H/T William Easterly
H/T William Easterly
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!
Good 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.
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).
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.”
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.
Rafia Zakaria, on Al Jazeera America, writes:
My friend Jack likes to tell his favorite story about a summer he spent volunteering in Colombia. He recounts that story anytime he’s handed the opportunity, at parties, lunch meetings and airports. He highlights varying facets of the story on different occasions — the snake he found in his tent, his camaraderie with the locals and his skills at haggling. The message to his audience is clear: I chose hardship and survived it.
If designer clothes and fancy cars signal material status, his story of a deliberate embrace of poverty and its discomforts signals superiority of character. As summer looms, many Americans — college students, retirees and others who stand at the cusp of life changes — will make similar choices in search of transformational experiences. An industry exists to make these easier to make: the voluntourism business.
As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.
Zakaria rightly adds that:
Despite its flaws, the educational aspect of voluntourism’s cross-cultural exchange must be saved, made better instead of being rejected completely.
As a volunteer or an academic researcher this summer, here are a few things you can do out of respect for the people you work with (especially if you fit standard definitions of “expat”). These points might seem obvious, but even seasoned professionals need a reminder every now and then.
Also, do not forget to learn. Learn and learn some more. And share with your hosts as much as you can.
The international development bill passed its third reading in the House of Lords on Monday and will now receive royal assent. Britain met the 0.7% target for the first time last year when it spent £11.4bn – or 0.72% of its GNI – on overseas aid.
The 0.7% commitment was established by the UN in 1970. In 2013, only five other countries – Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark and the United Arab Emirates – had met or exceeded the 0.7% aid spending target. The Netherlands had consistently met the target, but fell short in 2013.
All well and good.
The question, though, is what proportion of the 0.7% will finance various jobs programs for UK (and other Western) nationals working in the global development industrial complex (or in other sectors that benefit from tied aid) versus actually going to poverty alleviation in the developing world.
And speaking of the global development industry, here’s a nice quote from the Economist newspaper on SDGs:
Developing countries seem to think that the more goals there are, the more aid money they will receive. They are wrong. The SDGs are unfeasibly expensive. Meeting them would cost $2 trillion-3 trillion a year of public and private money over 15 years. That is roughly 15% of annual global savings, or 4% of world GDP. At the moment, Western governments promise to provide 0.7% of GDP in aid, and in fact stump up only about a third of that. Planning to spend many times the amount that countries fail to give today is pure fantasy.
The backers of the SDGs concede from the outset that not all countries will meet all the targets—an admission that robs the goals of the power to shame. The MDGs at least identified priorities and chivvied along countries that failed to live up to their promises; a set of 169 commandments means, in practice, no priorities at all.
A set of 169 commandments also means fundraising opportunities for everyones’ pet issue. But it also means extra meetings, workshop, and
clueless tied aid expats consultants for developing country Civil Servants to deal with; and little time for the boring things that actually contribute to sustainable improvement of human welfare.
Using a unique dataset on students from the first regional schools in colonial Benin, we investigate the effect of education on living standards, occupation and political participation. Since both school locations and student cohorts were selected with very little information, treatment and control groups are balanced on observables. We can therefore estimate the effect of education by comparing the treated to the untreated living in the same village, as well as those living in villages where no schools were set up. We find a significant positive treatment effect of education for the first generation of students, as well as their descendants: they have higher living standards, are less likely to be farmers, and are more likely to be politically active. We find large village-level externalities – descendants of the uneducated in villages with schools do better than those in control villages. We also find extended family externalities – nephews and nieces directly benefit from their uncle’s education – and we show that this represents a “family-tax,” as educated uncles transfer resources to the extended family.
The amazing finding is that having just one educated person in an extended family makes a significant difference, not only for the educated person’s offspring, but also for their nieces and nephews:
These descendants have better education at all levels than descendants (either children on nieces and nephews) in families where no progenitor was educated. These effects are statistically significant and substantial – such descendants are 20% more likely to have primary school education, 19% more likely to have secondary school education and 11% more likely to go to university..
The main takeaway of the paper is that investment in human capital has a positive effect on long-term development that is independent of (colonial) institutions.
Haushofer and Shapiro have a really cool paper evaluating the impact of unconditional direct cash transfers to households in rural southwestern Kenya (Rarieda in Siaya County). The paper contains several great insights relevant for policy-makers on the promise of direct cash transfers. Here are some highlights:
[i] …… we find increases in holdings of home durables (notably metal roofs, ownership of which increased by 23 percentage points over a control group mean of 16 percent), and productive assets such as livestock, whose value increases by USD 85 over a control group mean of USD 167. These investments translate into higher revenues from agriculture, animal husbandry, and non-agricultural enterprises; monthly revenue from these sources increases by USD 17 relative to a control group mean of USD 49. Note, however, that this revenue increase is partially offset by an increase in flow expenses for agriculture, animal husbandry, and business (USD 13 relative to a control group mean of USD 24).
[ii] We find that indeed monthly transfer recipients are significantly less likely to invest in durables such as metal roofs than lump-sum transfer recipients, suggesting that households may be both credit- and savings-constrained. The fact that program participation required signing up for mobile money accounts, which are a low-cost savings technology (people could have chosen to accumulate their transfer – and even add other money – on their M-Pesa account), suggests that the savings constraint at work is more social or behavioral than purely due to lack of access to a savings technology.
[iii] …. contrary to previous literature and our expectation, we find no significant differences between transfers to men and transfers to women in expenditure decisions or any other outcomes.
Oh, and there is more…
… we find significant reductions in cortisol levels in several treatment arms: specifically, large transfers, transfers to women, and lump-sum transfers lead to significantly lower cortisol levels than small transfers, transfers to men, and monthly transfers. Some of these effects occur in the absence of differences in traditional outcome variables. Together, these results support a causal effect of poverty (alleviation) on (reductions in) stress levels. More broadly, they suggest that psychological well-being and cortisol can complement traditional welfare measures, and in some cases may in fact respond to interventions with greater sensitivity than these traditional measures.
So what are some of the policy implications?
Direct cash transfers are not the panacea to underdevelopment. But these findings and others out there (see summary here) are evidence that we should seriously consider Martin Ravallion’s idea of raising the consumption floor of the poorest of the poor in developing countries through direct policy intervention (e.g. through cash transfers).
Making direct cash transfers work for development will be predicated on taking the interventions out of the humanitarian/aid sphere, and integrating them into the national political economies of developing countries.
In my view, the need for a higher consumption floor will soon become politically salient due to rapid urbanization rates in many developing countries. Obviously, aid money alone will not be able to fully finance such a policy. More efficient public finance management in developing countries will be one way to fill the gap. Putting aside the
overhyped storied budgetary leakages due to corruption, many developing countries still do not meet their annual budgeted expenditure goals due to lack of absorptive capacity, i.e. money simply never gets spent at the end of the fiscal year and is returned to the treasury.
For instance, according to an internal Ugandan government report, between 2004-2010 an average of 3.4% of budgetary allocations to central government ministries, departments, and agencies returned to the treasury (this was net of corruption and other leakages). Note that the figure is most likely higher if you factor in local government expenditures. And as Figure 2 above shows, late disbursement is the norm, which makes budgeting within government agencies a nightmare. In addition, over the same period (2004-10), the proportion of the budget that was simply not released (as opposed to released and not absorbed) was a staggering 9.92%!
This is money that can go directly to citizens’ pockets. And we have the technology, thanks to M-Pesa, to effect the policy. Governments shouldn’t be allowed to handle more money than they have capacity to spend. Plus making legislative appropriation conditional on agency capacity could be a way to incentivize capacity building more than a million workshops and study tours could ever do.
Lastly, the idea of a consumption floor for the urban poor might not appeal to some higher income tax payers. But smart politicians should be able to remind these voters that there is only so much physical security that one can get from high fences topped with electrified razor wire.