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 April 2020

Here’s what I’ve been looking forward to reading recently!

Eric Edmonds and Caroline Theoharides. 2020.  “The short term impact of a productive asset transfer in families with child labor: Experimental evidence from the Philippines.”  Journal of Development Economics.

Productive asset grants have become an important tool in efforts to push the very poor out of poverty, but they require labor to convert the asset into income. Using a clustered randomized trial, we evaluate the impact of a key component of the Government of Philippines’ child labor elimination program, a $518 productive asset grant directed at families with child laborers. We find that households rely upon family members for the labor to work the asset. Adolescent labor is the most available labor in the household, and we observe increases in employment among adolescents not engaged in child labor at baseline. Households with a family firm or business prior to treatment especially lack available adult labor to work with the asset, leading to increases in child labor, including hazardous work, amongst children who were not in child labor at baseline.

Cesi Cruz, Julian Labonne and Pablo Querubin.  2020.  “Social Network Structures and the Politics of Public Goods Provision: Evidence from the Philippines.”  American Political Science Review.

We study the relationship between social structure and political incentives for public goods provision. We argue that when politicians—rather than communities—are responsible for the provision of public goods, social fractionalization may decrease the risk of elite capture and lead to increased public goods provision and electoral competition. We test this using large-scale data on family networks from over 20 million individuals in 15,000 villages of the Philippines. We take advantage of naming conventions to assess intermarriage links between families and use community detection algorithms to identify the relevant clans in those villages. We show that there is more public goods provision and political competition in villages with more fragmented social networks, a result that is robust to controlling for a large number of village characteristics and to alternative estimation techniques.

Soundarya Chidambaram.  2020.  “How do institutions and infrastructure affect mobilization around public toilets vs. piped water? Examining intra-slum patterns of collective action in Delhi, India.”  World Development.

Why does a slum community mobilize differently around different public services? I use qualitative data derived from ethnographic fieldwork in four urban slum communities in Delhi, India, to examine the strategies they employ for countering everyday problems of access to water and toilets. … Caste, gender, religion, class, and influential slum leaders no doubt mediate everyday social relations in Indian slums, but communities that surmount these obstacles may still not be able to mobilize in a way that improves everyday service delivery. I argue that communities are able to coordinate when they think their efforts will yield success – both locally in terms of inducing reciprocity and reducing free riding as well as when they get appropriate institutional support for their initiatives. Infrastructural characteristics unique to a service determine whether reciprocity and cooperation can be sustained within the built environment of the slum. Bureaucratic complexity determines whether communities will be able to negotiate successfully. In the case of water, easy adaptability within the neighborhood and ease of bureaucratic access allow for sustained coordination within communities. The infrastructural nature of toilets makes it harder to find arrangements that will work within the slum ecology and induce cooperation. The complicated institutional dynamics create obstacles on top of that deter sustained mobilization. What communities experience instead is a sporadic pattern of collective action around poorly functioning public toilets.

Randall Akee, William Copeland, John Holbein, and Emilia Simeonova.  2020.  “Human Capital and Voting Behavior across Generations: Evidence from an Income Intervention.”  American Political Science Review.

Despite clear evidence of a sharp income gradient in voting participation, it remains unclear whether income truly causes voting. In this article, we investigate how exogenous increases in unearned income affect voting in U.S. elections for two generations (parents and children) from the same household. In contrast to predictions made by current models of voting, we find the income shock had no effect on parentsvoting behaviors. However, we also find that increasing household income has heterogeneous effects on the civic participation of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It increases childrens voting propensity among those raised in initially poorer familiesresulting in substantially narrowed participatory gaps. Our results are consistent with a more nuanced view of how individual resources affect patterns of voting than the dominant theoretical framework of votingthe resource modelallows. Voting is fundamentally shaped by the human capital accrued long before citizens are eligible to vote.

Kate Baldwin, Dean Karlan, Christopher Udry, and Ernest Appiah.  2020.  “How Political Insiders Lose Out When International Aid Underperforms: Evidence from a Participatory Development Experiment in Ghana.”  Working paper.

Participatory development is designed to mitigate problems of political bias in pre-existing local government but also interacts with it in complex ways. Using a five-year randomized controlled study in 97 clusters of villages (194 villages) in Ghana, we analyze the effects of a major participatory development program on participation in, leadership of and investment by preexisting political institutions, and on households’ overall socioeconomic well-being. Applying theoretical insights on political participation and redistributive politics, we consider the possibility of both cross-institutional mobilization and displacement, and heterogeneous effects by partisanship. We find the government and its political supporters acted with high expectations for the participatory approach: treatment led to increased participation in local governance and reallocation of resources. But the results did not meet expectations, resulting in a worsening of socioeconomic wellbeing in treatment versus control villages for government supporters. This demonstrates international aid’s complex distributional consequences.

Donald P. Green, Anna M. Wilke, and Jasper Cooper.  2020.  “Countering violence against women by encouraging disclosure: A mass media experiment in rural Uganda.”  Comparative Political Studies.

Violence against women (VAW) is widespread in East Africa, with almost half of married women experiencing physical abuse. Those seeking to address this issue confront two challenges: some forms of domestic violence are widely condoned, and it is the norm for witnesses to not report incidents. Building on a growing literature showing that education-entertainment can change norms and behaviors, we present experimental evidence from a media campaign attended by over 10,000 Ugandans in 112 rural villages. In randomly assigned villages, video dramatizations discouraged VAW and encouraged reporting. Results from interviews conducted several months after the intervention show no change in attitudes condoning VAW yet a substantial increase in willingness to report to authorities, especially among women, and a decline in the share of women who experienced violence. The theoretical implication is that interventions that affect disclosure norms may reduce socially harmful behavior even if they do not reduce its acceptability.

Gemma Dipoppa.  2020.  “How Criminal Organizations Expand to Strong States: Migrants’ Exploitation and Vote Buying in Northern Italy.”  Job market paper.  

Criminal organizations are widely believed to emerge in weak states unable to protect the property rights and safety of their citizens. Yet, criminal groups often expand to states with strong capacity and well-functioning institutions. This paper proposes a theory accounting for this phenomenon. I focus on one distinctive feature of strong states: their capacity to enforce competition. I argue that criminal organizations expand by striking agreements with political and economic actors facing competition and to which they can offer critical resources to gain an edge over competitors. I test this theory in the context of Northern Italy, a region with high social capital and well-functioning democratic institutions, but which has suffered increasing levels of mafia infiltration since the 1960s. I construct a new measure of mafia presence at the municipality level, by scraping mafia-related news from historic newspapers and validating them with present time mafias indicators from judicial sources and NGOs. I test two predictions of the theory. First, using an instrumental variable approach, I show that increases in market competition (due to a construction boom) and in mafias’ capacity to offer cheap illegal labor (by exploiting migrants from mafia-controlled areas in the south) allowed criminal groups to expand to the north. Second, I show that parties that entered in agreements with criminal groups gained a persistent electoral advantage in mafia-infiltrated cities and only after infiltration. This evidence suggests that mafias’ expansion leveraged deals with economic and political actors in strong states, pointing to the need to re-conceptualize criminal organizations not only as substitutes for weak states, but also as complements to states with strong institutions.

Rob Blair and Nicholas Sambanis.  2020.  “Forecasting Civil Wars: Theory and Structure in an Age of “Big Data” and Machine Learning.”  Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Does theory contribute to forecasting accuracy? We use event data to show that a parsimonious model grounded in prominent theories of conflict escalation can forecast civil war onset with high accuracy and over shorter temporal windows than has generally been possible. Our forecasting model draws on “procedural” variables, building on insights from the contentious politics literature. We show that a procedural model outperforms more inductive, atheoretical alternatives and also outperforms models based on countries’ structural characteristics, which previously dominated models of civil war onset. We find that process can substitute for structure over short forecasting windows. We also find a more direct connection between theory and forecasting than is sometimes assumed, though we suggest that future researchers treat the value-added of theory for prediction not as an assumption but rather as a hypothesis to test.

Adam Lichtenheld.  2020.  “Explaining Population Displacement Strategies in Civil Wars: A Cross-National Analysis.”  International Organization.

Why do combatants uproot civilians in wartime? In this paper I identify cross-national variation in three population-displacement strategies—cleansing, depopulation, and forced relocation—and test different explanations for their use by state actors. I advance a new “assortative” theory to explain forced relocation, the most common type. I argue that combatants displace not only to expel undesirable populations, but also to identify the undesirables in the first place by forcing people to send signals of loyalty and affiliation based on whether, and to where, they flee. This makes communities more “legible” and facilitates the extraction of rents and recruits. I test these arguments using a novel Strategic Displacement in Civil Conflict data set (1945–2008). Consistent with my expectations, different displacement strategies occur in different contexts and appear to follow different logics. Cleansing is more likely in conventional wars, where territorial conquest takes primacy, while forced relocation is more likely in irregular wars, where identification problems are most acute. The evidence indicates that cleansing follows a logic of punishment. The results for relocation, however, are consistent with the implications of my assortative logic: it is more likely to be employed by resource-constrained incumbents fighting insurgencies in “illegible” areas—rural, peripheral territories. A case study from Uganda based on in-depth fieldwork provides evidence for the assortative mechanism. As the most comprehensive analysis of wartime displacement strategies to date, this paper challenges some core assumptions about a devastating form of contemporary political violence.

Interesting academic articles for March 2020

Here are some of the things I’ve found interesting in the last month!  Happily, none of it’s on coronavirus, and probably won’t be for a while.  The types of large, experimental studies or deeply historically grounded studies which interest me don’t have very rapid turnaround times.

Rachel Sweet.  2020.  “Bureaucrats at war: The resilient state in the Congo.”  African Affairs.  

Rebels often portray themselves as state-like to legitimize their rule, yet little is known about their on-the-ground relations with the administrators of state power—official bureaucrats. Drawing on internal armed group records from the Democratic Republic of Congo, this article argues that rebels’ state-like image is more than a simple veneer: Bureaucrats actively sustain state institutions and recruit rebel support during war. It develops a theory of the sources of leverage that bureaucrats use to negotiate with rebels. These interactions entail dual struggles to sustain the structures and symbols of state power and to shape the distribution of control over these institutions during war. On first front, bureaucrats can use their official status to market the symbols of state legitimacy—official certificates, codes, and paperwork—to rebels. On a second, to recruit protection for administrative posts. Pre-existing routines of noncompliance, like parallel taxes and sabotaged information, can use bureaucratic discretion and opacity to limit rebels’ takeover of state structures. This view from the ground demonstrates the real-time continuity of bureaucratic practice through daily paperwork and exchange during war. It contributes to research on rebel governance by illustrating new competitions for wartime statehood and illustrates the empirical practices of states seen as ‘juridical’ or weak.

Jeremy Bowles, Horacio Larreguy, and Shelley Liu.  2020.  “How Weakly Institutionalized Parties Monitor Brokers in Developing Democracies: Evidence from Postconflict Liberia.”  American Journal of Political Science

Political parties in sub‐Saharan Africa’s developing democracies are often considered to lack sufficiently sophisticated machines to monitor and incentivize their political brokers. We challenge this view by arguing that the decentralized pyramidal structure of their machines allows them to engage in broker monitoring and incentivizing to mobilize voters, which ultimately improves their electoral performance. This capacity is concentrated (a) among incumbent parties with greater access to resources and (b) where the scope for turnout buying is higher due to the higher costs of voting. Using postwar Liberia to test our argument, we combine rich administrative data with exogenous variation in parties’ ability to monitor their brokers. We show that brokers mobilize voters en masse to signal effort, that increased monitoring ability improves the incumbent party’s electoral performance, and that this is particularly so in precincts in which voters must travel farther to vote and thus turnout buying opportunities are greater.

Darin ChristensenOeindrila DubeJohannes Haushofer, Bilal Siddiqi and Maarten Voors.  2020.  “Building Resilient Health Systems: Experimental Evidence from Sierra Leone and the 2014 Ebola Outbreak.”  Center for Global Development working paper no. 526.

Developing countries are characterized by high rates of mortality and morbidity. A potential contributing factor is the low utilization of health systems, stemming from the low perceived quality of care delivered by health personnel. This factor may be especially critical during crises, when individuals choose whether to cooperate with response efforts and frontline health personnel. We experimentally examine efforts aimed at improving health worker performance in the context of the 2014–15 West African Ebola crisis. Roughly two years before the outbreak in Sierra Leone, we randomly assigned two social accountability interventions to government-run health clinics—one focused on community monitoring and the other gave status awards to clinic staff. We find that over the medium run, prior to the Ebola crisis, both interventions led to improvements in utilization of clinics and patient satisfaction. In addition, child health outcomes improved substantially in the catchment areas of community monitoring clinics. During the crisis, the interventions also led to higher reported Ebola cases, as well as lower mortality from Ebola—particularly in areas with community monitoring clinics. We explore three potential mechanisms: the interventions (1) increased the likelihood that patients reported Ebola symptoms and sought care; (2) unintentionally increased Ebola incidence; or (3) improved surveillance efforts. We find evidence consistent with the first: by improving the perceived quality of care provided by clinics prior to the outbreak, the interventions likely encouraged patients to report and receive treatment. Our results suggest that social accountability interventions not only have the power to improve health systems during normal times, but can additionally make health systems resilient to crises that may emerge over the longer run.

Wei Chang, Lucía Díaz-Martin, Akshara Gopalan, Eleonora Guarnieri, Seema Jayachandran, and Claire Walsh.  2020.  “What works to enhance women’s agency: Cross-cutting lessons from experimental and quasi-experimental studies.”  J-PAL working paper.

Women’s agency continues to be limited in many contexts around the world. Much of the existing evidence synthesis focuses on one outcome or intervention type, bracketing the complex, overlapping manner in which agency takes shape. This review adopts a cross-cutting approach to analyzing evidence across different domains and outcomes of women’s agency and focuses on understanding the mechanisms that explain intervention impacts. Drawing from quantitative evidence from 160 randomized controlled trials and quasi-experiments in low- and middle-income countries, we summarize what we know about supporting women’s agency along with what needs additional research.

Tom Lavers and Sam Hickey.  2020.  “Alternative routes to the institutionalisation of social transfers in sub-Saharan Africa: Political survival strategies and transnational policy coalitions.”  Effective States in International Development working paper no. 138.

The new phase of social protection expansion in the Global South remains poorly understood. Current interpretations use problematic evidence and analysis to emphasise the influence of elections and donor pressure on the spread of social transfers in sub-Saharan Africa. We seek a more nuanced explanation, testing an alternative theoretical and methodological framework that traces the actual process through which countries have not just adopted but institutionalised social transfers. Two main pathways emerge: one involves less electorally competitive countries, where the primary motivation is elite perceptions of vulnerability in the face of distributional crises, augmented by ideas and resources from transnational policy coalitions. The other entails a primary role for transnational policy coalitions in adoption, before competitive elections and the need for visible distribution drive institutionalisation. Consequently, the latest phase of social transfer development results from the interplay of political survival strategies and transnational policy coalitions.

Karthik Muralidharan, Paul Niehaus, and Sandip Sukhtankar.  2020.  “Identity Verification Standards in Welfare Programs: Experimental Evidence from India.”  NBER working paper no. 26774. 

How should recipients of publicly-provided goods and services prove their identity in order to access these benefits? The core design challenge is managing the tradeoff between Type-II errors of inclusion (including corruption) against Type-I errors of exclusion whereby legitimate beneficiaries are denied benefits. We use a large-scale experiment randomized across 15 million beneficiaries to evaluate the effects of more stringent ID requirements based on biometric authentication on the delivery of India’s largest social protection program (subsidized food) in the state of Jharkhand. By itself, requiring biometric authentication to transact did not reduce leakage, slightly increased transaction costs for the average beneficiary, and reduced benefits received by the subset of beneficiaries who had not previously registered an ID by 10%. Subsequent reforms that made use of authenticated transaction data to determine allocations to the program coincided with large reductions in leakage, but also significant reductions in benefits received. Our results highlight that attempts to reduce corruption in welfare programs can also generate non-trivial costs in terms of exclusion and inconvenience to genuine beneficiaries.

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 working paper no. WPS 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.

Africa Update for February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

colonization
BRB, ROFL, SMH (via Suhayl)

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

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

Africa Update for November 2019

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

A view of Nairobi with Karura Forest in the foreground

A stunning view of Nairobi, via Kenyapics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kismayo sunset, by Said Fadhaye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall 2019 conference updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

444282_980

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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