Some student-created infographic examples from the Communicating Economics website.
Communicating Economics is a site with tools, tips, and videos of in-person college level lectures on, well, pretty much what the title says. It comes from the person behind Econ Films, whom I’ve worked with before and are very good at at what they do.
A Belgian court has cleared the way for the remains of the first Prime Minister of an independent Republic of Congo (now the DRC) to be returned to his family. In 1961 Patrice Lumumba had been in the job for three months when the Belgian government had him killed, along with two family members. And his “remains” consists of a tooth, because the Belgian authorities also ordered his body to be dissolved in acid. Longer story (for those with strong stomachs) here.
An interesting paper by Obie Porteous, analyzing 27,000 econ papers about Africa finds:
“45% of all economics journal articles and 65% of articles in the top five economics journals are about five countries accounting for just 16% of the continent’s population. I show that 91% of the variation in the number of articles across countries can be explained by a peacefulness index, the number of international tourist arrivals, having English as an official language, and population.”
The “big five” locations that dominate Western econ are Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, and Malawi. On Conversations with Tyler recently, Tyler Cowen asked Nathan Nunn about this (particularly as relates to RCTs). Nunn responded that it’s very difficult to set up a research infrastructure, but once it’s there, it’s hard to go somewhere new and start again, and admitted that even though he doesn’t do RCTs he’s fallen into the same pattern.
A cool-looking paper from Agyei-Holmes, Buehren, Goldstein, Osei, Osei-Akoto, & Udry looks at a land titling program in Ghana (I know, see above, but to be fair, I know that at least Udry’s been doing research in Ghana for 30 years, and two of the authors are at Ghanaian institutions). The paper looks at how giving formal ownership to farmers increased their investments into their land and agricultural output. Except that it did the opposite – interestingly, when people got titles to the land, the value of the land increased and the owners, particularly women, shifted to other types of work, and business profits went up.
It’s a big week for findings from cash studies including: publication of Chris’s study with Fiala and Martinez showing cash benefitted Ugandan participants, but by 9 years later the control group had caught up; Universal Basic Income in Kenya buffered against hard times when COVID and the agricultural lean season hit simultaneously; and a head-to-head-comparison between cash and an employment training program that found neither boosted employment, but cash was more effective at boosting economic outcomes. I summarize and link to them in this thread.
On that last one (comparing a traditional program to cash), some nice reflections here on how early studies make it easier for government agencies like USAID to take a chance on a new idea, and why a traditional before-and-after USAID evaluation led to a different conclusion than an RCT. Also, more detailed tweetstorm from study co-author Andrew Zeitlin here.
As it happens, all the data for all these studies was collected by my IPA colleagues in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, and while it’s easy to boil the finding down to a quick phrase, each represents thousands of hours of work behind the scenes, like this example.
Rohini Pande has a short and very readable article in Science arguing for an increased role in development research for finding ways to help the voices of the poor be heard in the democratic process and encouraging governments to be responsive to their needs. (h/t Michael Eddy)
A side effect of seminars going online is giving more people access to see them, and the upcoming CEPR Virtual Dev Seminar series looks great, with all-star presenters like Professor Pande above, and Oriana Bandiera
ICYMI, Planet Money’s had a summer school series where they revisit classic episodes explaining basic principles of econ with Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. The image above comes from a new teaching resource on a special site – they’ve organized 30 episodes on 20 topics along with lesson plans. It also has a “read along” feature for students to read the transcript while listening. I recommend sharing this teaching resource with anybody you know teaching high school or college econ concepts, basically they’ve already planned out an intro class.
An update on the finding that the Heckman Curve (the idea that earlier interventions in childhood are more cost effective), doesn’t appear to be the case, according to a more comprehensive assessment of programs from Washington State (full academic paper). This should be encouraging that there can be cost-effective interventions for kids at all ages.
If you’re studying land tenure or government expropriation of agricultural land, the case of Black farmers in the United States is a good example. A combination of explicit violence, informal discrimination (as I understand it, such as a local bank “losing” a mortgage payment), and outright government discrimination, such as the USDA denying agricultural loans to black farmers (and even when they won a lawsuit, taking 11 years to pay out), reduced the amount of land farmed by Black farmers in the US by 90% between 1910 and 1997 according to this article.
There’s a lot of basic social science documenting humanity’s flaws, biases, and injustices, but less on fixes. The cover of the new issue of Science today features Salma Mousa’s paper using an experiment in post-ISIS Iraq to promote reconciliation between persecuted Christians and their Muslim neighbors (plain language summary here). Using contact theory, she randomly assigned Muslim players to some teams in a Christian soccer league and found it improved social cohesion, but changed attitudes extended only to Muslims in the league, not beyond. Summary here, explanatory thread by editor Tage Rai, and commentary from Betsy Levy Paluck and Chelsey Clark explaining the significance of the work.
She worked contemporaneously and shared ideas with Matt Lowe, who mixed cricket teams across caste in India with similarly positive outcomes (h/t Seema Jayachandran for the reminder). Chris Blattman called them two of the best conflict-related papers of recent years.
Conversations with Tyler with Nathan Nunn (Apple) was really good, about economic history and why culture is undervalued in development, even though it’s hard to measure. An interesting tidbit at the end is when he reflects on growing up and being able to work your way up from working class in Canada vs. the U.S.
Rough Translation (Apple) on the Venezuelan anti-corruption bureaucrat turned Ecuadorian lumberjack who led a group of Venezuelan refugees *walking* back to Venezuela.
Claudia Goldin charts a century of women in the workforce
I’ve heard these days in medicine there’s a glut of papers that are all essentially “[thing I was doing already] + in the time of COVID,” which seems like is true of all fields now. The German Development Institute for Evaluation (DEval) has a helpful roundup of several useful new hubs for evidence, research, and methodology resources for dev/social science.
A few weeks ago I saw someone say something like “good thing economics is so status driven and hierarchical, at least someone gets to publish nulls.” Heres’s a nice thread of responses to Pia Raffler’s request for resources on showing (and publishing) null results.
Stefano DellaVigna and Elizabeth Linos compare the size of effects in academic trials of nudges, to 126 RCTs conducted by Nudge Unit trials in the practical world:
“In papers published in academic journals, the average impact of a nudge is very large – an 8.7 percentage point take-up effect, a 33.5% increase over the average control. In the Nudge Unit trials, the average impact is still sizable and highly statistically significant, but smaller at 1.4 percentage points, an 8.1% increase.”
They find publication bias and statistical power account for the difference (perhaps some nudge researchers can read the responses above for how to publish disappointing findings). Then using forecasts, they find academics overestimate the effects an intervention will have, while Nudge Unit practitioners are accurate.
How are you at forecasting? A new prediction platform spearheaded by DellaVigna and Eva Vivalt lets anybody sign up to predict the outcomes of several trials.
This is why we can’t have nice (or cheaper) things. The Times has an exposé of an institute at George Mason Law School funded by big tech companies who happen to be under regulatory scrutiny (h/t Florian Ederer.) The institute they fund trains regulators in the school of economic thought that the best kind of regulation is as little as possible. It follows the model of a judge training institute that does the same thing, and has been shown to influences judges to rule in favor of mergers. Planet Money had a couple of really good episodes explaining why, for example, we have only a few big telecom companies. It comes back to Robert Bork (Apple) taking an econ class at UChicago in the 70’s when he was in law school, and writing a book for the law field explaining that economics says to leave markets alone. There’s another good episode (Apple) on what this means for the big tech companies today like Google and Facebook. In summary, your cable and cell phone bills are so high because a dude took an econ class in the 70’s, and that’s the butterfly effect.
For a counterexample, see Michael Lewis’ podcast episode “Baby Judge School,” which trains judges to be aware of their own biases and how to counteract them more effectively (Apple).
An uncomfortable truth is that academics are big polluters, through conferences and other kinds of travel, but many of us are figuring out how to accomplish similar academic events without the travel these days. Here’s a really interesting article on how to de-carbonize conference travel, through simple things like holding them in more central locations, and having simultaneous regional hub meetings that connect to one another digitally. One crazy statistic, they calculated the carbon from travel for one major scientific conference and found on average it was “about 3 tonnes per scientist, or the average weekly emissions of the city of Edinburgh, UK.”
Happily the NBER Summer Institute this week was online and therefore open to far more people. Claudia Goldin gives the Martin Feldstein lecture at NBER Summer Institute on women’s career progress over a century. “Tammy Duckworth is the first senator … to bring a baby into an active session of Congress, though many would say there have been babies in Congress before that time”
And another on Thursday including Anne Karing of Princeton, Jonathan Robinson from UC Santa Cruz, presenting new data on covid impacts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Malawi
IPA’s Research Methods Initiative has a call for proposals, due July 31st, with $10k for methodology studies (typically an add-on to an existing study).
University of Cape Town economist Grieve Chelwa has been critical of RCTs in the past so my colleague and I were braced for his online discussion at Africa is a Country (dropping you in after 40ish min of football talk but feel free to rewind for that). But honestly we walked away both saying he was right, and it was a really good conversation. (Paraphrasing), he said something like as a student in Zambia he read plenty of great research by Zambian economists but somehow the only recognized repository of authoritative information on the Zambian economy is in the Journal of Development Economics. Few African economists are represented on the editorial boards of the journals where research on African economies are published. The dynamic is different he feels like in economic policy––where local officials defer to outside authorities from abroad––from health policy, where he sees more reliance on local experts.
On the Brookings Blog, macroeconomist Célestin Monga describes being appointed as a Senior Economist at the World Bank and having a European country’s finance minister he was supposed to work with refused to believe a Cameroonian economist could be competent. But he goes deeper to explain how a dynamic, in which country officials have to run proposals by donors from far away who are doing their best to guess what’s best for the country, leads to a vicious cycle of the wrong questions being asked and wrong data collected, and back into flawed decisions.
An article in DevEx wonders if the north-south dynamic in health policy led to the same advice being given to wealthy and low-income countries regardless of it was appropriate for the latter.
NBER Summer Institute’s dev sessions will be streamed Mon & Tues afternoons (Eastern U.S. time), details here.
Planet Money’s doing a “summer school” teaching some basics of economics for those without a background in it. Here’s Episode 1 (Apple) with Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers on choice.
Tyler Cowen interviews Clark Medal winner Melissa Dell (Apple) about how historical circumstances from long ago can affect countries’ development today. I was really amazed by all the history she brings to bear (reminded me of the episode with John McWhorter (Apple) which combined a lot of history with linguistics).
Professor Lisa Cook explains that black and white inventors put in equivalent numbers of patent applications once in 1899, and never again.
First, a great webinar by Professor Lisa Cook, former economic advisor to President Obama, among many other accomplishments, on how lynchings, violence, and discrimination caused African-American inventions (measured by patent applications) to peak in 1899 and never recover. Here’s the video and slides, but for a fast summary, I did my best to live tweet it. She covered a lot of ground, but some parts that stuck with me in particular:
The number of “missing” patents never filed because of the decreased numbers is on the order of the contribution of a medium-sized European country. It’s hard to imagine what innovations and prosperity we’ve all missed out on.
Prof Cook mentioned in passing that a cousin helped found a town in North Carolina intended as a safe place for African-Americans to live and prosper without harassment. The story of Soul City, NC is fascinating.
The most compelling part of the story wasn’t even in the webinar. It was her decade-long uphill battle to get the paper published, and what it tells us about the field of economics, which she explains to Planet Money’s The Indicator (Apple).
How the field got to be the way it is is a bit easier to understand if you read this horrible piece by George Stigler in 1962: The Problem of the Negro.
If you haven’t seen it yet, this was a great explanation for the general US culture:
Kimberly Jones’ Monopoly game metaphor reminds me of this Howard French brilliant deconstruction of a UK historian’s book (gated, sorry) about African history. French shows that Europeans destroyed sophisticated civilizations and hollowed out countries’ populations for hundreds of years by dragging away the workforce, and today cast about for roundabout theories for why they’re “underdeveloped”
I’m side-eyeing historians, but also hard to ignore the asymmetry in where development economists’ ideas come from, and the assumption that countries where the rich people are also must know how to get rich.
Along those lines, here’s a great piece by Francesco Loiacono, Mariajose Silva-Vargas, & Apollo Tumusiime (written before the pandemic) about how research designs can be more sensitive and less biased by the views of the researchers (better informed consent, for example, and not assuming their programs happen in a vacuum, or realizing that local politicians may swoop in and take credit for cash transfers). (h/t David McKenzie’s links)
Today, I learned that the UK’s abolition of slavery was accomplished through paying the slaveowners for their lost “property,” to the tune of today’s $17 Billion (and requiring an additional 5 years of unpaid labor, which I feel like there’s a name for…) British taxpayers just finished paying back that borrowed money in 2015, which means that descendants of slaves have been paying back their own ancestors’ slavemasters.
Jennifer Doleac put together a series of flash webinars on policing research, more info here.
A series of simple police reform ideas in this article and tweet thread on how to fix many policing problems by looking at financial incentives, moving the benefit of the “taxes” levied disproportionally on the poor by the criminal justice system away from the local municipalities (revenues from fines, seized assets, and the like) and redistributing them at the state level, prioritizing the poor.
A couple of points that jumped out at me were what counts as research/evidence in academic research circles (it seems common for scholars of the black experience to face skepticism, or the view that its a specific niche topic).
At the same time, a lot of sloppy (or fundamentally flawed) research on policing or other areas of policy makes it through peer review and gets a lot of public attention. And just like COVID, we might be about to be deluged with a huge wave of hasty research papers on race and everything under the sun from well-intentioned researchers new to the area.
I think I caught part of a discussion wondering if these RCT-able micro policy interventions miss the point (the policies that lead to police abuses, and massive racial disparities in so many social outcomes are much larger, and approaches looking at one tiny tweak divert our attention from them. It seemed reminiscent of the RCT debate around research priorities in dev econ a bit – global poverty is so massive a problem – in other words, it’s great that your youth empowerment program is RCT-able (at one place at one particular point in time) and makes for a fine study, but is it really going to make a dent in the bigger problems, even if it works?
I’ll cop-out by saying both sides have a point. We should absolutely be solving the big problems, but if we have a choice of small programs that are going to be implemented anyway – be they youth empowerment or police body cams – it seems at least helpful to weed out the ones that don’t work. But not at that cost of solving the big picture problems.
Public health prof Gregg Gonsalves addresses the uncomfortable question of won’t the protests spread COVID? He asks, compared to what, with up to 100,000 premature African-American deaths every year under current conditions. This reminds me of sort of a status-quo type bias, where people only consider the costs of changing, the costs of the current situation seem invisible.
The new Ezra Klein Show (Apple) episode “Why Ta-Nehisi Coates is hopeful” was great and lives up to its title. Coates was surprised to hear that his father, who lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, say the scope of the current protests would have been as unimaginable to activists of the 60s, as the marches of the 60s to people from the 1800’s. Both Klein and Coates have a lot of good ideas, and Coates offers some book recommendations (h/t Dina Pomeranz)
Coronavirus patient, comedian Noam Shuster, found herself at the center of an accidental social experiment profiled on the Rough Translation podcast
My colleague Kate Glynn-Broderick writes today with an example of how her existing project in Bangladesh, exploring gender gaps in access to mobile money and banking is quickly pivoting to COVID-19, as Bangladesh’s government plans to use those same platforms to distribute social protection, threatening to leave the most marginalized people out of the government response.
The Economist has a nice profile of Princeton economist Leonard Wantchekon, who escaped from being a political prisoner in Benin, and went on to found the African School of Economics there to make top notch econ training more accessible. But you can read his story in his own words: He’s posted the introduction and chapter 7 of his book here.
One of the points made in the Economist profile about the school is that talent is found all over, opportunity is not. It’s a helpful reminder that if you’re an econ researcher who relies on talented staff in another country for data collection (even if your communication goes through an American RA), a helpful thing to do is set aside some time to talk to them about their career goals and how you can help.
A good podcast from Rough Translation: Hotel Corona (Apple) about how a hotel leased to the Israeli government for recovering Corona patients became a nation-captivating social experiment and unwitting reality show.
Click through for this thread of the best historical U.S. Congressional facial hair, you won’t be sorry.
I am on a mission to find out which historical Member of Congress had the wildest facial hair.
Last week I mentioned the new COVID research RECOVR hub, which was still in development. This week it’s been launched officially, to help development researchers share information about ongoing studies, survey instruments, and funding opportunities. If you are doing related work, please share or have a look at what other researchers are doing so we can build on one another’s work.
A great initiative from the Busara Center, “Give More Tomorrow,” lets better-off Kenyans pledge to give the money from their new tax breaks to the poor during this crisis, but it’s not limited to Kenyans. Anybody can use the Busara pledge on their site for their tax refund or stimulus check as well and donate to Kenyans in crisis via GiveDirectly.
Congrats to Penn’s Sharon Wolf & Jere R. Behrman, NYU’s Larry Aber, and IPA Ghana’s Edward Tsinigo, on winning the Society for Research on Early Childhood Education’s 2019 paper of the year, about an experimental program to improve preschool education in Ghana by getting teachers to move from a memorization and spitback style of teaching to an inquiry and social one. It’s also the subject of one of my favorite podcast episodes (Apple) from NPR’s Rough Translation, because they spend most of the time talking to teachers and families to explain why it didn’t go according to plan.
Congratulations to Melissa Dell for winning the Clark Medal for her work on economic history and development.
Michael Kremer’s seminar at Princeton about financing a COVID vaccine is below (slides here, Michael’s slides start at p13 of the PDF)). He has a paper from last fall about his work on the financing the pneumonia vaccine for poor countries here & here’s a plain language discussion from Scientific American.
To shore up confidence beforehand I asked my lighting sensei, Tom Ford, for some tips and he kindly sent these instructions, which you all are welcome to use:
“Put the computer up on a stack of books so the camera is slightly higher than your head. Say, about the top of your head. And then point it down into your eyes. Then take a tall lamp and set it next to the computer on the side of your face you feel is best. The lamp should be in line with and slightly behind the computer so the light falls nicely on your face. Then put a piece of white paper or a white tablecloth on the table you are sitting at but make sure it can’t be seen in the frame. It will give you a bit of fill and bounce. And lots of powder, et voilà!”
or head into your Zoom settings:
Send me your online meeting tips and I’ll post ’em. Have a good weekend everybody.
For researchers working on (or interested in working on) COVID in low- and middle-income countries: to facilitate collaboration, with support from the Gates Foundation, IPA, with J-PAL, CEGA, the IGC, CGD, Northwestern’s Global Poverty Research Lab, & Yale’s Y-RISE, are going to launch a COVID research hub next week listing ongoing research studies (with data & results when ready), funding opportunities, and survey research instruments. If you or anyone you know is working on a COVID project in development, please submit your instruments from the link there so the community can share compatible research tools and coordinate work. And please share with your colleagues!
Realizing the situation of the job market, IPA’s Peace and Recovery program, led academically by Chris Blattman, is offering a new one-year postdoc related to peace, violence, fragility, and recovery, suitable for someone from econ, political science, psych or related training.
A couple of interesting papers using cell phone data with current relevance:
A new paper from Nicolas Ajzenman, Tiago Cavalcanti, & Daniel Da Mata looks at a country highly politically divided where a President who has a questionable relationship with science minimized the COVID threat in early days and find words matter. They find that after Brazilian president Bolsonaro gave speeches minimizing the importance of social distancing, people in municipalities where he had strong support did less social distancing.
Sveta Milusheva uses 15 billion mobile phone records in Senegal to track movement from areas with more malaria cases to areas with fewer, and matches it up with data showing an accordant rise in new infections at the destinations. She estimates:
“an infected traveler contributes to 1.7 additional cases reported in the health facility at the traveler’s destination. This paper develops a simulation-based policy tool that uses mobile phone data to inform strategic targeting of travelers based on their origins and destinations. The simulations suggest that targeting informed by mobile phone data could reduce the caseload by 50 percent more than current strategies that rely only on previous incidence.”
A new paper estimates the return on investment for personal protective equipment for community health workers in low and middle-income countries at $241.1 billion or 6,918% (h/t Grant Gordon). In my brief glance that’s just the immediate ROI; during the Ebola outbreak, researchers estimated the deaths of healthcare workers would lead to more child and maternal deaths even after the outbreak (h/t Dave Evans)
If you’re having weird or vivid dreams these days, it’s not just you (h/t Osman Siddiqi)
And it’s not your imagination, all commercials are alike these days (h/t David Batcheck)
Remember to fill out your U.S. Census form if you got a mailing! Of course accurate counts are important for apportioning leadership and federal resources, but more importantly (as someone else pointed out) so that researchers 80 years from now looking at historical trends won’t pull out their hair in frustration of the lost 2020 census data the same way ones today do about the 1890 census data fire.
I spoke with Oeindrila Dube of the University of Chicago about her new papers about health systems in Sierra Leone and Ebola, and the implications for COVID-19. The work, with Darin Christensen, Johannes Haushofer, Bilal Siddiqi, and Maarten Voors, started out as an evaluation of two interventions to improve health clinics, specifically by building trust and communication with the communities they served. Ebola hit after their study ended, but recall that one big barrier then given all the fear and stigma was getting people to come forward to get tested and treated. The researchers later matched up location-specific data to the areas where their programs had been and found that in the communities with the programs, more people came forward to get tested and treated. Two takeaways were how a social intervention helped save lives when a disease hit, and also how researchers can use recent or ongoing studies to inform a crisis response.
As the crisis rips into economies CGAP has a nice collection of lessons from previous studies on how financial tools can help the poor during crises (and you can contribute more there if you know of relevant work).
Mushfiq Mobarak talks in more detail about fighting the virus in Bangladesh and other low-income countries, and why we can’t copy and paste prevention strategies or even assumptions about spreading patterns from high-income countries to low-income countries. He explains new data collection efforts underway and how strategies will have to be developed that are location-appropriate.
South Africa appears to have cracked down, both more ruthlessly and effectively than many countries, including sending police out to arrest or just beat people violating quarantine. (h/t W. Gyude Moore, former Liberian Minister of Public Works and current Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development, who’s definitely worth a follow if you’re on twitter)
An ultra-Orthodox town in Israel supposedly went from a corona hotspot to no new cases by putting in stricter-than-required behavioral restrictions supported by local religious figures, but also following the “make it easy” rule so people wouldn’t have to be outside. The supermarket allowed people to submit a grocery list to a 24-hour hotline and their groceries would be delivered, and books and toys were delivered to families inside.
I really enjoyed this Tyler Cowen podcast (Apple/iTunes) with linguist John McWhorter, who just seems like a store of so much knowledge (reinforcing my opinion that linguistics is the social science that learns the most from other subfields)
For a cheap read and an occasional chuckle, marketing professor and humor researcher Peter McGraw, a friend of mine, has a new general audience book trying to distill wisdom from comedians for the workplace. He tries to dissect different types of jokes and what makes ideas unexpected, with the help of a comedian. One creativity exercise he says he sometimes uses in consulting is ‘Sh*tstorming” – brainstorming, but trying to come up with the worst ideas possible. He says it often loosens up people to be less inhibited, and occasionally generates good ideas. Anyway, the electronic version of the book is a buck on Amazon until Tuesday.
This article asserts the real problem behind the toilet paper shortages isn’t runs on stores, it’s that national usage has shifted abruptly from at workplaces, schools, and businesses to home. The problem is that manufacturers make very different types of toilet paper for each (even the size and shape of the rolls), and with the market experiencing so much movement, the industry has to quickly adjust supply chains on the back end.
It’s a little tricky to write links when it feels like things are changing hourly. Here’s the main message to keep in mind for the research community – you can do more than idle your projects. COVID-19 will affect every aspect of development, health, education, entrepreneurship, mobile money, cash transfers, political systems and trust in authority. But, if you have a research expertise in some area of development, now’s the time to use it, not in three years to get a good retrospective paper. The advantage we have is that (as far as we know), it hasn’t hit the Southern Hemisphere badly yet, and we still have a shot at slowing or containing it there. The bad news is that, as far as I can tell, research orgs aren’t well-positioned to anticipate this. Specifically – grants tied to a specific project are good for getting that project done, but when work is suspended, as the majority of face-to-face research will be (or is already) those research abilities should be redirected to fighting COVID and mitigating its impacts.
Some funders have committed to allowing resources to be redirected, with the Philanthropy Pledge 2020 led by the Ford Foundation, but most of the signatories (last I checked) were domestic U.S. and I haven’t seen as many international ones coalesce in the same way. We do list several leaders here, but the field needs to move faster.
Researchers, implementers, and funders can contact our Peace and Recovery team who’s leading our internal effort email@example.com
We’re also also exploring partnerships to launch a competitive fund for COVID response research there, if you can help with that email firstname.lastname@example.org
A crucial mindset for academics will be not “how can I track the effects to write about what happened later” but “what can I do to help mitigate the effects before they happen?” which may be a different type of data work than you’re used to. Departments should also allow enough flexibility to count this kind of work toward advancement as well.
Dina generously points out cash transfers aren’t just for governments:
And GiveDirectly is taking donations for low-income Americans likely to be hit by the virus fallout.
The map at the top comes from Ugo Gentilini, who has done an impressive and fast review of 45 countries’ social protection measures in response to COVID (typically cash transfers). As of his review, all regions of the world were represented, except Africa.
And, if you haven’t seen it – necessity is the mother of invention-
FWIW, I’m seeing the quarantine affect people in different and unexpected ways. I don’t have a solution, but I did talk to someone in Hong Kong, which is about 8 weeks ahead of us, and she said they’d settled into a routine there. So if they’re any guide it’ll be weird for a while, and then we’ll get used to it, but in the meantime, it’s weird for everybody, not just you.
Thanks for being patient while the links were on hiatus, we’re back!
COVID-19 is obviously on everybody’s mind. For the dev crowd, let’s remember that right now travel from US/Europe to the Southern hemisphere might spread the disease to vulnerable places with much weaker health systems.
I apologize for not having it handy, but there was a good thread about how the mental model of the poor countries being the source of diseases may have contributed to U.N. troops bringing cholera to Haiti and discharging their waste into drinking water.
The Global Dispatches (formerly UN Dispatch I think) podcast is always very informative. Host Mark Leon Goldberg spoke with Johns Hopkins professor Paul Spiegel who is currently modeling how an outbreak would spread in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh if brought there by outsiders (Apple, transcript here). One aspect of thinking about an outbreak among refugees is the pressure host governments will have to use limited health resources on the native-born population before refugees.
How can researchers help? Three suggestions from IPA’s perspective
IPA’s Peace and Recovery Program has announced grants of (up to) $50k available off cycle (i.e. now) to study emergency responses in low and middle-income countries, including COVID-19 and is accepting proposals. Please share with colleagues! (and retweet here)
When the 2014 Ebola outbreak happened, many research projects were affected, but researchers adapted to integrate questions about Ebola into their research projects. Here’s a great brand new (updated today!) paper from Christensen, Dube, Haushofer, Siddiqi, & Voors, who already had an RCT in progress in Sierra Leone testing if two social accountability interventions improved health care quality in clinics. When the Ebola outbreak hit they adapted their study to incorporate it and found that giving status awards to nurses and community-monitoring of health clinics improved the perceived quality of health care and health care workers. This in turn appears to have led more people to come forward to be tested and treated for Ebola, saving lives.
Another group of researchers reactivated a network of phone-based monitoring of food prices from a previous study to monitor prices and potential shortages in areas that were cut off, and quickly fed that back to government and relief agencies so they could move resources into place. If there is an outbreak (or danger of one), do you have data that might help local authorities plan for how to use resources?
For professors & teachers thinking about transitioning to streaming classes, one professor was recently surprised to learn several of her students didn’t have wi-fi at home, so remember to be sensitive to individuals’ circumstances (sharing slides in advance and using a service that includes a call-in number). For students who need a written interface I’ve heard that Google Hangouts’ live captioning is pretty good (but haven’t experimented extensively. Make sure you don’t have a Swedish accent though).
A few years ago, Liberia, whose educational system has been troubled to say the least, tried an experiment. In the face of under-resourced and underperforming public schools, they wondered if private education providers could run public schools better than the government was? The country announced that it was going to outsource the whole country’s schools to one American company, but after public outcry the plan was scaled back to pilot and included a randomized evaluation with three private and five non-profit school operators running different test schools. Now the three-year evaluation results, from Mauricio Romero and Justin Sandefur (conducted with my IPA colleagues in Liberia), are out: short summary,3ish page brief & full paper. On average, results were not stunning (students from the privately-run schools read about 3 words a minute more in English after 3 years than their peers in the business-as-usual public schools), and though corporal punishment went down a bit, sexual abuse of children did not. Bridge International Academies, the company originally slated to run the whole country’s schools, had the largest number of schools in the pilot. It achieved on par results by kicking out several hundred students and the majority of teachers – leading school dropout rates to increase by nearly half over three years – and also cost more than twice the per pupil cost of the next most expensive operator. Justin summarizes the whole thing in a helpful twitter thread here. Bridge’s head of research responded here arguing as far as I can tell, that if you only look at the third of the students who stayed in their schools, their results look much better. On the other hand, if you look across operators, some clearly did better than others, which is also encouraging. At least to me it suggests the model might be possible under the right circumstances. As always, the devil’s in the details. Quartz reports on it here.
Last week I talked about the government putting up hurdles for the poor getting food stamps and school lunches. Georgetown’s Pamela Herd and Don Moynihan have a whole book on “administrative burdens,” how governments (often states) put up unnecessary bureaucracy to prevent people from getting benefits they’re entitled to, often as a way around doing it legislatively (behavioral economists think of this as the opposite of a nudge, “sludge.”) Some of their work is inspired by the revelations they experienced trying to get benefits for their disabled daughter. They had a great conversation on The Weeds, but make sure you take your blood pressure medication first and there’s nothing breakable nearby. (Although a positive update, soon after that came out, Kentucky’s governor ended that state’s Medicaid work requirement)
Some impressive data journalism from the NYTimes, who received a data set with 50 billion cell phone locations, tracked by a private company. They were able to identify semi-public figures, like a senior Department of Defense official at the Women’s March on the National Mall. The point of the piece is that the collection and use of this data is largely unregulated.
This is probably the last links of the year (decade I guess?). Thanks again to everybody for reading, to Chris and to IPA for continuing to afford me the opportunity, and particularly to my colleague Cara Vu for editing them weekly. I’m looking forward to an informative 2020!
There’s a new evaluation out of the Northern Ghana site of the famous expensive Millennium Villages project most associated with Jeff Sachs. I’m not an expert, but as I understand it, the theory is that an intensive big fix (building new institutions like hospitals and many other things at once) could fix the interdependent problems of poor areas. The thing is that Sachs insisted he knew it would work, and it didn’t need an independent evaluation, in fact threatening people who criticized the project’s inadequate evaluation, and yelling at a reporter (disclosure: she’s now my colleague) who asked for the full budget numbers. My understanding is that in addition to the outside funding Sachs brought, it required local government funding and free labor, so also came at a cost to the local region. DFID, the UK aid agency, disagreed and did insist on this evaluation, which finds “small or null” effects (I couldn’t find an ungated version but here’s the DFID report version)
It’s job market season, lots of good job market papers on the Development Impact Blog. In addition, two JMPs/JMC’s which caught my attention:
Moffii Odunowo has a couple really interesting papers, one thinking about the longer lasting impacts of women’s education in Nigeria using natural geographical variation in a 1970’s-era educational reform. Every additional year of school they got increased: “the probability of children completing primary school by 22 percent, and attending secondary school by 29 percent. I find that the effects are particularly pronounced for girls.“
One of her other papers also looks at the effects of exposure to Boko Haram attacks on children’s cognition: “Children exposed to terror attacks are 0.35 SDs shorter and lag in cognition by 0.18 SDs. The deficits are largest in children exposed to violence at younger ages. Mediation analysis shows that 6% of the effect on height is mediated by nutrition and parental investment can explain 14% of the effect on psychological development.“ According to her website, she’s got an RCT and several other interesting projects in the works, which I’m looking forward to seeing.
Wayne Sandholtz blogs about his JMP, looking at electoral consequences of an existing Liberian school reform. As it happens, the program was being RCTed, and he ran a parallel study on voting and opinions. He found that parents of kids in the new schools responded to how well the school was doing with their voting, rewarding the incumbent if the new school was performing well, and punishing if it wasn’t.
Rachel Strohm has a nice piece out about what people mean when they say being in “the field.” She concludes that it’s shorthand for geographic and power dynamics. I’ve noticed the same thing, and started just saying where I mean (the name of the place or “the study locations”)
The Nobel lectures by Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer were all very watchable, but my favorite part is probably the fashion articles from India about the traditional clothing Banerjee and Duflo wore to the award. I’m guessing it’s the first fashion article about MIT economists.
For your travels this weekend I’ve put up some favorite podcast recommendations, plus some bonus reading, and kids’ podcasts. (Though they’re all potentially kids’ podcasts, in that when my kids misbehave in the back seat I threaten to put on an econ podcast and they shape up pretty quick.)
The Nathan Nunn article on rethinking economic development was very readable. He argues that instead of investing in development, rich countries could just stop doing things that harm poor countries, like punitive trade and immigration policies, poorly thought out development projects that cause unintended consequences like exacerbating conflict, and academic research that’s blind to the country context. The latter includes few development economists from the countries being studied in the fields’ mainstream, and journals rejecting running the similar evaluations in a different country, if we already know results from one place.
On the second, unintended consequences, Jeff Bloem kicked off the series of Dev Impact Blog’s job market candidates blogging their job market papers with a really interesting one. He finds the Dodd-Frank act trying to curb conflict minerals, roughly doubled conflicts in the DRC, and the conflicts continued even after the U.S. suspended those provisions.
Side note: David McKenzie says a lot of emails from the World Bank are going to spam boxes, and we’ve found the same at IPA, so if you subscribe to either of our email lists, please whitelist worldbank.org and poverty-action.org domains (you should be able to unsubscribe from both easily from within the emails if you don’t want them). You might also want to check your spam folder to see what else the algorithm is routing there.
My colleagues John Branch and Marina Gonzalez have a post on planning ahead to make sure your project (be it program or study) survive political transitions, based on experience in Mexico.
Most people know the International Rescue Committee as a great humanitarian aid org, but it also has a fantastic research group, who’s looking for a senior research director (Ph.D. level). Bonus, you’ll be working with Dr. Jeannie Annan, an amazing researcher and thinker.
Washington, D.C.’s city policy lab is looking for a data scientist (MA level preferred)
The fantastic evidence-based NGO Young1ove is looking for an RA (BA or MA level) and a postdoc (joint w/Oxford).
First, please pass along to your skiing friends that the owner of the ski treehouse above in Whitefish, MT (Glacier National Park adjacent) is offering to donate proceeds to the non-profit I work for, IPA, from any rentals between now and Jan 31. (Instructions here)
Among other things, IPA’s been investing in expanding the things that academics don’t always have incentives to do, hiring Ph.D.s and sector experts to do the replications and tinkering (AER probably won’t publish the 4th attempt to test a phenomenon, but to get it right, somebody has find out how it works across borders), build infrastructure for open-science and data transparency, and run longer term coordinated cross-country research agendas on big problems. Creating information might not sound like an urgent cause, but all of the work enables us to make sure we’re responding to the urgent causes in the right way. We’d also welcome your support in this on our donate page. Feel free to share both with friends and social networks also, thanks!
Caitlin Tulloch of the IRC shows us one reason testing the practical stuff across contexts matters. Looking at the same humanitarian program, run by the same organization in different places and scales, costs varied by as much as 20x! (Ungated here) But, she’s able to model for that knowing some basic characteristics of the program and place.
In the wake of Nobel-spawned critiques of RCTs, philosopher Peter Singer, along with Johannes Haushofer and Arthur Baker respond on the ethics of RCTs. Noah Smith responds to Lant Pritchett’s criticism, which as far as I’ve ever been able to tell amounts to “there should be no development microeconomics” because national economic growth will lift all ships much more efficiently than tinkering with individual programs. Among other things, Noah points out that we all agree poor people getting richer would solve their problems, but there’s no obvious “get rich” button to hit to make that happen. Meanwhile, as the Nobel committee pointed out, plenty of individual programs *have* improved the lives of many many people. To Lant’s credit, rumor has it he enjoyed the tool during one of the last laps around this pool to help you figure out what he thinks of your work (better with sound).
In any other time this would be more of a bombshell – ProPublica reports that Vice President Mike Pence broke USAID guidelines by overruling career staff to direct aid money to Christian groups in Iraq.
In GitHub’s latest annual State of the Octoverse report, developers from Africa created 40% more open source repositories on the software engineering marketplace over the past year—a higher growth percentage than any other continent globally. Among African countries with established developer communities (defined by GitHub as having more than 10,000 contributors to the platform), Morocco accounted for the most growth on the continent.
The above from Quartz. Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt followed Morocco for growth in the large category. But there was major growth from a number of smaller African countries as well, including the French-held islands of Mayotte.
Two Blattman-related things, for researchers and aspiring researchers:
IPA’s Peace and Recovery program is accepting research proposals, on topics such as war, peace, electoral violence, state-sponsored violence, terrorism, forced displacement, natural disasters, and recovery from all the above. They fund: “full randomized trials, pilot studies, exploratory and descriptive work, travel grants, and (in rare but deserving cases) non-experimental evaluations.” Applications from early career researchers (including Ph.D. and post-docs) are welcome, and there are small exploratory funds (under $10k) earmarked for them. Deadline December 6th, more here, and you can see previously funded work here.
For those who want to do that work someday and want to work with Chris, a very cool Senior RA job posting, to work with Chris in Liberia following up in a landmark study (summary & ungated paper) combining cognitive behavioral therapy with cash transfers for seriously at risk youth (if I recall, interviews were sometimes interrupted so the respondent could go pickpocket someone.) Three reasons I think this follow-up project is cool: -It’s part of a burgeoning literature on mindset/psychological interventions, and answers questions about the lasting effects. It’s also Chris’ 3rd study following up on the long-term effects of cash transfers, and the first 2 have yielded interesting findings. -Methodologically, working in these circumstances is really interesting. The original team developed a new method to figure out if people were telling the truth in surveys on questions like how much crime they were committing. -The original cognitive-behavioral program was developed by Johnson Borh, a Liberian conflict survivor. You can hear him and Chris talking about it on Freakonomics here. Feel free to send the job link to anybody who might be interested (and really good)
An amazing interview between Dave Evans and Nobel laureate Michael Kremer this week. I wish I could pick just one excerpt, but it was all really great (stay for the questions at the end). Video here, and audio below for those on the go:
I’m still processing this psych paper where 49 authors from 15 research teams tested 5 hypotheses with >15,000 participants (there was also a prediction component), and did both meta and Bayesian analyses on the effect sizes/replicability. As you can see from the graph above, there was a lot of variation in replication, but (if I understand), they attribute it mainly to the choices the research teams made in how to test the hypotheses (e.g. study design). I can’t decide if it’s good or bad news that researcher choices in how to answer the same question yields so much variation.
Dave Evans offers a short PhD in Michael Kremer’s work, with quick summaries of 100+ of his papers. But being a Nobel-winning researcher is only one of his jobs. He’s founded, or been instrumental in, more than one non-profit, and in USAID DIV. As a friend told me this morning, most people who know him from just one facet of his life often never know about his many other accomplishments.
GiveWell is hiring people for their impact research work at the Ph.D. and other levels. Impressively, they do sponsor work visas, so please let people outside the mainstream U.S. world know. Reach out to them at jobs at givewell.org with questions.
Side note: The first is another example of a good Ph.D.-level job doing meaningful, applied work. IPA recently hired three Ph.D.s to lead applied research agendas, does anybody know of good resources for Ph.D.s looking for non-professor jobs in development? (let me know and I’ll share)
Also, a cool (but only part-time) U.S. field RA job in Omaha, working on an eval of unconditional cash transfers for mothers of new babies (including brain/bio measures).
An interesting paper reminded me of the 1800’s version of a current debate on the value of philanthropy in providing public goods. (Oversimplifying, tax-exempt philanthropy represents an abdication of government responsibility, and public subsidy to the whims of a few, or else, the counterfactual taxation of that wealth would mean a much smaller amount going to the government, out of which, an even smaller sliver would go to those kinds of causes.) What missing ingredient could help shed some light on this heated controversy? How about Oxford’s Asli Cansunar’s dataset on Ottoman-era drinking fountains in 1876? (I know, you were about to say it). In Istanbul, clean water, along with many other public services, was provided by wealthy Muslim philanthropists, with little government involvement. Cansunar shows that the majority of the water fountains went into the neighborhoods of other Muslim and elite groups, rather than other religious and ethnic communities, so even the philanthropies set up to provide for the public good ended up showing in-group favoritism. (h/t Dani Rodrik)
In ScienceObermeyer, Powers, Vogeli, & Mullainathan show a pretty dramatic consequence of large dataset-trained algorithms being used to provision public goods (Washington Post summary). The commercial algorithm, sold to help health systems identify at-risk patients for more intensive interventions for millions of patients, misallocated resources away from Black patients to white ones, even though it was developed without ethnicity as a variable. It used prior healthcare spending as a proxy, and less is spent on Black patients. “Remedying this disparity would increase the percentage of Black patients receiving additional help from 17.7 to 46.5%,” the authors report. As Mullainathan told the Post,”It’s truly inconceivable to me that anyone else’s algorithm doesn’t suffer from this.”
That is Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo above, thanks to Neela Saldanha and Elizabeth Koshy for explaining that Abi Jit means “(He) just won” or “won now,” so it means “just won the Nobel.” And that the dairy cooperative Amul is known in India for their punny billboards (which you can also find on their twitter feed).
On the Nobel sugar high, as a friend called it, a couple of nice interviews:
Michael also credits all the people who work on these studies, and there have been some nice tributes to and from them for example here, and here, and the very nice parties with video connections from all the organizations devoted to doing this work in Nairobi and Busia. (James Vancel pointed out that this week in Nairobi may be the only place you can get invited to a joint marathon/Nobel party).
Jason Kerwin, Laura Derksen, and a few others mentioned that they got into development econ (or similar academic fields) after going on student trips to low-income countries. Chris Udry had a similar story after being in the Peace Corps in Ghana, and Dean Karlan was heading to Wall Street before what was supposed to be summer in a microfinance org in Latin America turned into a year, then a career. One thing that Kremer’s pointed out in a few interviews (including the Bloomberg one above), was that his first RCT (showing textbooks weren’t helping kids) happened because he’d been a teacher in Kenya, he happened to be back visiting, and talking to a friend in education there. He also knew from his experience that Kenyan kids were being taught in English, which was often their third language.
I’ve seen a few criticisms of the RCT world over time, but I think the one that resonates with me the most, highlighted by Kremer’s teaching example, is how much better our tests and solutions would be if the researchers had the opportunity to spend more time in the countries they study, or if more economists who are afforded the opportunities to do those kinds of studies came from the places being studied. I think there’s more being done on this front and hope to see the field expanding over the coming years.
Which reminds me – applications are now open for The Mawazo Institute’s PhD Scholars Programme for African women studying STEM and Social Sciences. More on the program here.
Registration is also open for the Sadie Collective conference, Feb 20th, encouraging black women to go into economics and related fields. All the reviews I’ve heard from last years’ were incredibly positive.
A correction from last week, I’d quoted a statistic of Ethiopia as having the highest number of internally displaced people, nearly 3 million. Reader Pablo Abitbol pointed me to this UNHCR report, which reports Colombia has more than twice that amount, approaching 8 million people.
I’d been eagerly awaiting the podcast from Mary Daly Zip Code Economies (Apple/iTunes) which (if I recall) had been announced right before she became President and CEO of the San Francisco Fed, and then was understandably delayed a long time so somehow I missed it when it was released in June. Its premise is exploring the economies of 5 local zip codes and I don’t know what I was expecting but it was not this. I binged it & got about halfway through the season on the first day. It’s very NOT central banker, much more documentary style about the everyday lives of people, with the goal of being uplifting. So far, I think she’s only mentioned data once, and that was to say that economists’ data isn’t everything, people’s lived experiences are important (according to the FAQ, a goal of the podcast is to connect the macro to micro. If you view through the econ lens you’ll understand the connection, but it’s deliberately jargon-free.). Anyway, kudos to Dr. Daly, the producers and the SF Fed for putting the effort into it. And for more on Mary Daly and her interesting career journey listen to her on Freakonomics (Apple/ITunes) or the St. Louis Fed Women in Economics podcast (Apple/iTunes).