It’s been a big week for cash, with two studies out on cash transfers based on data from my IPA colleagues:
Craig McIntosh and Andy Zeitlin worked with IPA, USAID, Catholic Relief Services, and GiveDirectly in Rwanda to compare a standard WASH (water/sanitation/hygiene) and nutrition program to cash. You can read the summary, brief, or full paper from IPA, or very good article from Dylan Matthews at Vox, or blog post (with link to longer brief) from Sarah Rose and Amanda Glassman at CGD.
The upshot is that they RCTed both the program and two levels of cash, one calibrated to be of similar cost to the nutrition program (with about $117 going to the participants), and another much larger cash transfer (about $532 – for comparison the average yearly income is about $700 in Rwanda). Neither the nutrition program nor the small cash transfer had many effects, but the large cash transfer did help on several outcomes. Some might read this as “cash wins,” but an equally valid take would be that bigger investments work better than smaller ones: The smaller cash amount, equivalent to the WASH program, didn’t have many effects on health outcomes either.
Cyrus Samii points to a this paragraph as a real key in thinking about the contribution of the cash comparison idea:
This points to an inherently different way of thinking about cash-transfer programs as a ‘benchmark’. While transfer programs maximize scope for choice and therefore provide an important window on beneficiary priorities, a comparison to other more targeted programs will inevitably require policymakers to explicitly make tradeoffs across outcome dimensions, across beneficiary populations, and between large benefits for concentrated subgroups or small benefits that are diffuse over a broader target population. By contrast with the index fund analogy, part of the value of cash transfer programs as a benchmark is that they may require donors to be explicit about their preferences, and to justify interventions that constrain beneficiary choices.
The other study , with Chris Blattman, Nathan Fiala, and Sebastian Martinez, looked at a ~$400 per person grant (ostensibly to get a career off the ground) in Uganda. This isn’t the first look at the program, in fact it’s the third check-in, nine years after the money was handed out.
First, I can’t stress enough how hard the field staff in Uganda (including the folks above) worked to do the detective work tracking down the people nine years after the program and convince them to sit for several-hour interviews about their lives, families, and livelihoods.
Findings-wise, the cash recipients had been doing better economically than a comparison group, both two and four years after the first transfer. But by year nine, that control group who didn’t get anything had caught up and were doing pretty much just as well. This might want to help us reconsider how we think about programs that offer a theoretical boost “out of poverty” and whether it really changes how things would have been otherwise. (Not that four plus years of increased earnings from a one-time grant isn’t a good outcome for a program.)
Nice thoughts from Berk on the implications, and another good article again from Dylan Matthews. There Berk makes a good point that I think often gets lost in general “cash” discussions. Cash isn’t one intervention, it’s a category of interventions that can do many different things, and there are an infinite number of variations (who in the household gets it, how much, all at once or spread out over time, conditional on them doing something or free, if over time do they know how long it’s guaranteed for?), which we should expect to do different things. As Berk also points out at the end of the Vox piece:
“We’re not arguing ‘cash good versus cash not good.’ Cash is good!” he said. “But the only way to give it isn’t, ‘I’ll drop 1,000 bucks on you and go away.’”
David McKenzie has a nice post and discussion on descriptive studies in development. In his back and forth with Lant in the comments he mentions the count of how many development econ studies in 14 journals in 2015 were RCTs (9.7%).
Google introduced a data set search, which trawls for publicly available data sets, similarly to how Google Scholar works. Here they describe how it works and how to describe your data set to get it found.
A UK inquiry into the aid sector found it rife with sexual abuse of beneficiaries and sexual harassment within organizations, both of which were largely ignored by the organizations themselves. The “boys club” culture of organizations meant women were often afraid to report abusive behavior, and whistleblowers who did were often punished.
A short lesson on the Battle of Adwa, where Ethiopia repelled Italy’s attempts at colonization.
Sociologists often research the same topics as economists (I’d argue often with more illuminating methods and frameworks), but don’t seem to be as influential in policy debates. Justin Fox speculates on why.
India dropped the law against homosexual sex which dated from colonial times. Here are the stories of some of the activists who fought against the law.
Yale explains the new Y-RISE initiative, which aims to systematically understand how effective programs can be scaled, with networks focused on different lines of inquiry (such as political economy, spillovers & generalizability) led by a number of great researchers.
With semesters starting, don’t be this professor (but do browse the supportive replies to have your faith restored):
Sepak Takraw, Southeast Asian kick volleyball, involves players doing backflips and spinning kicks to get their feet above the net and spike it downward. Compilation reel here (but don’t need the sound to appreciate it).
An interview with Card & Krueger (from a couple years ago) on the history of causal identification in economics and more recent developments (via Eric Chyn, part of a longer discussion on the history of causality in research).
If you’re going to be traveling (or if you just like books), check out David Evans’ blog book review category for a nice mix of fun and scholarly book recommendations to make your travel go faster.
Next time you find yourself cursing power outages, remember the story (h/t Emmanuel Quartey) of a massive Russian malware attack originally targeted at Ukraine that tore through computer networks around the world locking computers, deleting terabytes of data, and inflicting an estimated $10 Billion in damages. The massive shipping conglomerate Maersk was crippled – as huge container ships moved all around the world, the network tracking the ships’ contents and locations was offline, and the critical domain servers needed to restore the other computers were also all infected. Except one:
After a frantic search that entailed calling hundreds of IT admins in data centers around the world, Maersk’s desperate administrators finally found one lone surviving domain controller in a remote office—in Ghana. At some point before [the malware] NotPetya struck, a blackout had knocked the Ghanaian machine offline, and the computer remained disconnected from the network. It thus contained the singular known copy of the company’s domain controller data left untouched by the malware—all thanks to a power outage. “There were a lot of joyous whoops in the office when we found it,” a Maersk administrator says.
Snot corn! That’s crop scientist Sarah Taber’s nickname for the variety of maize native Mexicans cultivated that allowed it to grow very high in very poor soil. According to a genetic sequencing published by UC Davis researchers, the secret is in the mucus-like goop around roots that are out in the open. The bacteria in the goop allow the plant to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, effectively fertilizing itself from the air. (Many farmers apply nitrogen fertilizer to crops, but this can have a lot of negative consequences for the environment, and be expensive or inaccessible for poor farmers). More background and explanation here. Scientists have been working on this problem for decades, but it turns out people in the mountains of southern Mexico figured it out thousands of years ago. (Also, follow Dr. Taber for a lot of interesting and funny insights into food and agriculture.)
Ontario’s new conservative government announced a halt to its basic income experiment, just over a year into what was supposed to be a 3-year experiment. This seems to highlight one of the risks with government-run UBI trials, they often run into politics, and are either diluted or ended as political winds change.
The working paper I mentioned a while back on Iran’s national cash transfer program for 70 million people has been published in JDE (no negative effects on people’s working, and seems to have encouraged some to work more).
Bots may be filling out researcher MTurk study surveys. Check your data, and you can report quality inconsistencies here.
If you can get past me at the beginning, this Planet Money episode The Poop Cartels (Apple/iTunes link), I think shows the power of good econ theory put into practice. Molly Lipscomb of the University of Virginia explains how she, with Laura Schechter, and a big research team in Senegal tried to introduce what some people have also called the “Uber for Poop.”
Peter Biar Ajak is a former Sudanese “lost boy” who went on to train at Harvard and Cambridge and is a research adviser for the International Growth Centre in South Sudan. He was arrested and is being held without access to a lawyer following a tweet critical of the government. Read more from Amnesty International, or follow the Free Peter Biar account.
A few years ago six randomized controlled trials found introducing a new microcredit program had some positive effects, but on average did not boost people’s economic outcomes. Dahal & Fiala have a new working paper suggesting this is because of statistical power with low take-up, but they do find effects with pooled data. BUT NOT SO FAST – Rachael Meager has a paper forthcoming in AEJ: Applied using Bayesian hierarchical models and doesn’t find those clear cut average effects using pooling which allows for variation between programs and contexts. She explains here.
I think this approach allows for nuance that we often don’t see in methods that just count interventions and effect sizes. It makes me a little happier after the depression spiral that Eva Vivalt sent me into by pointing out how findings in dev econ are often so difficult to replicate in new contexts on the 80,000 Hours podcast. (Reading Rachael’s paper at the time probably would have been a better coping mechanism for me than stress eating.)
The University of Chicago’s Luigi Zingales, in Why Every Good Economist Should be a Feminist, talks about measures that departments can take to let all faculty thrive. He points to a dispute between a female junior professor at Columbia Business School and the more senior professor accused of sexually harassing her, who also held control over the joint data set that she had put a lot of time into developing. In addition to the $750,000 court judgement against him, another interesting thing to come out of it:
The Columbia Business School faculty proposed an interesting default rule to resolve these power imbalances. In case of disputes between a senior and a junior faculty, the intellectual property right of a joint project should be automatically allocated to the junior faculty, to protect the weaker contracting party. Such a rule should be adopted by all departments.
The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah had a thoughtful public discussion with the French Ambassador Gérard Araud about what it means to different ears when calling the African immigrant or children of immigrant players on France’s World Cup team “African” or “French,” and whether those identities are in conflict (in France, does referencing African heritage make the players sound not legitimately French?). Here’s Noah’s video, and you can see some of Auraud’s responses to that if you scroll back a few days on his twitter feed (make sure you’re checking ‘tweets and replies’.)
It’s really worth reading Belgian player Romelu Lukaku tell his story of growing up poor to play in the World Cup:
When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker.
When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.
Also see this interesting Rough Translation episode on how Brazil decides who is of enough African descent to benefit from government programs.
And 15 years ago, a friend tried the old trick of leaving $20 in the bound copy of his dissertation at the University of Chicago library to see if anybody would ever read it. After mentioning it on twitter, one of the library staffers went to check on it:
Petronia (above), an online course and game from the National Resource Governance Institute, lets users run a fictional country where oil is discovered to see if they can avoid the resource curse. (h/t David Batcheck)
From the Stata journal– A new command, baselinetable, creates handy summary stats tables for your baseline reports to make sharing your findings much easier. It exports to Stata, Excel, CSV, etc to make it really easy to create better tables for your reports. In Stata use: net describe st0524, from(http://www.stata-journal.com/software/sj18-2)
Summer podcast listening:
I listen to a lot of podcasts, and Rough Translation (Apple) from NPR is one of my perennial favorites*. They look at how a question we deal with in the U.S. is playing out elsewhere in a fantastic RadioLab/Planet Money style that really brings you there. This season includes how a sexist Argentinian talk show suddenly turned feminist, trying to improve Ghana’s preschools, and how apologies translate across cultures and the self-described housewife who brokered an international one.
Displaced (Apple) from Vox and the International Rescue Committee is really good, about different aspects of international migration. The hosts and guests are both very knowledgeable and it’s very well-produced. Each episode is a master class in the subject.
The Freakonomics conversation with Richard Thaler reflecting back on his career and a offering peek into the Nobel award experience was fun, and it was nice to listen to old friends sharing a laugh.
For the more insider talk on econ, the Neolib podcast (Apple) Noah Smith and Rachael Meager episodes were interesting.
Having come to economics from other fields, I think econ has a massive blind spot in measurement. Note that when you say “measurement,” most economists will immediately start clustering standard errors in their heads. But on the World Bank Data Blog, Matthew Lokshin asks about the underlying data quality. When we fiddle with the stats, what if we’re watering the garden while the house is on fire? He shows how in one survey, answers changed as the survey went on, perhaps as surveyors figured out which questions would send them into loops of follow-up questions. There are so many ways for the questions you ask and the way the survey is carried out to change the data, why don’t more people pay attention to the data collection process? Or, as Thomas de Hoop responded, “There seems to be a too strong belief that measurement error is almost always random.”
If you missed the bizarre story about the U.S. threatening other countries about breastfeeding guidelines, here it is. More background: Anttila-Hughes, Fernald, Gertler, Krause, & Wydick estimate 66,000 infant deaths in 1981 alone from the promotion of formula feeding in low- and middle-income countries where the water is dangerous for babies. But the conversation that followed seemed to conflate policy on breast vs. formula feeding everywhere. My understanding of the research is that it’s the water that’s the dangerous part, and there aren’t massive health benefits to the children in wealthy countries (but check with Emily Oster’s forthcoming book).
From last year, but worth a look: Michael Clemens looked at data from all of the nearly 180,000 apprehended unaccompanied children apprehended coming into the U.S. from 2011-2016 from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. He then tried to estimate the relative contribution of poverty vs. violence in their home regions to the migration. He estimates both play a roughly similar role, but also that even short-term increases at home lead to long-term sustained departures. One amazing note:
…the number of 17 year-old migrants apprehended during this period was over 8% of all 17 year-olds in the region at the beginning of the period.
And a Polish environmental charity got a big phone bill, thanks to a a stork that was being tracked with a GPS tracker. The tracker was last located in Sudan, but someone found it, took out the SIM card and racked up $2,700 worth of phone calls.
[* Disclosure, I played a very small part in the early development of the show, but that doesn’t change my recommendation for it]
A nicely designed and helpful media guide for researchers on how to prepare for interviews with journalists, based on a survey of science writers. It’s divided into before, during, and after the interview and gives concrete advice about what to expect and do in each.
Having two women on a board of directors appears to be the new having one woman on a board of directors. With “tokenism” becoming more obvious, Chang, Milkman, Chugh, and Akinola report a surprising number of S&P 1500 boards of directors with exactly two women, or “twokenism,” as they call it.
David’s great links (as always) this week include a few things I was going to mention, so I’ll just refer you to him. Just one addition – Chris’ thread from March, arguing the real purpose of community driven development was to disburse money without the difficulties and risks of of going through local governments.
A very interesting post from Evidence Action, about the failure to replicate a promising intervention that had been RCTed in Kenya years ago. The problem addressed “Sugar Daddies” – adolescent girls in relationships with older men who often pay the girls’ school fees or other expenses, but were also much more likely to have HIV than adolescent boys. The intervention was a simple program that educated girls about HIV rates and seemed effective.
Fortunately, the new group, Young1ove, is also committed to evidence and worked to test it again in Botswana before scaling it up. One interesting way they approached it was to carefully thinking with the partners, what they would do next in different scenarios before they knew what the results were:
The partners made a critical ex ante commitment to evidence-based decision-making. Facilitated by Young 1ove, all the partners, including the Government of Botswana and the Global Innovation Fund, agreed on a ‘pre-policy plan’: a breakdown of the potential outcomes of the evaluation and what the policy responses would be for each (something akin to the ‘pre-analysis plan’ often developed by researchers). Jointly, the partners agreed that [the new program] No Sugar would not be scaled unless the evaluation results showed clear evidence of positive impact, namely a clear and statistically significant reduction in pregnancy rates, a clear indication that girls learned and retained knowledge about the HIV prevalence of different age groups, and a downward shift in the age of girls’ sexual partners. Without evidence of impact on these fronts, No Sugar would not be scaled.
Critically, we had this discussion early—well before the evaluation results were in—guaranteeing that it was sober-minded, reflective of what we believed to be the most appropriate response to ambiguous or negative results, and unclouded by genuine but unfounded enthusiasm for a program that might ‘feel right’ but not be grounded in evidence.
This week, UNICEF, the IRC, and Campbell Collaboration released a “Mega Map” of evidence in child development research. The map isn’t of studies/evidence but of systematic reviews of evidence in child welfare, so you can find all the reviews in one place. It’s organized by variables and outcomes, and you can play with the filters and layout options in the settings, and hover over cells to see the count and quality of reviews.
“Back in school we used to call it chew and pour,” he says. Meaning, for each possible question, the teacher gives you one correct answer to memorize — or “chew” — so that come test time, you can regurgitate it — “pour it” back to her verbatim.
“And then,” adds Agbavor with a chuckle, “you forget about it. Nothing is retained.”
That’s from one of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Rough Translation, which is hosted by their former East Africa correspondent, and is back for another season. In a great episode, they talk to UPenn education researcher Sharon Wolf about her work with some of my IPA colleagues in Ghana trying to improve preschools, and an unexpected wall they ran into from the people most invested in it (web audio & article, iTunes).
3ie has updated their count of impact evaluations over time and by source. As Shayda Mae Sabet and Annette N. Brown report, there’s been a small dip in recent years:
Also Annette, Ben Wood, & Rui Müller report their findings trying to verify development econ findings (even when materials are required by journals). I’ll let Brian Nosek summarize:
Results: 109 articles, 27 push button replicable. 59 authors refused to provide replication files. 30 of the 59 were published in journals requiring sharing. Of remaining 23, 3 had proprietary data, 15 had incomplete code, and 5 had minor differences in the replication results.
But, (prompted by some of Justin Sandefur’s excellent live tweeting of the RISE education conference) Heather Lanthorn, Akib Khan, and I had a conversation on a more basic question – where do the implementation details get reported? How can a program be realistically copied or tested in another context when there’s no mechanism for saving or reporting how a program was run?
Jobs: Want to answer those and more practical questions on science, implementation, and scaling? Check out these jobs at a new Yale center for better understanding how to scale effective interventions (Director, and Program and Communications Manager). The initiative will be led by Mushfiq Mobarak, who has been very thoughtful about these issues on projects including the GiveWell-recommended “No Lean Season” incentives for seasonal migration program.
Also from RISE, David Evans describes the reaction when Karthik Muralitharan got up in front of the crowd and dropped the bas(eline). Muralitharan explains that under some conditions (particularly when working with governments and the project might never be implemented correctly anyway), it might makes more sense to put the money into good randomization and a bigger endline. He expands on it here.
We show that this East-West difference is due to girls’ attitudes, confidence and competitiveness in math, and not to other confounding factors, such as the difference in economic conditions or teaching styles across the former political border. (via Lisa Cook)
Elizabeth Warren has been arguing with economists over her previous academic research on the number of medical bankruptcies in the U.S. – hint: methodology for counting matters a lot to the final number you come up with.
The DRC count of Ebola infections is at 60, and the WHO has been preparing the neighboring countries for it, including with vaccinations.
The graph above comes from an interesting paper that Sara Lowes and Eduardo Montero describe in VoxDev, looking at how forced vaccination campaigns by the French military in colonial Central Africa against sleeping sickness in the 1920s through 1950s still have effects today. The vaccinations were often at gunpoint and had serious side effects. The result may have been lasting mistrust of the medical establishment – in the areas where the campaigns occurred, people today were less likely recently to accept a free blood test for anemia or HIV, or vaccinations.
It recalls Alsan & Wanamaker ‘s finding that in the U.S. after the revelation of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments in 1972, African-American men (in particular the ones closer to Macon County, Alabama, where the experiments happened) became less likely to visit doctors. They estimate this caused an up to 1.4 year drop in life expectancy for older African-American men years later.
Alex Tabarrok summarizes the story from the new book on RCTs, Randomistas, about how TOMS shoes invited an external evaluation of their program giving away shoes and discovered it wasn’t helping recipients very much. This isn’t that unusual in development, but faced with the evidence, they agreed to be named in the paper and be public about it, and tried to figure out how to use the insights to do better. (See study author Bruce Wydick’s thoughts on it from 2015 as well)
The Gates Foundation announced a new $68 million effort to improve education in India and sub-Saharan Africa. At a recent event Bill Gates said “Amazingly, we thought education would be easy, and health would be hard.”
In Colombia, psychologists and neuroscientists are jumping into action around the FARC demobilization to understand how years of violence affect the brain and how to best reintegrate former fighters back into mainstream society.
On the 80,000 Hours podcast, Eva Vivalt discusses some hard truths she’s come to realize as the founder of AidGrade and in her own research aggregating development economics findings. Many interventions don’t work, and those that do often don’t replicate, but she doesn’t think that means we should give up. I have a friend in drug development, and it’s a running joke that every drug he’s worked on fails (only after years of work and millions of dollars spent), but he doesn’t give up on the enterprise of curing disease.
Vivalt suggests that the process could be helped along by a mechanism where researchers could tap the wisdom of the crowds, polling colleagues for their priors, and what programs they think would replicate. Other research has shown prediction markets among researchers can work well for predicting which studies would replicate.
A new working paper put out by the Philadelphia Fed finds the neighbors of lottery winners in Canada become likely to go bankrupt. The suggestion is that neighbors are trying to keep up with the Joneses, spending more on visible things like cars, and putting more money into riskier investments like stocks. (Summary in Bloomberg).
Researchers put out a call to talk to women academics who’d been harassed online. They assumed they’d hear from researchers working on controversial topics, but it turned out just being a woman and having an opinion was enough to get harassed.
I went to find one of my favorite young economists on twitter the other day to credit her, and found out she’d left twitter, which turned out to be in part b/c of these issues. Dina Pomeranz and Sue Dynarski (both awesome online role models) remind us that you don’t owe anybody uncivil your time or attention, but the rest of us also have an obligation to call out bad behavior when we see it, and the article above has some helpful tips.
Good economists wear their dedication on their sleeves, Chris Udry wears his below his sleeve. Here’s the results of one of several experiments in Ghana to help farmers increase the amount of food they grow, in temporary tattoo form (the two bars represent inter- and intra- village variation).
Chris found this above, (from a 2016 post) anthropologist Jennifer Esperanza got annoyed at how her field’s textbooks always had exotic cover images, when anthropology is really the study of all humanity. “‘Why can’t there be images of, for example, a group of white American women eating salads, on the cover?,’ she asked.” Dori Tunstall and Julie Hill took up the challenge of putting white people on the covers of anthro textbooks:
Rachel Strohm writes movingly and compellingly about her experience with depression in academia. If you’re around grad students, you probably know someone who’s quietly dealing with depression or anxiety, and Rachel explains why academia seems to bring those to the forefront. Also, you probably know someone outside academia dealing with depression. Actor Wil Wheaton explains what it was like to be an adolescent celebrity trying to hide his chronic depression and anxiety, and how once in his 20’s in the middle of the night he drove to his sister’s house to sleep on her floor, the only thing that had helped when they were kids.
The great irony of course is that people generally don’t talk about it, so many people go through it alone.
After years of work expanding access to bank accounts, and discussions of particular outreach to women, a poll of 150,000 people in 144 countries shows the gender gap in bank account ownership is the same seven percentage points as it was in 2011 when the poll first started. In high-income countries the gap is minimal or zero, while in low- and middle-income countries it can be 30 percentage points.
How does champion reader David Evans retain the information from all the economics, fiction, history, audiobooks, and graphic novels he reads? He takes notes along the way in Evernote, copying the best insights from Amazon’s “look inside” feature, and also writes reviews on his blog to remember the main takeaways.
Uganda’s education minister rejected a proposed sexual education curriculum as “recruitment grounds for homosexuality and other perversions.” Her proposed replacement will focus on abstinence and faithfulness in marriage. Duflo, Dupas, and Kremer’s 7-year study of neighboring Kenya’s abstinence-focused program found it did not reduce pregnancy or STIs, though the results were a little more complex when it was combined with free school uniforms for girls (effectively reducing their cost of education).
Greg Rosalsky interviews Harvard’s David Laibson for an article about Econ 101 textbooks. As the field of economics has evolved in recent decades, the most popular textbooks, Samuelson, Mankiw, etc., still essentially teach a largely theoretical classical model, tacking on behavioral and other paradigm shifts as updates at the end of chapters or in callout boxes. This means that the version of econ taught, one based on elegant imaginary lands of universal information, perfectly functioning markets, and selfishness enhancing everybody’s long-run welfare doesn’t reflect how most economists think or practice today. It’s the intellectual equivalent of putting an attractive, but outdated picture on economics’ online dating profile that doesn’t show the field as it really is, which means most policymakers’ understanding of economics is largely fictional.
Personally though, all of my work rests on Samuelson
Also read this thread from Beatrice Cherrier on how Samuelson’s attitudes towards women changed over the course of his career. And Cherrier’s note on his wife, Marion Crawford Samuelson, a gifted mathematical economist who published one paper and retired after having their first child. In her obituary, Paul Samuelson described her work as foundational to the Nobel Prize he received. Be sure to follow Beatrice for more amazing stories on the history of the field.
Job: IPA is starting a research methods initiative, doing research on research – using the hundreds of studies in progress across 21 countries to improve and explore new methods for the field. We’re looking for a director for the new initiative (Ph.D.-level)
In some states where teacher pay is particularly low, districts are bringing in teachers from the Philippines who will work for very little (and often pay middlemen high fees for the opportunity). One Arizona official explains:
“In these times, you have to be innovative and creative in recruiting,” said Patricia Davis-Tussey, Pendergast’s head of human resources. “We embrace diversity and really gain a lot from the cultural exchange experience. Our students do as well.” (Via Alex Eble)
GiveWell offered their take on recent discussions of the longer-term impacts of unconditional cash transfers today.
One of the recent trends we’ve seen from some studies is the long-term effects of cash transfers on the children of the families for their development later in life. And there’s a new unconditional cash transfer RCT in the U.S. of $333 monthly to poor mothers of babies for 40 months, to see if it affects the brain and other development of those babies. (h/t Jonathan Morduch)
And after a few years of study, the Gates Foundation is announcing a new $138 Million initiative focusing on the causes and solutions of poverty in the U.S.
I noted a few weeks ago the noticeable absence of African academic and policy organizations from many conversations about policy in Africa. Now the Hewlett Foundation has a call out for East and West African policy organizations promoting evidence-based policymaking.
Penny Goldberg of Yale will be the new World Bank Chief Economist, she and Nina Pavcnik wrote about their work on why opening up trade helped developing countries grow at VoxDev.
An update on last week’s discussion of GiveDirectly’s 3-year effects findings (if you need a catch-up, see Justin Sandefur’s post which is also valuable for the review of other recent research at the end). The questions focused on what we can say on whether the effects fade, and if handing a lot of money to some people in a village hurts those who didn’t get the money. Paper authors Johannes Haushofer and Jeremy Shapiro have a nice back-and-forth with Berk Ozler about it here, and Berk disagrees with some of Sandefur’s inferences. GiveDirectly also updated their take on it. In the end it seemed like a productive discussion, and it’s worth noting that GiveDirectly had already moved to giving cash to everybody in the village some time ago to avoid the possibility of these negative side-effects.
One more reason Dina Pomeranz is Development Econ’s Most Valuable Tweeter is that she’s always finding new ways to make the wonky lessons from the field more accessible to the public. Most recently she’s been tweetstorming her class lectures on development in very thoughtful ways (summaries of the lessons in the body of the tweet, threaded with pictures of key slides and graphs, and links to the original papers). Here’s one example.
A really good episode of the podcast Reply All looks at recent well-intentioned efforts by Congress to combat child sex trafficking by shutting down websites known for classified ads by sex workers. They talk to several people in the industry and economist Scott Cunningham, who all predict that shutting down an above-ground marketplace where sex workers can vet clients and share lists of known good and bad ones would hurt the sex workers in the end. In a follow-up, one interviewee reported among her sex worker colleagues two confirmed murders and thirteen more missing in the month following the passage of the law.
In a move that must be giving IRB chairs ulcers, California police apparently made an arrest in the infamous decades-old Golden State serial killer case by comparing crime scene DNA to DNA posted on genealogy sites and finding the suspect through relatives’ family trees. They then surreptitiously collected some of the suspect’s DNA for confirmation.
Though Anne Sofie Tegner Anker, Jennifer L. Doleac, and Rasmus Landersø found Denmark’s expanded use of DNA collection and surveillance appears to have reduced crime there (h/t Dylan Matthews).
It doesn’t always work out though. In Germany, law enforcement thought they’d caught a break tracking a non-serial killer across Europe. But after a 15-year chase, the DNA which kept turning up at crime scenes turned out to be from a worker at the cotton swab supplier.
We’re also hiring what (IMHO) might be one of the most important and complex jobs in the org, Kenya Country Office Director. It involves managing a staff of 500 across several offices, and by my count over 50 active RCTs at the moment (including the monumental Universal Basic Income trial). Both have potential for high impact; please pass along to anybody you think might be interested.
Justin Sandefur explains the debate over the GiveDirectly three-year results – cash works, but the effects may fade over time, and might hurt people who don’t get it. Berk Ozler, who first pointed out some of the discrepancies, adds his thoughts.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, wartime cash grants may have backfired. When the money ran out, people turned to the Taliban for more. A vocational training program didn’t help much either, but the two together boosted support for the government.
Researchers, particularly early career (grad student/post-doc/assistant profs), looking to explore new ideas in Peace and Recovery (broadly defined) can submit funding proposals by April 30th. Other proposals due May 25th.
The story of how the release of some of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram was negotiated was crazy (involving the world’s foremost Boko Haram expert, a security guard at a Dubai supermarket), but what happened next to a few is even crazier:
A Nigerian lawyer in America convinced a few families to send some of the girls to the U.S. with him, where he put them up in remote boarding schools, then paraded them around against their will to fundraise for his organization (often in Churches, sometimes in DC) arguing there’s a Christian genocide in Nigeria (there isn’t). Some of the girls secretly called Homeland Security to help them escape from one of the schools.
On the 24th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, NPR discusses the role radio played in fomenting hatred, and talks with the people who created a popular radio drama to try to bridge ethnic divisions. The radio program is still running today, and Princeton’s Betsy Levy Paluck talks about the randomized controlled trial she ran, finding it didn’t change people’s personal beliefs, but changed their perception of public norms around marrying members of the opposing ethnic group.
Detecting soldiers registering as new voters in Cambodia from the gender distribution.
Take a few minutes to read the latest newsletter from the CSWEP, the AEA’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. In particular, the opening harrowing account from economist and law professor Jennifer Bennett Shinall on being sexually assaulted by a more senior colleague on an airplane, and on page 5, the anonymous descriptions from CSWEP members that document the range of everyday harassment that women in the field experience.
Lest you think it’s only a problem of junior faculty, read this encounter Sue Dynarski had with a faculty member when she was giving a named lecture.
On a much more inspiring note is this series of three short but great podcasts from the St. Louis Fed on women in economics. They’re with Mary Daly, who went from high school dropout to research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Ellen Zentner, chief economist at Morgan Stanley; and Claudia Sahm, of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
Some takeaways: Each had a figure who got them really excited about economics, usually a teacher at a small school (if you’re ever down on teaching, think about the potentially great future contributors in the class).
Claudia Sahm (I believe), pointed out that she didn’t want the recent public talk of sexual harassment in the field to have the paradoxical effect of discouraging women from choosing the field.
Another takeaway was that to address the numbers of women in the field, you have to address the pipeline of women choosing the field and then not attriting along the way. For them, mentorship played an important role.
A similar point about the corporate world came up in the very good Freakonomics episode about the Glass Cliff, the phenomenon of women being chosen as CEOs once a company is already in trouble, making it more likely they’ll be blamed for the company’s failure. Ellen Bartz, former CEO of Yahoo, and Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo CEO point out at the end, that you can lament about lack of women CEOs, but that you won’t get women CEOs without women as Senior Vice Presidents to choose from, and so on, back down the line.
Another great conversation was Ezra Klein talking with Melinda Gates (Apple, RSS) about lots of great stuff (including the pipeline of women going into tech and STEM fields). She goes into a lot of great things she sees from her vantage point coming for global poverty and development, but Klein thankfully starts off with the hard-hitting question we all wanted to know: Where did Comic Sans come from?
Above, in advance of elections Cambodia sends soldiers out to different regions to register as voters there and boost the ruling party’s votes. It’s detectable statistically by the timing of new voter registrations and gender skew among registered voters. (via Hannes Hemker)
Cash transfers have been all the rage but now that longer-term data is coming in, Berk Ozler suggests that one-time grants may not be a panacea.
A new AER article looking at longitudinal effects on children of a Native American tribe giving out cash from casino dividends, finds long-term effects in personality and psychological well-being for kids whose families got the cash.
But Jean Drèze explains why he’s cautious about the government of India moving from in-kind support for the poor to cash transfers based on what could go wrong in practice (setting an amount but not indexing to inflation, for example)
An amazing visualization by Mona Chalibi trying to get across the scope of the prison population, when numbers become too big to comprehend,
Stephanie Wykstra, a committed effective altruist (and full disclosure, a former co-worker of mine), has a nice essay about how she changed her thinking from the standard EA orthodoxy that charity is most effective when given in a poorer country after volunteering at Rikers Island. She saw how many people suffered long-term consequences because they were held for as little as one dollar of bail, and concluded there are also policy wins to be had for low cost at home as well.
[Update: There’s a network of volunteers in New York anybody can join who go in person and file the paperwork to bail out people being held for one dollar.]
Despite the attention, school shootings are apparently not more common in the U.S. than they were in the 1990s. It’s also worth remembering though schools have been at the center of recent debates around gun violence, far more people die from other kinds of shootings. To debias myself, I’ve been following this twitter account which reports local news stories of shootings, and have been surprised at how many start as everyday arguments that escalate until someone grabs a gun from their car and kills the other person.
The University of Manchester has Masters scholarships for professionals from Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, or Zambia, who have not previously studied outside Africa.
Above: Some lessons from Rachel Glennerster on policy vs. academic research paths
Nick Kristof talks with Amanda Glassman at the Center for Global Development about trying to get the world’s attention to alleviation of poverty and suffering. (FYI there are a number of tools that will let you covert youtube videos to audio MP3 to listen to like podcasts).
A nice pair of short podcasts with Alice Evans and David Evans (who are unrelated but apparently share the massive enthusiasm gene). The first is on the World Development Report and what we know about education, and the second on how one uses RCTs to test an idea. David brings up an important nuance in the difference between an efficacy (does the program work at all under ideal conditions?), vs effectiveness (does it work as implemented in the practical world?) trial, and how one’s inferences from each might differ. (Apple podcasts).
The slides above are from a very good talk Rachel Glennerster gave at the Oxford Centre for the Study of African Economies conference about how to do policy work from an economics perspective, and the difference between academic and policy uses of the economist’s toolkit.
She gave a several nice examples of how to think about abstracting the mechanisms behind particular findings to general principles, using vaccines as an example. Unvaccinated kids: If families never start vaccines, the problem might be access (look at price or other barriers). If they start their series of scheduled vaccines but don’t complete them, a social/behavioral solution like incentives or other nudge might be appropriate.
It’s hard to escape the irony of a bunch of Americans (and others) flying to England to talk about African economies, but the Centre does have a two-month fellowship for scholars from any African country.
The majority of $4 billion of U.S. philanthropic grants made to African universities between 2003 and 2013 went to institutions in English-speaking countries (h/t John Branch). But even politically minded academics aren’t immune to this bias – over 20 years the majority of published papers in two journals specifically about African politics focus on politics of English-speaking countries.
Going back to Rachel’s and David’s point on types of RCTs, it’s important to remember that even though we use the same language to talk about outcomes (“vaccination rates”) or inputs (“vocational training”), that doesn’t mean they’re actually identical.
Tyler Cowen interviewed Chris Blattman and in typical Cowen fashion came prepared – I had to slow down my usual podcast playback speed to keep up. Topics Included what Chris learned from his first job at a higher class Canadian KFC, interviewing child soldiers, causes of the Peloponnesian Wars, why he’d rather transfer accountants to poor countries than cash, and how he tries to get inside a problem that other people haven’t really thought about yet.
One of my favorite economists and voices for econ in public policy, Jennifer Doleac, with Anita Mukherjee published a working paper suggesting there may be unintended consequences of states passing laws allowing access to Naloxone (the anti-opioid overdose drug). They suggested the laws were associated with more ER visits, and if anything more opioid deaths, and that perhaps there was a moral hazard of making treatment available. Then, as Olga Khazan describes in The Atlantic, the world jumped down their throats, particularly those in public health and others involved in the opioid treatment world. Things got uncivil at times, accusations of not knowing anything about the field and confusing correlation with causation, what’s this whole “working paper” thing – is it just somebody’s Word doc?, etc. But a lot of the disagreement seems to stem from misunderstandings across disciplines in what counts for evidence.
Political scientist Corrine McConnaughy does a service here explaining why people often see economists as tone deaf, parachuting into a field full of people who’ve spent careers studying one topic and making broad generalizations of how the world works. She cites an interesting JEP paper “The Superiority of Economics” about the implicit pecking order within social sciences.
A veteran NPR investigative journalist was dismissed from NPR after sexual harassment allegations, but three organizations representing former Peace Corps volunteers and others want NPR to release the story he was working on, about the potentially very dangerous side effects of commonly-prescribed anti-malarial drugs.
And Bloomberg’s Iain Marlow points out, Indian and Pakistani diplomatic spats have devolved to high school level:
This comment came, even as it came to light that tension has been brewing between the two sides for a couple of months — one of the incidents involved the doorbell of the Indian deputy High Commissioner J P Singh being rung at 3 am. Since the Indian side felt that this was done by Pakistan’s security agencies, the Pakistan deputy high commissioner Syed Haider Shah’s door bell was also rung at 3 am in next few days.
First, the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy has a new Obama Scholarship, which will pay (full tuition plus, travel costs and living stipend) for professional policy folks from anywhere in the world to get a 1-year mid-career masters there. It’s open to people from all sectors working for the public good with 3-5 years of work experience and a strong track record. Please forward to colleagues and friends who might be interested.
Also David’s Development Impact blog links are really interesting this week, including a massive farm experiment in China that helped a lot of people.
In 2017 36 states had pending laws encouraging or requiring financial literacy training, usually among the young, such as in schools, or the poor. States like Wisconsin and Florida are putting them into school curricula. In Colorado, prisoners exonerated of crimes and owed payments by the state must complete a personal financial management class first. Kentucky is now considering financial literacy training as a requirement for Medicaid. This all despite a mountain of research showing financial literacy programs generally don’t work.
Evidence Action is looking for an implementation director for their successful “No Lean Season” program in Bangladesh, which helps subsidize farmers who want to find temporary work in the city during the off season. The program’s been successfully RCTed by IPA, and named as a GiveWell top charity, but Evidence Action wants to really put it through its paces and test for things like unintended consequences before scaling it up.
In The Atlantic Derek Thompson cites a new NBER paper by Kugler and Rojas about the Mexican conditional cash transfer program Prospera to argue that the debate over whether cash benefits make people lazy is irrelevant. (Important background, Prospera had a randomized component to it, allowing it to be studied with much greater confidence). They tracked children who are now adults, and found that those whose families received benefits had an average of 3 years more schooling, and went on to work more hours and earn higher wages as adults. Regardless of what you think about the morals of parents receiving benefits, the positive long-term effects on children should be part of the equation. (h/t Rebecca Rouse).
Seema Jayachandran uses great writing, national data, and clever methodology to explain the problem of 21 million unwanted girls in India.
And, I’m pretty sure the first two months of that UChicago policy scholarship above are going to be spent trying to undo the damage from the Utah State House of Representatives attempting to rap how a bill becomes a law to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme.