IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

WaterSpilling

There have been a few related things over the past couple months that all get at this tension between how applied/practical vs. theoretical policy-related research should be:

  • At the AEA Ely Lecture in January, Esther Duflo suggested economists should be more like plumbers, tinkering and adjusting, concerned with the details. For example, whether a voucher system works can really come down to the nitty gritty. The theoretician focuses on whether a voucher is a good idea, but in practice, lots of tiny decisions, like how the voucher is distributed, and what kinds of information the designer chooses to put on the voucher can make the difference between whether the program works or not. Papers rarely even discuss those kinds of day-to-day details of a program, but she argues if the field wants to make a difference, details matter. Video and print versions available here.
    • Beatrice Cherrier puts it into historical context, including the “physics envy” some use to describe the fields’ march towards more complex mathematical models in recent decades.
    • Side note: In Cherrier’s interview on the Economics Rockstar podcast she talks about tracking how the MIT model of highly quantitative economics came to be so popular in the U.S. along with using The Wire as a teaching tool.
  • For another historical alternative model of how to think about economics, see The Economist’s article on the history of the Cambridge school of economics. The thinking there was less concerned with mathematical models and more with training economists who’d understand the social and political contexts in which their work would be used.
  • In Nature, Duncan Watts asked “Should social science be more solution-oriented?” He cites an organizational scholar’s likening of that field to the Winchester mansion in California, based on a dream the rifle company heiress had:

    Because the dream didn’t specify any particular plan for the house, however, she embarked on an open-ended construction project in which hundreds of rooms, stairwells and other elements of a normal house were added over nearly 40 years of continuous construction with no overall objective other than to keep building. The result was an agglomeration of components, each of which was individually well-constructed, but that did not cohere into any sort of functional whole: stairways ran directly into walls, doors did not open, stained glass windows were installed in interior rooms with no light exposure, and so on. In Davis’s view, organizational science has the same problem: although each individual contribution must comply with strict disciplinary standards, no attention is paid to how all the contributions fit together; as a consequence, they do not.

He suggests a solution in which research contributions are judged not on their theoretical contributions but on how well they actually solve a social problem, the way prize-oriented contests do (such as the Netflix or SpaceX challenges). This would also incentivize cross-disciplinary collaborations.

  • What might this look like? Take a look at the New Yorker profile: “Can Behavioral Science Save Flint?” It’s a very engaging ride-along with cognitive scientist Maya Shankar, of the Obama White House Behavioral Sciences Unit. In the waning days of the Obama administration she got on a plane to Flint, Michigan, and worked tirelessly to try to resuscitate the relationship between health officials and residents who’d been hurt by their governments’ poisoning of their water. (A literal plumbing crisis ruining thousands of lives.)
    • She started with listening to the problem and to the affected people, then brainstorming on what tools from the social scientists’ toolkit might be able to help. It’s a very inspiring read about what social scientists can do.

The only thing anti-poverty programs are missing is the long arm of the law?

9780226370811

In a minute I’m going to get to a great new book on U.S. poverty and policing. But first I have to digress. You’ll see where I am going in a minute.

Overly paternalistic poverty programs give me a nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling whenever I see them. These are the programs that assume someone will go full speed into self-destruction if they don’t have their hand held with every step. The telltale sign is a huge staff of well educated idealists whose main job it is to lecture poor people on how to be more like them.

Partly I don’t like the paternalism on principle. (This is my old college-age libertarian self speaking.) And partly I don’t think this paternalism is particularly effective. But then what really galls me is that these staff cost a ridiculous amount of money, and so many more people could be helped if we did away with the paternalism. It’s hard for me to believe the paternalism is worthwhile. How many desperate people never got help because it came tied to such an expensive helping hand? What a crime.

Mostly I see these programs in poor and desperate places in other countries. (Here’s one review article.) People get driven into these programs by poverty and desperation. This is as tragic as it gets. Or so I thought.

Now I see it could be worse. What if the police got involved, using the threat of arrest to push someone into a mediocre social program? What if the state gave cops the power to fine people for the tiniest infractions, and the cops used every one of these stops and fines  to play social worker and tell the poor soul where they should go to get help? What if the paternalistic NGOs with half-baked programs but great intentions hooked arms with the state to turn policing into their intake process?

That is the situation in LA’s Skid Row. According to Forrest Stuart, that’s actually the new policing paradigm sweeping US cities.

Forrest is my new colleague at U Chicago, in the sociology department. I’m meeting him for the first time later this week, so I decided to buy his book, Down, Out & Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row. I did not expect to get haunting ideas of what anti-poverty programs could become in the places where I work.

Policing in America’s poorest neighborhoods used to be a problem of neglect. Police simply managed the rabble and gave real policing to the good neighborhoods. But as crime rose in these neighborhoods, rabble management gave way to intensive policing with zero tolerance. Stops and frisks became the norm. Tickets and arrests rained down on offenders (and non-offenders) to signal the state was back, and not to be messed with.

Since old wealthy white people like me know about the problem, that means it’s old news.  Forrest’s book is about the latest shift, from zero tolerance policing to what he call therapeutic policing. He spent five years hanging out with both sides, the rabble being managed and the police themselves. What he found were cops who wanted to make a difference in these communities, who could use the power to arrest or ticket for good.

Lounging on the sidewalk? Here’s a ticket that will get forgiven if you enroll in this rehab program. Jaywalking? I could arrest you or you could go visit a counselor at the non-profit next door.

I can see how this would be persuasive to the police. Who doesn’t want to help someone improve, and be a part of that process? I can also see how this is persuasive to the non-profit. When you work with poor people, it’s incredibly difficult to see people leave. It’s painful to see them fail. And it’s tragic to think it could have been avoided. Especially if you just had a little more time.

Unfortunately I doubt this approach works. And even if it did, the college Libertarian in me joins forces with the grad student who read just a little too much Jim Scott, and the professor who has seen too many middling but expensive anti-poverty programs, and rebels against the coercive state and the forces of paternalism.

Thinking about it, what’s surprising to me is that I haven’t seen this police-NGO marriage in the places I work. Lots of the Ethiopian, Ugandan, Liberian and Colombian leaders I know would like this idea. This makes me think it’s only a matter of time before the enthusiasm spreads. How long before microfinance programs and vocational training come backed by the law?

You can read Forrest’s book here. Recommended.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

FarmerField

 

Happy 100th links everybody. Thanks for the wonderful feedback and to Chris for loaning out his space, and to Jenn Cowman and Cara Vu. On to the links:

 

  • An interesting investigation from one of the more interesting development writers, Francisco Toro. He used a reporting fellowship to go to Uganda and investigate why farmers there keep using old, less productive seeds and technology rather than more productive hybrid seeds used in many parts of the world. He finds both metaphorical and literal market failures. There are newer seeds and better fertilizer readily available, but the markets are flooded with adulterated and counterfeit hybrid seeds, and farmers quickly learn not to risk it. One farmer bet his son’s education money on “better” soybean seeds to find that only 20 percent germinated.
    • Why doesn’t the government monitor the seed quality? Toro (with an assist from Lant Prtichett) concludes the Ministry of Agriculture has evolved to be dependent on foreign aid groups, and ends up being not terribly connected to the farmers. (It is worth noting the irony that the private firm he mentions at the end as having the tech solution seems to have been caught faking soil tests in the U.S.)
    • Bold, Kaizzi, Svensson, & Yanagizawa-Drott confirm the Uganda counterfeiting problem in a forthcoming paper in QJE. They tested seed and fertilizer purchased in Ugandan markets and found 30% of fertilizer nutrients missing, and 50% of seeds counterfeit. They propose that diluting batches, rather than selling 100% fake ones, confuses the signals enough that farmers’ yields are inconsistent. The result is that farmers stay hungry but the markets don’t collapse. (Some of the same authors had a paper on fighting counterfeit anti-malarial meds by introducing cheaper real ones.)
  • A look at the “Replicability Index” of studies Daniel Kahneman cited in the bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow about priming (changing behavior based on subtle or non-conscious messages). Calculations based on effects and sample sizes of the studies show they’re all a little too good to be true, and sure enough many of them didn’t replicate. (h/t David Batcheck)
    • This finding isn’t a surprise, but it’s worth reading Kahneman’s eloquent response, admitting he fell victim to a phenomenon he himself studied:

      As pointed out in the blog, and earlier by Andrew Gelman, there is a special irony in my mistake because the first paper that Amos Tversky and I published was about the belief in the “law of small numbers,” which allows researchers to trust the results of underpowered studies with unreasonably small samples. We also cited Overall (1969) for showing “that the prevalence of studies deficient in statistical power is not only wasteful but actually pernicious: it results in a large proportion of invalid rejections of the null hypothesis among published results.” Our article was written in 1969 and published in 1971, but I failed to internalize its message.

He points out that he still believes that one should believe the preponderance of published studies, but that he didn’t understand the extent to which only positive results were being published. (He should also get credit for being one of the forces behind the replication push).

  • Bill & Melinda Gates’ letter is structured as a reply to Warren Buffett and is very well written and communicated. One message is that the world is getting better, with fewer children dying every year. They calculate 122 million children have been saved since 1990.
  • Economist Jishnu Das wonders if econ researchers are really the best people to be in the policy communication/recommendation business. Among the points he brings up is if their comparative advantage is in communication. He also wonders about  the focus on finding effective things and push to scale them up, compared to stopping things we’re not sure about.

Which still brings us to wonder how economists ended up near the top of the Y axis here (h/t Charles Kenny):

 

The problem with global elites

A fantastic essay by Dani Rodrik, that should be read in full:

Last October, British Prime Minister Theresa May shocked many when she disparaged the idea of global citizenship. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she said, “you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

…I know what a “global citizen” looks like: I see a perfect specimen every time I pass a mirror. I grew up in one country, live in another, and carry the passports of both. I write on global economics, and my work takes me to far-flung places. I spend more time traveling in other countries than I do within either country that claims me as a citizen.

…And yet May’s statement strikes a chord. It contains an essential truth – the disregard of which says much about how we – the world’s financial, political, and technocratic elite – distanced ourselves from our compatriots and lost their trust.

…Real citizenship entails interacting and deliberating with other citizens in a shared political community. It means holding decision-makers to account and participating in politics to shape the policy outcomes. In the process, my ideas about desirable ends and means are confronted with and tested against those of my fellow citizens.

Global citizens do not have similar rights or responsibilities. No one is accountable to them, and there is no one to whom they must justify themselves. At best, they form communities with like-minded individuals from other countries. Their counterparts are not citizens everywhere but self-designated “global citizens” in other countries.

cosmopolitans often come across like the character from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov who discovers that the more he loves humanity in general, the less he loves people in particular. Global citizens should be wary that their lofty goals do not turn into an excuse for shirking their duties toward their compatriots.

…We have to live in the world we have, with all its political divisions, and not the world we wish we had. The best way to serve global interests is to live up to our responsibilities within the political institutions that matter: those that exist.

More eloquent than my Twitter crisis the morning after the Trump victory:

Links I liked

  1. Ezra Klein’s interview of tech reporter Kara Swisher
  2. A pre-doc in India for students interested in experimental research (scroll down)
  3. Not so realistic in America, but more sensible governments take note: Visas as aid
  4. The puzzle is why peacekeeping works, not why it fails (link fixed)
  5. Strangely satisfying: A New Yorker editor live copy edits Trump’s Black History Month speech
  6. This Fantasia 2000 Rhapsody in Blue animation
  7. And we now have the ability to see light moving?

We now have the technology to see light moving! This is a 100 BILLION FPS recording.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Rosling

  • A new report from Amnesty International documents mass torture and hangings in Syria’s Saydnaya prison. They estimate 13,000 people were hanged between 2011 and 2015, and they are probably continuing:

    “A former judge who witnessed the hangings said: “They kept them [hanging] there for ten to 15 minutes. Some didn’t die because they are light. For the young ones, their weight wouldn’t kill them. The officers’ assistants would pull them down and break their necks”.”

More on it from Vox here.

  • Hans Rosling died this week. The doctor and epidemiologist started off as a healthcare provider in Mozambique and then in the DRC, where he worked to identify the source of the paralytic disease Konzo (it was the naturally occurring cyanide in cassava roots, which weren’t being washed enough because of a drought). He later devoted himself to using statistics and creative visualization to show how the world is getting better. There was a nice interview with him in Nature just a few months ago (he refused to let the reporter mention his cancer, fearing it would detract from his message about reducing poverty).
    • In addition to being a pioneer in computer visualization for the general public, he found creative analog ways of showing shifting distributions using Ikea bins, pitchers of water, and dollar bills from his wallet. You can see some of his videos here.
  • A court in Kenya stopped that country’s attempt to close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. Judge John Mativo ruled that sending some 200,000 residents to Somalia would put them in danger and would be discriminatory.
  • How to spot data visualization lies and mistakes (h/t David Batcheck).
  • Job designing behavioral interventions in education at the University of Virginia.
  • A guide for non-scientists on how to read a scientific paper (h/t Neela Saldanha). Summarized below, geneticist Jennifer Raff recommends literally drawing out the methodology.

how-to-read-a-sci-paper

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

FiduciaryRuleVideo

Video screenshot, actual video below

  • EconTalk had George Borjas, who’s known for being a contrarian on immigration research. The interview didn’t really get into the stuff that many disagree with, but was really more about his perspective. He argues that:
    • Not all immigrants are the same, they arrive with different skills, so you should expect to see effects in particular subsections of the labor market. Some might see that as a justification for cherry picking/subgroup analysis. But he explains that this observation comes from his own experience as a Cuban immigrant, and in grad school knowing better than the professors that different waves of Cubans came to the U.S. fleeing different circumstances, and from different classes and backgrounds.
    • He suggests* that a 25% increase in labor supply at the low end corresponds with about a 5% reduction in wages for workers in that group. Most people focus on the big net societal benefits, so policies ignore the small group who are experiencing the negative impact. He thinks policymakers ignore those hurt by immigration their own political peril.
  • David Evans has a great blog post just waiting for a Vox or education reporter to pick up. He reviews several studies, and wherever you go in the world, parents think their kids are doing better in school than they are. Simply letting parents know when their kids are missing school or an assignment, or falling behind, is very cheap and has huge impacts on student achievement.
  • Dupas, Huillery, & Seban have good and even better news from Cameroon [PDF]. They tested several classroom-based safer sex/HIV prevention interventions and found large impacts in rural (though not urban) areas. All four interventions worked showing 25-48% reductions in childbearing 9-12 months later. Even a one-hour self-administered questionnaire worked as well as in-class sessions led by consultants.
  • Call for case studies on collecting sensitive data (particularly through digital means), to help develop new USAID guidelines on how to do such things. Submit descriptions of how you’ve collected such data by Feb 15. (h/t Alexis Ditkowsky)
  • The administration is reportedly preparing to roll back the financial adviser “fiduciary” rule requiring that advisers act in their clients’ best interest rather than their own. This comes in when steering clients towards investments that the adviser potentially has a stake in (I’ve seen this personally, it’s pernicious and very hard to get a straight answer). When the rule was being debated almost exactly a year ago, the University of Chicago’s Harold Pollack made a commercial to explain it:

[*] I’m not taking a position on Borja’s findings, but there’s a lively discussion in EconTalk comments

Medellin bleg

I am starting a new project in Medellin where we are collecting systematic data on the hundreds of street gangs in the city. I will write more about that in future, because it stands to be one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever studied.

In the meantime, I need to solve a particular problem, which is how to do as much field work as possible, when I have two kids ages (almost) 4 and 6, and when I can only withdraw from the spousal bank of generosity so much.

I am hoping the solution is a marvelous finca or apartment and the Colombian equivalent of Mary Poppins. In that case Jeannie and the kids will happily join me for weeks and weeks during the year. Or years more likely.

This is where I hope one of you might have suggestions.

Continue reading

My spring syllabus: Order & Violence

Beginning this spring, I’ll be teaching this new course to Harris Master’s students. The syllabus is just a draft, and so comments are welcome.*

Here is the overview:

Most countries in the world have been independent for about 50 years. Some are peaceful and have prospered, while some remain poor, war-torn, or both. What explains why some countries have succeeded while others remain poor, violent, and unequal?

Moreover, fifty years on, a lot of smart people are genuinely surprised that these countries’ leaders have not been able to make more progress in implementing good policies. If there are good examples to follow, why haven’t more countries followed these examples into peace and prosperity?

Finally, we see poverty and violence despite 50 years of outside intervention. Shouldn’t foreign aid, democracy promotion, peacekeeping, and maybe even military intervention promote order and growth? If not why not, and what should we do about it as citizens?

This class is going to try to demystify what’s going on. There are good explanations for violence and disorder. There are some good reasons leaders don’t make headway, bureaucrats seem slothful, and programs gets perverted. The idea is to talk about the political, economic, and natural logics that lead to function and dysfunction, order and disorder.

A lot of students will graduate and go and do peace-building or development work of some kind. I can’t tell you what specific programs or reforms to focus on, or how to implement them. What I can do is help you to understand some of the big ideas about why some paths lead to order, and some to violence. Or why the best plans so often goes awry—ideas that surprisingly few development practitioners ever acquire.

To understand the politics of weak states in the last 50 years, we are going to start with some theory and history. We need a theory of violence, and theories of how states, institutions, and societies develop to curb violence. And we want to look at the development of Western nations, and their impacts on the world, over a wide sweep of history.

Moreover, I designed this course to give students an appreciation for big ideas and theories in comparative politics, international relations, political economy, sociology, geography, and development economics. This class involves reading a lot of material, and building your conceptual and historical sense of development and politics.

This is a global class, but a slightly unbalanced one. A lot of the examples are going to draw on Africa and Latin America, with a good deal on historical European and U.S. development, plus some material on the Middle East and Asia—an ordering determined largely by my knowledge and ignorance.

I won’t have the concrete policy answers in many cases. Actually, no one does, and one of my big aims in this class is to help you learn enough and think critically enough to know why everyone with a clear solution is wrong, and why “peace-building” and “development” are the hardest things in the world. There is no single answer. But there are some principles to finding the right answer in the right situation, and history to learn from. That’s what you’re signing up for in this class.

*Every year I get feedback on adequate or inadequate coverage of women or authors from developing countries. Each year I strive to add more. The trouble, if anything, is not the lack of scholarly books or articles but rather the apparent lack of paper and chapter-length high-level overviews– that is, review articles and other things appropriate for an undergraduate of Master’s level course. So I welcome criticism but I like suggested solutions even more.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Stanford’s Robb Willer’s TEDx talk on how to have better political conversations.
  • Nice news from Muralidharan, Singh, & Ganimian. In India, a computer tutoring program improved kids’ math and Hindi a lot in just a few months. The key seems to have been the computer program was individualized to each kid’s level, with the big gains coming from the kids who started worst off.
    • Conceptually, this fits well with what’s already known about education failures in many poor places – that even when kids get to school, they often come in at such a low level that many can’t keep up with the standard curriculum. They subsequently just advance through the grades not understanding what’s going on. Giving those kids extra help seems to work, but the challenge is doing it in a way that’s affordable and scalable to large numbers. Muralidharan, et. al. just offered a voucher for an existing program in Delhi, combining a customizable computer program and classroom lessons and found it was cheap and effective.
  • ICYMI from Chris, IPA and J-PAL are hiring for new initiatives focusing on crime and violence prevention, and post-conflict peace and recovery.
  • In a development I’ve never seen before in development, two advocacy orgs seem to be offering a grant for research just to try to dispute an education RCT currently underway. The researchers respond here (link to the proposal there, and disclaimer that IPA’s running the targeted RCT).
  • Starvation is so bad in parts of Northern Nigeria’s Borno state where Boko Haram is displacing populations, that some aid workers suspect all children under age five have died. Most outsiders aren’t allowed into the camps to see it directly, but a few weeks ago there was an undercover investigation published.
  • From The Economist, on a program that, post-Haiti earthquake, allows some Haitians to temporarily go to the U.S. to work (via David McKenzie):

A new study by Michael Clemens and Hannah Postel of the Centre for Global Development compares those Haitians who secured visas through the project with unsuccessful applicants left behind. The benefits were mind-boggling: the temporary migrants earned a monthly income 1,400% higher than those back in Haiti. Most of their earnings flowed back home in the form of remittances. For comparison, a 10-30% raise would normally be cause for celebration.

 

Come work with me to build two huge new research initiatives on violence reduction and recovery

Rigorous evaluation has changed the way we think about extreme poverty and how it can be ended. We have yet to see the same concerted effort (or results) in peace building, crime reduction, state building, humanitarian aid, refugee issues, violence prevention, and conflict resolution.

To change this, I’m helping to lead two major new initiatives: the Crime & Violence Sector at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), and the Peace & Recovery Program at Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA). Over the next five years, we expect to help dramatically increase the number and quality of studies in the world, grant many millions of dollars in research grants (small, medium, and large), support PhD students, offer multiple post-doctoral positions, translate all this work into public policy, and try to scale successful solutions.

We need some help.

J-PAL, IPA and I are looking for full-time directors for each of the two initiatives. Both people will work with me to develop new partners and studies, recruit leading academics and students to the projects, manage grants to these research teams, write for and meet with policymakers, and fundraise in order to be able to keep supporting this kind of work. And a hundred other things.

On the Crime & Violence initiative, you’ll also work with my co-Chair, Jens Ludwig, founder of the UChicago Crime Lab. While a lot of our focus will be international this year, J-PAL’s ambitions are to transform our understanding of North American crime, violence, and policing as well. In the near term, however, much of the funding we have raised is earmarked for Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and other low-income places. It’s my hope to raise substantial funds for Latin America, and the new directors will help.

With me you’ll also work closely with UChicago’s Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict.

The IPA Program and Associate Program Director positions are advertised here. The Policy Manager position at J-PAL is advertised here. I encourage you to apply.

To see what success looks like, take a look at J-PAL’s Political Economy and Governance Sector (and its amazing Governance Initiative) or IPA’s Financial Inclusion program. We aim to be as successful and impactful as those.

In both cases we are looking for directors with a relevant Master’s degree and at least 5 years experience, or a Ph.D. and at least 2 years experience. There may be positions coming up for less experienced people, so if you are interested, it’s not a bad idea to apply to get on our radar. Developing country experience is probably a must. The more crime, conflict, humanitarian or related experience you have, the better. A background in impact evaluation and research management is also a plus. If you have amazing strengths in one but not the other, I still encourage you to apply.

If you’re wondering which to apply to, the answer is probably “both”. The J-PAL sector is more focused on crime and violence reduction, and criminal justice/security reform. And the IPA sector is a little broader in its focus not just on violence, but also post-conflict, humanitarian, and state building issues. But in reality the overlap will be very high, and each director will be the lead for all those issues in their organization.

Perhaps the main difference is that the J-PAL job probably requires a US work permit and a willingness to be based in Cambridge MA, while the IPA position is more flexible on both fronts. I am based in Chicago, and I will have a preference for people who can be based here with me. But New York, New Haven, and DC are technically options as there are IPA offices there.

See the ads for details of the positions and to apply. Feel free to post any questions you have here and I will try to answer. (I will not be able to answer individual requests by email or social media, and will not be involved in the hiring until the short list stage, so please don’t apply to me directly.)

Nothing about this blog post is official–it just reflects my personal preferences. For all official details of the work and process see the ads themselves.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

She unpacks in detail the specific mechanisms at play in the Chinese case, namely unambiguous goals the central government sets and communicates; a highly decentralized system where local government officials have a fair degree of autonomy to choose their strategies; and the high-power incentive provided by the cadre performance management system and finally profit sharing.

  • A profile of Jin Liqun, the head of the new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank.
  • A roundup of the response to the Zika virus from public health experts, or as the NYTimes puts it: How the Response to Zika Failed Millions. The verdict seems to be positive that the Rio Olympics did not seem to spur a massive spreading and a vaccine was eventually developed. Otherwise, the response was scattershot. Rich people were generally well-warned on how to avoid infection, while poor people in more vulnerable areas (including currently in Puerto Rico), were largely left bereft of services or information needed to keep safe.  As a result, the wave of babies being born with microcephaly continues.
    • Among the problems dampening an effective response were fears by health officials about the politics of offering advice about delaying pregnancy, contraception, or abortion for affected fetuses.
  • In the BMJ, a review shows that large effects in small RCTs are rarely followed by a larger RCT, but when they are, 43 percent of the time they fail to find an effect (h/t David Batcheck).
  • Funding opportunity for East African scholars, and a fellowship for qualitative or quantitative researchers from sub-Saharan Africa with the World Bank’s Gender Innovation Lab (h/t Dina Pomeranz, as usual).
  • Paper and software for two-stage randomization (between and within clusters) RCTs from Berk Özler and colleagues.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

IATScreen

  • As described in a long piece from New York Magazine, millions of people have been told by a Harvard psychology website they are secretly racist, despite no consensus on the underlying research. You may recall the debate where Hillary Clinton referenced “implicit bias” responding to a question about police shootings. She was referring to a prominent line of research in psychology based on the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The computerized test measures millisecond differences in reaction times and has been promoted by prominent researchers, including the chair of Harvard’s psychology department, as a measure of unconscious bias. Millions of people who have taken it, often as part of training, for school, or a job, conclude they are unconscious racists. However, as the piece describes, measurement experts have pointed out that it’s not clear what the test measures, how reliable it is, or what it predicts (TL;DR there are questions about both internal and external validity). In part because it’s based on millisecond differences in reaction times, results can vary widely based on arbitrary decisions by the researchers in how to score it, and studies can be heavily influenced by outliers. Critics worry that the aura of science and promise of a direct route to the unconscious may also be a red herring, distracting from clear evidence of explicit bias in areas like policing.
  • Two University of Washington professors offer a syllabus for a course they’re proposing, “Calling Bullsh*t.”  It covers how to distinguish fact from fiction in science, statistics, and news (you can follow them on twitter @callin_bull).
  • Lessons from the flat screen TV industry on why trade protectionism ultimately may undercut domestic industry anyway (summary: innovation happens abroad if you stop it from happening domestically, and ultimately products find a way to get around the tariffs anyway.)
  • Analyzing a survey of prominent economists’ opinions, sociologists argue that they aren’t polarized, but clustered:

    Moreover, we argue that social clustering in a heterogeneous network topology is a better model for disciplinary social structure than discrete factionalization. Results show that there is a robust latent ideological dimension related to economists’ departmental affiliations and political partisanship. Furthermore, we show that economists closer to one another in informal social networks also share more similar ideologies.

  • In Uganda, Malawi, and Chile, Dupas, Karlan, Robinson & Ubfal find that simply making it easier to access bank accounts is not enough to help the poor save more.
  • Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable.

Keep this handy for your next conference (And if you ever don’t get an XKCD reference, check the explain XKCD wiki.)

XKCD_artifacts

The 10 things that guide how I give to charity

Blog reader Brian Holtemeyer wrote to me with this question:

My wife and I want to donate some money to a social cause. She wants to donate to domestic causes (e.g. Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, etc). I’m more inclined to donate to an international cause because the returns seem higher (e.g. water wells in Africa). Do you know of anyone who’s done work trying to figure out the ‘best’ cause to donate money to? Clearly it’s very subjective, but I’m sure very smart people have already attacked this question, and just wondering if you’re aware of any of it.

This is a hard question. I haven’t seen any system for determining the highest impact charity that I buy (I’ll get to GiveWell below). So the best I can do is tell you how I personally think about it and give.

  1. We tend to give at least 10% of our income away a year. I would like this to be higher, but my moral ideals are in tension with my somewhat selfish decisions to buy a large house and send my kids to the UChicago Lab School. But we aspire to give more over time and probably will.
  2. Even though I think that dollars go further abroad, I split my spending between domestic and international causes. This is partly because I already give so much time to international development. But it’s mainly because I’ve come to believe that being a member of a city or country brings certain responsibilities and obligations.
  3. We’re in the peculiar situation where, because of our work, Jeannie and I know some truly amazing people in poor countries who need some help with university fees or child assistance or something else. Many are social workers in some fashion. About half our giving ends up supporting people where we have some personal tie. I think this is a terrific way to give if you have those connections. For others this will be needy neighbors or family, and I’m not such a utilitarian that this troubles me.
  4. The other half of our giving goes to established charities. I think it’s important for charities to have regular, predictable support, and so even though my donation is a drop in the bucket I almost always set up automatic and recurring monthly donations.
  5. Organizations like GiveWell have models for evaluating the highest impact charities in terms of savings lives. As a result, almost all of these charities are international and focus on health. The one exception is GiveDirectly, which is my personal favorite number one charity. They give cash to the poorest, directly. In addition to giving money monthly, I freely offered them the ad spot you see on this page, and I hope you’ll click and donate. See GiveWell’s summary for more information. I know the founders and leaders personally and they’re among my favorite people in the world.
  6. Otherwise I’m not so keen on GiveWell’s model that I put my money behind it. My personal view is that the means and end to human well being is good government and political rights and freedoms. Now, it is extremely difficult to know how to be effective, who is any good, or measure the impact of a dollar. So be it.
  7. That’s why internationally we give monthly to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and domestically we give to the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Democratic National Committee, Planned Parenthood, and the National Immigration Law Center. We also give to the International Rescue Committee, who in part focus on good governance, but also work on refugee relief more broadly–an issue close to our hearts. Jeannie also runs the research department for IRC and is in charge of measuring impact. So we’re in a good position to know that those are good dollars spent.
  8. We also give to two small organizations where we know the founders. Our friend Scott founded and runs Arbor Brothers, who find and support social entrepreneurs in the NYC area to really scale up what they do. Jeannie’s brother founded and runs Haiti Partners, a faith-based organization that focuses on education in rural Haiti.
  9. We also like to give locally in our city. This year we’ve started giving to Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Heartland Alliance. There are similar anti-poverty organizations in any city. Even though I am a cash transfer evangelist, I do this instead of handing cash out on the street because even I worry about the impact of that kind of giving. But I would like to see (maybe one day run) the randomized trial of cash in the US. And if there were a US organization handing out cash I would probably support it.
  10. Last, I give small amounts monthly to the public services I use the most. This includes the local National Public Radio station and the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia.

I think I could improve my giving in a few ways. I’m not sure what the best US organizations are for political change, and I worry that I’ve defaulted to the obvious large ones. I’m pretty sure my giving looks like the stereotype of the wealthy white liberal elite of America. I would also like to find more organizations that organize grassroots political action in developing countries to support. Suggestions, comments, and criticisms are welcome.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

ourworldindatapoverty

  • Last weekend I had an op-ed with Annie Duflo about 2016, citing Max Roser’s observations that for humanity as a whole, things have been getting better than better, and describing new results from the past year of poverty research. But Roser himself also had a very thoughtful piece about why people always think the world is getting worse, locally and globally. His observations:
    • Bad things (crime, disasters) happen suddenly, while good things (reductions in poverty, disease) play out over years or decades, which media is not structured well to cover.
    • Our own demand-side effects on the media. Our brains’ evolved negativity bias leaves us as attuned to dangerous/alarming things. (“Almost Everybody in America Made it Home Safely Tonight” is a headline nobody would click on.)
    • Education-wise, global trends fall in between history and statistics so don’t get taught.
  • Evidence Action, which tries to see if evidence-proven ideas can scale, is looking for researchers with ideas that have been RCT tested and are ready for (careful) broader scaling. Learn more & submit your ideas to them here (Deadline Feb 3).
  • Some reminders for those freezing at the Chicago ASSA conference, particularly job candidates:
  • A paper and gift from Fiona Burlig:

    We’ve got new methods (and software) for choosing sample sizes in panel data settings that properly account for arbitrary within-unit serial correlation, and yield properly powered experiments in simulated and real data.

  • If you have a lot of time on your hands, like are nearing retirement, you may enjoy David Roodman’s deep dive into deworming findings, and why different analyses of the existing data can come to different conclusions. Part one and part two.
  • FYI, so far in 2017 President Obama has articles in the Harvard Law Review and New England Journal of Medicine (not even his first there). So there go your excuses for not getting that write-up finished.

obamapubs

Where should you visit in Uganda as a tourist?

A friend asked me this question and I decided to turn my long email into a blog post, to somehow justify the ridiculous amount of time I spent on the email. The big buyer beware warning here is that I haven’t been to Uganda in a few years, and I haven’t does touristy things since 2007. So my knowledge is out of date. Hopefully readers can add and subtract in the comments. Continue reading

Does foreign aid buy votes for bad governments? This study from Uganda shows the opposite.

A whopping 40% of Uganda’s government budget comes from foreign aid. This is a regime that is getting more and more autocratic, going the way of an Ethiopia or (I fear) a Zimbabwe. So of all the angst about aid, and critiques of foreign assistance, it’s surprising that I don’t hear this one more often: is foreign aid propping up bad guys? It seems irresponsible not to know the answer.

I would have thought the answer was “of course we are propping up thugs”, but data from one program in Uganda points in the opposite direction: people who got a big government grant for their business worked to get the opposition election. I don’t know exactly why, but it looks to me like a little increase in wealth freed people from patronage machines.

A few years ago I evaluated a fairly successful government employment program in Uganda, where cash grants of about $400 helped young people increase their self-employment and earnings by about 40%. At the time we also collected data on how much people participated in the 2011 elections, what parties they liked and disliked, and other political behavior. But like a lot of academics I have more data than I can analyze. Plus once I found this result I never knew what to make of it. So it took years before I could write up a real paper with my two coauthors, Mathilde Emeriau and Nathan Fiala. It’s now up.

The cash grants went out in 2008. This was a pretty meritocratic program. It didn’t target political supporters, it had little pork, and the government couldn’t take it back. The Ugandan government was hoping that good development policy would build its political support in the north of the country.

But instead of rewarding the government in the 2011 elections, compared to the random control group, the people who actually got the grant increased their opposition party membership, campaigning, and voting. Opposition voting went from 12% to 16%, a one third increase.

We went through a bunch of possible explanations. As with most experiments, it’s hard to figure out why something happened, especially if the result was unexpected. (We’d geared our survey questions to understand the opposite result.) But we did notice one interesting pattern: higher incomes are associated with opposition support, and income changes seem to account for a god part of the treatment effect on voting.

This possibility has been dangled out before. Beatriz Magaloni has some work on Mexico arguing that financially independent voters are less dependent on favors from the ruling party. Nancy Hite has some unpublished work from the Philippines suggesting that microfinance untangles people from politicized loan networks.

I wonder if what we’re seeing in Uganda is a bigger phenomenon: that financial independence frees the poor to express their political preferences publicly, since they’re less reliant on patronage and other political transfers. If so it’s a micro-level version of an old fashioned story about how democratization follows from economic development.

Given how much money countries give away in aid, this seems like an important question to answer. One easy way to add to the evidence is the huge number of randomized trials of anti-poverty programs. Simply adding on post-election questions from the regional barometer studies (Afrobarometer, Latinobarometer, etc) would go a long ways to increasing the evidence.

Downstream studies are also a good idea, where you go back for another round of survey data after an election. That’s how Hite got her Philippines data. And we will go back to Uganda next year for the 9-year follow up, and will get information on the 2016 elections while there. This is low hanging fruit for grad students and junior faculty.

This is why politicians fear cash transfer programs

The title of the UK Daily Mail article is “Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse… YOUR cash is doled out in envelopes and on ATM cards loaded with money.”

Standing in line, Pakistani families wait at a cashpoint used to withdraw money on cards loaded with funds from British taxpayers.
More than £1billion of our foreign aid budget has been given away in cash over the past five years, it can be revealed today.
Despite warnings of fraud, officials have quietly quadrupled expenditure on cash and debit cards that recipients can spend at will.
The budget has soared from £53million in 2005 to an annual average of £219million in the period 2011-15. MPs last night compared the foreign cash handouts to ‘exporting the dole’.

This is essentially a response to the UK aid agency leading the move to cash transfers in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. And arguably less corrupt that other aid programs.

IPA’s Weekly Links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

factory_floor

  • Chris Blattman is on the EconTalk podcast talking about his work with Stefan Dercon on sweatshops in Ethiopia. As an economist who studies poverty, one of the interesting things he learned from hanging out in factories is what the owners say is really constraining them from growing. It isn’t lack of funding or infrastructure, it’s lack of middle management. What they really need to grow are people good at accounting, HR, mergers, and the like:

    “they need all of these skills that we don’t usually think about as poverty or development economists. … They say, ‘I can only do so much. I have all this capital; I made all this money,’ in real estate or trading or mine money or ill-gotten gains or wherever they got this money. And they only have so much time. So they really need people who can organize. And they need people who can help them execute transactions, whether it’s buying a company or helping them build sales contacts and do things overseas.”

And a big thanks to Cara Vu for editing help.