Interesting academic articles for July 2019

Here’s what I’m looking forward to reading these days!

Emmanuelle Auriol, Julie Lassebie, Amma Panin, Eva Raiber, and Paul Seabright.  2018. “God insures those who pay? Formal insurance and religious offerings in Ghana.” Working paper.

This paper provides experimental support for the hypothesis that insurance can be a motive for religious donations by members of a Pentecostal church in Ghana. We randomize enrollment into a commercial funeral insurance policy, then church members allocate money between themselves and a set of religious goods in a series of dictator games with significant stakes. Members enrolled in insurance give significantly less money to their own church compared to members that only receive information about the insurance. Enrollment also reduces giving towards other spiritual goods. We set up a model exploring different channels of religiously based insurance. The implications of the model and the results from the dictator games suggest that adherents perceive the church as a source of insurance and that this insurance is derived from beliefs in an interventionist God. Survey results suggest that material insurance from the church community is also important and we hypothesize that these two insurance channels exist in parallel.

Sudhanshu Handa, Silvio Daidone, Amber Peterman, Benjamin Davis, Audrey Pereira, Tia Palermo, and Jennifer Yablonski.  2018. “Myth-Busting? Confronting Six Common Perceptions about Unconditional Cash Transfers as a Poverty Reduction Strategy in Africa.”  World Bank Research Observer.

This paper summarizes evidence on six perceptions associated with cash transfer program- ming, using eight rigorous evaluations conducted on large-scale government unconditional cash transfers in sub-Saharan Africa under the Transfer Project. Specifically, it investigates if transfers: 1) induce higher spending on alcohol or tobacco; 2) are fully consumed (rather than invested); 3) create dependency (reduce participation in productive activities); 4) in- crease fertility; 5) lead to negative community-level economic impacts (including price distortion and inflation); and 6) are fiscally unsustainable. The paper presents evidence refuting each claim, leading to the conclusion that these perceptions—insofar as they are utilized in policy debates—undercut potential improvements in well-being and livelihood strengthening among the poor, which these programs can bring about in sub-Saharan Africa, and globally. It concludes by underscoring outstanding research gaps and policy implications for the continued expansion of unconditional cash transfers in the region and beyond

Apollo Kaneko, Thomas Kennedy, Lantao Mei, Christina Sintek, Marshall Burke, Stefano Ermon, and David Lobell.  2019. “Deep Learning For Crop Yield Prediction in Africa.”  Presented at the International Conference on Machine Learning AI for Social Good Workshop.  

Lack of food security persists in many regions around the world, especially Africa. Tracking and predicting crop yields is important for supporting humanitarian and economic development efforts. We use deep learning on satellite imagery to predict maize yields in six African countries at the district level. Our project is the first to attempt this kind of prediction in Africa. Model performance varies greatly between countries, predicting yields in the most recent years with average R2 as high as 0.56. We also experiment with transfer learning and show that, in this data sparse setting, data from other countries can help improve prediction within countries.

David McKenzie and Dario Sansone.  2019.  “Predicting entrepreneurial success is hard: Evidence from a business plan competition in Nigeria.”  Journal of Development Economics.

We compare the absolute and relative performance of three approaches to predicting outcomes for entrants in a business plan competition in Nigeria: Business plan scores from judges, simple ad-hoc prediction models used by researchers, and machine learning approaches. We find that i) business plan scores from judges are uncorrelated with business survival, employment, sales, or profits three years later; ii) a few key characteristics of entrepreneurs such as gender, age, ability, and business sector do have some predictive power for future outcomes; iii) modern machine learning methods do not offer noticeable improvements; iv) the overall predictive power of all approaches is very low, highlighting the fundamental difficulty of picking competition winners.

Pia Raffler, Daniel N. Posner, and Doug Parkerson.  2019.  “The Weakness of Bottom-Up Accountability: Experimental Evidence from the Ugandan Health Sector.”  Working paper. 

We evaluate the impact of a large-scale information and mobilization intervention designed to improve health service delivery in rural Uganda by increasing citizens’ ability to monitor and apply bottom-up pressure on underperforming health workers. Modeled closely on the landmark “Power to the People” study (Bjorkman and Svensson, 2009), the intervention was undertaken in 376 health centers in 16 districts and involved a three wave panel of more than 14,000 households. We find that while the intervention had a modest positive impact on treatment quality and patient satisfaction, it had no effect on utilization rates or health outcomes (including child mortality). We also find no evidence that the channel through which the intervention affected treatment quality was citizen monitoring. The results hold in a wide set of pre-specified subgroups and also when, via a factorial design, we break down the complex intervention into its two most important components. Our findings cast doubt on the power of information to foster community monitoring or to generate improvements in health outcomes, at least in the short term.

Thomas Calvo, Mireille Razafindrakoto, and François Roubaud.  2019.  “Fear of the state in governance surveys? Empirical evidence from African countries.”  World Development.

The need to collect data on governance-related issues has been growing since the 1990s. Demand gained momentum in 2015 with the adoption of SDG16 worldwide and Agenda 2063 in Africa. African countries played a key role in the adoption of SDG16 and are now leading the process of collecting harmonised household data on Governance, Peace and Security (GPS). Yet the possibility has recently been raised that sensitive survey data collected by government institutions are potentially biased due to self-censorship by respondents. This paper studies the potential bias in responses to what are seen as sensitive questions, here governance issues, in surveys conducted by public organisations. We compare Afrobarometer (AB) survey data, collected in eight African countries by self-professed independent institutions, with first-hand harmonised GPS survey data collected by National Statistics Offices (NSOs). We identify over 20 similarly worded questions on democracy, trust in institutions and perceived corruption. We first com- pare responses from AB survey respondents based on who they believe the survey sponsor to be. No systematic response bias is found between respondents who believe the government to be behind the AB survey and those who consider it to be conducted by an independent institution. Our estimations suggest that the observed residual differences are due to a selection bias on the observables, which is mitigated by propensity score matching procedures. The absence of a systematic self-censorship or attenuation bias is further evidenced by means of an experimental design, whereby responses from GPS surveys conducted by NSOs (the treatment) are compared with AB surveys sponsored by reportedly independent bodies. Our results provide evidence, at much higher levels of precision than other existing data sources, of the capacity and legitimacy of government-related organisations to collect data on governance as a matter of national interest and sovereignty.

Maya Berinzon and Ryan Briggs.  2019.  “Measuring and explaining formal institutional persistence in French West Africa.”  Journal of Modern African Studies.  

Colonial institutions are thought to be highly persistent, but measuring that persistence is difficult. Using a text analysis method that allows us to measure similarity between bodies of text, we examine the extent to which one formal institution the penal code has retained colonial language in seven West African countries. We find that the contemporary penal codes of most countries retain little colonial language. Additionally, we find that it is not meaningful to speak of institutional divergence across the unit of French West Africa, as there is wide variation in the legislative post-coloniality of individual countries. We present preliminary analyses explaining this variation and show that the amount of time that a colony spent under colonisation correlates with more persistent colonial institutions.

Benjamin Rubbers.  2019.  “Mining Boom, Labour Market Segmentation and Social Inequality in the Congolese Copperbelt.”  Development and Change.

The study of the impacts of new mining projects in Africa is generally set in a normative debate about their possible contribution to development, which leads to a representation of African societies as divided between beneficiaries and victims of foreign investments. Based on research in the Congolese copperbelt, this article aims to examine in more detail the inequalities generated by the recent mining boom by taking the processes of labour market segmentation as a starting point. It shows that the labour market in the mining sector has progressively been organized along three intersecting lines that divide it: the first is between employment in industrial and artisanal mining companies, the second is between jobs for mining or subcontracting companies and the third is between jobs for expatriates, Congolese skilled workers and local unskilled workers. Far from simply reflecting existing social in- equalities, the labour market has been actively involved in their creation, and its control has caused growing tensions in the Congolese copperbelt region. Although largely neglected in the literature on extractive industries, processes of labour market segmentation are key to making sense of the impacts of mining investments on the shape of societies in the global South.

Benjamin Chemouni.  2019.  “The rise of the economic technocracy in Rwanda: A case of a bureaucratic pocket of effectiveness or state-building prioritisation?”  Effective States and Inclusive Development working paper #120.

The Rwandan Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning (MINECOFIN) is recognised as the most effective organisation in the Rwandan state. The objective of the paper is to understand the organisational and political factors influencing MINECOFIN’s performance since the genocide and link them to the wider conversation on the role of pockets of effectiveness (PoEs) in state-building in Africa. It argues that, because of the Rwandan political settlement and elite vulnerability, MINECOFIN is not a PoE but only a good performer in a generally well functioning state. The Ministry overperforms first because, unsurprisingly, the nature of its tasks is specific, requires little embeddedness and allows a great exposure to donors, making its mandate easier to deliver in comparison to other organisations. MINECOFIN also performs better than other state organisations because it is, more than others, at the frontline of the elite legitimation project since it is the organisation through which resources are channelled, priorities decided, and developmental efforts coordinated. Given the rulers’ need for an effective state as a whole, MINECOFIN appears only as the lead climber in a wider dynamics of systematic state building.

Mapping the research-to-policy cycle with PEP

A poster describing research on school to work transitions in Benin.  The main finding is that young people find jobs more quickly out of school if they have apprenticeships, or if they work during summer break while they're still in school
An example of one of PEP’s posters about the research-to-policy cycle

I recently learned about the work of the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP), a non-profit which supports economists in low- and middle-income countries in doing policy-relevant research.  They’ve got a massive list of interesting projects.  Most strikingly, according to the conference presentation I heard about them, nearly 30% of their completed projects have been shown to have some policy influence.  (Whether this is high or low I’m not quite sure, since most research firms don’t try to measure policy impact so precisely, but it’s certainly striking given the general difficulties of connecting research to policymakers.)

One thing PEP is doing really well is telling the stories of how their research came to be incorporated into policy.  For the researcher in a hurry, their impact page has a series of short stories about research uptake.  Going into more depth, their policy briefs also document how researchers worked with policymakers, as in these examples on cash transfers in Nigeria and taxes in Cameroon.  And for conference presentations, they’ve got useful posters on the same themes, such as these on women’s employment in Senegal and microfinance in Nigeria, as well as the example above from Benin.

PEP certainly isn’t the only research firm to documents its policy impact in this way.  Both IPA and J-PAL have great case studies of their policy influence.  I think what stood out to me about PEP was the variety of formats, and particularly the visual presentation of the posters — I could easily skim them to figure out what the process of collaborating with policymakers had looked like.  Must give some thought to how to incorporate this into Mawazo’s work as well.

Rwanda revisits the idea of manufacturing-driven growth

A gleaming building with the words "Convention Centre" written on it, and a sort of beehive-like structure on top lit up in blue and yellow
The Kigali Convention Centre, via GovernmentZA on Flickr

The Africa at LSE blog has an interesting piece by Georges Quist about the role of manufacturing in Rwanda’s development plan.  As he notes,

This development strategy has attempted to leapfrog Rwanda from the primary sector of unprocessed agricultural production (mainly tea and coffee) to modern services – prioritising finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) and meetings, incentives and conferences (MICE) over manufacturing. The country’s rather agnostic stance toward industrial production is salient in its twenty-year development strategy, laid out in 2000, which highlights service provision (particularly in tourism and finance) as Rwanda’s main engine for growth.

The Kigali Convention Centre, pictured above, is the cornerstone of the meetings & conferences strategy.   (I must say I can’t quite get on board with the acronyms, though — fire and mice sound like your realtor has some uncomfortable truths to tell you.)

I understand the government’s reluctance to focus on manufacturing, as its domestic market is small and its geopolitical neighborhood makes exports risky.  The country has poor relations, involving semi-regular border closures, with three of its four neighbors (DRC, Burundi, and Uganda).  Relations with Tanzania seem all right, but a rail link between Kigali and the port in Dar es Salaam won’t be operational for at least three more years, meaning that all cargo currently goes overland along poorly maintained roads.  And in general, the EAC countries aren’t doing nearly as much to facilitate regional trade integration as they ought to be.

Despite all of this, Rwanda is apparently now taking its chances with greater investment in domestic manufacturing.  As Quist writes,

Rwanda’s Domestic Market Recapturing Strategy recognises this growth model’s shortcomings, as revenue from services have not been enough to cover the country’s import purchases. To improve its finances and challenge its naysayers, the government now places more emphasis on the promotion of firms in light manufacturing (textiles and garments) and agro-processing, a diversifying of the economy the recapitalised Rwanda Development Bank is tasked with supporting.

It will be very interesting to see how this proceeds!  For more background on the subject, check out Pritish Behuria’s recent paper on Rwanda’s industrial policy as well.

Africa Update for July 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the CAR’s only pediatric hospital, Zambian superheroes on Netflix, new books on medieval African history, the feminists of Cameroon, and more.

West Africa: Lagos alone accounts for 70% of Nigeria’s tax base.  Check out this reading list on Nigerian political history.  Here are 10 essential Nigerian recipes.  This was a great read about feminist organizing in response to the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon.  In response to increasing attacks by armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso, the government has adopted a troubling policy of extrajudicially executing suspected sympathizers.

A map of protests in Africa, showing increased activity from 2007 to 2017
Protests in Africa, via ISS Africa

Central Africa: In the DRC, president Tshisekedi’s power continues to be constrained, with a majority of Cabinet seats going to ex-president Kabila’s coalition, and Kabila still living in the presidential villa. In Burundi, the ruling party has begun charging people a new “election tax” as often as they’d like to do so.

East Africa: This was a good profile of Hemedti, the former Janjaweed commandernow leading Sudan.  In South Sudan, decades of conflict has pushed most people away from growing their own food and towards purchasing it at markets.  I wrote about what traffic tickets can tell us about statebuilding in Kenya.  This was an interesting history of economic protectionism in Kenya.  A new Human Rights Watch report documents the disturbing record of extrajudicial killings by the Kenyan police.

lamu
A dhow off the coast of Kenya, by Khadija Farah

Southern Africa: So many Zimbabweans are trying to leave the country that the wait time for a passport is more than a year.  Netflix is launching its first original African animated series, about teenaged female superheroes living in Lusaka.  Congratulations to Botswana’s Gogontlejang Phaladi, who joined the ranks of great explorers by discovering a new body of water in Switzerland and naming it Letamo.

Public health: This is a remarkable story about the Central African Republic’s only pediatric hospital.  One of the coordinators of Liberia’s Ebola response team offers unconventional suggestions about incentivizing people to cooperate with Ebola vaccinators in the DRC.  The DRC is also one of the world’s largest quinine exporters, producing 30% of the world’s supply of the anti-malarial drug.  In South Africa, the urban environment in Johannesburg makes it difficult for women to get enough exercise.

aida muleneh
“Denkinesh: Part Two,” by Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh

Research corner: Read about the challenging experience of being a female researcher in eastern DRC.  Check out TMC’s summer reading list on African politics, and this wonderful review of books on medieval African history.  Here’s what needed to improve the quality of research output at African universities.  Researchers in many African countries can get free online access to Taylor & Francis journals through their STAR program.  African students interested in a science PhD should apply to the RSIF PASET PhD scholarship program by July 22.

The arts: This is a great thread on affordable, contemporary architectural design across Africa.  Did you know that Bollywood films are huge in Somalia?  If you’re in Accra this summer, don’t miss the Accra Animation Film festival from July 27 – August 2.  African writers should apply to the Miles Morland writing fellowship by September 30.

Are M-Pesa’s poverty reduction powers overstated?

A Kenyan woman stands in front of a green kiosk with the word MPesa prominently painted on it

Photo via Fiona Graham / World Remit

There’s been a bit of a stir on Kenyan Twitter lately about a new (and ungated) Review of African Political Economy article by Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack, and Nicholas Loubere.  In it, they take on Tavneet Suri and William Jack’s claim in Science that the M-Pesa mobile money platform has led to reductions in poverty in Kenya by making it easier for people to access remittances from family and friends, and consequently giving them more money to start small businesses.

Writing at Developing Economics, Bateman et al. argue that Suri & Jack’s argument falls short in several ways.  First, informal microenterprises are rarely profitable.  In addition, there’s a question of general equilibrium effects:

Some of the purported gains made by M-Pesa clients inevitably come at the expense of existing microenterpriseswhich will contract, lose income, and possibly close. Moreover, the influx of new microenterprises has undoubtedly had negative knock-on effects for entire local economies, driving down already tiny profit margins and exacerbating hypercompetitive markets dominated by the poor acting as producers.

Second, M-Pesa facilitates not just remittances, but also borrowing.  More than 25% of Kenyans have taken out a loan through one of the many mobile money borrowing facilities available, and about half of those borrowers have struggled to make payments on time, according to a CGAP report.  There’s an implicit argument here that trapping poor people in debt is unethical, although it’s not obvious to me that cutting poor people off from credit is ethical either.

Third, Bateman et al. also question Suri & Jack’s methods, suggesting that the observed increased in wealth in areas with more M-Pesa agents is driven by clustering of agents in wealthier areas, rather than changes facilitated by access to M-Pesa.  I’m not as convinced by this.  Suri & Jack used panel data from 2008 – 2014 to measure the impact of M-Pesa expansion up until 2010.  They picked this cutoff date for M-Pesa because the distribution of agents up till that point (but not afterwards) wasn’t strongly correlated with local income levels.

My take on all of this is that I don’t think Suri & Jack have fundamentally misunderstood the economic effects of M-Pesa expansion.  However, I think the point about general equilibrium effects is an important one, and one that’s generally underdiscussed in the literature on microfinance and microenterprises.

Interesting academic articles for June 2019

Here are the articles I’m looking forward to reading!  Also, out of consideration for the many people who don’t have access to gated academic journals, I’m switching to a policy of only sharing articles which have ungated editions available online, whether as working papers or through Sci-Hub.

Lachlan McNamee.  2019.  “Indirect colonial rule and the salience of ethnicity.”  World Development.

Why is ethnicity more salient in some contexts than in others? This paper provides new theory and evidence linking indirect colonial rule to the contemporary salience of ethnicity in sub-Saharan Africa. Using Afrobarometer survey data, I establish a substantively significant cross-national relationship between the indirectness of colonial rule and the strength of contemporary ethnic identification in sub-Saharan Africa. To show that this relationship is causal, I then exploit a sub-national research design leveraging regional variation in direct and indirect colonial rule across the country of Namibia. I show that, controlling for location and ethnicity, indirect colonial rule is also associated with stronger ethnic identification within Namibia both across the country as a whole and within 50 km of the border dividing indirectly and directly ruled areas of Namibia. This paper then disentangles why indirect rule is so robustly associated with the salience of ethnicity. I theorize and provide evidence that the effects of indirect rule can be attributed to the greater importance of traditional leaders and ethnically demarcated customary land rights in formerly indirectly ruled areas. As such, this paper helps uncover the causes of important regional variation in the salience of ethnicity, advances our understanding of the institutional origins of ethnic conflict in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and thus why indirect colonial rule is so often associated with poor developmental outcomes.

Zora Kovacic, Josephine Kaviti Musango, Lorraine Amollo Ambole, Kareem Buyana, Suzanne Smit, Christer Anditi, Baraka Mwau, Madara Ogot, Shuaib Lwasa, Alan C. Brent, Gloria Nsangi, and Hakimu Sseviiri.  2019.  “Interrogating differences: A comparative analysis of Africa’s informal settlements.”  World Development.

Urban development in Africa is a very diverse and ambivalent phenomenon with aspects that do not fall neatly into global standards. Informal settlements therefore challenge governance by standards. We argue that quantifying and interrogating differences offers a better basis for governance. By drawing on a comparative analysis of three different informal settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa, this paper explores what differences reveal about the governance of informal settlements. The paper uses an urban societal metabolism approach, focussed on gender, energy and health, based on questionnaires and focus group discussions in Enkanini (Stellenbosch, South Africa), Mathare (Nairobi, Kenya), and Kasubi-Kawaala (Kampala, Uganda). The contribution of the paper is both empirical and theoretical. Empirically, we provide new evidence about the metabolism of urban informality at multiple levels of analysis: the individual, the household and the settlement. Findings show the gender asymmetries in urban poverty and the intricate links between energy choices, health and economic status. Theoretically, we argue that different levels of analysis produce different understandings of urban informality, and that analyzing informal settlements only by population aggregates means missing information. We conclude by arguing that understanding differences leads to the formulation of modest and localised goals, which are better able to take into account the complexity of urban informality.

Henry B. Lovejoy, Paul E. Lovejoy, Walter Hawthorne, Edward A. Alpers, Mariana Candido, Matthew S. Hopper.  2019.  “Redefining African Regions for Linking Open-Source Data.” History in Africa.  

In recent years, an increasing number of online archival databases of primary sources related to the history of the African diaspora and slavery have become freely and readily accessible for scholarly and public consumption. This proliferation of digital projects and databases presents a number of challenges related to aggregating data geographically according to the movement of people in and out of Africa across time and space. As a requirement to linking data of open-source digital projects, it has become necessary to delimit the entire continent of precolonial Africa during the era of the slave trade into broad regions and sub-regions that can allow the grouping of data effectively and meaningfully.

Sam Hickey.  2019.  “The politics of state capacity and development in Africa: Reframing and researching ‘pockets of effectiveness.”  Effective States in International Development working paper 117.

The role of bureaucratic ‘pockets of effectiveness’ (PoEs) in driving development is generating renewed interest within development studies and, to an extent, development policy. Existing research on PoEs emphasises that politics plays a leading role in shaping the emergence and sustainability of high-performing public sector organisations. However, the field as yet lacks a clear sense of the conditions under which this happens, partly because of a tendency to see PoEs as ‘islands’ that are divorced from their political context, and partly because there has been no attempt as yet to undertake systematic comparative analysis of PoEs across different types of political context. This paper sets out the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of a new project that seeks to address these problems within the context of sub-Saharan Africa. Drawing on an alignment of political settlements analysis with critical theories of state power and African politics, the paper argues that PoEs are both shaped by, and help to reproduce, particular forms of politics and institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. This means that PoEs are not simply interesting objects of enquiry in and of themselves, but also because they can reveal a good deal about how the competing logics of regime survival, state-building and democratisation are playing out in Africa and what implications this has for development. The paper proposes a methodological approach for identifying and exploring PoEs and briefly summarises the results of the expert surveys that we undertook in our four initial countries, namely Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia, which were chosen to represent different types of political settlement. These surveys resulted in our project focusing mainly on the economic technocracy as the key domain within which PoEs have flourished, particularly in terms of ministries of finance, central banks and revenue authorities, along with some other interesting outliers and underlying processes of state-building. Further papers from this project will include in-depth case studies of these specific PoEs and processes in each country, synthesised country analyses and comparative overviews.

Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell.  2019.  “Leader Succession and Civil War.”  Comparative Political Studies.  

Leadership succession is a perennial source of instability in autocratic regimes. Despite this, it has remained a curiously understudied phenomenon in political science. In this article, we compile a novel and comprehensive dataset on civil war in Europe and combine it with data on the fate of monarchs in 28 states over 800 years to investigate how autocratic succession affected the risk of civil war. Exploiting the natural deaths of monarchs to identify exogenous variation in successions, we find that successions substantially increased the risk of civil war. The risk of succession wars could, however, be mitigated by hereditary succession arrangements (i.e., primogeniture— the principle of letting the oldest son inherit the throne). When hereditary monarchies replaced elective monarchies in Europe, succession wars declined drastically. Our results point to the importance of the succession, and the institutions governing it, for political stability in autocratic regimes.

Adrien Bouguen, Yue Huang, Michael Kremer, and Edward Miguel.  2019.  “Using Randomized Controlled Trials to Estimate Long-Run Impacts in Development Economics.”  Annual Review of Economics.

We assess evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on long-run economic productivity and living standards in poor countries. We first document that several studies estimate large positive long-run impacts, but that relatively few existing RCTs have been evaluated over the long run. We next present evidence from a systematic survey of existing RCTs, with a focus on cash transfer and child health programs, and show that a meaningful sub- set can realistically be evaluated for long-run effects. We discuss ways to bridge the gap between the burgeoning number of development RCTs and the limited number that have been followed up to date, including through new panel (longitudinal) data; improved participant tracking methods; alternative research designs; and access to administrative, remote sensing, and cell phone data. We conclude that the rise of development economics RCTs since roughly 2000 provides a novel opportunity to generate high-quality evidence on the long-run drivers of living standards.