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!

Bringing researchers and knowledge brokers together for greater impact

research-to-action-logo

I’ve got a guest post at Research to Action about how policy-oriented researchers don’t have to build relationships with policymakers themselves, but can also work in partnership with organizations which already have these relationships, like think tanks and advocacy groups.  It features the great work that J-PAL Southeast Asia is doing to connect their researchers to policymakers in Indonesia.  Here’s the main takeaway:

Academic researchers and knowledge brokers can bring complementary skills to bear on the process of evidence-informed policymaking. Studies have shown that policymakers are most likely to listen to information which comes from credible sources, and which is delivered at a point in the policymaking cycle when it’s most useful to them. As experts in their fields, the researchers lend credibility to their policy recommendations. Meanwhile, knowledge brokers have a long-term presence in low-income countries, and are explicitly committed to influencing policy. This means that they have more time to learn about how the policy process works in their country, and to meet with policymakers.

Interesting academic articles for May 2019

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

Jürgen René Blum, Marcos Ferreiro-Rodriguez, and Vivek Srivastava. 2019. Paths between Peace and Public Service: A Comparative Analysis of Public Service Reform Trajectories in Postconflict Countries.  The World Bank.

Building a capable public service is fundamental to postconflict state building. Yet in postconflict settings, short-term pressures often conflict with this longer-term objective. To ensure peace and stabilize fragile coalitions, the imperative for political elites to hand out public jobs and better pay to constituents dominates merit. Donor-financed projects that rely on technical assistants and parallel structures, rather than on government systems, are often the primary vehicle for meeting pressing service delivery needs. What, then, is a workable approach to rebuilding public services postconflict? Paths between Peace and Public Service seeks to answer this question by comparing public service reform trajectories in five countries—Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Timor-Leste—in the aftermath of conflict. The study seeks to explain these countries’ different trajectories through process tracing and structured, focused methods of comparative analysis. To reconstruct reform trajectories, the report draws on more than 200 interviews conducted with government officials and other stakeholders, as well as administrative data. The study analyzes how reform trajectories are influenced by elite bargains and highlights their path dependency, shaped by preconflict legacies and the specifics of the conflict period. As the first systematic study on postconflict public service reforms, it identifies lessons for the future engagement of development partners in building public services.

Pritish Behuria.  2019.  “African development and the marginalisation of domestic capitalists.”  Effective States in International Development working paper no. 115.

This paper has two core objectives. The first is to explain why the study of African capitalists – popular in the 1980s and 1990s – has remained relatively dormant since then. Dominant narratives – through neopatrimonalism and dependency-inspired arguments – have been pessimistic about the potential of African capitalists to deliver structural transformation. Gradually, these narratives, alongside intellectual trends within mainstream social science and African studies, have discouraged the study of politics of state–business relations in Africa. Yet African capitalists have become increasingly prominent in popular culture. Many of the wealthiest and most prominent capitalists have emerged through owning diversified business groups across the continent. This paper argues that more attention should be dedicated to the study of the politics of the emergence and sustenance of African diversified business groups (DBGs). To achieve this goal, a fluid categorisation of DBGs is introduced, building on Ben Ross Schneider’s previous work. By examining three country case studies – Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania – this paper highlights how a range of DBGs are emerging across three very different political contexts.

Travis Baseler.  2019.  “Hidden Income and the Perceived Returns to Migration: Experimental Evidence from Kenya.”  Working paper.

Urban workers in Kenya earn twice as much as rural workers with the same level of education. Why don’t more rural workers migrate to cities? In this paper, I use two field experiments to show that low migration is partly due to underestimation of urban incomes by rural Kenyans, and that this inaccurate information can be sustained by migrants’ strategic motives to hide income to minimize remittance obligations. I first show that rural Kenyans underestimate big city incomes considerably, despite the fact that two-thirds of households have a member who has migrated in the past. Parents underestimate their migrant children’s incomes by 50% on average, and underestimation is larger when the migrant’s incentive to hide income is high— in particular, when parents believe remittance obligations are high and when migrants have no stated desire to induce additional migration. In a first experiment that provides rural households with urban labor market information, treated households update their beliefs about the returns to migration and are 8 percentage points more likely to send a migrant to Nairobi. In a second field experiment, I test whether hidden income is directly distorting the decision to migrate by randomly informing rural households about the extent of hidden income among migrants in Nairobi. I find that hidden income dampens migration aspirations: learning about the average degree of hidden income increases planned migration to Nairobi by 13 percentage points.

Catherine Boone, Alex Dyzenhaus, Ambreena Manji, Catherine W Gateri, Seth Ouma, James Kabugu Owino, Achiba Gargule, and Jacqueline M Klopp.  2019. “Land law reform in Kenya: Devolution, veto players, and the limits of an institutional fix.”  African Affairs.

Much of the promise of the good governance agenda in African countries since the 1990s rested on reforms aimed at ‘getting the institutions right’, sometimes by creating regulatory agencies that would be above the fray of partisan politics. Such ‘institutional fix’ strategies are often frustrated because the new institutions themselves are embedded in existing state structures and power relations. The article argues that implementing Kenya’s land law reforms in the 2012–2016 period illustrates this dynamic. In Kenya, democratic structures and the 2010 constitutional devolution of power to county governments created a complex institutional playing field, the contours of which shaped the course of reform. Diverse actors in both administrative and representative institutions of the state, at both the national and county levels, were empowered as ‘veto players’ whose consent and cooperation was required to realize the reform mandate. An analysis of land administration reform in eight Kenyan counties shows how veto players were able to slow or curtail the implementation of the new land laws. Theories of African politics that focus on informal power networks and state incapacity may miss the extent to which formal state structures and the actors empowered within them can shape the course of reform, either by thwarting the reformist thrust of new laws or by trying to harness their reformist potential.

Vanessa van den Boogaard, Wilson Prichard, and Samuel Jibao.  2019.  “Informal taxation in Sierra Leone: Magnitudes, perceptions and implications.”  African Affairs.

In low-income countries, citizens often pay ‘taxes’ that differ substantially from what is required by statute. These non-statutory taxes are central to financing both local public goods and maintaining informal governance institutions. This study captures the incidence of informal taxation and taxpayer perspectives on these payments. We find, first, that informal taxes are a prevalent reality within areas of weak formal statehood in Sierra Leone, with households paying an equal number of informal and formal taxes. Second, we find positive taxpayer perceptions of the fairness of informal taxes relative to formal taxes, despite informal taxes being regressive in their distribution. We explain this by the fact that taxpayers are more likely to trust the actor levying these payments and are more likely to believe that they will be used to deliver benefits to the community.

Michelle N. MeyerPatrick R. HeckGeoffrey S. HoltzmanStephen M. AndersonWilliam CaiDuncan J. Watts, and Christopher F. Chabris.  2019.  “Objecting to experiments that compare two unobjectionable policies or treatments.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Randomized experiments—long the gold standard in medicine—are increasingly used throughout the social sciences and professions to evaluate business products and services, government programs, education and health policies, and global aid. We find robust evidence—across 16 studies of 5,873 participants from three populations spanning nine domains—that people often approve of untested policies or treatments (A or B) being universally implemented but disapprove of randomized experiments (A/B tests) to determine which of those policies or treatments is superior. This effect persists even when there is no reason to prefer A to B and even when recipients are treated unequally and randomly in all conditions (A, B, and A/B). This experimentation aversion may be an important barrier to evidence-based practice.

Jake Bowers and Paul Testa.  2019.  “Better Government, Better Science: The Promise of and Challenges Facing the Evidence-Informed Policy Movement.”  Annual Review of Political Science.

Collaborations between the academy and governments promise to improve the lives of people, the operations of government, and our understanding of human behavior and public policy. This review shows that the evidence-informed policy movement consists of two main threads: (a) an effort to invent new policies using insights from the social and behavioral science consensus about human behavior and institutions and (b) an effort to evaluate the success of governmental policies using transparent and high-integrity research designs such as randomized controlled trials. We argue that the problems of each approach may be solved or at least well addressed by teams that combine the two. We also suggest that governmental actors ought to want to learn about why a new policy works as much as they want to know that the policy works. We envision a future evidence-informed public policy practice that (a) involves cross-sector collaborations using the latest theory plus deep contextual knowledge to design new policies, (b) applies the latest insights in research design and statistical inference for causal questions, and (c) is focused on assessing explanations as much as on discovering what works. The evidence-informed public policy movement is a way that new data, new questions, and new collaborators can help political scientists improve our theoretical understanding of politics and also help our policy partners to improve the practice of government itself.