Bleg: Colombia with small children

We leave in a week and so, naturally, we have just begun to plan.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. From July 25 until August 8 we have a home exchange in Bogota, and I have an office at the excellent Universidad de los Andes, and many work-related plans. But the two weeks from August 8 to 23 are completely unscripted (so far) except for the knowledge we will be trying to keep ourselves relaxed and a 2- and 4-year old stimulated. Suggestions welcome.

Based on past recommendations, we’ve been thinking about (a) Santa Marta and a nearby natural reserve, (b) coffee fincas or other spots in the coffee triangle, and (c) Medellin. Recommendations of specific hotels, resorts, sights or restaurants welcome. (Hotel/resort wise, our tastes run more towards isolated rustic cabanas with intermittent electricity over full-service family resorts. Though I won’t say no to babysitting.)

If we have missed the ideal destination, do say so. Our plans are very flexible (read: disorganized). With small kids we find it easiest to stay in one place for a few days or a week and make day trips, so those locales are most attractive.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • It’s remarkably hard to solve the puzzle of why small and medium enterprises in the developing world don’t grow more, in fact IPA has a whole program devoted to answering that question. Training programs often don’t work, but new RCT results from Egypt show one program that does – “learning by exporting” – giving carpet makers access to foreign markets led to productivity and quality improvements that stuck, and higher profits. More on the blog here.
  • The Millennium Villages Project, which takes a grand (and expensive) approach to reshaping systems in a select number of poor villages, has come under significant criticism, both for results (or lack thereof) and for not having included a robust evaluation plan to tell if the $120 million initially raised was worth it. Apparently there has been a new evaluation plan accepted as a paper into the Lancet, but Michael Clemens points out it still hides the overall cost of the project, which is crucial to making decisions on any intervention. More on their analysis plan here. (The Japanese government just gave an additional $1.4 million to the project in Rwanda). 3ie video of a talk starting at midline results here.
  • As the RISE program gets ready to embark on six years of research on improving education in the developing world, Lee Crafurd and Justin Sandefur present twenty-five of the best ideas out there as a good place to start.
  • A new paper (PDF) in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases reports worm infection rates of over 40% among school children in southern China, with lower cognitive functioning among infected children.
  • The non-profit GiveDirectly which just gives cash to poor people, in addition to publishing real time performance data on their website, randomly chose six of their first recipients from 2012 to return to and see how they are doing. On their blog, they report what recipients said the money did for them. (IPA’s evaluation of GiveDirectly is here.)

And: Robert Smith from NPR has a new macroeconomic indicator – banks in New York are running out of Euros because of all the reporters flocking to Greece.

But the best thing in recent memory comes from Chris if you didn’t see it earlier. Princeton Economist Uwe Reinhardt, dissatisfied with economists’ ability to do anything for global economies, is giving up and wrote a syllabus for teaching Korean Television Drama (PDF).

The UCLA sexual harassment case that every professor should be aware of

This sexual harassment case at UCLA is jaw-dropping. From one plaintiff’s complaint, against history Professor Gabriel Piterberg:

51. He then started talking about the famous philosophers Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, who met when Arendt was Heidegger’s student and subsequently carried on a clandestine love affair for more than forty years. He told her that relationships like theirs were normal and that “If it is done right, professor and student relationships are supposed to be intimate.”

52. Professor Piterberg then told her that he masturbated while imagining the two of them together.

53. Throughout this meeting, Plaintiff Takla continued to voice her discomfort with him as her advisor and his comments, but Professor Piterberg was upset with Plaintiff Takla for wanting a new advisor. He told her, “If anything happened between us, it might be while you are writing the conclusion to your dissertation.”

This is a small fraction of the terrible things alleged. There are two women with similar complaints so far. The most staggering aspects: the UCLA ombudsperson effectively hushes both. As did the victim’s other adviser. And beyond this institutional failure, a disturbing detail is that both the ombudsperson and other adviser were also women, and apparently also aware of other complaints.

This article summarizes, but the full text of the legal complaint is so much more powerful and disturbing. And important for professors to read. It is short, and you will find it hard to put down.

With the caveat that these are allegations for the time being, some reflections:

  • How many times has this happened before over two decades with this faculty member? How many times has this been hushed by the university, or a colleague, or self-censoring? Staggering.
  • A friend commented: this is the culture of humanities profession, where older male professors compensate for relatively poor salaries with these non-wage benefits. That’s an exaggerated and unkind interpretation, but I can’t convince myself it’s false.
  • Actually the other cause might be undue concentration of power. In smaller, more specialized, fragmented disciplines, where the costs of switching sub-disciplines are high (e.g. learn a new country and language), advisers will exert more power over their students. So these disciplines might want to think about how to break down internal disciplinary barriers to decentralize power.
  • Not all the facts are known, but the big failure to me is the institutional one: the UCLA coverup. There will always be deviant individuals. The institutional failure to investigate and prosecute is shameful. It’s like 1990 in the Vatican.
  • I’m pretty sure most big organizations and universities would behave in the same way, if allowed. This is not a UCLA problem.
  • Some colleagues of mine criticized the media coverage of the Lacour scandal—the UCLA student who faked a gay marriage study. They felt that UCLA had a process and would take care of it. I disagreed then and I feel even more confident now. Big bureaucracies do not want to deal with this.
  • The most blatant case of academic fraud I ever caught? My university fumbled it so badly it had to be purposeful, and the culprit is now a prominent politician in his/her country.
    • No I won’t tell you whether this was Harvard, Berkeley, Yale or Columbia, as my experience is that none of them are that different in this regard.
  • There has been virtually no news coverage since the UCLA story broke in mid-June. This strikes me as ominous.
  • Here is political economist Michael Chwe on Project Callisto, a web-based system for sexual assault reporting under development.
    • Document and time stamp harassment as it happens to you. It goes nowhere, until at a later date when (a) it gets worse and you need the records, or (b) someone else accuses the same person and you can add your complaint more easily. (b) can be made automatic when someone else reports.

Links I liked

  1. A theory of civil disobedience
  2. Is Amy Schumer the Jon Stewart of feminism? This and this brilliant skit. She might be the most refreshing and talented comic today.
  3. Foreigners who love to love the President of Rwanda: Remember today as your day of Peak Kagame. Sadly, let the fall begin.
  4. What happens when you hold another man’s hand and walk around in Moscow
  5. A lego compatible prosthetic arm allows for kids to build their own attachments
  6. The Comic-Con promotion of Star Wars VII is basically one big message: Don’t worry, we are not George Lucas
  7. “Slavery was the earliest form of Social Security in the United States.” An Alabama history textbook.

Syllabus of the year

From Uwe Reinhardt, James Madison Professor of Political Economy and Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, a new lecture series:

After the near‐collapse of the world’s financial system has shown that we economists really do not know how the world works, I am much too embarrassed to teach economics anymore, which I have done for many years. I will teach Modern Korean Drama instead.

Although I have never been to Korea, I have watched Korean drama on a daily basis for over six years now. Therefore I can justly consider myself an expert in that subject.

Reinhardt is one of the world’s leading health care economists. And hence.

Finally, every good Korean drama has many scenes at super clean hospitals with good‐looking doctors and nurses. Koreans love their hospitals and seem to run to them whenever they have a cold or a headache or are lovesick or simply feel “stress.”

To an economist like me, this fondness for hospitals is surprising, because hospitals are expensive in Korea and much of the bill is not covered by Korea’s National Health Insurance system. Price‐elasticity of demand does not seem to work in Korean drama.

The introduction and first lecture (pdf).

hat tip to Selvin Akkus-Clemens.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Why don’t farmers spend more on better inputs? A new paper by Bold, Kaizzi, Svensson, and Yanagizawa-Drott suggests it may be rational. When they tested seed and fertilizer being sold in Uganda they found 30-50 percent being sold to farmers are counterfeit or adulterated. (Also see this post by Yanagizawa-Drott on using market forces to fight counterfeit malaria meds.)
    • And the great blog Boring Development is looking to talk to people who have experience in Uganda with bad seeds or fertilizer (or ag projects that failed because the seeds didn’t grow as they were supposed to).
  • On the Guardian’s site, Secret Aid Worker asks – does anybody know if celebrity visits to poor areas help? Often the work needed to find a diet coke in a refugee camp outweighs the benefit of an actor nobody there has heard of.
  • On the Econ Talk podcast, economist Russ Roberts interviewed Harvard psychologist/philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene, who does brain scanning research to understand how people make decisions involving tradeoffs, particularly moral ones. It gets really good when they get into how our moral wiring makes for tricky policy decisions when doing the most good conflicts with our instincts.
  • We reported on the new development bank being led by China, which the US had discouraged other countries from joining (presumably out of fear about growing Chinese influence in developing countries). Scott Morris and Mamoru Higashikokubaru from CGD, analyzed the newly announced voting structure and well, here-

Via Center for Global Development

  • But Laura Seay interviewed journalist Howard French, on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog about his new book on Chinese involvement in Africa. He argues that Chinese involvement in developing countries is usually beneficial for both, and despite American fears, African leaders know what they’re doing and aren’t about to become puppets of China. He also points out much of the fear-based discussion in the West lacks voices from either Africa or China.

If you got away without taking econ 101 or your family wants to understand why you keep talking about “opportunity costs” of visiting, the Crash Course YouTube channel which does entertaining 5-10-minute lessons on many topics, is starting 40 short lessons explaining economics for lay-people.

Plus, you’ll never have to deal with this on a final exam:


The biggest barrier to ending poverty is… our paternalism?

If anti-poverty programs can pay for themselves in two or three years rather than twenty, wouldn’t that make sense?

Today I have a post in the WashPo’s Monkey Cage on programs that give livestock or cash plus training and other services, such as supervision and advising. Some recent studies, including one of mine, say these are cost effective programs that pay for themselves many times over.

True. And this is a big deal. But my post shows it could take decades. Always read the small print:

  • Two to three years after the livestock or cash, all but one of these programs are raising the incomes of the poorest households by $71 to $202 a year. Since a dollar goes much further in poor countries, that’s actually $250 to $500 a year in purchasing power. that’s big.
  • Unfortunately several of the programs cost one, two or even three thousand dollars per person, mainly because of heavy supervision time and other staff expenses.
  • This means that, even with the high payoffs every year, the average livestock-plus program will take 18 years or more to break even. That’s not a number I have seen in the news coverage or calls for scaling up these programs.
  • But the lower cost programs (including livestock-plus in India and cash-plus in Uganda) are paying off in three to five years. And their impacts are still high.
  • Half the expenses are for supervision. What if we dropped this paternalism? If benefits fall by less than half, then the program breaks even much sooner.
  • We tried this in Uganda. Compared to cash and training with expensive supervision, cash and training alone had almost identical effects on consumption after a year. Some businesses were more likely to stay open, and profits were a tiny bit higher. But it’s hard to believe supervision passes a cost-benefit test.

The message is clear: charities need to shift the burden of proof to high cost components such as supervision and training. We need to be laser focused on how many years for a program to break even. If three years is possible, why accept 20?

Read the full post. If you’re interested in my numbers, here’s the table I calculated from the Science paper and my own work. If you want purchasing power parity figures use the multipliers (or just times things by three in your head.) Click to expand.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 9.56.23 AM


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • IPA is among the many organizations endorsing new research transparency and openness guidelines published in Science by 37 authors, including Ted Miguel and Rachel Glennerster. Also see the accompanying articles including how one cancer biologist’s findings were chosen to be independently replicated (or not…). More on what IPA is doing for research transparency here.

In the US, we’re approaching the July 4th holiday weekend, and we thought we’d provide some summer reading (and other media) lists:

  • The folks at Quartz Africa have been kind enough to supplement the NY Times all-White author summer reading list with one from African authors (and a similar one from India here).
  • If you’re going to be driving (or similarly occupied) the Financial Times’ Tim Harford recommends Owen Barder’s list of econ podcasts to load up on.
  •  Marc Bellemare has been doing a series on books that have shaped his thinking in: development, food and agriculture, and econometrics (and if you’re reading an econometrics book on your holiday weekend, I’d offer you a job, but you probably already work for IPA).
  • For casual browsing, Rachel Strohm has recently refreshed her list of twitter voices from Africa, broken down by country.

But two of the best longform articles I’ve read recently have both been about refugees and immigration:

At age six, I ran away with my sister to escape the Rwandan massacre. We spent seven years as refugees. What do you want me to do about it? Cry?

After passing through 8 countries she ended up in a wealthy Chicago suburb, then went to Yale, but much of her point is that she doesn’t feel sorry for or applaud herself, it’s just what happened. It’s wonderfully written. (h/t Tom Murphy)

Both amazingly well written and will make you feel smarter about the world, worth printing out and taking with you.


And for Canada Day, we offer you a skiing moose:

Pranab Bardhan on what’s missing from the “institutions and development” literature

His review of the state and development literature is coming out in the Journal of Economic Literature, and it’s one of the best surveys I’ve read. (Link works now)

An excerpt:

There is now a burgeoning literature on state capacity contributing to the aforementioned state ‘strength’, spelling out the various ingredients, particularly fiscal, legal and military aspects of capacity.

For example, the role of wars in forging such capacity, and that of a Weberian bureaucracy, its autonomy from the political process, its career paths and incentive payments have been discussed in this context.

Less often discussed is the nature of political coalition among different interest or identity group and ‘social pacts’ and inter‐temporal bargains that make the key difference and the underlying problems of collective action that have to be overcome in building the all‐important political capacity of the state.

I’ve made related arguments in the past:

You might argue a third dimension of institutions is the political machinery that gets developed to answer the question “Who decides?”. And re-answer it every day without a destructive conflict or tumultuous turnover of power. All the apparatus that helps elites and groups bargain and make and hold agreements, have a political conversation and compete for power more or less peacefully.

This kind of political development has a lot in common with “constraints” and “capacity”, but it’s distinct. “How to manage peaceful political transitions as the relative power of different interest groups change?” is a really, really, fundamental question a society has to answer to have persistent economic growth.

Bardhan makes the case better than I can. I think I’ve found the cornerstone for my SIPA course on the political economy of development. The full article is recommended.

China’s annual human rights report on the US

The excessive use of force by police officers led to many deaths, sparking public outcry. …After the grand jury of both Missouri and New York decided to bring no charges against the white police officer, massive protests broke out in more than 170 cities nationwide

…To acquire intelligence from suspects of terrorism and extremism, the CIA used brutal methods, such as sleep deprivation, waterboarding, long-term solitary confinement, slamming prisoners against the wall, lashing, death threat and even “rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding.

…The U.S. is a country with grim problems of racial discrimination, and institutional discrimination against ethnic minorities continued. Serious racial bias persisted in the police and justice systems.

…”Dark money” flowed into elections, and the voting rights of racial minorities and other groups were intentionally suppressed. A few interest groups with power were able to influence the government’s decision-making.

Full text. If your first reaction was “what a bunch of hypocrites,” then your second reaction, equally correct, should be “that is probably what the rest of the world says after a US human rights report.”

Hat tip to Sami Bazzi.

Scalia says, “Ask the nearest hippie”

In the dissenting opinion of this morning’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, Justice Antonin Scalia memorably wrote: “Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality (whatever that means) were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

That is L.V. Anderson, who did just that. The first hippie on the street had important things to say.

I have never been married. I have had the same wonderful girlfriend for 26 years, and just being dedicated to her … it does limit. Like, if I walk down the street and I met a woman who was hot and was interested, I would turn her down.

You cannot imagine the change in the acceptance of homosexuality. I had friends in high school who were gay people—I mean, I know now with wisdom of looking back and the misery they suffered in their shortened lives; let’s remember that first of all, all of them are dead. Here I am, almost 75, and I’m this happy straight guy with a gorgeous girlfriend and we have wonderful times, and none of them are in that position.

I mean, the degree—you know this because you’ve heard about it and read about it, but it’s even more than you can imagine, the degree to which their lives were miserable.

Even if my religion or morals told me gay marriage was wrong, the scale and scope of the misery and discrimination heaped upon gays has been so great, and the imposition of their marriage on others so trivial, I don’t see how you could oppose it. Full interview is great.

And, by the way, I feel like saying this out loud: Whatever side of this issue you are on, surely we can all agree that Scalia is a complete ass.

In case you are feeling relentlessly gay this morning…

I opened my door, and found a note from my neighbor. Regarding a set of rainbow jar solar lights hanging in my yard that spell out “Love” and “Ohana”.  They informed me that the neighborhood is “christian” and has “children” and asked me to stop being “relentlessly gay”….

Needless to say…  I need more rainbows… Many, many more rainbows….

The GoFundMe campaign has now reached more than 40k. Update: There’s a chance there is fraud, though accusations are all rather speculative.

Here are pictures of the letter and the offending art project:



Links I liked

  1. Old Navy has a “blogger” line of clothing. As if I could pull off a slim fit shirt anymore.
  2. Ben Goldacre on “How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it”
  3. How to pick a cell phone plan for international travel
  4. The Atlantic covers my ex-combatant reintegration study
  5. California cracks down on idiot parents who oppose vaccination
  6. A PR victory for One Laptop per Child: Rwanda just put them on the 500 franc note.
    Rwanda Note_500This in spite of the fact that the evaluations suggest the laptops have little impact on education. Sigh.

Obama, authoritarian BFF?

“Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Those were President Obama’s words when he addressed Ghana’s parliament in July 2009, during his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president. The historic speech, watched around the globe, was an optimistic clarion call to the leaders on the continent from the son of a Kenyan. “First, we must support strong and sustainable democratic governments,” Mr. Obama said.

The president seems to have forgotten that speech. Last week, the White House announced that, while traveling to Kenya next month, Mr. Obama also will stop in Ethiopia, the first such visit by a sitting U.S. president to the country of 94 million. It’s almost unfathomable that he would make time for an entrenched human rights abuser such as Ethi­o­pia while cold-shouldering the nation that just witnessed a historic, peaceful, democratic change of power: Nigeria.

That is a Washington Post Op-Ed. The most incredible part of this whole story: the Post editors thought African democracy mattered to its readers and the world. It’s a different era.

Personally, I think the Obama administration lost its democratic credentials when it dry humped Egypt’s coup leaders.

At least you could see the miserable strategic logic. But this Ethiopia business just goes to show that paltry little concerns, like troops in Somalia, are enough to abandon principle.

Then again, Susan Rice (Obama’s National Security Advisor) has always had a special place in her heart for African dictators who can get growth rates above 2%. She has a low bar.

But sincerely, I want to know: how does Obama the idealist justify cozying to a regime that is one of the worst oppressors of journalists, fixes and intimidates its way to victory at the polls, spies on international journalists and researchers, severely restricts freedom of expression and assembly, and that is getting worse not better over time?

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Have a research idea on financial services for the poor? IPA (with a grant from the Gates Foundation) is looking to fund new research (deadline is August 2).
  • Bloomberg Businessweek had a special issue explaining to us novices how code works (at a non-technical level) in one long article. It reads almost like an anthropology of coding.
  • The famous Stanford Prison Experiment assigned average people to what was supposed to be a prison simulation, but quickly grew out of control. It is considered one of the progenitors of modern research ethics rules, and now is portrayed in a (very dramatic-looking) movie, trailer here.
  • The US Supreme court upheld the healthcare law, apparently citing, in part, the work of a rising second year Ph.D. student. (So if you were having a good week…)
  • A newly published AEJ Applied paper reports on a randomized controlled trial of the One Laptop Per Child XO computer with 1000 students in Peru. There were no impacts found on academic achievement or cognitive skill, and lower teacher reported student effort (published paper, ungated version here).
  • Three new cases of Ebola reported in Sierra Leone (h/t Tom Murphy)
  • If you missed it, there’s a good article in Foreign Affairs by the IRC’s David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy, on how to make aid more efficient and effective, which Chris blogged about and probably summarized best on Twitter:

Amazing but true: “be more efficient” and “stop doing things that don’t work” are revolutionary statements in aid


And from Reddit via Max Roser, as you can see, people are divided about 50-50 on cutting off the Y-axis:Tunkating Y Axis


News producers agree:


Bush-tax cuts


Dear governments and aid agencies: Please stop hurting poor people with your skills training programs

Here is an incredible number: From 2002 to 2012 the World Bank and its client governments invested $9 billion dollars across 93 skills training programs for the poor and unemployed. In lay terms, that is a hundred freaking million dollars per program.

Unfortunately, these skills probably did very little to create jobs or reduce poverty.

Virtually every program evaluation tells us the same thing: training only sometimes has a positive impact. Almost never for men. And the programs are so expensive—often $1000 or $2000 per person—that it’s hard to find one that passes a simple cost-benefit test.

You might think to yourself: That’s not so bad. Nobody hurt the poor. Plus the trainers and the firms probably benefited. So it’s not a total loss.

If you think this, I urge you to transfer to an organization where you can no longer affect the world. I can think of a couple UN agencies with excellent benefits.

Because when you take billions of dollars a year (because the World Bank is hardly the only spender on skills programs) and you spend them on vocational bridges to nowhere, you have denied those dollars to programs that actually work: an anti-retroviral treatment, a deworming pill, a cow, a well, or a cash transfer. You have destroyed value in the world.

I know what some are thinking: skills program just have to be more market-driven, or on-the-job, or linked to firms, or targeted to the right people.

Maybe. And these might pass a cost-benefit test if you can make them cost much less. But I want you to ask yourself: do you want to run programs that are hard to get right, or hard to get wrong?

Because if you want to create work for unemployed people, and reduce extreme poverty, there are in fact programs that are hard to get wrong.

It gets better. Currently, about two billion people live in countries that are deemed fragile or have high homicide rates. Jobs and incomes in these countries will probably mean less crime, and maybe even a decrease in other kinds of violence. Especially if they are targeted to the highest-risk men.

If you’re thinking to yourself “hey, I would like to read 20,000 more words on this, preferably in dry prose,” well do I have the paper for you. I have a new review paper with Laura Ralston: Generating employment in poor and fragile states: Evidence from labor market and entrepreneurship programs.

It is a draft for discussion, and comments and criticisms (in emails, blog comments, and prank calls) will be integrated over the coming months.

Fortunately the paper includes a 4-page executive summary. And, even better, an abstract!

The world’s poor—and programs to raise their incomes—are increasingly concentrated in fragile states. We review the evidence on what interventions work, and whether stimulating employment promotes social stability.

Skills training and microfinance have shown little impact on poverty or stability, especially relative to program cost. In contrast, injections of capital—cash, capital goods, or livestock—seem to stimulate self-employment and raise long term earning potential, often when partnered with low-cost complementary interventions. Such capital-centric programs, alongside cash-for-work, may be the most effective tools for putting people to work and boosting incomes in poor and fragile states.

We argue that policymakers should shift the balance of programs in this direction. If targeted to the highest risk men, we should expect such programs to reduce crime and other materially-motivated violence modestly. Policymakers, however, should not expect dramatic effects of employment on crime and violence, in part because some forms of violence do not respond to incomes or employment.

Finally, this review finds that more investigation is needed in several areas. First, are skills training and other interventions cost-effective complements to capital injections? Second, what non-employment strategies reduce crime and violence among the highest risk men, and are they complementary to employment programs?

Third, policymakers can reduce the high failure rate of employment programs by using small-scale pilots before launching large programs; investing in labor market panel data; and investing in multi-country studies to test and fine tune the most promising interventions.