IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • IPA and the International Rescue Committee are teaming up to figure out how to reduce intimate partner violence in Liberia (where 36% of ever-partnered women have experienced physical or sexual violence in the last 12 months). We’re looking to hire a spectacular senior RA to start testing ideas from public health, psychology, and economics to see what methods work. Please see & share the full job posting here.
  • And the story of the grassroots campaign that helped elect Liberia’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (h/t Rachel Strohm)
  • Chris Blattman had an open letter to Bill Gates in Vox. Gates is committed to an ambitious goal of boosting chicken ownership in sub-Saharan Africa from five to 30 percent. But Chris points out that giving out livestock can be very expensive and risky, while giving out cash is cheap and effective. The crazy thing is that we don’t yet know which is better at fighting poverty, but we could find out if we wanted to.
    • I should add that my IPA colleagues are working on two efforts to find out in Ghana and Uganda.
  • Long read: Invisible Children, the group behind the viral Kony 2012 video, now operates an intelligence gathering network of radio operators in the DRC and CAR tracking the whereabouts of the Lord’s Resistance Army for military groups trying to hunt them.
  • And convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff is trying to use his lobbying skills to fight Boko Haram.
  • Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), the ethics boards that oversee academic research, are known for often having crazy and arcane bureaucratic hoops researchers have to jump through to get their projects approved. Everybody has a story like my anthropologist friend. She was working on her research in rural India talking to people about religion when she got a notification that her study was being halted. To restart it she would have to go to the nearest town where she could find internet access to watch a completely irrelevant series of long NIH videos on proper blood and tissue sample collection over the equivalent of a dial-up modem connection.
    • Now, a new regulation has gone into effect that could streamline the IRB process, making low-risk studies (such as those talking to consenting adults or recording in very public situations) exempt from review, but it’s up to universities to put it into effect.
    • The flip side of the debate though, is this discussion on a paper that paid online workers 50 cents for an hour of work, which seems a bit odd. I think this encapsulates the paradox of regulation; regulations have to be written for the .1% of bad actors, and end up constraining the other 99.9%. Or as one sociologist put it, “Social scientists identify a regulation they’re against.”
  • Dina Pomeranz does a great public service here starting a discussion thread on the stress and anxieties most academics cope with privately.

Want to solve world poverty? We don’t know the answer but the answer is knowable

Bill Gates spent a lot of 2016 talking about how chickens can solve world poverty, and how he’d like to help a third of rural sub-Saharan Africans start to raise them (up from about 5 percent today). I have a Vox piece today asking “why not cash instead?” It should be at least as effective at helping people start small business, and it’s cheaper and simpler to give away.

But that’s not my main point. We actually don’t know the answer. And to me that is the big  message.

Despite the suggestive research that I’ve cited here, no one has run the race between chickens and cash programs. No one has asked whether the expensive training or supervision that often goes along with these things is worth it. No one uses that information to hold organizations like Heifer accountable for being cost-effective.

You could. It would put your intuition about chicken returns to the test. It would be straightforward to run a study with a few thousand people in six countries, and eight or 12 variations, to understand which combination works best, where, and with whom. To me that answer is the best investment we could make to fight world poverty. The scholars at Innovations for Poverty Action who ran the livestock trial in Science agree with me. In fact, we’ve been trying, together, to get just such a comparative study started.

Is this just a way to hit you up for funding? Sort of, because — let’s be honest — when was the last time someone said something to you that wasn’t a funding proposal? But I’d be happy to see others run these trials. My day job is studying ways to reduce conflict, and running a massive cash and chickens trial will pull me away from that. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen anyone try this kind of multi-country, multi-pronged, coordinated trial. Until they do I’ll keep trying to make it work.

I think a few words from you could make those studies happen. When it comes to ending poverty, you could tell people that we don’t know the answer yet, but it is answerable. You could say: “The future is randomized trials testing different poverty programs against one another in many countries, focusing on cost-effectiveness.” That sentence is short enough for a tweet. And that one tweet, with some money to back it up, could change the world.

Read the full piece.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Heard about Universal Basic Income (UBI)? UBI, UBI, UBI, UBI, UBI, UBI.
  • A sad but fascinating long read, on what happened with the refugee crisis in Greece. It was a languishing overwhelmed and underfunded system, until the photo of the drowned 3-year-old boy Alan Kurdi circulated around the world. Money and pressure to act poured in, turning Greece into the center of one of the most expensive humanitarian responses in history. Refugee resources and professionals typically work in situations with little infrastructure. In this case though, they were layered on top of an existing political system in a relatively well-off country and it ended up in chaos. (h/t Michael Clemens I think)
  • A really nice conversation between Annie Lowrey and Angus Deaton. They cover a lot of topics including how to tell if it’s better to be poor in a rich country or a poor country, opioids and life in rural America, and meeting President Obama after Deaton’s Nobel.
  • South Sudan created a famine by impeding people’s access to resources. A few days after it was declared, the government raised the visa fee for foreigners (such as aid workers) from around $100 to $10,000.
  • Political scientist Aili Mari Tripp asks why in African countries recovering from conflicts, like Liberia, Uganda, and Rwanda, women’s public status advanced quickly, achieving changes in a few years that took a century in Nordic countries. She concludes that having fewer men around allows women to move into more public roles, and peace accords provide opportunities to formalize women’s rights, among other reasons. (h/t Rachel Strohm)

There’s a new book The Parent Track, on balancing parenting and academic careers. No better PR than the video going around this morning:



IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Two new user-friendly briefs from my colleagues at IPA’s Financial Inclusion Program:
    • A common assumption is that a solution to many people’s financial problems (debt, undersaving, etc) is better financial education. U.S. financial firms alone spent $670 million/yr on financial education (much more if you include the governments and NGOs around the world offering it). But there’s pretty strong evidence that it almost never works. They offer 5 promising ideas for how to make it better – it’s fastest to just show the picture:FinEdAdvice
    • Another brief summarizes how to use three nudges that do work for financial health: commitments, defaults, and reminders.
  • A Norwegian news site is making readers answer questions to prove they read the story before commenting. (If twitter starts doing that with NBER abstracts/papers I’m in trouble).
  • Justin Sandefur says we don’t really know how badly students in many poor countries are doing in school because most of those kids aren’t represented on the big international standardized tests. As he says, “What gets measured gets managed, and for now, learning isn’t.”
    • His attempt to statistically link different math tests given in different countries suggests average math scores in lowest performing countries are well below the 5th percentile of the top performing countries. Paper here, sad picture via David Evans.
  • Nigeria’s The Guardian isn’t too subtle in their story that for the second year in a row the Mo Ibrahim Foundation failed to find a head of state to whom they could award their excellence in African leadership prize.
  • A psychology journal editor was asked to step down for refusing to accept any more papers for which the authors won’t share the data or explain why they can’t (he’s not).
  • Two economists found some new data on WWII German pilots, and looked at what public recognition of top pilots did for their fellow pilots. When a colleague was publicly recognized for their achievements, it boosted performance of their high performing fellow pilots, but led average ones to start taking more risks and get killed much more often. Keep that in mind when your co-worker gets promoted.

Why I’m a Universal Basic Income skeptic, especially for poor countries


New York Times published an article last week, titled “The Future of Not Working.” In it, Annie Lowrie discusses the universal basic income experiments in Kenya by GiveDirectly: no surprise there: you can look forward to more pieces in other popular outlets very soon, as soon as they return from the same villages visited by the Times. One paragraph of the article drew my attention in particular: “One estimate, generated by Laurence Chandy and Brina Seidel of the Brookings Institution, recently calculated that the global poverty gap — meaning how much it would take to get everyone above the poverty line — was just $66 billion. That is roughly what Americans spend on lottery tickets every year, and it is about half of what the world spends on foreign aid.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but that paragraph makes me think that if we just were able to divert 50% of the current foreign aid budget towards cash transfers, we would eliminate extreme poverty. But, is that really true? The answer is: “not even close.”

That is World Bank economist and blogger Berk Ozler. His reasons are here. The short answer is “it is very hard to know who the poor are, find them, and know how much to give them”.

I would have added a couple more points. One is that we don’t really know what will happen when we scale up seemingly successful anti-poverty programs.

Also, I doubt there is long term political support in rich countries for a UBI for the poor, even if it were cheaper and more effective than our current aid programs. Mexico is already trying to figure out ways to get out from under the financial burden of its famous conditional cash transfers program. It’s such a big behemoth of a program that cash transfers draw more attention than the accumulation of many smaller but worse programs. They’re also unpopular among some. UK newspapers are already waging wars against Britain’s excellent cash transfer programs.

A successful UBI program for the poor has to find some political insulation, and have some paths for people to graduate out of it by getting wealthier.

My last comment: has no one reminded the “end of work” people that we’ve heard this claim every 20 years since the sewing machine and combine were invented? It’s possible that robots and AI mean it will be different this time. But I do not see the early warning signs. If structural unemployment will eventually be 60%, then at some point it will need to be 20%, and I don’t think we are even close. Wake me up when we see that happening.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


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?


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.



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.


  • 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.


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


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.


  • 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.)


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.