Why We Fight is out April 19, available for pre-order!


Never forget: Most rivals prefer to loathe one another in peace.

It’s easy to forget that war shouldn’t happen—and that most of the time it doesn’t. War is costly to fight, so enemies almost always find it better to find compromise. That is why there are millions of hostile rivalries in the world, yet only a fraction erupt into violence. Forget this fact and you will get the causes of conflict all wrong.

Why We Fight draws on decades of economics, political science, psychology, and real-world interventions to show that there are five ways that conflict can win over compromise. These five logics drive peace and conflict at every level, from warring states to street gangs, ethnic groups, and political factions,

Why We Fight also shows how peacemakers turn the tides by focusing on the five logics, getting rivals back to bitter compromise, and that they do so through tinkering, not transformation.

[Learn more]

Out with Viking Press on April 19, 2022. Pre-order your copy through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Bookshop, or Apple Books

Links I liked

  1. What the Spider-verse sadly missed (above)
  2. The anti wordle
  3. Great slides on why you should use Poisson regression instead of using log(1+y)
  4. Advice from Abby Post on approaching teaching evaluations:

  1. Lee Harris on the case for rapprochement with Russia and, on the same topic, another amazing Paul Poast international relations Twitter thread:

Enrolling more kids in school is easy, teaching them is hard

We use literacy tests in survey data to construct long-term trends in literacy for 87 developing countries, spanning birth cohorts from the 1950s to 2000. We show that over this period literacy rates have increased substantially, but virtually all progress has been due to the increase in access to school rather than any improvement school quality, which we define as the propensity for schooling to generate literacy after five years of schooling.

Overall, school quality is low in developing countries with about 70% of women able to read after grade five and quality has been declining over time. From the 1950s to 2000, school quality deterioration implied the probability that a woman with five years of schooling could read a sentence fell by roughly two to four percentage points per decade and about six percentage points for men.

Although the negative trends in school quality is concerning, a more generous reading of the results is that most school systems have managed to dramatically expand their education offer without very large drops in school quality. Trends in school quality are relatively stable over time, and there are few if any identifiable cases of large and rapid improvements in school quality at the national level.

That’s from a new paper by Alexis Le Nestour, Laura Moscoviz, and Justin Sandefur, emphasis mine.

If I understand this correctly, the generous reading comes from the idea that a vast expansion of schooling implies that poorer and less able kids are being pulled into the system (along with the creation of new and presumably less capable schools) and so the learning outcomes of these kids are far better than they would have been otherwise. Schools skimmed the cream in the 1950s, and so the numbers look falsely promising.

In a blog post, Lant Pritchett discusses the paper and (proving he puts far more work into his posts than I do) uses their data to make a whole new set of figures! It displays how literacy rates and enrollment change from the 1950s to the 1990s, with countries in red if they get girls in school but fail to get them literate by grade 5, green if they succeed.

Best nonfiction I read this year, Part II

Continuing from last week, a few more favorites of the past 12 months (none of which were written all that recently). And a reminder that you can sign up to get posts by email.

Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King, alongside Euphoria, by Lily King (and Gillian Tett’s Anthrovision for good measure)

Euphoria was my recommendation for best book in 2015. “Pioneering anthropologists in the field, making it up as they go along: The novel,” was my description. It was a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Margaret Mead  “I find it impossible to imagine the equivalent book on economists or political scientists,” I added. That has not changed. But now there is a fabulous non-fictional account of Mead and her unorthodox fieldwork, by Charles King. The subtitle is How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. It begins with Mead’s mentor, Franz Boas, the state of anthropology in the early 20th century (mostly racist and poorly researched), and the empirical turn that Boas and Mead and others brought about (including Zora Neale Hurston, for more books to add to this trio.

There are some beautiful ideas (like Boas’s concept of anthropology as Herzensbildung—the training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another). And there are some amazing factoids (did you know that, back in the 1920s, Foreign Affairs was called the Journal of Race Development?). Mostly this is a book about a scientific revolution and the individuals who brought it about.

As I was finishing these books I spotted and skimmed Anthrovision, a guide to using some of the basic tools and ideas of the field in your everyday life. Now, I don’t think you can teach anthropology in a class or a book. I’m no expert, but (having worked alongside or under a couple of ethnographers and anthropologists) it seems to me it’s something you have to do, and have your notes and your conclusions relentlessly critiqued. Then read and critique others. But alongside these other books, I grew a much better sense of what anthropology strives to do and why.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford

If I’d been around to blog a best-of list for 2019 or 2020, books that would have placed would be Tamin Ansari’s Destiny Disrupted and perhaps Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment. Both are histories of Central Asia that reversed my thinking on the region. I had taken Adam Smith quite seriously, who once wrote that all the inland parts of Africa and Asia lying any considerable way from the sea “seem in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilised state in which we find them at present.” That’s not true for many parts of Africa (think the Malian Empire) and these books show how it was anything but true for Central Asia. The Silk Road flowed through, rather than any river system or sea, and this brought about some of the biggest cities, the most advanced technologies, and the most sophisticated art and philosophy, all while Adam Smith’s great-great-great-great grandparents were wallowing in sheep and mud. Much of this was a revelation to me and it made me more curious about the region.

The Genghis Khan book was the next one to really satisfy. The leader and his troops arrived out of the desert and devastated the civilizations that had grown up, but laid the foundations for the next ones to grow. The mongols created countries that survive to modern times, from Korea to India. They spread like a plague, destroying entire cities, but in their wake came an epidemic of commerce and trade and the exchange of ideas. The Mongols emphasized ideas that were unusual then, but more commonplace now: free commerce, open communication, shared knowledge, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and participatory administration. They created the first global culture, Weatherford concludes. That’s maybe a tiny bit grandiose, but not by much.

Taliban, by Ahmed Rashid

Continuing with my unaccountable Central Asia theme: after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, I decided I wanted to try to understand the war better. Why did it even happen? Why didn’t the Taliban concede just enough to keep the US from invading? Why didn’t the US leave shortly after the successful toppling of the regime? And when they didn’t, why did it take so long to depart.

Despite what many people say, I see nothing inevitable about this war. Had a few events gone differently, the world might look back on the capitulation of the Taliban, or the brief US invasion, as benignly as they regard the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, or or as forgetfully as the collective amnesia over the US invasion of Haiti in 1994 to uphold an election and stop a coup. But those alternative histories, and the origins of the war, are a post for another day.

This book isn’t about the war, because it was written just before the attacks of September 11, when few people cared about the curious band of fundamentalists who were winning the Afghan civil war, in defiance of all expectations. Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, had been following then and events for years. Having the United States attack your book’s subject right around the time of publication is more or less the best thing that can happen to your book sales, and reputedly every US military officer read a copy of Rashid’s book (or at least claimed to). It’s a great book. How the Taliban prosecuted the pre-2001 civil war is a great start to understanding why some of its leaders were unwilling to compromise with the United States. I would summarize it as a mix of principled intransigence and asymmetric information (or really just an absence of information and communication). Plus Pakistani private interests and meddling. More on that in my future post on why the US and Taliban fought.

1491, by Charles Mann

If I had read this book before I entered grad school, I might have become an archaeologist. From the outside, archeology feels like a field where it’s hard to do pathbreaking work. How much more can we really learn about the Egyptians? But what 1491 makes clear is that there is an enormous amount we do not know about pre-Colombian civilizations in the Americas, and what archeologists learned in the late 20th century was radical and field changing. Mexico and the Andes were home to vast, sophisticated states and empires with technologies and populations that rivaled any on the planet. The Inca were bigger than Ming China or the Ottoman Empire. Their dominion extended “over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude—as if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo,” Mann tells us. The book was full of mind-blowing revelations–science that is out there but seldom taught. And we still have an astonishing amount to learn about these places, their competitors, and their predecessors.

If there is an updated book on this subject (1491 first came out in 2006) I would love to hear about it. Which reminds me: I haven’t seen an updated take on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and I’m curious how far the science has come in two decades.

In Service of the Republic, by by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah

Last time I said I wasn’t going to blog any of the books from my How to Change the World class, but I have to mention this one. It’s a bit of a niche pick. If you want the most earnest and neoliberal take on how to make India a more functional and dynamic place, then this is the book for you! I realize that is not much of a sales pitch. But Kelker and Shah give us one of the best examples of simple and straightforward prose writing, of commonsensical policy design, and of synthesizing a century of social science on social change, all rolled into one book. They are are Indian economists, living and working there, who have spent most of their careers trying to make the state and the economy work for people. If you live in a liberal democracy anywhere in the world (including the United States) and you want to try to make your government function better, this is one of the top five books you can read.

Links I liked

  1. If you like Wordle, you will love Evil Wordle (which keeps changing the word to give you the fewest possible matches)
  2. You probably underestimate the wage you can earn elsewhere
  3. A summary of the differences in the differences-in-differences literature
  4. America’s falling democracy score looks more like politics than political science
  5. A flurry of articles on whether the US is headed for sustained insurgent violence (I’m working on a post about why that’s not the risk that worries me most)
  6. Dan Wang’s annual letter (especially illuminating on China)
  7. Noah Smith interviews Tyler Cowen

Should you work for a government you disagree with?

I spoke first to Eric Rubin, a career diplomat since 1985 at the State Department, a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, and currently president of the American Foreign Service Association. He is crystal clear that “you cannot speak publicly against government policy. If you want to do that, you must resign. It’s anti-democratic. It is inappropriate to believe you know better than the people’s elected representatives.”

Rubin also believes that resignations rarely have any impact on policy. “You might be a ‘One Day Wonder’ — generating a bit of a splash in the news for a few days, perhaps be invited to write an op-ed, or speak at a think tank, but that’s it.” He believes that people frequently overestimate the consequences of their resignations. “I have had people tell me they want to influence policy or stop something happening, but my view is that you can’t — you can’t fix foreign policy.” He cites the case of Iraq, where people who resigned in protest over the decision to invade “had no impact on the rush to war.”

That’s Alexandra Hall in TNSR, who in 2019 resigned as Brexit counselor at the British Embassy in Washington. Margaret Thatcher once said, “Advisers advise, and Ministers decide.” Being a civil servant in a democracy means implementing policy you disagree with. But as politics gets more polarized, and sometimes more populist and authoritarian, Thatcher’s advice becomes harder to bear.

In her essay, Hall talks about why she decided to be a One Day Wonder.

I had had enough. I realized I was not going to be able to influence what was said or done on Brexit, but nor could I distract myself by working on other parts of my portfolio, since Brexit was the entirety of my job. Worse, my job actively required me to go out and speak in public about Brexit, day after day, using talking points that were nakedly dishonest. The stress was materially affecting my mental health and relationships. Moreover, Parliament had finally agreed to resolve the political impasse by holding a general election on Dec. 12, 2019. This meant that the British people would have a chance to cast their verdict on the government’s approach. This was the democratic way forward, but whatever the outcome, I no longer wanted to be part of it. I wrote my resignation letter and sent it.

But Hall doesn’t just describe her own tortured decision, she spoke to others and describes their decision to stay or go. There are too few essays like this one. Highly recommended. Please post similar essays kin the comments, or send them my way.

War in Ukraine seems unlikely but, for the US and Europe, peace will taste bitter

If more U.S.-Russia talks are to happen, what should be on the table?

Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon, writing in Politico Magazine, attempt to thread the needle of Russia’s Ukraine demands by considering a moratorium on the country’s future NATO membership amid a larger security compromise. “Now is the time to think big and imagine a new, more durable order, one that can encompass Russia,” they write.

Others go further, with Anatol Lieven, writing in the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s blog, arguing for U.S. backing for an autonomous Donbas region as well as a treaty of neutrality for Ukraine—worked out by the United States and Russia—which would both hobble Russia’s territorial ambitions while holding off the prospect of greater Ukrainian integration with the West.

“An agreement along these lines will be bitterly attacked by Western hardliners with all the usual accusations of ‘cowardice’ and ‘appeasement.’” Lieven writes. “They need to ask themselves however whether they are really prepared to contemplate war with Russia; and if not, what they are proposing as a concrete alternative to these proposals.

That is Colm Quinn in his daily Morning Brief, a Foreign Policy newsletter that is one of the first I look for each morning. Recommended for a wide range of international news and analysis.

I hesitate to comment on a region I know so little about, but there are some general insights on war that underlie the logic in the Graham/Menon and Lieven pieces. (Also, I had my colleague Scott Gehlbach check my homework and offer color commentary). These general propositions make me optimistic that prolonged violence is unlikely, but they make me pessimistic about Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

  • Russia has risen in relative power in the last 20 years, and so it’s in a position to demand a wider sphere of influence, client states, and territorial control
    • Moreover, for a power of its size, Russia has strikingly few allies and client states (plus many adversaries close by) and so Russia arguably places greater value then the West on more allies, clients, and coopted or docile neighbors
  • A nation’s bargaining power comes from a lot of different sources, but a big one is the ability to cause the other side pain by fighting—especially by threatening to burn the whole house down
    • The West remains powerful, but among other things, mistakes and misfortune in Iraq and Afghanistan mean they’re reluctant to use force anywhere, thus reducing their relative bargaining power
    • An even if Iraq and Afghanistan never happened, the US just doesn’t have anything at stake here—in Washington’s eyes, Ukraine is a poor, corrupt, nonstrategic, and only marginally democratic country too close to Russia
  • Russia also gains some bargaining power from Putin’s autocratic rule—he can more credibly threaten conflict precisely because he and his cabal bear just a fraction of the costs of fighting (a factor that has long been one of the reasons autocracies and democracies fight)
    • And lest you think he can be held accountable for wars, Putin has that covered too—journalists can expect every bone in their body broken if they report on deaths of Russian soldiers in the Donbas
    • Some people think war might even benefit Putin and the military, letting them test new toys and distracting the country from covid mismanagement—not a story I usually buy (the empirical evidence that this works is weak) but we only need Putin to think it works
  • Of course fighting is still extremely costly and risky for Putin, but how much is not clear—his resolve and willingness to use force is uncertain
    • That means Putin needs to signal his determination through costly displays (such as mass mobilizations on the border), and the West has to decide whether those signals are credible or not (which is hard)
    • An example: Graham and Menon note how Putin told his diplomats in mid-November that a certain amount of tension would force the West to take Russia seriously
    • This means that insisting on preconditions for negotiation, like removing troops from the border, totally ignores Putin’s bargaining incentives
  • Also, in a time-honored tradition, Putin can gamble and try to exact more concessions by pretending to be a little irrational
    • Others have worked out the game theory, but appointing a hawkish and crazy-seeming President is a risky but sometimes effective strategy for getting concessions
    • Now, in my view, people are too ready to paint strongmen as unreasoned, and so they get fooled by these tactics
    • Leiven writes how, far from Putin having gone mad, or Russian policy being mysterious, or innately aggressive, Russian motives and actions are quite rational—and close to how Washington runs its own foreign policy
  • The good news is that war is costly enough that both sides will try to avoid it, and if there is violence, prolonged fighting is unlikely
    • That means, contrary to what some people say, Putin is unlikely to be hellbent on invasion
  • Still, within the set of compromises both sides prefer to fighting, there’s wide room for deals more favorable to Russia, and so we can expect Putin to try to get the better bargain
    • This leaves a lot of room for what Thomas Schelling called “strategic moves”: an attempt to suddenly change the game through a sudden and decisive action—such as a surprise invasion of a territory, one that is quick enough that it cannot be averted, and modest enough that it’s not worth the West going to war over it (think Crimea)
  • The main reason I worry about war is that calibrating the right strategic move is hard—you never really know what your opponent is willing to tolerate, and (if history is any guide) all sides are subject to overconfidence and prone to project their own values onto their adversaries (meaning they get the probability of an angry or calculated armed response wrong)
    • In other words, a lot can go wrong in crises and brinksmanship
    • That i scary, and it ‘s why I think war is unlikely but not impossible
  • All this is why the Biden administration is talking about sanctions and threatening Putin and his cabal with other terrible punishments—they want to deter Putin from strategic moves
    • One name for this tactic is conditional repression, and while it’s hard to know if targeted sanctions ever work, there’s lots of evidence it works at lower levels, against drug cartels and city gangs
    • That said, it’s hard to say how painful sanctions will be for Putin—“Sanctions will hurt us, especially gas and oil industry. The problem is that the Kremlin might be not very interested in what industries say.” my colleague Konstantin Sonin told NPR
  • All this is why both articles suggest that the US and Europe are going to have to live with painful concessions: an indefinite or permanent delay in Ukraine’s NATO admission, autonomy for the Donbas region, and the like.

If you are interested in the social science behind all this, I have a book for you.

Image from Al Jazeera

Does buying organic save lives?

Image from The Atlantic

Pesticides are linked to negative health outcomes, but a causal relationship is difficult to establish due to nonrandom pesticide exposure. I use a peculiar ecological phenomenon, the mass emergence of cicadas in 13 and 17-year cycles across the eastern half of the US, to estimate the short and long-term impacts of pesticides. With a triple-difference setup that leverages the fact that cicadas only damage tree crops and not agricultural row crops, I show that insecticide use increases with cicada emergence in places with high apple production. Exposed cohorts experience higher infant mortality and adverse health impacts, followed by lower test scores and higher dropout rates. I exploit geo-spatial sources of variation and find evidence for pesticide exposure through a water channel. Moderate levels of environmental pollution, not just extreme exposure, can affect human health and development. The study design, which encompasses the entire chemical era of US agriculture since 1950, provides insights into the regulation of pesticides in the US and globally.

That is Charles Taylor, a job market candidate from Columbia’s Sustainable Development PhD program, in his brilliantly titled paper, Cicadian Rhythm: Insecticides, Infant Health and Long-term Outcomes.

His cost-benefit analysis on the value of buying organic (in brief):

Applying my results to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, 556 infant deaths can be attributed to insecticides in the limited context of apple production and cicadas, equating to a total welfare loss of $5.3 billion using the EPA’s value of statistical life of $9.6 million (2020 dollars),1 or $81 million annually from 1950 to 2016. The annual value of apple production in the sample counties ranged from $500 million to $1 billion in recent decades, so this cicada-driven response of infant mortality to insecticides could account for 8-16% of apple production value. For reference, organic apples cost 5-10% more to produce than conventional ones (Taylor and Granatstein 2013), suggesting that organic production may be cheaper after accounting for the social cost of insecticides. However, apple production in the eastern US accounts for only 0.5% of US pesticide use, so if these effects scale across other crops, the total welfare cost of insecticides could be 200x larger

Image from The Atlantic.

PhD applicants: Writing your statement of purpose

I’ve read a lot of personal statements for PhD applications. I sat on admissions at UChicago, Columbia, and Yale, mostly in economics, political science, and public policy. Here’s the advice I’ve given my own students and research assistants to craft their statements. I give it because, sadly, I don’t find most statements helpful. This means they are not helping you, the applicant.

As with all my advice posts, it’s important that students outside elite colleges get this information, so here are some personal thoughts.

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First, let’s clarify your number one job as an applicant: Send the best, clearest signal of your abilities as a future researcher, and minimize the noise around that signal. I explain why in a longer post on whether and how you should apply to PhD programs (including the other elements of an application packet):

the fundamental problems in graduate admissions are “information overload” and “noise”. For every slot in a PhD program, there are probably 30 to 50 applicants. A department that plans to have a class of 20 students may receive 1000 applications.

Meanwhile, most departments delegate admissions to a small committee of two to six faculty. They don’t have time to read 1000 applications in detail. And the committee may change every year. Thus, their experience may be limited. And you never know who will be on the committee or what they care about. This adds further randomness.

These faculty want to admit the most talented and creative young researchers who will push the field ahead. And they also want you to pass all the most technical classes, because they hate kicking students out. So the admissions committee are looking for strong signals of intelligence, creativity, determination, and other proclivities for research.

But this is hard. There are too many applications. Applicants don’t have many good ways to signal quality. All applicants are trying to send the same signals. And there is a ton of uncertainty around each signal. Hence: Information overload and noise.

Yet most schools as for a written statement of some kind. Sometimes they ask for both a biographical statement and a research statement. What do they want and what should you write?

  1. Don’t tell your life story. This statement is not an undergrad entry essay where you describe your life’s trials and tribulations, or your journey to wanting to do a PhD. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that it’s probably not relevant to judging your ability as a researcher. If it is, then weave that into the narrative around your research interests and plans. We have hundreds of these things to read and so you only want to focus on the most important information.
  2. Don’t be cliché. Do not start your with your epiphany—the day the scales fell from your eyes and you realized you wanted to be a professor, or were inspired tackle big questions and social issues. Especially if it involves a child in a poor country. This approach is overused and unoriginal, and the information does not help us judge whether you will be a great researcher (see point 1).
  3. Most material is unnecessary and unhelpful; delete it. Be information dense. Every sentence should communicate important ideas and information about your abilities as a researcher. You see, there are so many applications that readers are looking for an excuse to stop reading or skip a paragraph. Busy people will look at your statement for for 20 seconds. If its information dense they will look at it for for 45 or maybe 60 seconds. Every time you give banal information, it is another reason to stop reading. Some examples of things you should avoid:
    • Platitudes about wanting to be a professor or researcher
    • Generic or flattering statements about being excited to join a program, your admiration for the faculty, etc.
    • Unspecific interests in a research subject or field
    • Routine information such as “I am graduating in May…”
    • Filler sentences like “Please find enclosed…”
  4. The reader should immediately understand what kind of scholar you want to be. I recommend that he first 1-2 paragraphs of your statement do the following:
    • Start with your broad fields of interest (e.g. “I am principally interested in labor and development economics” or “I want to work at the intersection of comparative politics and international relations”)
    • Then give 2-3 examples of broad topics and questions that interest you. (“I’m interested in studying inefficiencies in labor markets, especially market power and monopsony. I’m also interested in…”)
    • You can also describe who you would like to work with in the department and why this is a good fit. Sometimes I suggest putting this at the end, after the specific research proposal. Wherever you put this, make sure that most of the faculty you mention:
      • Are tenure or tenure-track faculty
      • Have their primary appointment in the department you are applying to
      • Are actually there and take students (i.e. they didn’t retire last year, etc.)
  5. Then develop 1-2 of these ideas as specifically as possible. This is the core of your statement. The idea is not to say “this is what I will do for my dissertation”. No applicant knows that. The goal is to show that you know how to ask an answer an interesting and innovative research question. This is hard to do (because you don’t yet have a PhD) but doing it well is a good signal of your creativity, knowledge of the field, and potential as a researcher.
    • You could discuss two ideas in moderate depth, or one idea in greater depth. Either way, I recommend this research discussion be 40-60% of your entire statement.
    • Ideally this is a question or topic of current interest in the field. One thing I often see is that students are focussed on the research frontier 10 years ago (because those are the papers they read in their classes) and are not clued in to some of the current puzzled and priorities. This is hard to avoid, but some reading and your advisors should be able to help you avoid this.
    • The best discussions will (if empirical) identify interesting data and discuss plausible empirical strategies. This is difficult, which is why it is a good signal if you do it well.
    • It’s important to locate your question in the literature without overdoing that discussion. Try to motivate the question with reference to recent and recognizable research papers and agendas. If you are mainly citing articles with few citations, in lower-ranked journals, this is a sign that you need to link your idea to bigger debates in the field, or perhaps rethink the question you are proposing.
    • This is (in my experience) the most crucial section for most social science departments. Except possibly economics. It’s not clear how seriously many departments take your statement in economics, and some of my colleagues profess to never look at the statement. That may be true, but some will look, and you have to have a statement, so I suggest following this advice to make it a research proposal.
  6. Only if necessary, give information that might help us understand any apparent weaknesses or puzzles in your application. Some examples:
    • Why you studied physics but now are doing political science
    • What happened in that single bad semester on your transcript
    • How to interpret your foreign GPA, and where you ranked in your class
    • Clarify your classes if they have off names (e.g. “My class called XX was a Real Analysis class using textbook X, and so I have all the mathematical requirements for entry.”
  7. Get help. Your letter writers, professors you work for, or PhD student you know can read and give feedback on your statements. Ask them for their advice. Do this early–a couple months before the application, ideally. they can help you frame your question in a more interesting way, decide what papers to mention, or what is or is not frontier.
  8. Don’t be repetitive. This is not the place to restate your CV (“First I worked for Professor… and then I worked for…”). They have your CV. Use this document to do something no other in your application can do. Only mention work or other experience if you can add essential, high-density information the reader cannot get elsewhere in the application packet. Maybe you picked up specific technical skills working on a project that relate to the research proposal you just described? If not, you don’t have to say anything at all about your past. Just let the research proposal speak for itself.
  9. Delete useless words and sentences! After you have deleted all the plartitudes and routine sentences (see point 3) keep deleting! Every extraneous word or sentence lowers the average quality of the document. Look for the least useful paragraphs. Delete them, or at least cut most of that material. Try to make a 6-line paragraph 4 lines. Try to make a 15-word sentence 10 words.
    1. I recommend using the Hemingway Editor as a tool to write more clearly. Some long and complex sentences are ok, but sparingly. And they can often be improved. Aim for a grade 10 reading level.
  10. Make it easy to skim and read quickly. In particular:
    • Use active voice
    • Omit needless material and words (see points 3 and 9)
    • Limit jargon
    • Each paragraph should be a distinct idea
    • Paragraphs should have a hierarchical structure, with the big idea or general point as the first topic sentence, and the rest of the paragraph elaborates. Someone should be able to get an “executive summary” but simply reading the first line in every paragraph. they should make sense as a story/summary.
    • Use subheadings if possible, to delineate sections such as your broad fields of interest (point 4), your research proposal (point 5), and other key information (point 6)

This is just my view. Other professors will have different preferences and advice here. So ask them. Get more opinions. Or put your advice in the comments below.

Best nonfiction I read this year, Part I

It must be four or five years since I last blogged. I’m going to test the engine a little, see if the thing starts up again, and how far I feel like running it. I’ll start with some favorite books of the past year, blurred as that period may be. I will highlight some today, more in a few days, and some fiction after that.

If any of this interests you, I’ve made the newsletter function of the blog easier to use. Sign up to get email delivery of posts as they happen. I decided against going the paid newsletter route for various reasons (surely the subject of a future blog piece), and so there will be no fees, no gated articles, and no ads. Just a handful of posts each week in your inbox.

As for books, all my nonfiction picks of the year have a few things in common: they were mostly written long before 2021; they were subjects I knew little about; they revolutionized how I thought about the subject; and they were beautifully written and appropriately organized throughout. I finished all of these books because they demanded to be finished. The pace seldom become slow, the level of detail was just right, and it was clear that every chapter mattered. This is rare!

But before getting to them, a few things that are not on my list.

  • Some of the best books I read (or reread) this year were on the social science of what makes good public policy. I won’t talk about them here, since I am thinking about a series of posts (or a book club, or a short online course, or something). For now you can see the readings on my How to Change the World syllabus.
  • Sadly, there are also no books on Chinese political and economic history, though not for lack of trying. I read some amazing articles (another post I hope to write) but struck out on books. I tried reading about 10 economic or political histories. Sometimes the first chapter was excellent (presumably because this is where the author or editor spent the most time). Then the book plodded along, poorly written or providing excessive detail. I don’t like to name names, so I will not tell you which ones I disliked, but I will happily take recommendations of books to try. (Yuen Yuen Ang’s books are still on my to-read list, and I am most optimistic about those. I also saw Noah Smith’s recent post, and I know and like several of those on his list, but I was browsing more academic stuff, which could be my mistake.)
  • Finally, despite the fact that I spent most of the year reading about wars, there is only one book on conflict here. Most I read were good, and necessary if I was going to cover the whole subject in my book. But with one exception, none of the volumes individually rose to the level of a great read for a general audience. So, for those of you who do not share my obsession with violence, this list is for you.

Continue reading

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


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 Gridneff calls 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
  • How a bad social science study ended up making the Vietnam war worse.
  • 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.
  • The BBC “People Fixing the World” podcast had a couple of episodes on research-driven impact: satellite data for identifying needy cash beneficiaries in Togo (Apple) with Josh Blumenstock, and a nice story on World Bicycle Relief (Apple) with a lot of on the ground reporting from Zambia and Ana Garcia Hernandez discussing the RCT of giving bicycles to schoolgirls in rural areas. (For more, here are study summaries on cash & bikes.)
  • Jobs:
  • Funding available from IFPRI ($25,000-$200,000) for research on cash transfers and intimate partner violence in low- and middle-income countries (deadline July 9th)

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • 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)
  • How Portugal is starting to acknowledge its role in the slave trade
  • 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.
  • Vogue had a nice article about Kenya’s women coders, and how schools training women there are correcting trends in the industry so they don’t repeat the mistakes of Silicon Valley.
  • 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:

IPA’s Weekly Links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • 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.
  • Podcasts:
  • 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).

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action

  • 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.
  • IPA’s Executive Director Annie Duflo, is profiled in the Wall Street Journal this weekend.
  • 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.

  • David McKenzie already covered two things I wanted to link to better than I could have: Congolese researchers and staff talk about their perspective in the international research process (but David summarizes his highlights).
  • 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)
  • Research funding opportunities:
    • Women’s Work, Entrepreneurship, and Skilling (in Kenya and Bangladesh, Deadline Jan 27), particularly around how COVID has affected women’s work and entrepreneurship opportunities and how to help
    • 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.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action

  • 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.
  • A fun tribute to Senegal, “How to Pretend You’re In Dakar Today
  • (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)



IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action

  • 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.
  • Costco will join other chains to stop selling a brand of Thai of coconut milk after allegations of forced monkey labor.
  • 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.


  • Jobs:
  • 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.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • 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 info:
    • 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).
    • Another amazing job opportunity, Research Director at GiveDirectly, based in Kampala, Kigali, Lilongwe, London, Monrovia, Nairobi or New York.
    • And the World Bank’s Gender Innovation Lab is hiring for a 3-year postdoc (or Master’s + 4 yrs experience) on measures for advancing gender equality.
    • 2 postdocs in development economics for scholars from low- and middle-income countries at the University of Göttingen in Germany
    • And fellowships at Brookings
  • 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.”

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action

  • 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.
  • EGAP is offering $10,000 grants (deadline Dec 15) to scholars from the Global South for studying either
    1. the role of political conditions in enabling or preventing effective societal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic;
    2. the way the COVID-19 pandemic, and its associated economic, social, and psychological stresses, is affecting different dimensions of elections around the globe.
  • IPA”s Peace and Recovery Program is offering a variety of kinds of funding, including for pilots and early career scholar, for different kinds of research around
    • Reducing violence and promoting peace
    • Reducing “fragility” (i.e. fostering state capability and institutions of decision-making)
    • Preventing, coping with, and recovering from crises, including COVID-19
    • Addressing homicide in Latin America and the Caribbean

Application details, guiding principles (explaining what they’re looking for in an application), previously funded projects, and more from Chris Blattman the academic lead for the program. Deadline Nov 20th.

  • And have we passed the peak? (don’t read down in the thread)


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action

Medellin, Colombia

Medellin, Colombia

  • 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.

    • GiveDirectly response/update here
  • Jobs:
    • 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)
    • RAships in micro (not dev I think), at UChicago Booth
  • Going back to the job on digital financial protection, the reason for that larger research agenda is things like cheap Chinese smartphones coming preinstalled with malware to steal money from users, and another story from Pakistan I can’t get to now about a mobile interface essentially designed to trick users into taking out loans against their salary.
  • Smithsonian recently had a cover story on the kingdom of Kush, 5,000 years ago in what’s now Sudan.