28 September 2011

ICT for Development and the Availability Bias

With apologies to all of the wonderful people who work in ICT4D, but is it possible that actually new technologies aren't all that important, but we focus on them because they are so important to our lives, because it gives us a sense of optimism and hope, and because we like new shiny things? If my amateur psychologising is correct, this is a version of the availability bias.
Essentially the availability heuristic operates on the notion that "if you can think of it, it must be important."
And because we spend all day on our macs and ipads, well surely these things must be able to revolutionise poor countries too right? And not only that, but the idea empowers us to think that we are able to make a difference.

I have a couple of hesitations.

1. One of the chief functions of modern technology is as labour-saving device. Wages are high, so cutting out a worker can really save money. That's why we have to scan our own shopping in the supermarket these days. Well guess what, in most developing countries, wages are not high. That is kinda the definition of developing country. So, the labour-saving device isn't quite so relevant. (I'm thinking of this JPAL project in India. Computer-assisted learning works, but person-assisted learning is more cost-effective).

2. There are already a TON of amazing technologies we already know about that just aren't being used. Fertilizer, vaccines, bednets, chlorine tablets for drinking water. The challenge is getting existing technologies to scale.

I know mobile phones are cool and important. But maybe the really important technologies are the hardest ones. Getting democracy and the rule of law to work. And those are technologies that we really don't know how to transplant to new places.

Anyway, just thinking out loud, let me know why I'm wrong. 

Brain Drain and Remittances – Yer Missing the Point!

Michael Clemens made a really great analogy on the CGD wonkcast between research on migration and research on the entry of women into the labor force:
Suppose that I was a labor economist studying the entry of women into the labor force, and most of the papers I wrote were trying to document is this a good thing.
Well, first of all, are they giving enough money to their husbands? What are their husbands really doing with it? Are they buying alcohol or not?
And second, what about the loss to their kids, and the terrible effects that fewer of them are being teachers and nurses any more. What’s happening to the kids in the schoolroom?
All concerns that are not crazy, that could be thought of as legitimate. But if there is very little research on the gains to women, the fact that women are now investment bankers and presidents, things that weren’t thinkable before they entered the labor force. If we really weren’t studying those things at all, or if they were thought to be uninteresting, what would that say about our underlying conception of the world?
The analogy to development is that I really think people in development are much too focused on developing countries rather than developing people.

27 September 2011

Social Protection or Political Patronage?

Marco Manacorda, Ed Miguel, and Andrea Vigorito put a working paper out a couple of years ago showing a relationship between receipt of a Uruguayan government cash transfer scheme, and political support for the governing party. Which pretty much makes sense. 
we find that beneficiary households are 21 to 28 percentage points more likely to favor the  current government (relative to the previous government) ... 
Back-of-the envelope calculations suggest that securing  one extra supporter costs the government on the order of US$2,000 per year, or one third of national GDP per capita (though this estimate is an upper bound cost if political impacts persist after the program has ended).
 Which is fine. Government-funded social protection buys political support.

So what does aid-financed social protection buy? Does it depend on who delivers the program? Hopefully GiveDirectly.org can work this into their RCT.

26 September 2011

Aid Effectiveness #Fail

So in 2005 all the big donor countries set themselves a bunch of targets for making their aid more effective. The results are in.
"The results of the 2011 Survey on Monitoring the Paris Declaration are sobering. At the global level, only 1 out of the 13 targets established for 2010 has been met. Nonetheless, it is important to note that considerable progress has been made towards many of the remaining 12 targets."
As Owen Barder says,
"If developing countries had hit as few targets as the donors have met on the Paris Declaration we would have cut off their aid."

And to paraphrase Owen, this is all sadly a bit predictable. The targets are inconsistent with the incentives facing donor agencies. We need new ways of working, including much more transparency and better data (for more - see here). 

21 September 2011

Why the left should support the new UK planning rules

Relaxing Britain’s planning rules will be good for growth, for the environment, and for social mobility.

The countryside lobby is selling a straw man. Developers generally don’t want to concrete over our beautiful rural countryside just for the sake of it. There is little value in building in the middle of nowhere. The most valuable place to build new commercial and residential properties is where prices are high – the wealthy and productive South-East – areas that are already developed. By increasing housing density in the South-East, we can allow more people to move there. More dense urban areas are more productive, as scale allows for greater economic diversity, and for new ideas to be freely shared.

New building will also bring down prices, allowing poorer people to live in productive areas. If we are serious about social mobility, we need to allow poor households the opportunity to live close to jobs in high productivity parts of the country (and without expensive government subsidies).

Finally, dense urban areas are better for the environment than small countryside towns, because in urban areas people walk, cycle, or take public transport rather than drive everywhere.

For once, this is a genuinely progressive policy from the Tories. The left should embrace it.

Sadly economic geography is tragically misunderstood by the public. But there is a pretty much a consensus from economists on this issue. Two great recent books by Ed Glaeser at Harvard and Ryan Avent of The Economist make the case for less planning regulation in the US. Henry Overman, Director of the Spatial Economics Research Centre at the LSE, argues that the changes in the UK do not go far enough.


How about a specific example for clarity? This is Oxford. The whole area to the South East of Oxford is pretty built up, from Cowley Road down to Blackbird Leys. Binsey, on the other hand, less than a mile North West of the train station (which gets you to London in 50 minutes), has a population of, er, 28 (at least it did in 2001).

I love the countryside. I really do. But the average value of rural land in Oxfordshire is £21k per ha. The average value of suburban land on the edge of Oxford is £4,000,000 per ha. It is utter madness to not build on Binsey.

The Labour government's Barker report led to outrage about "building over the green belt."

Here's a picture of the Green Belts in the UK. 

Would it really be so bad if we let some towns and cities like Oxford expand? Isn't there a bit of space left in Oxfordshire besides the thick ring around the town?



Yeah...... so Cynan in the comments posted the link to this Oxford flood plain map. Perhaps Binsey wasn't the best example in the world. And yet.... Christchurch still wanted to build there, presumably knowing about the flood plain. And.... Amsterdam? Or rather, the 25% of the entire Netherlands which is below sea level? 

20 September 2011

How to Increase the Policy Impact of Academic Research

How about letting policy makers read it?
"academics, funded mostly by the public purse, pay for the production and dissemination of academic papers; but for historical reasons, these are published by private organisations who charge around $30 per academic paper, keeping out any reader who doesn’t have access through their institution."(Goldacre, on Monbiot)
It's hard to judge exactly how many people are likely to be affected, but I would bet that there are thousands of people out there who are able to read research, who work in some kind of operational decision-making role, and who might, on occasion, want to do a quick google search and skim the latest relevant academic paper on an issue.

Policy notes and summaries produced by think tanks are fine, but they are costly to produce, and rarely answer the precise specific question that a decision-maker is looking at. There is a parallel here to Owen Barder's arguments about aid transparency - information should be first be made free at source, and we can worry about analysis and presentation later (or rather the market, and enthusiastic amateurs, can).

Even in large institutions it can be difficult - the British Department for Work and Pensions is the largest employer of professional economists in the country - and it does pay for some kind of access, but I do remember it being not quite as easy as from within a university, and wasting time looking for things. Good luck being a US-educated returnee to the civil service in South Sudan.

19 September 2011

Can Cash Handouts Lead to Economic Growth?

Probably not. And it probably doesn't matter, because the moral case based on evidence of effectiveness in alleviating poverty (and lack of evidence, as far as I am aware, that cash blunts work incentives), should be powerful enough.

But for those who don't dig the whole equity thing, Stefan Dercon has a new paper proposing how social protection could contribute more to overall economic efficiency and growth.

  • Social protection focusing on children, especially before the age of five (there are large documented life-time earnings/productivity gains for healthier and better nourished young children)
  • Social protection measures to make migration smoother and cities more attractive places to live for low skilled workers, possibly via urban workfare schemes focusing on urban community asset building (cities are engines of growth. A promising similar idea being tested by Mushfiq Mobarak is providing an insurance policy for migrants - a free return bus pass)
  • Social protection targeted at adolescents and young adults, including transfers conditional on training focused on urban labour market transitions (something to tackle all that youth unemployment). 

18 September 2011

Reagan on Mexican Migrants

"Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don't we make it possible for them to come here legally on a work permit"

HT: Paul Curreri

13 September 2011

How can developing countries make the most of their diaspora?

Dilip Ratha and Sonia Plaza have a nice article in Finance & Development recommending a number of concrete actions for developing countries, the standouts for me being; 
  • developing networks - there is a key role for embassies to play here, who could be doing a much better job at connecting with and engaging their diaspora (can they learn something from university alumni offices?)
  • allowing dual citizenship (make coming and going as easy as possible, and people will come more often - currently "only 21 of Africa’s 54 countries allow dual citizenship")
  • diaspora bonds (giving diaspora the opportunity to save their money by lending to the government and thus investing in their home country)

08 September 2011

The Development Blog Reader Survey

Hopefully you have already heard about Dave Algoso's blog reader survey, in which case you can consider this a reminder.

Take 5 minutes to fill out this simple survey on your reading habits so the development bloggers can know a little more about their audience.

Take the survey here

07 September 2011

Buying Development

A friend asked me to blog this paper so he doesn't have to read it. So I'm going for a little-known time-saving technique called "read the conclusion and tables";
Development programs create incentives whether we like it or not. Recent attention to using incentives in the service of development creates an opportunity to make these incentives explicit and improve their designs. This process will go faster if we take advantage of the extensive literature on how individuals, organizations, and countries respond to incentives and think carefully about designs that are appropriate to the context and problem. At the same time, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that there are perfect designs. Instead, by recognizing the complexities, we can design programs that are promising, that avoid known pitfalls, and then evaluate, learn, and adapt from the experience.

06 September 2011

"You've gotta prioritise"

Some more governance advice from TB on Development Drums:

"I always say to the leaders that I interact with, if you show me a priority list with 50 things I promise you, you will do nothing. If you show me a list with 5 things, you can do it. And you've got to decide which of those things are really important." (at 19 minutes)

Which leads me to the new priorities for government and donors in South Sudan made by a coalition of NGOs;
  1. Continue support for humanitarian needs;
  2. Seek to prevent conflict;
  3. Support community and civil society participation;
  4. Ensure equitable development across the country;
  5. Prioritize vulnerable populations;
  6. Promote sustainable livelihoods;
  7. Strengthen government capacity;
  8. Enable an appropriate transition to government authorities;
  9. Provide timely and predictable funding;
  10. Engage in multi-sectoral integrated programming.
Easy peasy. 

03 September 2011

Higher Education in Developing Countries

I volunteered in Kampala in the summer of 2006, and to save money stayed in the mostly empty student halls at Makerere University. I thought I would drop in at the library, and was pretty shocked to find almost no books that looked like they had been published since 1980.

Are universities good candidates for foreign aid? Blattman thinks so;
Universities will train the next generation of Presidents, bureaucrats, generals and business leaders. 
You want industry? Institutions? Accountability? Technological diffusion? Peace? Time for donors to rethink education spending policies in a big way.
Those are some pretty big claims. In a different context, Clemens argues that actually we are lacking solid evidence on the social benefits from higher education;
A broad theoretical literature posits that human capital externalities shape the development of poor countries (for example, Romer, 1990; Kremer, 1993; Lucas, 1988). If positive human capital externalities are real and large, it is possible that the depletion of human capital stock via emigration inflicts negative externalities on nonmigrants. However, these externalities have proven difficult to observe, their theoretical basis remains unclear, and their use to justify policy remains shaky.
I feel that higher education is probably a high risk high reward investment for the public sector. Most graduates probably won't produce large social benefits, but the few that do could well justify the expense. And this pattern of high impact outliers make this a difficult cost-benefit calculation to do.

But will more investment work?

Devarajan points the finger at systems rather than funds;
As my co-authors and I try to show in our paper, the problem is caused at least as much by the presumption that higher education should be financed and provided by the government (essentially free of charge), which has led to elite capture and politicization of the system.
Which is similar to where Pritchett is going when he wonders;
The US and UK together have only 5.4 percent of the world’s population and yet have over half the world’s top universities—ten times their population share—and almost three times as many top universities as all of continental Europe combined.  Why?
So there is probably scope for some technical assistance in thinking about the higher ed ecosystem in developing countries.

But should we provide direct subsidies? How do we trade off investment in primary education, which is probably more directly and immediately pro-poor, vs the long-term speculative investment in higher education?

Meanwhile, students at Makerere have been booted out of halls whilst lecturers are on strike.

The New Capital of South Sudan

Is apparently going to be at Ramciel, which will be renamed "John Garang City."

Report trickling out of Juba has it that the council of ministers, today, have officially approved the relocation of the present capital city of the Republic of South Sudan from Juba to Ramciel (say Rham-chieel). 
In another interesting twist to this breaking news, Ramciel itself has been officially renamed as John Garang in honor of the SPLM/A founding leader and the current tentative founding father of the state of South Sudan.

via Paanluel Wël, probably the best actual South Sudanese blogger.

And from the Sudan Tribune:
Ramciel or Ramkiel, which is few hundreds of kilometers away from Juba, is geographically at the center of South Sudan and is almost no man’s land ...

Marial said the process of planning, surveying and putting in place the infrastructures needed may take three to five years to complete.
I can't even find the place on a map. Good luck to the 2016-17 ODI fellows then. 

02 September 2011

Schools aren't working

From that Lant Pritchett book:
There has been massive success in putting butts in seats—enrollments and grade completion have expanded massively around the globe—even in very poor countries. However, the accumulating evidence from around the globe is that this has not lead to nearly the degree of learning as had been hoped. Students show very little mastery of even the basics, much less the ability to go beyond the rote and actually understand concepts, much much less the ability to use their conceptual mastery applied to novel practical problems, much much much less for even having laid the foundation for “new basic skills” that are not substitutes for, but meant to build off of, the old basic skills.
So what to do? Pritchett then looks at the evidence on returns to educational "inputs" - books, uniforms, teachers, and compares what massive increases in inputs would do, compared to the kind of improvements needed. (The benchmark is one student standard deviation (SSD)).

So inputs don't work either. 


Update: I forgot to add this Freakonomics link to a new study finding that providing school uniforms in the US improves attendance, but not grades.