Here’s what academic departments, faculty, and graduate students can do to support mental health

Infographic reading Infographic via the Berkeley Science Review

Almost six months ago, I published a post on my experience with depression in academia.  I was really blown away by the thoughtful and supportive responses that I received from so many people both within and outside of the academy.  Since then, I’ve had a number of really good conversations about what departments, faculty, and grad students can do to better support students’ mental health.  Here are some of the suggestions that really stood out to me.

What everyone can do

The first step for staff, faculty, and students is to familiarize themselves with the facts about mental health on campus.  Nearly 40% of grad students across multiple countries say they’ve recently experienced moderate to severe depression.  However, with appropriate support, people facing mental health challenges can still do excellent research and finish their doctoral programs in a timely manner.  It’s important to challenge the narrative that grad students with mental health problems aren’t suited for academia, which is an ableist view that shuts a lot of smart people out from the system.

Second, check out the mental health resources that are available at your campus.  These may include counseling provided through your university health center; mental health advocacy groups; or online resources, like Berkeley’s free, downloadable guide on Promoting Student Mental Health.

Third, I can’t overemphasize how important it is to remove some of the stigma from mental health issues by discussing them openly.  Before and during the time I experienced depression, I knew very little about mental health on campus.  I thought I was the only person in my department who was struggling, and I was afraid to admit that things seemed to be going deeply wrong.  But once I began opening up to people about it, I found that a significant proportion of my PhD classmates had experienced similar issues, and had often significantly benefited from therapy or medication.  I might have pursued treatment much earlier if I’d had any idea how typical my experience was, and how many options were available to help me feel better.  Starting the conversation early, even if you and all the people you know seem to feel all right at the moment, is a really important step.

What departments can do

Departmental staff are already the unsung heroes of academia: the people who help you navigate your class schedule, submit your grant applications, and answer all your questions about graduate requirements.  They also have an important role to play in connecting students and faculty to mental health resources.

It’s really important to begin discussing mental health issues openly from the beginning of grad students’ careers.  Doing a module on common mental health challenges, and the resources available on campus, during orientation for new students would be a great way to start this conversation.  This information could also be shared with current students every year, since everyone could use the occasional reminder that mental health issues are normal and there are lots of ways to seek support.

If you find that you’re struggling with your mental health as a grad student, but you’re concerned about discussing this with your faculty advisor, you can reach out in confidentiality to the graduate student advisor on staff in your department.  They can help you connect to mental health resources on campus, change a challenging workload, or think through funding options if you need some time away from campus.

What faculty can do

One of the comments I got on my depression post aptly pointed out that graduate students aren’t the only people dealing with mental health problems.  The demanding teaching, research, and administrative responsibilities of academia — not to mention structural problems like racism and sexism — mean that faculty are also vulnerable to depression and anxiety.  I’ve since updated the earlier post to acknowledge this important point.  If you’re a faculty member concerned about your own mental health, definitely check out the suggestions for graduate students below.

The heavy workload of  a professor, not to mention the additional toll of family responsibilities and one’s own potential mental health challenges, may leave faculty feeling that they don’t have the time to follow up on students’ mental health.  However, there are some fairly quick things that faculty can do to support their students.

First, it’s useful for faculty to introduce mental health as an acceptable topic of discussion.  During a meeting with a new student, you could say something like this: “I know that grad school puts people under a lot of pressure, and many students end up dealing with challenges like depression or anxiety.  That’s pretty common, and doesn’t mean that you’re failing as a student.  If you’re ever feeling like that, you can always talk to me about it.  I can help you connect to other mental health resources around campus.”  Most students probably won’t take faculty up on this, but it’s important to let them know that if they do end up facing mental health challenges, they don’t need to fear being punished for discussing it.

Second, take the time to briefly check in with students about their work-life balance during the course of the academic year.  If you notice that a student seems to be struggling to complete their work or meet their deadlines, send them a quick email emphasizing that they’re not in trouble, and asking them if they’re doing all right or would like to talk.  Again, a faculty member’s role here isn’t to serve as a therapist.  But reaching out to them in this way and offering to connect them to other mental health resources on campus could be an easy way to encourage someone to seek the help they need.

Third, advocate for policies that reduce some of the structural stresses faced by graduate students.  Many of these are financial: you can ask your department to index stipends for inflation or the cost of housing, or ask them to pay out conference travel grants up front,  rather than requiring students to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed.  Other issues are related to discrimination: you can support the creation of working groups for women or people of color in the department, or encourage the department to name an equality chair who can support students and faculty who have faced discrimination.  Students who are less stressed about money or discrimination have more bandwidth to do excellent academic work.

What graduate students can do

Let’s say you’re a first year grad student.  You’re feeling excited about your proposed research idea, but also a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work you’ve got ahead of you.  What are some steps you can take to support your own mental health and that of your classmates during the years of study ahead?

Start by taking the time to do periodic check-ins with yourself about your mental health.  Almost everyone feels stressed by work and deadlines and career prospects at various points during grad school, and that’s not inherently problematic.  However, it is important to be aware of whether you’re feeling manageable stress, or whether you’re experiencing a more persistent mental health problem.

I’ve found that the most reliable way for me to figure out if I’m having a bad period of mental health is to look at patterns in my behavior.  If you look at how you feel, you might just brush it off: “I’m stressed and miserable, but everyone in my cohort sounds stressed and miserable about exams right now, so I shouldn’t complain about it.”  If you look at other circumstances in your life, things might seem all right: “I’m in a great program and have a nice place to live, and that means that I don’t have any reason to feel sad.”  But it’s harder to deny what’s happening if you’re looking at repeated patterns of behavior: “That’s the second time this week that I’ve skipped class because I couldn’t get out of bed.  I don’t remember myself acting like this before.”

You can use the same strategies to engage with your classmates about their mental health.  If you notice that someone is acting out of the ordinary — say, missing class or ignoring deadlines — it’s worth sending them a quick message about it.  You can note that you’ve seen a pattern of behavior that concerned you a bit, and ask if there’s anything they’re feeling stressed about, or would like to talk about.  Of course, your classmate may say that everything is fine.  But in my experience, it’s easy to brush off an email that says, “Hey, where were you in class today?”  It’s not so easy to ignore an email saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been away from class a lot this month and didn’t turn in that last paper.  Is everything all right?”   No student is responsible for someone else’s mental health, of course.  But it’s worth taking the time to check in on each other — you never know when it may give someone the opening that they need to start thinking seriously about their mental health.

If you do notice these types of patterns in your behavior or that of a classmate, that’s a good sign that you or the classmate might need additional support.  This could take a variety of forms.  Walking up to a counselor at the university health center and declaring that you feel depressed might feel liberating, or it might feel like it’s a bridge too far at first.  You don’t have to do this right away (or ever) if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.  A good place to start is simply by taking stock.  Talk with a friend, or write a journal entry, or do something else that lets you think about how you’ve been behaving recently.  What patterns do you notice?  Do they seem to be correlated with something else in your life, like financial stresses, or struggling in a class?

Sometimes you can figure out the proximate source of anxiety or depression on your own, and try to make the necessary changes in your life, like dropping a class.  For other issues, like financial challenges or systemic discrimination, you might not be able to solve the underlying problems by yourself.  Or you may feel that you’re miserable even though everything else seems fine.  Those are good moments to seek outside help.  Talk to a counselor at your health center, and tell them about the behavior changes that you’ve noticed.  It’s totally normal to admit to feeling confused and scared, and to feel like you don’t know what to do next.  Counselors are around to help you work through these feelings and figure out possible solutions.

If you’re concerned about the cost of therapy, even with insurance, there are several options you could pursue.  Many therapists will offer a sliding scale of fees for clients in financial distress.  If your university has a psychology department, you may be able to get free counseling provided by graduate students as part of their clinical experience.  This article has more suggestions for accessing therapy when you can’t afford to pay much.  Also, if you’re struggling to figure out what types of therapy your US insurance covers, which may feel opaque at the best of times and nearly impossible if you’re depressed, ask a friend or family member if they can support you in this.  You don’t have to do everything on your own.

If you are feeling depressed or anxious to the point where you have a difficult time carrying out daily responsibilities or meeting your professional obligations, you should seriously consider discussing this with your faculty advisor.  Advisors vary, of course, and not all of them will be supportive, so you will have to make this decision on your own.  But if the alternative is falling behind on your work with no explanation, that may also have lasting reputational costs.  In general, it’s better to be transparent about the fact that you’re facing health issues.  This is the #1 thing that I wish I had done differently when I was depressed.  Once I did speak with my advisor about my health after almost three years of serious depression, he responded with understanding and support, and worked with me to shift my dissertation project to something that I could complete given the constraints I was facing.

Depending on how seriously your mental health challenges are affecting your life, you may find it useful to take a medical leave of absence, so that you can pursue treatment and not have to worry about your work for a while. Talk to the graduate student advisor in your department about how this might work.  It may feel really hard to take this step, but mental health problems are real health problems, and there’s absolutely no shame about needing time away from work to deal with them.

The good news is that depression and anxiety aren’t permanent.  Therapy and antidepressants have both been shown to be effective at helping people cope with these issues.  I’ve found regular journaling to be incredibly useful.  Recovery does take time — anywhere from weeks to years, depending on your situation — but it’s absolutely possible to become more healthy and get yourself professionally back on track.

Links I liked

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got Mali’s 35-year old foreign minister, the dodgeball association of South Sudan, accountability for Mozambican mayors over gay rights, the future of nuclear power on the continent, and more.

View of the Nile, with green banks on both sides and a blue sky full of puffy clouds above
Here’s the view I’ve been enjoying in Jinja during Nyege Nyege Festival this weekend

West Africa: Ghana’s plan to build a new national cathedral is coming in for heavy criticism.  Also in Ghana, cocoa companies are working with local chiefs to improve property rights for cocoa farmers.  The Nigerian government is allegedly forcing internally displaced people to return to their dangerous home regions so that they can vote in upcoming primary elections.  Félicitations à Kamissa Camara, qui est devenue chef de la diplomatie malienne agée de 35 ans.  In Niger, farmers are using a nitrogen-fixing tree to improve their soil quality and fight climate change.  Here’s a good background article on current politics in Togo.  The latest edition of West Africa Insights is all about urbanization in the region.

Central Africa:  Read all about the DRC’s upcoming election, including its unusual single-round voting that can allow a president to be elected with a tiny minority of votes, and Kabila’s preferred candidate for the presidency.  Désarmement dans le Pool : le pasteur Ntumi fait « un pas dans la bonne direction », selon Brazzaville.  This article situates Uganda’s social media tax in a long history of unfair colonial taxation.  Museveni has threatened to abolish the Ugandan Parliament after protests over the beating of prominent opposition MP Bobi Wine, whose popularity clearly alarms him.  Listen to this piece about poor conditions on Uganda’s prison farms.  Tanzania is cutting off markets in refugee camps in an apparent attempt to force Burundian refugees to return home.  Rwanda is trying to boost tax revenue by simplifying its tax code at the same time it raises tax rates.

Map showing more than 4 million internally displaced people in the DRC, and flows of hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring nations
Map of the massive population displacement in the DRC, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa:  Tanzania wants to make it illegal to question government statistics.  If you’d like to approach the government with a non-statistical matter, definitely read these insider tips on how policymaking works in Tanzania.  South Sudan’s newest athletic league is a dodgeball association for teenage girls.  Read this insightful article about how John Garang’s death led to the fracturing of the SPLM.  Don’t miss this recent report from the Kenya Human Rights Commission about the country’s high rates of extrajudicial killings.  This article suggests that the Kenyan security forces routinely ignore tips about planned mass shootings, and that perpetrators are rarely arrested.  More than 90% of Somalia’s new cabinet ministers are said to hold MA or PhD degrees, but only 8% are women.

Southern Africa: At some South African universities, nearly 80% of black students report that they sometimes don’t have enough to eat.  A South African court has ruled that marriages between Muslim couples in the country must be legally registered and not simply recorded with religious authorities, giving women legal protection in the event of divorce.  Zimbabwe’s harsh laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV are discouraging people from coming for testing and treatment.

mozambique
A hopeful headline from Mozambique, showing a newspaper asking mayoral candidates in Nampula how they plan to combat discrimination against gay people (via Tom Bowker)

Public Health: I’m excited to hear about sensors.AFRICA, which is using low cost monitors to track air quality in several countries across the continent.  A non-profit organization is offering cash transfers to women who bring their children in for vaccinations in Nigeria.  One Nigerian woman has created a mental health hotline after struggling to access treatment for depression.

Economics: This was a really interesting thread about how legal uncertainty is increasing fuel prices in Kenya — an exemption on VAT for fuel expired on August 31 with no legal guidance on whether it was meant to be extended, leading to strikes by fuel importers.  South Sudan is beginning to bring oilfields back online after production was drastically reduced by the civil war.  An economist discusses how the cedi’s depreciation lead to the recent collapse of several banks in Ghana.  This was an interesting piece on the history of Ghana’s failed attempts to create a local rubber processing industry.  A new book argues that political conflict determines when protests take place in Africa, but economics determines who participates in them.  Is there a future for civilian nuclear energy in Africa?

Map showing what rotating savings groups are called throughout Africa
Great map of regional names for rotating savings and credit associations across the continent (via Funmi Oyatogun)

China in Africa:  This article shared some interesting reflections on the shortcomings of standard “China in Africa” narratives.  Chinese handset maker Transsion is capturing the African market with affordable phones that feature built-in radio reception and cameras calibrated for darker skin.

Arts and Literature:  Check out Robtel Neajai Pailey’s interactive website for her anti-corruption children’s books about Liberia, and Lupita Nyong’o’s upcoming children’s book as well!  Apply to work with the British Library on their collection of African-language materials.  Lots of interesting articles to be found in the Johannesburg Review of Books.   Read this dispatch from the Mogadishu Book Fair.  The Goethe Institut is calling for submissions of young adult literature by African authors in English, French and Kiswahili.  Here are all the African film festivals you can attend in 2018.

Black and yellow print showing a woman with her fist upraised, and a slogan at the bottom reading "Now you have touched the woman you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed.  9 August SA Women's Day"
Art for the day from Medu Art Ensemble, who created this poster for a 1956 women’s march against apartheid (via Women’s Art)

Conferences and Scholarships: Register for the Decolonial Transformationsconference at the University of Sussex — and before you do, read this great curriculum which a group of Cambridge students put together for decolonizing the Human, Social and Political Sciences degree.  Submit a paper to the Africa Social and Behavioral Change conference in English, French, Portuguese or Kiswahili.  The Working Group in African Political Economy is now accepting paper applications.  You can also send your scientific papers or science journalism to the African Science Desk to have them turned into short documentaries and explainers.  Spread the word about this multidisciplinary post-doc for African scholars at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

Why is Coke ubiquitous in poor countries while medicine is hard to find?

This question has presumably been around roughly as long as Coke itself, and has sparked a number of efforts for medicine distributors to piggyback on Coke’s supply chain, none with I believe much success.  The issue got a fresh airing on Twitter recently from Niti Bhan.  Then Prashant Yadav pointed the conversation towards a 2013 SSIR article that he and coauthors Orla Stapleton and Luk Van Wassenhove had published on this topic.  The article itself is gated, but he shared the chart below on Twitter, and it’s well worth a read.  As he points out, “[The issue is] mostly about information flow, incentives in the system, and regulatory impediments.”

Chart comparing the supply chains of Coke and medicines

Links I liked

Here’s the latest cross-posting from my Africa Update newsletter!  We’ve got the paradox of powdered milk in cattle-loving Somalia, the national airline of Chad, challenges of urban planning in Kenya, free African documentaries online, and more.

Tweet from Samira Sawlani: "There's really no such thing as the voiceless.  There are only the deliberately silence, or the preferably unheard" - Arundhati Roy
Thought of the day, via Samira Sawlani

West Africa: Because Dakar lacks public space, kids play on the beaches, despite a high risk of drowning in the strong Atlantic currents.  Stereotypes about single women in Nigeria make it difficult for them to rent apartments on their own.  “Many Nigerian small businesses are products of ‘necessity entrepreneurship’ and therefore would not exist if there were more large-scale employers offering better salaries.”  This was a thought-provoking article about why former combatants in Côte d’Ivoire generally refrained from going to work as mercenaries in Mali.

Central Africa: There’s a large Congolese refugee population in Kenya, but they lack access to support since they usually stay in Nairobi rather than in designated camps.  An activist group in the DRC has launched an online portal to track the quality of election implementation.  Kabila has finally named his successor in the DRC’s presidential race, but there’s little reason to expect that this will change the quality of governance.  The competitiveness of elections is limited by the fact that all Congolese presidential candidates must pay US$100,000 to get onto the ballot.  Lisez cet article : « Au Rwanda, la transformation agricole à marche forcée. »  Chad is launching a new national airline, which is clearly the most important priority for a poor, conflict-prone country.

Chart showing infrastructure funding flows from various sources to Africa
Interesting chart on fragmented flows of infrastructure funding, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa: Read about the informal courts maintaining order in IDP camps in South Sudan.  Over 40,000 Kenyans have been denied compensation for alleged torture during the colonial era after a British judge said their case exceeded the statute of limitations.  Kenyan activist groups are repurposing famous dates from the democracy struggle to call attention to extrajudicial killings.  This is a great story about the challenges of setting up Kenya’s first domestic athletic shoe brand.  Nairobi tried to get its private buses to go cashless, but they failed to get buy-in from an obvious constituency: the drivers.  Many Somalis drink powdered milk instead of fresh because a lack of regulation makes fresh milk dangerous, but one dairy is trying to change that.  Deaf footballers in Somalia have set up their own league after being blocked from joining existing leagues.  This was an interesting piece about path dependence and the end of sanctions in Sudan, where people who are accustomed to working outside the formal banking system are reluctant to re-engage with it.

Southern Africa: In Botswana, a new antiretroviral drug could save the lives of HIV patients, but there are concerns about whether it may lead to birth defects, since pregnant women are rarely included in studies of drug safety.  The Magamba Network offers regular polling data on citizen sentiment in Zimbabwe.

Two maps showing the distribution of development aid to Africa, from the World Bank and from China
Map interlude: check out Tilman Graff’s work on the locations of aid projects across Africa

Urban planning in Kenya: Residents of poor areas in Nairobi are mapping their neighborhoods to make it more difficult for the government to demolish them and then claim they don’t have records of who lived there.  Kibera residents are also speaking out against the “poverty tourism” which brings foreign visitors to their neighborhoods to gawk at them.  Kenya’s president has a plan to build social housing, but one critic points out that the mortgage rates are still out of reach for most people who really need access to better living conditions.  Buildings in Nairobi are being demolished for encroaching on rivers, but some commentators are asking how the demolitions will meet the city’s broader mission of urban regeneration.

Infrastructure week: Kenya and Ethiopia are close to completing construction for cross-border electricity transmission, in a step towards creating a regional power pool.  Foreign architects are accused of building schools for form rather than function in Nairobi.  The perils of distributive politics are clear in Uganda, where a politician destroyed boreholes he had installed in his constituency after he lost an election.  In Kampala, race-based restrictions on housing from the colonial era are still visible in the build environment today.

electricity
Great chart on electricity generation from Africa Visual Data

Arts and culture: A Beninese artist planted a copy of a 19th century royal throne at an archaeological dig to protest the fact that the original throne is held at a museum in France.  A dozen authors from the Middle East and Africa who were invited to the Edinburgh International Book Festival had their visas denied for unclear reasons.  AfriDocs has a number of African documentaries available to watch online for free.  Check out the online resources for teaching African decolonization at the National History Center.

Fellowships and workshops: The Women for Africa Foundation offers visiting positions at Spanish centers of excellence in science for female researchers from Africa.  If you’re a writer in Nairobi, don’t miss this great writing workshop being offered by Nanjala Nyabola and others on August 28.  Journalists should apply for the African Investigative Journalism Conference from October 29 – 31.

The 25 best longform articles of 2017

The image shows a red square with the text "2,952,My year in Pocket

I’ve always been a bookworm, but over the last year or two the number of books I’ve read outside of work has steadily declined.  This was dismaying until I noticed that I’ve just been substituting longform journalism for the other reading I normally might have done.  I do almost all of my reading through Pocket, which recently sent the very reassuring year-end email above.

Here are the 25 most interesting articles that I found out of those almost three million words (!) in 2017, in no particular order.  Check out my 2016 list as well.

Black mothers keep dying after giving birth.  Shalom Irving’s story explains why.  NPR.  “But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.  ‘It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it. It’s everywhere; it’s in the air; it’s just affecting everything,’ said Fleda Mask Jackson, an Atlanta researcher who focuses on birth outcomes for middle-class black women.  …  [Chronic stress] has profound implications for pregnancy, the most physiologically complex and emotionally vulnerable time in a woman’s life. Stress has been linked to one of the most common and consequential pregnancy complications, preterm birth. Black women are 49 percent more likely than whites to deliver prematurely (and, closely related, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday).”

Every parent wants to protect their child.  I never got the chance.  The Cut.  “But no matter whose fault it is, giving birth to a child with a terminal disease is something I did do. This is just as obvious as it is important: I am the one who was pregnant and gave birth to Dudley. That I continued my pregnancy under mistaken pretenses feels like an irreparable violation, one that I don’t think any man — including the one who loves Dudley as much as I do — is capable of understanding.”

How the US triggered a massacre in Mexico.  ProPublica.  “But unlike most places in Mexico that have been ravaged by the drug war, what happened in Allende didn’t have its origins in Mexico. It began in the United States, when the Drug Enforcement Administration scored an unexpected coup. An agent persuaded a high-level Zetas operative to hand over the trackable cellphone identification numbers for two of the cartel’s most wanted kingpins, Miguel Ángel Treviño and his ​brother Omar.  Then the DEA took a gamble. It shared the intelligence with a Mexican federal police unit that has long had problems with leaks — even though its members had been trained and vetted by the DEA. Almost immediately, the Treviños learned they’d been betrayed. The brothers set out to exact vengeance against the presumed snitches, their families and anyone remotely connected to them.”

The best books on Vermeer and studio method.  Five Books.  “There is quite a lot of argument about Vermeer’s working practice, particularly over whether or not he might have used an optical aid, such as a camera obscura.  But he only had the same things available to him as did any other painter of his day. Because his pictures look quite different from his contemporaries, the big questions are whether he worked in an unusual way, and also how he could have used a lens in his studio. There is very little documentation about Vermeer, and so I had to start by finding out what were the suggested methods and materials for artists at the time, and how people were using lenses. There was a bit of an overlap between alchemy, medicine and painting then, and old artists’ treatises give recipes for cures and experiments as well as for paint. They were all fascinating, and so my reading became very wide, and it took a very long time to write this book. This is why the bibliography is so big.”

The African enlightenment.  Aeon.  “In short: many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarised by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632. Yacob’s reason-based philosophy is presented in his main work, Hatäta (meaning ‘the enquiry’). The book was written down in 1667 on the insistence of his student, Walda Heywat, who himself wrote a more practically oriented Hatäta. Today, 350 years later, it’s hard to find a copy of Yacob’s book.”

The hellraisers of Nairobi.  Nairobi Side Hustle.  “From the beginning, Mumbi’s approach was radical and feminist. She realized that women were being excluded from local community associations because of the membership fees, so she set up her own women’s parliament, and made it free to join. Herself a Kikuyu, Mumbi invited women who represented all the different communities around Mathare to join.  Almost immediately, the Parliament got to work on issues that no one else seemed to be touching. ‘For us, we wanted to have a unique platform where women can share and exchange their views about things that are not going right at the community level,’ she said. After a house girl was beaten by her employer and cheated out of her wage, the Parliament helped to form a house girls’ association. And after a woman died in childbirth at the local Huruma Maternity Clinic, they organized a march to demand that the local government shut the clinic down.”

Afghan war rugs and the lossy compression of cultural codingRespectable Lawyer.  This is a Twitter thread, so not so easy to quote here, but it’s a fascinating discussion of how the Soviet and American invasions are visually represented in rugs, and how cultural artifacts get passed between generations of weavers.

India’s Silicon Valley is dying of thirst.  Your city may be next.  Wired.  “Bangalore has a problem: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Banga­lore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, ‘the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.'”

What do slaveholders think?  Aeon.  “While not every one of the slaveholders I spoke with in the course of this research was as frank as Aanan, his approach bears all the traits of contemporary slaveholding: financial distress, emotional manipulation, illegality, and paternalism. At the end of our conversation, I inquired about Aanan with one of my research partners. Yes, they had heard of him. I updated my field notes: ‘Largest contractor in [town].’”

How did Indonesia and Malaysia become majority-Muslim when they were once dominated by Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms?  r/AskHistorians.  “While Islam was spreading, Southeast Asia was experiencing other rapid changes in matters other than religion. Forests were cleared to make farms, while fishing villages turned into humongous cities within a few generations. People began to leave their villages and head out for the wider world. Animism tends to be localized and unpredictable, but Islam is true no matter where you go and says that no matter what, the pious go to Heaven and the evil fall to Hell. Islam was perhaps the most suitable religion in this brave new world.”

The couple who saved ancient China’s architectural treasures before they were lost forever.  Smithsonian Magazine.  “Liang and Lin—along with a half dozen or so other young scholars in the grandly named Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture—used the only information available, following stray leads in ancient texts, chasing up rumors and clues found in cave murals, even, in one case, an old folkloric song. It was, Liang later wrote, ‘like a blind man riding a blind horse.’ Despite the difficulties, the couple would go on to make a string of extraordinary discoveries in the 1930s, documenting almost 2,000 exquisitely carved temples, pagodas and monasteries that were on the verge of being lost forever.”

What would count as an explanation of the size of China? Marginal Revolution. “Currently there are over one billion Chinese in one political unit, and a bit of scattering.  And there are over one billion Europeans, spread in fairly significant numbers across about fifty political units.  How did such a fundamental difference come to pass?”

Rice and banchan — a love affair.  Ask a Korean.  “If you ever visited a Korean restaurant, even just once, you have seen banchan. Before you receive what you ordered—sometimes, before you order anything at all—an array of dishes come in small plates. One of them, without fail, is kimchi. Others can be meat, fish or vegetables. They can be raw, cooked, tossed, pickled, braised, fermented. Those are banchan: literally, ‘companion to rice.’  Eating food with carbohydrates is hardly unique to Koreans. Nor is eating food with rice, as other rice-growing cultures also center their cuisine around rice. But none of those cultures created a cuisine quite like Korea’s, which obsesses over building a constellation of small dishes to orbit around the rice. To be sure, not all Korean dishes come with numerous banchan. Dishes like gukbap (국밥, or rice-in-soup,) noodles, or bibimbap usually come with the maximum of three or so side dishes. But traditionally, Koreans have considered those banchan-less dishes to be the “lower” food that you would eat when you are out-and-about. Bibimbap, for example, originated as a dish for peasants on the field, who would mix in all the banchan into a large bowl with rice and sauce to eat quickly during their mid-day break. Gukbap and noodles were usually served at guest houses for travelers who needed to eat quickly and continue their journey.”

The Japanese origins of fine dining.  Eater.  “There’s little precedent in Europe for the lightly cooked, lightly sauced, yet intricately plated dishes, what the late writer and critic Josh Ozersky called ‘tweezer food,’ before it appeared suddenly and decisively in France in the 1960s. A great deal of nouvelle cuisine’s innovations, in fact, paralleled classical aspects of Japanese dining, especially the movement’s emphasis on shorter cooking times; minimalist, playful plating; and a focus on extracting the essential aspects of an ingredient, rather than transforming it. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the time that French chefs began visiting Japan (and Japanese chefs began training in France) in the mid-1960s, fine dining has become increasingly like Japan’s most formal dining tradition, kaiseki.”

Why would aliens ever bother with Earth?  Literary Hub.  “For these reasons, it strikes me that if there is intelligent alien life out there in our galaxy, they almost certainly wouldn’t pay us a visit in person in huge city-sized motherships, but by sending their sentient robots as emissaries.”

The origin of cities — part 1The HipCrime Vocab.  “Thus, the origin of cities was long before the agricultural revolution as was very much tied together with the activities of ritual feasting. Many of the ancient megaliths show the same ‘cosmological’ orientation as the early temple cities do. The calendrical orientation was associated with the priestly caste who used astronomical observations to determine the timing of the feasts. The design of these sites was intentionally made to represent a cosmic order manifested on earth, a common theme of early ruling classes who were establishing a celestial ‘order’ on earth – ‘as above so below’ in language of hermeticism. Just as the sacred feasting rituals provided the opportunity for the gift exchanges that led to the interest-bearing debt and inequality, so too did the written debt/credit relationships which supplanted them originate in the sacred context of the temples.”

Here be dragons: finding the blank spaces in a well-mapped world.  VQR.  “Until a century ago, Greenlandic hunters would cut maps out of driftwood. ‘The wooden part would be the fjord, so it would be a mirror image,’ Siggi says. ‘Holes would be islands. Compared to a paper map, it was actually quite accurate.’ … A Danish ethnologist, Gustav Holm, noted that notched into the wood, ‘the map likewise indicates where a kayak can be carried’ when the path between fjords is blocked by ice. Unlike drawings, the contoured wood could be felt, useful in a region where the sun disappears for months at a time.”

New exoskeletons will harness the subtle anatomy of human balance.  Nautilus.  “Unlike the rest of us, the [Kenyan] women were supporting the load [they carried on their head] with the structural components of the body, rather than metabolizing tissues of the body. They were balancing it perfectly on their bones, without the aid of any muscle, tendon, or supporting structures. Over time, Heglund showed, the bones and bodies of the African women had adjusted to perfectly support the head weight in the most energy efficient manner. The structure had adjusted so it aligned in an ideal formation to keep the weight off the muscles.”

The science of suffering.  New Republic.  “By far the most remarkable recent finding about this transmogrification of the body is that some proportion of it can be reproduced in the next generation. The children of survivors—a surprising number of them, anyway—may be born less able to metabolize stress. They may be born more susceptible to PTSD, a vulnerability expressed in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes.  After a century of brutalization and slaughter of millions, the corporeal dimension of trauma gives a startling twist to the maxim that history repeats itself. Yael Danieli, the author of an influential reference work on the multigenerational dimensions of trauma, refers to the physical transmission of the horrors of the past as ’embodied history.’ Of course, biological legacy doesn’t predetermine the personality or health of any one child. To say that would be to grossly oversimplify the socioeconomic and geographic and irreducibly personal forces that shape a life. At the same time, it would be hard to overstate the political import of these new findings. People who have been subject to repeated, centuries-long violence, such as African Americans and Native Americans, may by now have disadvantage baked into their very molecules.”

How to raise a sweet son in an era of angry men.  Time.  “Boys have always known they could do anything; all they had to do was look around at their presidents, religious leaders, professional athletes, at the statues that stand erect in big cities and small. Girls have always known they were allowed to feel anything — except anger. Now girls, led by women, are being told they can own righteous anger.Now they can feel what they want and be what they want. There’s no commensurate lesson for boys in our culture. While girls are encouraged to be not just ballerinas, but astronauts and coders, boys—who already know they can walk on the moon and dominate Silicon Valley—don’t receive explicit encouragement to fully access their emotions. Boys are still snips and snails and puppy dog tails. We leave them behind from birth.”

How do you count without numbers?  Sapiens.  “None of us, then, is really a ‘numbers person.’ We are not predisposed to handle quantitative distinctions adroitly. In the absence of the cultural traditions that infuse our lives with numbers from infancy, we would all struggle with even basic quantitative distinctions.”

Why clocks run clockwise (and some watches and clocks that don’t).  Hodinkee.  “The idea that one would need to specify motion one way or the other around a circle doesn’t seem to have been very widespread prior to the development of clocks, and people simply seemed to have said left or right, in most cases. Two old terms in English exist: widdershins (counterclockwise) and deosil or deasil (clockwise) though again, these seem to originally have more had the sense of left and right rather than clockwise or counterclockwise per se. ‘Widdershins’ is first attested in 1545 (notably, well after the appearance of public clocks in Europe).”

Why did life move to land?  For the view.  Quanta.  “Life on Earth began in the water. So when the first animals moved onto land, they had to trade their fins for limbs, and their gills for lungs, the better to adapt to their new terrestrial environment.  A new study, out today, suggests that the shift to lungs and limbs doesn’t tell the full story of these creatures’ transformation. As they emerged from the sea, they gained something perhaps more precious than oxygenated air: information. In air, eyes can see much farther than they can under water. The increased visual range provided an ‘informational zip line’ that alerted the ancient animals to bountiful food sources near the shore.”

The self-medicating animal.  New York Times.  “Animals of all kinds, from ants and butterflies to sheep and monkeys, use medicine. Certain caterpillars will, when infected by parasitic flies, eat poisonous plants, killing or arresting the growth of the larvae within them. Some ants incorporate resin from spruce trees in their nests to fend off pathogenic microbes, employing the same antibacterial compounds, called terpenes, that we use when we mop the floor with the original Pine-Sol. Parrots and many other animals consume clay to treat an upset stomach; clay binds to toxins, flushing them out of the body. ‘I believe every species alive today is self-medicating in one way or another,’ Huffman told me recently. ‘It’s just a fact of life.'”

The secret economic lives of animals.  Bloomberg.  “‘Biological markets are all over the place,’ says Ronald Noë, a Dutch biologist at the University of Strasbourg who first proposed the concept of the biological market in 1994. Scientists have since described biological markets in the African savannah, Central American rainforests, and the Great Barrier Reef. Baboons and other social primates exchange grooming for sex. Some plants and insects reward ants for protection. Cleaner wrasses eat parasites off other fish and behave more gently when a “client” has the option of visiting a rival wrasse.”

Spring conference highlights

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

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Christine Simiyu.  “Take-up, Use and Impact of Reusable Sanitary Products Provision and Puberty Training on Education and Health Outcomes in Rural Kenya.”  Presented at Berkeley’s Development Economics Lunch.

Michael Mbate.  Partisanship and Decentralized Corruption: Evidence from Kenya.” Presented at Berkeley’s Development Economics Lunch.

Unfortunately neither of these papers is online yet.  I mention them to highlight the excellent work being done by Berkeley’s EASST program in supporting the research of African scholars.  Follow their blog to learn about more great funding opportunities for African academics.

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Gabriel Tourek.  “Simplified Income Taxation of Firms: Evidence from a Rwandan Reform.”  Presented at the Development and Political Economics Graduate Student Conference (DEVPEC).

This paper isn’t public yet, but do keep an eye out for it.  It discusses a 2012 tax reform in Rwanda, and finds interesting results in small firms’ decisions about whether to pay taxes or evade them.

Elisa Maffioli.  “The Political Economy of Slow-Onset Disasters: Evidence from the Ebola Outbreak.”  Presented at DEVPEC.

Another very interesting work in progress.  The paper focuses on Liberia, where elections were held in 2014 in the middle of the response to the Ebola outbreak, and examines whether electoral concerns affected the government’s provision of disaster relief.

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Craig McIntosh, Karen Ferree, Clark Gibson, Danielle F. Jung, and James D. Long.  “Using Technology to Promote Participation in Emerging Democracies: VIP:Voice and the 2014 South African Election.”  Presented at Smart Government: Harnessing Technology for Public Good.

Abstract: Can technology help citizens overcome barriers to participation in emerging democracies? We argue that, by lowering costs, technology brings new participants into the political process. However, people induced to action through lower costs are different from those participating when costs are higher. Specifically, they are likely to have lower intrinsic motivations to participate and greater sensitivity to external incentives. By inducing selection effects, technology thus generates a crowd that is both more responsive to incentives (malleable) and more sensitive to costs (fragile). In this paper, we report on VIP:Voice, a platform we engineered to encourage South African citizens to engage politically through an ICT/DM platform. VIP: Voice recruited South Africans through a variety of methods, including over 50 million ‘Please Call Me’ messages, and provided a multi-channel platform allowing citizens to engage via low-tech mobile phones and high-tech social media. It encouraged purely digital forms of participation like answering survey questions about the election as well as more costly real world activities like monitoring a polling station. VIP:Voice generated engagement of some form in over 250,000 South Africans. Engagement proved sensitive to cost of action, however, with rapid attrition as action shifted from digital to real world forms. Not surprisingly, improving the ease and reducing the price of participation increased participation. Less obviously, these manipulations also influenced the nature of the group participating. Participants who entered the platform through user friendly social media channels and those who joined as a result of incentives were more sensitive to rising costs of action than those who initially engaged through less friendly channels and without material inducements. Our study thus reveals how, more than merely enabling participation, technology shapes the very nature of the crowd that forms.

Kelly Bidwell, Katherine Casey, and Rachel Glennerster.  “Debates: The Impact of Voter Knowledge Initiatives in Sierra Leone.”  Presented at Smart Government.

Abstract: Debates between candidates for public office have a rich historical tradition and remain an integral part of contemporary campaign strategy. There is, however, no definitive evidence of whether debates affect actual voting behavior. Limited media penetration implies that the effects of publicizing debates could be more pronounced, persistent and directly linked to electoral outcomes in the developing world. We experimentally manipulate citizen exposure to debates between Parliamentary candidates in Sierra Leone to measure their impacts on, and the interconnections between, voter behavior, campaign spending, and the performance of elected politicians. We find evidence of strong positive impacts on citizen political knowledge, policy alignment and votes cast on Election Day. We then document an endogenous response by participating candidates, who increased their campaign expenditure in communities where videotapes of the debates were screened in large public gatherings. A complementary series of individual treatment arms unpacks the di§fferent types of information delivered by the debates, and finds evidence that voters respond to both candidate charisma and “hard facts” about policy stance and professional qualiÖcations. Lastly, we find longer term accountability e§ects on elected MPs, where participation in debates led to higher levels of constituency engagement and development expenditure during their first year in office.

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Mahmood Mamdani.  “Between the public intellectual and the scholar: decolonization and some post-independence initiatives in African higher education.”  Presented at CAS.

Abstract: This article focuses on epistemological decolonization, including knowledge production and its institutional locus – the university – in the post-independence African context. The article begins by problematizing both the concept and the institutional history of the university, in its European and African contexts, to underline the specifically modern character of the university as we know it and its genesis in post-Renaissance Europe. Against this background, the article traces post-independence reform of universities in Africa, which is unfolding in two waves: the first on access, Africanization, generating a debate between rights and justice; and the second on institutional reform, epitomized by the debate around disciplinarity. At the same time, the notions of excellence and relevance have functioned as code words, each signaling a different trajectory in the historical development of the university. Lastly, the article explores the role and tension between the public intellectual and the scholar from the perspective of decolonization.

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Melina Platas Izama and Pia Raffler.  “Meet the Candidates: Information and Accountability in Primary and General Elections.”  Presented at EGAP.

Abstract: What is the effect of information on political behavior? This field experiment, conducted in Uganda during the 2015 primary and 2016 general elections, will systematically assess the conditions under which information about candidates and government performance affects voter behavior. We examine two different methods of providing information: debate-like “Meet the Candidate” sessions and a scorecard. “Meet the Candidate” sessions include video-recorded candidate statements on a set of questions related to policy preferences. These sessions will be publicly screened in one set of polling stations and privately to individuals in another set of polling stations. The screenings will take place in both an intra-party and inter-party electoral environment, in the 2015 primary elections of the ruling party, and 2016 general elections. Thus, we examine systematically two factors that we hypothesize will affect the effect of information on voter behavior: the political environment and the public vs. private nature of information provision.

Claire Adida, Jessica Gottlieb, Eric Kramon, and Gwyneth McClendon.  “Can Common Knowledge Improve Common Goods?”  Presented at EGAP.

Abstract: This project provides citizens in Benin with information about legislator performance while varying (1) the salience of the information to voters’ wellbeing, and (2) whether performance information is disseminated privately or in groups.  A random sample of citizens will receive legislator performance information as part of a private screening, and another random sample will receive it as part of a public screening. Additionally, a random sample of citizens will receive a “civics message” in which arguments and examples are provided about the important implications of national legislation and oversight for citizens’ wellbeing in addition to legislator performance information; the rest will receive only the legislator performance information. In control villages, no information will be disseminated either publicly or privately. The electoral behavior of respondents in the different treatment conditions will be compared to the electoral behavior of respondents in control villages.

The image shows a map of the world with Africa highlightedKatrina Kosec, Hosaena Ghebru, Brian Holtemeyer, and Valerie Mueller.  “The Effect of Land Access on Youth Employment and Migration Decisions: Evidence from Rural Ethiopia.” Presented at the Annual Bank Conference on Africa (ABCA).

 

Abstract: How does the amount of land youth expect to inherit affect their migration and employment decisions? We explore this question in the context of rural Ethiopia using data on whether youth household members from 2010 had migrated by 2014, and in which sector they work. We estimate a household fixed effects model and exploit exogenous variation in the timing of land redistributions to overcome endogenous household decisions about how much land to bequeath to descendants. We find that larger expected land inheritances significantly lower the likelihood of long-distance permanent migration and of permanent migration to urban areas. Inheriting more land also leads to a significantly higher likelihood of employment in agriculture and a lower likelihood of employment in the non-agricultural sector. Conversely, the decision to attend school is unaffected. These results appear to be most heavily driven by males and by the older half of our youth sample. We also find suggestive evidence that several mediating factors matter. Land inheritance is a much stronger predictor of rural-to-urban permanent migration and non-agricultural-sector employment in areas with less vibrant land markets, in relatively remote areas (those far from major urban centers), and in areas with lower soil quality. Overall, these results affirm the importance of push factors in dictating occupation and migration decisions in Ethiopia.

Margaux Vinez.  “Division of the Commons and Access to Land on The Frontier: Lessons from The Colonial Legacy in The Democratic Republic of Congo.”  Presented at ABCA.

Abstract: What is the importance of colonial policies in shaping today’s land tenure institutions and inequalities in access to land? This paper sheds light on this question by analyzing ”paysannat”, a colonial intervention in the Belgian Congo attempting to push the evolution of the tenure system from communal toward private property rights. In the context of forced cultivation of cash crops, the Colony imposed the privatization of collectively owned land (forests or fallows) to individual farmers in some villages. Using spatial discontinuities of the implementation of paysannat and a unique combination of contemporary household survey data, geographic data, as well as historic data from both colonial records and contemporary oral history surveys, this paper shows that paysannat had a persistent impact on local land institutions through its impact on the privatization of collective land. We find that paysannat was successful in pushing toward the indivualization of the commons, and that it had important distribution consequences between the clanic groups.

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Philip Roessler, Yannick I. Pengl, Rob Marty, Kyle Titlow, and Nicolas van de Walle.  “The Empty Panorama: The Origins of Spatial Inequality in Africa.”  Presented at the Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE).

This paper isn’t online yet, but definitely keep an eye out for it — it’s a monumental data collection effort which sheds new light on questions of inequality in Africa.

Josephine Gatua.  “Social connections and primary health care: evidence from Kenya.”  Presented at WGAPE.

Abstract: Access and utilization of health services remains low in developing countries despite the documented benefits to health. This paper analyses the local political economy of the health sector which has so far gained very little attention. Particularly, I exam- ine whether social connections between households and locally instituted health care providers affects the number of health care visits and access to essential antimalarial drugs. I also examine how access to health care and social connections affect household health seeking behaviour. I find that households that have strong social connections to the local health care providers within a community get more health care visits and are more likely to receive health commodities for free. The results further suggest that households that get more visits have better health seeking behavior in terms of testing for malaria and complying with the antimalarial treatment regime. However, kin are less likely to comply with the treatment regime compared to non-kin. Evidence suggests that local health care providers fair behavior is influenced by the amount of compensation they get.

Jonathan Weigel.  “Building State and Citizen: Experimental Evidence from a Tax Campaign in Congo.”  Presented at WGAPE.

This paper also isn’t available online.  Here’s an abstract from the pre-analysis plan:

This pre-analysis plan (PAP) outlines a randomized evaluation of the first citywide property tax campaign led by the Provincial Government in Kananga, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The primary intervention randomly assigns certain neighborhoods to receive the door-to-door tax collection program, aided by tablet computers and handheld receipt print- ers. Because collecting taxes on the ground also creates new opportunities for corruption, two cross-randomized interventions are used to study how to limit bribe taking. First, a collector monitoring (‘audit’) intervention is randomly assigned among neighborhoods that receive the program. Second, a citizen-level information intervention is randomly assigned among all neighborhoods in the city.

There are four broad strands of the analysis: (1) the effect of the tax program on citizens’ beliefs about the government and their efforts to hold it accountable; (2) the effects of the top-down audit intervention and the bottom-up information intervention on bribe taking associated with the program; (3) the determinants of productivity, honesty, and effort among state agents in the field; and (4) the citizen-side determinants of tax compliance in poor urban settings.