Interesting academic articles for August 2019

Here’s what I’m looking forward to reading this month!

George Kwaku Ofosu.  2019. “Do Fairer Elections Increase the Responsiveness of Politicians?”  American Political Science Review.

Leveraging novel experimental designs and 2,160 months of Constituency Development Fund (CDF) spending by legislators in Ghana, I examine whether and how fairer elections promote democratic responsiveness. The results show that incumbents elected from constituencies that were randomly assigned to intensive election-day monitoring during Ghanas 2012 election spent 19 percentage points more of their CDFs during their terms in office compared with those elected from constituencies with fewer monitors. Legislators from all types of constituencies are equally present in parliament, suggesting that high levels of monitoring do not cause politicians to substitute constituency service for parliamentary work. Tests of causal mechanisms provide suggestive evidence that fairer elections motivate high performance through incumbentsexpectations of electoral sanction and not the selection of better candidates. The article provides causal evidence of the impact of election integrity on democratic accountability.

Guillaume Nicaise.  2019.  “Local power dynamics and petty corruption in Burundi.”  Journal of Eastern African Studies.

Based on five months’ field research in two districts of Burundi (Bukeye and Mabayi), this case study analyses tax collectors’ rationales and informal practices during their interactions with citizens. The analysis also examines local governance, in order to understand how informal practices are accepted, legitimised and even supported by local authorities. Field observations reveal a fluctuating balance of power, and the various constraints and room for manoeuvre used by local agents dealing with tax payers. Further, an investigation into tax enforcement provides a basis for measuring the discrepancy between, on the one hand, formal good governance norms and standards of behaviour and, on the other, informal strategies developed by local civil servants and officials. The article demonstrates that corruption is mainly a social phenomenon, far from its formal definition, which generally refers only to the search of private gains. Corruption is systemic and part of the current CNDD-FDD party’s governance framework in Burundi, relying on public administration’s politicisation, solidarity networks and socio-economic factors. More broadly, the article shows that corruption labelling remains topical to spur a State conception and structural changes through ‘good governance’ and anti-corruption norms.

Jennifer Brass, Kirk Harris and Lauren MacLean.  2019.  “Is there an anti-politics of electricity? Access to the grid and reduced political participation in Africa.”  Afrobarometer working paper no. 182.

Electricity is often argued to be a catalyst for a country’s industrialization and the social development of its citizens, but little is known about the political consequences of providing electric power to people. Contributing to literatures on the politics of public service provision and participation, we investigate the relationship between electricity and three measures of political participation: voting, political contacting, and collective action. Our comparative analysis leverages data from 36 countries collected in five rounds of Afrobarometer surveys between 2002 and 2015 (N160,000). Counterintuitively, we find that individuals with access to electricity participate less than those without access to electricity. This relationship is particularly strong for those living in democratic regimes, and with respect to non-electoral forms of participation. We hypothesize that having electricity access is associated with an “anti-politics” leading some citizens to retreat from engagement with the state to things such as the middle-class comforts of cold drinks, cooled air, and television.

Ram Fishman, Stephen C. Smith, Vida Bobić, and Munshi Sulaiman.  2019. “Can Agricultural Extension and Input Support Be Discontinued? Evidence from a Randomized Phaseout in Uganda.”  Institute of Labor Economics discussion paper no. 12476.

Many development programs that attempt to disseminate improved technologies are limited in duration, either because of external funding constraints or an assumption of impact sustainability; but there is limited evidence on whether and when terminating such programs is efficient. We provide novel experimental evidence on the impacts of a randomized phase-out of an extension and subsidy program that promotes improved inputs and cultivation practices among smallholder women farmers in Uganda. We find that phase-out does not diminish the use of either practices or inputs, as farmers shift purchases from NGO-sponsored village-based supply networks to market sources. These results indicate short-term interventions can suffice to trigger persistent effects, consistent with models of technology adoption that emphasize learning from experience.

Jonas Hjort, Diana Moreira, Gautam Rao, and Juan Francisco Santini.  2019.  “How evidence affects policy: experimental evidence from 2150 Brazilian municipalities.”  NBER Working Paper No. 25941.

This paper investigates if research findings change political leaders’ beliefs and cause policy change. Collaborating with the National Confederation of Municipalities in Brazil, we work with 2,150 municipalities and the mayors who control their policies. We use experiments to measure mayors’ demand for research information and their response to learning research findings. In one experiment, we find that mayors and other municipal officials are willing to pay to learn the results of impact evaluations, and update their beliefs when informed of the findings. They value larger-sample studies more, while not distinguishing on average between studies conducted in rich and poor countries. In a second experiment, we find that informing mayors about research on a simple and effective policy (reminder letters for taxpayers) increases the probability that their municipality implements the policy by 10 percentage points. In sum, we provide direct evidence that providing research information to political leaders can lead to policy change. Information frictions may thus help explain failures to adopt effective policies.

David Mwambari.  2019.  “Local Positionality in the Production of Knowledge in Northern Uganda.”  International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

This article examines the positionality of local stakeholders in the production of knowledge through fieldwork in qualitative research in Northern Uganda. While scholarly literature has evolved on the positionality and experiences of researchers from the Global North in (post)conflict environments, little is known about the positionality and experiences of local stakeholders in the production of knowledge. This article is based on interviews and focus groups with research assistants and respondents in Northern Uganda. Using a phenomenological approach, this article analyzes the positionality and experiences of these research associates and respondents during fieldwork. Three themes emerged from these interviews and are explored in this article: power, fatigue, and safety. This article emphasizes that researchers need to be reflexive in their practices and highlights the need to reexamine how researchers are trained in qualitative methods before going into the field. This article is further critical of the behavior of researchers and how research agendas impact local stakeholders during and after fieldwork.

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.

Jean Drèze on the politics of evidence-based policymaking in India

I’m a bit behind on this Ideas for India article, but Jean Drèze has a refreshingly clear and compelling take on the difficulties of translating evidence into policy.  He highlights four political, ethical, and logistical challenges that academics may face in providing policy advice.

First, feasible policies must balance the competing interests of a range of different societal groups, which requires value judgements as well as some apolitical weighting of evidence.

No value judgements are required to conduct an RCT aimed at examining whether adding eggs in school meals helps to enhance pupil attendance or child nutrition. But advocating the inclusion of eggs in school meals is a very different ballgame. It means dealing with the arguments of upper-caste vegetarian lobbies (eggs are considered non-vegetarian in India) and animal-rights activists, aside from those of the Finance Ministry, the Education Department, and teachers’ unions. Commercial interests, too, are likely to come into play as the poultry business eyes big contracts. The debate can easily get very charged. Any ‘advice’ offered in this charged atmosphere may have serious repercussions, good or bad.

Second, the advice one provides to a technocrat who wants to maximize program efficiency and an advocacy group who wants to minimize social harm from a program might be very different.

 It is easy to imagine an economist giving the following sort of advice to the government: Our RCT shows that people essentially treat food transfers as an implicit cash transfer. Considering the high transaction costs of food subsidies, a transition to cash transfers seems advisable…

It is possible, however, that based on the same research a person who addresses herself to poor people would give the following – very different – advice: The government is planning to replace food transfers with cash transfers. You should resist this at all cost. Our work shows that the banking infrastructure is not ready. If you get cash instead of food, you will have to travel long distances and queue for hours to collect your meagre benefits.

Third, it’s not obvious that academics are sufficiently familiar with the deeply particular local political contexts in which every development program must be implemented to give useful advice on them.

Just to pursue the first angle, a development scheme can stand or fall on minor details such as whether the monthly cheques are signed by the district magistrate or village head, whether a government-sponsored latrine has one pit or two pits, or whether biometric authentication is necessary to apply for benefits…

Economists certainly have much to contribute, but in many cases they have no special competence on the relevant details. This has often struck me in the context of discussions of India’s MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), a complex programme that makes exacting demands on the administrative machinery. In my experience, it is possible to have enlightening discussions on the operational details with local administrators, village-level functionaries, and even MNREGA workers… In academic seminars on this subject, by contrast, the ignorance of operational matters is epic.

Finally, there is the very real possibility that advocacy on behalf of a specific policy could backfire.  But it is unclear how well academics can game out the policymaking process and anticipate precisely how their advice will be used.

 If you advise A, you may get a.A (a fraction of A), or A’ (a variant of A), or B (or an alternative to A), or even -A (the opposite of A). In the first case, should one actually advise (1/a).A, in the hope of getting A? That is, indeed, a common tactic among activists – ask for the loaf, settle for a slice. To put this in a different way (familiar to economists), policy advice can be seen as a kind of ‘game’, where the outcome depends on the strategies of all players, and the players must take each other’s strategies into account. Or perhaps it would be unprincipled to look at it that way, and economists should just give the advice they think is right, irrespective of the consequences? It is hard to tell.

The whole article is well worth a read.

 

Online courses on research impact

If you’re interested in increasing the impact of your research or improving your academic writing, there are several online courses and seminars coming up which you should check out.

Invisible voices in knowledge production in the DRC

Over at Africa is a Country, researchers from European and Congolese universities are writing about how they study violence in eastern DRC, in what they’re calling the Bukavu Series.  The first post, by Godefroid Muzalia, Koen Vlassenroot, Aymar Nyenyezi, An Ansoms, and Emery Mudinga, introduces a critical point: why aren’t Congolese research assistants properly credited in the studies they help to run?

As they write:

There seems to be an overall consensus to critically consider how to fully integrate research collaborators and assistants based in the areas of research into processes of knowledge production. Yet, this can only be done when the collaborators themselves are directly included in the debate. They not only “help” to gain access to the field and collect data, but also co-define the field. They read and interpret it and are involved in a constant process of co-production. Most scholars would not have made it through their PhD research without their collaborators’ contributions and guidance. Many research projects would have failed to come up with tangible results without the direct involvement and engagement of research collaborators and assistants. So not only should their roles be recognized in the final outputs of research; they should also be allowed to take up equal responsibility for these outputs, equal participation in the design of project cycles and equal ownership of the research data.

I’d add that we also need to address how Northern scholars face career incentives that aren’t well aligned with the need to better recognize the work of Southern research assistants.  For example, naming RAs as co-authors of papers would be a powerful statement about their contributions — but some disciplines value co-authored papers as only a fraction of a single-authored paper when it comes to making hiring and tenure decisions.

Africa Update for May 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the export of Ugandan mercenaries, Kenya’s geothermal energy investments, Cameroonian refugees in Mexico, Ethiopia’s first female chief justice, and more.

West Africa: Political tensions continue to simmer in Sierra Leone as the current government has set up a commission to investigate corruption under its predecessor. I can’t wait to read this book on empires in medieval West Africa.  Learn about why the ubiquitous “Ghana-must-go” woven plastic bag takes its name from a conflict between Ghana and Nigeria in the 1980s.  Anglophone refugees from Cameroon who have fled into Nigeria are struggling to survive with limited support from the government or aid donors, whilst others have fled as far as Mexico in their quest for asylum.

Central Africa: Distrust of the state and the inability to perform rituals that will appease the spirit of a dead person are among the many reasons people in the DRC have been resisting Ebola treatment.   This was an evenhanded look at why it’s so difficult to source “responsible” minerals from eastern DRC. Uganda has doubled its military spending for the 2018/2019 fiscal year, and is now officially exporting more mercenaries than coffee.  In Kigali, Burundian journalists are still trying to publish their news in exile.  The Rwandan Supreme Court has ruled that it’s a crime to insult President Kagame.

Chart showing that a majority of Kenyans say the high cost of living is the biggest problem in their countryKenyans are really concerned by their country’s high cost of living (via Twaweza)

East Africa: Drought and crop failures have left many people in northern Kenya on the brink of famine, but neither the government nor other citizens seem to be paying much attention.  This was an insightful long read about Kenya’s many unsuccessful attempts to create reliable national ID and credit reporting systems.  Former US diplomats are lobbying the Trump administration not to push for the creation of a war crimes court in South Sudan, even though this is mandated under the current peace deal.  Sudan’s revolution shows the importance of trade unions in organizing civil dissent.  Saudi Arabia is offering funding to Sudan’s interim government out of concerns that regional revolutions could spark unrest at home.

Southern Africa: The UN is investigating allegations that community leaders in Mozambique have forced women to pay them or have sex with them in order to access aid after Cyclone Idai.  In South Africa, news coverage of protests tends to assume that poor people won’t participate unless they’re manipulated into doing so, which denies them political agency.  Read this summary of a very good piece about Mandela’s legacy, 25 years after the end of apartheid.  Studies in Zimbabwe have been key to challenging the assumption that depression doesn’t affect people in low income countries.

Map showing that elections will be held in 15 African countries in 2019Map of upcoming African elections via Africa Research Centre

Spotlight on urbanization in Nairobi: Check out this new documentary about the social justice working groups which are documenting human rights abuses in poor neighborhoods across the city.  This was an insightful piece about the Sudanese history of Kibera.  Meet the Kibera woman running one of the neighborhood’s only therapy centers for children with disabilities.  In Mathare, perpetual water shortages mean that residents must choose between drinking water or bathing their children.

Health: Senegal’s air pollution, caused by cars and harmattan dust, is sending increasing numbers of people to the hospital.  In Kenya, low quality healthcare and easy access to antibiotics mean that antibiotic-resistant diseases are on the rise.  Nigerian doctors are increasingly moving abroad, frustrated with a national healthcare system which pays less than US$600 per month.  Ghana, Kenya and Malawi are rolling out pilots of a new malaria vaccine.  Kenyan soldiers who’ve developed PTSD from operations in Somalia have been court-martialed for misbehavior rather than receiving treatment.

Four young men push a barrel of oil up a sandy beachThis Guardian photo essay on the black market for fuel in Togo and Benin was really gripping

Doing business: Read about the first running shoe company designed by and for Kenyans.  This looks like an interesting ethnography about Heineken’s phenomenal business success in Africa.  New studies in Ghana and Tanzania find that people overestimate how much time they spend working on their farms if they’re asked at the end of the planting season, rather than week by week during the season.

Environment: Meet the Nigerian women tackling urban waste disposal problems by starting recycling companies.  Kenyan scientists are developing low cost solutions to help fishermen avoid catching endangered or low value species of marine life.  Kenya is increasingly switching to geothermal energy, and could be one of the biggest producers in the world once a new plant opens in July.

Social protection + poverty reduction: This was an interesting piece about the process of distributing cash transfers in Liberia, where low-denomination bills are common and many people are still outside the cash economy.  Nigeria’s national cash transfer program has finally gotten off the ground.  Are patronage handouts and national cash transfer programs really all that different in Nigeria?  Experience from Niger suggests that people’s unwillingness to talk about their savings may lead researchers to overestimate poverty rates.

A Sengalese man carrying a sleepy baby on his back
Senegalese men are challenging gender stereotypes by carrying their children for a photography project (via BBC)

Gender equality: Studies in Uganda and Nigeria have found that “edutainment” TV shows can reduce rates of gender-based violence among viewers.  A landmark legal case in Kenya has allowed an intersex child to be issued a birth certificate without a gender marker.  This is a remarkable piece from Kenyan activist Rahma Wako about her experiences with early marriage and female genital cutting.  Women in the Ethiopian diaspora are discussing gender-based violence on a new Instagram page called Shades of Injera.   Meet Ethiopia’s first female chief justice, Meaza Ashenafi.

Food + travel: If you’re in London, don’t miss the delicious Ghanaian food at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen.  Nairobi’s Mexican food scene is expanding.  Here’s what to do for 36 hours in Dakar.

Academia: The Evidence to Action 2019 conference is being held at the University of Ghana from July 9 – 12, with travel bursaries available.  The East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative is holding a research summit in Nairobi from July 22 – 23.  If you’re an African woman who studies economics, sign up for FEMNET’s new database!