follow me on Pocket where I share the most interesting things I read throughout the year.  (Previously: best of 2018, 2017, 2016.)

White Words.  Popula.  “At the same time, ‘did you know that the Hopi only have one word for flying things?’ never became a thing either, nor did ‘did you know that the Aztecs, etc.’ And the reason is pretty random, basically; as Martin shows, ‘Eskimos have fifty words for snow’ became a thing because that particular example was taken in isolation: it was cut out of Whorf’s article and propagated through a series of textbooks that were much sloppier than Whorf, from whence it has gone on to become an exotic story about an exotic people.”

How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger.  NPR.  The culture views scolding — or even speaking to children in an angry voice — as inappropriate, says Lisa Ipeelie, a radio producer and mom who grew up with 12 siblings. ‘When they’re little, it doesn’t help to raise your voice,’ she says. ‘It will just make your own heart rate go up… With little kids, you often think they’re pushing your buttons, but that’s not what’s going on. They’re upset about something, and you have to figure out what it is.'”

US Workers Are Paying High Taxes. But Without Any of the Benefits.  Jacobin.  “The OECD may not be able to include employer-based health insurance premiums into its model, but I certainly can. And when I add them into the OECD model, I find that the average American worker has one of the highest compulsory payment rates in the developed world.”

How ICE Picks Its Targets in the Surveillance Age.  New York Times.  “The winter after Donald Trump was elected president, strangers began appearing in a parking lot on southern Washington State’s Long Beach Peninsula, at the port where the oyster boats come and go. Rather than gaze at the bay or the boats or the building-size piles of bleached shells, two men — one thinner, one thicker — stared at the shellfish workers. The strangers sat in their vehicle and watched the workers arrive in their trucks. They watched the workers grab their gear and walk to the docks. The workers watched them watching, too, and they soon began to realize that the men were from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When the workers made eye contact, the officers nodded politely, but they said very little. For weeks, they just watched. Then the workers began to vanish.”

Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts.  Emergence Magazine.  “My grandfather raised pigs and cured hams that hung from the rafters in the smokehouse. My grandmother was a domestic worker. She cleaned houses for white folks. Before and after she went to work, she fetched water from the well. She slopped the hogs. Canned vegetables and stored them in the cellar. Fed chickens. Milked cows. Shucked corn. Sewed clothes for herself and me. Quilted. But still there were always three meals on the table. Precise. Orderly. Delicious.”

Dial Up!  The Verge.  “Participation is what keeps Hmong conference line radio alive. A caller dials the conference call number, usually shared through word of mouth or on Facebook groups. The lines have hourly programming and themes: call in the afternoon, and you might find someone singing traditional Hmong folk songs. In the evening, maybe it’s business advice from Hmong entrepreneurs. Whatever the topic, the shows are all in Hmong, a key factor that’s both unique to the medium and essential for its survival. An oral culture for much of their history, the Hmong did not have a written language until the 1950s, and only 40 percent of foreign-born Hmong Americans were English-proficient as of 2015.”

Yaa Naa Rides to Yani: A Saga of Restoration.  The Scarab.  “The Asantehene intentionally invoked the ancient tributary treaty by referring to certain Dagbon royals as his ‘children’. This was obviously provocative, considering that Dagbon is nearly 300 years older than Asante, but it was meant to play back Manhyia’s ancient pact with Naa Ziblim and send coded messages to key actors within the Dagbon establishment: the steel axe is falling; realpolitik is here.”

Decolonizing Science Writing in South Africa.  The Open Notebook.  “In some respects, a fossil find was the perfect subject for my first foray into reporting in Zulu. That’s partly because South Africa is rich with paleontological finds and research. But also, paleontology is a storytelling science—one that lends itself to imaginative tales about origin and how things came to be. Such stories are a staple of Zulu culture. To Zulu speakers encountering dinosaurs through the lens of their native tongue for the first time, the ancient creatures seem like mythical beings straight out of a fireside folk tale.”

Bombay Nights.  Aeon.  “While workers fought battles against employers for a shorter workday, they were also attending night schools established in cooperation with social-reform organisations. As soon as the mills closed and the dusk descended, many workers turned into students. Though tired, many went straight to night school at 7pm, and spent two hours enjoying the pleasure of reading, listening to the teacher and holding a book. The night became reserved for aspiring.”

The Coming Fight for the Dalai Lama’s Soul.  Foreign Policy.  “That makes the next life of the Dalai Lama critical. Beijing claims that the Chinese government has the sole right to determine both whether the Dalai Lama, officially the 14th in an ancient spiritual lineage, will reincarnate and in whom he will reincarnate. This might seem a contradiction in terms for an atheist state, but it’s part of the messy legacy of China’s religious-imperial past under the Qing Dynasty. Since Beijing’s claim to Tibet rests largely on the Qing-era borders, picking the lamas ostensibly comes with the territory.”

Four is ForbiddenChinaFile.  “It was the first and last time I asked about June Fourth while in China. For a Chinese family like mine, politics and death were the two biggest taboos. Seven years later and 7,000 miles away, I finally understood the full meaning of the ominous phrase. Now, another decade has gone by since I moved to the U.S. Every time I see a mass demonstration take place, my mind rushes to that fateful night in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese government sent three hundred thousand regular troops with tanks and machine guns to crush a student-led pro-democracy protest. Born after the tragedy with no family members involved, I am nevertheless a child of Tiananmen, its aftermath shaping my life and education from the moment they began.”

Ghost Ships, Crop Circles, and Soft Gold: A GPS Mystery in Shanghai.  Technology Review.  “Nobody knows who is behind this spoofing, or what its ultimate purpose might be. These ships could be unwilling test subjects for a sophisticated electronic warfare system, or collateral damage in a conflict between environmental criminals and the Chinese state that has already claimed dozens of ships and lives. But one thing is for certain: there is an invisible electronic war over the future of navigation in Shanghai, and GPS is losing.”

The Strange Story of Hay Fever in Japan: Construction, Conspiracy Theories, Climate Change. Gaijinpot.  “Artificially planted cedar forests make up 18 percent of the nation’s forests, while artificial native cypress trees, or hinoki (檜), make up around 10 percent. The unluckiest cedar hayfever sufferers also develop an allergy to cypress pollen, too.  In 1964, Japan’s lumber market was opened to cheaper, foreign imports and consumption of domestic timber dropped from roughly 90 percent to less than 30 percent. Turnover of the trees slowed and vast areas of cedar were left to mature to around 30 years of age when they began to produce pollen – in vast amounts.”

It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel.  Wired.  “Nelson also points out that most astronauts have no prior experience relying on technology for their movement and lives, whereas people with disabilities do so every day. In a space suit, for a space walk, an astronaut has to be trained in how to move their body in unison with a piece of technology. They have to get used to the idea that, if that technology should fail, they could be in grave danger. This, again, is an experience people like Nelson live with every day. ‘I’m always moving my body in motion with another object. That’s all we do,’ Nelson says.”

Modern Waste is an Economic Strategy.  Discard Studies.  “In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, editor of Modern Packaging Inc., famously (and controversially at the time) declared: “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Stouffer’s idea addressed an emerging problem for industry. Products tended to be durable, easy to fix, and limited in variation (such as color or style). With this mode of design, markets were quickly saturating. Opportunities for growth, and thus profit, were rapidly diminishing, particularly after America’s Great Depression and the two World Wars, where an ethos of preservation, reuse, and frugality was cultivated. In response, industry intervened on a material level and developed disposability through planned obsolescence, single-use items, cheap materials, throw-away packaging, fashion, and conspicuous consumption. These changes were supported by a regimen of advertising that telegraphed industrial principals of value into the social realm, suggesting the difference between durable and disposable, esteemed and taboo. American industry designed a shift in values that circulated goods through, rather than into, the consumer realm. The truism that humans are inherently wasteful came into being at a particular time and place, by design.”

A 4-Year-Old Trapped in a Teenager’s Body.  The Cut.  “Having a mutant LHCGR gene leads to what doctors now call familial male-limited precocious puberty, an extremely rare disease that affects only men because you have to have testicles, which is why it’s also called testotoxicosis. The condition tricks the testicles into thinking the body is ready to go through puberty — so wham, the floodgates open and the body is saturated with testosterone. The result is premature everything: bone growth, muscle development, body hair, the full menu of dramatic physical changes that accompany puberty. Only instead of being 13, you’re 2.”

Ancient switch to soft food gave us an overbite—and the ability to pronounce ‘f’s and ‘v’s.  Science.  “Don’t like the F-word? Blame farmers and soft food. When humans switched to processed foods after the spread of agriculture, they put less wear and tear on their teeth. That changed the growth of their jaws, giving adults the overbites normal in children. Within a few thousand years, those slight overbites made it easy for people in farming cultures to fire off sounds like ‘f’ and ‘v,’ opening a world of new words.”

I Assure You, Medieval People Bathed.  Going Medieval.  “And yeah, some holy people didn’t bathe, notably saints who would forego bathing themselves but bathe sick or poor people. But if you bring that up you are missing the point. Medieval people thought that bathing and being clean was really nice, so giving it up and living with your stank was a sign that you had given up on the corporeal world and only thought of heaven. It was holy because it was uncomfortable, like wearing a hair shirt, or eating vegan, and hitting your chest with rocks and sitting in the desert trying not to wank. You know, standard saint stuff. It is mentioned because it is uncommon and uncomfortable.”

One Couple’s Tireless Crusade to Stop a Genetic Killer.  Wired.  “Within a few weeks of the diagnosis, Sonia had quit her job to study science full time, continuing classes at MIT during the day and enrolling in a night class in biology at Harvard’s extension school. The pair lived off savings and Eric’s salary. Sonia had expected to take a temporary sabbatical from her real life, but soon textbooks and academic articles weren’t enough. “The practice of science and the classroom version of science are such different animals,” Sonia says. She wanted to try her hand in the lab. She found a position as a technician with a research group focusing on Huntington’s disease. Eric, not wanting to be left behind, quit his job too and offered his data-­crunching expertise to a genetics lab. The deeper they dove into science, the more they began to fixate on finding a cure.”

Hyperinflation and Trust in Ancient Rome.  Notes on Liberty.  “Unlike modern economies, the Romans did not have paper money, and that meant that to ‘print’ money they had to debase their coins. The question of whether the emperor or his subjects understood the way that coins represented value went beyond the commodity value of the coins has been hotly debated in academic circles, and the debasement of the 3rd century may be the best ‘test’ of whether they understood value as commodity-based or as a representation of social trust in the issuing body and other users of the currency.”

Why Do so Many Egyptian Statues Have Broken Noses?  Artsy.  “‘The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job,’ Bleiberg explained. Without a nose, the statue-spirit ceases to breathe, so that the vandal is effectively ‘killing’ it. To hammer the ears off a statue of a god would make it unable to hear a prayer. In statues intended to show human beings making offerings to gods, the left arm—most commonly used to make offerings—is cut off so the statue’s function can’t be performed (the right hand is often found axed in statues receiving offerings)… Even if a petty tomb robber was mostly interested in stealing the precious objects, he was also concerned that the deceased person might take revenge if his rendered likeness wasn’t mutilated.”

The Kitenge Route: The Algorithms and Aesthetics of African Fabrics.  The Elephant.  “Depending on the origin, fabric and production process, ‘African fabric’ is not homogenous, but goes by many names and designs. Kitenge or chitenge is found in East and Central Africa, notably Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ankara is West African, but not quite exactly – the fabric we now know as Ankara finds its origins not in Africa but in Indonesia, where locals there had long created prints on fabric by using wax-resistant dyeing (batik). It was brought to West Africa by Dutch traders. Shweshwe is a printed cotton fabric design found in southern Africa, and traditionally was only produced in three colours – brown, red and blue. Baoule is a heavy, thick cloth from Côte d’Ivoire made of five-inch-wide strips of cloth woven together. And kente is that distinctive Ghanaian pattern made of strips of orange, yellow and green.”

Was Shakespeare a Woman?  The Atlantic.  “Bassano lived, Hudson points out, “an existence on the boundaries of many different social worlds,” encompassing the breadth of the Shakespeare canon: its coarse, low-class references and its intimate knowledge of the court; its Italian sources and its Jewish allusions; its music and its feminism. And her imprint, as Hudson reads the plays, extends over a long period. He notes the many uses of her name, citing several early on—for instance, an Emilia in The Comedy of Errors.  (Emilia, the most common female name in the plays alongside Katherine, wasn’t used in the 16th century by any other English playwright in an original work.) Titus Andronicus features a character named Bassianus, which was the original Roman name of Bassano del Grappa, her family’s hometown before their move to Venice. Later, in The Merchant of Venice, the romantic hero is a Venetian named Bassanio, an indication that the author perhaps knew of the Bassanos’ connection to Venice.”

What Do so Many Global Cuisines Have in Common? A Bright Yellow Package of Maggi Magic.  Washington Post.  “Peek into homes and restaurants in China, Poland, the Philippines, France and Australia, and you’ll probably find Maggi products — most often a seasoning sauce, bouillon cube, noodle or soup mix — on one of the shelves. The seasoning sauce Maggi Würze, which is reminiscent of the flavor of lovage, has become so popular and beloved in Germany that Germans often colloquially referent to lovage as ‘maggikraut.’ Like salt, fat, acid and heat, Maggi is one of the few great unifiers of the world’s kitchens and may be Switzerland’s largest and most influential culinary contribution.”

The Understory.  Emergence Magazine.  “That day I read aloud a poem that was important to us both, ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost, in which climbing the snow-white trunks of birches becomes both a readying for death and a declaration of life. Then he told me about new research he had recently read concerning the interrelations of trees: how, when one of their number was sickening or under stress, they could share nutrients by means of an underground system that conjoined their roots beneath the soil, thereby sometimes nursing the sick tree back to health. It was a measure of my friend’s generosity of spirit that—so close to death himself—he could speak unjealously of this phenomenon of healing. He did not have the strength then to tell me the details of how this belowground sharing operated—how tree might invisibly reach out to tree within the soil. But I could not forget the image of that mysterious buried network, joining single trees into forest communities. It was planted in my mind, and there took root. Over the years I would encounter other mentions of the same extraordinary idea, and gradually these isolated fragments began to connect together into something like understanding.”

Interesting academic articles for December 2019

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

Portia Roelofs.  2019.  “Beyond programmatic versus patrimonial politics: contested conceptions of legitimate distribution in Nigeria.Journal of Modern African Studies.

This article argues against the long-standing instinct to read African politics in terms of programmatic versus patrimonial politics. Unlike the assumptions of much of the current quantitative literature, there are substantive political struggles that go beyond ‘public goods good, private goods bad’. Scholarly framings serve to obscure the essentially contested nature of what counts as legitimate distribution. This article uses the recent political history of the Lagos Model in southwest Nigeria to show that the idea of patrimonial versus programmatic politics does not stand outside of politics but is in itself a politically constructed distinction. In adopting it a priori as scholars we commit ourselves to seeing the world through the eyes of a specific, often elite, constituency that makes up only part of the rich landscape of normative political contestation in Nigeria. Finally, the example of a large-scale empowerment scheme in Oyo State shows the complexity of politicians’ attempts to render distribution legitimate to different audiences at once.

Amanda Lea Robinson and Jessica Gottlieb.  2019.  “How to Close the Gender Gap in Political Participation: Lessons from Matrilineal Societies in Africa.”  British Journal of Political Science.

While gender gaps in political participation are pervasive, especially in developing countries, this study provides systematic evidence of one cultural practice that closes this gap. Using data from across Africa, this article shows that matrilineality – tracing kinship through the female line – is robustly associated with closing the gender gap in political participation. It then uses this practice as a lens through which to draw more general inferences. Exploiting quantitative and qualitative data from Malawi, the authors demonstrate that matrilineality’s success in improving outcomes for women lies in its ability to sustain more progressive norms about the role of women in society. It sets individual expectations about the gendered beliefs and behaviors of other households in the community, and in a predictable way through the intergenerational transmission of the practice. The study tests and finds evidence against two competing explanations: that matrilineality works through its conferral of material resources alone, or by increasing education for girls.

Rebecca Holmes, Nicola Jones and Pilar Domingo.  2019.  “The Politics of Gender-Responsive Social Protection.”  Overseas Development Institute.  Working paper #568.

Social protection coverage for women of working age, and for children and adolescents – especially in Africa, Asia and the Pacific – has improved over the past two decades but nevertheless remains limited.  A gendered political economy analysis approach can help us to understand why and how progress has (or has not) been made in promoting gender equality objectives in social protection design, implementation and outcomes, and to identify entry points for priority action.  Such an analysis requires us to explore the range of factors that affect decisions around resource allocation, legal change and policy formulation. We have focused on the ‘three I’s’ (Rosendorff, 2005) – the institutions (formal and informal), the interests of key actors, and the ideas framing social protection strategies and programmes. While each context is different, progress in advancing gender-responsive social protection is more likely where: (1) there is a combination of pro-poor and inclusive national government institutions and influential political elites championing gender-responsive social protection; (2) advocates influence informal decision-making arenas and sub-national political institutions; (3) there is a broad coalition of skilled and resourced actors; and (4) the framing of social protection goes beyond seeing women as mothers and carers and instead as recipients of social protection in their own right.

Richard Sedlmayr, Anuj Shah, and Munshi Sulaiman.  2019. “Cash-plus: Poverty impacts of alternative transfer-based approaches.” Journal of Development Economics.

Can training and mentorship expand the economic impact of cash transfer programs, or would such extensions waste resources that recipients could allocate more impactfully by themselves? Over the course of two years, a Ugandan nonprofit organization implemented alternative poverty alleviation approaches in a randomized manner. These included an integrated graduation-style program involving cash transfers as well as extensive training and mentorship; a slightly simplified variant excluding training on savings group formation; and a radically simplified approach that monetized all intangibles and delivered cash only. Light-touch behavioral extensions involving goal-setting and plan-making were also implemented with some cash transfer recipients. We find that simplifying the integrated program tended to erode its impact.

Ken Opalo.  2019.  “The Politics of Social Protection in Africa: Public Opinion Evidence from Kenya on Cash Transfers.”  Working paper. 

The idea of poverty alleviation through unconditional cash transfers is popular among academics, the media, and policymakers. However, the widespread acceptance of this policy tool has not been accompanied by a serious consideration of its political implications. This is especially true in African states, where many cash transfer programs are donor-funded, are largely unconditional with a humanitarian bend, and have therefore eschewed overt discussions of distributive politics. Existing works overwhelmingly focus on measuring the economic impact of specific programs. This raises the question: what are the perceived causes of poverty, attitudes towards deservingness of assistance, and willingness to pay taxes to finance social protection in African states? This paper addresses these questions using a nationally-representative survey in Kenya (N = 2015). The results show that partisanship is a strong moderator of public opinion on cash transfers. While attitudes about causes of poverty and deservingness are fairly similar across party lines, co-partisanship with the incumbent president is strongly correlated with support for tax increases to finance social protection. I attribute this to partisan differences in trust in government. Cross-country analysis of spending on social protection across 35 African states corroborate the importance of politics as a driver of social protection policies. Higher levels of democracy are correlated with more spend- ing on social protection. These findings call for more research the political economy of social protection in Africa, with a focus on individual level attitudes.

Dennis Egger, Johannes Haushofer, Edward Miguel, Paul Niehaus, and Michael Walker.  2019.  “General equilibrium effects of cash transfers: experimental evidence from Kenya.”  Working paper. 

How large economic stimuli generate individual and aggregate responses is a central question in economics, but has not been studied experimentally. We provided one-time cash transfers of about USD 1000 to over 10,500 poor households across 653 randomized villages in rural Kenya. The implied fiscal shock was over 15 percent of local GDP. We find large impacts on consumption and assets for recipients. Importantly, we document large positive spillovers on non-recipient households and firms, and minimal price inflation. We estimate a local fiscal multiplier of 2.6. We interpret welfare implications through the lens of a simple household optimization framework.

Thad Dunning et al.  2019.  “Voter information campaigns and political accountability: Cumulative findings from a preregistered meta-analysis of coordinated trials.”  Science Advances.  

Voters may be unable to hold politicians to account if they lack basic information about their representatives’ performance. Civil society groups and international donors therefore advocate using voter information campaigns to improve democratic accountability. Yet, are these campaigns effective? Limited replication, measurement heterogeneity, and publication biases may undermine the reliability of published research. We implemented a new approach to cumulative learning, coordinating the design of seven randomized controlled trials to be fielded in six countries by independent research teams. Uncommon for multisite trials in the social sciences, we jointly preregistered a meta-analysis of results in advance of seeing the data. We find no evidence overall that typical, nonpartisan voter information campaigns shape voter behavior, although exploratory and subgroup analyses suggest conditions under which informational campaigns could be more effective. Such null estimated effects are too seldom published, yet they can be critical for scientific progress and cumulative, policy-relevant learning.

Alice Redfern, Martin Gould, Maryanne Chege, Sindy Li, and William Slotznick.  2019.  “Beneficiary Preferences: Findings from Kenya and Ghana.”  IDInsight. 

International development leaders frequently make complex resource allocation decisions that require weighing trade-offs between different types of good outcomes. For example, given limited resources, which should be prioritized: a program that increases household income or one that saves lives? … Prior to this study, there was a clear lack of data on how potential beneficiaries of such interventions trade-off between different outcomes. This study represents a step to fill this gap for strategic international development decision-making. We surveyed over 1,800 low-income individuals across four diverse regions in Ghana and Kenya. Three main methods were used to capture how respondents trade-off between averting deaths of individuals of different ages and increasing consumption.  … We found that respondents place a higher value on averting a death than predicted by most extrapolations from studies in high income countries (HICs).  Respondents consistently value the lives of individuals under 5 higher than individuals 5 and older, which is consistent with HIC studies but contrary to median GiveWell moral weights.

The Transfer Project.  2019.  “Beyond internal validity: Towards a broader understanding of credibility in development policy research.”  World Development.

We provide evidence from the Transfer Project to show that methodological design is only one factor in determining credibility in the eyes of policymakers. Policymakers understand concerns around internal validity, but also value collaborative research engagement, which builds trust, allows co-creation of research questions, informs operations throughout the evaluation period and leverages national research expertise. Further, the mere act of engaging in a large-scale, transparent impact evaluation, across quasi-and experimental designs can change the culture of decision-making within an agency, leading to better policy choices in the long run. We advocate for a more inclusive approach to policy research that begins with identifying the most relevant research question and fitting the methods to the question rather than vice-versa. We challenge the field to engage more closely with policymakers to identify their evidence needs in order to prioritize the end objective of improving the lives of the poor—regardless of methodological design choices

Where is “the field”? Centering the periphery in Kinshasa

Downtown Kinshasa, showing a few fall buildings over surprisingly empty streets

Boulevard du 30 juin, Kinshasa (via Wikipedia)

I’ve got a new article up at The Republic about my time doing research in Kinshasa, and the idea of “the field” in social science research more broadly.  Come for the translation errors that led me to overcount nice toilets in my survey, stay for the reflections on power dynamics in academia and why we should stop referring to our research sites as “the field.”  A preview:

This use of ‘the field’ cannot be separated out from the many hierarchies that structure power within academic research. For example, academic knowledge production is still dominated by universities in the global North, which are in turn still plagued by issues of sexismracism, and classism. Nor are universities in African countries free from all of these issues. The upshot is that academics in many countries frequently have various types of privilege, which their research participants may not share. (This is also true for non-profit or corporate research, like the type that I was doing in Kinshasa).

In this context, ‘going to the field’ typically means stepping into a less-privileged environment. But beyond this, there’s often a whiff of danger that accompanies the phrase. Field Research in Political Science warns of culture shock, caused by ‘cultural differences of many types, [including] the weather, sanitation options, food, social behaviour, gender relations, etc’. ‘The field’ is constructed here as a place of isolation, discomfort, and scarcity. These hardships may even be used to justify the site’s interest as a location for research. But the term itself remains pejorative.

Interesting academic articles for November 2019

Here’s what I’ve been looking forward to reading lately.

Sam Hickey, Tom Lavers, Jeremy Seekings, and Miguel Niño-Zarazúa, eds.  2019. The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa.  UNU-WIDER.

The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa challenges the common conception that [social protection] has been entirely driven by international development agencies, instead focusing on the critical role of political dynamics within specific African countries. It details how the power and politics at multiple levels of governance shapes the extent to which political elites are committed to social protection, the form that this commitment takes, and the implications that this has for future welfare regimes and state-citizen relations in Africa. It reveals how international pressures only take hold when they become aligned with the incentives and ideas of ruling elites in particular contexts. It shows how elections, the politics of clientelism, political ideologies, and elite perceptions all play powerful roles in shaping when countries adopt social protection and at what levels, which groups receive benefits, and how programmes are delivered.

Rumman Khan, Oliver Morrissey, and Paul Mosley.  2019.  “Two Africas? Why Africa’s ‘growth miracle’ has barely reduced poverty.”  RePEc discussions papers 2019 – 08.

Growth improved substantially in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since 1990, but poverty in SSA as a whole has fallen by about a third, compared to by half or more in other developing regions. While some countries have had little or no success in reducing poverty, many have had significant achievements. The paper argues that inter-country differences, traceable to colonial experience, are crucial to understanding this varied SSA performance. This is based on a distinction between relatively labour-intensive ‘smallholder’ colonial economies and capital-intensive ‘extractive economies’ exporting minerals and plantation crops. Because of the more equitable income distribution and African political inclusion generated in smallholder economies, at independence they were in a better position than extractive economies to translate growth into poverty reduction. Since the 1990s (when poverty data are available) the distinction in terms of poverty reduction can be observed. The empirical analysis estimates the growth elasticity of poverty using various specifications, some including inequality. There are two key robust findings: i) smallholder economies significantly outperform extractive economies in poverty reduction; and ii) growth rates do not differ on average between the two groups, but the growth elasticity of poverty is higher in smallholder economies.

Michael Clemens, Helen Dempster, and Kate Gough.  2019.  “Promoting New Kinds of Legal Labour Migration Pathways Between Europe and Africa.”  Center for Global Development.

As Europe’s working-age population continues to decline, sub-Saharan Africa’s is rapidly increasing. Many of these new labour market entrants will seek opportunities in Europe, plugging skill gaps and contributing to economies in their countries of destination. To make the most of these movements, the new European Commission should create and promote new kinds of legal labour migration pathways with more tangible benefits to countries of origin and destination; pilot and scale Global Skill Partnership projects between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa and within Africa; and be a positive voice for migration within Europe, promoting the benefits from migration and ensuring they are understood.

Sohela Nazneen.  2019.  “How Do Leaders Collectively Influence Institutions?”  Developmental Leadership Program.  

How do leaders collectively influence institutions? This question lies at the heart of understanding how actors influence positive change. Social scientists have attempted to answer it from different perspectives. Broadly, these either emphasise the role of actors (both the individual leader and collective bodies) and how they act and what strategies they use, or focus more on how structures and institutions (i.e. rules of the game) define contextual boundaries and create specific opportunities and incentives for actors to behave in specific ways. These two perspectives reveal important aspects of how and why actors engage in collective processes of change. However … unpacking how leaders and coalitions engage in collective processes of change requires a deeper and nuanced understanding of what factors and conditions influence the decisions taken and strategies used by leaders and coalitions at different stages along the lifecycle of reform. Collective processes of change have three interlinked stages: 1) collective formation—when leaders focus on forming collectives and maintaining group cohesion; 2) legitimation—when leaders and coalitions are concerned with framing and justifying their demands and strengthening their position to make claims; and 3) securing institutional change—when the focus is on using different strategies to negotiate an outcome for the constituencies they claim to represent.

Rajeev Dehejia, Cristian Pop-Eleches, and Cyrus Samii.  2019.  “From Local to Global: External Validity in a Fertility Natural Experiment.”  NBER working paper 21459.

We study issues related to external validity for treatment effects using over 100 replications of the Angrist and Evans (1998) natural experiment on the effects of sibling sex composition on fertility and labor supply. The replications are based on census data from around the world going back to 1960. We decompose sources of error in predicting treatment effects in external contexts in terms of macro and micro sources of variation. In our empirical setting, we find that macro covariates dominate over micro covariates for reducing errors in predicting treatments, an issue that past studies of external validity have been unable to evaluate. We develop methods for two applications to evidence-based decision-making, including determining where to locate an experiment and whether policy-makers should commission new experiments or rely on an existing evidence base for making a policy decision.

Caitlin Tulloch.  2019.  “Taking intervention costs seriously: a new, old toolbox for inference about costs.”  Journal of Development Effectiveness.

This paper examines a new set of average cost data from a large international NGO, finding that costs for the same intervention can vary as much as twenty times when scale or context is changed. Despite this challenge to the generalisability of cost estimates, a high proportion of the variation can be explained by observable program and contextual characteristics. Binary questions about whether cost estimates are externally valid do not provide a useful framework for wider inference; instead, researchers can gain analytical traction if they study what factors cause the costs of specific interventions to change, and by how much.

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.