About Ken Ochieng' Opalo

I am a Kenyan college student studying Political Science and Economics at Yale in New Haven, CT.

How Good Are Datasets on Cropland in African States?

A number of papers (on agricultural productivity, conflict, food security, and impacts of climate change, for example) use cropland cover data as controls. How good are these data?

Here’s the abstract of a paper (open access) from Wei and co-authors:

Accurate geo-information of cropland is critical for food security strategy development and grain production management, especially in Africa continent where most countries are food-insecure. Over the past decades, a series of African cropland maps have been derived from remotely-sensed data, existing comparison studies have shown that inconsistencies with statistics and discrepancies among these products are considerable. Yet, there is a knowledge gap about the factors that influence their consistency. The aim of this study is thus to estimate the consistency of five widely-used cropland datasets (MODIS Collection 5, GlobCover 2009, GlobeLand30, CCI-LC2010, and Unified Cropland Layer) in Africa, and to explore the effects of several limiting factors (landscape fragmentation, climate and agricultural management) on spatial consistency.cropland

The results show that total crop-land area for Africa derived from GlobeLand30 has the best fitness with FAO statistics, followed by MODISCollection 5. GlobCover 2009, CCI-LC 2010, and Unified Cropland Layer have poor performances as indicated by larger deviations from statistics. In terms of spatial consistency, disagreement is about 37.9 % at continental scale, and the disparate proportion even exceeds 50 % in approximately 1/3 of the countries at national scale.We further found that there is a strong and significant correlation between spatial agreement and cropland fragmentation, suggesting that regions with higher landscape fragmentation generally have larger disparities. It is also noticed that places with better consistency are mainly distributed in regions with favorable natural environments and sufficient agricultural management such as well-developed irrigated technology. Proportions of complete agreement are thus located in favorable climate zones including Hot-summer Mediterranean climate(Csa), Subtropical highland climate (Cwb), and Temperate Mediterranean climate (Csb). The level of complete agreement keeps rising as the proportion of irrigated cropland increases. Spatial agreement among these datasets has the most significant relationship with cropland fragmentation, and a relatively small association with irrigation area, followed by climate conditions. These results can provide some insights into understanding how different factors influence the consistency of cropland datasets, and making an appropriate selection when using these datasets in different regions. We suggest that future cropland mapping activities should put more effort in those regions with significant disagreement in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Here’s what they did:

…. we compared the spatial agreement of cropland to assess the consistency of five datasets in the same location. These datasets were overlapped to generate a new composite map revealing whether and where the original datasets agreed on the same locations (Yang et al., 2017). Pixels of the composite map were assigned values ranging from 0 to 5. The highest value 5 represents the complete agreement, where all five datasets were consistent in cropland identification for a pixel. As the value decreases, spatial consistency between these crop-land datasets decreases. The lowest value with value 1 means that only one dataset identifies the pixel as cropland.cropland_cover

The best consistency of five datasets occurs in Egypt, with the complete agreement value of 47.86 %, while the highest disagreement is in Western Sahara, whose spatial disagreement is 91.08 %.

Some Policy Lessons from COVID-19

It’s has been illuminating watching African governments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some lessons I have gleaned from their responses. For those interested, the IMF has a neat summary of county-level policy responses.

[1] We need a lot more descriptive studies of African economies:

COVID-19 was slow to spread in African states (a reminder of the Continent’s isolating from global transportation networks. The first concentrated cases were in Egypt, largely among tourists on Nile cruises). But once cases started appearing across the Continent, governments rushed to implement policies that were eerily similar to those being implemented in wealthier economies. Complete lockdowns, tax breaks, business loans, and interest rate cuts were first to be announced. Cash transfers followed, but even then from the standard purely humanitarian perspective and not as part of a well-thought out, politically-grounded and sustainable policy response. Forget that African economies are (1) largely agrarian and rural; and (2) highly “informal” (i.e. under-served and under-regulated). How do you implement a lockdown when 80% of your labor force is dependent on daily earnings and cannot stock up on food for days? And how do you tell people “wash hands regularly” when the vast majority of your population lacks access to reliable running water? Do African states have the capacity to sustainably deliver cash transfers to needy households throughout this crisis?

In short, African states’ policy responses to the pandemic so far are an urgent reminder of the enormous gaps that exist between knowledge production, policymaking, and objective realities in the region. Now more than ever, there is a need for socially and politically relevant knowledge production. To bridge these gaps, African governments should invest in making their economies more legible. Such investments should target better data collection as well as the establishment of strong academic departments with expertise in political economy and economic history, in addition to other economics subfields. There is absolutely no way around this.

For instance, what do we know about recovery patterns after recessions in different African countries? How will the current shutdown impact rural livelihoods? African states cannot afford to continue making policy from positions of ignorance, or to outsource economic thinking and policymaking. Collect the data. Analyze the data. Have the results inform policy.

Such efforts will go a long way in helping craft domestic narratives and counter-narratives of socio-economic transformation, and hopefully entrench reality-based policymaking, in addition to putting an end to ahistorical and apolitical policymaking. Policymakers must understand that their economies are not simply Denmark waiting to happen. 

[2] African governments should strengthen their policy transmission mechanisms: 

One of biggest mistakes in the history of economic thought was the invention of the notion of “formal” and “informal” economic sectors. This arbitrary distinction continues to blind African policymakers, and limits their abilities to craft transformative policies. In most African countries, governments fixate on minuscule “formal” sectors, and spend billions of dollars attracting mythical foreign investors to create “formal” sector jobs (and in the process subsidize transfer pricing and the creation of very costly enclave economies). Meanwhile, the same governments ignore “informal” and agricultural sectors, despite the fact that in most countries they typically account for significant shares of output (see images) and upwards of 80% of the labor force.

 

The failure to adequately serve and regulate “informal” and agricultural sectors leaves African policymakers with a set of very blunt tools when it comes to these sectors. How will African governments ensure that SMEs are not completely wiped out by this crisis? How will farm-to-market systems weather the logistical problems caused by large-scale shutdowns? What will be the impact on food prices?

It makes little sense to lower SME taxes or incentivize bank lending to SMEs if the vast majority of SMEs neither pay taxes nor borrow from banks. “Informal” sector workers are typically also not plugged into any skeletal social safety nets that may exist, such as health insurance or pension schemes.

For example, “[i]n Senegal one 2016 government/Millennium Challenge Corporation study found [that] only 15 companies pay up to 75% of the state’s tax revenue.”

Moving forward, African countries need to jettison the “formal” vs “informal” sectors distinction. As the primary source of employment, the “informal” and agricultural sectors deserve a lot more public investments targeted at both broader market creation (domestic and international) and productivity increases. Such investments would give governments important policy levers during both good and bad times. 

The fact of the matter is that agriculture and SMEs are the mainstays of African economies. It is about time that African states’ economic policies and budgeting reflected that reality. Failure to do so will continue to severely limit the efficacy of policy interventions, and leave governments wasting scarce resources attracting investments with very little multiplier effects in their economies.

[3] Elite complacency in Africa is about to get a lot more expensive: 

One need not be wearing a tinfoil hat to see the many ways in which African leaders continue to act like colonial “Native Administrators”. Some do not even pretend to care about aspiring to govern well-ordered societies. For almost six decades the global state system has accommodated elite mediocrity in Africa. During this period, the collusion between African and non-African elites in the pilfering of the region’s resources was balanced with aid money and other forms of support. 

That is changing. Western elites and publics have began to question the utility of foreign aid. Forgetting that the aid is what buys elite-level African alliances, they have come to expect loyalty from African states as a pre-ordained birthright. Many Western countries have also seen significant deterioration in the quality of their political leadership in the recent past, thereby exposing them to a range of domestic crises that will likely distract them into the medium term. China, the other major global player, is not ready to step into the void. 

And so African elites will be forced to step up. What do you do when, after decades of presiding over abominable public health systems that are totally dependent on the generosity of foreigners, you cannot get on a plane to seek medical care abroad? And how do you deal with a pandemic that hits the entire globe at once?

It is no secret that the Global Public Health architecture was built to police and contain disease outbreaks in low-income countries. This has allowed African governments to routinely globalize their public health emergencies and therefore get away with poor governance and lack of dependable healthcare systems.

The combination of an inward orientation of the “international community” and likely recurrence of truly global pandemics will mean that African states will have to build robust and sustainable domestic healthcare systems. It will no longer be a given that the American CDC or the WHO will swoop in with solutions. Under these conditions, failure to plan will likely lead to mass deaths in African states. 

[4] African progressivism needs a reset:

As Toby Green documents in A Fistful of Shells, modern African progressivism (defined as working towards broad-based transformative change) has a long history — going back to the 18th century. Men like Usman dan Fodio reacted to what they perceived to be elite complacency and moral depravity by organizing and seizing power. However, it is fair to say that the postcolonial variant of  progressivism in the region has run out of steam. In nearly every country, it has become permanently oppositionist and anti-establishment. Life out of power has infused it with a streak of expressive performativity that is increasingly divorced from the political and economic realities in the region, and sorely lacking in intellectual rigor (there are exceptions, of course). Arguably, the Thomas Sankara administration (with warts and all) was the last truly progressive administration in the region.

It is about time that African progressivism focused not just on criticizing those in power, but also on developing viable political programs that can win power. This will require organization, political education and communication that resonates with mass publics, genuine openness to knowing “the realities on the ground”, and a dose of principled ideological promiscuity pragmatism. The habit of waiting for perfectly enlightened voters and politicians under perfect institutional conditions effectively concedes the fight to the region’s shamelessly inept water-carriers. 

After 60 years in power, Africa’s ruling elites have become perhaps the most complacent lot in the world. Their destruction of higher education and the region’s intelligentsia in the 1970s allowed them to limit the role of ideas in politics and policymaking. It also helped that they found willing “apolitical” development partners in the “international community.” Even the most “progressive” among them care more about their countries’ rankings in the World Bank’s “Doing Business Index” than in the state of their “informal” and agricultural sectors. 

It is time to infuse African leadership with new thinking and moral foundations of social contracts. Only then will the region’s states be in a position to build the necessary resilience to weather emergencies like COVID-19, and provide necessary conditions for Africans to thrive at home and abroad.

World Bank Aid and Corruption

Here’s the now infamous paper that the World Bank is alleged to have tried to censor, actions that led its Chief Economist Penny Golberg to resign in protest. The paper finds that increases in World Bank aid is correlated with the siphoning of cash to offshore financial centres.

Do elites capture foreign aid? We document that aid disbursements to highly aid dependent countries coincide with sharp increases in bank deposits in offshore financial centers known for bank secrecy and private wealth management, but not in other financial centers. The estimates are not confounded by contemporaneous shocks such as civil conflicts, natural disasters and financial crises, and are robust to instrumenting with predetermined aid commitments. The implied leakage rate is 7.5% at the sample mean and exhibits a strong correlation with the ratio of aid to GDP. Our findings are consistent with aid capture in the most aid-dependent countries.

….In this paper, we study aid diversion by combining quarterly information on aid disbursements from the World Bank (WB) and foreign deposits from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). The former dataset covers all disbursements made by the World Bank to finance development projects and provide general budget support in its client countries. The latter dataset covers foreign-owned deposits in all significant financial centers, both havens such as Switzerland, Luxembourg, Cayman Islands and Singapore whose legal framework emphasizes secrecy and asset protection and non-havens such as Germany, France and Sweden.Screen Shot 2020-02-18 at 9.22.48 AM

Equipped with this dataset, we study whether aid disbursements trigger money flows to foreign bank accounts. In our main sample comprising the 22 most aid-dependent countries in the world (in terms of WB aid), we document that disbursements of aid coincide, in the same quarter, with significant increases in the value of bank deposits in havens. Specifically, in a quarter where a country receives aid equivalent to 1% of GDP, its deposits in havens increase by 3.4% relative to a country receiving no aid; by contrast, there is no increase in deposits held in non-havens. While other interpretations are possible, these findings are suggestive of aid diversion to private accounts in havens.

The paper finds that project financing (which is arguably easier for the Bank to monitor) is associated with more leakage than general policy financing. The poorest countries see the most leakage.

Our estimates suggest a leakage rate of around 7.5% for the average highly aid-dependent country.

Read the whole thing here.

UPDATE: The World Bank has since agreed to publish the working paper. 

h/t Matt Collin

A Look at Contract Foreign Soldiers Among Gulf States

A number of stories have recently surfaced on how the UAE is coercing Sudanese recruits to fight as mercenaries in Yemen.

This appears to be part of a wider practice for heavy reliance on foreign contract soldiers in the region. In this post, Zoltan Barany provides an insightful summary of the scale of this practice. I must admit I was surprised by some of the stats:

In 2009, 64 percent of the staff at Bahrain’s National Security Agency were non-Bahrainis. Abdulhadi Khalaf, the eminent Bahraini sociologist in exile, claims that “the rank and file in the Bahraini military, police, and security forces consist almost entirelyof foreign recruits,” but he does not name his source. Pakistani personnel make up 18 percent of the Bahraini air force, and altogether 10,000 Pakistani nationals are employed by Bahrain’s coercive apparatus. Problems of conduct among Pakistanis serving in the Bahrain Defense Force are not unknown: in March 2013, for instance, 180 were sacked and deported for violating disciplinary norms.

In Kuwait the number is anywhere between 25-80% of the regular armed forces. In Qatar contract soldiers add up to about 85%. 70% of enlisted men in the UAE are either from Oman or Yemen.

There’s also this angle to the story:

The UAE has employed U.S. companies such as Reflex Responses (founded and operated by Erik Prince, of Blackwater notoriety), which received a $529 million contract to beef up the Emirati military. The forces fighting for the UAE in Yemen include Chadian, Chilean, Colombian, Libyan, Panamanian, Nigerien (from Niger), Somali, Salvadoran, Sudanese, and Ugandan contract soldiers, among others.

Why are Middle Eastern rulers wary of citizen soldiers? You guessed right:

Contract soldiers and foreign advisers play an indispensable role in Gulf armed forces. They have given few headaches to the rulers of the Gulf states—although they have not been problem free, as the Pakistani contingent in Bahrain has demonstrated—and have made essential contributions to their militaries. For civil-military relations in GCC states, reliance on contract soldiers has been generally advantageous, fostering the buildup and professionalization of local armies, allowing the military leadership to shift tasks to contractors that no citizens would want to perform, and recruiting foreigners to complement the fighting forces in Yemen. The recently introduced conscription in Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE is only marginally germane to the practice of hiring foreign contract soldiers: this policy was implemented primarily for socioeconomic and political, not military, reasons.

Leadership Succession and the Risk of Civil War in Autocratic Europe

This is from an excellent paper by Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell in CPS:

Leadership succession is a perennial source of instability in autocratic regimes. Despite this, it has remained a curiously understudied phenomenon in political science. In this article, we compile a novel and comprehensive dataset on civil war in Europe and combine it with data on the fate of monarchs in 28 states over 800 years to investigate how autocratic succession affected the risk of civil war.

civilwar

Predicted probabilities of civil war onset (p. 455)

Exploiting the natural deaths of monarchs to identify exogenous variation in successions, we find that successions substantially increased the risk of civil war. The risk of succession wars could, however, be mitigated by hereditary succession arrangements (i.e., primogeniture— the principle of letting the oldest son inherit the throne). When hereditary monarchies replaced elective monarchies in Europe, succession wars declined drastically. Our results point to the importance of the succession, and the institutions governing it, for political stability in autocratic regimes.

There are important lessons here, too, for young democracies. The paper is a reminder that the responsible thing to do while promoting electoral competition in young democracies is to also invest in the institutional mechanisms that facilitate the peaceful conduct of elections and that enforce the outcome of elections.

Read the whole paper here.

A Kenyan slum cartel commandeered a World Bank electrification project

The Standard reports:

Kenya Power yesterday dismantled an illegal power selling racket deep inside a Nairobi slum, exposing how a Sh300 million World Bank-backed slum electrification project was taken over by rogue businessmen.

kplcIn 2016, as part of Kenya’s electricity expansion project, the World Bank’s Global Partnership Output-Based Aid (GPOBA) partnered with Kenya Power to roll out the slum electrification programme aimed at subsidising the cost of electricity to low-income earners and ending illegal connections.

At one of the sites, 200 KVA ground-mounted transformer had been enclosed in a small stonewalled building from where illegal connections originated. The transformer, which Kenya Power impounded, was next to a six-storey flat that got its supply from it. The rest was supplied to dozens of iron sheet-walled houses and a myriad of businesses. The disconnection of the transformer left dozens of residents without power. The power supply is known as “sambaza” and residents said they paid between Sh200 and Sh700 per month to people they described as “agents.”

Here is the World Bank’s take on its Kenya GPOBA slum electrification project (from 2016). The project had significant political and corruption risk exposure from the start:

The project faced initial implementation challenges. After the project commenced, the average cost of each connection increased to around $900 due to the inflation of input costs. In order to adjust to this increase, GPOBA raised its subsidy from $75 to $125 per connection; IDA and KPLC also increased their subsidies to $250 and $510 respectively. The connection target was revised from 66,000 households to 40,000. The disbursement of subsidies was amended from the original two-tranche schedule to a one-time payment triggered by the verification of working connections with pre-paid meters. Another challenge was that slum residents in certain areas were reluctant to switch to legal connections due to issues of trust, payment barriers, and fear of reprisals from local cartels.

To address this issue, KPLC prepared an implementation acceleration plan, a two-track approach differentiating between those slums with rampant illegal connections and strong cartel presence, and informal settlements designated under the World Bank’s Kenya Informal Settlement Improvement Project. In the informal settlements, KPLC prepared for infrastructure improvements; in the slums where residents were reluctant to convert to legal connections, KPLC used a community supportive approach. Their outreach involved strengthening communication with residents through collaboration with youth groups, civil society organizations, and social scientists, and preparation of educational materials and contact points, such as kiosks.

It took more than three years for KPLC (and the World Bank) to act against the said slum cartels, despite the Bank’s own report from 2016 highlighting this as a “challenge” to project implementation.

I couldn’t easily find any World Bank project reviews in the intervening years. If anyone has pointers let me know.

Africa-China Fact of the Month

This is from the China-Africa Project:

In purely economic terms, China matters a LOT to Africa but Africa is effectively meaningless to China. Last year, China did more than $4.14 trillion in total global trade. So that means Africa represents just 4.8% of China’s global trade balance, effectively a rounding error for the world’s second-largest economy.

For some additional context, consider that China does more trade with just Germany ($225.7 billion)  and about the same with Australia ($194.6 billion) than it does with all of Africa.

More on this here.

 

Fiscal capacity in African states

This is from The Economist:

Government revenues average about 17% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IMF. Nigeria has more than 300 times as many people as Luxembourg, but collects less tax. If Ethiopia shared out its tax revenues equally, each citizen would get around $80 a year. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is so penurious that its annual health spending per person could not buy a copy of this newspaper.

… Since the 1980s governments have followed an IMF-inspired recipe: slashing trade taxes, reducing top rates on personal and corporate income, and embracing value-added tax. Data from the OECD for 26 African countries show that over half of their tax revenues come from taxes on goods and services. Only a quarter comes from personal income tax and social-security contributions (about the same as in Latin America, but much less than in the rich world). From 2008 to 2017 the ratio of tax receipts to GDP rose by 1.5 percentage points, but in many countries this was offset by falls in non-tax revenues, such as fines, rents and royalties from resource extraction.

Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, collects less than 10% of GDP in taxes.

Of course taxation shouldn’t be an end in itself. It must be accompanied with effective provision of public goods and services. Overall, weak state capacity is the most significant barrier to both political and economic development on the Continent.

Read the whole thing here.

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.

selassie.jpg

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.