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!

Links I liked

The image shows a Ghanaian woman in a white shirt and printed dress standing in front of a banana groveOne of a wonderful series of portraits from Ghana’s first female professional photographer

  • Every headline ought to be about the horrific scale of the food crises in South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria.  Here’s how to help.  This portrait of daily life in South Sudan is deeply saddening.
  • Video of the week: in our current geopolitical climate, Gato Preto‘s recent song “Take a Stand” feels very appropriate.  The outfits are totally on point as well.

A little better all the time

The image shows a series of graphs documenting improvements in global health and governance over the last 200 years

On the off chance you’ve not seen these graphs yet, they’re a fantastic reminder of the slow and ultimately hopeful progress of development.  I wrote about this earlier at Progressive Action Daily:

For many people, 2016 felt like a year filled with injustice and loss.  There is undoubtedly a great deal of work still to be done to make our society more just and inclusive.  However, it’s also worth reflecting on the fact that societies around the world have made huge strides in improving average well-being over the last 200 years.  At Our World in Data, Max Roser shares six key charts of long-run global improvements in health, education, and governance.  And these improvements happened because people kept working for them, even when things felt difficult.  Let’s commit to do the same in 2017.