Decades of social science completely changed how I think about conflict. But no one seemed to be talking about these ideas. How do you fix a problem if you don’t understand it? That’s why I wrote this book: to boil down for a general audience the big ideas from political science, economics, psychology, history, and a dozen other fields.
A lot of people think war is easy and peace is hard. It’s actually the opposite: war is hard and peace is easier than you think. You look around the world or even your city and see so much misery and violence, it’s easy to forget that most rivals don’t fight. Most countries, political factions, ethnic groups, religious sects, and even criminal gangs compete in other ways, because fighting is ruinous. The horrors of war are a powerful incentive for peace. We should never forget this natural state of humankind.
Of course, some groups do go to war, and that’s generally because something overwhelmed their incentives to find a deal. You might think this happens in a million ways, and to some extent that’s true. There’s a war for every reason and a reason for every war. But a lot of these reasons rhyme. In the end, there are really just five logical ways that compromise breaks down. Every explanation you’ve heard fits into one of these logics. And every path out of violence turns these logics around, and gets rivals back to loathing one another in peace.
Here’s a 15-minute flash talk on the book, explaining what Colombian mafias have in common with the UN Security Council:
A quick note, my posting frequency has slowed down in 2021, thanks for sticking with it. One reason has been that I’ve been co-authoring another set of links with my brilliant IPA colleagues, Luciana Debenedetti & Rachel Strohm, every other week focused on new research on COVID and social protection (this week’s is here). Among other, I think I also hit what I now realize was a quarantine burnout. If it’s helpful to anybody else, this article which colleagues shared with me helped me realize it was widespread phenomenon, and this one from Wharton’s Adam Grant, had some suggestions for combating it. In any case, I’ll be continuing with the links (even if at a slightly slower pace sometimes), and thanks for reading!
I haven’t mentioned it in a while, but I always owe a big thanks to my colleague Cara Vu, the busiest person I know at IPA in the U.S., who’s been editing these links and saves me from embarrassing mistakes in every post.
A new study finds 71-77% efficacy of a new Malaria vaccine in a phase 2 trial with 450 children in Burkina Faso. The vaccine will now proceed to a larger trial.
You may recall last fall there was an AER article (ungated version here) by Abel Brodeur, Nikolai Cook & Anthony Heyes estimating p-hacking prevalence across different methods in econ, using 21,000 hypotheses tests in 25 journals. They concluded that some methods (looking at you, IV) were more prone to p-hacking than others, but also that overall econ compared favorably to other disciplines. I didn’t see at the time, but one of the team that coined the term p-hacking and started the replicability/credibility movement in psych and was one of the reviewers of the article, Uri Simonsohn, who was one of the reviewers of the article, had a detailed post about why he disagrees with their conclusion.
In this cool paper (from November) Karthik Muralidharan & Abhijeet Singh, looked at a school improvement program in India that sounded good (implementing management best practices), but an RCT showed had no effect on learning. Despite that, it was scaled up to 600,000 schools, and still appeared to have no effect on learning. What it did do though, they found in qualitative interviews, was give the appearance that schools were innovating and improving, and the authors suggest that may be where incentives really lie.
This seems to parallel this accusation by UN aid coordinator Mark Lowcock, that aid agencies are failing because they’re not really listening to what the people suffering really need. They can send what they want/have handy/theorize would be good, even if refugees end up trying to sell what they’ve been sent, because of misaligned incentives:
“Ultimately, organisations or decision-makers can choose to listen to people and be responsive, or they can choose not to. There are no real consequences for the choice they make. There are weak incentives to push them in the right direction.”
It’s unclear if he also means the agency he was in charge of, but Ilya Gridneffcalls this pattern the development sector’s “self-licking ice cream cone” Lowcock proposes an independent body to listen to what humanitarian beneficiaries actually need and grade aid agencies on whether they’re delivering it.
A nicer ed story though, from Aker & Ksoll; a simple phone call to adults enrolled in a literacy program in Niger (weekly calls to the students and teachers in the class, along with village chiefs), increased learning and how long those learning gains lasted. They think the calls encouraged the teachers to be more prepared for class and reduced student dropouts.
A nice look at how Vietnam kept COVID death rates so low, and also grew its economy in 2020 raises some uncomfortable points:
Strict border closures (particularly early with China), seemed to work, defying the mantra that viruses know no borders (one source points out that was an assumed truth not really tested). Karen Grépin says those restrictions work well early, when there are few cases and the response seems like overkill.
The single party communist government harnessed its existing surveillance system for disease monitoring and tracking. (Though countries like Taiwan and New Zealand also accomplished containment through different means.)
It’s possible that their cyber spying on China got them better data about the disease and earlier than was publicly available
An interesting NPR story on a new paper about disease surveillance that upends a popular myth. Many viruses like COVID-19 start in animals and jump to humans, but it’s not a one-time deal. The virus usually jumps several times, often over decades, before a version evolves that can spread from human-to human. (The other versions might be catchable from the animal and can make a person sick but don’t spread in the human population). Surveilling groups of sick people, which they’re doing in Malaysia, can find those sick with an early new virus, potentially before it’s transmissible between humans.
Samia Suluhu Hassan was sworn in as Tanzania’s first woman president, following the death of John Magufuli, known for his denial of COVID-19 in the country. Some speculate the virus was the cause of his death rather than the official announced cause, heart failure.
A nice article from Dani Rodrik about how economists can get along with other fields. Known for their breadth and willing to take on many kinds of questions, economists often raise the ire of specialists in other fields, and he explains the implicit understanding between different methodological approaches. Economists might find an association between rainfall and civil conflict in data, and announce a link, but that’s very different from starting from “what causes regional conflict” the way a historian or political scientists might. (h/t Matt Collin)
Randall Blair of Mathematica tries to distill lessons in why it’s so hard for large scale agriculture interventions to make a difference in farmers’ lives. So many factors go into farm output (like weather and supply chains) and the more farmers a program tries to reach, the more opportunities there are for the original program to get watered down. Another is that there are many different kinds of farmers, and often it’s only the better-off ones who are able to take advantage of new offers of assistance effectively. He recommends starting with smaller segments of farmers and a deeper understanding of their constraints, but donors need to set longer time frames and allow for testing and adjustment of programs.
Marshall Burke, Anne Driscoll, David B. Lobell & Stefano Ermon have a new piece out in Science reviewing what’s known about satellite measures for measuring livelihoods (the article’s gated but Marshall has a twitter thread explaining it here). Paired with machine learning, there’s incredible potential, for broad and often quite accurate measurements, but it’s best accomplished when combined with traditional on-the-ground measures, including because the ML needs good training data. They recommend satellite measurements as an amplification, rather than a replacement, for traditional measures.
With child tax credits in the news, a new paper from Baker, Messacar & Stabile analyzes two Canadian programs that cut child poverty without reducing parents’ working. And for the U.S. Matt Darling reviews evidence showing that giving cash doesn’t make people work less.
If it’s been a long week, enjoy this title and abstract:
My colleagues in the methods department at IPA have an RFP out for awards of up to $20,000 for studies to improve methods, generalizability, transparency and the like. Deadline Feb 28th.
26 co-authors published a paper using 16 samples of household surveys of 30,000 people in 9 countries to assess impact of last spring’s COVID disruptions. As you can imagine, it was grave, with losses of income, and hunger—including in children—at alarming levels. A number of co-authors and other scholars, along with IPA, J-PAL, CEGA, Y-RISE and the ICG have signed onto a joint statement calling for more attention from the international community to social safety nets in low-income countries and fighting the economic impacts of the virus.
Peterman, Schwab, Roy, Hidrobo, and Gilligan have a paper showing in Ecuador, Uganda, and Yemen that small wording changes in how researchers ask about women’s decisionmaking (in the context of aid programs) can make big differences in the conclusion (Peterman and Seymour discuss the difficulty of coming up with standardized measurements of women’s agency more here). And on the Dev Impact Blog Markus Goldstein summarizes a new approach to measuring women’s agency from Jayachandran, Biradavolu, and Cooper who use machine learning combined with qualitative semi-structured interviews to come up with a five question measure of women’s agency in Northern India.
A number of professors are taking advantage of remote teaching to open their classes up to students from low- and middle-income countries (as I understand, just to sit in informally, not for credit). Potential teachers and students can browse and sign up at https://remotestudentexchange.org please share with friends who might benefit from it!
The Continent is a free and really readable news digest of Africa-related stories, this week’s lead story is about how Tanzania has declared it has no COVID-19 cases, and the consequences of the government’s denial for people there.
Stuff the British Stole (Apple) from the Australian Broadcast Corporation is great. The episode about the two retired British policemen who try to smuggle a looted artifact back into Nigeria to return was really well-done.
The Charter Cities Podcast episode with Leonard Wantchekon (Apple) about creating an African center of scholarship, and his personal story being imprisoned for political activism and escaping was a great listen (you can read more in his book chapter)
And I’m looking forward to listening to the Hidden Curriculum Podcast (Apple) episode with labor economist Sally Hudson on her journey from professor to Virginia State Delegate and connecting research to policy.
The University of Edinburgh has two full scholarships for African students interested in studying African studies there, starting with a one-year master’s degree that leads into a Ph.D. (deadline March 31).
The latest I’ve seen on the Uganda election is that ballot counting continues, I thought I saw police had disrupted counting at at least one location, and opposition candidate, singer Bobi Wine says the military has stationed themselves in and around his home without explanation.
Charles Kenny has a new paper and blog post out arguing aid would help the most people if it prioritized the poorest places first.
He also has a new book, The Plague Cycle, tracing how humanity has co-evolved with disease until recently. From the publisher’s site:
Written as colorful history, The Plague Cycle reveals the relationship between civilization, globalization, prosperity, and infectious disease over the past five millennia. It harnesses history, economics, and public health, and charts humanity’s remarkable progress, providing a fascinating and timely look at the cyclical nature of infectious disease.
And on VoxDev Maximilian Kasy & Anja Sautmann talk about adaptive experiments – reallocating samples to the treatment groups that seem to be working better. (One question I have having read only the post and not the paper yet, is one one develops a “stopping rule” to confirm one treatment’s better in different kinds of contexts. I think I’d seen one danger with adaptive experiments online with tech companies and customer behavior is that one’s often likely to have periods of stability randomly but then they shift later, and if you’d continued the experiment longer you’d have gotten a different aggregate result, I’m not sure if the same applies to traditional RCTs)
Gender and economic agency (Note: this one is limited to J-PAL affiliates and invited researchers only. For work in Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Tanzania, and Uganda prioritized with limited funding for elsewhere in East Africa and South Asia, Deadline March 12th).
There’s been a lot of speculation on why Israel is so far ahead of other countries on vaccination (about 25% of the population so far). A lot seems to come down to a small country with centralized healthcare, but data apparently is another reason. The country secured a lot of doses ahead of time by agreeing to share healthcare system data with Pfizer, studying population effects as it was rolled out. Based on some of that data, it appears there’s a 33% drop in test positivity 2 weeks after the first dose (comparing tests of 200,000 people over 60 years old who’d gotten the vaccine with 200,000 who hadn’t). Seems like a nice example of building research into the rollout.
First a plug – my colleagues at IPA have done amazing work this year quickly pivoting a big research organization to tackle the covid crisis head-on, studying hunger, refugee issues, education and 80+ other topics, and staying up late into the night, over and over again. Not all of our expenses are covered directly by research grants, so we rely on donations for the rest. If you donate here BEFORE TUESDAY you gift will be matched, doubling the total. Thanks!
A bizarre but massive fake news campaign seems to have involved reviving or impersonating a number of real/defunct NGOs in India, along with the fake persona of a dead Harvard Law professor, to spread anti-Pakistan, pro-India sentiment with the EU and UN, running for over 15 years.
(Above) The Economist analyzed abstracts of 900,000 Econ articles to look at where geographically, economists focus on, and as David McKenzie pointed out, finds the Bahamas understudied relative to its GDP.
If I understand it right (based on a quick glance and Alexander Berger’s summary) Alex Eble, Chris Frost, Alpha Camara, Baboucarr Bouy, Momodou Bah, Maitri Sivaraman,Jenny Hsieh, Chitra Jayanty, Tony Brady, Piotr Gawron, Peter Boone, and Diana Elbourne ended up running their own schools for four years in The Gambia, to test the combined effects of 3 interventions previously shown to work (catch up tutoring, scripted lesson plans, and coaching for teachers), and found huge effects. The program was expensive, but delivered a lot of bang for the buck – kids in their schools learned 50% more.
VoxDev is doing something cool, launching dynamic lit reviews, which are wiki-style summaries of knowledge updated by a group of experts several times a year. The first one by Woodruff and McKenzie is short and to the point on what’s known about training entrepreneurs.
Colombia has well over a million Venezuelan migrants, many of whom were offered work permits in an enlightened move by the host country. Job market candidate Julieth Santamaria has some clever work taking advantage of internet search data (differentiating between words Venezuelans and Colombians would use to search for jobs) to study where migrants are combining that with job market data to show no impact of their presence on the broader labor market. E.g. immigrants don’t hurt native workers. Once again.
Tamara Broderick, Ryan Giordano, & Rachael Meager have struck terror into the hearts of researchers with a method showing that dropping as little as 1% of influential data points in a sample can make an effect disappear, or the sign reverse (and offer an R package to let you test it on someone you hate). Twitter does what it’s learned to do when faced with an existential threat, memed it. You can find them on Rachael’s feed or many at the hashtag #AMIPMemes (Here’s Rachael’s explanation thread)
Pretty good piece in SSIR by Kevin Starr and Sarah Miers of the Mulago Foundation, why don’t big NGOs scale up other social entrepreneurs’ solutions? They spoke to a bunch of leaders and once they got past the laughter and disbelief at the idea, found
“Not created here syndrome” that everybody knows about
Big funders like government aid agencies prioritize project-based work
Differing priorities at country vs. headquarters
Hard to replicate someone else’s idea and get it to work
They recommend looking for what’s already out there instead of re-inventing the wheel in house. BTW, I believe Anne Karing’s fantastic bracelets as social nudges for vaccinations project in Sierra Leone came from exploring ideas that had already been implemented or proposed by health workers and were discontinued or shelved for one reason or another.
The economics behind the economics of the COVID vaccine: the WHO is trying to avoid a repeat of slowdowns in H1N1 vaccine distribution in low-income countries because of confusion over who would be liable for any adverse reactions. They are setting up a facility to fund liability claims if anybody in any of 92 economies has a negative medical consequence from a COVID vaccine. It sets up a mechanism outside the courts (which can be expensive and slow) to compensate victims and indemnify manufacturers, but it’s still unclear where the funding would come from.
An advice thread looking for good books about development. This was my entry, a collaboration between graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson (who I gather is well-known) and Omar Mohamed: When Starts Are Scattered. It’s about growing up in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. I liked how it was told very matter of fact, not playing up suffering, and from a kid’s perspective.
As the Tanzanian election arrives and is looking not great, Vodafone is being accused of blocking text messages with the opposition candidate’s name (article might be gated). If true, and a private company is trying to influence an election outcome, it’s a quite serious precedent.
Fantastic trilogy of podcasts from Rough Translation (Apple) on protest movements, my favorite has to be the researcher protesting Uganda’s government with nudity and profane poetry, but Indian caste discrimination in Silicon Valley, and China fan fiction were great also.
You can register for the big NEUDC development conference, featuring an opening address by Penny Goldberg, held Fri Nov 6 – Sat Nov 7, now all online!
You can also still submit an abstract (500 word limit) for a lightning round session, deadline Monday!
Cool paper comparing 150 education interventions from Noam Angrist, David Evans, Deon Filmer, Rachel Glennerster, F. Halsey Rogers and Shwetlena Sabarwal. They use a common metric, how much of a year’s worth of education in a high performing country like Singapore a program would give and, (when possible) for how much money. They find the best deals in 3 interventions:
Giving families information about how much staying in school is worth to a child’s future earnings
Teacher professional development and monitoring
And targeted instruction, making sure the content being taught is correct for each child’s level (including programs like catch-up tutoring for kids who can’t keep up with the class):
In India, targeted instruction yields up to 4 additional learning-adjusted years of schooling per $100—a gain equivalent to the entire system-level education gap between India and Argentina.
IPA is part of a consortium of organizations promoting a combination of inexpensive testing and targeting instructions to help make up learning losses from COVID school closings around the world, and is trying to get the word out to education policymakers and organizations. Learn more in a webinar on October 29th.
Job Market Candidates, the annual Blog Your Job Market Paper opportunity is open on the Dev Impact Blog! (submission deadline Nov 5).
It’s a rough job market all around, FWIW I spoke to a friend of mine who is in the niche business of assessing economic damages for trials (a form of litigation consulting), who said the field is going like gangbusters and it’s a fine job for econ Ph.D.s, though like any non-academic field you have to quickly get up to speed in the unwritten rules of what counts as important (the legal world has its own ways of arguing and presenting information, though once you’ve mastered it, it’s pretty straightforward), so you need to find somewhere willing to train you and not throw you in the deep end. In his experience Stata is standard, though he’s heard of people using R. He recommends approaching firms through recruiters or the contact email on the website (which is usually monitored by someone high up since that’s how clients find them).
The nice folks at the Financial Access Initiative have a webinar Oct 28th on what we do and don’t know about helping low-income families save (in the U.S. and abroad).
I don’t recommend listening to Tyler Cowen’s conversation with Michael Kremer while driving, because I missed my turn engrossed in his explanation of how incentives work for innovation, including vaccine development. I knew about Advance Market Commitments (commitments in advance to buy enough doses to make the initial R&D investment profitable), which had worked for a pneumonia vaccine in low-income countries (partially, since much of the R&D had already been done for strains in wealthy countries). I didn’t know that the original committee had also recommended a malaria AMC, but that was shelved in favor of one that offered (perhaps for political reasons) a more likely short-term win.
And Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs will face the highest fine ever (in the low billions) for violating anti-corruption laws, funneling money from a multi-billion dollar Malaysian investment fund called 1MDB into personal pockets:
In all, some $2.7 billion of the money raised for 1MDB was stolen by people connected to the country’s former prime minister and diverted for bribes, a luxury yacht, fine art and even funding for the Hollywood movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
I’m working on a new email newsletter, with colleagues including Rachel Strohm (who has been a well-respected dev blogger for years). IPA’s tracking studies on COVID related issues in low- and middle-income countries (along with survey instruments and funding opportunities) on our RECOVR research hub (please submit yours, and let colleagues know). Every other week we’re highlighting some new results from there and elsewhere we come across, particularly as relates to social protection, but also related topics. Volumes one and two are on our blog, and you can sign up to get it on our email list (after you sign up you can adjust which kinds of emails you get).
I’ve been skeptical of the nudge craze but have been eagerly awaiting the results of the NYC Summons redesign (image above) from Ideas42 for a while, and the results, published last week in Science, are better than I expected. Alissa Fishbane, Aurelie Ouss, Anuj K. Shah report on an experiment with New York City redesigning summons that police officers issue for low-level offenses, requiring people to appear in court. About 100,000 people miss their court dates in the city every year, causing arrest warrants to be issued, but simply redesigning the form to be more understandable and explaining what’s required of people reduced failures to show up from 47% to 40.8%. Adding an additional text message reminder brought it down to 28%. (Summary from Science’s news side here). The tragedy of all the lives ruined by bad administrative design is hard to ignore.
Ideas42 is also working on an interesting new project, Ideas42 Ventures, which is looking to support entrepreneurs working on software solutions to social problems, specifically excess costs of poverty (deadline to apply, Oct 25).
Michel Azulai, Imran Rasul, Daniel Rogger, and Martin Williams report on an RCT of a simple one-day management training for members of Ghana’s civil service, and found effects on knowledge, attitudes, and team productivity 6-18 months later.
I’ve been listening to some of today’s Penn-Wharton Conference on Race and Economics (live stream here, don’t know how long it will last), A couple things that jumped out at me from the panel discussing racial inclusion in the field were Modibo Sidibe saying he couldn’t advise someone who’s in a minority group to go into an econ graduate program, knowing all the obstacles they’d face (though not everybody shared his assessment). Mackenzie Alston pointed out that many of the voluntary information and programs intended to remedy the problems end up with only those already motivated and interested attending. Lisa Cook pointed out that out of all the top econ programs, one – Berkeley – has accounted for a disproportionate share (maybe 40%?) of Black econ Ph.D.s and perhaps other departments could find out what they’re doing. All departments and colleagues should be aware of the AEA’s Best Practices for Building a More Diverse, Inclusive, and Productive Profession resources.
New results from my colleagues in Colombia with Chris Blattman, David Cerero, Gustavo Duncan, Sebastian Hernandez, Benjamin Lessing, Juan F. Martínez, Juan Pablo Mesa-Mejía, Helena Montoya, and Santiago Tobón find the sensationalized headlines from early in the COVID days about gangs enforcing quarantine don’t hold up, at least in Medellin, where gangs do provide a lot neighborhood municipal services. Using existing research on gang governance, a survey of all low- and middle-income neighborhoods showed government was providing most public health and social services, except for in a few neighborhoods. (I summarize in a thread here).
Chris just gave a talk on the ongoing project on how and why gangs function like governments, it’s online here (if position isn’t preserved in this link it starts at the 2 hour mark:
The Ugandan government has suspended GiveDirectly’s operation (which I believe was in conjunction with USAID), with a really weird-seeming accusation against an org with a lot of research and transparency:
[interim executive director of the National Bureau for NGOs, Stephen] Okello claimed that an investigation had found that GiveDirectly’s cash handouts were likely to make Ugandans lazy, promote idleness, domestic violence, dependency syndrome and tension within neighbouring villages. Okello also cast doubt on the source of GiveDirectly’s cash.
Michael Kremer’s looking for a deputy director for his new Development Innovation Lab at UChicago
IRC: a very cool initiative studying promotion of play-based education in several East African countries (with IPA and several other orgs) is looking for a senior education researcher (based in Kampala). And (separately) for a researcher in Nairobi or Kampala on a livelihoods project.
IPA has a new program on how COVID has affected women’s work and entrepreneurship, and is looking for a senior policy associate and policy manager in Dhaka and in Nairobi, respectively. Also in Dhaka, we’re looking for a consultant to work on consumer financial protection around digital financial services (And more IPA listings on our jobs page here)
Some student-created infographic examples from the Communicating Economics website.
Communicating Economics is a site with tools, tips, and videos of in-person college level lectures on, well, pretty much what the title says. It comes from the person behind Econ Films, whom I’ve worked with before and are very good at at what they do.
A Belgian court has cleared the way for the remains of the first Prime Minister of an independent Republic of Congo (now the DRC) to be returned to his family. In 1961 Patrice Lumumba had been in the job for three months when the Belgian government had him killed, along with two family members. And his “remains” consists of a tooth, because the Belgian authorities also ordered his body to be dissolved in acid. Longer story (for those with strong stomachs) here.
An interesting paper by Obie Porteous, analyzing 27,000 econ papers about Africa finds:
“45% of all economics journal articles and 65% of articles in the top five economics journals are about five countries accounting for just 16% of the continent’s population. I show that 91% of the variation in the number of articles across countries can be explained by a peacefulness index, the number of international tourist arrivals, having English as an official language, and population.”
The “big five” locations that dominate Western econ are Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, and Malawi. On Conversations with Tyler recently, Tyler Cowen asked Nathan Nunn about this (particularly as relates to RCTs). Nunn responded that it’s very difficult to set up a research infrastructure, but once it’s there, it’s hard to go somewhere new and start again, and admitted that even though he doesn’t do RCTs he’s fallen into the same pattern.
A cool-looking paper from Agyei-Holmes, Buehren, Goldstein, Osei, Osei-Akoto, & Udry looks at a land titling program in Ghana (I know, see above, but to be fair, I know that at least Udry’s been doing research in Ghana for 30 years, and two of the authors are at Ghanaian institutions). The paper looks at how giving formal ownership to farmers increased their investments into their land and agricultural output. Except that it did the opposite – interestingly, when people got titles to the land, the value of the land increased and the owners, particularly women, shifted to other types of work, and business profits went up.
It’s a big week for findings from cash studies including: publication of Chris’s study with Fiala and Martinez showing cash benefitted Ugandan participants, but by 9 years later the control group had caught up; Universal Basic Income in Kenya buffered against hard times when COVID and the agricultural lean season hit simultaneously; and a head-to-head-comparison between cash and an employment training program that found neither boosted employment, but cash was more effective at boosting economic outcomes. I summarize and link to them in this thread.
On that last one (comparing a traditional program to cash), some nice reflections here on how early studies make it easier for government agencies like USAID to take a chance on a new idea, and why a traditional before-and-after USAID evaluation led to a different conclusion than an RCT. Also, more detailed tweetstorm from study co-author Andrew Zeitlin here.
As it happens, all the data for all these studies was collected by my IPA colleagues in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, and while it’s easy to boil the finding down to a quick phrase, each represents thousands of hours of work behind the scenes, like this example.
Rohini Pande has a short and very readable article in Science arguing for an increased role in development research for finding ways to help the voices of the poor be heard in the democratic process and encouraging governments to be responsive to their needs. (h/t Michael Eddy)
A side effect of seminars going online is giving more people access to see them, and the upcoming CEPR Virtual Dev Seminar series looks great, with all-star presenters like Professor Pande above, and Oriana Bandiera
ICYMI, Planet Money’s had a summer school series where they revisit classic episodes explaining basic principles of econ with Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. The image above comes from a new teaching resource on a special site – they’ve organized 30 episodes on 20 topics along with lesson plans. It also has a “read along” feature for students to read the transcript while listening. I recommend sharing this teaching resource with anybody you know teaching high school or college econ concepts, basically they’ve already planned out an intro class.
An update on the finding that the Heckman Curve (the idea that earlier interventions in childhood are more cost effective), doesn’t appear to be the case, according to a more comprehensive assessment of programs from Washington State (full academic paper). This should be encouraging that there can be cost-effective interventions for kids at all ages.
If you’re studying land tenure or government expropriation of agricultural land, the case of Black farmers in the United States is a good example. A combination of explicit violence, informal discrimination (as I understand it, such as a local bank “losing” a mortgage payment), and outright government discrimination, such as the USDA denying agricultural loans to black farmers (and even when they won a lawsuit, taking 11 years to pay out), reduced the amount of land farmed by Black farmers in the US by 90% between 1910 and 1997 according to this article.
There’s a lot of basic social science documenting humanity’s flaws, biases, and injustices, but less on fixes. The cover of the new issue of Science today features Salma Mousa’s paper using an experiment in post-ISIS Iraq to promote reconciliation between persecuted Christians and their Muslim neighbors (plain language summary here). Using contact theory, she randomly assigned Muslim players to some teams in a Christian soccer league and found it improved social cohesion, but changed attitudes extended only to Muslims in the league, not beyond. Summary here, explanatory thread by editor Tage Rai, and commentary from Betsy Levy Paluck and Chelsey Clark explaining the significance of the work.
She worked contemporaneously and shared ideas with Matt Lowe, who mixed cricket teams across caste in India with similarly positive outcomes (h/t Seema Jayachandran for the reminder). Chris Blattman called them two of the best conflict-related papers of recent years.
Conversations with Tyler with Nathan Nunn (Apple) was really good, about economic history and why culture is undervalued in development, even though it’s hard to measure. An interesting tidbit at the end is when he reflects on growing up and being able to work your way up from working class in Canada vs. the U.S.
Rough Translation (Apple) on the Venezuelan anti-corruption bureaucrat turned Ecuadorian lumberjack who led a group of Venezuelan refugees *walking* back to Venezuela.
Claudia Goldin charts a century of women in the workforce
I’ve heard these days in medicine there’s a glut of papers that are all essentially “[thing I was doing already] + in the time of COVID,” which seems like is true of all fields now. The German Development Institute for Evaluation (DEval) has a helpful roundup of several useful new hubs for evidence, research, and methodology resources for dev/social science.
A few weeks ago I saw someone say something like “good thing economics is so status driven and hierarchical, at least someone gets to publish nulls.” Heres’s a nice thread of responses to Pia Raffler’s request for resources on showing (and publishing) null results.
Stefano DellaVigna and Elizabeth Linos compare the size of effects in academic trials of nudges, to 126 RCTs conducted by Nudge Unit trials in the practical world:
“In papers published in academic journals, the average impact of a nudge is very large – an 8.7 percentage point take-up effect, a 33.5% increase over the average control. In the Nudge Unit trials, the average impact is still sizable and highly statistically significant, but smaller at 1.4 percentage points, an 8.1% increase.”
They find publication bias and statistical power account for the difference (perhaps some nudge researchers can read the responses above for how to publish disappointing findings). Then using forecasts, they find academics overestimate the effects an intervention will have, while Nudge Unit practitioners are accurate.
How are you at forecasting? A new prediction platform spearheaded by DellaVigna and Eva Vivalt lets anybody sign up to predict the outcomes of several trials.
This is why we can’t have nice (or cheaper) things. The Times has an exposé of an institute at George Mason Law School funded by big tech companies who happen to be under regulatory scrutiny (h/t Florian Ederer.) The institute they fund trains regulators in the school of economic thought that the best kind of regulation is as little as possible. It follows the model of a judge training institute that does the same thing, and has been shown to influences judges to rule in favor of mergers. Planet Money had a couple of really good episodes explaining why, for example, we have only a few big telecom companies. It comes back to Robert Bork (Apple) taking an econ class at UChicago in the 70’s when he was in law school, and writing a book for the law field explaining that economics says to leave markets alone. There’s another good episode (Apple) on what this means for the big tech companies today like Google and Facebook. In summary, your cable and cell phone bills are so high because a dude took an econ class in the 70’s, and that’s the butterfly effect.
For a counterexample, see Michael Lewis’ podcast episode “Baby Judge School,” which trains judges to be aware of their own biases and how to counteract them more effectively (Apple).
An uncomfortable truth is that academics are big polluters, through conferences and other kinds of travel, but many of us are figuring out how to accomplish similar academic events without the travel these days. Here’s a really interesting article on how to de-carbonize conference travel, through simple things like holding them in more central locations, and having simultaneous regional hub meetings that connect to one another digitally. One crazy statistic, they calculated the carbon from travel for one major scientific conference and found on average it was “about 3 tonnes per scientist, or the average weekly emissions of the city of Edinburgh, UK.”
Happily the NBER Summer Institute this week was online and therefore open to far more people. Claudia Goldin gives the Martin Feldstein lecture at NBER Summer Institute on women’s career progress over a century. “Tammy Duckworth is the first senator … to bring a baby into an active session of Congress, though many would say there have been babies in Congress before that time”
And another on Thursday including Anne Karing of Princeton, Jonathan Robinson from UC Santa Cruz, presenting new data on covid impacts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Malawi
IPA’s Research Methods Initiative has a call for proposals, due July 31st, with $10k for methodology studies (typically an add-on to an existing study).
University of Cape Town economist Grieve Chelwa has been critical of RCTs in the past so my colleague and I were braced for his online discussion at Africa is a Country (dropping you in after 40ish min of football talk but feel free to rewind for that). But honestly we walked away both saying he was right, and it was a really good conversation. (Paraphrasing), he said something like as a student in Zambia he read plenty of great research by Zambian economists but somehow the only recognized repository of authoritative information on the Zambian economy is in the Journal of Development Economics. Few African economists are represented on the editorial boards of the journals where research on African economies are published. The dynamic is different he feels like in economic policy––where local officials defer to outside authorities from abroad––from health policy, where he sees more reliance on local experts.
On the Brookings Blog, macroeconomist Célestin Monga describes being appointed as a Senior Economist at the World Bank and having a European country’s finance minister he was supposed to work with refused to believe a Cameroonian economist could be competent. But he goes deeper to explain how a dynamic, in which country officials have to run proposals by donors from far away who are doing their best to guess what’s best for the country, leads to a vicious cycle of the wrong questions being asked and wrong data collected, and back into flawed decisions.
An article in DevEx wonders if the north-south dynamic in health policy led to the same advice being given to wealthy and low-income countries regardless of it was appropriate for the latter.
NBER Summer Institute’s dev sessions will be streamed Mon & Tues afternoons (Eastern U.S. time), details here.
Planet Money’s doing a “summer school” teaching some basics of economics for those without a background in it. Here’s Episode 1 (Apple) with Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers on choice.
Tyler Cowen interviews Clark Medal winner Melissa Dell (Apple) about how historical circumstances from long ago can affect countries’ development today. I was really amazed by all the history she brings to bear (reminded me of the episode with John McWhorter (Apple) which combined a lot of history with linguistics).
Professor Lisa Cook explains that black and white inventors put in equivalent numbers of patent applications once in 1899, and never again.
First, a great webinar by Professor Lisa Cook, former economic advisor to President Obama, among many other accomplishments, on how lynchings, violence, and discrimination caused African-American inventions (measured by patent applications) to peak in 1899 and never recover. Here’s the video and slides, but for a fast summary, I did my best to live tweet it. She covered a lot of ground, but some parts that stuck with me in particular:
The number of “missing” patents never filed because of the decreased numbers is on the order of the contribution of a medium-sized European country. It’s hard to imagine what innovations and prosperity we’ve all missed out on.
Prof Cook mentioned in passing that a cousin helped found a town in North Carolina intended as a safe place for African-Americans to live and prosper without harassment. The story of Soul City, NC is fascinating.
The most compelling part of the story wasn’t even in the webinar. It was her decade-long uphill battle to get the paper published, and what it tells us about the field of economics, which she explains to Planet Money’s The Indicator (Apple).
How the field got to be the way it is is a bit easier to understand if you read this horrible piece by George Stigler in 1962: The Problem of the Negro.
If you haven’t seen it yet, this was a great explanation for the general US culture:
Kimberly Jones’ Monopoly game metaphor reminds me of this Howard French brilliant deconstruction of a UK historian’s book (gated, sorry) about African history. French shows that Europeans destroyed sophisticated civilizations and hollowed out countries’ populations for hundreds of years by dragging away the workforce, and today cast about for roundabout theories for why they’re “underdeveloped”
I’m side-eyeing historians, but also hard to ignore the asymmetry in where development economists’ ideas come from, and the assumption that countries where the rich people are also must know how to get rich.
Along those lines, here’s a great piece by Francesco Loiacono, Mariajose Silva-Vargas, & Apollo Tumusiime (written before the pandemic) about how research designs can be more sensitive and less biased by the views of the researchers (better informed consent, for example, and not assuming their programs happen in a vacuum, or realizing that local politicians may swoop in and take credit for cash transfers). (h/t David McKenzie’s links)
Today, I learned that the UK’s abolition of slavery was accomplished through paying the slaveowners for their lost “property,” to the tune of today’s $17 Billion (and requiring an additional 5 years of unpaid labor, which I feel like there’s a name for…) British taxpayers just finished paying back that borrowed money in 2015, which means that descendants of slaves have been paying back their own ancestors’ slavemasters.
Jennifer Doleac put together a series of flash webinars on policing research, more info here.
A series of simple police reform ideas in this article and tweet thread on how to fix many policing problems by looking at financial incentives, moving the benefit of the “taxes” levied disproportionally on the poor by the criminal justice system away from the local municipalities (revenues from fines, seized assets, and the like) and redistributing them at the state level, prioritizing the poor.
A couple of points that jumped out at me were what counts as research/evidence in academic research circles (it seems common for scholars of the black experience to face skepticism, or the view that its a specific niche topic).
At the same time, a lot of sloppy (or fundamentally flawed) research on policing or other areas of policy makes it through peer review and gets a lot of public attention. And just like COVID, we might be about to be deluged with a huge wave of hasty research papers on race and everything under the sun from well-intentioned researchers new to the area.
I think I caught part of a discussion wondering if these RCT-able micro policy interventions miss the point (the policies that lead to police abuses, and massive racial disparities in so many social outcomes are much larger, and approaches looking at one tiny tweak divert our attention from them. It seemed reminiscent of the RCT debate around research priorities in dev econ a bit – global poverty is so massive a problem – in other words, it’s great that your youth empowerment program is RCT-able (at one place at one particular point in time) and makes for a fine study, but is it really going to make a dent in the bigger problems, even if it works?
I’ll cop-out by saying both sides have a point. We should absolutely be solving the big problems, but if we have a choice of small programs that are going to be implemented anyway – be they youth empowerment or police body cams – it seems at least helpful to weed out the ones that don’t work. But not at that cost of solving the big picture problems.
Public health prof Gregg Gonsalves addresses the uncomfortable question of won’t the protests spread COVID? He asks, compared to what, with up to 100,000 premature African-American deaths every year under current conditions. This reminds me of sort of a status-quo type bias, where people only consider the costs of changing, the costs of the current situation seem invisible.
The new Ezra Klein Show (Apple) episode “Why Ta-Nehisi Coates is hopeful” was great and lives up to its title. Coates was surprised to hear that his father, who lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, say the scope of the current protests would have been as unimaginable to activists of the 60s, as the marches of the 60s to people from the 1800’s. Both Klein and Coates have a lot of good ideas, and Coates offers some book recommendations (h/t Dina Pomeranz)
Coronavirus patient, comedian Noam Shuster, found herself at the center of an accidental social experiment profiled on the Rough Translation podcast
My colleague Kate Glynn-Broderick writes today with an example of how her existing project in Bangladesh, exploring gender gaps in access to mobile money and banking is quickly pivoting to COVID-19, as Bangladesh’s government plans to use those same platforms to distribute social protection, threatening to leave the most marginalized people out of the government response.
The Economist has a nice profile of Princeton economist Leonard Wantchekon, who escaped from being a political prisoner in Benin, and went on to found the African School of Economics there to make top notch econ training more accessible. But you can read his story in his own words: He’s posted the introduction and chapter 7 of his book here.
One of the points made in the Economist profile about the school is that talent is found all over, opportunity is not. It’s a helpful reminder that if you’re an econ researcher who relies on talented staff in another country for data collection (even if your communication goes through an American RA), a helpful thing to do is set aside some time to talk to them about their career goals and how you can help.
A good podcast from Rough Translation: Hotel Corona (Apple) about how a hotel leased to the Israeli government for recovering Corona patients became a nation-captivating social experiment and unwitting reality show.
Click through for this thread of the best historical U.S. Congressional facial hair, you won’t be sorry.
I am on a mission to find out which historical Member of Congress had the wildest facial hair.
Last week I mentioned the new COVID research RECOVR hub, which was still in development. This week it’s been launched officially, to help development researchers share information about ongoing studies, survey instruments, and funding opportunities. If you are doing related work, please share or have a look at what other researchers are doing so we can build on one another’s work.
A great initiative from the Busara Center, “Give More Tomorrow,” lets better-off Kenyans pledge to give the money from their new tax breaks to the poor during this crisis, but it’s not limited to Kenyans. Anybody can use the Busara pledge on their site for their tax refund or stimulus check as well and donate to Kenyans in crisis via GiveDirectly.
Congrats to Penn’s Sharon Wolf & Jere R. Behrman, NYU’s Larry Aber, and IPA Ghana’s Edward Tsinigo, on winning the Society for Research on Early Childhood Education’s 2019 paper of the year, about an experimental program to improve preschool education in Ghana by getting teachers to move from a memorization and spitback style of teaching to an inquiry and social one. It’s also the subject of one of my favorite podcast episodes (Apple) from NPR’s Rough Translation, because they spend most of the time talking to teachers and families to explain why it didn’t go according to plan.
Congratulations to Melissa Dell for winning the Clark Medal for her work on economic history and development.
Michael Kremer’s seminar at Princeton about financing a COVID vaccine is below (slides here, Michael’s slides start at p13 of the PDF)). He has a paper from last fall about his work on the financing the pneumonia vaccine for poor countries here & here’s a plain language discussion from Scientific American.
To shore up confidence beforehand I asked my lighting sensei, Tom Ford, for some tips and he kindly sent these instructions, which you all are welcome to use:
“Put the computer up on a stack of books so the camera is slightly higher than your head. Say, about the top of your head. And then point it down into your eyes. Then take a tall lamp and set it next to the computer on the side of your face you feel is best. The lamp should be in line with and slightly behind the computer so the light falls nicely on your face. Then put a piece of white paper or a white tablecloth on the table you are sitting at but make sure it can’t be seen in the frame. It will give you a bit of fill and bounce. And lots of powder, et voilà!”
or head into your Zoom settings:
Send me your online meeting tips and I’ll post ’em. Have a good weekend everybody.