Rational Impatience and marshmallows (and development)

Back in 1972 Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted experiments in which he claimed to show a correlation between patience and later success in life – in the experiment kids who could wait for 15 minutes before getting two marshmallows, instead of eating one immediately, were likely to be more successful and self-controlled later in life. Michel attributed patience and self-control to some of the kids’ innate capacities.

It turns out that that might not be the case after all. Researchers in Rochester revisited the experiment and show that kids’ choices over whether to wait or not are “moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability,” in other words, kids react rationally to the proposed deal based on prior experience.

According to Celeste Kidd (more on this here), a University of Rochester grad student and lead author on the study:

“Being able to delay gratification — in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow — not only reflects a child’s capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting,”

Adding that:

“Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay.”

This reminded me of the interesting works in economic history (gated, sorry) that try to tackle issues of culture and socialization and their role in economic development. The punchline from these works is that group-specific socio-cultural values have long-lasting effects on attitudes towards investment, saving, entrepreneurship and ultimately economic development (Think of the fabled frugality and self-discipline of Weber’s protestants). Putting some of the critiques of these works aside for a moment, they are a reminder of just how COMPLEX development is.

Because material conditions both shape and are a result of prevailing cultural norms and practices (both Marx and Weber were right!) it becomes difficult to change one thing while ignoring the other (And this is even before you open the pandora’s box, viz: POLITICS). To put it simply, you cannot increase the investment rate in a society simply by throwing money at people. They will spend it on a new shrine for their god or marry a third wife.

This is not to say that it is impossible to transform entire societies in a short while, just that it is not easy, and that we should be humble enough to accept this fact when thinking about how to promote economic development in the bottom billion societies of the world.

On technology, governance and development

By now many of you have perhaps seen the takedowns of TED talks (see here, highly recommended), which some think have become rather pedestrian (I still find most TED talks insightful, just for the record).

The pushback against the belief among some disciples of TED talks that technology is the answer to all of humanity’s problems (whether this depiction is accurate or not) also speaks to the issues of governance and development. As Shea, the Journal’s blogger points out:

……. Morozov also detects, besides superficiality, a distinctively TED-style attitude toward politics in which institutions and democratic debate are derided and technology is looked to as a deus ex machina that will solve such once-intractable problems as poverty and illiteracy—obviating those pesky voters and squabbling elected leaders.

The global “development sector” has recently seen a wave of tech-inspired attempts to accelerate development by bypassing politics and other socio-cultural inhibitors, with little success (development economists are also implicated here). The lesson that many have missed is that bad governance and underdevelopment are not primarily technical problems that can be fixed by experts. Many have fallen to the temptation of thinking that,

…. technology is an autonomous force with its own logic that does not bend under the wicked pressure of politics or capitalism or tribalism; all that we humans can do is find a way to harness its logic for our own purposes. Technology is the magic wand that lifts nations from poverty, cures diseases, redistributes power, and promises immortality to the human race.

The characterization of governance and development as purely technical risks abstracting too much away from the human beings that development is supposed to help. Think of how scientific communism worked out. Statements like the one below are a reminder that bad ideas die hard.

Using technology to deliberate on matters of national importance, deliver public services, and incorporate citizen feedback may ultimately be a truer form of direct participation than a system of indirect representation and infrequent elections. Democracy depends on the participation of crowds, but doesn’t guarantee their wisdom. We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens…. To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.”

The problem, of course, is that more often than not these “technocrats” in the poor countries of the world (read those with the most and biggest guns, a.k.a autocrats) are woefully incompetent (see here) and never observe their term limits (this classic on dictatorship comes to mind).

The question of what to do with the relatively more competent autocrats will be the subject of a future post.

H/T Ideas Market

On Industrial Policy (In which I concur with Blattman 1001%)

I have made the case before here, here and here.

For more here’s Blattman, commenting on Industrial policy:

“You can’t pick winners” is the knee-jerk retort to the mention of anything that even rhymes with industrial policy. I would call it the triumph of ideology over evidence, except that even “ideology” feels like a generous term. Lazy thinking might be a more accurate description. Some have given the question a great deal of thought, but most have not.

I’m not suggesting that the paper above has the right answer (odds are, like most papers, it does not). I’m also not suggesting that governments can pick winners (probably they can’t). Nor am I forgetting that industrial policy is easily politicized and distorted (as surely it is). So what am I talking about?

More on this here.

Beating the drum for Ngozi

The Economist has joined a string of internet commentators in endorsing Nigerian Minister of Finance to become the next president of the World Bank. Contrasted against the resume of Obama’s choice for the Bank, Ngozi wins. By miles.

According to the Economist:

The World Bank is the world’s premier development institution. Its boss needs experience in government, in economics and in finance (it is a bank, after all). He or she should have a broad record in development, too. Ms Okonjo-Iweala has all these attributes, and Colombia’s José Antonio Ocampo has a couple. By contrast Jim Yong Kim, the American public-health professor whom Barack Obama wants to impose on the bank, has at most one.

However, it is interesting that in all the debate no one has talked about HOW Ngozi will change the Bank’s operations, besides insinuations that she has hands on experience in transforming Nigeria’s public finances, coupled with her previous experience at the Bank.

More importantly, what would be the cost to Nigeria if they lose Ngozi? Is this important at all?

Ngozi leading the bank will probably make a difference. However, I think that support for her candidacy has thus far been too one-sided. Nigeria, like much of the developing world, does not have much influence on the Bank’s board. Nigeria also stands to lose one of its ablest technocrats just when it is striving to reform its public finances. These considerations should matter too, I think.

Just for the record, I am one of those who think that it would be really cool to have Ngozi lead the Bank (despite the fact that she probably will not).

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Update: I just came across some interesting thoughts on Ngozi’s nomination over at Africa is A Country (H/T Chad).

How I would not lead the World Bank – Bill Easterly

For those, like me, who still miss Aid Watch, here is Easterly over at FP:

I would not appoint U.S.-educated elites vetted by their autocratic home governments to represent the underrepresented peoples of the world. I would not negotiate the contents of World Bank reports with governments in either the West or the Rest, except possibly for correcting typos.

I would not lead the World Bank by perpetuating the technocratic illusion that development is something “we” do to “them.” I would not ignore the rights of “them.” If the New York Times should happen to report on the front page that a World Bank-financed project torched the homes and crops of Ugandan farmers, I would not stonewall the investigation for the next 165 days, 4 hours, 37 minutes, and 20 seconds up to now.

More on this here.

And for more on leadership selection at IFIs see CGD’s policy brief here.

A note from Mr. Development Man

Perhaps after experiencing a Bill Easterly moment, a friend of mine (grad student here at Stanford) had this on his facebook wall:

“Hello, my name is Mr. Development Man. I know Africa so much!! I went there one summer and stayed with an NGO. I talked to my servant cook who served me food, so I know African workers. I read a few books written by white Americans about Africa, and remembered their big words. So I know African ideology. African prostitutes talked to me at my hotel poolside, so I know about relationships in Africa. I took pictures of kids at the orphanage, so I know how Africans suffer.

My conclusions: Africans are corrupt. The place is poor because of poor policies. And my knowledge can help them. If they just listened to my smart American knowledge — obtained from the 2 months at the NGO, my white man books, my prostitutes, my few words with my servant cook — they would develop!! Why don’t they listen to me?? I can help them…Stubborn, corrupt African politicians…

Signed, Mr. Development Man. Remember, I am here to help you Africa!!”

I have a sense that Mr. Development Man’s note is directed at both development practitioners and academics alike. Let us all take heed.

Chad, who is into short stories and is also a late night radio DJ, wrote this Letter to Mr development man on the dynamics of the love-hate relationship between donors and aid recipients.

H/T Chad.

Effects of Conditional Vs. Unconditional Cash Transfer

Baird, McIntosh and Ozler have an upcoming paper in the QJE investigating the differential impacts of conditional and unconditional cash transfer in Malawi:

Starting with schooling outcomes, we find that although dropout rates declined in both treatment arms, the effect in the UCT arm is 43% as large as that in the CCT arm. Evidence from school ledgers for students enrolled in school also suggests that the fraction of days attended in the CCT arm is higher than the UCT arm. Using independently administered tests of cognitive ability, mathematics, and English reading comprehension, we find that although achievement is significantly improved in all three tests in the CCT arm compared with the control group, no such gains are detectable in the UCT arm. The difference in program impacts between the two treatment arms is significant at the 90% confidence level for English reading comprehension. In summary, the CCT arm had a significant edge in terms of schooling outcomes over the UCT arm: a large gain in enrollment and a modest yet significant advantage in learning.

The paper then gets nuanced:

When we turn to examine marriage and pregnancy rates, however, unconditional transfers dominate. The likelihood of be- ing ever pregnant and ever married were 27% and 44% lower in the UCT arm than in the control group at the end of the 2-year intervention, respectively, whereas program impacts on these two outcomes were small and statistically insignificant in the CCT arm.

……….. Our findings show that UCTs can improve im- portant outcomes among such households even though they might be much less effective than CCTs in achieving the desired behav- ior change.

Check it out here.

Projects Without Development

Guest Post by Erin Pettigrew (PhD Candidate, Stanford University)

       Naked Palm Trees and Other Failed Development Projects in Senegal

La Pointe des Almadies is Dakar’s wealthiest neighborhood and it teems with expat NGO workers and the palaces of government officials. Recently, the construction of an immense statue, “The African Renaissance Monument”, a 27 million dollar project commissioned by Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, has transformed the neighborhood’s landscape. The imposing bronze figure of a muscled man, one arm protectively wrapped around a woman, the other triumphantly holding up his infant child, sits atop a hill overlooking the city.

Source: Wikipedia

The statue and Wade’s current projects for the construction of the “Seven Wonders of Dakar” (a section of the capital which will include a  new National Theater, Museum of Black Civilization, National Library; the School of Fine Arts and the School of Architecture and Music Palace) are seen as wastes of government money spent to satiate the President’s desire for a legacy rivaling Senghor or even the grand public projects of France under past presidents Chirac and Mitterand.  Growing discontent with Wade’s attempts to stay in power past the current two-term limit and with what is perceived to be his inability to ensure reliable infrastructure to his country’s population has culminated at times with criticism of “The African Renaissance Monument”.

Most of Dakar’s neighborhoods experience daily power outages and terrible traffic due to poorly maintained and inadequate roads. However, Wade has somehow scraped together enough money to build bronze statues and to build a second national theater to replace the centrally-located and historical Théâtre Daniel Sorano in downtown Dakar.

I am not an expert in development. I am a historian whose interest in West Africa began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in neighboring Mauritania but I have found myself progressively less optimistic about prospects for change in the daily lives of most West Africans I know. On a recent research trip to the northern Senegalese city of Saint-Louis, I was struck with how much more run-down the city seemed to me than it had my first time there in 2003. While Saint-Louis can be picturesque from afar, with its 350 year-old colonial facades built on its central island, the reality is that its infrastructure is disintegrating.

A government building in Saint-Louis (picture by Erin)

Despite the presence of NGOs (visible by the many white SUVs and walled compounds marked by their painted slogans of “Espoir” and “Aide”), it’s hard to see signs of successful projects.  As I walked through the city, I couldn’t help but notice numerous failed plans. I passed dead trees protected by reed fencing where someone had thought plantings along the streets of a popular neighborhood would be a good idea. Talibés (students, or little boys sent out to beg for money and food by some unscrupulous marabouts) are an ever-present part of Saint-Louis streets despite heavy investment by NGOs to provide the boys with reliable food and housing. The shores of the city are lined with old tires, plastic bags, and fish remains.

As I looked in at a dark closet where thousands of colonial documents sit waiting to be organized and made accessible to the public, the regional archivist also told me that plans to build a much needed space to securely house the country’s archives had been shelved years ago in favor of the construction of the Piscine Olympique, Dakar’s largest swimming pool.

Riding in a crowded bush taxi and hitting the crawl of traffic on the way back to Dakar, I couldn’t help but wonder what prevents these initial investments in tree plantings, child welfare protection and road construction from being maintained. From this perspective, much of the failure of such development projects seems to be explained by a lack of investment in the maintenance of current projects.  Perhaps this can be explained by the framework of funding and the reluctance on the part of donors to provide for anything other than new projects. (After all, it’s much more exciting to say that Dakar will benefit from a new, state-of-the-art performance space than the rehabilitation of its old theater space.) Or maybe funding agencies and donors find it difficult to collaborate on projects such that one agency might undertake an initial trash clean-up while another would ensure that a second clean-up is planned a month later.

Possibly there is also a lack of coordination between funding agencies and local governments who, once the preliminary heavy investment has been made by development agencies, could then continue the programs with less funding but with longer term results. Projects initiated by African governments also need to consist of more than an initial flood of money but should also include funding to be set aside for the continued and regular maintenance of such projects so that they remain relevant and useful.

Dakar (picture by Erin)

To emphasize this point and to return to my original starting point of La Pointe des Almadies, one only need to look at the pathetically barren palm tree trunks lining Dakar’s prettiest drive from downtown to the “Renaissance” statue that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.  Abdoulaye Wade requested the planting of hundreds of palm trees along this drive to welcome delegates of the Organization of the Islamic Conference who met in Dakar in 2008. Now, three years later, the majority of these tress are simply reminders of another failed project. Inadequately or never maintained, the trunks stick out of the ground, their tops bare and exposed, they stand isolated and quivering no longer serving a purpose.

I’m sure they looked beautiful in the first weeks they were planted but have become symbols of the emptiness of similar endeavors. I know that there are successfully sustained projects out there but it’s difficult not to feel disheartened by the many visibly failing projects aimed to satisfy a short-term goal or donor stipulations rather than the actual needs of a struggling population.

Erin Pettigrew is currently conducting dissertation research in Senegal and Mauritania.

The private sector is betting that Kenya will survive 2012

As I occasionally care to point out, Kenya is making meaningful progress towards institutionalization of government. According to Joel D. Barkan, the Kenyan parliament is the strongest in Africa. Its judiciary has just undergone radical reforms which saw outsiders from civil society appointed to the country’s newly created Supreme Court. The country’s provincial administration (with pith helmets and all), in the past the key tool of executive repression and control, is in its twilight and will be replaced by a devolved system of counties. The counties will elect their own assemblies, governors and will be funded directly from the consolidated fund.

But many fear that all these reforms could go up in flames in next year’s general election. President Kibaki is term limited and will be stepping down. The frontrunner is Raila Odinga. But new electoral rules – requiring a majority of 50% +1 – complicates matters a bit. Ethnic arithmetic point to an inevitable second round which will be closely fought between pro and anti-Raila factions. Raila is perhaps the most divisive figure in Kenyan politics. Most people tend to either love him or hate him, with a passion.

The prospect of another closely fought election has got many observers worried. 2007-08 is still fresh on many people’s minds.

That is why it is encouraging that the private sector is sending signals that they have confidence in the political system. Multibillion Shilling projects in construction, manufacturing and retail such as this and this are signs that businesspeople do not see that much political risk moving into next year.

These investments are also a vote of confidence in the nation’s property rights regime. The outcome of next year’s general election being unclear, it is significant that businesspeople have faith that their investments will be protected regardless of the outcome.

africa is open for business

There has been a lot of positive talk about business in Africa lately.

Mckinsey came out with its big report in June 2010. That was followed by the release of Steve Radelet’s Emerging Africa, a story of the 17 African countries that have the political and economic fundamentals right. Most recently the Economist has highlighted the fact that among the top ten fastest growing economies in the world over the next decade, seven will be African.

Keeping in the same vein the innovative African Leadership Academy has organized a conference at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR).

The keynote address this morning was by Jeff Sachs via skype. Sachs noted that microfinance was oversold to the global south and that the current backlash is sort of warranted, but that it is overblown.

He also pointed out, rightfully, that pro-poor growth as currently understood “cannot refashion the economy.”

I oftentimes disagree with Sachs’ proposals for ending poverty, but on this point (and as I have written before) he is right. The eradication of poverty in Africa is contingent on sustainable job creation by SMEs and big business.

Other big names at the conference include the Bank’s Devarajan, Mckinsey’s Leke, Africa.com’s Clarke, Chris Udry of Yale, Paul Romer of Stanford, among others.

The conference website is here.

More on this later tonight (west coast time).