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.


People Are Brains, Not Stomachs

Alex Tabarrok over at MR has a fantastic summary of some of the works of this year’s three Nobel Prize winners in Economics. This paragraph on one of Michael Kremer’s papers stood out to me:

My second Kremer paper is Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990. An economist examining one million years of the economy! I like to say that there are two views of humanity, people are stomachs or people are brains. In the people are stomachs view, more people means more eaters, more takers, less for everyone else. In the people are brains view, more people means more brains, more ideas, more for everyone else. The people are brains view is my view and Paul Romer’s view (ideas are nonrivalrous). Kremer tests the two views. He shows that over the long run economic growth increased with population growth. People are brains.

Here is the abstract from Kremer’s QJE paper:

The nonrivalry of technology, as modeled in the endogenous growth literature, implies that high population spurs technological change. This paper constructs and empirically tests a model of long-run world population growth combining this implication with the Malthusian assumption that technology limits population. The model predicts that over most of history, the growth rate of population will be proportional to its level. Empirical tests support this prediction and show that historically, among societies with no possibility for technological contact, those with larger initial populations have had faster technological change and population growth.

Read Tabarrok’s entire post here. Highly recommended.

Since Sunday I’ve been asking around if the Prize got any mention on local radio in Busia, Kenya — the cradle of RCTs, if you will, and where Kremer conducted field experiments. No word yet. Will report if I hear anything.

On external interventions to improve village-level governance and development: The DRC Edition

This is from an excellent JDE paper by Humphreys, de la Sierra and der Windt:

We study a randomized Community Driven Reconstruction (CDR) intervention that provided two years ofexposure to democratic practices in 1250 villages in eastern Congo. To assess its impact, we examine behavior in a village-level unconditional cash transfer project that distributed $1000 to 457 treatment and control villages. The unconditonal cash transfer provides opportunities to assess whether public funds get captured, what governance practices are employed by villagers and village elites and whether prior exposure to the CDR intervention alters these behaviors. We find no evidence for such effects. The results cast doubt on current attempts to export democratic practices to local communities.

Here’s a description of the program:

Our study takes advantage of a large UK funded CDR program, called “Tuungane,” implemented by the International Rescue Committee andCARE International in 1250 villages throughout eastern Congo. The program had as a central goal to “improve the understanding and practice of democratic governance ….”

… Over a four year period, the program spent $46 million of development aid, reaching approximately 1250 villages and a beneficiary population of approximately 1,780,000 people. A large share of this funding was used for facilitation and indirect costs, with only $16m, 35% of the total program costs, going directly towards infrastructure. These shares reflect the fact that the main focus of the intervention was institutional change, not the use of existing institutions to deploy development funds.

This very cool paper raises important questions about the role of elites in African development (read it to get a better understanding of the futility of these kinds of “democracy promotion”, too).

It might seem logical to assume that short-circuiting elite power, whether at the local or national level, may lead to accelerated development. However, because a lot of “development” is often elite-driven, an explicit agenda of effective elite disempowerment might actually yield suboptimal outcomes. All else equal, elites are often better organized, better-placed to take risks (on account of having more economic slack), better able to protect their property rights, and routinely deploy the state to further advance their economic interests. $46m in the hands of a powerful and secure elite class might yield jobs in firms that provide economic stability for whole districts. It is also true that less powerful or stable elites are likely to squander it on consumption, quick profit schemes, or stash it abroad.

These observations are not unique to African states.

Overall, when I look at most African states, what I see are a lot of very weak elites lacking social power, constantly unable to bend their societies to their will, and resigned to low-equilibrium forms of  political and economic organization (for example, by being mere middlemen in lucrative global commodity markets). In the case of the DRC, this is true whether one looks at Kabila/Tshisekedi or the leaders of armed groups in the east of the country. The same goes for so-called “traditional” leaders. Throughout the country and in the wider region, such elites lack infrastructural power in profound ways. Importantly for economic development, many often lack the ability to protect their own property rights. Our stylized idea of the nature of societal power relations on the Continent needs some updating. Consider this paragraph:

Eastern Congo is a well-suited environment to examine the adoption of democratic practice in local governance. The state has largely with-drawn from the rural areas of the east and enjoys low legitimacy. Local governance is often described as “captured” by traditional chiefs and vulnerable to corrupt practices by state officials. These features are not unique to the Congo. Multiple accounts suggest that in many Sub-Saharan states, colonial rule used pre-colonial institutions to create “decentralized despots” in ways that are detrimental to development.

topographies.jpgAre local elites in the modal African country this powerful? Is this the sense one gets traveling in rural Ghana or Zambia? Do these (mostly) guys look like they are in charge? As the paragraph notes, “traditional leaders” often lack the means to coerce their constituents (the state is largely absent). Despite Mamdani’s persuasive (Rwanda) story, these are not powerful and unchecked “despots” in the standard sense.

At times Africanist scholarship on state/elite society relations can seem schizophrenic: Africa is the land of “imperial” big men elites who can scarcely project their power on account of state weakness (see here, here, and here). Since the early 1990s, a lot of effort has been put into taming the allegedly imperial political elites in the region. Missing in our analyses and in donor programs have been attempts to understand the structural weakness of these same elites and the attendant consequences. The presence of an erratic and parasitic elite class might be the proximate cause of underdevelopment in the region. However, I would argue that a deeper cause is persistent elite weakness in the region. Catherine Boone’s book (see image) is the best I’ve ever read on African elites’ strategies of power projection in a context of state weakness (Boone is easily the most underrated Comparativist of her generation).

The tenures of Africa’s Amins, Mobutus, and Bongos took the form they did in no small part because these were structurally weak leaders (long leadership tenure is not synonymous with state capacity). Throughout their times in office they did all they could to destroy any and all alternative centers of power (including institutions such as legislatures). Their failures reinforced their respective counties’ two publics problems whose legacy is chronic elite weakness that is obvious for all to see. To this day, very few African countries have stable economic elite classes with easily identifiable immovable assets in-country. Most operate like little more than Olsonian roving bandits.

I am yet to see a clear theory that links greater vertical accountability to state/elite capacity. The historical record suggests that democracy works best in contexts with pre-existing state/elite capacity. In my own work, I’ve shown how strong autocratic legislatures beget strong democratic legislatures.

This is not a defense of autocracy. It is a reminder that the processes of state and political development, while related, often run on separate tracks and should therefore be decoupled in programs such as the one above and in our studies.

We need to pay more attention to subnational variation

This is from Marshall Burke and Apoorva Lal:

Using these data across all African countries, we calculate that 43% of the overall variation in asset wealth is  countries, and nearly a quarter is  states within countries. This number is even higher if we focus on just sub-Saharan Africa — 65%. Similar numbers have been found for other outcomes, including child health. These within-country differences are starkly apparent in the corresponding map, which shows how wealth estimates change when country-level averages are disaggregated down to the state and then district level.subnational


Is Rwanda faking economic data?

This is from ROAPE:

This blogpost aims to explore the question of inflation in Rwanda, which has emerged as the last remaining issue required to resolve the disagreement about Rwanda’s poverty statistics. Using Consumer Price Index (CPI) price data, the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR) (2016) and the World Bank (2018) claim that poverty decreased by 6 percentage points from 45% between 2010/11 and 2013/14, and then by a further 1 percentage point between 2013/14 and 2017/18 (NISR 2018).


Fig: extreme poverty rates accounting for inflation

However, blogs posted on (see the series, Poverty and Development in Rwanda on the website) have shown that the price data contained in the Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey or Enquête Intégrale sur les Conditions de Vie des ménages (EICV) survey itself, as well as in the separate ESOKO dataset, indicate a much higher inflation rate over this period, resulting in a sharp increase in poverty over the same period.

… This finding provides the first direct evidence of statistical manipulation as it means that NISR reported results that corresponded to a 4.2-4.7% inflation rate between 2011 and 2014, instead of the 13.8% inflation that it claims to have used.

You can read the whole post here.

The World Bank, which has repeatedly endorsed the figures coming out of Kigali, responded with this:

The key issue of Rwanda poverty measurement between 2010/11 and 2013/14 is that the consumer price index (CPI) and the NISR price index, called the Cost of Living Indicator (COLI), do not seem to be consistent. The national CPI shows that the inflation rate between 2010/11 and 2013/14 is 23%. NISR’s COLI uses the same CPI data, and the results show Kigali’s inflation rate is very similar to the national CPI trend, but other regions show very different trends. Further, the national average of COLIs show only around 5 percent for the same period, although there is no clear theory to guarantee that the national average of COLIs and the national CPI need to be consistent.

 Is NISR’s approach flawed?

A working paper by Fatima and Yoshida (2018) found NISR’s 2016 approach – the latest official methodology – to be technically sound, but the inconsistency between CPI and COLI needs further research. The working paper, “Revisiting the Poverty Trend in Rwanda: 2010/11 to 2013/14,” is publicly available. NISR and World Bank teams are initiating a new joint research program, which will start in May 2019.

Is there any evidence that NISR manipulated poverty estimates?

No. NISR made all survey data and questionnaire as well as full documentation of their poverty measurement methodology freely available to anyone on their website. NISR has been fully open to any questions and requests from the World Bank team. Indeed, NISR welcomed technical views on their methodology and expressed strong interest in benefiting from global best practices. We have not found any clear sign of errors or manipulations.

The dispute appears to be over price indices. While I would not put it past an autocratic regime like Kagame’s to fake data, I also think that the Bank is taking on a lot of reputation risk for standing with NISR. I look forward to the outcome of the Bank’s joint research program with NISR.

A potential silver lining in all of this is that NISR will emerge as a more independent outfit (relative to politicians) that is guided by methodologically-sound approaches to making the country legible to its citizens and rulers.


How can African governments increase their bargaining power vis-a-vis China?

Folashade Soule has answers.

First, a reminder that African governments are not uniformly bad at negotiating with China:

….when you look closely at what happens on the ground, some African countries are much better at negotiating with the Chinese than others. Railway projects in East Africa appear to be a good example. In Kenya, the Standard Gauge Railway is the largest infrastructure project since independence from Britain in 1963. China Eximbank provided most of the finance for the first phase – 472 kilometres of track between Nairobi and Mombasa – at a cost of US$3.2 billion.

In neighbouring Ethiopia, an electric train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, which is also Chinese-financed, opened two years ago. The cost for this more expensive type of railway was US$3.4 billion – for 756 kilometres. Kenya claims that its railway cost more for reasons like the terrain and the need to carry higher volumes of cargo. At the same time, however, many believe other issues to have been at play – including failures around the negotiation process.

Second, there are Soule’s suggested remedies:

Involve everyone: When all relevant government departments are involved in a negotiation, it does take longer. The process is more coherent, however, and the resulting project is less likely to breach national regulations.

Empower negotiators: The Chinese often adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach. In many cases, Africans are not confrontational enough in return. They don’t appreciate that China has a surplus of domestically produced materials they are seeking to offload, for example. Wiser negotiators will play China off against other countries seeking to finance infrastructure projects on the continent, such as South Korea or the United Arab Emirates.

Keep the public onside: China tends to be popular in Africa – more so than the US in around 60% of countries on the continent. Yet the public also see negatives: many think Chinese products are poor quality, while there is a growing perception that dealing with China tends to favour Chinese labourers.

Increase knowledge: African governments are still relatively new to dealing with China; they should take every opportunity to share lessons with one another. There is a role for African universities here. They should set up more centres of Asian studies to close the gap in information and knowledge.

I fully agree.

While it is true that China has geopolitical ambitions in Africa, a lot of Chinese infrastructure plays in Africa are commercial in nature. It is in China’s interest that these projects succeed. That means that African governments could get better deals (in terms of value for money) by doing their homework (on Chinese politics and commercial and institutional architectures) before chasing the money. Similarly, public opinion presents a potential bargaining chip — (the threats of ) transparency and robust public participation should force Beijing’s hand in settling for better deals (from the perspective of African governments). 

All this, of course, is predicated on the assumption that African elites get loans from China to finance infrastructure projects; as opposed to dreaming up projects in order to get loans that then find their way into private bank accounts. 

Read the whole thing here.

H/T Zainab Usman.

Claims About “Good” Institutions

This is from Yuen Yuen Ang’s excellent book on How China Escaped the Poverty Trap:

When foreign experts enter developing contexts and insist that there is one standard of good institutions — namely, that found in wealthy societies — this by itself imposes a lethal impediment against localized adaptation. Imagine “good governance” in medieval European communes being measured according to how closely they approximated institutions in the future. Then imagine foreign consultants dispensing praise and conditional aid to these European communes based on how well they score in good governance alongside contemporary countries; such an index would be titled “Worldwide and Timeless Governance Indicators” (WTGI). Further imagine medieval commune leaders and merchants being herded into classrooms to be taught about the technicalities of replicating institutions from the future in their current communities. Could this be an environment that empowers medieval actors to improvise fitting solutions for the needs of their time?

Highly recommended.

Does aid conditionality still work?

(Not that it used to work that well)

Here is a story on Tanzania:

On Wednesday (Nov. 14) the Danish government said it would withhold 65 million crowns ($9.8 million) in aid citing allegations of human rights abuses. The minister of development cooperation Ulla Tornaes announced the decision on Twitter noting “negative developments” and “unacceptable homophobic statements.”

The day before, the World Bank suspended a $300 million educational loan following a government policy banning pregnant girls from going to school. That ban has been roundly criticized by the development community.

Tanzania most likely anticipated these specific reactions from the donor community.

netodaAnd now news reports indicate the World Bank is walking back its suspension of the $300 concessional loan. According to the Tanzanian government, the Bank’s projects in Tanzania run to the tune of $5.2b. At some point the Bank’s board’s commitment to human rights and “good governance” runs against the cold calculus of having to signal effort by the amount of cash pushed out the door each year. Also, the net per capita overseas development assistance (ODA) to African states has been in decline over the last five years (see graph).*

For perspective, Tanzania’s budget for 2018/19 fiscal year is $14b. Which means that the total rescinded aid (if the donors keep their word) currently stands at 2.2% of government expenditure. If you factor in the “implementation surpluses” that typically arise due to suboptimal absorptive capacity, it is a wash. All to say that it’s not clear that these cuts (if the donors hold the line beyond the current news cycle) will inflict maximum pain.

How much aid goes into the government’s total budget?

Despite donors not meeting their commitments last financial year, the government expects to raise Tsh2,676.6 billion ($1.1 billion) from development partners which is equivalent to eight per cent of the proposed budget total funding.

In other words, the Tanzanian Treasury (and politicians) can absorb the hit on the country’s reputation emerging from policies and practices like this, this, and this without devolving into a fiscal meltdown.

*Population data from the World Bank. Aid data from Roodman.

The wonder that is Chinese growth

Below is an amazing illustration of shifts in the sizes of leading global economies:

For more on China see here, here, here, and here. This reminded me of this graphic from Carlos Lopes, former head of the UNECA:Dr3w9PhW4AAnCGU

All that happened in just 36 years. Time is on Africa’s side. If (and that’s a big IFF) African elites can get their act together. As shown in the graph below, the lost long decade (1980-1995) was particularly brutal for African economies — but it was a temporal dip and not a permanent feature of African economies.income

It is also worth noting that in 1980 African states and China were not at the same level of institutional development. By that time China had already accumulated centuries of coherent stateness — which made it possible for elites to optimally allocate human and capital resources in ways that produced the growth miracle.

Here is a good nuanced take on trends in economic growth and development on the Continent.

Africa’s elusive green revolution

This is a great piece on the subject in The Economist:

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 2.04.41 PM.pngSomething akin to Asia’s rural development may, at last, be happening in parts of Africa. Since 2002 the proportion of African workers employed in agriculture has fallen from 66% to 57%. Yet the real value of agricultural production has grown at an average pace of 4.6% a year, double the rate between 1970 and 2000. Even so, the region is lagging behind. Most of the increase comes from using more land, rather than improved productivity.

A good deal of the divergence in agricultural productivity after the 1970s is driven by African states failure to increase the use of fertilizers.


More broadly, smart policy to increase agricultural productivity must focus on market reforms (to ensure most of the surplus in the sector goes to farmers and to intensify financialization), rationalization of farm subsidy regimes, addressing the question of farm size (increasing urbanization may reduce the political cost of land consolidation in the region), and investing in logistics to reduce wastage between farms and markets (including transportation and storage).


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:


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:



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.