Fall conference highlights

Three weeks, three conferences, many great papers to share!


Ryan Briggs.  “Power to which people? Electoral politics and electrification targeting in Ghana.”  Presented at APSA.

This paper isn’t available yet, and there isn’t an abstract online for it.  However, it focuses on a very interesting puzzle: why do the two main political parties in Ghana differ in their willingness to provide electricity to their core supporters?  I won’t give away the ending here, but the general message is that history and ideology matter more for distributive politics in Africa than is often assumed.  There’s some background in a blog post here.

Abhit Bhandari.  “Political Determinants of Business Formalization.”  Presented at APSA.

This paper also isn’t available yet, which I should take as a sign that I found all the panels where people were presenting genuinely new research!  Another extremely interesting question, though: do the owners of informal businesses have political, rather than economics, reasons to enter the formal sector?  Abhit uses a new dataset of all formal business registrations in Senegal to explore this issue.

Shervin Malekzadeh. Education as Public Good or Private Resource in Postrevolutionary Iran.”  Presented at APSA.

A third great paper that’s not online yet!  It seems to draw from Shervin’s PhD thesis, so I’ll share the abstract for that.

Abstract: This project examines efforts by the Islamic Republic of Iran to produce loyal “Islamic Citizens” through its postrevolutionary school system as way of securing the hegemonic rule of the state. Drawing upon eighteen months of fieldwork in Iran, including archival research of textbooks published from 1979 to 2008, as well as interviews and participant observation in two private Islamic high schools in Tehran, I show that Iranian schools have both emancipatory and disciplinary effects on students. Ordinary Iranians do not blindly accept or internalize the ideology of the state, instead resisting, reinterpreting or even ignoring aspects of the postrevolutionary project taught to them in school. Yet they often do so using the language, practices, and formal procedures of dominant groups. The dissertation demonstrates the incoherent and contested nature of the New Islamic Citizen, a concept that has changed often and dramatically over the past 30 years. Competition between rival groups for the moral authority to insert their vision of the ideal Islamic society into the education system accounts for the variation in the political and religious content of formal education. These ongoing and unresolved conflicts have resulted in a postrevolutionary curriculum layered with contradictions and tensions that in turn provide students with the resources and opportunities to challenge the totalizing project of the state. The dissertation reveals the relationship between the politics of schooling and the politics of nationalism in Iran. Looking beyond the usual antinomies of domination/resistance, modern/traditional, or secular/religious attached to the study of political socialization in postrevolutionary Iran, this dissertation contends that interactions of state and society around the topic of schooling contributes to the production of a mutually produced and shared Islamic-Iranian framework for consent and opposition to state rule. This discursive framework is but the latest manifestation of a 200-year effort in Iran to produce an indigenous modernity rooted in an “authentic” and shared national culture.


Ken Mitchell.  “Taxation after the Commodity Boom: Argentina, Chile and Brazil.”  [Paper forthcoming.]  Presented at DSA.

Abstract: Latin America’s commodity boom crested round 2010, and the regional terms-of-trade deteriorated thereafter. How commodity price declines might impact the region is a pivotal and potentially a troubling socioeconomic issue. Taxation is a significant area of interest because tax-to-GDP ratios rose fast during the commodity boom (2002-2010) and paid for new social programs (conditional cash transfers, popular sector pensions, etc.) and public employment schemes that expanded the middle class and lowered poverty. More consumer spending resulted, which fueled economic growth. Latin America has been the world’s lowest taxed region post-WWII, and the regional tax-to-GDP ratio flattened during the 1990s, so the end of the commodity boom rightly raises concern that public revenue mobilization might revert to its historical, low norm. Did tax-to-GDP ratios decline with commodity prices? Aggregate taxation combines varied taxes (i.e., income, corporate, consumption, trade, etc.), and here country case studies differ. The Value Added Tax (VAT) merits special attention due to its rising importance as a revenue tool across Latin America. Which national tax strategies managed to maintain commodity boom-era tax-to-GDP ratios? This paper tries to answer the above question by comparing Argentina, Chile and Brazil between 2002 and 2014, with special attention to the period 2010-2014 (i.e., post-commodity boom). Counterintuitive given the literature on taxation specific to Latin America, Argentina, historically an especially low tax country outperforms its neighbors after 2010, something the paper tries to explain. The paper will use OECD tax data to make cross-national comparisons.  [Note: the interesting conclusion is that rising use of credit cards in Argentina explains strong VAT collection even though economic growth slowed after 2010.]

Miguel Niño-Zarazúa.  “Natural resources, electoral behaviour and social assistance in Latin America.” [Paper forthcoming.]  Presented at DSA.

Abstract: The introduction of social assistance in Latin America in the late 1990s coincided with a democratization process in the region and a significant increase in the contribution of revenues from non-renewable resources to the public budgets. This paper provides an analysis of the distributional effects of revenues from the natural resources via social spending. A primary concern is to establish whether the redistribution of income via social spending would have not taken place in the absence of natural resources. Another aspect of this relation is that lessons from Latin America can also provide insights into the political incentives that natural resource rents generate to the incumbent. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies suggest that social assistance programmes can produce electoral gains to the incumbent. Our working hypotheses are the following: H1) revenues from non-renewables have facilitated social spending in Latin America, and H2) natural resources have generated electoral gains to the incumbents in increasingly more competitive political systems. In order to test our hypotheses, we first examine the economics of redistribution via revenues from natural resources, with a particular focus on the incentives that drive incumbent decisions on social spending. Second, we consider a model of income redistribution in which an incumbent can make allocation decisions of public funds in the presence of taxation. We expand the model by allowing revenues from natural resources facilitating social spending without affecting the disposable income of better-off households. We empirically test our hypotheses using fixed effects estimators with instrumental variables in three stages. The results indicate that the expansion of social spending in Latin America over the period 1990-2009 has indeed been facilitated by the natural resource rents; however, the electoral gains hypothesis is not supported by the empirical analysis.


Nasreen Jessani, Caitlin Kennedy and Sara Bennett.  “The human capital of knowledge brokers: An analysis of attributes, capacities and skills of academic teaching and research faculty at Kenyan schools of public health.”  [Ungated draft here.]  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Abstract: Academic faculty involved in public health teaching and research serve as the link and catalyst for knowledge synthesis and exchange, enabling the flow of information resources, and nurturing relations between ‘two distinct communities’ – researchers and policymakers – who would not otherwise have the opportunity to interact. Their role and their characteristics are of particular interest, therefore, in the health research, policy and practice arena, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. We investigated the individual attributes, capacities and skills of academic faculty identified as knowledge brokers (KBs) in schools of public health (SPH) in Kenya with a view to informing organisational policies around the recruitment, retention and development of faculty KBs. During April 2013, we interviewed 12 academics and faculty leadership (including those who had previously been identified as KBs) from six SPHs in Kenya, and 11 national health policymakers with whom they interact. Data were qualitatively analyzed using inductive thematic analysis to unveil key characteristics. Key characteristics of KBs fell into five categories: sociodemographics, professional competence, experiential knowledge, interactive skills and personal disposition. KBs’ reputations benefitted from their professional qualifications and content expertise. Practical knowledge in policy-relevant situations, and the related professional networks, allowed KB’s to navigate both the academic and policy arenas and also to leverage the necessary connections required for policy influence. Attributes, such as respect and a social conscience, were also important KB characteristics.  Several changes in Kenya are likely to compel academics to engage increasingly with policymakers at an enhanced level of debate, deliberation and discussion in the future. By recognising existing KBs, supporting the emergence of potential KBs, and systematically hiring faculty with KB-specific characteristics, SPHs can enhance their collective human capital and influence on public health policy and practice. Capacity strengthening of tangible skills and recognition of less tangible personality characteristics could contribute to enhanced academic–policymaker networks. These, in turn, could contribute to the relevance of SPH research and teaching programs as well as evidence- informed public health policies.

Taryn Young.  “Policy BUDDIES – BUilding Demand for evidence in Decision making through Interaction and Enhancing Skills.”  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Summary:  Policy BUDDIES is a collaborative project including the Centre for Evidence based Health Care (CEBHC and Health systems and services research unit at Stellenbosch University, the South African Cochrane Centre (SACC), the Centre for the Development of Best Practices in Health (Cameroon) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The collaborations draw on partners experience in working in the area of knowledge translation. The collaborations draw on partners experience in working in the area of knowledge translation. The project is being conducted in South Africa and Cameroon. The project consists of 5 phases  and commenced with a situational analysis which informed subsequent phases. The situational analysis aimed to understand policymakers’ capacity, as well as enablers and constraints related to demanding evidence during policy formulation and implementation, and to map existing communication between policymakers, research intermediaries and researchers. Health programme managers and programme coordinators in programmes related to MDGs 4, 5 and 6 at provincial level in Cameroon and South Africa were purposively selected and interviewed. One of the aspects which emerged is the need for capacity development in evidence informed policy making and the use of systematic reviews.  We drew on experiences in offering similar workshops as part of the Effective Health Care Research Consortium and the SUPPORT Collaboration and offered workshops in both Cameroon and South Africa in January 2014 and November 2013 respectively. We are currently implementing the buddy model linking researchers and policymakers to work together towards promoting evidence-informed policy making.


Yvonne Erasmus.  “What works to build capacity to use research evidence in South Africa and Malawi.”  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Summary: The use of research evidence in decision-making by policymakers in the health sector is critical for enabling the formulation and implementation of the most effective policies and programmes. Despite that reality, many scholars have documented that policymakers often do not sufficiently use research evidence to inform their decisions because of several common barriers (see Innvaer et al 2002; Oliver et al 2014). One of the well-documented barriers to research use is the lack of knowledge and skills in finding, appraising, interpreting and applying evidence as part of the policymaking process.  The DFID-funded Strengthening Capacity to Use Research Evidence in Health Policy (SECURE Health) programme being implemented in Kenya and Malawi has designed a training programme for policymakers in the health sector to strengthen their knowledge and skills in accessing, appraising, synthesising and applying research evidence in policymaking (i.e. the SECURE Health evidence-informed policymaking (EIPM) training programme).  Through these workshops, 76 policymakers comprising Ministry of Health (MoH) and parliament staff from the two countries were trained.  The training workshops effectively increased the knowledge and skills of policymakers in finding, assessing, synthesizing and applying research evidence in their work.

Which African news stories are undercovered?


Early 20th century masthead of the Central African Times, now the Daily Times, one of the longest running newspapers in Malawi

Daniel Kopf of Priceonomics put an interesting question to me recently: which stories about African economies don’t get the news coverage they should?  I thought of a number, and also Storified some great responses I got on Twitter.  What would you add to this list?

  • The Continental Free Trade Area has the potential to be the biggest trade deal that no one’s heard about.  I read African news constantly and I hadn’t heard of it before last week.  Where did this come from, and what are its prospects?
  • I’m quite interested in the expansion of both rail infrastructure and air travel.  Rail transport is much cheaper than road, particularly for the bulky commodities that get traded regionally or exported, but it seems like governments are more inclined to invest in roads, and it’s not clear why.  Light rail also has promise for urban areas but is being stymied by weak urban planning & the influx of motorcycles.  Similarly, air travel has huge potential but there’s all manner of politics around deregulation.
  • The insurance market is another place that looks like it should be taking off but has been slower than expected to do so.  For example, researchers were very excited about cheap rainfall insurance for subsistence farmers a few years ago, but takeup has been very low.  Personally I think there’s a rational distrust of institutions at play here — many people are accustomed to government officials extorting their money, or banks failing, and probably have good reasons not to hand over money now and expect a payout later.  (There’s also some interesting discussion of a move from humanitarian aid to catastrophe insurance for individuals, but presumably it would face the same challenges.)
  • The huge focus on China’s investments obscures the fact that many other middle- and low-income countries are building relationships in Africa.  Some of it is fairly benign, like India and Turkey‘s investment plans; but Israel is looking for countries to house deported African immigrants and North Korea is exporting weapons.
  • One thing that strikes me about African tech start-ups is that they’re consistently solving different problems than American start-ups do.  For example, they’re substituting for effective fire departments and national blood donation agencies in places where these institutions are weak.

Recent conference highlights

It’s been a busy few months of conference attendance recently, and I wanted to share some of the papers that really stood out to me.  At ISA:

  • Lior Lehrs had a very interesting presentation on what he calls “private peace entrepreneurs” – people who act without state support to reach out to the opposing side in a conflict and promote peace.  It doesn’t appear that the paper is public, but Ynetnews has a short summary of his work.
  • Olukunle Owolabi also presented a fascinating comparative study on the extension of political rights to former slaves in the US South and the French Antilles.  It’s currently under review, so keep an eye out for it!

Next up was a workshop on “clientelism in comparative perspective,” organized by the Center on the Politics of Development at Berkeley.

  • Nancy Hite discussed her current book project on how economic development changes citizens’ perceptions of the state in the Philippines, building on an earlier microfinance RCT by Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman.  No public paper yet, but I’d definitely look for this book when it comes out – it’s a really interesting micro-level look at how growth affects political behavior.
  • Another highlight for the sheer quantity of data used was Pablo Querubin‘s work with Cesi Cruz and Julien Labonne on political family networks in the Philippines.  Because Filipino surnames contain the family names of both parents (for unmarried people) or a father’s family name plus a husband’s name (for married women), they constructed a database of more than 20 million people and traced family and marriage relationships of everyone in 15,000 villages.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that politicians tended to come from disproportionately well-connected families.

Finally, I had a great time (as always) at PacDev.

  • Berk Özler presented joint work with Sarah Baird, Ephraim Chirwa and Craig McIntosh on a five-year follow-up to a program in Malawi which offered young women cash transfers aimed at getting them to stay in school.  The program had offered conditional grants to women who were already in school, and unconditional grants to women who had already dropped out, both of which were effective in getting them back into school.  Five years later, however, the women who got the CCTs (who might have stayed in school anyway) had marital and economic outcomes that looked similar to the control group, while the UCT group (who otherwise would have dropped out) did have persistently better outcomes.
  • David Yang and Yuyu Chen had a fascinating paper on how people perceive the credibility of the Chinese government in trying to shift the narrative around the Great Leap Forward.  The government blamed the famine of that period on drought, and Yang and Chen find that people living in famine-affected areas where there was in fact a drought reported higher levels of trust in the state than those who didn’t observe drought in their region.  The effects persisted for more than half a century, and tended to get reinforced by marriage, as people who didn’t trust the state disproportionately married each other.

Lying about Borrowing

Dean Karlan & Jonathan Zinman have quantified something most researchers probably sensed already – that respondents are often very sensitive to social perceptions around “undesirable” activities such as borrowing.  In South Africa, they found that roughly 47% of known borrowers at a microcredit bank told surveyors they had not borrowed, with women being more likely to lie than men, and especially more likely to lie to male surveyors than female.  (The surveyors had no connection with the bank, and thus no independent knowledge of the correct answer for a given respondent.)

This is the eternal question at the heart of research – what do you do if self-reported data isn’t accurate, but it is all you have?  And how does one incentivize truth-telling?  An interesting corollary to this experiment would have been to tell a subset of respondents that the surveyors knew they belonged to the bank (without giving the surveyors any other personal information about respondents’ accounts), and measure how the mere mention of the lending institution changed respondents’ rate of truthful reporting.  How would this work in situations where there is legitimately no authority with credible information on respondents, like measuring landholding in situations where land tenure is totally informal?  Would this be too destructive to surveyor impartiality (and general research ethics) to be an option?  The more I delve into these complicated questions of survey design, the more I find them strangely fascinating.

Eight books on development for the interested generalist

A friend recently asked me for a list of interesting books on development, and I thought I’d share the results here.  I read almost randomly in the field when I was still trying to narrow my initial broad interest in development down into something of which a career could be made, and the books below generally struck me as the most interesting, accessible, and generally well-supported introductions to their respective subject areas that I came across.  (I haven’t read some of these in years, but in retrospect I think they’d all stand up decently to a reader with greater existing knowledge of development.)  In roughly descending order of intellectual impact upon me:

  1. Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen, is one of the best books I’ve read on the general concept of “development.”  It addresses a number of common critiques, and creates a strong philosophical framework to support the argument that “development” is still necessary.
  2. Portfolios of the Poor is my favorite book of 2009 – an incredibly thoroughly-researched look into what poor people do with their money and how microfinance plays into this.  I don’t remember learning more from a single book, well, probably ever.
  3. Understanding Poverty is a great introduction to a huge range of issues in development, from food security to education to microfinance.  It’s written by a group of leading development economists, often from a behavioral perspective, and the thought contained here is both wide-ranging and rigorous.
  4. This is a bit quirky compared to the other recommendations, but I very much liked Expectations of Modernity, an ethnography of Zambian copper miners in the ’70s and ’80s.  The description probably sounds boring, but it’s actually a great critique of the idea that people from low income countries who act in “Western” styles are blindly mimicking the West, instead of consciously bringing elements of Western culture into their lives in ways that reflect their own social & economic interests.  It basically lays out a strong case for relativistic understandings of culture, which I find hugely important for any development worker, without framing it with that potentially off-putting phrase.
  5. The Bottom Billion has held up better in retrospect than its two better-known contemporaries, The End of Poverty and The White Man’s Burden, at least in my recollection.  In a foreshadowing of my current interests, I liked its focus on research methodology in macroeconomics (i.e. where all that data underlying cross-country regressions comes from), and its quantitative look at the connections between war, governance and poverty.  (Edit: David Roodman points out his own and Easterly‘s critiques of Collier for data mining in Wars, Guns and Votes, and believes that they’re applicable to The Bottom Billion as well.  I’d suggest enjoying the intellectual curiosity of Collier’s research, but taking his statistical results with a grain of salt.)
  6. I can’t offer too much on the subject of public health, but I did greatly enjoy The Wisdom of Whores, which is an engaging book about health systems responses to HIV from the ’80s onwards, told by an irreverent epidemiologist with whom I would very much like to have a drink one day.  It’s also a great critical look at where public health data comes from, how it’s used, and to some degree why governments and international organizations choose the health priorities that they do.
  7. Making Globalization Work is something I recalled as insightful on the topics of global financial institutions, markets and trade at the time I read it.
  8. I’ve been trying to find a good overview of the World Bank that I read for a geography class a few years ago, and while I’m not sure that I’ve identified it, The World Bank: From Reconstruction to Development to Equity looks like it covers similar subject matter. I found tracing the Bank’s historical evolution quite interesting, as it also captures the variety of Western thought on “development” that’s occurred over the past 50 years, and explains quite a lot as well about current bilateral and multilateral aid regimes.

Tell me, dear readers, what else would you recommend for the interested lay reader?

The importance of trust

I promised Asif Dowla some time ago that I would blog about some of his work, and after digging myself out from a fair deal of work that accumulated whilst I was focusing on grad school applications, I finally read his interesting 2005 article on how Grameen Bank built social capital among its members. Dowla identifies three components of social capital – trust, norms, and social networks – and what primarily fascinated me from an institutional perspective was how the norms & networks of rural Bangladesh played into Grameen’s search to build vertical trust between bank & clients.  Women’s access to finance seems to be a less contentious issue in Bangladeshi microfinance today, given the country’s relatively high penetration of microfinancial services, but at the outset Grameen had to work carefully around purdah norms and women’s correspondingly limited social networks in order to convince potential clients that it was a serious partner.  As religious restrictions on gender and public space are less pronounced in most of Africa, I had previously thought of trust-building as more a matter of demonstrating reliability and transparency of services, as Portfolios of the Poor observes.  It’s interesting to see the creation of institutional trust explicitly embedded in a local context like this.  (On a related note, I was surprised to learn that Bangladesh has more microfinance borrowers than all of Africa and Latin America combined.  They’ve come a long way.)

Naturally, all of this put me in mind of Tim Harford’s hugely insightful article on the importance of institutional trust for economic growth.   Dowla has a good section on how building non-kin-group networks through group lending was an important effect of Grameen’s work in the Bangladeshi context, but he also hints at the limits of building a financial system on personal trust when he observes that joint liability within groups seemed to be enforced more by staff than by other group members.  This makes sense on the face of it, when one thinks about the conflicting incentives any group member might have to force another member to cover a missed loan payment.  On the one hand, predicating continued access to credit on full and timely group repayment is a powerful incentive to force payment, but on the other hand, clients might want to be given some leeway themselves if they miss a payment in the future – or might not want to act as hostile enforcers towards people they’ll continue to see around the neighborhood.  This is mere speculation, of course, but it does point to the advantages of shifting loan enforcement duties from a situation governed by personal trust to one governed by institutional trust.  I think it would be a good sign if Grameen’s groups had naturally drifted towards this arrangement.

Finally, my favorite phrase?  The poorest of the poor often have “a short radius of trust … because trust [must be] enforceable by the threat of retaliation.”