What I’m reading for October 2018

A link roundup cross-posted as usual from my latest edition of Africa Update.  We’ve got Nigeria’s undercover atheists, the electricity pirates of the DRC, Kenya’s top Somali restaurants, the best Rwandan hairstyles, and more.

Map of Africa showing what a mini bus is called in each countryThe wheels on the trotro go round and round… (via Africa Visual Data)

West Africa: In Benin, the government has just raised the fee required to register as a presidential candidate from US $26,000 to US$450,000.  A new wave of travel start-ups is encouraging Nigerians to explore their own country rather than traveling abroad.  Nigeria’s undercover atheists are ostracized for their lack of faith.  Read this special issue of Kujenga Amani about peacebuilding in the Niger Delta.  Ghanaian market vendors fought back after they were targeted for eviction, and ended up getting a new market building so they could keep selling.  Sierra Leone recently implemented a popular new policy of free primary education, but they’re falling short of school seats and teachers.  This is a remarkable thread about how the BBC identified soldiers responsible for killing civilians in a video from Cameroon.  D’Ebola à Zika, un labo tout-terrain en Afrique de l’Ouest.

A selection of street signs from Accra, including Gamel Abdul Nasser Ave, Olusegun Obasanjo High St, Haile Selassie St, Kampala Ave, Sekou Toure Lane, Kigali Ave, and Leopold Senghor CloseAs Charles Onyango-Obbo notes about Accra, “All African capitals, and its independence & post-independence leaders who were minimally anti-imperialist have streets named in their honour. They’ve probably done so in Accra alone more than all the rest of Africa combined!”

Central Africa: Russia has begun supplying arms to and signing opaque cooperation agreements with the Central African Republic.  IPIS has released a new interactive map of armed groups in the CAR.  In the DRC, fees of US$500 for power meters and yearslong waits to have them installed have led many people to pirate electricity from their neighbors.  Burundi has begun suspending NGOs for failing to comply with opaque legal regulations.  La Belgique va rendre au Rwanda les archives de la période coloniale.  Uganda’s former police chief was recently arrested, and there are rumors it was because he might have been fomenting a Rwandan-backed uprising against Museveni.

Three Rwandan men with their hair shaped into swooping, curved figuresSome fantastic Rwandan hairstyles from the early 20th century, via James Hall

East Africa:  This article on Kenya’s Somali cuisine made me hungry!  I’ll have to add those restaurants to my list for my next staycation in Nairobi.  Read this piece on the history of Islam on the Kenyan coast.  Kenya may reconsider its criminalization of homosexuality in light of India’s recent decriminalization of the same.  The IGC has a new report contrasting patterns of statebuilding in Somalia and Somaliland.  This was an insightful description of how Tanzania’s Magufuli consolidated power within the CCM.  Magufuli has also called for a ban on contraception, saying that Tanzania’s population is too small.  A new report estimates that more than 380,000 people have died in South Sudan’s civil war.

Southern Africa: Members of the ANC in South Africa are brutally assassinating each other in an intra-party struggle for control.  South Africa recently legalized personal use of marijuana, but more needs to be done to ensure that the poor rural farmers who grow it also benefit.  The new On Africa podcast is kicking off with an analysis of Zimbabwe’s recent election.  Meet the woman challenging sexist laws about the inheritance of chieftaincy in Lesotho.

hospital

Here’s where every hospital in Africa is located, via Makhtar Diop

Health: Congratulations to Dr Denis Mukwege, who has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work providing healthcare to women affected by sexual violence in eastern DRC.  The Ugandan government has banned all ministers from seeking healthcare abroad.  In Kenya, an estimated seven women die each day from unsafe abortions.  This was a heartbreaking portrait of South Sudan’s best maternity hospital.  Harsh laws against adultery prevent many women in Mauritania from reporting sexual assault.

extreme povertyChart of the day via Justin Sandefur

Academia: Scholars based in Africa are encouraged to submit their papers to the Working Group on African Political Economy by October 21, and to this conference on Gendered Institutions and Women’s Political Participation in Africa by October 15.   Join this free online discussion of state-building in Tanzania with the African Politics Conference Group on October 15.  Don’t miss this essential reading list on African feminism or this new edition of Ufahamu Journal on the African university.  Let’s hold more conferences on Africa in Africa, so that African researchers don’t run into visa problems.

A chart showing that most of Africa's external debt is held by official lenders, and relatively little by ChinaAdditional chart of the day, showing that concerns about Chinese debt in Africa are rather overblown, via Quartz

Fellowships: The Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research at Syracuse has five fully-funded scholarships for African scholars to attend.  The Iso Lomso Fellowship for Early Career African Scholars is open until October 20.  Several scholarships are available for African PhD students and researchers through the Next Generation Social Science Fellowship.

Links I liked

Here’s the latest cross-posting from my Africa Update newsletter!  We’ve got the paradox of powdered milk in cattle-loving Somalia, the national airline of Chad, challenges of urban planning in Kenya, free African documentaries online, and more.

Tweet from Samira Sawlani: "There's really no such thing as the voiceless.  There are only the deliberately silence, or the preferably unheard" - Arundhati Roy
Thought of the day, via Samira Sawlani

West Africa: Because Dakar lacks public space, kids play on the beaches, despite a high risk of drowning in the strong Atlantic currents.  Stereotypes about single women in Nigeria make it difficult for them to rent apartments on their own.  “Many Nigerian small businesses are products of ‘necessity entrepreneurship’ and therefore would not exist if there were more large-scale employers offering better salaries.”  This was a thought-provoking article about why former combatants in Côte d’Ivoire generally refrained from going to work as mercenaries in Mali.

Central Africa: There’s a large Congolese refugee population in Kenya, but they lack access to support since they usually stay in Nairobi rather than in designated camps.  An activist group in the DRC has launched an online portal to track the quality of election implementation.  Kabila has finally named his successor in the DRC’s presidential race, but there’s little reason to expect that this will change the quality of governance.  The competitiveness of elections is limited by the fact that all Congolese presidential candidates must pay US$100,000 to get onto the ballot.  Lisez cet article : « Au Rwanda, la transformation agricole à marche forcée. »  Chad is launching a new national airline, which is clearly the most important priority for a poor, conflict-prone country.

Chart showing infrastructure funding flows from various sources to Africa
Interesting chart on fragmented flows of infrastructure funding, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa: Read about the informal courts maintaining order in IDP camps in South Sudan.  Over 40,000 Kenyans have been denied compensation for alleged torture during the colonial era after a British judge said their case exceeded the statute of limitations.  Kenyan activist groups are repurposing famous dates from the democracy struggle to call attention to extrajudicial killings.  This is a great story about the challenges of setting up Kenya’s first domestic athletic shoe brand.  Nairobi tried to get its private buses to go cashless, but they failed to get buy-in from an obvious constituency: the drivers.  Many Somalis drink powdered milk instead of fresh because a lack of regulation makes fresh milk dangerous, but one dairy is trying to change that.  Deaf footballers in Somalia have set up their own league after being blocked from joining existing leagues.  This was an interesting piece about path dependence and the end of sanctions in Sudan, where people who are accustomed to working outside the formal banking system are reluctant to re-engage with it.

Southern Africa: In Botswana, a new antiretroviral drug could save the lives of HIV patients, but there are concerns about whether it may lead to birth defects, since pregnant women are rarely included in studies of drug safety.  The Magamba Network offers regular polling data on citizen sentiment in Zimbabwe.

Two maps showing the distribution of development aid to Africa, from the World Bank and from China
Map interlude: check out Tilman Graff’s work on the locations of aid projects across Africa

Urban planning in Kenya: Residents of poor areas in Nairobi are mapping their neighborhoods to make it more difficult for the government to demolish them and then claim they don’t have records of who lived there.  Kibera residents are also speaking out against the “poverty tourism” which brings foreign visitors to their neighborhoods to gawk at them.  Kenya’s president has a plan to build social housing, but one critic points out that the mortgage rates are still out of reach for most people who really need access to better living conditions.  Buildings in Nairobi are being demolished for encroaching on rivers, but some commentators are asking how the demolitions will meet the city’s broader mission of urban regeneration.

Infrastructure week: Kenya and Ethiopia are close to completing construction for cross-border electricity transmission, in a step towards creating a regional power pool.  Foreign architects are accused of building schools for form rather than function in Nairobi.  The perils of distributive politics are clear in Uganda, where a politician destroyed boreholes he had installed in his constituency after he lost an election.  In Kampala, race-based restrictions on housing from the colonial era are still visible in the build environment today.

electricity
Great chart on electricity generation from Africa Visual Data

Arts and culture: A Beninese artist planted a copy of a 19th century royal throne at an archaeological dig to protest the fact that the original throne is held at a museum in France.  A dozen authors from the Middle East and Africa who were invited to the Edinburgh International Book Festival had their visas denied for unclear reasons.  AfriDocs has a number of African documentaries available to watch online for free.  Check out the online resources for teaching African decolonization at the National History Center.

Fellowships and workshops: The Women for Africa Foundation offers visiting positions at Spanish centers of excellence in science for female researchers from Africa.  If you’re a writer in Nairobi, don’t miss this great writing workshop being offered by Nanjala Nyabola and others on August 28.  Journalists should apply for the African Investigative Journalism Conference from October 29 – 31.

The curious case of the missing politics

Angus Deaton, Joseph Stiglitz, and a number of other prominent economists recently published an op-ed in the Guardian taking the aid industry to task for focusing on studies of aid effectiveness rather than “[tackling] the real root causes of poverty, inequality and climate change.”  They offer the standard critiques of RCTs, including their cost and their micro-level focus, and call for systems-level thinking which evaluates public policies as a whole, rather than tinkering with them at the edges.  They argue that this will help aid agencies to engage with the “broader macroeconomic, political and institutional drivers of impoverishment and underdevelopment.”

The op-ed manages a curious feat: it suggests a range of deeply political solutions to global poverty, all while using the words “government” and “political” each only once.  The authors call for a number of commendable policies, such as public healthcare and education, robust social safety nets, and labor protection.  But building the legislative frameworks and administrative systems that would achieve these goals is the role of national governments.  Aid agencies can offer funding and technical assistance, but they ultimately have limited control over how national education or welfare systems are run.  It’s a rhetorical sleight of hand to put the statements “the aid system is ineffective” and “public service delivery in poor places is ineffective” next to each other, and use this to imply that better aid would somehow improve public service delivery without any involvement from national governments.

In places where governments are failing to provide good public services, there are complex problems of political economy underpinning this.  You’ve got countries with active conflicts, like South Sudan or the Central African Republic.  You’ve got countries where the government has really low administrative capacity, like Liberia or the DRC.  You’ve got countries with middling to high administrative capacity, like Kenya or South Africa or the US, where lots of poor citizens are seen as politically expendable and thus aren’t offered services.  It’s difficult for aid agencies to build administrative capacity and solve problems of political exclusion from the outside, because these are fundamentally questions of domestic political settlements.  The practice of thinking and working politically could result in some improvements to aid delivery, but it doesn’t solve the underlying political economy problems.

This point highlights that the “aid is ineffective because it’s overly focused on RCTs” argument is specious.  Aid agencies haven’t ended global poverty because global poverty is a really complex problem — one whose solution involves contentious, long-term processes of political reform as well as short-term flows of funding and technical assistance.  At a practical level, there’s lots of room in here for aid agencies to both engage with local political actors, and collect rigorous evidence on whether the programs that they’re promoting are working.  At best, these activities can work together, producing strong evidence of program effectiveness which can be used to lobby domestic politicians.  A great example of this comes from the spread of cash transfer programs in Latin America.  Mexico was one of the first countries in the region to launch this type of social protection program, and hired researchers to run a rigorous evaluation as well.  The results showed that program beneficiaries were healthier and more financially secure, and politicians throughout the region often relied on these findings to promote cash transfers in their own countries.  The rich body of evidence created by subsequent evaluations of these other Latin American programs has become the cornerstone of efforts by DFID and other aid agencies to encourage African governments to adopt cash transfers.  RCTs are one of many tools that can be used to do the political work of promoting policy change in low income countries; they’re not inherently a roadblock to it, or a substitute for it.

Let’s build African research centers in Africa

The image shows a photo of LSE and text reading "LSE is the perfect setting for a centre dedicated to Africa and the ongoing education of future generations of African leaders" - Firoz LaljiImage from Africa@LSE

Via Duncan Green, I just learned about the new Centre for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID), which is hosted at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at LSE and funded with a £5 million, five-year grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.  According to LSE’s announcement, CPAID will “study how families, clans, religious leaders, aid agencies, civil society, rebel militia and vigilante groups contribute to governance, along with formal and semi-formal government institutions. The research will mainly focus on the lives of ordinary people, in particular vulnerable and marginalised groups and populations … in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ethiopia.”

These are definitely important topics, and a good corrective to the type of political science research that focuses overmuch on formal institutions in places where the state is weak.  It’s always great to see more research on the DRC and other states affected by conflict, which tend to be understudied.  And LSE’s got a very strong team of researchers.

And.

Why is it seen as neutral and acceptable to build prominent centers of African studies outside of Africa, managed primarily by people who are not from Africa?

Why does the Africa Centre’s founder, who is himself from Uganda, feel that future African leaders are better off being trained in London than in their own countries?

Why are Northern academics so good at studying inequality and uneven post-colonial power dynamics in the South, and so bad at recognizing their own role in perpetuating inequality within the international scholarly community?

Let me be clear: I think it’s really important for every country to have scholars who are interested in international affairs.  Places like the Centre for Africa or Berkeley’s own Center for African Studies do important work making African affairs accessible to their university communities, and to the broader scholarly community.  And I myself am one of those foreign scholars who’s deeply interested in Africa.

My criticism is of the way in which the exclusion of African scholars from knowledge production about Africa is seen as normal and unremarkable.  Even in the field of African studies, where local scholars would seem to have a comparative advantage, only 15% of studies are written by authors based on the continent.  The situation is even worse in the sciences, where less than 1% of the world’s scientific research comes from Africa.  We must be missing so many interesting voices, so many valuable contributions to knowledge, because we’re systematically underinvesting in African academics.  Spending £5 million to set up a research center in the UK rather than somewhere like Accra or Nairobi (or Tamale or Eldoret or Kisangani) only perpetuates the problem.

Fortunately, there are other organizations working to remedy this inequality — and I’m in the process of starting one of them.  Stay tuned for more announcements about this project in the next few days.

Making x-centric less eccentric

Lant Pritchett’s latest post about the limits of randomized controlled trials in development economics has been making the rounds of the small universe of people who care deeply about randomized controlled trials for a few weeks.  His critique, of course, is that there’s a fad for examining whether “intervention X affects outcome Y” (or “x-centric” research), but researchers often give too little attention to whether the proposed intervention is feasible and cost-effective outside the context of an academic study.

This line of criticism isn’t new, and most people I know who do development RCTs would probably agree with it.  There’s a lot of work already underway to remedy some of these shortcomings.  To take several of Lant’s points in order:

“X-centric can become eccentric by being driven by statistical power.”  Lant’s point here is that many questions we might care about, such as why China grew so rapidly after the 1970s, or why some countries have better educational outcomes than others, aren’t amenable to randomization.  This is very obviously true, and I don’t know a single person who argues that RCTs are the only valid research method for every question in economics. As the graph below shows, RCTs are still a minority of all published research in the discipline. There’s also a lot of interesting case-based research that addresses these issues, although you sometimes have to go next door to political science to find it.  Two examples that come to mind are Douglass North, Jim Wallis, and Barry Weingast’s work on the institutional prerequisites for economic growth, or Stephen Kosack on the politics of education in Taiwan, Ghana and Brazil.

The image shows a graph demonstrating that RCTs are still a fraction of all published papers in most economics journalsGraph via David McKenzie

“X-centric can become eccentric by never asking how big.”  The idea here is that many published development RCTs have results which are statistically significant, but substantively small.  For example, a study might report the headline result that tutoring improves students’ test scores — but the substantive impact might only be a difference of one percentage point.  This is definitely a challenge, and I think it’s exacerbated by economists’ tendency to present their results to non-specialists using statistical terms of art (like standard deviations) rather than more straightforward measures (like percentage point changes in test scores).  One organization that is taking some good steps towards comparing impact size across interventions is AidGrade, which has built an online tool for anyone to carry out their own meta-analysis of aid effectiveness.

“X-centric can become eccentric by ignoring external validity.”  This is the issue addressed by Evidence in Governance and Politics’ Metaketa Initiative, which offers funding for clusters of studies which examine similar interventions in different countries.  Current projects focus on questions of information and accountability, taxation, natural resource governance, and community policing.  There are also one-off initiatives like IPA’s series of Ultra Poor Graduation pilots, which replicated the same social protection intervention in seven different countries.

“X-centric can become eccentric by ignoring implementation feasibility.”  I find this critique a bit curious because it assumes we know ex ante which types of interventions will or won’t work in a given context.  One could easily assume that it wouldn’t be possible to provide biometric identification for 99% of Indian citizens, or get 94% of children in Burundi into primary school — twenty percentage points higher than the regional average, in one of the poorest countries in Africa.  But there is a valid point here that simply knowing that an intervention is effective doesn’t automatically translate into the political will to implement it on a large scale.  Organizations like Evidence Action and Evidence Aid are tackling this challenge by working with governments and NGOs to share information about successful interventions and scale them up.  Rachel Glennerster and Mary Anne Bates of JPAL have also created a new framework for assessing when an intervention can be successfully scaled or used in different country contexts.

Links I liked

The photo shows a bar of chocolate with Ghanaian adinkra symbols printed on itEdible art from 57 Chocolate in Ghana

The image shows a tweet reading, "my dream is to send a rural African village girl to Mars in a spaceship designed, built, and launched in Africa" - Elsie Kanza, WEFDreaming big (source)

  • Song of the week: Run, don’t walk, to listen to “Republique Amazone,” the debut album from new West African supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique.  Angélique Kidjo, Kandia Kouyaté, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly, Mouneissa Tandina, Nneka, Pamela Badjogo and Rokia Koné all in one place!