Spring conference highlights

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


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.

The image shows text reading "Stanford Center for International Development"

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.


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.


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.

The image shows text reading "evidence in governance and politics"

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.


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.

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.

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.

Links I liked

A map of Africa showing the population distribution. 50% of the population lives in four small areas: Nigeria, the Rift Valley, the Moroccan coast, and the Nile valley

Precolonial population distribution has remained remarkably stable.  Map via Africa Visual Data

Graph showing links between informal traders in Benin, Niger and Nigeria

Photo of the science fiction author Octavia Butler, with the caption "You've got to create your own worlds. You've got to write yourself in"

Links I liked


Celebrating the work of James Barnor, one of the first photographers to work with color film in Ghana



  • Now that I’m back in Accra I’ve been re-listening to some of the songs I had on repeat during my first long stay in Ghana in 2010.  Two of my favorites: The Very Best‘s “Kada Manja,” and Anbuley‘s bizarre, hypnotic video for “Kemo’ Yoo Keke.”