Africa Update for September 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the Nigerian space program, trans-African highways, online therapy in Kenya, why the Sahara is bad for infant mortality, and more.

A long pier stretching out into the sea, viewed from aboveA stunning shot of Malindi pier by Peter Ndung’u

West Africa: In Cameroon, Anglophone separatists have been attacking children who attend government schools in an attempt to force the government to negotiate with them.  Political space is closing in Equatorial Guinea with the closure of a prominent human rights NGO.  Here’s a good background read on Equatorial Guinea’s oil-fueled politics.  In Nigeria, the descendants of enslaved people are still fighting for justice and social inclusion.  This was an interesting history of Nigeria’s space program.  Senegal’s sutura culture of privacy and modesty both constrains queer women and gives them space to pursue relationships.

Central Africa: Rwanda has lots of women in national decision-making positions, but their representation drops at more local levels of government.  In Uganda, paralegals are giving legal aid to trans people who have been arrested for not expressing a gender identity that matches their IDs.  Burundi has lost another independent media house with the forced closure of the BBC’s local bureau. The DRC’s dilapidated phone network briefly made it a hotspot for early mobile phone adoption in the 1990s.

A map showing that forced displacement in Africa is highest in Nigeria, Ethiopia, the DRC and SudanMap of forced displacement via the Africa Center

East Africa: This was an informative thread on the challenges of getting access to government IDs in Kenya.  In Nairobi, “informal housing” often includes multi-story apartment buildings, not just shacks.  One year after Eritrea’s peace agreement with Ethiopia, the borders are closed again and little domestic reform has occurred.  I didn’t know that one of Somalia’s major export products is dried lemons, mostly sent to the UAE for cleaning supplies.  Salaries for Somali army officers take up fully 20% of the country’s defense budget.

Southern Africa: South African has given women in customary marriages the right to inherit property.  Harare is running out of water.  3000 students in Mozambique are back in school after the government lifted a ban on pregnant people attending school.

3 trans african highwaysPerhaps one day we’ll be able to drive across the continent on completed highways (via Facts about Africa)

Economics: Six West African countries have committed to adopting a common currency, the eco, by 2020, but the underlying differences in their economies may make this difficult.  What can be done to get more investment flowing to local African entrepreneurs instead of expats?  This was an interesting long read about the state of the Nigerian banking sector.  Uganda’s high unemployment rates come from a lack of decent formal sector jobs, not low skilled job-seekers.  Here’s all you need to know about industrial policy in Kenya.

Health: In the DRC, high school students with Ebola have still found ways to take their final exams.  A corrupt procurement process left Kenyan hospitals saddled with expensive equipment they didn’t need, even as they were short of basic supplies.  Kenya’s national census is counting intersex people for the first time this year.  Wazi is a new online therapy program based in Kenya.  In Ghana, the national health insurance system is being undermined by the fact that the government rarely pays hospitals on time.  Less than half of Kampala’s toilet waste gets routed into water treatment facilities.

4 rose podcastRose Mutiso, Mawazo’s CEO, recording the introduction to the Nairobi Ideas Podcast

Environment: Check out the Mawazo Institute’s new Nairobi Ideas Podcast about African conservation leaders. Here’s how protecting Africa’s elephants could help to slow climate change.  These Kenyan activists successfully fought back against a plan to build a coal-fired power plant that the country didn’t really need.  Dust from the Sahara substantially increases infant mortality across West Africa, because small particulates damage babies’ lungs.

Arts + literature: Check out Dave Evans’ project to read one book from each African country this year.  African Storybook offers free downloads of kids’ books which are customizable in various African languages.  Don’t miss this new book on women’s activism in Africa.

An ad for the Macondo Literary Festival, which brings writers from Lusophone Africa and Brazil to Nairobi, from 27 - 29 SeptemberIf you’re in Nairobi later this month, don’t miss the Macondo Literary Festival!

Conferences + scholarships: Submit your papers on economics in Africa to the Centre for the Study of African Economies by October 18.  Here’s why all academic conferences should be in Ethiopia.  Apply to be a visiting fellow at the African Studies Centre Leiden.  The Ibrahim Leadership Fellowship gives young Africans the chance to work in various international organizations.  Chevening scholarships for MA study in the UK are open until November 5.  Female scientists in Africa should apply to Science by Women’s visiting fellows program in Spain by September 30.

Interesting academic articles for July 2019

Here’s what I’m looking forward to reading these days!

Emmanuelle Auriol, Julie Lassebie, Amma Panin, Eva Raiber, and Paul Seabright.  2018. “God insures those who pay? Formal insurance and religious offerings in Ghana.” Working paper.

This paper provides experimental support for the hypothesis that insurance can be a motive for religious donations by members of a Pentecostal church in Ghana. We randomize enrollment into a commercial funeral insurance policy, then church members allocate money between themselves and a set of religious goods in a series of dictator games with significant stakes. Members enrolled in insurance give significantly less money to their own church compared to members that only receive information about the insurance. Enrollment also reduces giving towards other spiritual goods. We set up a model exploring different channels of religiously based insurance. The implications of the model and the results from the dictator games suggest that adherents perceive the church as a source of insurance and that this insurance is derived from beliefs in an interventionist God. Survey results suggest that material insurance from the church community is also important and we hypothesize that these two insurance channels exist in parallel.

Sudhanshu Handa, Silvio Daidone, Amber Peterman, Benjamin Davis, Audrey Pereira, Tia Palermo, and Jennifer Yablonski.  2018. “Myth-Busting? Confronting Six Common Perceptions about Unconditional Cash Transfers as a Poverty Reduction Strategy in Africa.”  World Bank Research Observer.

This paper summarizes evidence on six perceptions associated with cash transfer program- ming, using eight rigorous evaluations conducted on large-scale government unconditional cash transfers in sub-Saharan Africa under the Transfer Project. Specifically, it investigates if transfers: 1) induce higher spending on alcohol or tobacco; 2) are fully consumed (rather than invested); 3) create dependency (reduce participation in productive activities); 4) in- crease fertility; 5) lead to negative community-level economic impacts (including price distortion and inflation); and 6) are fiscally unsustainable. The paper presents evidence refuting each claim, leading to the conclusion that these perceptions—insofar as they are utilized in policy debates—undercut potential improvements in well-being and livelihood strengthening among the poor, which these programs can bring about in sub-Saharan Africa, and globally. It concludes by underscoring outstanding research gaps and policy implications for the continued expansion of unconditional cash transfers in the region and beyond

Apollo Kaneko, Thomas Kennedy, Lantao Mei, Christina Sintek, Marshall Burke, Stefano Ermon, and David Lobell.  2019. “Deep Learning For Crop Yield Prediction in Africa.”  Presented at the International Conference on Machine Learning AI for Social Good Workshop.  

Lack of food security persists in many regions around the world, especially Africa. Tracking and predicting crop yields is important for supporting humanitarian and economic development efforts. We use deep learning on satellite imagery to predict maize yields in six African countries at the district level. Our project is the first to attempt this kind of prediction in Africa. Model performance varies greatly between countries, predicting yields in the most recent years with average R2 as high as 0.56. We also experiment with transfer learning and show that, in this data sparse setting, data from other countries can help improve prediction within countries.

David McKenzie and Dario Sansone.  2019.  “Predicting entrepreneurial success is hard: Evidence from a business plan competition in Nigeria.”  Journal of Development Economics.

We compare the absolute and relative performance of three approaches to predicting outcomes for entrants in a business plan competition in Nigeria: Business plan scores from judges, simple ad-hoc prediction models used by researchers, and machine learning approaches. We find that i) business plan scores from judges are uncorrelated with business survival, employment, sales, or profits three years later; ii) a few key characteristics of entrepreneurs such as gender, age, ability, and business sector do have some predictive power for future outcomes; iii) modern machine learning methods do not offer noticeable improvements; iv) the overall predictive power of all approaches is very low, highlighting the fundamental difficulty of picking competition winners.

Pia Raffler, Daniel N. Posner, and Doug Parkerson.  2019.  “The Weakness of Bottom-Up Accountability: Experimental Evidence from the Ugandan Health Sector.”  Working paper. 

We evaluate the impact of a large-scale information and mobilization intervention designed to improve health service delivery in rural Uganda by increasing citizens’ ability to monitor and apply bottom-up pressure on underperforming health workers. Modeled closely on the landmark “Power to the People” study (Bjorkman and Svensson, 2009), the intervention was undertaken in 376 health centers in 16 districts and involved a three wave panel of more than 14,000 households. We find that while the intervention had a modest positive impact on treatment quality and patient satisfaction, it had no effect on utilization rates or health outcomes (including child mortality). We also find no evidence that the channel through which the intervention affected treatment quality was citizen monitoring. The results hold in a wide set of pre-specified subgroups and also when, via a factorial design, we break down the complex intervention into its two most important components. Our findings cast doubt on the power of information to foster community monitoring or to generate improvements in health outcomes, at least in the short term.

Thomas Calvo, Mireille Razafindrakoto, and François Roubaud.  2019.  “Fear of the state in governance surveys? Empirical evidence from African countries.”  World Development.

The need to collect data on governance-related issues has been growing since the 1990s. Demand gained momentum in 2015 with the adoption of SDG16 worldwide and Agenda 2063 in Africa. African countries played a key role in the adoption of SDG16 and are now leading the process of collecting harmonised household data on Governance, Peace and Security (GPS). Yet the possibility has recently been raised that sensitive survey data collected by government institutions are potentially biased due to self-censorship by respondents. This paper studies the potential bias in responses to what are seen as sensitive questions, here governance issues, in surveys conducted by public organisations. We compare Afrobarometer (AB) survey data, collected in eight African countries by self-professed independent institutions, with first-hand harmonised GPS survey data collected by National Statistics Offices (NSOs). We identify over 20 similarly worded questions on democracy, trust in institutions and perceived corruption. We first com- pare responses from AB survey respondents based on who they believe the survey sponsor to be. No systematic response bias is found between respondents who believe the government to be behind the AB survey and those who consider it to be conducted by an independent institution. Our estimations suggest that the observed residual differences are due to a selection bias on the observables, which is mitigated by propensity score matching procedures. The absence of a systematic self-censorship or attenuation bias is further evidenced by means of an experimental design, whereby responses from GPS surveys conducted by NSOs (the treatment) are compared with AB surveys sponsored by reportedly independent bodies. Our results provide evidence, at much higher levels of precision than other existing data sources, of the capacity and legitimacy of government-related organisations to collect data on governance as a matter of national interest and sovereignty.

Maya Berinzon and Ryan Briggs.  2019.  “Measuring and explaining formal institutional persistence in French West Africa.”  Journal of Modern African Studies.  

Colonial institutions are thought to be highly persistent, but measuring that persistence is difficult. Using a text analysis method that allows us to measure similarity between bodies of text, we examine the extent to which one formal institution the penal code has retained colonial language in seven West African countries. We find that the contemporary penal codes of most countries retain little colonial language. Additionally, we find that it is not meaningful to speak of institutional divergence across the unit of French West Africa, as there is wide variation in the legislative post-coloniality of individual countries. We present preliminary analyses explaining this variation and show that the amount of time that a colony spent under colonisation correlates with more persistent colonial institutions.

Benjamin Rubbers.  2019.  “Mining Boom, Labour Market Segmentation and Social Inequality in the Congolese Copperbelt.”  Development and Change.

The study of the impacts of new mining projects in Africa is generally set in a normative debate about their possible contribution to development, which leads to a representation of African societies as divided between beneficiaries and victims of foreign investments. Based on research in the Congolese copperbelt, this article aims to examine in more detail the inequalities generated by the recent mining boom by taking the processes of labour market segmentation as a starting point. It shows that the labour market in the mining sector has progressively been organized along three intersecting lines that divide it: the first is between employment in industrial and artisanal mining companies, the second is between jobs for mining or subcontracting companies and the third is between jobs for expatriates, Congolese skilled workers and local unskilled workers. Far from simply reflecting existing social in- equalities, the labour market has been actively involved in their creation, and its control has caused growing tensions in the Congolese copperbelt region. Although largely neglected in the literature on extractive industries, processes of labour market segmentation are key to making sense of the impacts of mining investments on the shape of societies in the global South.

Benjamin Chemouni.  2019.  “The rise of the economic technocracy in Rwanda: A case of a bureaucratic pocket of effectiveness or state-building prioritisation?”  Effective States and Inclusive Development working paper #120.

The Rwandan Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning (MINECOFIN) is recognised as the most effective organisation in the Rwandan state. The objective of the paper is to understand the organisational and political factors influencing MINECOFIN’s performance since the genocide and link them to the wider conversation on the role of pockets of effectiveness (PoEs) in state-building in Africa. It argues that, because of the Rwandan political settlement and elite vulnerability, MINECOFIN is not a PoE but only a good performer in a generally well functioning state. The Ministry overperforms first because, unsurprisingly, the nature of its tasks is specific, requires little embeddedness and allows a great exposure to donors, making its mandate easier to deliver in comparison to other organisations. MINECOFIN also performs better than other state organisations because it is, more than others, at the frontline of the elite legitimation project since it is the organisation through which resources are channelled, priorities decided, and developmental efforts coordinated. Given the rulers’ need for an effective state as a whole, MINECOFIN appears only as the lead climber in a wider dynamics of systematic state building.

A history of homebrewed alcohol in Nairobi

A large plot of houses made of tin, with rubbish on the ground in front of them
Houses in Mathare, via Wikipedia

I’ve written previously about the challenges of accessing justice, clean water, and other basic services in Nairobi’s Mathare neighborhood.  Now another insightful article about the area has come out, with Antony Adoyo, Jackob Omondi, Juliet Wanjira, and Naomi van Stapele’s account at Elephant of the critical role that homebrewed alcohol (or chang’aa) plays in the local economy.

The roots of the chang’aa economy go back to the colonial era.

 As early as the 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa. The colonial capital Nairobi only allowed a limited number of ‘native’ bachelors living in designated housing facilities. This area was also wedged in by the Royal Airforce Eastleigh Base (currently known as Moi Air Base), an askari barrack, and a transit camp for the Kings African Rifles.

These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their increasingly overcrowded homesteads in the ‘Native Reserves’ in the pre-WWII colonial period in search of work for cash to pay for hut tax, among other things. Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men also increasingly came to live here. During the late 1930s, many of the rural-urban migrants also came from other illegalized squatter communities in the Rift Valley, where former farm workers had been displaced from European farms as a result of the gradual mechanization of farm work.

After independence in 1963, chang’aa distilling continued on a smaller scale.  Then the rapid urbanization of the 1990s caused it to expand:

It was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that parts of Mathare gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa. According to several bar owners we spoke with, the influx of rural-urban migrants during this period boosted the selling of chang’aa to unprecedented levels. Demographic records and academic estimates vary greatly but it is safe to say that the population in Mathare rose from a few thousand during the colonial era to many tens of thousands between the 1960s and 1980s.

Today, the chang’aa distillers are regularly shaken down by the police for bribes, and risk having their equipment destroyed if they don’t pay up.  (Manufacturing chang’aa is legal, although basic sanitary standards must be met.  The penalty for not meeting them is supposed to be a fine rather than destruction of equipment.)

Shosho Kingi has distilled and sold alcohol for more than four decades and has raised her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren while doing so. The police had poured her kangara, the distilling mixture, which had been almost ready for cooking. Subsequently, she had lost 4500 shillings [US$45], her monthly earnings, and was left seriously in debt. Thousands of small business owners and their employees and tens of thousands of their dependents suffered the same fate. On Monday, all the jiko’s (‘kitchens’) near the river remained closed; no one could work while the police patrolled in search of alcohol and production tools to destroy.

There are very few other livelihood options in Mathare, which makes the regulation of chang’aa a serious economic issue for the area.

Traffic tickets and statebuilding in Kenya

Last year I had my first experience with the Kenyan courts when I got a traffic ticket for making a left turn into a street against a “no left turn” sign, which I hadn’t seen.  Paying it cost me Ksh 20,000 / US$200 in cash, and took four hours at three offices over two days. It was quite a contrast to the last time I got a traffic ticket in the US, where I paid about $60 by mail after speaking with a police officer for about 10 minutes.  The whole experience left me thinking about the enormous investments in administrative capacity which are necessary to simplify this type of bureaucratic interaction with the state.

Traffic tickets in Kenya

The Kenyan process was logical, if also quite slow.  After an officer stopped me for the turn, he took me to a nearby police station, where I waited for half an hour while someone wrote up my charges in a massive paper ledger.  I also had to pay Ksh 5000 / US$50 in cash bail, and promise to come to traffic court the next day. Anyone who skips court has a warrant put out for their arrest, although I’ve heard that these are rarely enforced.

The bail system is in principle an improvement over an older system where people accused of traffic violations were jailed until their day in court.  However, in practice half of Kenyans live on less than Ksh 10,000 / US$100 a month, and might end up getting jailed until their court date anyway.  It’s also not possible to just plead guilty to the traffic offense and pay at the station, as all accused traffic offenders have to come to court to plead their case.  I assume this rule is in place to centralize financial flows and avoid the risk of officers charging fines and then failing to remit them to their stations.

I came to the Milimani Courts the next day for my hearing.  After waiting for an hour and a half, the judge entered the packed traffic courtroom and began reading through people’s names and offenses.  Common charges included having expired insurance, failing to wear a seatbelt, and failing to immediately remove a car from the roadway after it broke down.  No one could leave the room until everyone’s charges had been read, almost an hour later.

People who agreed with their charges had to pay fines of anywhere from Ksh 20,000 / US$200 to Ksh 60,000 / US$600.  This is under the maximum legal fine of Ksh 100,000 / US$1000, but is still high in light of average income levels, and also seems high given the fairly minor offenses with which people were charged.  I was fined $200, and had to pay it in cash, on the spot, before I could leave the courtroom. People who can’t pay are jailed until they come up with the money.   Finally, I spent another 45 minutes wandering through the courthouse until I found a representative of the police station where I had paid my bail, and was able to reclaim that money.

Traffic tickets in the US

It’s quite a big difference to the ticketing process in the US.  The last time I got a traffic ticket there was around 2007, when I got stopped for speeding on a country road in New Hampshire.  As far as I can recall, the police officer scanned my license, printed the ticket with a $60 fine on the spot, and then let me go 10 minutes later.  There were options to pay online or by mail within two weeks if you didn’t contest the charge, or to go to traffic court if you did.  If you fail to pay, punishments include having the fine sent to a debt collector or losing your driving privileges, with arrest warrants only issued for people who continued driving on suspended licenses.  I mailed in a check within the week, and that was the matter resolved.

The US ticketing process wasn’t simpler because we’re a more trusting or law-abiding society.  It’s because the US has systems of identification and options for punishment which don’t require physically holding someone in jail or the courthouse in order to be effective.  This requires a lot of investments in different aspects of administrative capacity, many of which on the face of it have nothing to do with traffic enforcement.

State capacity and the payment of fines

Let’s think through what it would look like to implement the US system of pleading guilty to a traffic offense via the payment of a fine (by mail or online) in Kenya.  The officer stops you, writes down your license information, and gives you a handwritten ticket with the proposed fine and a payment date within two weeks. We’ve already hit obstacle #1: as far as I can tell, there isn’t a digital record of the ticket integrated into any master database of traffic offenses, which means police can’t check on the spot to see whether this is your first offense.  (Free research idea: digitizing the absolutely massive stacks of handwritten police ledgers at local stations would provide really fascinating information about patterns of ticketing and arrests.)

Giving people two weeks to get together the money to pay the ticket is a good idea.  And these days, over 80% of Kenyans have M-Pesa, so it is possible to pay digitally.  But even a few years ago, this would have been impossible, since most Kenyans haven’t got bank accounts, which are required to pay by mail (with a check) or online.  That’s obstacle #2: assuming everyone has access to payment modalities other than cash.

Now we’re getting to the biggest issue: how do police enforce payment of the fine?  In the US, it’s technically illegal to jail people simply for failing to pay a fine.  This means that there are other civil penalties applied, such as turning the fine over to a debt collector, or suspending one’s license until the fine is paid.  (You can still be jailed for driving on a suspended license, so in practice many people are still eventually jailed for failing to pay, which is a significant problem.)  This approach assumes that there’s a robust credit reporting and debt collection system in place, and also a national system for flagging people with suspended licenses. Credit reporting and debt collection systems, in turn, only work well when individuals have fixed addresses, known places of employment, registered bank accounts, and identifiers such as a Social Security number to tie these disparate pieces of information together.

Informality and debt collection in Kenya

A lot of the infrastructure that facilitates debt collection doesn’t exist in the same way in Kenya.  More than 80% of Kenyans work in the informal sector (thus with no wages to garnish), 57% haven’t got bank accounts, 38% haven’t got any formal ID, and an unknown but presumably large number haven’t got formal addresses.  This means that a large amount of debt collection is done through highly personalized means, like having loan guarantors pressure the debtor, or by alerting the debtor’s family and friends that they’ve defaulted on a payment.  There is a credit bureau which blacklists people who default on loans, but it’s unclear how this information is used for debt collection efforts, as collection is rarely mentioned in articles about default.  Shopkeepers, who are a major source of non-bank credit for many Kenyans, seem to lose a lot of money on defaulted loans, suggesting that debt collection isn’t working very efficiently.

I don’t intend to sound overly friendly to debt collectors here.  However, this also explains the rationale for immediate payment of fines in traffic court.  If someone walked away without paying, there don’t seem to be good civil means like debt collection to enforce the fine, and presumably police don’t want to spend their time tracking down people whom they previously had conveniently collected at the courthouse.  Thus the pressure to pay immediately, which in practice must be a great hardship for most people who are issued a traffic ticket — and probably forces them further into debt elsewhere.

Africa Update for April 2019

Here’s my latest edition of Africa Update.   We’ve got the extremely loud churches of Accra, the CAR’s only mental health clinic, the 154 perks enjoyed by Kenyan civil servants, Zambia’s first school for children with autism, and more.

Tweet saying that one in five American cowboys in the 1880s was black, and that they drew from the experience of West African Fulani cattle herders
Interesting historical note of the day, via Karen Strong

West Africa:  What’s life like as a female investigative journalist in Burkina Faso?  This piece debunks six myths about electronic waste recycling in Accra.  Also in Accra, 70% of noise complaints are about churches.  In Niger, EU-funded crackdowns on refugee flows to Europe have put smugglers and local restaurant owners out of business.  Many northern Nigerian states have restrictive morality laws, but actually enforcing them isn’t very popular.  One Nigerian state is piloting community service instead of prison time for minor offenses.

Graph showing that South Africa's government revenue as a percentage of GDP is around 26%, and Kenya's around 18%, while Nigeria's has dropped to only 6%

Nigeria’s revenue generation problem in one graph, via Amaka Anku

Central Africa: A new study finds that giving performance pay to Ugandan teachers improves their students’ test scores.  Here’s how public service announcements reduced rates of violence against women in Uganda.  In the DRC, potential senators are being asked to buy votes from members of regional parliaments for up to $50,000 per vote.  This was an insightful article about cyclical demobilization and remobilization among former rebels in eastern DRC. Look inside the only mental health clinic in the Central African Republic.

East Africa: How do people in poor neighborhoods in Nairobi think about dignity and photograph their own lives?  Read about the challenges of urban planning and the securitization of public space in Nairobi.  Check out the 154 different allowances given to civil servants in Kenya.  In Djibouti, salt is still mined by hand and transported by camel.  Chad has now spent a whole year without social media.  South Sudan’s rival leaders have met at the Vatican to work towards a peace deal.

A group of young Sudanese women in black and red graduation regalia
I loved these photos of everyday life in South Sudan from the Washington Post

Southern Africa: How are people getting by in South Africa, where blackouts often last up to 20 hours each day? Also in South Africa, sex workers are calling for the decriminalization of their profession.  Next door,  Botswana is planning to decriminalize homosexuality.  Netflix has picked up its first animated series from Zambia.  A new media company in Zimbabwe is producing kids’ books in local languages.  Here’s a good summary of the fall of the Dos Santos regime in Angola.

Politics & economics: Check out this interesting work on long-run institutional development in Africa.  This dictionary of African politics will teach you all about “skirt and blouse voting” and “watermelon politics.”  In Germany, two African women who requested asylum because of homophobia in their home countries saw their petitions denied for not being consistent about their lesbian identities — which they sometimes downplayed because of the aforementioned homophobia.   Here’s a thought-provoking piece about the important role of middlemen in informal markets in Africa.  Africapolis has created an interactive map of urbanization across the continent.

A map of central and northern Africa, showing high population density along the North African coast, in West Africa, and in the Rift Valley in East Africa

Facebook has taken on an incredibly ambitious project to map every building in Africa using AI, in order to support its projects related to internet connectivity in poor countries

Public health: This was an interesting profile of community health worker programs across East Africa.  Here’s how sexism is preventing people from accessing proper TB care in Tanzania.  Dakar’s serious air pollution levels are sending people to the hospital.  Across Africa, c-sections are incredibly dangerous — but paradoxically their overall rates are also probably too low, since many women don’t get proper prenatal care and have high risk pregnancies as a result.  Here’s a related piece on how African countries can ensure safer surgeries.  Zambia has opened its first school which specializes in teaching children with autism.

Women’s rights:  Two firefighters in Ghana successfully sued the fire service for firing them when they became pregnant.  Here are the barriers to women’s participation in politics in Ghana.  Zambia plans to open a museum of women’s history.  Check out the anthology New Daughters of Africa, with short stories from over 200 women.  Have Africa countries forgotten the female leaders of their independence struggles?

12 colorful portraits of black people

Art interlude with these fantastic portraits from Temi Coker

Arts & culture: If you’re in Nairobi, don’t miss Nairobi Tech Week from April 24 – 26!  Also in Nairobi, check out Book Bunk’s grants to host public events at local libraries.  The David Hill Gallery in London has a very fun exhibit of photos on Burkina Faso’s nightlife in the ’60s.  Check out this great post about Africa’s indigenous writing systems.  I can’t wait to visit the Savanna Centre for Contemporary Art in Tamale, Ghana.  Don’t miss the Routledge Handbook of African Literature.  Here are nine ways to select a child’s name from across Africa.

Fellowships & conferences: Don’t miss the monthly fellowship opportunities posted by my colleagues at the Mawazo Institute.  African researchers should apply for Future Leaders – African Independent Research fellowships (deadline May 15).  The University of Durham offers a Lioness scholarship for female MSc students from low income countries.  Apply to the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford as a visiting fellow (deadline May 31).  Submit a paper to the African Studies Association of Africa conference, held in Nairobi in October 2019 (deadline May 15).

Interesting academic articles for March 2019

Here are some recent papers which I’m looking forward to reading!

Justin Esarey and Leslie Schwindt-Bayer. 2019. “Estimating Causal Relationships Between Women’s Representation in Government and Corruption.” Comparative Political Studies.

Does increasing the representation of women in government lead to less corruption, or does corruption prevent the election of women? Are these effects large enough to be substantively meaningful? Some research suggests that having women in legislatures reduces corruption levels, with a variety of theoretical rationales offered to explain the finding. Other research suggests that corruption is a deterrent to women’s representation because it reinforces clientelistic networks that privilege men. Using instrumental variables, we find strong evidence that women’s representation decreases corruption and that corruption decreases women’s participation in government; both effects are substantively significant.

Jesse Cunha, Giacomo De Giorgi, and Seema Jayachandran. 2019. “The Price Effects of Cash Versus In-Kind Transfers.” The Review of Economic Studies.

This article examines the effect of cash versus in-kind transfers on local prices. Both types of transfers increase the demand for normal goods; in-kind transfers also increase supply in recipient communities, which could lead to lower prices than under cash transfers. We test and confirm this prediction using a programme in Mexico that randomly assigned villages to receive boxes of food (trucked into the village), equivalently-valued cash transfers, or no transfers. We find that prices are significantly lower under in-kind transfers compared to cash transfers; relative to the control group, in-kind transfers cause a 4% fall in prices while cash transfers cause a positive but negligible increase in prices. In the more economically developed villages in the sample, households’ purchasing power is only modestly affected by these price effects. In the less developed villages, the price effects are much larger in magnitude, which we show is due to these villages being less tied to the outside economy and having less competition among local suppliers.

Brian Palmer-Rubin. 2019. “Evading the Patronage Trap: Organizational Capacity and Demand Making in Mexico.Comparative Political Studies.

When do organizations broadly represent the interests of their economic sectors and when do they narrowly represent the interests of members? This article investigates how agricultural and small-business organizations in Mexico make demands for programmatic policies or patronage benefits. Contrary to explanations based on the class of members, I show that the source of organizational capacity shapes demand-making strategies. Organizations that generate selective benefits internally are able to engage in programmatic policies that shape sectoral competitiveness, whereas organizations that fail to solve membership challenges internally are vulnerable to the patronage trap, a self-reproducing cycle wherein they become specialized in demand making for discretionary private goods. I generate this argument through process tracing of two agricultural organizations in Mexico. Analysis of an original survey of economic interest organizations provides broader evidence that organizational capacity is a better predictor of policy demands than social class.

Christopher Blattman, Donald Green, Daniel Ortega, and Santiago Tobón. 2019. “Place-based interventions at scale: The direct and spillover effects of policing and city services on crime.” Innovations for Poverty Action working paper.

In 2016 the city of Bogotá doubled police patrols and intensified city services on high-crime streets. They did so based on a policy and criminological consensus that such place-based programs not only decrease crime, but also have positive spillovers to nearby streets. To test this, we worked with Bogotá to experiment on an unprecedented scale. They randomly assigned 1,919 streets to either 8 months of doubled police patrols, greater municipal services, both, or neither. Such scale brings econometric challenges. Spatial spillovers in dense networks introduce bias and complicate variance estimation through “fuzzy clustering.” But a design-based approach and randomization inference produce valid hypothesis tests in such settings. In contrast to the consensus, we find intensifying state presence in Bogotá had modest but imprecise direct effects and that such crime displaced nearby, especially property crimes. Confidence intervals suggest we can rule out total reductions in crime of more than 2–3% from the two policies. More promising, however, is suggestive evidence that more state presence led to an 5% fall in homicides and rape citywide. One interpretation is that state presence may more easily deter crimes of passion than calculation, and place-based interventions could be targeted against these incredibly costly and violent crimes.

Heather A. Knauer, Pamela Jakiela, Owen Ozier, Frances Aboud, and Lia C.H. Fernald. 2019. “Enhancing Young Children’s Language Acquisition through Parent-Child Book-Sharing: A Randomized Trial in Rural Kenya.” Center for Global Development working paper.

Worldwide, 250 million children under five (43 percent) are not meeting their developmental potential because they lack adequate nutrition and cognitive stimulation in early childhood. Several parent support programs have shown significant benefits for children’s development, but the programs are often expensive and resource intensive. The objective of this study was to test several variants of a potentially scalable, cost-effective intervention to increase cognitive stimulation by parents and improve emergent literacy skills in children. The intervention was a modified dialogic reading training program that used culturally and linguistically appropriate books adapted for a low-literacy population. We used a cluster randomized controlled trial with four intervention arms and one control arm in a sample of caregivers (n = 357) and their 24- to 83-month-old children (n = 510) in rural Kenya. The first treatment group received storybooks, while the other treatment arms received storybooks paired with varying quantities of modified dialogic reading training for parents. Main effects of each arm of the trial were examined, and tests of heterogeneity were conducted to examine differential effects among children of illiterate vs. literate caregivers. Parent training paired with the provision of culturally appropriate children’s books increased reading frequency and improved the quality of caregiver-child reading interactions among preschool-aged children. Treatments involving training improved storybook-specific expressive vocabulary. The children of illiterate caregivers benefited at least as much as the children of literate caregivers. For some outcomes, effects were comparable; for other outcomes, there were differentially larger effects for children of illiterate caregivers.

Chris Mahony, Eduardo Albrecht, and Murat Sensoy. 2019. “The relationship between influential actors’ language and violence: A Kenyan case study using artificial intelligence.” International Growth Centre working paper.

Scholarly work addressing the drivers of violent conflict predominantly focus on macro-level factors, often surrounding social group-specific grievances relating to access to power, justice, security, services, land, and resources. Recent work identifies these factors of risk and their heightened risk during shocks, such as a natural disaster or significant economic adjustment. What we know little about is the role played by influential actors in mobilising people towards or away from violence during such episodes. We hypothesise that influential actors’ language indicates their intent towards or away from violence. Much work has been done to identify what constitutes hostile vernacular in political systems prone to violence, however, it has not considered the language of specific influential actors. Our methodology targeting this knowledge gap employs a suite of third party software tools to collect and analyse 6,100 Kenyan social media (Twitter) utterances from January 2012 to December 2017. This software reads and understands words’ meaning in multiple languages to allocate sentiment scores using a technology called Natural Language Processing (NLP). The proprietary NLP software, which incorporates the latest artificial intelligence advances, including deep learning, transforms unstructured textual data (i.e. a tweet or blog post) into structured data (i.e. a number) to gauge the authors’ changing emotional tone over time. Our model predicts both increases and decreases in average fatalities 50 to 150 days in advance, with overall accuracy approaching 85%. This finding suggests a role for influential actors in determining increases or decreases in violence and the method’s potential for advancing understandings of violence and language. Further, the findings demonstrate the utility of local political and sociological theoretical knowledge for calibrating algorithmic analysis. This approach may enable identification of specific speech configurations associated with an increased or decreased risk of violence. We propose further exploration of this methodology.

Vincent Hardy and Jostein Hauge. 2019. “Labour challenges in Ethiopia’s textile and leather industries: no voice, no loyalty, no exit?” African Affairs.

A state-led industrialization push inspired by the East Asian ‘developmental state’ model is at the centre of Ethiopia’s recent economic success. This model has historically proved potent for achieving rapid industrialization, but the business-state alliance at the heart of the model generally aimed to curb the power of labour. Focusing on textile and leather manufacturing in Ethiopia, this article addresses two questions: are workers capable of extracting gains from the process of industrialization, and have the actions of workers affected global value chain integration in the two industries? Our data show that opportunities for collective voice among workers are limited. However, workers have expressed their discontent by leaving employers when working conditions fail to meet their expectations. The resulting turnover has generated significant obstacles for local and foreign firms attempting to participate in global value chains. In response, the Ethiopian state and employers implemented a number of measures, including restrictions on emigration and more generous non-wage benefits. Recent research on global value chains and labour highlights how workers are able to influence work practices through individual action. The present article builds on these ideas, but shows that firms and governments have the ability to respond and limit this power.

Nicki Kindersley.  2019.  “Rule of whose law? The geography of authority in Juba, South Sudan.” The Journal of Modern African Studies.

This study asks: in the general absence of a functioning and effective civil administration in Juba’s huge suburbs, how have people negotiated personal disputes and neighbourhood management since conflict began in 2013? Who arbitrates in Juba, and on what terms? This study challenges top-down analyses that see political-military elites managing their ethnic enclaves of followers and fighters through nepotism and gifts. Such patronage requires the complex negotiation of responsibilities and rights, including over community safety and order. In Juba, the local authorities who mediate this have been built by men and women with extensive expertise and connections in South Sudan’s long history of ‘civil-military’ governance systems. These local authorities have established lasting institutions by negotiating rights to residence in, arbitrating over, and knowing the human geography of their neighbourhoods. Their authority is rooted in this deep politics, drawing on their detailed knowledge of topographies of power in these multi-ethnic, highly military neighbourhood spaces.

Peer Schouten. 2019. “Roadblock politics in Central Africa.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

A frequent sight along many roads, roadblocks form a banal yet persistent element across the margins of contemporary global logistical landscapes. How, this article asks, can we come to terms with roadblocks as a logistical form of power? Based on an ongoing mapping of roadblocks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, it sketches a political geography of “roadblock politics”: a spatial pattern of control concentrated around trade routes, where the capacity to disrupt logistical aspirations is translated into other forms of power, financial and political. While today’s roadblocks are tied up with the ongoing conflict in both countries, the article shows, roadblock politics has a much deeper history. Before colonization, African rulers manufactured powerful polities out of control over points of passage along long-distance trade routes crisscrossing the continent. The article traces how since precolonial times control over long-distance trade routes was turned into a source of political power, how these routes were forcefully appropriated through colonial occupation, how after the crumbling of the colonial order new connections were engineered between political power and the circulation of goods in Central Africa, and how control over these flows ultimately became a key stake in ongoing civil wars in the region.

Louisa Lombard and Enrica Picco. 2019. “Distributive Justice at War: Displacement and Its Afterlives in the Central African Republic.Journal of Refugee Studies.

One of the defining features of the crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2013 has been massive displacement. Currently, about a quarter of the country’s population is displaced. People who have been forcibly displaced, whether internally or abroad, and people who stayed behind this time (but frequently have their own memories of displacement) provide particular kinds of information about war and its not particularly peaceful aftermath. In this article, based on interviews with a broad range of people affected by displacement, we show that Central African views about the prospects for peace are deeply affected by how displacement has shaped tensions over the political senses of distribution (who has a right to what, and on what basis). Who should pay for war, in senses both material and otherwise, and who should be compensated? However, distribution and belonging are not the issues prioritized in the aftermath of war, when elite deals, punitive justice and technocratic recovery plans crowd out treatment of the material justice and belonging questions that dominate neighbourhoods. The political dimensions of material justice in the aftermath of war require more thorough treatment, as listening to people who have experienced displacement makes abundantly clear.

Wenjie Hu, Jay Harshadbhai Patel, Zoe-Alanah Robert, Paul Novosad, Samuel Asher, Zhongyi Tang, Marshall Burke, David Lobell, and Stefano Ermon. 2019. “Mapping Missing Population in Rural India: A Deep Learning Approach with Satellite Imagery.” AAAI / ACM Conference on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics and Society working paper.

Millions of people worldwide are absent from their country’s census. Accurate, current, and granular population metrics are critical to improving government allocation of resources, to measuring disease control, to responding to natural disasters, and to studying any aspect of human life in these communities. Satellite imagery can provide sufficient information to build a population map without the cost and time of a government census. We present two Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) architectures which efficiently and effectively combine satellite imagery inputs from multiple sources to accurately predict the population density of a region. In this paper, we use satellite imagery from rural villages in India and population labels from the 2011 SECC census. Our best model achieves better performance than previous papers as well as LandScan, a community standard for global population distribution.