Links I liked

Lately I’ve been sending out link-roundups via my monthly Africa Update newsletter.  I thought I’d have a go at cross-posting them here as well.  Here’s what I found interesting in July.

West Africa: Aliko Dangote is building an oil refinery of staggering size in southern Nigeria.  Peugot will start assembling cars in northern Nigeria in 2019.  Here are 23 things to know before you to to Freetown.  Read about the Ghanaian paradox of rapid economic growth with continuing inequality and high unemployment.

Central Africa: A new report shows that conflict minerals legislation in the US didn’t reduce conflict in the DRC, but rather increased infant mortality rates as miners were thrown out of work.  Decentralization in the DRC may be changing the way that ethnic coalitions work in politics.  This was a strong piece of analysis about why the Congolese government has incentives to sign contracts for oil but not to allow companies to actually start drilling.

East Africa:  Read all about East Africa’s heroin coast.  Eritreans has been told that there will be time limits for national service, which currently involves a forcible recruitment process of unlimited duration.  Hostages are more likely to be released from Somali pirates when negotiators pay the pirates’ expenses, but not necessarily the whole ransom.  Peace deals in South Sudan keep failing because the SPLM still thinks it might win a military victory.  The latest edition of the Otherwise podcast addresses extrajudicial killings in poor Nairobi neighborhoods.  30,000 Kenyans are now homeless after the government demolished their houses in Kibera to make room for a new road.

Tweet from Shailja Patel reading "We don't need more roads. We need safe, efficient, zero-emissions, mass transit. We need good, humane, green, high-density public housing. We need universal access to renewable power, clean water, sanitation, free healthcare, free education."
Shailja Patel on the recent forced evictions in Nairobi

Southern Africa: Zimbabwe is re-opening its Literature Bureau to promote works in indigenous languages.  Lisez la légende retrouvée de Yasuke, un originaire de Moçambique qui est devenu le premier samouraï noir du Japon.  Angola has given legal recognition to a gay rights group.

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Africa’s longest suspension bridge is now open in Mozambique (via James Hall)

Politics and economics: You can now read the 2018 African Economic Outlook report in Kiswahili, Hausa and Arabic.  This was a refreshing take on Chinese investment in Africa, including the observations that many Chinese firms are risk averse and demand multiple types of insurance before they’ll take on new projects.  Don’t miss these engaging summaries of African researchers’ perspectives on peacebuilding, and this alternative economics reading list featuring work by women and people of color.

A map of Africa showing various legal limits on presidents' terms in office
Infographic on term limits via Facts About Africa

Taxes: Rwanda is using satellite data to increase collection of property taxes.  Read this in-depth post about how the Lagos state government launched a “wicked, satanic” attempt to change its land valuation practices in order to increase tax revenue.  Al-Shabaab is surprisingly good at collecting taxes.  This was a gripping read about the politicized dismantling of South Africa’s tax agency.

Women’s rights:  The mother of a Kenyan teenager who died after having a backstreet abortion is suing the government for not making the procedure accessible, as the Constitution requires.  Rwandan men are offering more support and autonomy for their wives after participating in workshops led by other men about the importance of women’s rights.  In the DRC, pharmacists often deny birth control to women who aren’t married.  Nigeria has its first tech accelerator exclusively focused on women’s start-ups.

Impact evaluation:  IDS is running a workshop on engaging evidence and policy for social change in January.  Submit your studies to the new African Education Research Database.  This was a good interview with Evidence Action about the political processes of scaling up pilot projects.  JPAL has published a new set of guidelines for measuring women’s empowerment.

Tweet from Dina Pomeranz reading "Amid lots of heading debates among development economists about many methodological issues, one debate seems glaringly absent: why is our discipline still so dominated by researchers without roots in developing countries, and what are we doing to change that?"
Important questions from Dina Pomeranz

Research:  “The uncomfortable truth is that some Western scholars too readily dismiss the intellectual labor of Global South partners to research assistance and facilitation.”  If you’re an African scientist, you can submit preprints of your work in local languages to the new open-source archive AfricArXiv.  Read this passionate critique of the idea that “there is no data in Africa,” then go check out the freely available data from the Sauti za Wananchi survey in Tanzania.  If you’re looking for survey research support in Kenya, one of my partner’s colleagues just founded Kenya Research Aid Services.  I’ve donated to send Rebeccah Wambui to present her work on reducing road deaths in Kenya at the International Youth Science Fair — please consider supporting her as well!

Arts and literature: This looks like a lovely documentary about the West African poets Syl Cheney-Coker and Niyi Osundare.  Here are five Sudanese books you should read.  Stream the forgotten films of Sudan online.  This piece considers the ethics and logistics of returning stolen Ethiopian artwork to its country of origin.  Don’t miss these African Instagrammers documenting the continent’s hidden hotspots.  Congratulations to Makena Onjerika for winning the 2018 Caine Prize for her short story “Fanta Blackcurrant”!

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Stunning photos from Kenyan artist Kabutha Kago, via Alvin Abdullah

Twitter: Interesting people I followed recently include Yvonne Oduor (Kenya), Caroline Njuki (Kenya), Halimatou Hima (Niger), Zaahida Nabagereka (Uganda), Namata Serumaga-Musisi (Ghana), and Akosua Adomako Ampofo(Ghana).

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.

Spring conference highlights

It’s been a busy few months of conferences around Berkeley!

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Christine Simiyu.  “Take-up, Use and Impact of Reusable Sanitary Products Provision and Puberty Training on Education and Health Outcomes in Rural Kenya.”  Presented at Berkeley’s Development Economics Lunch.

Michael Mbate.  Partisanship and Decentralized Corruption: Evidence from Kenya.” Presented at Berkeley’s Development Economics Lunch.

Unfortunately neither of these papers is online yet.  I mention them to highlight the excellent work being done by Berkeley’s EASST program in supporting the research of African scholars.  Follow their blog to learn about more great funding opportunities for African academics.

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Gabriel Tourek.  “Simplified Income Taxation of Firms: Evidence from a Rwandan Reform.”  Presented at the Development and Political Economics Graduate Student Conference (DEVPEC).

This paper isn’t public yet, but do keep an eye out for it.  It discusses a 2012 tax reform in Rwanda, and finds interesting results in small firms’ decisions about whether to pay taxes or evade them.

Elisa Maffioli.  “The Political Economy of Slow-Onset Disasters: Evidence from the Ebola Outbreak.”  Presented at DEVPEC.

Another very interesting work in progress.  The paper focuses on Liberia, where elections were held in 2014 in the middle of the response to the Ebola outbreak, and examines whether electoral concerns affected the government’s provision of disaster relief.

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Craig McIntosh, Karen Ferree, Clark Gibson, Danielle F. Jung, and James D. Long.  “Using Technology to Promote Participation in Emerging Democracies: VIP:Voice and the 2014 South African Election.”  Presented at Smart Government: Harnessing Technology for Public Good.

Abstract: Can technology help citizens overcome barriers to participation in emerging democracies? We argue that, by lowering costs, technology brings new participants into the political process. However, people induced to action through lower costs are different from those participating when costs are higher. Specifically, they are likely to have lower intrinsic motivations to participate and greater sensitivity to external incentives. By inducing selection effects, technology thus generates a crowd that is both more responsive to incentives (malleable) and more sensitive to costs (fragile). In this paper, we report on VIP:Voice, a platform we engineered to encourage South African citizens to engage politically through an ICT/DM platform. VIP: Voice recruited South Africans through a variety of methods, including over 50 million ‘Please Call Me’ messages, and provided a multi-channel platform allowing citizens to engage via low-tech mobile phones and high-tech social media. It encouraged purely digital forms of participation like answering survey questions about the election as well as more costly real world activities like monitoring a polling station. VIP:Voice generated engagement of some form in over 250,000 South Africans. Engagement proved sensitive to cost of action, however, with rapid attrition as action shifted from digital to real world forms. Not surprisingly, improving the ease and reducing the price of participation increased participation. Less obviously, these manipulations also influenced the nature of the group participating. Participants who entered the platform through user friendly social media channels and those who joined as a result of incentives were more sensitive to rising costs of action than those who initially engaged through less friendly channels and without material inducements. Our study thus reveals how, more than merely enabling participation, technology shapes the very nature of the crowd that forms.

Kelly Bidwell, Katherine Casey, and Rachel Glennerster.  “Debates: The Impact of Voter Knowledge Initiatives in Sierra Leone.”  Presented at Smart Government.

Abstract: Debates between candidates for public office have a rich historical tradition and remain an integral part of contemporary campaign strategy. There is, however, no definitive evidence of whether debates affect actual voting behavior. Limited media penetration implies that the effects of publicizing debates could be more pronounced, persistent and directly linked to electoral outcomes in the developing world. We experimentally manipulate citizen exposure to debates between Parliamentary candidates in Sierra Leone to measure their impacts on, and the interconnections between, voter behavior, campaign spending, and the performance of elected politicians. We find evidence of strong positive impacts on citizen political knowledge, policy alignment and votes cast on Election Day. We then document an endogenous response by participating candidates, who increased their campaign expenditure in communities where videotapes of the debates were screened in large public gatherings. A complementary series of individual treatment arms unpacks the di§fferent types of information delivered by the debates, and finds evidence that voters respond to both candidate charisma and “hard facts” about policy stance and professional qualiÖcations. Lastly, we find longer term accountability e§ects on elected MPs, where participation in debates led to higher levels of constituency engagement and development expenditure during their first year in office.

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Mahmood Mamdani.  “Between the public intellectual and the scholar: decolonization and some post-independence initiatives in African higher education.”  Presented at CAS.

Abstract: This article focuses on epistemological decolonization, including knowledge production and its institutional locus – the university – in the post-independence African context. The article begins by problematizing both the concept and the institutional history of the university, in its European and African contexts, to underline the specifically modern character of the university as we know it and its genesis in post-Renaissance Europe. Against this background, the article traces post-independence reform of universities in Africa, which is unfolding in two waves: the first on access, Africanization, generating a debate between rights and justice; and the second on institutional reform, epitomized by the debate around disciplinarity. At the same time, the notions of excellence and relevance have functioned as code words, each signaling a different trajectory in the historical development of the university. Lastly, the article explores the role and tension between the public intellectual and the scholar from the perspective of decolonization.

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Melina Platas Izama and Pia Raffler.  “Meet the Candidates: Information and Accountability in Primary and General Elections.”  Presented at EGAP.

Abstract: What is the effect of information on political behavior? This field experiment, conducted in Uganda during the 2015 primary and 2016 general elections, will systematically assess the conditions under which information about candidates and government performance affects voter behavior. We examine two different methods of providing information: debate-like “Meet the Candidate” sessions and a scorecard. “Meet the Candidate” sessions include video-recorded candidate statements on a set of questions related to policy preferences. These sessions will be publicly screened in one set of polling stations and privately to individuals in another set of polling stations. The screenings will take place in both an intra-party and inter-party electoral environment, in the 2015 primary elections of the ruling party, and 2016 general elections. Thus, we examine systematically two factors that we hypothesize will affect the effect of information on voter behavior: the political environment and the public vs. private nature of information provision.

Claire Adida, Jessica Gottlieb, Eric Kramon, and Gwyneth McClendon.  “Can Common Knowledge Improve Common Goods?”  Presented at EGAP.

Abstract: This project provides citizens in Benin with information about legislator performance while varying (1) the salience of the information to voters’ wellbeing, and (2) whether performance information is disseminated privately or in groups.  A random sample of citizens will receive legislator performance information as part of a private screening, and another random sample will receive it as part of a public screening. Additionally, a random sample of citizens will receive a “civics message” in which arguments and examples are provided about the important implications of national legislation and oversight for citizens’ wellbeing in addition to legislator performance information; the rest will receive only the legislator performance information. In control villages, no information will be disseminated either publicly or privately. The electoral behavior of respondents in the different treatment conditions will be compared to the electoral behavior of respondents in control villages.

The image shows a map of the world with Africa highlightedKatrina Kosec, Hosaena Ghebru, Brian Holtemeyer, and Valerie Mueller.  “The Effect of Land Access on Youth Employment and Migration Decisions: Evidence from Rural Ethiopia.” Presented at the Annual Bank Conference on Africa (ABCA).

 

Abstract: How does the amount of land youth expect to inherit affect their migration and employment decisions? We explore this question in the context of rural Ethiopia using data on whether youth household members from 2010 had migrated by 2014, and in which sector they work. We estimate a household fixed effects model and exploit exogenous variation in the timing of land redistributions to overcome endogenous household decisions about how much land to bequeath to descendants. We find that larger expected land inheritances significantly lower the likelihood of long-distance permanent migration and of permanent migration to urban areas. Inheriting more land also leads to a significantly higher likelihood of employment in agriculture and a lower likelihood of employment in the non-agricultural sector. Conversely, the decision to attend school is unaffected. These results appear to be most heavily driven by males and by the older half of our youth sample. We also find suggestive evidence that several mediating factors matter. Land inheritance is a much stronger predictor of rural-to-urban permanent migration and non-agricultural-sector employment in areas with less vibrant land markets, in relatively remote areas (those far from major urban centers), and in areas with lower soil quality. Overall, these results affirm the importance of push factors in dictating occupation and migration decisions in Ethiopia.

Margaux Vinez.  “Division of the Commons and Access to Land on The Frontier: Lessons from The Colonial Legacy in The Democratic Republic of Congo.”  Presented at ABCA.

Abstract: What is the importance of colonial policies in shaping today’s land tenure institutions and inequalities in access to land? This paper sheds light on this question by analyzing ”paysannat”, a colonial intervention in the Belgian Congo attempting to push the evolution of the tenure system from communal toward private property rights. In the context of forced cultivation of cash crops, the Colony imposed the privatization of collectively owned land (forests or fallows) to individual farmers in some villages. Using spatial discontinuities of the implementation of paysannat and a unique combination of contemporary household survey data, geographic data, as well as historic data from both colonial records and contemporary oral history surveys, this paper shows that paysannat had a persistent impact on local land institutions through its impact on the privatization of collective land. We find that paysannat was successful in pushing toward the indivualization of the commons, and that it had important distribution consequences between the clanic groups.

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Philip Roessler, Yannick I. Pengl, Rob Marty, Kyle Titlow, and Nicolas van de Walle.  “The Empty Panorama: The Origins of Spatial Inequality in Africa.”  Presented at the Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE).

This paper isn’t online yet, but definitely keep an eye out for it — it’s a monumental data collection effort which sheds new light on questions of inequality in Africa.

Josephine Gatua.  “Social connections and primary health care: evidence from Kenya.”  Presented at WGAPE.

Abstract: Access and utilization of health services remains low in developing countries despite the documented benefits to health. This paper analyses the local political economy of the health sector which has so far gained very little attention. Particularly, I exam- ine whether social connections between households and locally instituted health care providers affects the number of health care visits and access to essential antimalarial drugs. I also examine how access to health care and social connections affect household health seeking behaviour. I find that households that have strong social connections to the local health care providers within a community get more health care visits and are more likely to receive health commodities for free. The results further suggest that households that get more visits have better health seeking behavior in terms of testing for malaria and complying with the antimalarial treatment regime. However, kin are less likely to comply with the treatment regime compared to non-kin. Evidence suggests that local health care providers fair behavior is influenced by the amount of compensation they get.

Jonathan Weigel.  “Building State and Citizen: Experimental Evidence from a Tax Campaign in Congo.”  Presented at WGAPE.

This paper also isn’t available online.  Here’s an abstract from the pre-analysis plan:

This pre-analysis plan (PAP) outlines a randomized evaluation of the first citywide property tax campaign led by the Provincial Government in Kananga, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The primary intervention randomly assigns certain neighborhoods to receive the door-to-door tax collection program, aided by tablet computers and handheld receipt print- ers. Because collecting taxes on the ground also creates new opportunities for corruption, two cross-randomized interventions are used to study how to limit bribe taking. First, a collector monitoring (‘audit’) intervention is randomly assigned among neighborhoods that receive the program. Second, a citizen-level information intervention is randomly assigned among all neighborhoods in the city.

There are four broad strands of the analysis: (1) the effect of the tax program on citizens’ beliefs about the government and their efforts to hold it accountable; (2) the effects of the top-down audit intervention and the bottom-up information intervention on bribe taking associated with the program; (3) the determinants of productivity, honesty, and effort among state agents in the field; and (4) the citizen-side determinants of tax compliance in poor urban settings.

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 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.

Links I liked

The photo shows a beachfront scene, framed by a window, in Durban, South AfricaThinking of this beautiful view in Durban on a rainy day here in Berkeley

The image shows a tweet from Tolu Ogunlesi, expressing admiration for the percentage of books on South Africa which are by South African authors

  • Enthusiasm for universal basic income is spreading, with new pilot projects recently announced in Scotland and Finland.  An interesting argument for the positive effects of UBI is that it already exists for the 1% in the form of capital income.