It turns out that life expectancy in the ancient past was longer than you think

This is from Sapiens:

…. People in the past were not all dead by 30. Ancient documents confirm this. In the 24th century B.C., the Egyptian Vizier Ptahhotep wrote verses about the disintegrations of old age. The ancient Greeks classed old age among the divine curses, and their tombstones attest to survival well past 80 years. Ancient artworks and figurines also depict elderly people: stooped, flabby, wrinkled.

This is not the only type of evidence, however. Studies on extant traditional people who live far away from modern medicines and markets, such as Tanzania’s Hadza or Brazil’s Xilixana Yanomami, have demonstrated that the most likely age at death is far higher than most people assume: It’s about 70 years old. One study found that although there are differences in rates of death in various populations and periods, especially with regard to violence, there is a remarkable similarity between the mortality profiles of various traditional peoples.

So it seems that humans evolved with a characteristic lifespan. Mortality rates in traditional populations are high during infancy, before decreasing sharply to remain constant till about 40 years, then mortality rises to peak at about 70. Most individuals remain healthy and vigorous right through their 60s or beyond, until senescence sets in, which is the physical decline where if one cause fails to kill, another will soon strike the mortal blow.

The whole thing is worth reading. Archaeologists figured out the ages of the ancients by digging out buried remains from ancient cemeteries.

And speaking of ancient cemeteries, one has recently been discovered on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya. According to the Independent:

stone-beads-kenya

pendants and earrings from a 5,000 year old cemetery in Kenya

An ancient cemetery containing the remains of nearly 600 people has been discovered at a site in northern Kenya.

Constructed near Lake Turkana by the simple herders that inhabited the region 5,000 years ago, the Lothagam North Pillar Site, a cavity in the ground was filled with the dead.

The ancient Kenyans then stacked stones and raised large pillars to place on top. Some of them appear to have been sourced from up to a kilometre away, archeologists said. This kind of monumental architecture has previously been associated with societies governed by strict hierarchies such as ancient Egypt.

The original paper on the Turkana discovery is available here. The paper argues that the cemetery represents monumentality absent a social hierarchy:

Lothagam North’s initial creation and final closure required heavy labor, but during the intervening decades or centuries people assembled for hundreds of mortuary rituals that may have involved little toil. This behavior is inconsistent with nascent elites consolidating authority via recurring large-scale construction initiatives. Communal values were emphasized by placing deceased of diverse ages and both sexes in a single location, without spatial or artifactual patterning that would suggest social hierarchies. Near-universal yet idiosyncratic ornamentation also argues against sequestration of resources by a social subset. Absent other evidence, Lothagam North provides an example of monumentality that is not demonstrably linked to the emergence of hierarchy, forcing us to consider other narratives of social change.

Aliko Dangote lunches with the FT

This is Pilling in the FT:

As a rule, I don’t get worked up over oil refineries. But the one gradually taking form on 2,500 hectares of swampland outside Lagos, Nigeria’s Mad Max commercial capital, is so big, so audacious and so potentially transformative that it is like Africa’s Moon landing and its Panama Canal — a Pyramids of Giza for the industrial age.

If Aliko Dangote, the billionaire businessman behind what even he calls his “crazy” $12bn project, can pull it off, he will go down as the continent’s John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon combined. And once he’s built it, he intends to treat himself to a small indulgence: he’ll buy Arsenal, his favourite football club.

The whole thing is worth reading. Dangote is a fascinating individual with a very interesting life story (are there any bios out there?) This paragraph caught my attention:

There is not enough industrial gas in the whole country to weld everything together, so Dangote will build his own industrial gas plant. There aren’t enough trucks, so he’s producing those in a joint venture with a Chinese company. The plant will need 480 megawatts of power, about one-tenth of the total that electricity-starved Nigeria can muster. You guessed it. Dangote is building his own power plant too.

Africa does not need your used shoes

This is from a yoga studio in Cambridge, MA:

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H/T 

More broadly, it is worth remembering that aid in kind is almost always a waste of everyone’s time and money. Send cash instead. In the specific case of shoes, TOMS did a study that found zero impact of their shoe donation program:

According to the Economist (in 2016):

The first of two studies found that TOMS was not wrecking local markets. On average, for every 20 pairs of shoes donated, people bought just one fewer pair locally—a statistically insignificant effect. The second study also found that the children liked the shoes. Some boys complained they were for “pregnant women” and some mothers griped that they didn’t have laces. But more than 90% of the children wore them.

Unfortunately, the academics failed to find much other good news. They found handing out the free shoes had no effect on overall shoelessness, shoe ownership (older shoes were presumably thrown away), general health, foot health or self-esteem. “We thought we might find at least something,” laments Bruce Wydick, one of the academics. “They were a welcome gift to the children…but they were not transformative.”

More worrying, whereas 66% of the children who were not given the shoes agreed that “others should provide for the needs of my family”, among those who were given the shoes the proportion rose to 79%. “It’s easier to stomach aid-dependency when it comes with tangible impacts,” says Mr Wydick.

State-building under ISIS

The New York Times has an interesting piece on everyday instances of stateness under ISIS. From the article, it appears that in addition to its macabre coercive powers, Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate managed to develop significant levels of infrastructural power and  bureaucratic capacity. Below are some examples.

On the provision of public goods and services and regulation of social life:

ISIS built a state of administrative efficiency that collected taxes and picked up the garbage. It ran a marriage office that oversaw medical examinations to ensure that couples could have children. It issued birth certificates — printed on Islamic State stationery — to babies born under the caliphate’s black flag. It even ran its own D.M.V.

On differentiation from the Iraqi government:

The documents and interviews with dozens of people who lived under their rule show that the group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.

On being able to graft itself atop preexisting administrative structures:

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 8.11.12 AM.pngThey also suggest that the militants learned from mistakes the United States made in 2003 after it invaded Iraq, including the decision to purge members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling party from their positions and bar them from future employment. That decree succeeded in erasing the Baathist state, but also gutted the country’s civil institutions, creating the power vacuum that groups like ISIS rushed to fill.

A little more than a decade later, after seizing huge tracts of Iraq and Syria, the militants tried a different tactic. They built their state on the back of the one that existed before, absorbing the administrative know-how of its hundreds of government cadres. An examination of how the group governed reveals a pattern of collaboration between the militants and the civilians under their yoke.

On extractive capacity and revenue source diversification:

One of the keys to their success was their diversified revenue stream. The group drew its income from so many strands of the economy that airstrikes alone were not enough to cripple it.

Ledgers, receipt books and monthly budgets describe how the militants monetized every inch of territory they conquered, taxing every bushel of wheat, every liter of sheep’s milk and every watermelon sold at markets they controlled. From agriculture alone, they reaped hundreds of millions of dollars. Contrary to popular perception, the group was self-financed, not dependent on external donors.

….. It was daily commerce and agriculture — not petroleum — that powered the economy of the caliphate.

Read the whole thing here.

More on the apparently *transient* effects of unconditional cash transfers

Berk Ozler over at Development Impact has a follow up post on GiveDirectly’s three-year impacts. The post looks at multiple papers analyzing results from the same cash transfer RCT in southwestern Kenya:

First, on the initial studies:

On October, 31, 2015, after the release of the HS (16) working paper in 2013, but before the eventual journal publication of HS (16), Haushofer, Reisinger, and Shapiro released a working paper titled “Your Gain is My Pain.”  In it, they find large negative spillovers on life satisfaction (a component of the psychological wellbeing index reported in HS 16) and smaller, but statistically significant negative spillovers on assets and consumption. The negative spillover effects on life satisfaction, at -0.33 SD and larger than the average benefit on beneficiaries, imply a net decrease in life satisfaction in treated villages. Furthermore, the treatment (ITT) effects are consistent with HS (16), but the spillover effects are not. For example, the spillover effect on the psychological wellbeing index in Table III of HS (16) is approximately +0.1, while Table 1 in HRS (15) implies an average spillover effect of about -0.175 (my calculations: -0.05 * (354/100)). There appear to be similar discrepancies on the spillovers implied for assets and consumption in the HRS (15) paper and HS (16). I am not sure what to make of this, as HRS (15) is an unpublished paper – there must [be] a good explanation that I am missing. Regardless, however, these findings of negative spillovers foreshadow the three-year findings in HS (18), which I discuss next.

Then on the three-year findings:

As I discussed earlier this week, HS (18) find that if they define ITT=T-S, virtually all the effects they found at the 9-month follow-up are still there. However, if ITT is defined in the more standard manner of being across villages, i.e. ITT=T-C, then, there is only an effect on assets and nothing else.

… As you can see, things have now changed: there are spillover effects, so the condition for ITT=T-S being unbiased no longer holds. This is not a condition that you establish once in an earlier follow-up and stick with: it has to hold at every follow-up. Otherwise, you need to use the unbiased estimator defined across villages, ITT=T-C.

To nitpick with the authors here, I don’t buy that [….] lower power is responsible for the finding of no significant treatment effects across villages. Sure, as in HS (16), the standard errors are somewhat larger for across-village estimates than the same within-village estimates. But, the big difference between the short- and the longer-term impacts is the gap between the respective point estimates in HS (18), while they were very stable (due to no/small spillovers) in HS (16). Compare Table 5 in HS (18) with Appendix Table 38 and you will see. The treatment effects disappeared, mainly because the differences between T and C are much smaller now, and even negative, than they were at the nine-month follow-up.

And then this:

If we’re trying to say something about treatment effects, which is what the GiveDirectly blog seems to be trying to do, we already have the estimates we want – unbiased and with decent power: ITT=T-C. HS (18) already established a proper counterfactual in C, so just use that. Doesn’t matter if there are spillovers or not: there are no treatment effects to see here, other than the sole one on assets. Spillover estimation is just playing defense here – a smoke screen for the reader who doesn’t have the time to assess the veracity of the claims about sustained effects.

Chris has a twitter thread on the same questions.

Bottom line: we need more research on UCTs, which GiveDirectly is already doing with a (hopefully) better-implemented really long-term study.

 

 

On productivity: Workers in low-income countries work longer (for less)

You probably knew that already, but here is the data from Bick, Fuchs-Schundeln, and Lagakos in the AER:

This paper builds a new internationally comparable database of hours worked to measure how hours vary with income across and within countries. We document that average hours worked per adult are substantially higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries. The pattern of decreasing hours with aggregate income holds for both men and women, for adults of all ages and education levels, and along both the extensive and intensive margin. Within countries, hours worked per worker are also decreasing in the individual wage for most countries, though in the richest countries, hours worked are flat or increasing in the wage. One implication of our findings is that aggregate productivity and welfare differences across countries are larger than currently thought.Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 7.57.32 AM

… Our main finding is that average hours worked per adult are substantially higher in low-income countries (the bottom third of the world income distribution) than in high-income countries (the top third). In low-income countries, adults work 28.5 hours per week on average, compared to 19.0 hours per week in high-income countries.

Read the whole thing here (gated). Here is the ungated version.

Unlocking productivity gains is a challenge to policymakers in low-income states:

One implication of our findings is that aggregate labor productivity and TFP differences across countries are larger than previously thought. Moreover, ignoring hours worked also leads to misleading conclusions about the extent of welfare differences across countries. Put simply, residents of the poorest countries are not only consumption poor, but leisure poor as well.

What is the “Rwanda Model” of development?

Here’s Nic Cheeseman’s summary:

Instead of sitting back and waiting for foreign investors and the “market” to inspire growth, the new administration intervened directly in a process of state directed development. Most notably, his government kick started economic activity in areas that had previously been stagnating by investing heavily in key sectors. It has done so through party-owned holding companies such as Tri-Star Investments.

Combined with the careful management of agriculture, these policies generated economic growth of around 8% between 2001 and 2013. Partly as a result, the percentage of people living below the poverty line fell from 57% in 2005 to 45% in 2010. Other indicators of human development, such as life expectancy and literacy, have also improved.

Cheeseman rightfully cautions against copying the Rwanda model:

Shorn of the internal and external political control required to make it work, the application of the Rwandan model elsewhere would generate very different results.

Extending the control of the ruling party over the economy is more likely to increase graft and waste than to spur economic activity. And efforts to neutralise opposition parties are likely to be strongly resisted, leading to political instability and economic uncertainty.

What this means is that if other countries on the continent try to implement the Rwandan model, the chances are that they will experience all of its costs while realising few of its benefits.

Read the whole thing here.

Cheeseman argues that the RPF’s total political monopoly is a necessary condition for the observed bureaucratic discipline in Rwanda. While this might be true, I am curious about what conclusions we might arrive at if we drop the assumption that Rwanda’s is a system of “developmental patrimonialism”.

What if we were to see it as just bureaucratic developmentalism (infused with good old crony capitalism)? Are there lessons on the industrial organization of the Rwandese state that are transferable to Malawi or Sierra Leone?

For more on neopatrimonialism and development in Africa check out this important paper by Thandika Mkandawire.

Is Asia Aging Prematurely?

This is from the FT:

China’s working-age population peaked in 2011 but its per capita income was just 20.7 per cent of the US level. Thailand was a little wealthier, at 28.9 per cent, when its working-age share peaked in 2013, but Vietnam was far poorer still, at 10.4 per cent of the US level, when it reached the same point a year later. Malaysia, Indonesia, India and the Philippines are projected to be somewhat better off when they reach peak working-age share, probably between 2020 and 2056, but still some way below the income levels reached in the west, as the third chart shows.

In February of this year, projections by Standard Chartered suggested that, by 2050, the likes of South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and China would have a higher share of pensioners in their population than most developed countries, depicted in the second chart [see below].

Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 10.25.56 AM.png

These are pretty sobering figures. Basically (East) Asia’s dependency ratios will quickly begin to look a lot more like what obtains in low-income as opposed to high and upper middle income states. And that means a stagnation or even decline in per capita income.

It will be interesting to see how these countries — most of which have historically been averse to immigration — will deal with this demographic challenge.

In addition to the obvious economic challenges, Asian countries will also have to figure out how to take care of the medical needs of an aging population that will likely be living longer.

More on this here.

Cash and Markets in Development

This is from a story in Kenya’s Standard Newspaper:

Martin Wepukhulu is a small-holder farmer in Trans Nzoia County, popularly described as Kenya’s breadbasket. To produce a two-kilogramme tin of maize known as gorogoro here, he spends about Sh25 on land preparation, seeds and fertilisers on his one-acre farm.

Some 270 kilometre away in Turkana County, one of Kenya’s poorest counties, is Loseny Nguono, a goat keeper, with two wives and 13 children. Turkana is one of the 23 counties affected by drought which has left close to 4 million people in danger of starvation.

Loseny receives Sh8,000 after every two months from the national government through the national safety net programme. He is willing to pay Martin a decent Sh70 for his gorogoro of maize. Unfortunately, neither Martin nor Loseny will get his wish. A reclusive government, ruthless cartels, dilapidated roads and marauding bandits conspire to ensure that while Martin sells his cereals at a low of Sh40, Loseny buys it at a high of Sh150.

Read the whole thing here.

It is great that Loseny has cash; and that unconditional cash transfers for social protection are increasingly becoming a mainstream policy option (notice that the story doesn’t even acknowledge the awesomeness of this reality). But the other lesson that we can learn from the story is that in order to get Loseny out of poverty we need good roads, properly functioning markets, and security. All these are public goods that must be provided through collective action, above and beyond the improvements in Loseny’s private consumption.

A Kansas City High Schooler’s Development Questions

I regularly receive emails from readers with all sorts of questions and requests. This one caught my eye:

Hello Dr. Opalo,

My name is [redacted] and I am a senior in high school in Kansas City, MO. I am currently working on an exhibition regarding poverty in sub Saharan Africa. My essential question is: What are the factors that contribute to ongoing poverty in sub Saharan Africa. I was wondering if you would be willing to answer a few questions to assist me in my research.

1. How would you describe the current state of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa?

2. What can be done to solve the feminization of poverty?

3. Is Time Poverty a large factor in ongoing poverty and how can time poverty be solved?

4. How can safety be maintained in sub-Saharan Africa through policy?

5. What can an average American do to help end poverty?

Thank you for your time!

If you have answers to any of these questions, let me know in the comments section. I plan to write back before the student’s exhibition is due…

The vanishingly small African middle class

The Economist reports:

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 12.50.11 PMGood data on the exact size of the middle class are hard to come by, but it remains small across most parts of the continent. The Pew Research Centre, an American outfit, reckons that just 6% of Africans qualify as middle class, which it defines as those earning $10-$20 a day. On this measure the number of middle-income earners in Africa barely changed in the decade to 2011.

…… Unlike Asia, Africa has failed to develop industries that generate lots of employment and pay good wages. Only a few countries manufacture very much, largely because national markets are small and barriers to trading within Africa are huge. Most people who leave the countryside move into labour-intensive but not very productive jobs such as trading in markets. John Page, also of Brookings, reckons that such jobs are on average only about twice as productive as the ones that many left behind.

How much does it cost to construct an MDG borehole in Abuja?

The Premium Times of Nigeria reports:

Nigeria’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) office spent N154.2 million to construct a single borehole in Abuja, in a shocking example of contract inflation that has helped undermine the country’s ability to achieve its MDG goals.

Drilling a single borehole drilling in Abuja averages N1.5 million. A hydrology firm told PREMIUM TIMES that the amount should cover drilling and casing, installation of a solar-powered submersible pump, steel tower for the tanks, tanks, pipes, joints & suckers, installation and labour.

The firm allowed an expanded estimate of N10 million if a water treatment facility is included alongside other optional accessories.

The Abuja borehole, constructed at Gwarinpa, an expansive estate in the federal capital, had no such fittings. Indeed, the borehole had long become dysfunctional and was no longer dispensing water to the residents when PREMIUM TIMES visited in June 2015.

Still, the Abuja MDG office told this newspaper it was more concerned with service delivery to the people, than the amount it takes to do so (emphasis added).

World Bank Recruitment Drive for African Nationals

Are you a national of an African country? Do you have a Masters’ degree and are interested in working for the World Bank Group? Then be sure to apply here before AUGUST 31, 2015. The positions (covering 22 different issue areas) may be based either in DC or in country offices.

“Qualifications for the entry level is a Master’s degree plus 5 years of relevant professional experience. For mid-career professionals, the requirements are a Master’s degree plus 8 years of relevant professional experience. Ideal candidates for these positions must have a demonstrated capacity for strategic thinking, the ability to conduct dialogue on relevant development policies and priorities, and be fluent in English with very good writing and communication skills.

All applications must be received by August 31, 2015. Applications received after the closing date will not be considered.”

More on this here.

H/T Teresa

Making International Development Research and Assistance Work

In the spirit of discussion Tom Pepinsky has a nice pithy response to Chris Blattman’s post on the wastefulness of skills training as development assistance. Both raise interesting questions about development research and practice. Pepinsky writes:

It always strikes me how different the view of (say) the World Bank is from that of the local entrepreneur, laborer, or mother who works at home. My immediate thought when I hear that any individually-targeted development intervention has failed is “well, could it have succeeded?” In other words, does the intervention manipulate a binding constraint for an individual or household? ………….. The people who know how to learn about those everyday constraints are trained in ethnography—and I mean serious ethnography, the kind that involves languages and staying outside of a hotel.

A focus on institutions implies a different direction. Everyone agrees that institutions are important, but the cutting edge in development economics and related parts of political science focuses elsewhere. Why? Because institutions aren’t manipulable, their features bundle lots of treatments, core concepts remain tremendously fuzzy (try defining governance, for example), we don’t seem to have learned a lot from decades of studying them, and the potential for disaster from bad institutional design is just enormous.

I agree with Pepinsky. I would also add that on top of taking local contextual variables and institutions seriously, development practice and research should also take local elites (both economic and political) seriously.

The discourse on development oscillates between “institutions” and “the poor.” Governance reforms try to get institutions right. Pro-poor policies focus on alleviating suffering among the extremely poor via direct interventions at the “grassroots.” Many interventions therefore tend to be designed with a view of either constraining allegedly nefarious and/or clueless local elites via “institutions”; or completely circumventing them and going directly to the people. Needless to say, the attempts to go around local elites often result in failure.

The point here is not completely disparage pro-poor policies or governance reform programs. Rather, it is a reminder that chances of successful intervention go up when local elites are meaningfully involved. And by “involved” I mean when their interests and ideas are taken seriously. Elite capture is obviously a bad. But elite buy-in is almost always necessary for success. It is local elites that have the wherewithal to own job-generating cement plants. It is local elites who set tax rates. And it is local elites who build roads and power supply lines. Their ideas and interests therefore matter, and should be taken seriously (also just in case they do not necessarily want to, or cannot, transform their societies exactly into Denmark).

I say this because the assumption that local elites do not have much to offer except to steal state/aid resources for private benefit leads to research agendas (and interventions) that over-simplify their role in the whole process. Understanding local political dynamics, as suggested by Pepinsky, is therefore key for success. This means going beyond boilerplate “stylized facts” about ethnicity (or other sectoral interests) and patronage; and taking institutions (for example legislatures) and the coalitions of politicians who constitute them seriously. As students of the political economy of development, we ought to invest more in understanding local elite interests and ideas and how they influence state institutions and welfare outcomes at the grassroots.

Imagine for a second how different IMF or World Bank interventions would be if all their agreements with developing countries (say above a prescribed dollar amount) were subject to ratification by host-country legislatures. The process would be messy, yes (looking at you, Greece*). But I’d argue that finance ministers would get much better deals for their people — in no small part on account of greater levels of intra-elite accountability in the management of aid resources.

The irony of development research and practice is that we talk a lot about the importance of institutions, but then turn around and come up with ideas to circumvent them (and their elite membership) at every opportunity.

*Greece is a member of the OECD.