What’s really driving African Students’ enrollment in foreign universities?

The rise in enrollment of African students at non-African universities continues to be a topic of interest in the news media. Much of the discussion presently frames the emerging trends within the geopolitical competition between the West and China and Russia.

Consider this take from the FT on African students in Russia:

Desree is one of 334,000 foreign students enrolled in Russian universities, according to government figures, a cohort that has more than doubled since 2010 as part of a push by Moscow to ramp up a policy that served as an instrument of soft power during the cold war. Russia is vying with Germany and France to be the world’s sixth most popular destination for international students and the second most popular non-English-speaking country after China.

…. Russian universities are teaching 17,000 students from African countries this academic year, up from 6,700 just eight years ago, President Vladimir Putin said at a conference dedicated to Moscow’s African relations in October. Four thousand are supported by scholarships provided by the Russian taxpayer.

Or this on China:

In 2003, less than 2,000 African international students were calling China home, yet a mere thirteen years later, this number had ballooned to around 60,000; a twenty-six fold increase. If one takes 2000 as the starting point, 60,000 represents a forty-four fold increase. As a result, “proportionally, more African students are coming to China each year than students from anywhere in the world.” Whereas the United States leads in raw numbers, with over a million international students compared to less than half that number in China, fully half of all foreign students in the U.S come from just two countries: China and India. In comparison, over sixty African and Asian countries send more students to China than the United States.

While there are certainly incentives (such as scholarships from home or host governments) that push or pull students towards foreign universities, that does not appear to explain all of the surge in African student enrollment abroad. Even within Africa, tertiary enrollment has surged over the last few years. According to The Economist, enrollment in African institutions of higher learning has doubled since 2000 and is projected to grow at an increasing rate into the near future:

In recent decades millions of young people like Mr Bahati have swelled the number of students in sub-Saharan Africa. Today 8m are in tertiary education, a term that includes vocational colleges and universities. That is about 9% of young people—more than double the share in 2000 (4%), but far lower than in other regions (see chart). In South Asia the share is 25%, in Latin America and the Caribbean, 51%.

Both the number and share of young people in tertiary education in sub-Saharan Africa will keep growing. The region has about 90m people aged 20-24, a figure projected to double over the next 30 years. Whereas 42% of that age group had completed secondary school in 2012, 59% are forecast to do so by 2030. If African countries are to meet the aspirations of educated young people, they must ensure there are opportunities for further study.

In other words, the observed rise in African enrollment in universities in China, Russia, and elsewhere could be largely due to this unmet excess demand in the region. A look at African enrollment in the US (which has better data and where enrollment has trended upward since 2012) further supports this claim. African enrollment in US universities appear to rise and fall with changes in the economic situation on the Continent (see figures below). Interestingly, there appears to be no lag in the correlation, suggesting that economic conditions largely impact households’ ability to fund their children’s studies abroad (or preparation for the same back home); as opposed to say some structural public under-investment in education during bad economic times. enrollmentincome

In sum, the geopolitical machinations of Beijing and Moscow are only a small part of the story here. The bigger story is the overall increase in demand for higher learning in Africa — driven in no small part by increased primary and secondary enrollment and rising incomes — that is not being met by African universities.


These results raise the possibility that correlations between linguistic features and survey responses are actually spurious.

This is from a paper by Tom Pepinsky:

Whorfian socioeconomics is an emerging interdisciplinary field of study that holds that linguistic structures explain differences in beliefs, values, and opinions across communities. Its core empirical strategy is to document a correlation between the presence or absence of a linguistic feature in a survey respondent’s language, and her/his responses to survey questions. This essay demonstrates — using the universe of linguistic features from the World Atlas of Language Structures and a wide array of responses from the World Values Survey — that such an approach produces highly statistically significant correlations in a majority of analyses, irrespective of the theoretical plausibility linking linguistic features to respondent beliefs. These results raise the possibility that correlations between linguistic features and survey responses are actually spurious. The essay concludes by showing how two simple and well-understood statistical fixes can more accurately reflect uncertainty in these analyses, reducing the temptation for analysts to create implausible Whorfian theories to explain spurious linguistic correlations.

Here’s Tom illustrating his point:

This distinction between “VO” languages like German and “OV” languages like Japanese has implications for how language speakers conceptualize social difference and distance. By gram- matically requiring separation between subjects and objects, VO languages lead their speakers to conceptualize the social world in “us-them” terms. Consistent with this prediction, I document a highly statististically significant correlation between speakers of VO languages and nativist preferences (specifically, opposition to hiring immigrants) using over 200,000 respondents to the World Values Survey, covering over one hundred countries across three decades and controlling for a rich set of demographic features. These results contribute to the emerging literature on the linguistic origins of economic and social beliefs, and also suggest that the very languages that we speak affect our conceptualizations of identity and belonging.

The preceding paragraph is satire,1 but it rests on firm empirical evidence, and is a real- istic depiction of the emerging literature on “Whorfian socioeconomics.” Whorfian socioeco- nomics attributes causal effect to language structure in explaining beliefs, values, and opinions…

State Capacity Erosion in Ethiopia

This is from Maggie Fick, reporting for Reuters:

Rahmat Hussein once inspired fear and respect for the watchful eye she cast over her Ethiopian neighborhood, keeping files on residents and recommending who should get a loan or be arrested.

Now she is mocked and ignored.

Her fall – from being the eyes and ears of one of Africa’s most repressive governments to a neighborhood punchline – illustrates how Ethiopia’s once ubiquitous surveillance network has crumbled.

… Stacked on top of Rahmat’s kitchen cabinet in the town of Debark, 470 km (290 miles) north of Addis Ababa, are a dozen bulging folders detailing the lives of 150 neighbors: who has money troubles, who has HIV, who is caring for an orphan and who is hosting a stranger.

One of the consequences of the recent democratic opening in Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has been the curtailment of the state’s surveillance apparatus.


Emperor Haile Selassie (Credit, CNN)

While this is certainly welcome (there is a reason agents like Ms Hussein inspired fear and respect), it still raises the question of what will replace the state’s reach in Ethiopian society. While oppressive and at times murderous, the autocratic surveillance system was also an important source of the state’s infrastructural power. The EPRDF used it to mobilize Ethiopians for agricultural extension services, registration of births and deaths, immunization campaigns, etc. Throwing the baby out with the birth water could mean that, in the interim, the Ethiopian state will get weaker as it democratizes.

This is already apparent. The weakening of the federal government’s local reach that began in 2015 has over the last two years made it very difficult for the federal government to contain violence in the country’s ethno-states. Beyond the potential rise in violence, continued erosion of state capacity may handicap Ethiopia’s ability to implement its ambitious development agenda.

Can the EPRDF/TPLF state and administrative structure be democratized and turned into a system of developmentalist “revolutionary” self-government? Perhaps.

But all indications are that the centre will respond to the increasingly centrifugal forces in the states with more centralization and top-down imposition of order. Any calm in Oromia will likely be replaced with disquiet in Tigrinya and Somali. Adding to the centre’s challenge is the fact that it will be impossible to reverse the entrenchment of Ethiopia’s federal character (to borrow a Nigerian phrase).

The silver lining in all this is that the nature federation in Ethiopia, including the existence of state-level security forces, provides a structural barrier to a return to extreme forms of top-down autocratic rule like existed under the Derg or the Emperor.


The earth might be getting greener

This is from NASA:

greening.png… the greening of the planet over the last two decades represents an increase in leaf area on plants and trees equivalent to the area covered by all the Amazon rainforests. There are now more than two million square miles of extra green leaf area per year, compared to the early 2000s – a 5% increase.

“China and India account for one-third of the greening, but contain only 9% of the planet’s land area covered in vegetation – a surprising finding, considering the general notion of land degradation in populous countries from overexploitation,” said Chi Chen of the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University, in Massachusetts, and lead author of the study.

China’s outsized contribution to the global greening trend comes in large part (42%) from programs to conserve and expand forests. These were developed in an effort to reduce the effects of soil erosion, air pollution and climate change. Another 32% there – and 82% of the greening seen in India – comes from intensive cultivation of food crops.

H/T Max Roser

World Development symposium on RCTs

World Development has a great collection of short pieces on RCTs.

Here is Martin Ravallion’s submission: 

….practitioners should be aware of the limitations of prioritizing unbiasedness, with RCTs as the a priori tool-of-choice. This is not to question the contributions of the Nobel prize winners. Rather it is a plea for assuring that the “tool-of-choice” should always be the best method for addressing our most pressing knowledge gaps in fighting poverty.

… RCTs are often easier to do with a non-governmental organization (NGO). Academic “randomistas,” looking for local partners, appreciate the attractions of working with a compliant NGO rather than a politically sensitive and demanding government. Thus, the RCT is confined to what NGO’s can do, which is only a subset of what matters to development. Also, the desire to randomize may only allow an unbiased impact estimate for a non-randomly-selected sub-population—the catchment area of the NGO. And the selection process for that sub-sample may be far from clear. Often we do not even know what “universe” is represented by the RCT sample. Again, with heterogeneous impacts, the biased non-RCT may be closer to the truth for the whole population than the RCT, which is (at best) only unbiased for the NGO’s catchment area.

And here is David Mckenzie’s take: 

A key critique of the use of randomized experiments in development economics is that they largely have been used for micro-level interventions that have far less impact on poverty than sustained growth and structural transformation. I make a distinction between two types of policy interventions and the most appropriate research strategy for each. The first are transformative policies like stabilizing monetary policy or moving people from poor to rich countries, which are difficult to do, but where the gains are massive. Here case studies, theoretical introspection, and before-after comparisons will yield “good enough” results. In contrast, there are many policy issues where the choice is far from obvious, and where, even after having experienced the policy, countries or individuals may not know if it has worked. I argue that this second type of policy decision is abundant, and randomized experiments help us to learn from large samples what cannot be simply learnt by doing.

Reasonable people would agree that the question should drive the choice of method, subject to the constraint that we should all strive to stay committed to the important lessons of the credibility revolution.

Beyond the questions about inference, we should also endeavor to address the power imbalances that are part of how we conduct research in low-income states. We want to always increase the likelihood that we will be asking the most important questions in the contexts where we work; and that our findings will be legible to policymakers. Investing in knowing our contexts and the societies we study (and taking people in those societies seriously) is a crucial part of reducing the probability that our research comes off as well-identified instances of navel-gazing.

Finally, what is good for reviewers is seldom useful for policymakers. We could all benefit from a bit more honesty about this fact. Incentives matter.

Read all the excellent submissions to the symposium here.

Why did modern nation-states not emerge in China?

This is from Yuhua Wang (highly recommended):

The collapse of the Chinese state in the early twentieth century was surprising. China was a pioneer in state administration: it established one of the world’s most centralized bureaucracies in 221 BCE, two hundred years before the Roman Empire. In the seventh century, it produced a quarter of the world’s GDP (Maddison 2007, 381) and became the first country to use a civil service examination to recruit bureaucrats…

Why, then, did China suffer a dramatic reversal of fortune, given its early bureaucratic development?

… elites’ level of support for state building depends on the geographic span of their social networks. If they must protect a geographically dispersed network, it is more efficient to support state-strengthening policies. These elites have an encompassing interest (Olson 1982, 48). If they need to protect a geographically concentrated network, it is more efficient to rely on private protection and oppose state strengthening. These elites have a narrow interest (Olson 1982, 48).

China…. As the elites’ social networks became localized, they also fragmented; they found it difficult to organize cross regionally. A fragmented elite contributed to a despotic monarchy because it was easier for the ruler to divide and conquer. Historians have noted the shift to imperial despotism during the Song era, as the emperor’s position vis-à-vis his chief advisors was strengthened (Hartwell 1982, 404–405). The trend further deepened when in the late fourteenth century the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty abolished the entire upper echelon of his central government and concentrated power securely in his own hands (Hucker 1998, 74–75). This explains the increasing security of Chinese rulers [see image].

The despotic monarchy and the narrow interest elite became a self-enforcing equilibrium: the rulers were secure, while the elite used the state to protect their local interests and enjoyed their autonomy. Yet this arrangement led to the gradual decline of the Chinese state.

There are so many parallels to the challenges to state-building in Africa throughout the piece (many of which were documented by Catherine Boone in the excellent Political Topographies of the African State).

Read the whole thing here.