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 May 2020

The latest edition of Africa Update is out! We’ve got mental health in Ghana, home brewing in South Africa, vintage Somali May Day celebrations, Nigerian digital art, and more.

Photos from last year’s Lamu dhow race, by Roland Klemp

West Africa: In Ghana, activists are encouraging men to speak out about their mental health issues.  Ghana is also using drones to efficiently transport coronavirus test swabs for analysis.  Lockdowns are hitting countries like Senegal hard, where 85% of people in a recent survey said their incomes had dropped.  

Central Africa: Uganda has banned the import of used clothing over concerns about coronavirus.  Uganda has also prohibited the use of public transport during the pandemic, even though this is cutting many people off from medical care and increasing rates of domestic violence.  This is a strangely beautiful drone video of Kampala’s empty streets during lockdown.  Here’s how a financier of the Rwandan genocide was captured in France 26 years later.

Some interesting data on revenue performance across the continent, via Amaka Anku

East Africa: Somalia has launched its first ever government-run cash transfer program for over 1 million vulnerable citizens.  Somalia also has few reported coronavirus deaths, but informal reports from gravediggers suggest the real toll is higher.  Kenya has created a new state corporation meant to profit from the labor of people in prisons.  Tanzania appears to be covering up its real number of coronavirus deaths, even as the president has refused to take basic safety precautions.

Southern Africa: Malawi is one of the few countries without a coronavirus lockdown, after the high court blocked it over concerns of its economic impact on poor citizens.  South Africa banned alcohol sales during the lockdown, leading supermarkets to just coincidentally leave all the ingredients for home brewing next to each other.  South African Airways will be divided up amongst its competitors after going into bankruptcy.

Art interlude: check out this amazing vintage Somali May Day Poster, via Faduma Hassan

Coronavirus: Many African countries have limited scientific lab capacity, and had to use it for testing instead of genomic sequencing, which means that any eventual vaccine might not be as effective for viral strains on the continent.  There’s some interesting data here about the varied nature of lockdowns across Africa, including the fact that most countries imposed them unusually early, with fewer than 10 domestic cases.  Reporting on coronavirus in Africa should do more to highlight the many mutual aid groups supporting their communities.

Other health news: A new malaria vaccine being piloted in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi could make the virus less severe.  Only 18 African countries have adequate systems for recording births and deaths.  Putting chlorine dispensers next to communal water sites is an easy way to improve sanitation in Uganda. 

Agriculture: Here’s a good summary of how the pandemic is affecting food systems across Africa.  People used to respond to locust invasions in East Africa by eating them, but new research says that this strategy doesn’t work any longer as the bugs are exposed to too many pesticides. How can regional rice market integration help avoid shortages in West Africa?  Exports of medical marijuana and hemp are growing across Africa, even as many countries still ban recreational smoking.

Countries vary widely in the percentage of their citizens without access to national IDs, via Carlos Lopes

Economics + technology: Global remittance flows are expected to drop by more than US$100 billion as immigrants abroad are affected by the pandemic.  African tax collectors don’t have very many good options for making up lost revenue due to the pandemic. On the bright side, the virus is driving innovations in technology across Africa.

Gender: Check out the great resources at the African Feminism website and the African Feminist Archive.  Meet the female athletes breaking barriers in Somaliland.  Nigeria has some of the world’s strictest abortion laws, and over 60,000 women die annually from illegal abortions or complications during childbirth.  Rwanda has pardoned 50 women accused of having illegal abortions, but hasn’t changed its restrictive abortion laws.

I’m loving Adekunle Adeleke‘s creative digital portraits

Immigration: In China, African immigrants are facing discrimination over fears that they’re spreading the virus.  Israel has nullified a law which discouraged people from applying for asylum by forcing them to deposit 20% of their monthly salaries in savings accounts.  Meet the scholar studying the global fashion history of the African diaspora.  And Astrid Haas and I have written about whether safe rural migration programs could support urban safety nets in African countries during the pandemic.

Africa Update for April 2020

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update.  I’m going to guarantee you a nearly coronavirus-free edition, because I collect links for the newsletter over the course of roughly a month and can’t put it out fast enough to keep up with the pandemic news.  So here are some other notable things that have been happening recently, plus a few coronavirus links covering underdiscussed aspects of the crisis.

Nairobi’s new skyline is taking shape, via Sam Muchai

West Africa: Cameroon has introduced new ID requirements for making mobile money payments after the services were used to pay ransoms.  Here’s how colonial understandings of the gender binary erased Igbo traditions with a very different relationship to gender.  Meet the Nigerian judge who’s liberating people in jail who have spent more time waiting for a trial than they would have served if convicted.  In Ghana, the question of whether people who are dual citizens with neighboring Togo can vote is hotly contested.  Ghana has legalized marijuana for health and industrial purposes.

Central Africa: Religious conservative organizations from the US have begun setting up “crisis pregnancy centers” which discourage contraception in Uganda.  In the DRC and Uganda, colonial-era understandings of the role of local chiefs are skewing policy interventions.  The DRC is about to pass its first law protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

East Africa: Meet the young Somalis who are changing the fact of the country with online shopping and ambulance services.  Kenya’s flower industry had a bad track record on workers’ rights even before the pandemic basically ended exports. Also in Kenya, a 2015 program to import medical equipment has been criticized after over 1/3 of the equipment ended up in hospitals without staff trained to use it.  East Africa is bracing for another locust invasion in May, even worse than the one in January.

Here’s where the locusts are coming from, via the Mail & Guardian

Southern Africa: In South Africa, the Gautrain project which serves the middle class receives state subsidies, but the minibuses which mostly serve poorer people don’t receive any.  Some women in Zimbabwe are finding new opportunities as bus drivers, while others are moving back to rural areas in order to escape the country’s long-lasting economic crisis.  Why is the insurgency in northern Mozambique getting worse?

Economics: By joining the proposed new eco zone, West African countries might give up control over their currencies in ways that are bad for growth.  Dollar Street is a fascinating new project which shows how families all around the world, including many in Africa, live on different levels of income.  In Uganda, big infrastructure projects have benefited foreign investors while sometimes literally walling off local communities from accessing them.

Interesting map of the oldest companies across the continent, via Ken Opalo

Climate + agriculture: Here’s how women in Kenya are re-introducing traditional crops to promote food security.  How are drought in Australia and floods in Kenya connected?  An American tractor company is working on a plan hailed as “Uber for tractors” in Kenya.  If plans to drill for oil in central DRC go forward, the destruction of the peat bog on top of the oil could release as much carbon as Japan produces in a year.

Research + education: Ugandan kids could learn to read more quickly if they were taught using local plants and animals for phonics lessons, rather than “A is for apple.”  Here’s how to use Shaka Zulu to decolonize the teaching of math in South Africa.  Check out this list of free online academic journals about African issues.

Young women leading the way in Namibia, via Sarah Anyang Agbor

Art + culture: I’m excited to read about all the inspiring women on OkayAfrica’s 100 Women 2020 list.  Did you know that the Senegalese national archives are an unusually good resource for historical research?  Somaliland’s informal national archives started with a crumpled napkin.  Once we can all leave our houses again, do check out the new Yemisi Shyllon Museum for African art just outside Lagos.

Coronavirus: Meet the leader of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, who’s dramatically scaled up public health capacity across the country after just two years in office.  One important lesson from the Ebola epidemic in Liberia is that door-to-door canvassing makes people more likely to comply with public health rules.  Research in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic shows that governments are likely to see much lower tax revenues as economic activity drops.  In East Africa, coronavirus has driven gambling revenues down by 99% as people save their money for immediate needs.  Here’s a great list of articles on the pandemic from African authors.

Interesting academic articles for February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s driving the locust crisis in East Africa?

locusts-update
Mapping the spread of locusts, via The Independent

East Africa is currently dealing with giant swarms of locusts, which will descend on an area and eat huge amounts of vegetation before moving on to the next.  This poses an enormous risk to subsistence farmers in the region, only partially mitigated by the fact that it’s the dry season and the main crops aren’t growing yet.  According to Cyril Piou at The Conversation,

As a rough estimate, a swarm of one billion insects covers approximately 20km² and will eat 2000 metric tons of vegetation each day. In the past few weeks, parts of Kenya have received swarms that cover more than 100km², so their feeding will have been devastating.

Where are the locusts coming from?

The current invasion of desert locust originated along the Red Sea, in Yemen and Oman, during the 2018 to 2019 winter. The rains, brought by the October 2018 cyclone Luban, produced areas full of vegetation where the locusts could feed, breed and [seek additional food].

From January 2019, small swarms spread in the Arab Peninsula, along the Red Sea and even reached Iran and Pakistan. Other swarms stayed in the Arab Peninsula where they reproduced and multiplied.

In June, the locusts crossed the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden, which is just a few hours of flight for the locusts, and started to spread into the Horn of Africa. They invaded the North of Somalia and Ethiopia where floods in October and November created good conditions for desert locust to continue to multiply. The large swarms that have invaded Kenya since December are a result of this.

It’s possible to use ground surveys and satellite data to find the locusts when they’re young, before they start swarming, and kill them with targeted applications of pesticides.  Once they’ve begun to swarm, the only control option is spraying pesticides across the entire affected area, which is much worse for the ecosystem.

This is ultimately a crisis of state capacity.  Yemen and Somalia are particularly poorly placed to undertake preventative work.  Northern Kenya receives a small fraction of state funding compared to the central regions, and the government’s response to the 2019 drought and famine in the region was slow and entirely lacking in transparency.  There’s not much reason to hope for a more proactive response to locusts.