Political Engineering and Defense Contracts in the United States

Here’s a paragraph from James Fallows’ great piece on the American Military in The Atlantic:

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Source locations for parts of the F-35 (more than 90 Congressional districts)

A $10 million parts contract in one congressional district builds one representative’s support. Two $5 million contracts in two districts are twice as good, and better all around would be three contracts at $3 million apiece. Every participant in the military-contracting process understands this logic: the prime contractors who parcel out supply deals around the country, the military’s procurement officers who divide work among contractors, the politicians who vote up or down on the results. In the late 1980s, a coalition of so-called cheap hawks in Congress tried to cut funding for the B-2 bomber. They got nowhere after it became clear that work for the project was being carried out in 46 states and no fewer than 383 congressional districts (of 435 total). The difference between then and now is that in 1989, Northrop, the main contractor for the plane, had to release previously classified data to demonstrate how broadly the dollars were being spread.

More here.

More Evidence of The Effects of Unconditional Direct Cash Transfers

Haushofer and Shapiro have a really cool paper evaluating the impact of unconditional direct cash transfers to households in rural southwestern Kenya (Rarieda in Siaya County). The paper contains several great insights relevant for policy-makers on the promise of direct cash transfers. Here are some highlights:

[i] …… we find increases in holdings of home durables (notably metal roofs, ownership of which increased by 23 percentage points over a control group mean of 16 percent), and productive assets such as livestock, whose value increases by USD 85 over a control group mean of USD 167. These investments translate into higher revenues from agriculture, animal husbandry, and non-agricultural enterprises; monthly revenue from these sources increases by USD 17 relative to a control group mean of USD 49. Note, however, that this revenue increase is partially offset by an increase in flow expenses for agriculture, animal husbandry, and business (USD 13 relative to a control group mean of USD 24).

[ii] We find that indeed monthly transfer recipients are significantly less likely to invest in durables such as metal roofs than lump-sum transfer recipients, suggesting that households may be both credit- and savings-constrained. The fact that program participation required signing up for mobile money accounts, which are a low-cost savings technology (people could have chosen to accumulate their transfer – and even add other money – on their M-Pesa account), suggests that the savings constraint at work is more social or behavioral than purely due to lack of access to a savings technology.

[iii] …. contrary to previous literature and our expectation, we find no significant differences between transfers to men and transfers to women in expenditure decisions or any other outcomes.

Oh, and there is more…

… we find significant reductions in cortisol levels in several treatment arms: specifically, large transfers, transfers to women, and lump-sum transfers lead to significantly lower cortisol levels than small transfers, transfers to men, and monthly transfers. Some of these effects occur in the absence of differences in traditional outcome variables. Together, these results support a causal effect of poverty (alleviation) on (reductions in) stress levels. More broadly, they suggest that psychological well-being and cortisol can complement traditional welfare measures, and in some cases may in fact respond to interventions with greater sensitivity than these traditional measures.

Amazing stuff.

So what are some of the policy implications?

Direct cash transfers are not the panacea to underdevelopment. But these findings and others out there (see summary here) are evidence that we should seriously consider Martin Ravallion’s idea of raising the consumption floor of the poorest of the poor in developing countries through direct policy intervention (e.g. through cash transfers).

Making direct cash transfers work for development will be predicated on taking the interventions out of the humanitarian/aid sphere, and integrating them into the national political economies of developing countries.

In my view, the need for a higher consumption floor will soon become politically salient due to rapid urbanization rates in many developing countries. Obviously, aid money alone will not be able to fully finance such a policy. More efficient public finance management in developing countries will be one way to fill the gap. Putting aside the overhyped storied budgetary leakages due to corruption, many developing countries still do not meet their annual budgeted expenditure goals due to lack of absorptive capacity, i.e. money simply never gets spent at the end of the fiscal year and is returned to the treasury.

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Click on image to enlarge

For instance, according to an internal Ugandan government report, between 2004-2010 an average of 3.4% of budgetary allocations to central government ministries, departments, and agencies returned to the treasury (this was net of corruption and other leakages). Note that the figure is most likely higher if you factor in local government expenditures. And as Figure 2 above shows, late disbursement is the norm, which makes budgeting within government agencies a nightmare. In addition, over the same period (2004-10), the proportion of the budget that was simply not released (as opposed to released and not absorbed) was a staggering 9.92%!

This is money that can go directly to citizens’ pockets. And we have the technology, thanks to M-Pesa, to effect the policy. Governments shouldn’t be allowed to handle more money than they have capacity to spend. Plus making legislative appropriation conditional on agency capacity could be a way to incentivize capacity building more than a million workshops and study tours could ever do.

Lastly, the idea of a consumption floor for the urban poor might not appeal to some higher income tax payers. But smart politicians should be able to remind these voters that there is only so much physical security that one can get from high fences topped with electrified razor wire.

Most read posts in 2014

Here are the top posts in 2014

1. Corruption under apartheid South Africa: This post was top partly because of the 2014 South African elections. More on the legacies of apartheid era corruption and rent-seeking in South Africa here.

2. Kenya Security Laws (Amendment) Bill 2014: This bill (now an Act of Parliament) is further evidence of Uhuru Kenyatta’s autocratic tendencies. I personally don’t think that he is an incarnation of Moi or other dictators of years gone. Rather, Mr. Kenyatta is a poor administrator who likes taking shortcuts to get quick results. As I argued in a related post, the Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 could potentially severely limit civil liberties in Kenya.

3. Did European Colonialism Benefit Africans? The popularity of this post is perhaps a reminder that more research is needed on the long-run effects of colonialism not just in Africa but in other formerly colonized places as well. So far all the literature tells us is that colonialism was bad, but that the Western institutions that Europeans spread around the globe are good. More recently we’ve seen evidence that pre-colonial institutions in the colonies were pretty resilient in the face of colonial intrusion; and have had lasting effects (also remember that the duration and intensity of colonialism varied widely across the globe). One avenue of research that I have been exploring is how pre-colonial institutions interacted with colonial administrations, and how this shaped the institutions that emerged out of the independence wave of the early 1960s. More on this in the new year.

4. Why Raila Odinga Lost: A sizable proportion of Kenyans still believe that Odinga was robbed in the March 2013 election in Kenya. I disagree. In my own projections on this blog – merging disaggregated opinion polls with historical district turnout rates (perks of having a case with tight ethnic voting) – I found Mr. Kenyatta to be ahead of Mr. Odinga by about 740,000 votes, or 7.2 percentage points (which was close to the final official figure of 6.7% difference between the two).

I don’t think that Kenyatta won in the first round, but do believe that we would have trounced Odinga in a runoff anyway. Which is why I have never come to terms with the unanimous Supreme Court decision granting Kenyatta victory on the basis of less than 9000 votes out of 12.3 million cast.

5. Understanding Uganda’s Military Adventurism Under Museveni: General President Museveni has managed to create an image of himself as the anti-terror hatchet man in the wider horn of Africa region. Ugandan troops are the backbone of the AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Since his triumphant entry into Kampala in 1986 Museveni has also been involved in conflicts in Rwanda, the DRC, Sudan, C.A.R, and more recently South Sudan. Because of the degree of militarization of the Ugandan state and recent public displays of intra-elite friction, I think Uganda will continue to inch up in the coup sweepstakes ahead of the 2016 election.

Africa’s First City

National Geographic has a fascinating take on Lagos. And since we are just under two months to the next Nigerian elections, here is my favorite paragraph:

When I asked Kola Karim if the federal government’s sorry reputation made Western investors wary of doing business in Lagos, the worldly CEO elaborately dismissed it as a nonissue. Companies partnered with companies, not with bureaucrats, he maintained. “What does government do for you anyway, apart from charging you more taxes?” he said. “Look, it’s not about who rules anymore. Lagos is a train that has left the station. And you can only slow it down—you can’t stop it. So it doesn’t matter who comes next. This is the fun of democracy! It’s not about [President] Goodluck Jonathan! It’s about progress! Forget politics!” [More here]

From a political economy standpoint, one of the most fascinating things to happen in Africa over the last decade or so has been the quiet property rights revolution. In Nigeria, and a few other African countries, millionaires and billionaires have come out of the woodwork, willing to have their estimated net worth published in Forbes and other similar magazines for all to see. Very few of them have been politicians. Yes, many made their money in no small measure because of their political connections. But the fact that they no longer feel the need to hide their wealth from the ever changing political class means a lot.

It means that entrepreneurship and politics are getting decoupled in Africa’s biggest and most important economies. This transition is important because it will allow the magic of specialization to flourish. For instance, Dangote must be a savvy entrepreneur. But I doubt that he would have created as many jobs across the Continent if he also had to worry about running Abuja.

Also, it matters that Forbes’ Africa list is increasingly dominated by politically relevant high net worth individuals, as opposed to “apolitical” migrant businesspeople. Dangote is Nigerian “through and through.” When the going gets tough, he is more likely to voice his concerns than simply exit. The chaps in Abuja can’t simply revoke his visa or work permit. His political views therefore matter a lot.

One hopes that at some point Nigeria’s Dangotes will start investing in higher quality political talent to ease the cost of doing business and improve human welfare through greater investment in public goods.  But of course there is another possible equilibrium path in which they decide that low quality political talent is what’s best for their business prospects.

Either way I hope to visit Lagos soon.

Asking the right questions in development

When it comes to aid and development, the question we should be asking is not whether aid works (a.k.a the Great Easterly-Sachs Debate), but rather what kind of aid works and under what conditions.

Here’s CGD’s Jonathan Glennie and Andy Sumner on the subject (read the whole paper here):

Part of the problem is the polarised and non-nuanced public policy debate between the ‘aid works’ versus ‘aid is a waste of money’ camps. In our review we are constrained by reviewing how the literature has approached this question. We thus take aid ‘working’ or ‘effective aid’ to mean aid that contributes to, or is associated with, even if only modestly, positive development outcomes such as economic growth and social development. This is not an ideal definition but it is common in the literature and thus a review is constrained in opening this question further. Meanwhile the lack of a counter-factual is the biggest barrier to ever knowing for certain the impact of aid. The idea that aid ‘works’ can be questioned by interested parties, both informed and uninformed; assertions that aid is wholly or in part responsible for impressive improvements in human development in the past couple of decades are questionable. It is also not difficult to find examples where aid has been detrimental to countries and communities and where there may be trade-offs in terms of positive and negative impacts. More modesty is needed in any claims for how aid can contribute to development. However, the evidence, which we discuss in this paper, does suggest that aid has contributed in many countries and, despite its many flaws, can continue to do so.

Read the whole paper here (highly recommended).

Quick Hits

1. Lunch with the FT: Mikhail Khodorkovsky

2. Blattman on Russian politics, and other stuff.

3. Tyler Cowen asks a rather odd question….  “Are anthropologists better than you think?” My simple answer is yes. I wish it were possible for everyone in the world working in development to take Jim Ferguson’s Economic Anthropology graduate seminar (or simply read this book), or David Laitin’s Political Culture class which includes works from brilliant anthropologists, both old and new. Plus my better half and a few close friends are anthropologists; and I can tell you from first hand experience that once you get through the jargon the field emerges as the mother social science [although in characteristic fashion none of the anthropologists I know would ever admit this].

4. Governance is hard. And now it is ISIS’ turn to find out.

5. 50 Shades of Poor: Who exactly qualifies as “middle class” in Congo?

Kenya Security Laws (Amendment) Act, 2014

President Uhuru Kenyatta assented to the Security Laws (Amendment) Act, 2014 (archived pdf here). Despite widespread opposition from a large section of the Kenyan public, amendments therein are now the law of the land. The law itself is a mixed bag. There are some good parts that are meant to streamline the criminal justice system. But there are other parts that will certainly be abused by politicians and over-eager security agents, and could lead to a drastic reduction of civil liberties in Kenya.

This is how the bill was passed:

Members of Parliament and Sergeants-at-Arms guard House Speaker Justin Muturi as he reads the motion to pass to the bill.

Civil Society groups in Kenya, and a section of Members of Parliament, have vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the Act in court.

Will the challenge succeed? The simple answer is I don’t know. The Kenyan Supreme Court leans to the right, and is likely to defer to the executive (and its allies in the legislature) on matters related to security. Plus my bet is that if you polled the law a good chunk of Kenyans would support it. It targets “terrorists” and “criminals.” The mainstream churches in Kenya have also come out in strong support, in no small part because suspected terrorists have made a habit of attacking packed churches along the Kenyan coast.

The judicial review process is unlikely to set aside the entire statute. The petitioners will be better served to focus on key clauses that are unconstitutional and ask the judges to strike those out. But I should reiterate that the judges are likely to defer to Parliament and the executive on this one.

From a legislative studies perspective, what is worrying is that in order to get the law passed  State House essentially told the National Assembly, “Trust me. I need these powers to secure Kenyan lives and property. And I will not abuse them. Trust me.” And then Parliament capitulated. There was no debate over the State’s total failure to use existing laws to prevent and/or deter crime. Or the corruption and gross ineptitude that ails the security sector. Instead the executive was rewarded with even more power, secrecy, and ability to silence criticism from the media. All open to cynical abuse.

What Parliament forgot is that that there are no good politicians; only constrained ones. And that if unchecked anyone and everyone will abuse power. It doesn’t matter whether they are Pol Pot or the Pope.

Working With the Grain in Development

I finally got to reading Brian Levy’s Working With the Grain. It is easily the most underestimated development book of 2014, and should be read alongside William Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts (which it both complements and pushes back against). Like Easterly, Levy worked at the Bank and has insightful case studies and anecdotes from South Korea, to Ethiopia, to Bangladesh, among other countries. The book’s main thrust is that approaches to interventionist development policy ought to internalize the fact that:

… Successful reforms need to be aligned with a country’s political and institutional realities. For any specific reform, an incentive compatible approach begins by asking, who might be the critical mass of actors who both have standing and a stake in the proposed arrangements – and so are in a position to support and protect them in the face of opposition? [p. 142-3]

From a policy perspective, Levy tackles the relationship between governance, regime types, and development head on. How do you deal with the Biyas, Kagames or Zenawis of this world if you deeply care about [both] the material aspects of human welfare – roads, hospitals, schools, electricity, etc., [and] political freedoms and inclusive institutions?

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Levy’s answer is that development experts should work with the grain, focusing on incrementally solidifying past gains in specific agencies and issue areas, instead of engaging in epic battles against ill-defined and equally poorly understood “bad institutions” and evils like “corruption.” He aptly points out that you do not need the full set of the “good governance” bundle in order to continue chugging along on the path to economic prosperity.

In other words, we don’t have to put everything else on pause until we get the institutions right (or topple the bad guys). It is not an all or nothing game. His argument is persuasive (“good governance” has failed as a prescriptive remedy for underdevelopment), albeit at the cost of casting the immense toll of living under autocratic regimes as somewhat ineluctable on the road to economic prosperity. But at least he dares to challenge conventional approaches to governance reform that have at best failed, and at worst distracted governing elites from initiatives that could have worked to improve human welfare in developing countries.

As I read the book I wondered what Levy might think of the current state of development research. We are lucky to live in an age of increasing appreciation for evidence-based policy development, implementation, and evaluation. However, the resulting aura of “objectivity” in development research often leaves little room for politics, and its inefficiencies and contextual nuances. Sometimes the quest for generalizability makes us get too much into the weeds and forget that what is good for journal reviewers seldom passes the politicians’ (or other influential actors’) incentive compatibility test, rendering our findings useless from their perspective.

It is obvious, but worth reiterating, that the outcomes we can quantify, and therefore study, do not always overlap with the most pressing issues in development or policies that are politically feasible.

Perhaps this is a call for greater investment in public policy schools (not two-day capacity building workshops) in the developing world that will train experts to bridge the gap between academic development research and actual policy formulation and implementation (talking to policymakers makes your realize that this gap is wider than you think). Linking research findings to actual policy may sound easy, but you only need to see a “policy recommendations” section of a report written by those of us in the academy to know that it is not.

The Development Set

A reader just reminded me of this timeless gem. It is from 1976.

Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
I’m off to join the Development Set;
My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots
I have traveller’s checks and pills for the trots!

The Development Set is bright and noble
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes
Our thoughts are always with the masses.

In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
We damn multi-national corporations;
injustice seems easy to protest
In such seething hotbeds of social rest.

We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with open mouth.

We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution –
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting.

The language of the Development Set
Stretches the English alphabet;
We use swell words like “epigenetic”
“Micro”, “macro”, and “logarithmetic”

It pleasures us to be esoteric –
It’s so intellectually atmospheric!
And although establishments may be unmoved,
Our vocabularies are much improved.

When the talk gets deep and you’re feeling numb,
You can keep your shame to a minimum:
To show that you, too, are intelligent
Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”

Or say, “That’s fine in practice, but don’t you see:
It doesn’t work out in theory!”
A few may find this incomprehensible,
But most will admire you as deep and sensible.

Development set homes are extremely chic,
Full of carvings, curios, and draped with batik.
Eye-level photographs subtly assure
That your host is at home with the great and the poor.

Enough of these verses – on with the mission!
Our task is as broad as the human condition!
Just pray god the biblical promise is true:
The poor ye shall always have with you.

By Ross Coggins, from “Adult Education and Development,” September 1976. H/T @intldogooder. More here.

Development Experts and Their Biases

It is perhaps uncontroversial to suggest that World Bank staff have a different worldview from others. World Bank staff are highly educated and relatively wealthier than a large proportion of the world. However, it is interesting to note that while the goal of development is to end poverty, development professionals are not always good at predicting how poverty shapes mindsets. For example, although 42 percent of Bank staff predicted that most poor people in Nairobi, Kenya, would agree with the statement that “vaccines are risky because they can cause sterilization,” only 11 percent of the poor people sampled in Nairobi actually agreed with that statement. Overall, immunization coverage rates in Kenya are over 80 percent. There were also no significant differences in the responses of Bank staff in country offices and those in headquarters or in responses of staff working directly on poverty relative to staff working on other issues. This finding suggests the presence of a shared mental model, not tempered by direct exposure to poverty [emphasis added].

That is an excerpt from the World Development Report 2015, the section on the biases of development professionals.

One hopes that the problem highlighted by the last line is not crowded out of President Kim’s agenda at the Bank by the ongoing cost-cutting. And in case you were wondering, I don’t think flying coach and no breakfast will cut it since airports and the Mamba Points of this world are beyond the reach of most poor people. Speaking from experience, the development “expert” bubble is real, and enduring. We definitely need to do more to burst the bubble.

If field country offices are mere extensions of DC, then many development projects will continue to be variants of the proverbial solar cookers decried by Jim Ferguson in the Anti-Politics Machine. And everyone will continue to run around in circles.