Interesting academic articles for October 2019

Ok, I’ve concluded that I’m not very good at not-blogging!  There are lots of interesting articles that I wanted to share in a format beyond Twitter.  So I suppose I’m off hiatus for the time being.

With that, here’s what I’m looking forward to reading this month.

Rose MbayeRedeat GebeyehuStefanie HossmannNicole MbargaEstella Bih-NehLucrece EtekiOhene-Agyei ThelmaAbiodun OyerindeGift KitiYvonne MburuJessica HabererMark SiednerIruka Okeke, and Yap Boum.  2019. Who is telling the story? A systematic review of authorship for infectious disease research conducted in Africa, 1980–2016.”  BMJ Global Health.

Africa contributes little to the biomedical literature despite its high burden of infectious diseases. Global health research partnerships aimed at addressing Africa-endemic disease may be polarised. Therefore, we assessed the contribution of researchers in Africa to research on six infectious diseases.  We reviewed publications on HIV and malaria (2013–2016), tuberculosis (2014–2016), salmonellosis, Ebola haemorrhagic fever and Buruli ulcer disease (1980–2016) conducted in Africa and indexed in the PubMed database using Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses protocol. Papers reporting original research done in Africa with at least one laboratory test performed on biological samples were included. We studied African author proportion and placement per study type, disease, funding, study country and lingua franca. We included 1182 of 2871 retrieved articles that met the inclusion criteria. Of these, 1109 (93.2%) had at least one Africa-based author, 552 (49.8%) had an African first author and 41.3% (n=458) an African last author. Papers on salmonellosis and tuberculosis had a higher proportion of African last authors (p<0.001) compared with the other diseases. Most of African first and last authors had an affiliation from an Anglophone country. HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and Ebola had the most extramurally funded studies (≥70%), but less than 10% of the acknowledged funding was from an African funder. African researchers are under-represented in first and last authorship positions in papers published from research done in Africa. This calls for greater investment in capacity building and equitable research partnerships at every level of the global health community.

 Caroline Viola Fry.  2019.  “Building Bridges: The impact of return migration by African scientists.”  Job market paper.  

Despite significant interest in the potential for ‘returnee’ scientists moving back to developing countries to connect developed and developing countries, prior work has found limited evidence of success. I shift the focus to the broader network of the returnee, and study the extent to which the return home of Amerian-trained HIV researchers to African institutions impacts publication outcomes of non-migrant scientists in Africa. I find that following the arrival of a returnee in their institution, non-migrants experience increased productivity, mostly in HIV research. I find strong evidence that the mechanism driving this effect is that of the returnee providing a bridge to their central connections and subsequent knowledge and resources thus affecting outcomes. In settings where ‘outsiders’ struggle to access knowledge and resources that are usually reserved for exclusive ‘insiders’, this kind of bridge in the network can help through providing legitimacy to the outsiders. These findings inform a network perspective on the consequences of the mobility of skilled individuals, the development of national innovation ecosystems, and the globalization of knowledge production.

Norma Altshuler and Sarah Jane Staats.  2019.  “A New Look at Impact Evaluation Capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa.”  Hewlett Foundation Research Brief.*

Impact evaluation and other forms of research that have the potential to inform policy decisions are becoming more prominent in sub-Saharan Africa. Andwhile researchers working in their own countries bring contextual knowledge, relationships, and sustained attention that help ensure results are used in policy decisions, many research teams funded by donors do not include them in a meaningful way. This may be due to a common perception that there is a lack of qualified in-country researchers. The results of this study, conducted by Yvonne Erasmus and Sunet Jordaan at the Africa Centre for Evidence, show that perception is mistaken. The study found 1,520 African researchers with African affiliations had authored at least one impact evaluation. These researchers, many of whom were trained at elite U.S. and European institutions, represented 34 different African countries. This brief highlights the study’s high level findings and offers recommendations for leveraging—and building on—existing capacities.

*Full disclosure: the Mawazo Institute is currently in talks with Hewlett about funding.

Susanna B. Berkouwer and Joshua T. Dean.  2019.  “Credit and attention in the adoption of profitable energy efficient technologies in Kenya.”  Job market paper.  

What roles do credit constraints and inattention play in the under-adoption of high return technologies? We study this question in the case of energy efficient cookstoves in Nairobi. Using a randomized field experiment with 1,000 households we find that the technology has very high returns—we estimate an average rate of return of 300% and savings of $120 per year in fuel costs, around one month of income. In spite of this, adoption rates are inefficiently low. Using a Becker-DeGroot-Marschak mechanism we find that average willingness-to-pay (WTP) is only $12. To investigate what drives this puzzling pattern, we cross-randomize access to credit with an intervention designed to increase attention to the costs and the benefits of adoption. Our first main finding is that credit doubles WTP and closes the energy efficiency gap. Second, credit works in part through psychological channels: around one third of the impact of credit is caused by inattention to future costs. We find no evidence of inattention to energy savings. These findings have implications for second-best regulation of pollution externalities using taxes and subsidies. In the presence of credit constraints, Pigovian taxation alone may no longer be the optimal policy. Factoring in financial savings and avoided environmental damages we estimate that a subsidy on the energy efficient technology would have a marginal value of public funds of $19 per $1 spent.

Valerie Mueller, Clark Gray, Sudhanshu Handa, and David Seidenfeld.  2019.  “Do social protection programs foster short-term and long-term migration adaptation strategies?”  Environment and Development Economics.

We examine how migration is influenced by temperature and precipitation variability, and the extent to which the receipt of a cash transfer affects the use of migration as an adaptation strategy. Climate data is merged with georeferenced panel data (2010–2014) on individual migration collected from the Zambian Child Grant Program (CGP) sites. We use the person-year dataset to identify the direct and heterogeneous causal effects of the CGP on mobility. Having access to cash transfers doubles the rate of male, short-distance moves during cool periods, irrespective of wealth. Receipt of cash transfers (among wealthier households) during extreme heat causes an additional retention of males. Cash transfers positively spur long-distance migration under normal climate conditions in the long term. They also facilitate short-distance responses to climate, but not long-distance responses that might be demanded by future climate change.

Kristina M. Bott, Alexander W. Cappelen, Erik Ø. Sørensen, and Bertil Tungodden.  2019. “You’ve Got Mail: A Randomized Field Experiment on Tax Evasion.”  Management Science.

We report from a large-scale randomized field experiment conducted on a unique sample of more than 15,000 taxpayers in Norway who were likely to have misreported their foreign income. By randomly manipulating a letter from the tax authorities, we cleanly identify that moral suasion and the perceived detection probability play a crucial role in shaping taxpayer behavior. The moral letter mainly works on the intensive margin, while the detection letter has a strong effect on the extensive margin. We further show that only the detection letter has long-term effects on tax compliance.

William N. Evans, David C. Philips, and Krista J. Ruffini.  2019.  “Reducing and Preventing Homelessness: A Review of the Evidence and Charting a Research Agenda.”  NBER Working Paper No. 26232.

Homelessness may be both a cause of and one of the more extreme outcomes of poverty. Governments at all levels have a variety of tools to combat homelessness, and these strategies have changed dramatically over the past quarter century. In this paper, we catalog the policy responses, the existing literature on the effectiveness of these strategies, and the major gaps that need to be addressed in future research. We focus on studies from randomized controlled trial evaluations and the best quasi-experimental designs, and discuss outstanding questions that can be addressed with these same methods.

Rosangela Bando, Emma Näslund-Hadley, and Paul Gertler.  2019.  “Effect of Inquiry and Problem Based Pedagogy on Learning: Evidence from 10 Field Experiments in Four Countries.”  NBER Working Paper No. 26280.

This paper uses data from 10 at-scale field experiments in four countries to estimate the effect of inquiry- and problem-based pedagogy (IPP) on students’ mathematics and science test scores. IPP creates active problem-solving opportunities in settings that provide meaning to the child. Students learn by collaboratively solving real-life problems, developing explanations, and communicating ideas. Using individual-level data on 17,006 students, the analysis finds that after seven months IPP increased mathematics and science scores by 0.18 and 0.14 standard deviations, respectively, and by 0.39 and 0.23 standard deviations, respectively, after four years. We also identify important gender learning gaps with boys benefiting substantially more than girls. Our approach not only provides strong causal evidence, but also high external validity. These 10 experiments in four countries allow us to examine the effects of IPP across a wide set of geographic, socioeconomic, teacher background, and age/grade contexts (i.e., preschool and third and fourth grades). The results prove to be robust across these different contexts. The 10 RCTs were registered in the American Economic Association Registry for randomized control trials. See the supplementary materials for trial numbers.

Omar Al-UbaydliMin Sok LeeJohn ListClaire L. Mackevicius, and Dana Suskind.  2019.  “How Can Experiments Play a Greater Role in Public Policy? 12 Proposals from an Economic Model of Scaling.”  Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago.   Working paper.

Policymakers are increasingly turning to insights gained from the experimental method as a means to inform large scale public policies. Critics view this increased usage as premature, pointing to the fact that many experimentally-tested programs fail to deliver their promise at scale. Under this view, the experimental approach drives too much public policy. Yet, if policymakers could be more confident that the original research findings would be delivered at scale, even the staunchest critics would carve out a larger role for experiments to inform policy. Leveraging the economic framework of Al-Ubaydli et al. (2019), we put forward 12 simple proposals, spanning researchers, policymakers, funders, and stakeholders, which together tackle the most vexing scalability threats. The framework highlights that only after we deepen our understanding of the scale up problem will we be on solid ground to argue that scientific experiments should hold a more prominent place in the policymaker’s quiver.

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.