The 20 best longform articles of 2020

Here’s my annual round-up of the year’s best articles! You can also read along with me at Pocket, where I share the most interesting things I read during the year. (Previously: best of 2019201820172016.)

India’s Pickle Queen Preserves Everything, Including the Past. New York Times. “Mango and lime pickles are commonly sold in the United States, but nothing escapes pickling in India: plums and hog plums, cherries and chokecherries, sprouted fenugreek seeds, bamboo shoots, fat gooseberries, hibiscus flowers and green walnuts. Cooks work with all kinds of fruits, vegetables, flowers, roots and seeds, using every edible part of every possible food.”

Facial Recognition for Pigs: Is it Helping Chinese Farmers or Hurting the Poorest? The Guardian. “[Facial recognition technology] is able to differentiate between pigs by analysing their snouts, ears, and eyes. The system used in Guangxi farms constantly tracks pigs’ pulses and sweat rates; at the same time, voice recognition software monitors individual animals’ cough rates. In this way, it is able to spot warning signs before a pig becomes sick or hungry. Being a ‘highly expressive’ animal, the cameras are even capable of recognising distress in the animals’ faces.”

The Battle to Invent the Automatic Rice Cooker. Atlas Obscura. “The automatic rice cooker is a mid-century Japanese invention that made a Sisyphean culinary labor as easy as measuring out grain and water and pressing a button… So long as you add water and rice in the right proportions, it’s nearly impossible to mess up, as the machines stop cooking at exactly the right point for toothsome rice. But creating an automatic rice cooker was not so easy. In fact, it took decades of inventive leaps, undertaken by some of the biggest names in Japanese technology…. [For centuries before,] Japanese women rose at dawn and labored for several sweaty hours to make rice.”

Learning from the Kariba Dam. New York Times. “As the stony facade continues to crumble, the likelihood rises that the Kariba Dam will not just fail but fall. If the dam collapses, the BBC reported in 2014, a tsunami would tear through the Zambezi River Valley, a torrent so powerful that it would knock down another dam a hundred miles away, the Cahora Bassa in Mozambique — twin disasters that would take out 40 percent of the hydroelectric capacity in all of southern Africa.”

A New Master’s House: The Architect Decolonising Nigerian Design. Al Jazeera. “Nwoko began building his own house in Ibadan with the methods that have remained his hallmarks. He created the bricks with laterite soil extracted on-site during the excavation process… Trees removed during construction were repurposed as flooring, doors, window shutters, and the framework for the roofing… Ventilation portals create pathways for breezes to enter from the floor and for hot air to escape at ceiling level. With this passive cooling system, as well as the natural temperature regulation provided by the mud walls, no air conditioning is needed, year-round.”

For Domestic Workers, Apps Provide Solace – But Not Justice. Rest of World. “Driven to desperation, many domestic workers around the world clearly need innovative solutions. Angela Kintominas, a lawyer and researcher for the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the most useful new digital services are those developed in collaboration with migrant-worker organizations. Such groups can provide local context and on-the-ground experience with privacy and data security, she said. Whether all the emerging services follow that prescription is another matter.”

The Strange Reinvention of Icelandic. The Economist. “Icelanders are fiercely proud of their tongue and stay actively involved in its maintenance…. The result is something close to unique—a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian).”

Behrouz Boochani Just Wants to be Free. New York Times. “Everyone staying in Lodge 10 was a refugee awaiting resettlement. These men were brought into the country against their will for the noncrime of seeking political asylum in Australia. They were among hundreds of migrants locked up in an old naval base on Manus Island, which lies off the northeast coast of mainland Papua New Guinea. Now they had been moved to this motel with its shared toilets and atmosphere of stultified trauma…. All the men had started out together in the shared misery of detention, but then Boochani did something extraordinary: Letter by letter, pecked out on contraband telephones while locked up on Manus, he wrote his first book.”

Electric Crypto Balkan Acid Test. The Baffler. “European authorities soon traced the power fluctuations to North Kosovo, a region commonly described as one of Europe’s last ganglands. Since 2015, its major city, Mitrovica, has been under the control of Srpska Lista, a mafia masquerading as a political party. Around the time Srpska came to power, North Kosovo’s electricity consumption surged. Officials at the Kosovo Electricity Supply Company in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital city, told me that the region now requires 20 percent more power than it did five years ago. Eventually, it became clear why: across the region, from the shabby apartment blocks of Mitrovica to the cellars of mountain villages, Bitcoin and Ethereum rigs were humming away, fueling a shadow economy of cryptocurrency manufacturing.”

Inside the Quest for Documents that Could Resolve a Cold War Mystery. Lithub. “Let me explain why, out of the millions of pages of military records from the 1950s, these twenty-one withdrawn memos might matter. It’s not only because any document that a government takes special pains to keep away from historians, using a yellow access-restricted card, is likely to be revealing in some way. It’s also because these documents in particular may help answer one of the big unresolved questions of the Cold War: Did the United States covertly employ some of its available biological weaponry—bombs packed with fleas and mosquitoes and disease-dusted feathers, for instance—in locations in China and Korea?”

Landscape of Fear: Why We Need the Wolf. The Guardian. “Around the same time as the wolves were released, the mountain lion population, once hunted to local extinction, was becoming re-established as well – having crept back in from wilderness areas in central Idaho. Under these twin pressures, over a period of about 15 years, elk numbers halved. Those that did survive behaved differently, too: when the wolves were on the prowl, they retreated to the dimly lit comfort of the woods, where they might wander in clandestine bands. They avoided the cougars, most active at night, by steering clear of landmarks where they might be trapped or surprised from above in the dark – ravines, outcrops, embankments. No longer did they live in an environment defined by its waterholes and pastures, or even by its ridgelines and ravines, but by areas now suffused with danger and relief. A psychological topology, this – one marked with hillocks of anxiety and peaks of alarm. Ecologists know this as ‘the landscape of fear.'”

The Man Who Refused to Spy. The New Yorker. “The prosecution, evidently sensing that the case was not going its way, had quietly informed ICE that it no longer wished to defer Asgari’s deportation [to Iran]: the agency could come collect its prisoner. No sooner had Judge Gwin departed the courtroom than a marshal seated in the gallery approached the defense table to haul Asgari into ICE custody. The turn of events was stunning. Asgari had just been acquitted in a fair trial before a federal judge, but would end the day in prison. By all appearances, the government was acting out of vindictiveness.”

The Abolition Movement. Vanity Fair. “It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.”

Land-Grab Universities. High Country News. “In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. Now thriving, the institutions seldom ask who paid for their good fortune… The Morrill Act worked by turning land expropriated from tribal nations into seed money for higher education. In all, the act redistributed nearly 11 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. But with a footprint broken up into almost 80,000 parcels of land, scattered mostly across 24 Western states, its place in the violent history of North America’s colonization has remained comfortably inaccessible.”

Algae Caviar, Anyone? What We’ll Eat on the Journey to Mars. Wired. “Every pound that NASA transports to and from space costs thousands of dollars, which means food must be lightweight and compact. It also has to last a long time. Like Nespoli’s mashed potatoes, many of the dishes on offer—shrimp cocktail, chicken teriyaki, or one of a couple hundred other options—come dehydrated. And they tend to share another property too, Coleman said: “Everything is kind of mushy.” This is a side effect of NASA’s all-out war on crumbs. On Earth, crumbs fall; in microgravity, they can end up anywhere, including inside critical equipment or astronauts’ lungs.”

The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of. Mental Floss. “For 60 years, American drivers unknowingly poisoned themselves by pumping leaded gasoline into their tanks. Here is the lifelong saga of Clair Patterson—a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb and discovered the true age of the Earth—and how he took on a billion-dollar industry to save humanity from itself.”

Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel. Scientific American. “The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder…. The invention of the wheel was so challenging that it probably happened only once, in one place. However, from that place, it seems to have spread so rapidly across Eurasia and the Middle East that experts cannot say for sure where it originated.”

Egg-Laying or Live Birth: How Evolution Chooses. Quanta. “Live birth evolved later — and more than once. In reptiles alone, it has evolved at least 121 separate times. And although scientists don’t know exactly when the first live animal emerged from its mother, they do know what forces may have been driving the transition from egg laying and what evolutionary steps may have preceded it.”

When Plants Go to War. Nautilus. “Far from being passive victims, plants have evolved potent defenses: chemical compounds that serve as toxins, signal an escalating attack, and solicit help from unlikely allies. However, all of this security comes at a cost: energy and other resources that plants could otherwise use for growth and repair. So to balance the budget, plants have to be selective about how and when to deploy their chemical arsenal. Here are five tactics they’ve developed to ward off their insect foes without sacrificing their own wellbeing.”

Childish Things: The Anguish of Grandparenting in a Pandemic. The Economist. “The knowledge that children are perpetually passing through themselves on the way to becoming someone else is part of the delight and fascination of parenthood. Their behaviours and traits are in a state of constant evolution, so that the very things that once seemed to define them are always slipping into the past and passing out of memory. All this is just a basic premise of being alive. But it’s also devastating when you think about it. Not quite death, but not quite unrelated either.”

Interesting academic articles for March 2020

Here are some of the things I’ve found interesting in the last month!  Happily, none of it’s on coronavirus, and probably won’t be for a while.  The types of large, experimental studies or deeply historically grounded studies which interest me don’t have very rapid turnaround times.

Rachel Sweet.  2020.  “Bureaucrats at war: The resilient state in the Congo.”  African Affairs.  

Rebels often portray themselves as state-like to legitimize their rule, yet little is known about their on-the-ground relations with the administrators of state power—official bureaucrats. Drawing on internal armed group records from the Democratic Republic of Congo, this article argues that rebels’ state-like image is more than a simple veneer: Bureaucrats actively sustain state institutions and recruit rebel support during war. It develops a theory of the sources of leverage that bureaucrats use to negotiate with rebels. These interactions entail dual struggles to sustain the structures and symbols of state power and to shape the distribution of control over these institutions during war. On first front, bureaucrats can use their official status to market the symbols of state legitimacy—official certificates, codes, and paperwork—to rebels. On a second, to recruit protection for administrative posts. Pre-existing routines of noncompliance, like parallel taxes and sabotaged information, can use bureaucratic discretion and opacity to limit rebels’ takeover of state structures. This view from the ground demonstrates the real-time continuity of bureaucratic practice through daily paperwork and exchange during war. It contributes to research on rebel governance by illustrating new competitions for wartime statehood and illustrates the empirical practices of states seen as ‘juridical’ or weak.

Jeremy Bowles, Horacio Larreguy, and Shelley Liu.  2020.  “How Weakly Institutionalized Parties Monitor Brokers in Developing Democracies: Evidence from Postconflict Liberia.”  American Journal of Political Science

Political parties in sub‐Saharan Africa’s developing democracies are often considered to lack sufficiently sophisticated machines to monitor and incentivize their political brokers. We challenge this view by arguing that the decentralized pyramidal structure of their machines allows them to engage in broker monitoring and incentivizing to mobilize voters, which ultimately improves their electoral performance. This capacity is concentrated (a) among incumbent parties with greater access to resources and (b) where the scope for turnout buying is higher due to the higher costs of voting. Using postwar Liberia to test our argument, we combine rich administrative data with exogenous variation in parties’ ability to monitor their brokers. We show that brokers mobilize voters en masse to signal effort, that increased monitoring ability improves the incumbent party’s electoral performance, and that this is particularly so in precincts in which voters must travel farther to vote and thus turnout buying opportunities are greater.

Darin ChristensenOeindrila DubeJohannes Haushofer, Bilal Siddiqi and Maarten Voors.  2020.  “Building Resilient Health Systems: Experimental Evidence from Sierra Leone and the 2014 Ebola Outbreak.”  Center for Global Development working paper no. 526.

Developing countries are characterized by high rates of mortality and morbidity. A potential contributing factor is the low utilization of health systems, stemming from the low perceived quality of care delivered by health personnel. This factor may be especially critical during crises, when individuals choose whether to cooperate with response efforts and frontline health personnel. We experimentally examine efforts aimed at improving health worker performance in the context of the 2014–15 West African Ebola crisis. Roughly two years before the outbreak in Sierra Leone, we randomly assigned two social accountability interventions to government-run health clinics—one focused on community monitoring and the other gave status awards to clinic staff. We find that over the medium run, prior to the Ebola crisis, both interventions led to improvements in utilization of clinics and patient satisfaction. In addition, child health outcomes improved substantially in the catchment areas of community monitoring clinics. During the crisis, the interventions also led to higher reported Ebola cases, as well as lower mortality from Ebola—particularly in areas with community monitoring clinics. We explore three potential mechanisms: the interventions (1) increased the likelihood that patients reported Ebola symptoms and sought care; (2) unintentionally increased Ebola incidence; or (3) improved surveillance efforts. We find evidence consistent with the first: by improving the perceived quality of care provided by clinics prior to the outbreak, the interventions likely encouraged patients to report and receive treatment. Our results suggest that social accountability interventions not only have the power to improve health systems during normal times, but can additionally make health systems resilient to crises that may emerge over the longer run.

Wei Chang, Lucía Díaz-Martin, Akshara Gopalan, Eleonora Guarnieri, Seema Jayachandran, and Claire Walsh.  2020.  “What works to enhance women’s agency: Cross-cutting lessons from experimental and quasi-experimental studies.”  J-PAL working paper.

Women’s agency continues to be limited in many contexts around the world. Much of the existing evidence synthesis focuses on one outcome or intervention type, bracketing the complex, overlapping manner in which agency takes shape. This review adopts a cross-cutting approach to analyzing evidence across different domains and outcomes of women’s agency and focuses on understanding the mechanisms that explain intervention impacts. Drawing from quantitative evidence from 160 randomized controlled trials and quasi-experiments in low- and middle-income countries, we summarize what we know about supporting women’s agency along with what needs additional research.

Tom Lavers and Sam Hickey.  2020.  “Alternative routes to the institutionalisation of social transfers in sub-Saharan Africa: Political survival strategies and transnational policy coalitions.”  Effective States in International Development working paper no. 138.

The new phase of social protection expansion in the Global South remains poorly understood. Current interpretations use problematic evidence and analysis to emphasise the influence of elections and donor pressure on the spread of social transfers in sub-Saharan Africa. We seek a more nuanced explanation, testing an alternative theoretical and methodological framework that traces the actual process through which countries have not just adopted but institutionalised social transfers. Two main pathways emerge: one involves less electorally competitive countries, where the primary motivation is elite perceptions of vulnerability in the face of distributional crises, augmented by ideas and resources from transnational policy coalitions. The other entails a primary role for transnational policy coalitions in adoption, before competitive elections and the need for visible distribution drive institutionalisation. Consequently, the latest phase of social transfer development results from the interplay of political survival strategies and transnational policy coalitions.

Karthik Muralidharan, Paul Niehaus, and Sandip Sukhtankar.  2020.  “Identity Verification Standards in Welfare Programs: Experimental Evidence from India.”  NBER working paper no. 26774. 

How should recipients of publicly-provided goods and services prove their identity in order to access these benefits? The core design challenge is managing the tradeoff between Type-II errors of inclusion (including corruption) against Type-I errors of exclusion whereby legitimate beneficiaries are denied benefits. We use a large-scale experiment randomized across 15 million beneficiaries to evaluate the effects of more stringent ID requirements based on biometric authentication on the delivery of India’s largest social protection program (subsidized food) in the state of Jharkhand. By itself, requiring biometric authentication to transact did not reduce leakage, slightly increased transaction costs for the average beneficiary, and reduced benefits received by the subset of beneficiaries who had not previously registered an ID by 10%. Subsequent reforms that made use of authenticated transaction data to determine allocations to the program coincided with large reductions in leakage, but also significant reductions in benefits received. Our results highlight that attempts to reduce corruption in welfare programs can also generate non-trivial costs in terms of exclusion and inconvenience to genuine beneficiaries.

Matteo Alpino, and Eivind Moe Hammersmark.  2020.  “The Role of Historical Christian Missions in the Location of World Bank Aid in Africa.” World Bank Policy Research working paper no. WPS 9146.  

This article documents a positive and sizable correlation between the location of historical Christian missions and the allocation of present-day World Bank aid at the grid-cell level in Africa. The correlation is robust to an extensive set of geographical and historical control variables that predict settlement of missions. The study finds no correlation with aid effectiveness, as measured by project ratings and survey-based development indicators. Mission areas display a different political aid cycle than other areas, whereby new projects are less likely to arrive in years with new presidents. Hence, political connections between mission areas and central governments could be one likely explanation for the correlation between missions and aid.

What have previous flu-like pandemics looked like in Africa?

It occurred to me today that I hadn’t heard much about how previous flu-like pandemics have impacted African countries.  Being a geographer at heart, I thought I’d look up some maps.  I’m not an epidemiologist and am not making any predictions about how prior patterns of disease spread might replicate with the novel coronavirus / COVID-19.

I started with Wikipedia’s list of 20th and 21st century flu pandemics, and added seasonal influenza and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which isn’t the same as the flu.  Let’s work backwards in time, since air travel has become much less expensive and more common since the 1980s, and this really changes the modality by which disease can spread between countries.

The three post-1980 epidemics are coronavirus (2020), H1N1 / swine flu (2009), and SARS (2003).  Despite their weak health systems, African countries have not been highly affected by coronavirus to date.  Transmission of H1N1 was also fairly limited, and transmission of SARS appears to have been almost non-existent.  There’s a lot of debate about why coronavirus hasn’t spread, but two possibilities are the continent’s relatively weak air traffic links to other regions, and improvements in public health surveillance capability since 2000.

Coronavirus / COVID-19 (as of 12 March 2020)

Map showing that the outbreak is concentrated in China, Iran, Italy and the US
Source: Foreign Policy

H1N1 / swine flu (2009)

1280px-H1N1_map_by_confirmed_cases.svgScreen Shot 2020-03-14 at 10.02.32

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 10.02.45
Source: Wikipedia

Source: The Globalist

The pattern does look different for the seasonal flu.  Unlike temperate climates, where flu actually is seasonal, flu cases are reported year-round in many African countries.  Surveillance data on the flu in African countries is relatively weak and there are few country-specific flu vaccines available.  It’s possible that cases of the flu are often misdiagnosed as malaria, which is also highly prevalent.

Seasonal flu (2011 – 2016)

Source: Newman et al. (2018)

Let’s look at the pre-1980 epidemics now.  These include outbreaks of H1N1 / Russian flu (1977), H3N2 / Hong Kong flu (1968), H2N2 / Asian flu (1957), and H1N1 / Spanish flu (1918).  I couldn’t find a good map for the Russian flu.  For the other epidemics, I could only find maps tracing the path of the outbreak, rather than displaying the number of cases.

The 1968 Hong Kong flu looks fairly similar to the transmission path for coronavirus, in that Latin America and Africa seem to have been minimally affected.  However, the 1957 Asian flu and the 1918 Spanish flu did impact Africa.  I’m not sure about the mechanism by which the 1957 flu spread, but in 1918 the flu was spread by some of the two million African soldiers who returned home after being forced to fight for their colonizers during WWI.  African countries had some of the highest mortality rates in the pandemic, with 2% of all Africans dying of the flu in only six months.

hong kong flu
Source: Rybicki (2015), via Twitter

Source: Johns Hopkins School of Public Health

H1N1 / Spanish flu (1918)

spanish flu
Source: Thinglink

There are many reasons why we can’t conclude very much about the spread of the novel coronavirus in Africa based on patterns of previous outbreaks.  Transportation patterns, public health capacity, and the nature of the disease itself are all different for each pandemic.  It’s still important for African countries to continue preparing their health systems for a more widespread coronavirus outbreak.

Interesting academic articles for February 2020

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

Kobina Aidoo and Ryan Briggs.  2019.  “Underpowered: Rolling blackouts in Africa disproportionately hurt the poor.”  African Studies Review.

Electricity demand exceeds supply in many parts of Africa, and this often results in rolling blackouts. This article argues that blackouts tend to concentrate on poorer places within countries, due to both economic and political factors. This argument is tested with an analysis of electricity availability across thirty-two neighborhoods in Accra and survey data from thirty-six African countries. Across these analyses, poorer people with a grid connection experience lower electricity supply than richer people. This article concludes by discussing implications for research on electricity availability, policymakers working on energy, and the distributive politics literature.

J. Andrew Harris, Catherine Kamindo, and Peter Van der Windt.  2020.  “Electoral Administration in Fledgling Democracies: Experimental Evidence from Kenya.”  Journal of Politics.

We examine the effects of national voter registration policies on voting patterns with a large-scale experimental study. Together with Kenya’s electoral commission, we designed an experiment in which 1,674 communities were randomized to a status quo or treatment group, receiving civic education on voter registration, SMS reminders about registration opportunities, and/or local registration visits by election commission staff. We find little evidence that civic education improves registration. Local registration visits improve voter registration, a relationship that increases in poorer communities. Moreover, local registration increased electoral competition and vote preference diversity in down-ballot contests in the 2017 Kenyan elections. Our results suggest that status quo voter registration policies constrain political participation and competition, and that inexpensive policy changes may attenuate the effects of such constraints.

Jeremie Gross, Catherine Guirkinger, and Jean-Philippe Platteau.  2020.  “Buy As You Need: Nutrition and Food Storage Imperfections.” Journal of Development Economics.

In this paper, we investigate whether and how a more steady supply of foodgrain in local markets impacts the nutritional status (measured with body-mass-indexes) of both children and adults, in a context characterized by large seasonal fluctuations in the price and availability of foodgrain. Taking advantage of the random scaling-up of a program of Food Security Granaries in Burkina Faso, we reach three conclusions. First, especially in remote areas where local markets are thin, the program considerably dampens nutritional stress. The effect is strongest among children, and young children in particular, for whom deficient nutrition has devastating long-term consequences. Second we argue that it is a change in the timing of food purchases, translated into a change in the timing of consumption, that drives the nutritional improvement. A simple two-period model shows that, once we account for various forms of storage costs, an increase in nutrition does not necessarily require larger quantity of food purchases or even consumption. Our last and unexpected conclusion is that the losses associated with foodgrain storage do not stem from physical losses in household granaries but rather from inefficient seasonal bodymass fluctuations. One plausible mechanism behind this particular storage imperfection rests on the households’ urge to consume readily available foodgrain.

Moses Khisa.  2020.  “Politicisation and Professionalisation: The Progress and Perils of Civil-Military Transformation in Museveni’s Uganda.”  Civil Wars.  

Problems of civil-military relations have been at the centre of recurring political crises in contemporary Africa. Routine military intrusion in politics characterised the first four decades of independent Africa. Citizens suffered at the hands of the armed forces, infamous for widespread human rights violations. One key response to this dual civil-military problem was to pursue a strategy of politicising the armed forces in order to make them a) subordinate to civilian authority and b) organically close to the public and protective than predatory. This also entailed the militarisation of politics ostensibly to bring the political class into closer conversation and collaboration with the military. To what extent did this strategy contribute to transforming civil-military relations? Taking the Ugandan case, this article argues that transformation was attained in making the military more respectful of citizens’ rights while simultaneously creating a fusion with the ruling class thereby subverting the very goal of professionalism.

Josephine Ahikire and Amon A. Mwiine.  2020.  “Gender equitable change and the place of informal networks in Uganda’s legislative policy reforms.”  Effective States in International Development working paper #134.

Uganda has had an uneven history and experience around gender equity policy reforms, particularly, from the late 1980s and early 1990s to-date. These range from the countrywide constitutional review processes of the early 1990s, legislative activism and reforms around domestic relations, land/property rights, and women’s access to public position, to mention but a few. While some of these gender reforms (commonly promoted through women’s collective mobilisation) were successful, other legislative initiatives faced intense resistance. This paper compares three policy cases – the 1997 Universal Primary Education policy, the 1998 legislative reform around spousal co-ownership of land and the 2010 Domestic Violence Act. Drawing on feminist institutionalism, the paper explores how gender norms operate within institutions (both formal and informal) and how institutional processes construct, reproduce or challenge gender power dynamics in policy reforms. The paper examines the place of informal networks and raises critical questions regarding ways in which women emerge as critical actors in securing and consolidating gender change, the strategies they draw upon to negotiate resistance, and whether the nature of policy reform influences the kind of resistance and (in effect) counterstrategies used to negotiate resistance to gender change. We also assess the implications these legislative processes have for activism around gender equity reforms. Findings indicate creative ways through which women draw on informal networks and networking practices to influence gender equitable change, often revealing the micro, subtly gendered dynamics that animate success or failure of a particular policy reform. We argue that the nature of policy reform, e.g. gender status policies or doctrinal policies, determines the nature and process of policy adoption.

Eric Mvukiyehe and Peter van der Windt.  2020.  “Assessing the Longer Term Impact of Community-Driven Development Programs: Evidence from a Field Experiment in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”  World Bank Policy Research working paper #9140.

Community-driven development programs are a popular model for service delivery and socioeconomic development, especially in countries reeling from civil strife. Despite their popularity, the evidence on their impact is mixed at best. Most studies thus far are based on data collected during, or shortly after, program implementation. Community-driven development’s theory of change, however, allows for a longer time frame for program exposure to produce impact. This study examines the longer term impact of a randomized community-driven development program implemented in 1,250 villages in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo between 2007 and 2012. The study team returned to these villages in 2015, eight years after the onset of the program. The study finds evidence of the physical endurance of infrastructure built by the program. However, it finds no evidence that the program had an impact on other dimensions of service provision, health, education, economic welfare, women’s empowerment, governance, and social cohesion. These findings suggest that, although community-driven development programs may effectively deliver public infrastructure, longer term impacts on economic development and social transformation appear to be limited.

Cyril Brandt and Tom De Herdt.  2020.  “Reshaping the Reach of the State: The Politics of a Teacher Payment Reform in the DR Congo.”  Journal of Modern African Studies.

We analyse the politics of the reform of teacher payment modalities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in light of the uneven territorial reach of the DRC state. The reform focused on extending this reach by paying all teachers via a bank account, replacing longstanding shared governance arrangements between state and faith-based organizations with a public-private partnership. By using qualitative and quantitative data, we map the political practices accompanying the implementation of the reform. While the reform itself was officially deemed a success, its intended effects were almost completely offset in rural areas. Moreover, governance of teacher payments was not rationalized but instead became even more complex and spatially differentiated. In sum, the reform has rendered governance processes more opaque and it deepened the existing unevenness in the geography of statehood.

Michel Thill and Abel Cimanuka.  2019.  “Governing local security in the eastern Congo: decentralization, police reform and interventions in the chieftaincy of Buhavu.”  Rift Valley Institute.  

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC or Congo), security governance is competitive, fragmented and marked by violence. Multiple actors—state and non-state—vie for influence and many areas of the country lack effective structures to ensure that their residents live in safety and security. In this context, the threat and use of violence has become central to the state’s efforts to maintain social control and public order. This tendency has come to shape the troubled relationship between Congolese citizens and the army and police, reflected in numerous fraught day-to-day interactions. Two ongoing processes— administrative decentralization and police reform—have been designed to turn a page on past practices, bring government and security closer to the population and, consequently, improve this relationship. While they have had some successes, they also risk the re-creation of existing governance dynamics within newly empowered local administrative and security-related entities.

Mary Hallward-Driemeier, Anna Kochanova, and Bob Rijkers.  2020.  “Does Democratization Promote Competition? Indonesian Manufacturing Pre and Post Suharto.”  World Bank Policy Research Group working paper #9112.  

Does democratization promote economic competition? This paper documents that the disruption of political connections associated with Suharto’s fall had a modest pro-competitive effect on Indonesian manufacturing industries in which his family had extensive business interests. Firms with connections to Suharto lost substantial market share following his resignation. Industries in which Suharto family firms had larger market share during his tenure exhibited weak improvements in broader measures of competition in the post-Suharto era relative to industries in which Suharto firms had not been important players.

Anne Buffardi, Samuel Sharp, Sierd Hadley and Rachel A. Archer.  2020.  “Measuring evidence-informed decision-making processes in low- and middle-income countries.”  Overseas Development Institute.

The evidence base on the practice of evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) in international development is limited. Previous work has identified multiple roles that evidence could play; principles and desirable decision-making practices; and individual, interpersonal, organisational and contextual factors thought to influence the interpretation of evidence and decisions. Despite a proliferation of frameworks and guidance, there is a relative dearth of research on the extent to which and how they are applied in practice, at what cost and with what effects. EIDM faces measurement challenges, including investigation into largely undocumented and sometimes unobservable processes, multi-finality and equifinality (multiple pathways to multiple outcomes), often along extended time horizons, in addition to difficulties establishing counterfactuals. In the health sector, current indicators tend to cluster around two ends of a long change pathway: tracking upstream activities and immediate outputs, and downstream changes in health coverage and outcomes. Building on existing systems, future efforts could be directed at the ‘missing middle’ in measurement, filling notable gaps in defining what constitute quality EIDM processes, minimising biases in measuring these processes and investigating how evidence-informed recommendations make their way through the policy process.

Matteo Alpino and Eivind Moe Hammersmark.  2020.  “The Role of Historical Christian Missions in the Location of World Bank Aid in Africa.”  World Bank Policy Research Group working paper #9146.

This article documents a positive and sizable correlation between the location of historical Christian missions and the allocation of present-day World Bank aid at the grid-cell level in Africa. The correlation is robust to an extensive set of geographical and historical control variables that predict settlement of missions. The study finds no correlation with aid effectiveness, as measured by project ratings and survey-based development indicators. Mission areas display a different political aid cycle than other areas, whereby new projects are less likely to arrive in years with new presidents. Hence, political connections between mission areas and central governments could be one likely explanation for the correlation between missions and aid.

Abhishek Nagaraj and Scott Stern.  2020.  “The Economics of Maps.”  Journal of Economic Perspectives.  

For centuries, maps have codified the extent of human geographic knowledge and shaped discovery and economic decision-making. Economists across many fields, including urban economics, public finance, political economy, and economic geography, have long employed maps, yet have largely abstracted away from exploring the economic determinants and consequences of maps as a subject of independent study. In this essay, we first review and unify recent literature in a variety of different fields that highlights the economic and social consequences of maps, along with an overview of the modern geospatial industry. We then outline our economic framework in which a given map is the result of economic choices around map data and designs, resulting in variations in private and social returns to mapmaking. We highlight five important economic and institutional factors shaping mapmakers’ data and design choices. Our essay ends by proposing that economists pay more attention to the endogeneity of mapmaking and the resulting consequences for economic and social welfare.

The 25 best longform articles of 2019

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A snapshot of my year in Pocket

Here’s my annual round-up of the year’s best articles!  If you’d like to read more articles like these, come follow me on Pocket where I share the most interesting things I read throughout the year.  (Previously: best of 2018, 2017, 2016.)

White Words.  Popula.  “At the same time, ‘did you know that the Hopi only have one word for flying things?’ never became a thing either, nor did ‘did you know that the Aztecs, etc.’ And the reason is pretty random, basically; as Martin shows, ‘Eskimos have fifty words for snow’ became a thing because that particular example was taken in isolation: it was cut out of Whorf’s article and propagated through a series of textbooks that were much sloppier than Whorf, from whence it has gone on to become an exotic story about an exotic people.”

How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger.  NPR.  The culture views scolding — or even speaking to children in an angry voice — as inappropriate, says Lisa Ipeelie, a radio producer and mom who grew up with 12 siblings. ‘When they’re little, it doesn’t help to raise your voice,’ she says. ‘It will just make your own heart rate go up… With little kids, you often think they’re pushing your buttons, but that’s not what’s going on. They’re upset about something, and you have to figure out what it is.'”

US Workers Are Paying High Taxes. But Without Any of the Benefits.  Jacobin.  “The OECD may not be able to include employer-based health insurance premiums into its model, but I certainly can. And when I add them into the OECD model, I find that the average American worker has one of the highest compulsory payment rates in the developed world.”

How ICE Picks Its Targets in the Surveillance Age.  New York Times.  “The winter after Donald Trump was elected president, strangers began appearing in a parking lot on southern Washington State’s Long Beach Peninsula, at the port where the oyster boats come and go. Rather than gaze at the bay or the boats or the building-size piles of bleached shells, two men — one thinner, one thicker — stared at the shellfish workers. The strangers sat in their vehicle and watched the workers arrive in their trucks. They watched the workers grab their gear and walk to the docks. The workers watched them watching, too, and they soon began to realize that the men were from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When the workers made eye contact, the officers nodded politely, but they said very little. For weeks, they just watched. Then the workers began to vanish.”

Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts.  Emergence Magazine.  “My grandfather raised pigs and cured hams that hung from the rafters in the smokehouse. My grandmother was a domestic worker. She cleaned houses for white folks. Before and after she went to work, she fetched water from the well. She slopped the hogs. Canned vegetables and stored them in the cellar. Fed chickens. Milked cows. Shucked corn. Sewed clothes for herself and me. Quilted. But still there were always three meals on the table. Precise. Orderly. Delicious.”

Dial Up!  The Verge.  “Participation is what keeps Hmong conference line radio alive. A caller dials the conference call number, usually shared through word of mouth or on Facebook groups. The lines have hourly programming and themes: call in the afternoon, and you might find someone singing traditional Hmong folk songs. In the evening, maybe it’s business advice from Hmong entrepreneurs. Whatever the topic, the shows are all in Hmong, a key factor that’s both unique to the medium and essential for its survival. An oral culture for much of their history, the Hmong did not have a written language until the 1950s, and only 40 percent of foreign-born Hmong Americans were English-proficient as of 2015.”

Yaa Naa Rides to Yani: A Saga of Restoration.  The Scarab.  “The Asantehene intentionally invoked the ancient tributary treaty by referring to certain Dagbon royals as his ‘children’. This was obviously provocative, considering that Dagbon is nearly 300 years older than Asante, but it was meant to play back Manhyia’s ancient pact with Naa Ziblim and send coded messages to key actors within the Dagbon establishment: the steel axe is falling; realpolitik is here.”

Decolonizing Science Writing in South Africa.  The Open Notebook.  “In some respects, a fossil find was the perfect subject for my first foray into reporting in Zulu. That’s partly because South Africa is rich with paleontological finds and research. But also, paleontology is a storytelling science—one that lends itself to imaginative tales about origin and how things came to be. Such stories are a staple of Zulu culture. To Zulu speakers encountering dinosaurs through the lens of their native tongue for the first time, the ancient creatures seem like mythical beings straight out of a fireside folk tale.”

Bombay Nights.  Aeon.  “While workers fought battles against employers for a shorter workday, they were also attending night schools established in cooperation with social-reform organisations. As soon as the mills closed and the dusk descended, many workers turned into students. Though tired, many went straight to night school at 7pm, and spent two hours enjoying the pleasure of reading, listening to the teacher and holding a book. The night became reserved for aspiring.”

The Coming Fight for the Dalai Lama’s Soul.  Foreign Policy.  “That makes the next life of the Dalai Lama critical. Beijing claims that the Chinese government has the sole right to determine both whether the Dalai Lama, officially the 14th in an ancient spiritual lineage, will reincarnate and in whom he will reincarnate. This might seem a contradiction in terms for an atheist state, but it’s part of the messy legacy of China’s religious-imperial past under the Qing Dynasty. Since Beijing’s claim to Tibet rests largely on the Qing-era borders, picking the lamas ostensibly comes with the territory.”

Four is ForbiddenChinaFile.  “It was the first and last time I asked about June Fourth while in China. For a Chinese family like mine, politics and death were the two biggest taboos. Seven years later and 7,000 miles away, I finally understood the full meaning of the ominous phrase. Now, another decade has gone by since I moved to the U.S. Every time I see a mass demonstration take place, my mind rushes to that fateful night in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese government sent three hundred thousand regular troops with tanks and machine guns to crush a student-led pro-democracy protest. Born after the tragedy with no family members involved, I am nevertheless a child of Tiananmen, its aftermath shaping my life and education from the moment they began.”

Ghost Ships, Crop Circles, and Soft Gold: A GPS Mystery in Shanghai.  Technology Review.  “Nobody knows who is behind this spoofing, or what its ultimate purpose might be. These ships could be unwilling test subjects for a sophisticated electronic warfare system, or collateral damage in a conflict between environmental criminals and the Chinese state that has already claimed dozens of ships and lives. But one thing is for certain: there is an invisible electronic war over the future of navigation in Shanghai, and GPS is losing.”

The Strange Story of Hay Fever in Japan: Construction, Conspiracy Theories, Climate Change. Gaijinpot.  “Artificially planted cedar forests make up 18 percent of the nation’s forests, while artificial native cypress trees, or hinoki (檜), make up around 10 percent. The unluckiest cedar hayfever sufferers also develop an allergy to cypress pollen, too.  In 1964, Japan’s lumber market was opened to cheaper, foreign imports and consumption of domestic timber dropped from roughly 90 percent to less than 30 percent. Turnover of the trees slowed and vast areas of cedar were left to mature to around 30 years of age when they began to produce pollen – in vast amounts.”

It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel.  Wired.  “Nelson also points out that most astronauts have no prior experience relying on technology for their movement and lives, whereas people with disabilities do so every day. In a space suit, for a space walk, an astronaut has to be trained in how to move their body in unison with a piece of technology. They have to get used to the idea that, if that technology should fail, they could be in grave danger. This, again, is an experience people like Nelson live with every day. ‘I’m always moving my body in motion with another object. That’s all we do,’ Nelson says.”

Modern Waste is an Economic Strategy.  Discard Studies.  “In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, editor of Modern Packaging Inc., famously (and controversially at the time) declared: “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Stouffer’s idea addressed an emerging problem for industry. Products tended to be durable, easy to fix, and limited in variation (such as color or style). With this mode of design, markets were quickly saturating. Opportunities for growth, and thus profit, were rapidly diminishing, particularly after America’s Great Depression and the two World Wars, where an ethos of preservation, reuse, and frugality was cultivated. In response, industry intervened on a material level and developed disposability through planned obsolescence, single-use items, cheap materials, throw-away packaging, fashion, and conspicuous consumption. These changes were supported by a regimen of advertising that telegraphed industrial principals of value into the social realm, suggesting the difference between durable and disposable, esteemed and taboo. American industry designed a shift in values that circulated goods through, rather than into, the consumer realm. The truism that humans are inherently wasteful came into being at a particular time and place, by design.”

A 4-Year-Old Trapped in a Teenager’s Body.  The Cut.  “Having a mutant LHCGR gene leads to what doctors now call familial male-limited precocious puberty, an extremely rare disease that affects only men because you have to have testicles, which is why it’s also called testotoxicosis. The condition tricks the testicles into thinking the body is ready to go through puberty — so wham, the floodgates open and the body is saturated with testosterone. The result is premature everything: bone growth, muscle development, body hair, the full menu of dramatic physical changes that accompany puberty. Only instead of being 13, you’re 2.”

Ancient switch to soft food gave us an overbite—and the ability to pronounce ‘f’s and ‘v’s.  Science.  “Don’t like the F-word? Blame farmers and soft food. When humans switched to processed foods after the spread of agriculture, they put less wear and tear on their teeth. That changed the growth of their jaws, giving adults the overbites normal in children. Within a few thousand years, those slight overbites made it easy for people in farming cultures to fire off sounds like ‘f’ and ‘v,’ opening a world of new words.”

I Assure You, Medieval People Bathed.  Going Medieval.  “And yeah, some holy people didn’t bathe, notably saints who would forego bathing themselves but bathe sick or poor people. But if you bring that up you are missing the point. Medieval people thought that bathing and being clean was really nice, so giving it up and living with your stank was a sign that you had given up on the corporeal world and only thought of heaven. It was holy because it was uncomfortable, like wearing a hair shirt, or eating vegan, and hitting your chest with rocks and sitting in the desert trying not to wank. You know, standard saint stuff. It is mentioned because it is uncommon and uncomfortable.”

One Couple’s Tireless Crusade to Stop a Genetic Killer.  Wired.  “Within a few weeks of the diagnosis, Sonia had quit her job to study science full time, continuing classes at MIT during the day and enrolling in a night class in biology at Harvard’s extension school. The pair lived off savings and Eric’s salary. Sonia had expected to take a temporary sabbatical from her real life, but soon textbooks and academic articles weren’t enough. “The practice of science and the classroom version of science are such different animals,” Sonia says. She wanted to try her hand in the lab. She found a position as a technician with a research group focusing on Huntington’s disease. Eric, not wanting to be left behind, quit his job too and offered his data-­crunching expertise to a genetics lab. The deeper they dove into science, the more they began to fixate on finding a cure.”

Hyperinflation and Trust in Ancient Rome.  Notes on Liberty.  “Unlike modern economies, the Romans did not have paper money, and that meant that to ‘print’ money they had to debase their coins. The question of whether the emperor or his subjects understood the way that coins represented value went beyond the commodity value of the coins has been hotly debated in academic circles, and the debasement of the 3rd century may be the best ‘test’ of whether they understood value as commodity-based or as a representation of social trust in the issuing body and other users of the currency.”

Why Do so Many Egyptian Statues Have Broken Noses?  Artsy.  “‘The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job,’ Bleiberg explained. Without a nose, the statue-spirit ceases to breathe, so that the vandal is effectively ‘killing’ it. To hammer the ears off a statue of a god would make it unable to hear a prayer. In statues intended to show human beings making offerings to gods, the left arm—most commonly used to make offerings—is cut off so the statue’s function can’t be performed (the right hand is often found axed in statues receiving offerings)… Even if a petty tomb robber was mostly interested in stealing the precious objects, he was also concerned that the deceased person might take revenge if his rendered likeness wasn’t mutilated.”

The Kitenge Route: The Algorithms and Aesthetics of African Fabrics.  The Elephant.  “Depending on the origin, fabric and production process, ‘African fabric’ is not homogenous, but goes by many names and designs. Kitenge or chitenge is found in East and Central Africa, notably Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ankara is West African, but not quite exactly – the fabric we now know as Ankara finds its origins not in Africa but in Indonesia, where locals there had long created prints on fabric by using wax-resistant dyeing (batik). It was brought to West Africa by Dutch traders. Shweshwe is a printed cotton fabric design found in southern Africa, and traditionally was only produced in three colours – brown, red and blue. Baoule is a heavy, thick cloth from Côte d’Ivoire made of five-inch-wide strips of cloth woven together. And kente is that distinctive Ghanaian pattern made of strips of orange, yellow and green.”

Was Shakespeare a Woman?  The Atlantic.  “Bassano lived, Hudson points out, “an existence on the boundaries of many different social worlds,” encompassing the breadth of the Shakespeare canon: its coarse, low-class references and its intimate knowledge of the court; its Italian sources and its Jewish allusions; its music and its feminism. And her imprint, as Hudson reads the plays, extends over a long period. He notes the many uses of her name, citing several early on—for instance, an Emilia in The Comedy of Errors.  (Emilia, the most common female name in the plays alongside Katherine, wasn’t used in the 16th century by any other English playwright in an original work.) Titus Andronicus features a character named Bassianus, which was the original Roman name of Bassano del Grappa, her family’s hometown before their move to Venice. Later, in The Merchant of Venice, the romantic hero is a Venetian named Bassanio, an indication that the author perhaps knew of the Bassanos’ connection to Venice.”

What Do so Many Global Cuisines Have in Common? A Bright Yellow Package of Maggi Magic.  Washington Post.  “Peek into homes and restaurants in China, Poland, the Philippines, France and Australia, and you’ll probably find Maggi products — most often a seasoning sauce, bouillon cube, noodle or soup mix — on one of the shelves. The seasoning sauce Maggi Würze, which is reminiscent of the flavor of lovage, has become so popular and beloved in Germany that Germans often colloquially referent to lovage as ‘maggikraut.’ Like salt, fat, acid and heat, Maggi is one of the few great unifiers of the world’s kitchens and may be Switzerland’s largest and most influential culinary contribution.”

The Understory.  Emergence Magazine.  “That day I read aloud a poem that was important to us both, ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost, in which climbing the snow-white trunks of birches becomes both a readying for death and a declaration of life. Then he told me about new research he had recently read concerning the interrelations of trees: how, when one of their number was sickening or under stress, they could share nutrients by means of an underground system that conjoined their roots beneath the soil, thereby sometimes nursing the sick tree back to health. It was a measure of my friend’s generosity of spirit that—so close to death himself—he could speak unjealously of this phenomenon of healing. He did not have the strength then to tell me the details of how this belowground sharing operated—how tree might invisibly reach out to tree within the soil. But I could not forget the image of that mysterious buried network, joining single trees into forest communities. It was planted in my mind, and there took root. Over the years I would encounter other mentions of the same extraordinary idea, and gradually these isolated fragments began to connect together into something like understanding.”