Cash transfers do not make the poor lazy

This is from the New York Times:

Abhijit Banerjee, a director of the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, released a paper with three colleagues last week that carefully assessed the effects of seven cash-transfer programs in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia. It found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.”

A World Bank report from 2014 examined cash assistance programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America and found, contrary to popular stereotype, the money was not typically squandered on things like alcohol and tobacco.

Still, Professor Banerjee observed, in many countries, “we encounter the idea that handouts will make people lazy.”

Professor Banerjee suggests the spread of welfare aversion around the world might be an American confection. “Many governments have economic advisers with degrees from the United States who share the same ideology,” he said. “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts.”

More on this here.

How to increase mass employment in Nigeria (and other developing countries)

David Mckenzie of the Bank writes:

The modal firm size in most developing countries is one worker, consisting of only the owner of the firm. Amongst the firms that do hire additional workers, most hire fewer than ten. In Nigeria survey data indicate that 99.6 percent of firms have fewer than 10 workers. This is in sharp contrast to the United States, where the modal manufacturing firm has 45 workers. Are there constrained entrepreneurs in developing countries with the ability to grow a firm beyond this ten worker threshold? If so, this raises the questions of whether such individuals can be identified in advance, and of whether public policy can help them overcome these constraints to firm growth.

In an attempt to figure out if policy can help grow firms in developing countries, Mackenzie evaluated a program in Nigeria that awarded 1,200 winners about $50,000 each (out of an initial application pool of 24,000; the top 6000 applicants were in the study). See a summary here. And the paper is available here.

………. winning this competition has large positive impacts on both applicants looking to start new firms as well as those aiming to expand existing firms. Three years after applying, new firm applicant winners were 37 percentage points more likely than the control group to be operating a business and 23 percentage points more likely to have a firm with 10 or more workers, while existing firm winners were 20 percentage points more likely to have survived, and 21 percentage points more likely to have a firm with 10 or more workers. Together the 1,200 winners are estimated to have generated 7,000 more jobs than the control group, are innovating more, and are earning higher sales and profits.

Two quick thoughts. First, this is a really cool finding that should get African central bankers excited about how the financial sector can be put to use in boosting mass employment. Second, it is a caution against the odd idea prevalent in development programs of trying to turn poor people into entrepreneurs (see below). The best solution to poverty is jobs. Entrepreneurship is a risk that shouldn’t be imposed on people with already super slim margins of error in terms of income security. As Mckenzie rightly observes:

The results of this evaluation show that a business plan competition can be successful in identifying entrepreneurs with the potential to use the large amounts of capital offered as prizes, and that these individuals appear to be otherwise constrained from realizing this potential. The prize money generates employment and firm growth that would not have otherwise happened. However, the results also highlight the difficulties of picking winners. Conditional on reaching the semi-finalist stage, neither the scores for the business plans, nor individual and business characteristics have much predictive power for predicting which firms will grow faster or benefit most from the program. This remains an area for active research, but also highlights the inherent riskiness of entrepreneurial activity.

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.

Can you train people to be financially competent?

Margaret Miller and co-authors try to answer this question in a new paper in the World Bank Research Observer. The paper does a meta-analysis of 188 studies conducted in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the United States and Europe.

Are there approaches to teaching financial skills or modifying financial behaviors through educational programs, training, or other outreach activities that have reliable, positive results? The objective of this paper is to analyze the evidence of impact for financial literacy and capability interventions through a systematic review of the evidence. The review includes the use of meta analysis, a statistical technique that pools data from different studies to test for significance in the enlarged sample of observations this creates. This paper is different from most previous narrative reviews in that it focuses exclusively on research that analyzes the impact of financial education interventions. Key characteristics of 188 papers are coded to create a rich data set with the characteristics of the interventions, as well as statistical information on the impact of programs on outcome variables such as general savings, retirement savings, and credit performance. This data set is then used for a descriptive analysis of the literature and for empirical tests using meta-analysis.

…. we find that financial education can affect financial outcomes such as savings and improved record keeping, but does less well in preventing negative outcomes such as loan defaults. These results suggest a role for financial education in improving behaviors where individuals have the ability to exert greater control. Arguably, loan default is imposed by external agencies (banks or other financial providers), and hence can only be avoided secondarily or over the long term if financial education leads to more prudent borrowing decisions. Savings and record-keeping, in contrast, are immediate and primary decisions that can be acted upon by targeted consumers.

More on this here.

Is There Room for Case Studies in Development Practice?

Amid the current much-needed revolution in (quantitative) evidence-driven development practice, is there room for case studies?

Michael Woolcock at the Bank says yes:

The frequency and sophistication with which case studies are deployed by social scientists has greatly expanded in recent years. The goal now is not merely to document or describe, but to diagnose, explain, interpret, and inform a basis for action. Professional schools across the disciplines – from medicine and engineering to business and public policy – now routinely use ‘the case method’ not only to teach but to generate practical knowledge.

As an example, Woolcock cites a report with case studies of successes achieved in the Ministries of Finance and Education in The Gambia (I should add, despite Yahya Jammeh):

Despite facing formidable political, economic, and capacity challenges, The Gambia has recorded sizable advances in the education sector in a relatively short time frame. Since 2000, enrollment has more than doubled in secondary schools, while the number of students enrolled in basic education has increased by 40 percent, with notable growth in the madrassas schools. Gender equality and completion rates in basic education have continued to improve across the board and surpass the regional averages. Simultaneously, the number of teachers formally trained and the number of students enrolled in the Teachers’ College has grown considerably since 2005.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 4.30.59 PMThese gains are directly linked to the scaled-up investment in the sector, which has translated into a greater number of schools, larger number of qualified teachers and monitors, and the introduction of innovative programs catering to hard-to-reach groups. In turn, these achievements have been made possible by the organizational and management changes introduced by the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE) and its ability to remain focused on a small set of goals, report results, and mobilize domestic and external support to realize them, while generating and renewing its leadership cadre. To achieve this, the institution has had to navigate and solve numerous challenges in its internal organization and in the governance environment.

This is how development happens. Specific segments of governments get it right and, with some luck, generate positive spillovers into other departments. In Gambia it is happening in the Ministries of Finance and Education. In Kenya, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) and, to some extent, the Treasury are doing much of the heavy-lifting in the quest to rationalize the Kenyan economy.

Quick links

1. “Shame on me: Why it was wrong to cost the Millennium Development Goals” : Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist for MENA at the Bank, on why he thinks that costing the MDGs may have “helped shift attention away from what is needed to reach the goals, and hence contributed to the perpetuation of poverty.”

2. Is teaching in college no longer a middle class job?

3. Dark Leviathan: How even the deep web, in desperate need to signal credibility, cannot escape the need for the “law merchant” (and eventually the state, or some generalizable norms a la Avner Greif).

4. The American South, on the map and in the mind.

5. Doing a book tour in China (with a censor in tow).

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?

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 12.32.06 PM

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.

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.

In which I talk development with Bill Easterly and others on Al Jazeera

This afternoon I joined NYU’s William Easterly, Ingrid Kvangraven of the New School and Daniel Kaufmann of Revenue Watch to talk about Easterly’s new book, The Tyranny of Experts. You will notice that I am a huge fan of STATE CAPACITY.

(Apparently, graduate school prepares you not for TV appearances…)

Note: If you are in the US you have to VPN it since al jazeera doesn’t stream content in the US.

In preparation for the show I finally finished reading Easterly’s book. A review is coming soon (grad school permitting). 


Foreign Aid for Institutional Development?

In a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney urged that more of U.S. foreign assistance should have strings attached. Mr. Romney said that:

“Working with the private sector, the program will identify the barriers to investment and trade and entrepreneurialism in developing nations…………. In exchange for removing those barriers and opening their markets to U.S. investment and trade, developing nations will receive U.S. assistance packages focused on developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law, and property rights.”

Romney also added that:

“The aim of a much larger share of our aid must be the promotion of work and the fostering of free enterprise. Nothing we can do as a nation will change lives and nations more effectively and permanently than sharing the insight that lies at the foundation of America’s own economy — and that is that free people pursuing happiness in their own ways build a strong and prosperous nation.”

I am of the opinion that an approach to foreign assistance embodying the spirit of the latter quote is more likely to succeed than the former.

The thing with institutions is that they often reflect already existing social equilibria. The courts, the police, the military, the legislature, the stock exchange, etc, all reflect established norms and moral claims that individual stakeholders have on the system and on each other. When Westerners foreigners come in (many of whom often have very little understanding of the social basis of the existing equilibria) they often tend to work at cross-purposes with the existing social compacts (a good example here is the phenomenon of mono-issue activism – think of Human Rights Watch fighting the World Bank at the expense of locals).

Granted in some parts of the world these very social compacts need to be changed (e.g. misogynous social systems). But even in such cases the changes have to be grounded in local political arrangements that are self-enforcing. Media pronouncements from Western ambassadors are not enough.

Many development academics and practitioners alike often neglect the fact that in European history (contemporary Western experience informs a lot of institutional proselytizing) political development (i.e. the creation of responsive and impartial bureaucratic institutions to manage the affairs of the state) was preceded by modernization and general economic development. In most of the developing world this relationship is reversed. Political development has become the independent variable charged with driving the process of modernization and economic growth and development.

As a result, the mantra seems to be that if only everyone could get governance right then everything would fall in place and we’d all be on the road to becoming Denmark.

May be this can be achieved. I remain skeptical.