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.

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.

Interesting academic articles for June 2019

Here are the articles I’m looking forward to reading!  Also, out of consideration for the many people who don’t have access to gated academic journals, I’m switching to a policy of only sharing articles which have ungated editions available online, whether as working papers or through Sci-Hub.

Lachlan McNamee.  2019.  “Indirect colonial rule and the salience of ethnicity.”  World Development.

Why is ethnicity more salient in some contexts than in others? This paper provides new theory and evidence linking indirect colonial rule to the contemporary salience of ethnicity in sub-Saharan Africa. Using Afrobarometer survey data, I establish a substantively significant cross-national relationship between the indirectness of colonial rule and the strength of contemporary ethnic identification in sub-Saharan Africa. To show that this relationship is causal, I then exploit a sub-national research design leveraging regional variation in direct and indirect colonial rule across the country of Namibia. I show that, controlling for location and ethnicity, indirect colonial rule is also associated with stronger ethnic identification within Namibia both across the country as a whole and within 50 km of the border dividing indirectly and directly ruled areas of Namibia. This paper then disentangles why indirect rule is so robustly associated with the salience of ethnicity. I theorize and provide evidence that the effects of indirect rule can be attributed to the greater importance of traditional leaders and ethnically demarcated customary land rights in formerly indirectly ruled areas. As such, this paper helps uncover the causes of important regional variation in the salience of ethnicity, advances our understanding of the institutional origins of ethnic conflict in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and thus why indirect colonial rule is so often associated with poor developmental outcomes.

Zora Kovacic, Josephine Kaviti Musango, Lorraine Amollo Ambole, Kareem Buyana, Suzanne Smit, Christer Anditi, Baraka Mwau, Madara Ogot, Shuaib Lwasa, Alan C. Brent, Gloria Nsangi, and Hakimu Sseviiri.  2019.  “Interrogating differences: A comparative analysis of Africa’s informal settlements.”  World Development.

Urban development in Africa is a very diverse and ambivalent phenomenon with aspects that do not fall neatly into global standards. Informal settlements therefore challenge governance by standards. We argue that quantifying and interrogating differences offers a better basis for governance. By drawing on a comparative analysis of three different informal settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa, this paper explores what differences reveal about the governance of informal settlements. The paper uses an urban societal metabolism approach, focussed on gender, energy and health, based on questionnaires and focus group discussions in Enkanini (Stellenbosch, South Africa), Mathare (Nairobi, Kenya), and Kasubi-Kawaala (Kampala, Uganda). The contribution of the paper is both empirical and theoretical. Empirically, we provide new evidence about the metabolism of urban informality at multiple levels of analysis: the individual, the household and the settlement. Findings show the gender asymmetries in urban poverty and the intricate links between energy choices, health and economic status. Theoretically, we argue that different levels of analysis produce different understandings of urban informality, and that analyzing informal settlements only by population aggregates means missing information. We conclude by arguing that understanding differences leads to the formulation of modest and localised goals, which are better able to take into account the complexity of urban informality.

Henry B. Lovejoy, Paul E. Lovejoy, Walter Hawthorne, Edward A. Alpers, Mariana Candido, Matthew S. Hopper.  2019.  “Redefining African Regions for Linking Open-Source Data.” History in Africa.  

In recent years, an increasing number of online archival databases of primary sources related to the history of the African diaspora and slavery have become freely and readily accessible for scholarly and public consumption. This proliferation of digital projects and databases presents a number of challenges related to aggregating data geographically according to the movement of people in and out of Africa across time and space. As a requirement to linking data of open-source digital projects, it has become necessary to delimit the entire continent of precolonial Africa during the era of the slave trade into broad regions and sub-regions that can allow the grouping of data effectively and meaningfully.

Sam Hickey.  2019.  “The politics of state capacity and development in Africa: Reframing and researching ‘pockets of effectiveness.”  Effective States in International Development working paper 117.

The role of bureaucratic ‘pockets of effectiveness’ (PoEs) in driving development is generating renewed interest within development studies and, to an extent, development policy. Existing research on PoEs emphasises that politics plays a leading role in shaping the emergence and sustainability of high-performing public sector organisations. However, the field as yet lacks a clear sense of the conditions under which this happens, partly because of a tendency to see PoEs as ‘islands’ that are divorced from their political context, and partly because there has been no attempt as yet to undertake systematic comparative analysis of PoEs across different types of political context. This paper sets out the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of a new project that seeks to address these problems within the context of sub-Saharan Africa. Drawing on an alignment of political settlements analysis with critical theories of state power and African politics, the paper argues that PoEs are both shaped by, and help to reproduce, particular forms of politics and institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. This means that PoEs are not simply interesting objects of enquiry in and of themselves, but also because they can reveal a good deal about how the competing logics of regime survival, state-building and democratisation are playing out in Africa and what implications this has for development. The paper proposes a methodological approach for identifying and exploring PoEs and briefly summarises the results of the expert surveys that we undertook in our four initial countries, namely Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia, which were chosen to represent different types of political settlement. These surveys resulted in our project focusing mainly on the economic technocracy as the key domain within which PoEs have flourished, particularly in terms of ministries of finance, central banks and revenue authorities, along with some other interesting outliers and underlying processes of state-building. Further papers from this project will include in-depth case studies of these specific PoEs and processes in each country, synthesised country analyses and comparative overviews.

Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell.  2019.  “Leader Succession and Civil War.”  Comparative Political Studies.  

Leadership succession is a perennial source of instability in autocratic regimes. Despite this, it has remained a curiously understudied phenomenon in political science. In this article, we compile a novel and comprehensive dataset on civil war in Europe and combine it with data on the fate of monarchs in 28 states over 800 years to investigate how autocratic succession affected the risk of civil war. Exploiting the natural deaths of monarchs to identify exogenous variation in successions, we find that successions substantially increased the risk of civil war. The risk of succession wars could, however, be mitigated by hereditary succession arrangements (i.e., primogeniture— the principle of letting the oldest son inherit the throne). When hereditary monarchies replaced elective monarchies in Europe, succession wars declined drastically. Our results point to the importance of the succession, and the institutions governing it, for political stability in autocratic regimes.

Adrien Bouguen, Yue Huang, Michael Kremer, and Edward Miguel.  2019.  “Using Randomized Controlled Trials to Estimate Long-Run Impacts in Development Economics.”  Annual Review of Economics.

We assess evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on long-run economic productivity and living standards in poor countries. We first document that several studies estimate large positive long-run impacts, but that relatively few existing RCTs have been evaluated over the long run. We next present evidence from a systematic survey of existing RCTs, with a focus on cash transfer and child health programs, and show that a meaningful sub- set can realistically be evaluated for long-run effects. We discuss ways to bridge the gap between the burgeoning number of development RCTs and the limited number that have been followed up to date, including through new panel (longitudinal) data; improved participant tracking methods; alternative research designs; and access to administrative, remote sensing, and cell phone data. We conclude that the rise of development economics RCTs since roughly 2000 provides a novel opportunity to generate high-quality evidence on the long-run drivers of living standards.

Africa Update for May 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the export of Ugandan mercenaries, Kenya’s geothermal energy investments, Cameroonian refugees in Mexico, Ethiopia’s first female chief justice, and more.

West Africa: Political tensions continue to simmer in Sierra Leone as the current government has set up a commission to investigate corruption under its predecessor. I can’t wait to read this book on empires in medieval West Africa.  Learn about why the ubiquitous “Ghana-must-go” woven plastic bag takes its name from a conflict between Ghana and Nigeria in the 1980s.  Anglophone refugees from Cameroon who have fled into Nigeria are struggling to survive with limited support from the government or aid donors, whilst others have fled as far as Mexico in their quest for asylum.

Central Africa: Distrust of the state and the inability to perform rituals that will appease the spirit of a dead person are among the many reasons people in the DRC have been resisting Ebola treatment.   This was an evenhanded look at why it’s so difficult to source “responsible” minerals from eastern DRC. Uganda has doubled its military spending for the 2018/2019 fiscal year, and is now officially exporting more mercenaries than coffee.  In Kigali, Burundian journalists are still trying to publish their news in exile.  The Rwandan Supreme Court has ruled that it’s a crime to insult President Kagame.

Chart showing that a majority of Kenyans say the high cost of living is the biggest problem in their countryKenyans are really concerned by their country’s high cost of living (via Twaweza)

East Africa: Drought and crop failures have left many people in northern Kenya on the brink of famine, but neither the government nor other citizens seem to be paying much attention.  This was an insightful long read about Kenya’s many unsuccessful attempts to create reliable national ID and credit reporting systems.  Former US diplomats are lobbying the Trump administration not to push for the creation of a war crimes court in South Sudan, even though this is mandated under the current peace deal.  Sudan’s revolution shows the importance of trade unions in organizing civil dissent.  Saudi Arabia is offering funding to Sudan’s interim government out of concerns that regional revolutions could spark unrest at home.

Southern Africa: The UN is investigating allegations that community leaders in Mozambique have forced women to pay them or have sex with them in order to access aid after Cyclone Idai.  In South Africa, news coverage of protests tends to assume that poor people won’t participate unless they’re manipulated into doing so, which denies them political agency.  Read this summary of a very good piece about Mandela’s legacy, 25 years after the end of apartheid.  Studies in Zimbabwe have been key to challenging the assumption that depression doesn’t affect people in low income countries.

Map showing that elections will be held in 15 African countries in 2019Map of upcoming African elections via Africa Research Centre

Spotlight on urbanization in Nairobi: Check out this new documentary about the social justice working groups which are documenting human rights abuses in poor neighborhoods across the city.  This was an insightful piece about the Sudanese history of Kibera.  Meet the Kibera woman running one of the neighborhood’s only therapy centers for children with disabilities.  In Mathare, perpetual water shortages mean that residents must choose between drinking water or bathing their children.

Health: Senegal’s air pollution, caused by cars and harmattan dust, is sending increasing numbers of people to the hospital.  In Kenya, low quality healthcare and easy access to antibiotics mean that antibiotic-resistant diseases are on the rise.  Nigerian doctors are increasingly moving abroad, frustrated with a national healthcare system which pays less than US$600 per month.  Ghana, Kenya and Malawi are rolling out pilots of a new malaria vaccine.  Kenyan soldiers who’ve developed PTSD from operations in Somalia have been court-martialed for misbehavior rather than receiving treatment.

Four young men push a barrel of oil up a sandy beachThis Guardian photo essay on the black market for fuel in Togo and Benin was really gripping

Doing business: Read about the first running shoe company designed by and for Kenyans.  This looks like an interesting ethnography about Heineken’s phenomenal business success in Africa.  New studies in Ghana and Tanzania find that people overestimate how much time they spend working on their farms if they’re asked at the end of the planting season, rather than week by week during the season.

Environment: Meet the Nigerian women tackling urban waste disposal problems by starting recycling companies.  Kenyan scientists are developing low cost solutions to help fishermen avoid catching endangered or low value species of marine life.  Kenya is increasingly switching to geothermal energy, and could be one of the biggest producers in the world once a new plant opens in July.

Social protection + poverty reduction: This was an interesting piece about the process of distributing cash transfers in Liberia, where low-denomination bills are common and many people are still outside the cash economy.  Nigeria’s national cash transfer program has finally gotten off the ground.  Are patronage handouts and national cash transfer programs really all that different in Nigeria?  Experience from Niger suggests that people’s unwillingness to talk about their savings may lead researchers to overestimate poverty rates.

A Sengalese man carrying a sleepy baby on his back
Senegalese men are challenging gender stereotypes by carrying their children for a photography project (via BBC)

Gender equality: Studies in Uganda and Nigeria have found that “edutainment” TV shows can reduce rates of gender-based violence among viewers.  A landmark legal case in Kenya has allowed an intersex child to be issued a birth certificate without a gender marker.  This is a remarkable piece from Kenyan activist Rahma Wako about her experiences with early marriage and female genital cutting.  Women in the Ethiopian diaspora are discussing gender-based violence on a new Instagram page called Shades of Injera.   Meet Ethiopia’s first female chief justice, Meaza Ashenafi.

Food + travel: If you’re in London, don’t miss the delicious Ghanaian food at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen.  Nairobi’s Mexican food scene is expanding.  Here’s what to do for 36 hours in Dakar.

Academia: The Evidence to Action 2019 conference is being held at the University of Ghana from July 9 – 12, with travel bursaries available.  The East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative is holding a research summit in Nairobi from July 22 – 23.  If you’re an African woman who studies economics, sign up for FEMNET’s new database!

Interesting academic articles for May 2019

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

Jürgen René Blum, Marcos Ferreiro-Rodriguez, and Vivek Srivastava. 2019. Paths between Peace and Public Service: A Comparative Analysis of Public Service Reform Trajectories in Postconflict Countries.  The World Bank.

Building a capable public service is fundamental to postconflict state building. Yet in postconflict settings, short-term pressures often conflict with this longer-term objective. To ensure peace and stabilize fragile coalitions, the imperative for political elites to hand out public jobs and better pay to constituents dominates merit. Donor-financed projects that rely on technical assistants and parallel structures, rather than on government systems, are often the primary vehicle for meeting pressing service delivery needs. What, then, is a workable approach to rebuilding public services postconflict? Paths between Peace and Public Service seeks to answer this question by comparing public service reform trajectories in five countries—Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Timor-Leste—in the aftermath of conflict. The study seeks to explain these countries’ different trajectories through process tracing and structured, focused methods of comparative analysis. To reconstruct reform trajectories, the report draws on more than 200 interviews conducted with government officials and other stakeholders, as well as administrative data. The study analyzes how reform trajectories are influenced by elite bargains and highlights their path dependency, shaped by preconflict legacies and the specifics of the conflict period. As the first systematic study on postconflict public service reforms, it identifies lessons for the future engagement of development partners in building public services.

Pritish Behuria.  2019.  “African development and the marginalisation of domestic capitalists.”  Effective States in International Development working paper no. 115.

This paper has two core objectives. The first is to explain why the study of African capitalists – popular in the 1980s and 1990s – has remained relatively dormant since then. Dominant narratives – through neopatrimonalism and dependency-inspired arguments – have been pessimistic about the potential of African capitalists to deliver structural transformation. Gradually, these narratives, alongside intellectual trends within mainstream social science and African studies, have discouraged the study of politics of state–business relations in Africa. Yet African capitalists have become increasingly prominent in popular culture. Many of the wealthiest and most prominent capitalists have emerged through owning diversified business groups across the continent. This paper argues that more attention should be dedicated to the study of the politics of the emergence and sustenance of African diversified business groups (DBGs). To achieve this goal, a fluid categorisation of DBGs is introduced, building on Ben Ross Schneider’s previous work. By examining three country case studies – Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania – this paper highlights how a range of DBGs are emerging across three very different political contexts.

Travis Baseler.  2019.  “Hidden Income and the Perceived Returns to Migration: Experimental Evidence from Kenya.”  Working paper.

Urban workers in Kenya earn twice as much as rural workers with the same level of education. Why don’t more rural workers migrate to cities? In this paper, I use two field experiments to show that low migration is partly due to underestimation of urban incomes by rural Kenyans, and that this inaccurate information can be sustained by migrants’ strategic motives to hide income to minimize remittance obligations. I first show that rural Kenyans underestimate big city incomes considerably, despite the fact that two-thirds of households have a member who has migrated in the past. Parents underestimate their migrant children’s incomes by 50% on average, and underestimation is larger when the migrant’s incentive to hide income is high— in particular, when parents believe remittance obligations are high and when migrants have no stated desire to induce additional migration. In a first experiment that provides rural households with urban labor market information, treated households update their beliefs about the returns to migration and are 8 percentage points more likely to send a migrant to Nairobi. In a second field experiment, I test whether hidden income is directly distorting the decision to migrate by randomly informing rural households about the extent of hidden income among migrants in Nairobi. I find that hidden income dampens migration aspirations: learning about the average degree of hidden income increases planned migration to Nairobi by 13 percentage points.

Catherine Boone, Alex Dyzenhaus, Ambreena Manji, Catherine W Gateri, Seth Ouma, James Kabugu Owino, Achiba Gargule, and Jacqueline M Klopp.  2019. “Land law reform in Kenya: Devolution, veto players, and the limits of an institutional fix.”  African Affairs.

Much of the promise of the good governance agenda in African countries since the 1990s rested on reforms aimed at ‘getting the institutions right’, sometimes by creating regulatory agencies that would be above the fray of partisan politics. Such ‘institutional fix’ strategies are often frustrated because the new institutions themselves are embedded in existing state structures and power relations. The article argues that implementing Kenya’s land law reforms in the 2012–2016 period illustrates this dynamic. In Kenya, democratic structures and the 2010 constitutional devolution of power to county governments created a complex institutional playing field, the contours of which shaped the course of reform. Diverse actors in both administrative and representative institutions of the state, at both the national and county levels, were empowered as ‘veto players’ whose consent and cooperation was required to realize the reform mandate. An analysis of land administration reform in eight Kenyan counties shows how veto players were able to slow or curtail the implementation of the new land laws. Theories of African politics that focus on informal power networks and state incapacity may miss the extent to which formal state structures and the actors empowered within them can shape the course of reform, either by thwarting the reformist thrust of new laws or by trying to harness their reformist potential.

Vanessa van den Boogaard, Wilson Prichard, and Samuel Jibao.  2019.  “Informal taxation in Sierra Leone: Magnitudes, perceptions and implications.”  African Affairs.

In low-income countries, citizens often pay ‘taxes’ that differ substantially from what is required by statute. These non-statutory taxes are central to financing both local public goods and maintaining informal governance institutions. This study captures the incidence of informal taxation and taxpayer perspectives on these payments. We find, first, that informal taxes are a prevalent reality within areas of weak formal statehood in Sierra Leone, with households paying an equal number of informal and formal taxes. Second, we find positive taxpayer perceptions of the fairness of informal taxes relative to formal taxes, despite informal taxes being regressive in their distribution. We explain this by the fact that taxpayers are more likely to trust the actor levying these payments and are more likely to believe that they will be used to deliver benefits to the community.

Michelle N. MeyerPatrick R. HeckGeoffrey S. HoltzmanStephen M. AndersonWilliam CaiDuncan J. Watts, and Christopher F. Chabris.  2019.  “Objecting to experiments that compare two unobjectionable policies or treatments.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Randomized experiments—long the gold standard in medicine—are increasingly used throughout the social sciences and professions to evaluate business products and services, government programs, education and health policies, and global aid. We find robust evidence—across 16 studies of 5,873 participants from three populations spanning nine domains—that people often approve of untested policies or treatments (A or B) being universally implemented but disapprove of randomized experiments (A/B tests) to determine which of those policies or treatments is superior. This effect persists even when there is no reason to prefer A to B and even when recipients are treated unequally and randomly in all conditions (A, B, and A/B). This experimentation aversion may be an important barrier to evidence-based practice.

Jake Bowers and Paul Testa.  2019.  “Better Government, Better Science: The Promise of and Challenges Facing the Evidence-Informed Policy Movement.”  Annual Review of Political Science.

Collaborations between the academy and governments promise to improve the lives of people, the operations of government, and our understanding of human behavior and public policy. This review shows that the evidence-informed policy movement consists of two main threads: (a) an effort to invent new policies using insights from the social and behavioral science consensus about human behavior and institutions and (b) an effort to evaluate the success of governmental policies using transparent and high-integrity research designs such as randomized controlled trials. We argue that the problems of each approach may be solved or at least well addressed by teams that combine the two. We also suggest that governmental actors ought to want to learn about why a new policy works as much as they want to know that the policy works. We envision a future evidence-informed public policy practice that (a) involves cross-sector collaborations using the latest theory plus deep contextual knowledge to design new policies, (b) applies the latest insights in research design and statistical inference for causal questions, and (c) is focused on assessing explanations as much as on discovering what works. The evidence-informed public policy movement is a way that new data, new questions, and new collaborators can help political scientists improve our theoretical understanding of politics and also help our policy partners to improve the practice of government itself.

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).