The Seductive Appeal of Other People’s Problems

This is from The Development Set:

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are a 22-year-old college student in Kampala, Uganda. You’re sitting in class and discreetly scrolling through Facebook on your phone. You see that there has been another mass shooting in America, this time in a place called San Bernardino. You’ve never heard of it. You’ve never been to America. But you’ve certainly heard a lot about gun violence in the U.S. It seems like a new mass shooting happens every week.

You wonder if you could go there and get stricter gun legislation passed. You’d be a hero to the American people, a problem-solver, a lifesaver. How hard could it be? Maybe there’s a fellowship for high-minded people like you to go to America after college and train as social entrepreneurs. You could start the nonprofit organization that ends mass shootings, maybe even win a humanitarian award by the time you are 30.

If you asked a 22-year-old American about gun control in this country, she would probably tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than taking some workshops on social entrepreneurship and starting a non-profit. She might tell her counterpart from Kampala about the intractable nature of our legislative branch, the long history of gun culture in this country and its passionate defenders, the complexity of mental illness and its treatment. She would perhaps mention the added complication of agitating for change as an outsider.

But if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda — rural hunger or girl’s secondary education or homophobia — she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable….

Part of what drives this belief in the easy solvability of other people’s problems is a tendency to view systemic political failures in developing countries as arising from the moral failures of leaders, or a general lack of knowledge. It is for this reason that otherwise intelligent and reasonable people are able to understand, for example, the political basis of legislative homophobia (or racism) in Alabama but not in Uganda. In the former case politicians are then allowed to “evolve” with the views of their electorates, while in the latter case they must be dragged to the moral high ground kicking and screaming (at the threat of foreign aid withdrawal).

This is not to suggest that “local politics” variables explain everything. Or that we should subordinate everything to local politics, especially in the face of despicable human rights abuses (as was the case with the offensive and dangerous Ugandan anti-gay law). Rather, it is a call for a balanced understanding of complex political actors (and their incentives) in the developing world.

The whole thing is worth reading, especially the bits about America’s own “unexotic underclass”:

…….. I think there is tremendous need and opportunity in the U.S. that goes unaddressed. There’s a social dimension to this: the “likes” one gets for being an international do-gooder might be greater than for, say, working on homelessness in Indianapolis. One seems glamorous, while the other reminds people of what they neglect while walking to work.

There is also a response here which argues against the false choice of helping the poor in America vs in the developing world.

And by the way, despite having grown up in Nairobi, I only got interested in development after volunteering with Unite for Sight in Ghana.

Powering Africa: “Off-grid” is not the answer

This is from the Economist:

Generating power at home may transform life in rural areas for the better, but factories, mines and mills need a reliable, large-scale power supply. If Africa is to industrialise, it needs power plants.

More here.

Also, a little known fact is that in the next five years nearly all of eastern Africa will have an energy surplus (everyone is increasing their installed capacity). But the power lines need to be upgraded, extended, and integrated (see here); and governments need to come up with policies (mostly related to financing) to get more people living under the grid (close to power lines) on the grid.

On Field Experiments

Two quick thoughts:

  1. The world is a better place because more and more policymakers realize that evidence-based policymaking beats flying blind in the dark. Now if only we invested more in passing policy design, implementation, and evaluation skills to bureaucrats….
  2. Whenever academics get involved in field experiments, we typically try to maximize the likelihood of publication (see Humphreys below). But what is good for journal reviewers may not always be useful for policymakers. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We just need to be up front about it, and have it inform our evaluation of the ethics of specific interventions.

Below are some excellent posts (both old and new) on the subject.

NYU’s Cyrus Samii:

Whether one or another intervention is likely to be more effective depends both on the relevant mechanisms driving outcomes and, crucially, whether the mechanisms can be meaningfully affected through intervention. It is in addressing the second question that experimental studies are especially useful. Various approaches, including both qualitative and quantitative, are helpful in identifying important mechanisms that drive outcomes. But experiments can provide especially direct evidence on whether we can actually do anything to affect these mechanisms — that is, experiments put “manipulability” to the test.

Columbia’s Chris Blattman:

I’m going to go even further than Cyrus. At the end of the day, the great benefit of field experiments to economics and political scientists is that it’s forced some of the best social scientists to try to get complicated things done in unfamiliar places, and deal with all the constraints, bureaucrats, logistics, and impediments to reform you can imagine.

Arguably, the tacit knowledge these academics have developed about development and reform will be more influential to their long run work and world view than the experiments themselves.

Columbia’s Macartan Humphreys on the ethics of social experimentation:

Social scientists are increasingly engaging in experimental research projects of importance for public policy in developing areas. While this research holds the possibility of producing major social benefits, it may also involve manipulating populations, often without consent, sometimes with potentially adverse effects, and often in settings with obvious power differentials between researcher and subject. Such research is currently conducted with few clear ethical guidelines. In this paper I discuss research ethics as currently understood in this field, highlighting the limitations of current approaches and the need for the construction of appropriate ethics, focusing on the problems of determining responsibility for interventions and assessing appropriate forms of consent.

…. Consider one concrete example where many of the points of tension come to a head. Say a researcher is contacted by a set of community organizations that want to figure out whether placing street lights in slums will reduce violent crime. In this research the subjects are the criminals but seeking informed consent of the criminals would likely compromise the research and it would likely not be forthcoming anyhow (violation of the respect for persons principle); the criminals will likely bear the costs of the research without benefitting (violation of the justice principle); and there will be disagreement regarding the benefits of the research—if it is effective, the criminals in particular will not value it (producing a difficulty for employing the benevolence principle). Any attempt at a justification based on benevolence gives up a pretense at neutrality since not everyone values outcomes the same way. But here the absence of neutrality does not break any implicit contract between researchers and criminals. The difficulties of this case are not just about the relations with subjects however. Here there are also risks that obtain to nonsubjects, if for example criminals retaliate against the organizations putting the lamps in place. The organization may be very aware of these risks but be willing to bear them because they erroneously put faith in the ill-founded expectations of researchers from wealthy universities who are themselves motivated in part to publish and move their careers forward.

University of Maryland’s Jessica Goldberg (Africanists, read Golberg’s work):

Researchers have neither the authority nor the right to prohibit a control group from attending extra school, and they cannot require attendance from the treatment group. Instead, researchers randomly assign some study participants to be eligible for a program, such as tutoring.  Those in the control group are not eligible for the tutoring provided by the study, but they are not prohibited from seeking out tutoring of their own.

The difference may seem subtle, but it is important.  The control group is not made worse off or denied access to services it would have been able to access absent the experiment. It might not share in all of the benefits available to the treatment group, but that disadvantage is not necessarily due to the evaluation.

Georgetown’s Martin Ravallion:

I have worried about the ethical validity of some RCTs, and I don’t think development specialists have given the ethical issues enough attention. But nor do I think the issues are straightforward. So this post is my effort to make sense of the debate.

Ethics is a poor excuse for lack of evaluative effort. For one thing, there are ethically benign evaluations. But even focusing on RCTs, I doubt if there are many “deontological purists” out there who would argue that good ends can never justify bad means and so side with Mulligan, Sachs and others in rejecting all RCTs on ethical grounds. That is surely a rather extreme position (and not one often associated with economists). It is ethically defensible to judge processes in part by their outcomes; indeed, there is a long tradition of doing so in moral philosophy, with utilitarianism as the leading example. It is not inherently “unethical” to do a pilot intervention that knowingly withholds a treatment from some people in genuine need, and gives it to some people who are not, as long as this is deemed to be justified by the expected welfare benefits from new knowledge.

Tanzania suspends construction of $10b Bagamoyo port

An agreement for the initial development of the Bagamoyo Port Project was signed in March 2013 during the visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping as part of the Tsh1.28 trillion infrastructure package deals. The agreement specified that $500 million would be designated for port financing for the year of 2013 to allow the project to start.

Tanzania and Kenya are locked in a competition for the title of gateway to East and Central Africa, and so far Kenya is winning. Transportation costs on the southern corridor are almost 1.5 times those on Kenya’s northern corridor. Bagamoyo was supposed to take the fight to Mombasa (and Lamu). Now Dodoma will focus on upgrading the ports in Dar and Mtwara (and Tanga).

The cancellation of the project is a reasonable policy move. The cost would’ve severely stressed Tanzania’s fiscal position; and the 20m container capacity was a little too ambitious, to say the least.

Also, this development probably increases the probability that Uganda’s oil pipeline to the coast will be routed through Kenya (see here and here).

Do host governments necessarily “do development” better than foreign donors?

A common complaint you hear against donor-driven development projects is that they are typically at variance with local priorities; and make no attempts to work along the grain, or build upon existing systems. It turns out that governments in developing countries aren’t any different.

Take the example of the slum upgrading project in the infamous Kibera slum in Nairobi:

A keen look at the Open Street Map for Kibera and Mathare Valley before the NYS initiative started reveals the existence of services such as education, health, water and sanitation points. In Korogocho, Mukuru, Mathare and Kibera self help groups had emerged even before NYS Initiative start to earn daily income from activities such as urban farming, garbage collection and water delivery services. It is a fact that most toilets are not connected to the main sewer and private clinics are either not registered or managed by quacks, while illegal power connections abound.

The NYS Initiative would have scored big by establishing connections with already existing services providers in poor neighbourhoods by either improving their capacity to offer quality and affordable services to the urban poor or by trying to create an enabling environment for slum entrepreneurs to be part of formal and legal business entities. It is a mistake to assume that  there are no service providers within poor neighborhoods. Poverty and lack of basic services is an urban reality which has motivated the establishment of civil society groups to initiate health, education and income generating activities for women and youths as a supplement to government efforts in meeting its obligations. No government in the world can be able to solve the complex community problems of the poor by itself.

And there is an interesting twist to this story…

Experience from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the Urban Poverty and Slum Upgrading Project funded by the World Bank might be instructive. The project has some similarities with the NYS project in terms of targeting poor neighborhoods but was able to achieve more success because it worked more closely with local communities and partnered with Dar es Salaam Municipal Council officials from conception to implementation and monitoring stages, a situation which is totally lacking with the National Youth Service projects. The NYS Initiative seems to be a duplication and competition with the mandate of mandate of Nairobi City County.

I do not know about the veracity of the claims about the Dar slum (and I think the NYS budget is fully domestic — after the initial Chinese boost) but right now it’s hard not to feel like Tanzanians are doing everything right; while Kenyans are perennially running around in circles. The Mara Derby is on.

Read the whole thing here.

What should we learn from knowing the UN Library’s most checked-out book?

Mark Kersten over at Justice in Conflict writes:

The most checked-out book was entitled Immunity of Heads of State and State Officials for International Crimes.

Then adds:

This isn’t exactly great news for proponents of international justice and, in particular, the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Weirdly, the UN Library sort of bragged about the book on Twitter – despite the institution’s mission to, you know, fight global impunity. As Hayes Brown rightly chirped: “…Guys. Why would you brag about this [-] this is not good.” There is a silver lining, though. Clearly diplomats are taking international criminal justice seriously and evidently some (rightfully, we should add) see it as threatening. Like it or not, the possibility of heads of state being prosecuted for international crimes is indelibly part of the world of diplomacy.

The institutionalist in me agrees.

Do we want to live in a world in which world leaders do not care about the rules, and therefore do not bother to check how to circumvent them? Or a world in which leaders respect the rules enough to invest in getting their way but within the rules?

I am reminded of a point my adviser David Laitin once made in his class on political culture — that rules by themselves are never final, but are constantly re-litigated and renegotiated during implementation. In other words, that at some level rules exist to define the acceptable scope of (re)negotiation over implementation.

At first this point may seem obvious. But you will be surprised how often rule-makers imagine they can legislate their way out of problems without giving any consideration to the political economy of implementation.


Daily Nation suspends editor for strong criticism of President Uhuru Kenyatta

After a rather hard-hitting editorial appeared in the Daily Nation voicing criticisms of the Kenyatta Administration, the newspaper has suspended the editor behind it. An internal memo cited the reason for the suspension as:

The lack of consultation and review of the editorial on the material day – where one writer takes a strong position on such an important issue single-handedly without broad consultations – is a significant departure from established procedure…

Two quick thoughts:

  1. If we take the CEO at his word, it says a lot about the management of the Nation’s newsroom that such a piece could be published without robust internal review and consensus on both content and tone.
  2. What is more likely is that the paper’s editorial team wants to do independent journalism, but the NMG business team is worried about losing advertising revenue from the central government (does anyone know what share of the paper’s (or NMG’s) ad revenue comes from the government?)

This is rather embarrassing coming from one of the Continent’s most reputable news establishments. I am sure president Kenyatta has enough thick skin to weather criticism in the editorial pages. The matter could have been handled without making it clear that the government implicitly dictates the tone of the Nation‘s editorial pages — you know, media independence and all that…

It looks particularly bad as it comes right before Kenya gets into full election mode.

Moving on, it’ll be hard to be sympathetic with the NMG when Kampala or Dodoma harasses the The Daily Monitor or The Citizen.

Update: Here’s a comment from Macharia Gaitho, a former Managing Editor at NMG:

It’s true that at NMG Leaders on a sensitive topic must go through a consultative process. This ensures that they reflect the Group position rather than personal opinion, and that whoever needs to know is in the know. If procedures were flouted and the Group left exposed, it would best have been handled quietly and internally. As it is, action taken against an individual has doubly exposed NMG. For more than a generation the Group has struggled to counter perceptions that it is pro-government. Now it has reinforced those perceptions with action that will be widely interpreted, even if wrongly, as punishing an editor for espousing a view that angered State House. The damage will be almost impossible to undo. And never in the history of the Nation has an individual responsible for a Leader been publicly ‘outed’. The remedy here will prove more damaging than the original offense.