Fall conference highlights

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

The Indian construction companies rebuilding post-conflict states


Indian businesspeople waiting for a flight in South Sudan, via Caravan

Caravan magazine recently published a fascinating article about the Indian-owned construction firms which are waiting out the war in South Sudan.  Many of them have previous experience in other African countries experiencing or emerging from conflict, including the DRC, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda.

Kuber D, an Indian who runs a restaurant on the outskirts of Juba, had earlier set up a business in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He told me that during the Second Congo War, in 1998, he was held hostage in his home as rebel forces looted his stock. Other Indians I met last year during a visit to South Sudan narrated similar experiences. A commodity trader I met in a hotel told me how he was once assaulted while taking photographs in a market in Mogadishu, in Somalia; another businessman recounted how he had driven lorries through the rebel-held jungles in the DRC. Most of the people I spoke to seemed to find these risks exciting, and part of the challenge of making it in a new country. “We chase the money. We don’t care if we die,” one commodity trader said, “We’ll be born again anyway, right?”

Extremely low levels of development and industrialization in post-2005 Juba offered excellent opportunities for Indian businesspeople elsewhere in east Africa who were willing to relocate.

But compared to much of central and east Africa, South Sudan was magnitudes less developed and had been a battlefield for the better part of the previous century. Even with their experience, for these Indians, moving their jobs and businesses to Juba was a leap of faith.

At the time they moved there, Kuber told me, the city contained only a few brick structures. The rest was largely tukuls—thatched huts. The infrastructure that now stands—roads, markets, even government offices and courthouses—was scant. Many of the people I spoke to said there no power or water. “We were spending $100 a night to sleep in tents, but we didn’t mind,” Kuber told me.

Part of the allure of Juba was the presence of various non-governmental organisations from the United States or Northern Europe, which had large budgets and could contract businesses in the city. It was “a new market,” said Reddy, an Indian water driller who had previously worked in Tanzania. Sandal Raj, who also works in the drilling business, said he brought his business to Juba because he “saw the opportunity there was with aid groups.” “Even during the oil crash, we were fine,” he told me. “There were still good dollars coming in.”

The current conflict in South Sudan hasn’t completely displaced the Indian business community, but the longer it drags on, the more difficult it has become for many businesses to break even.

With the South Sudanese Pound losing several points to the US dollar almost daily, the situation has become untenable. Sanjay Patel, the director of Jit Mart, the largest supermarket in Juba, bemoaned the circumstances. Patel had been working with Jit Mart in Tanzania, and brought the franchise with him to Juba when he came, in 2006. “By the time it goes from the shelf to sale, I’m losing money on everything. The floating currency is worse than the war,” he said. Even so, he sent off his friends at the airport last week, electing instead to stay back.

Which African news stories are undercovered?


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

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

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

The resurgence of small-scale manufacturing in Ghana

My dad recently sent me an excellent Roads and Kingdoms article by Yepoka Yeebo on Suame Magazine, an industrial park near Kumasi where 200,000 workers manufacture everything from nails to trucks.

Suame Magazine emerged around a colonial-era armory in central Kumasi in the 1930s. For a while, it was just big companies—local giants and multinationals repairing cars. They grew rapidly and were moved to the outskirts of Kumasi in the 1960s. Then in the 1970s, with Ghana’s economy faltering, and a bunch of new trade restrictions almost banning imports, the big companies collapsed, leaving hundreds of skilled workers. They became the first wave of small firms in Suame Magazine.

They slowly turned this into the best place in the region to overhaul a fleet of trucks or get heavy machinery made. People come from as far away as Burkina Faso and Nigeria to do business here, and there’s a sprinkling of foreigners from further afield wandering around: Chinese traders clutching spare parts, and Indian businessmen haggling with mechanics. There are 12,000 businesses here now.

Joyce Darko sells nuts, bolts and washers in Suame Magazine

There must be similar places elsewhere in Africa – where would one look to find them?