Does Kenya have too many MPs?

An article in the Daily Nation asked this provocative question. In the article, the author examined the cost per capita of legislatures in several countries; and concluded that legislatures in OECD democracies tend to be relatively more representative (seats/million people) as well as cost effective (per capita cost/east) than their counterparts in the developing world.

Of course, linking per capita income to the density of representation has its pitfalls. An assumption that countries with smaller economies should have smaller assemblies, regardless of population size, implicitly undervalues the political voice (and rights) of citizens of poor countries. At the same time, setting an arbitrary upper bound on the remuneration of legislators (and general resourcing of legislatures) has the potential to limit the continued professionalization of legislatures in emerging democracies. Under-resourced legislatures find themselves in a bad equilibrium of high turnovers, weak institutionalization (lack of experience), inability to check the executive or effectively legislate, and a whole lot of dissatisfied voters who invariably choose to go with erstwhile challengers.

How break out of this bad equilibrium is one of the key questions I grappled with in the dissertation (and in the ongoing book project). But I digress…

legseatsThe standard metric in Political Science for comparing the density of representation was developed by Rein Taagepera in the early 1970s. The Taagepera formula predicts that assembly sizes tend to approximate the cube root of the total population of states. In the dissertation I looked at how African states faired according to this metric (see figure) and found that the vast majority of countries on the Continent have relatively smaller assemblies than would be predicted by their population sizes (the figure only captures the sizes the lower houses). Somalia, Uganda, Sudan, the DRC, South Africa, and Ethiopia are the clear outliers. Incidentally, Kenya’s National Assembly is right on the parity line.

The usefulness of this metric (at the national level) diminishes beyond a certain population size. For countries with hundreds of millions of people or more, it makes more sense to apply the formula with respect to sub-national assemblies, if they exist. This is for the simple reason that beyond a certain number of seats the legislature would become too big to reasonably be able to conduct its business (see Nigeria).

Pepinsky on what to read in order to write a good dissertation (or book)

Yet it is only possible to read effectively if the thing you are reading is written well. That means that dissertation writers do need to write effectively. And that, in turn, requires dissertation writers to sit down and read books, not for argument, but for style and form and structure. The single most important piece of dissertation writing advice I received was to read more books, and to read them slowly and carefully while actively reflecting on style and structure. “Read this, and then write like that.”

That advice from a decade ago, coupled with several conversations over the past week, has inspired me to put together a collection of books that I think are exemplars of excellent political science writing in book format. That they all happen to be good books too is useful, but not my main point. My point in collecting them here is that these are books to read to learn how to write a good dissertation. Read these, then write like them.

More on this here (must read).

The same applies to papers. It helps to have a folder of “sample papers” to read whenever you experience writer’s block.

Thandika Mkandawire on the “Kenya Debate”

The ‘Kenya debate’ was a debate not among Kenyans but about Kenya by a group of expatriates, most of whom were temporarily resident in Kenya. This may partly explain its abrupt end. Kitching (1985) also suggests that the fact that all the protagonists viewed themselves as progressives precluded the further pursuit of the debate on how a capitalist accumulation process could be promoted.

Ouch. Kenyanists (Kenyan or not) will appreciate the zinger (please bring back economic history!) The quote is from a footnote on page 198.

Mkandawire’s paper on “Thinking About Developmental States in Africa” (not on Kenya) is a must read in any PE class on African development.

A Kenyan Scientist Joins the Worm Wars

For those new to the deworming debate, see here, here, here, here and here (Macartan’s response is worth reading in detail). The famous original deworming study was conducted in western Kenya, so it’s nice to get the perspective of Kenyan scientist Dr. Charles Mwandawiro. Dr Mwandawiro is the Chief Research Officer and Assistant Director of Partnership and Collaboration at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI). He writes:

I have studied and seen myself the negative effects chronic parasitic worm infections have on childhood development. Children with severe or recurring infections have impaired growth and cognitive development because the worms lodge in their bodies, stealing the nutrients a child is able to take in. Heavy infections can result in serious clinical disease. To combat infection and give our children a chance at good health, many countries, including Kenya, run school-based mass deworming programmes that have been shown to be a simple and cost-effective strategy to reduce the disease burden of parasitic worms in school-age children, the group at highest risk.

Safe, low-cost drugs are available to treat intestinal worm infections and are the standard of medical care. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends periodic mass treatment in areas where worm infections are above certain thresholds. Some have challenged this WHO policy, accepting that those who are known to be infected should be treated, but questioning whether the existing evidence base is strong enough to support mass treatment.

Let me say unequivocally: Mass school-based deworming works. Just three years ago, Kenya launched a national deworming program. Prevalence of parasitic worms has been reduced from 35% to 17% and as low as 6% right after a deworming round. Our focus in the National Deworming Programme in Kenya is on the reduction of infection and possibly even elimination of the public health threat of worms.

More on this here.

The WormWars are a fantastic lesson on the complications of policymaking. Contributors have weighed in from different perspectives: Does school-based mass deworming work in reducing the prevalence of parasitic worms?; what is the opportunity cost of deworming kids, thereby improving their developmental prospects?; Does a kid’s health trump everything?; did the Busia intervention increase school attendance?; did the authors adequately address the methodological challenges involved in the study? What is a policymaker to make of all of this?

Because of the complicated nature of the questions involved, the original study is being asked to bear more weight than it can withstand. Like Macartan, I think the focus should be on the school attendance outcomes, which was the primary goal of the original study. This, of course, does not mean we should completely disregard the very important questions relating to the health and developmental prospects of kids in locales with high prevalence rates of parasitic worms. Because of the long-term effects of malnutrition on cognitive development, it is reasonable to make the case that deworming kids should trump most competing uses of resources.

Policymakers, if you can, Please. Deworm. All. The. Kids.

H/T Chris Blattman

A Commentary on Research Priorities in Development Economics

Over at the Bank’s Future Development blog, Princeton Economist Jeffrey Hammer writes:

The Chief Minister posed serious questions that have traditionally been the bread and butter of the economics profession. Unfortunately, we are not even trying to answer them any more. The specific question was “Should I put more money into transport? Infrastructure (power, roads, water)? Law and order? Social services? Or what? And where am I going to get the money?” What questions could be more solidly part of the core of economics than these? Unfortunately none of these were even remotely the focus of the “evidence-based” policy making discussed.

Almost all of the cases analyzed were  single, simple policy “tweaks” that were, first of all, isolated from the broader market context in which they occurred and, second, had no conception of opportunity cost – what we would have to give up to pursue these things? We had an answer to “how to improve a public food distribution system” but even with a precise answer (to whether a tweak would work) we had no idea whether the substantial amount of money funding such a system is a good idea. Maybe the Chief Minister would be better off improving education or road networks or police or rural electricity. Some of these alternative policies could have more impact on food consumption than food distribution if we thought about how the world worked. Getting food to market securely (roads, better cold storage, trustworthy police and safe roads – this is Pakistan, which no one seemed to notice) may increase food availability much more than any tunnel-visioned food program Or not – maybe the food distribution system is better. We just don’t know. And none of us “experts” are trying to find out.

When someone says “we should have more “X” because we have evidence that it works”, the response should be “compared to what?” What should we cut in order to promote your particular interest? My hobby horse these days is more sanitation in South Asia. I should have to defend it against (at least) a few alternatives.

What’s your justification for your latest hobby horse?

My take on the gap highlighted by Hammer is that what is good for reviewers is seldom useful to policymakers. The incentive for academics is to publish. And this will always be reflected in the design and implementation of interventions headed by academics. This is not necessarily a bad thing [For obvious reasons we should firewall academic research from the actual process of policymaking. The latter should be the political process that it is, albeit informed by the former]. I think the widespread acceptance of rigorous evidence-based policymaking has been a net benefit for the developing world. What it means though, is that the “public sector” development research community — i.e. the IMF, the World Bank, & host country research institutes — should do more to ensure that funding for hyper-targeted interventions do not detract from broader macro research (like, when and why did the rain start beating Ghana?)

However, in the long run, developing countries will be better served by having more and more of their own/country-based politically relevant macroeconomists.

This is because answering the types of questions posed by Hammer requires one to also take a political stand (on account of a lack of consensus among economists). Economists who can’t do this will invariably resort to “technical” solutions that can be perceived as “apolitical” by both host governments and the sponsoring foreign development agencies. Again not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the politics of knowledge production.

H/T William Easterly.

The potential impact of a Chinese slowdown on Africa’s economies

The FT reports:

For Africa’s non-oil exporters, the collapse in crude prices has provided a cushion. But, with many African countries import-dependent, the depreciation of currencies affects inflation and the cost of imports. It will also put a strain on those nations that have taken advantage of investors’ search for yields to tap into international capital markets.

The likes of Zambia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, and Ivory Coast have all issued foreign currency dominated sovereign bonds in recent years. “In the past, foreign exchange weakness in Africa was largely shrugged off. Economies adapted and found a way to cope with it, but the recent surge in eurobond issuance has been a game-changer,” says Razia Khan, chief economist for Africa at Standard Chartered.

“Now, when currencies depreciate, external risks are magnified, public debt ratios rise, and perceptions of sovereign creditworthiness alter quite dramatically.”

Prof. Deborah Brautigam of SAIS sees the following happening:

  • Prices for African commodities will worsen, then improve. In recent years, China’s slower growth has pushed down prices for gold, crude oil, copper, platinum and iron ore. South Africa’s mining sector was expected to lose over 10,000 jobs due to lower demand
  • Africa will import even more from China. Cheaper Chinese exports will please African consumers while putting Africa’s manufacturers at a further disadvantage. There will be more pressure for tariff protections
  • [L]ow wages in Ethiopia and elsewhere had been attracting significant factory investment from China. With costs now relatively lower in China, the push to relocate factories overseas will slow. This will save Chinese jobs, but postpones Africa’s own structural transformation.

And concludes that:

In the short term it is hard to see how this devaluation can help Africa, notably its productive and export sectors.

The thing to note is that different African countries have different kinds of exposure to China. The commodity exporters (both petroleum and metals) will be hit hard. The effects will be somewhat attenuated in countries exposed primarily through Chinese FDI and infrastructure loans. Domestic fiscal reorganization and resources from the AfDB and other partners should plug a fair bit of the hole left by declining Chinese investments (although certainly nowhere near all of it). And with regard to sovereign debt, a Chinese downturn might persuade the US Central Bank to delay its planned rate hike — which would be good for African currencies and keep the cost of borrowing low.

Lastly, for geopolitical reasons I don’t see China rapidly reducing its footprint on the Continent. In any case, as Howard French makes clear in his latest book, there is a fair bit of (unofficial) private Chinese investment in Africa. Turmoil back home may incentivize these entrepreneurs to plant even deeper roots in Africa and expatriate less of their profits. The net result will be slower growth in Africa. And like in China, slower growth will challenge prevailing political bargains in democracies and autocracies alike.

Nairobi Matatu Routes on Google Maps

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 10.48.26 AM

A screen shot of the commute from Ongata Rongai to Kahawa West

Launching the matatu routes in Google emphasizes the need to study the informal transit networks that shuttle masses of people around in sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, and south Asia. “You’re saying this is part of the system,” said Klopp. And since the GTFS data structure and the Nairobi data are open source, Digital Matatus gives other groups in Mexico City, Manila, Dhaka, China, and elsewhere a plan to collect and disseminate data on their transit. The collaboration has already received requests from around the world to map their cities.

Digital Matatus has also started talks with four more cities in Africa—Kampala, Accra, Lusaka, and Maputo—to use the same methods to map their informal mass transit systems. “So many of our problems in developing cities where you have extreme poverty and awful environmental conditions—they’re always tied in some way to the transport sector,” said Cervero. “It’s very chaotic and unmanaged, so this is a huge first step towards enhancing those services.”

People in Nairobi still use the paper maps because the matatu routes have not changed since their release, and the ultimate goal is a formal transit system with set maps, times, and prices. But hopefully “formal” will still mean you enjoy your commute with twinkling disco balls and a good beat.

Wired has the rest of the story on how this happened here.

This is a cool development that will hopefully inform Nairobi County’s infrastructure planning going forward. It should not take 2.5 hours to travel across the city from Kahawa West to Rongai, a distance of only 24 miles.

How much does it cost to construct an MDG borehole in Abuja?

The Premium Times of Nigeria reports:

Nigeria’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) office spent N154.2 million to construct a single borehole in Abuja, in a shocking example of contract inflation that has helped undermine the country’s ability to achieve its MDG goals.

Drilling a single borehole drilling in Abuja averages N1.5 million. A hydrology firm told PREMIUM TIMES that the amount should cover drilling and casing, installation of a solar-powered submersible pump, steel tower for the tanks, tanks, pipes, joints & suckers, installation and labour.

The firm allowed an expanded estimate of N10 million if a water treatment facility is included alongside other optional accessories.

The Abuja borehole, constructed at Gwarinpa, an expansive estate in the federal capital, had no such fittings. Indeed, the borehole had long become dysfunctional and was no longer dispensing water to the residents when PREMIUM TIMES visited in June 2015.

Still, the Abuja MDG office told this newspaper it was more concerned with service delivery to the people, than the amount it takes to do so (emphasis added).

“Policy interventions are already risky in the best of circumstances”

Here’s a paragraph to ponder:

Ethnographic nuance is neither a luxury nor the result of a kind of methodological altruism to be extended by the soft-hearted. It is, in purely positivist terms, the epistemological due diligence work required before one can talk meaningfully about other people’s intentions, motivations, or desires. The risk in foregoing it is not simply that one might miss some of the local color of individual ‘cases.’ It is one of misrecognition. Analysis based on such misrecognition may mistake symptoms for causes, or two formally similar situations as being comparable despite their different etiologies. To extend the medical metaphor one step further, misdiagnosis is unfortunate, but a flawed prescription based on such a misrecognition can be deadly. Policy interventions are already risky in the best circumstances. (p. 353)

That’s from political anthropologist Mike McGovern’s review of Paul Collier’s Bottom Billion and Wars, Guns, and Votes.

Also, if you haven’t read McGovern’s Making War in Cote d’Ivoire you should. And for those interested in an ethnographic take on Sekou Toure’s attempts to modernize remake Guinea check out Unmasking the State. It starts off dense (I only read about half the book last summer while on a short trip to Conakry), but gives a good peek into the logics of rule under Toure and the reactions these elicited from Guineans.

H/T Rachel Strohm.

Fascinating case of failed Coasian bargaining

How much would you pay in order not to listen to loud street music while working in your office?

The Washington Post (our new hometown paper) has an interesting story on this:

The band’s brassy riffs at 15th Street and New York Avenue NW always delight the hordes of tourists heading toward the White House. But the very spot that’s proved so profitable for Spread Love to pull in tips has also earned it the enmity of employees at two major Washington institutions: the Treasury Department and the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Apparently, the economists in charge of our nation’s financial stability and the attorneys who represent many of our country’s corporate high-rollers and white-collar criminal defendants are struggling to focus inside their offices because the band is so loud. They are hearing Spread Love spreading its love too much.

So the office workers offered to pay the band $200 a week. The band members declined, saying that they typically make that amount in an hour (unverified) from tourists.

The band’s director insists that they can sell the office workers a little quiet, if the price is right (just how much do the office workers value a little quiet while working? And what’s the band members’ opportunity cost of not spreading love?)

Apparently the band’s act is totally legal, as DC’s noise regulations are subordinate to individuals’ first amendment rights.

Also, notice how in certain instances government policies can create value for specific subsets of citizens by simply allocating “property” rights.