Is evidence-based institutional analysis a possibility?

Chris Blattman writes:

But Acemoglu is right that institutional and political change are more important and the evidence-based crowd have done very little here. Most of that evidence is about anti-corruption or election monitoring or other things that I doubt change politics very much.

Meanwhile all the good political economy research (like Acemoglu’s) has no clear implication for social and political change in the world. There is a big disconnect. These scholars have mostly ignored this gap either because… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too treacherous or hard, or they don’t find it interesting enough, or they are cynical about policy change. I don’t know. Someone explain it to me.

Blattman is spot on.

I think that students of institutions and institutional development have not joined the evidence-based crowd for two main reasons:

  • Politics I: Much of the evidence-based research out there eschews politics, instead focusing on the technical aspects of problems. Works that explicitly deal with political scenarios exist, but are rare. Part of the reason this is the case is that agencies that finance impact evaluations and other kinds of evidence-based policy research agendas have incentives to remain as apolitical as they can (you need host country government permission to do research in the first place …..)
  • Politics II: The other reason is that it is almost impossible to engage in politically relevant big-picture-development research while remaining apolitical. You see this in splits among macroeconomists in the United States (Macro questions make it really hard for researchers to shed off their normative priors). In the same vein, the best placed people to carry out evidence-based studies of institutions and how to change them are often professors in universities in the developing world — the problem is they do not do enough research due to a lack of resources and/or the relevant skill sets; and their own governments often neglect them. Regardless of their nationality, the most visible development economists in universities in the North Atlantic often lack the political connections or the bandwidth to engage in host-country politics; and are thus limited in the extent to which they can effectively study the most vexing policy questions out there.

These reasons are not due to anyone’s fault, just how research is currently financed and structured.

A possible way to get around these problems could be MBA-style case studies of reform programs from across the globe that can then be retooled by Comparativist country specialists — incoming Stanford CDDRL director Frank Fukuyama has very exciting ongoing work on this front.

On a tangentially-related point, I think that works that combine technical brilliance and deep local knowledge (think Bates’ lesser-read books on the Zambian Copperbelt) are about to come in vogue again. It used to be that only a few grad school programs (at least in political science) emphasized technical competence out of econ envy to match the economists. This is getting more commonplace, thereby establishing a new baseline (the data revolution is also helping a great deal by increasing the scope of country-specific studies of macro questions). And once a critical mass is achieved then the comparative advantage will favor those who are both technically competent and can also speak intelligently about how policy dovetails with local politics. The title “country-specialist” will soon no longer be synonymous with “qualitative research”; and more students will be primed to value good qualitative research.

Are Power Pools the Answer to Chronic Power Shortages?

Auriol and Biancini have a nice theoretical take on the subject of regional power pools in the World Bank Economic Review:

Power market integration is analyzed in a two-country model with nationally regulated firms and costly public funds. If the generation costs between the two countries are too similar, negative business stealing outweighs efficiency gains so that, subsequent to integration, welfare decreases in both regions. Integration is welfare enhancing when the cost difference between two regions is large enough. The benefits from export profits increase the total welfare in the exporting country, whereas the importing country benefits from a lower price. In this case, market integration also improves incentives to invest compared to autarky. The investment levels remain inefficient, however, especially for transportation facilities. Free riding reduces incentives to invest in these public-good components of the network, whereas business stealing tends to decrease the capacity to finance new investment.


Existing and Planned Power Pools in Africa

There is a lot of excitement in the power sector in Africa these days. Eastern Africa will probably be the most power-rich in the next few years: Ethiopia’s 1870MW Gibe III will likely come online later this year (oh, and there is the ongoing Grand Renaissance Dam project that will produce 6000MW [or 2800MW?]); Kenya has had a massive push for geothermal, solar and wind generation; and Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania have commercially viable deposits of oil and gas that will also come online within the next six years. The region is also very well integrated, although there is need to upgrade power transmission infrastructure. The Bank has an ongoing project in this regard [that is way behind schedule].

For more on this subject see my commentary on energy sector integration in Africa over at the African Development Bank blog.

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.

Who is the African child on the cover of William Easterly’s new book?

ImageUPDATE: A reader, C. Mwangi, just brought to my attention this quote from William Easterly’s 2009 review of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid.

Moyo is onto something important but, as she says, seldom discussed openly. One of development’s dark secrets is its still-influential origins in the “poor people are children” view, a view with a deeply rooted and very long history. The “development” metaphor was itself is a biological one: poor people “develop” from childhood (poverty) into adulthood (prosperity). Some of the signs of this mindset are subtle but unmistakable. Just think of who was pictured in the last glossy “aid to Africa” brochure you saw? I am willing to bet it was African children. As David Rieff said in his classic book A Bed for the Night, “There are two groups of people who like to be photographed with children: dictators and aid officials.” And of course, you don’t let children manage their own affairs; the adults must do it for them.

The rest of the review, originally meant for publication in the LRB, is available here.


They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but if it wasn’t for Bill Easterly’s reputation for sound thinking on matters to do with Development, I would not have pre-ordered his upcoming book The Tyranny of Experts.

Seriously, as a new year resolution can we all promise never to fall into the temptation to include anonymous African children (invariably looking poor and shabby with flies on their faces or carrying guns, among other things) on the cover of books on poverty and development?

PLEASE? It is no longer good form (and never has been), especially coming from people who ought to know better. Were the boy’s parents or guardians consulted? Do they even know that their kid is on the cover of Easterly’s book?

The book title suggests that Easterly cares about the forgotten rights of the poor, yet the use of the cover image violates an important right of the poor: the right against unfair objectification. There is research out there suggesting that African states face an FDI inflow penalty simply because they are African. Images like these on the cover of books do not help the cause to reverse this reality.

To be fair (as a commenter pointed out to me on twitter) it is the publishers who decide these things to drive sales. But authors still have a right (and in my view, a duty) to ensure that this sort of stuff doesn’t happen.

I feel bad calling out Easterly on this because he is one of the more nuanced and very sane development economists/practitioners out there (and there are certainly far much worse instances of this phenomenon out there); but the habit of using a whole region and its peoples as shorthand for poverty, underdevelopment and dysfunction has to stop. And it starts with each and every one of us.

More on direct cash transfers

As Chris Blattman put it, the Cashonistas are rejoicing. And with very good reason.

There is mounting evidence that giving money directly to poor people does a much better job of improving their welfare than traditional channels of institutional(ized) aid-giving. On a related note, this evidence lends credence to claims by proponents of oil-to-cash programs. Oil to cash enthusiasts advocate for direct payments to citizens of revenues from extractive sectors (and especially oil) so as to avoid what is commonly known as the resource curse (more on oil-to-cash here). I am not one to argue against evidence, so I am intrigued by the success of Give Directly, and look forward to further impact assessments to ascertain the stickiness of the observed welfare gains.

However, I agree with Brett Keller that we shouldn’t allow the present evidence to distract us from thinking about things like schools, hospitals, business-promoting state institutions, etc.

Despite the within-community evidence of positive effects of direct cash transfers, we shouldn’t forget that these communities do not exist in a vacuum but within political economies of various states. For instance, given what we know about ethnicity and attendant barriers against collective action, what would be the effect of giving all the money to the people and then requiring them to comply with tax regimes and other collective action endeavors?

Furthermore, giving poor people money is often based on an implicit premise that the poor ought to become entrepreneurs and lift themselves out of poverty (People respond to incentives, and we know what would happen if say we guaranteed them direct cash transfers in perpetuity. So the scheme only works if poor people can use the money to start businesses). But entrepreneurship is hard. Even for people with trust funds and super-charged business incubation resources. So is it really fair to require that the objectively most risk averse among us lift themselves out of poverty by starting businesses? Isn’t this the role of the middle and upper middle classes who can tolerate the risk? I am not saying that entrepreneurship is limited to particular classes (lots of people from humble backgrounds have created wildly successful businesses the world over). What I am saying is that as a matter of policy we shouldn’t unnecessarily burden the most vulnerable among us.

Also, to borrow from Huntington, we are well advised to keep in mind that even though economic success leads to stabilization, the process of development can be destabilizing. With this in mind, for most development initiatives to succeed, they need political cover (broadly defined as the ability to shape or influence government policy). Interventions to accelerate growth must never lose sight of this fact. Those who make and/or can influence policy matter a great deal.

This might sound very 20th century, but I think that the best anti-poverty measure out there is still mass job creation by BIG business (and agree with Chris Blattman here). It beats all the pro-poverty pro-poor interventions I can think of. So may be instead of raining cash on the poor it might be better to think of smart ways of jumpstarting the growth of SMEs in the developing world into mass employers. This is not a trickle down economics argument. It is an argument for the continued emphasis on macro reforms in the political economy to provide an enabling environment for mass job creation.

We can’t continue to insist that institutions matter but then turn around and do our best to device anti-poverty interventions that skirt the very same institutions that we insist are the fundamental cause of long-run growth.

Direct cash transfers might prove to be a key part of the shortcut to Denmark (and I hope the successes stick). But like with most shortcuts, the potential for disappointment is a little higher than most of us would like to admit.

Pockets of California amid sub-Saharan Africa?

Rant and rave alert. 

As an undergrad at Yale I took several classes in which professors, TAs and fellow students would casually say things that insinuated that all of Africa (read sub-Saharan Africa) was a cross between a hospice, a giant slum and a war zone. Let’s just say that it all made me a little bit uncomfortable, and sometimes forced me to over-compensate in discussions and with papers and homework. I was particularly disappointed in my professors for not knowing any better. It probably also played a big role in my choice to pursue a career as an academic in the social sciences. 

The quote below reminded me of those episodes:

Despite considerable economic growth and increasing self-confidence as a major global player, modern India is a disaster zone in which millions of lives are wrecked by hunger and by pitiable investment in health and education services. Pockets of California amid sub-Saharan Africa, sum up Sen and Drèze.

It’s one thing when an ignoramus who imagines Kenya to be a town in South Africa that does a mean giraffe barbecue says something nasty about an entire region and its people. But it’s quite another when it comes from a college professor or from people that you expect to know better. 

For instance, when we say California, are we talking Palo Alto or East Palo Alto? I must add here that because it is Sen (my beloved author of The Idea of Justice), may be he meant the “median Californian experience” vs the “median African experience” as opposed to simply comparing Palo Alto with Kibera. May be.

I admire Prof. Sen. Very much.  But I would like to register my disappointment over this offending line. The full article in the Guardian is actually quite illuminating regarding inequality in India. 

If you ever teach a class or write a book or newspaper article or give a talk, please know that it is not kosher to use the word Africa as short hand for everything that you imagine to be wrong with this world. Always remember that part of your audience might include real flesh and blood Africans. Spare us the awkwardness. Please. 

The decline of Economic History at MIT

What is the cost of not having economic history at MIT? It can be seen in Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail (2012). This is a deservedly successful popular book, making a simple and strong point that the authors made originally at the professional level over a decade before (Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, 2001). They assert that countries can be “ruled by a narrow elite that have [sic] organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people” or can have “a revolution that transformed the politics and thus the economics of the nation … to expand their economic opportunities (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012, pp. 3-4).”

The book is not however good economic history. It is an example of Whig history in which good policies make for progress and bad policies preclude it. Only transitions from bad to good are considered in this colorful but still monotonic story. The clear implication is that if countries can copy the policies of English-speaking countries, they will prosper. No consideration is given to Britain’s economic problems over the past half-century or of Australia’s relative decline for a century.

That is Peter Temin writing about the story of Economic History at MIT in the 20th century. For more click here (H/T Greg Mankiw).

Also, to be honest, one of the reasons I am into development (and the politics around it) is because of my fascination with economic history. I wish more development practitioners and theorists alike cared a little bit more about economic history. At the very least, looking at how things really actually worked out in the past serves to temper the urge to completely fall for the latest fad within the development industry. 

Nominate the best blogs of 2012

A View From the Cave blogger Tom Murphy is holding the annual Aid Best Blogger Awards (ABBA). I don’t consider my blog to be an “aid blog” per se but I think I fit into the general category that Tom intended to include in his awards.

If I may toot my own horn a little, I even once got a shout out from one of the better know aid bloggers out there, Chris Blattman (Blogger of the Year last year).

So if you like what you read on this blog please go ahead and nominate the blog for this year’s awards here.

Some of my better posts in recent months have been on the topics of the upcoming elections in Kenya and the conflict in eastern DRC.

There is no way around the basics: Development will take time

I just read Chris Blattman’s response to the UK Prime Minister’s op-ed in the Journal. It reminded me of a lot of the things that I have been reading lately in preparation for my fieldwork (My dissertation will tackle the subject of legislative (under)development in Africa, with a focus on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures).

Cameron’s sentiments in the op-ed are emblematic of the problems of development assistance. Like in all kinds of foreign intervention, developed states often try to externalize their institutions (and more generally, ways of doing things). These attempts often ignore the lived realities of the countries being assisted.

Forgetting the history of his own country (think autocratic monarchs, monopolies, limited suffrage), Cameron thinks that democracy, human rights and free markets (all great things) will magically create jobs in the developing states of the world. They don’t. In fact, they often lag the job creation process. For development assistance to be effective it must eschew these feel-good approaches to the problem of underdevelopment.

Blattman is spot on on a number of points:

  1. Unchecked leaders are bad for economic development (this is why I am so much into PARLIAMENTS!!!): Also, democracy is NOT synonymous with limited government. Heads of state like Queen Victoria or Hu Jintao or Bismarck or even Seretse Khama were in no measure democrats. However, they reined under systems with strong (sometimes extra-constitutional) checks to their power. That made a difference.
  2. Institutions rule, yes, but the right kinds of institutions: 1688 moments do not drop out of the sky. They are often preceded by decades if not centuries of civil strife, economic change and plain old learning. Institutional development takes time. Plus each society requires its own unique and appropriate mix of institutional arrangements to meet unique economic and social needs. A procrustean approach to institutional development (embodied in global capacity building) will inevitably fail. Institutional development must never be allowed to be captured by those who think that we can transform Chad simply by having them adopt Swedish institutions.
  3. Growth will require creation of jobs, i.e. industrial development: The poor countries of the world need real jobs for high school-leavers and other less educated people. The present focus on the “sexy” entrepreneural sectors – whether they are small businesses for the poor or tech hubs for the very highly educated – as the engines for growth in the developing world is misguided. I reiterate, starting a business is a very risky venture that should be left to the wealthy and the occasional dare devil. The poor in the global south need stable 9-5 jobs. Lots of them.

And lastly, where do strong institutions come from? There is no easy answer to this question. What we know is:

  1. History matters: Present countries with a long history of stateness have a better track record of building strong institutions for development. Yes, they may not always be democratic, but countries with a long history of centralized rule have strong states (and institutions) that deliver for their people (for more on this see Englebert and Gennaioli and Rainer).
  2. Democracy does not always create strong institutions: Since 1945 many have chosen to forget the fact that universal suffrage is a pretty recent phenomenon in the political history of the world. For the longest time world polities were ruled by power barons who held de facto power (as opposed to the procedural de jure power in democracies). When democracy came along after the Enlightenment the resulting structures of rule often reflected these de facto configurations of power. Over time institutions in these countries were cemented enough to allow for complete outsiders like say the current president of the United States to be elected without upsetting the balance of power (in another era he would have had to have mounted a coup). This is the challenge of the democratization in the new post-WWII states. How do you make democracy serve the interests of the people, rather that purely that of the elite? How do you use democracy to create strong institutions? Is this even possible? And if not, what other options do we have?

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.