19 December 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

My favourite quote so far: 
“When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Dore, I saw the Lord God standing on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious. 
Spontaneously, without any theological training, I, a child, grasped the incompatibility of God and shit... Either/or: either man was created in God's image-- and God has intestines!-- or God lacks intestines and man is not like him... 
Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man's crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.”

Cash Transfers in Congo

One of the main challenges of the Concern (and other) humanitarian programmes in the Eastern Congo is that even if they wanted to give out cash rather than goods or vouchers, the security situation is too fragile and there are no banks outside of Goma.

The BBC World Service Africa Today podcast reports that a truck belonging to the Banque Internationale pour l'Afrique au Congo was just robbed of $1 million in broad daylight in the middle of Goma, the driver and a bystander shot and killed. What a mess.

The NRA and "now is not the time"

"We think it is poor form for a politician or a special interest group to try to push a legislative agenda on the back of any tragedy."
-- NRA, after 2008 Northern Illinois shootings 
"Now is not the time to debate politics or discuss policy."
-- NRA, after 2009 Binghampton massacre 
"At this time, anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate."
-- NRA, after 2011 shooting spree that wounded Gabrielle Giffords 
"There will be an appropriate time down the road to engage in political and policy discussions."
-- NRA, after 2012 Aurora massacre 
"NRA will not have any comment."
-- NRA, after 2012 Newtown massacre
From Doonesbury 

17 December 2012

The best news story of the year

In January 2013, India will start the world's biggest social innovation programme: giving cash directly to its poorest citizens in a bid to reduce its very large problem of corruption that stops subsidised goods and welfare benefits from reaching those who really need them. This initiative will affect at least 720 million people—a population almost the size of Europe!
The scheme is open to families who live below or just above the government-set poverty line. The Indian government expects to transfer up to 40,000 rupees ($720) a year to each poor household. Cash handouts will replace the money the government currently spends on subsidies on goods such as fuel, food and fertilizer. India plans to launch this ambitious social innovation program from 1 January, covering 18 states by April and the whole country by the end of 2013.

If this is to be believed, the consequences for human welfare are simply staggering. Nothing else even comes close.

Brazil's Bolsa Familia reaches 50 million people and has lifted 20 million out of poverty. India's programme could reach seven hundred and twenty million people.

Just wow. Sceptical comments to calm me down below please.

15 December 2012

The Rwandan National Strategic... Rap Video?

This is definitely the first national strategic plan that I've worked on that has its own music video. Presenting... the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy 2 (EDPRS 2) song.

10 December 2012

Underpants Gnomes in Rwanda

One of DFID's many genuinely excellent initiatives is requiring a detailed business case for all of its new programmes, so that there is a carefully thought through theory of change before any money is spent on implementing something new.

However a friend-known-to-be-witty suggests by email that DFID's theory of change for suspending aid to Rwanda seems to be pure underpants gnomes:

1. Aid to Rwandan domestic programmes is stopped
2. Rwanda stops alleged support for M23
3. ??????
4. Peace in Eastern Congo, and free ponies for everyone!!!!

Any better ideas?

Everything you ever wanted to know about migration and development

Well not quite, but the latest Development Drums podcast with Michael Clemens covers a lot of ground, including the case that should now be familiar for why migration has such enormous potential for development, and rebuttals to some of the most common criticisms. I am though continually amazed by how many smart development-industry types are so sceptical about migration (so if this is you, listen to the podcast now).

And for the wonks, there are also a couple of papers that were new to me:

A paper by Branko Milanovic calculating the determinants of individual earnings across countries. Earnings are partly determined by individual characteristics, and partly simply by what country you live in. Which is more important? It turns out that 59% of the differences in earnings is determined just by the country you live in. More than all of your personal characteristics - your experience, your education, your talents, your effort - all of it. I think that one of the defining differences between the left-wing and the right-wing is in the underlying assumptions about the determinants of individual success. Is it down to luck, or skill? If success is primarily due to skill, then a free market is going to deliver "fair" outcomes and the government should butt out. You work hard, you do well. But if success is primarily due to chance, then you can work as hard as you like, but it won't do much good if you were unlucky to begin with. So there is a "fair" case for the lucky to compensate the unlucky. So the life chances of humans born on earth are at least 59% chance. If you're born in Togo, the odds are stacked well against you.

Second, an old paper by David Card from 1990. In 1980, the US and Cuba made a one-off agreement to admit as many people as wanted to move. Over 100,000 people moved from Cuba to the Miami area. This amounted to a 7% increase in the Miami labour force in just 3 months - a huge increase. And yet there was no impact on unemployment or wages of existing workers in Miami.

05 December 2012

Mapping rebel groups in the Congo

A bit of perspective - if M23 totally disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow, there would still be more than 25 armed groups operating in the eastern DRC. All Rwanda's fault?


via BBC - Hattip - someone on my twitter feed

03 December 2012

What about diplomacy?

Finally, cutting aid just strikes me as a fundamentally lazy and cowardly choice. If you want to achieve political goals, how about bothering to spend the time engaging politically and talking to people? Diplomacy brought peace to Northern Ireland and diplomacy brought a 2005 peace agreement to North and South Sudan. That meant long hours of hard work, and real political commitment. How many international leaders have even been to the DRC? Maybe if the collective international political community had demonstrated even the slightest regard for the people of the DR Congo through any actual tangible action then all of this posturing wouldn't leave such a bad taste.

A few reasons not to cut aid to Rwanda

The Rwandan High Commissioner to the UK has a good article in today's New Times on the aid cuts, highlighting the farce of continued donor failure to meet our own commitments on the predictability of aid. 
Budget support to Rwanda was frozen not because the country has failed to use it for the benefit of those who need it most, but to influence a political end in the DRC. There is no direct link between what is happening in the DRC and what aid achieves for ordinary Rwandan citizens. This is definitely not the right way to solve DRC’s problems. Rwanda should not be penalized for the failures of another country... 
One important point to underscore is that these political decisions directly affect the poor. They compromise the quality of aid which has an adverse effect on the quality of development outcomes and results. But fundamentally the belief that aid is primarily aimed at reducing poverty and improving the welfare of the poor is greatly undermined. Even ordinary citizens begin to perceive aid as a tool only intended for political control and to buy political leverage and influence. 
Well worth reading in full. Some of the points he makes include the frankly phenomenal successes that the Rwandan government has achieved over the past five years, with the support of foreign aid, such as

- the rapid growth in the economy, 
- the rapid fall in poverty, (faster than anywhere else in Africa, and amongst the fastest ever) 
- the rapid increase in agricultural output, 
- the rapid improvement in access to finance
- the improvements in healthcare (basically no malaria to worry about thanks to mass bednet provision), and
- increases in school enrolment.
- that people in Rwanda feel safe (the safest place in Africa?), 
- and see Rwanda as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa.

Despite this impressive progress, the government is impatient, and wants to deliver more and faster. A spokesperson for Tony Blair notes that "a recent study by the British Government showed that Rwanda was one of the most effective users of aid in the world."

Of course things in DRC are complicated and it's hard to know what is really going on, but I can't help feeling that putting all of these gains at risk by seriously threatening the economy of Rwanda is just a bit irresponsible.

(I should add that I'm presently in Kigali working on a project for the Government of Rwanda. These opinions are mine and only mine, so you can of course discount any of this as you wish, but the facts.... they are just facts).

The fiscal cliff in East Africa

So, when South Sudan makes a strategic choice to temporarily (but drastically) cut government spending in order to achieve political objectives, it is being "reckless". And when Western donors decide to temporarily cut government spending in Rwanda and Uganda in order to achieve political objectives, they are being... what exactly? Is there any evidence that sanctions are even effective? And it's lucky that our whiter than white British government has a totally clean record on corruption, human rights, and interfering in other countries... ahem, MPs expenses, Leveson, our Prime Ministers acting as arms salesman to Middle Eastern despots, our financial services industry laundering exactly the cash stolen from foreign governments that we pretend to care about, the invasion of Iraq... good job our citizens don't rely on foreign aid for basic service delivery then.

28 November 2012

Measuring internal migration with mobiles

This is a cool idea by Joshua Blumenstock - measuring migration within Rwanda through mobile phone data. This video shows one person's movements over four years, proxied by the nearest mobile phone tower with each call made (the full paper is on his website). Are there any visualisations of M-Pesa transfers? I'd love to see a video along the lines of the Kiva one.


Mobility Inference from Call Data from Joshua Blumenstock on Vimeo.

21 November 2012

Co-working in Kigali

One of my first stops in Kigali this week was visiting Jon Stever's Office. I've been exploring co-working spaces in London for the past couple of months so I was intrigued, and thought that I may be in need of a quiet place to work at some point away from the bustle of the Ministries. Plus it's always cool to hang out with former ODI fellows, especially ones who helped invent motorized polo. And it's a great space. Clean, modern, white walls, the fastest internet in town, a ping pong table...

Jon was interviewed recently for the Kigali Sun:
Co-working is so many things. Co-working is about cool entrepreneurs and freelance professionals working together and sharing world class office facilities. Co-working is about joining a community with shared values that innovates and grows together. And, co-working is about enabling entrepreneurship and innovation.
Our initial membership includes an awesome tech company, HeHe Ltd; a top local accounting and auditing firm, FAST Global; a tech support group managed by a well-known Kigali DJ; a really talented graphic designer, Union Multimedia; a web designer that created the popular Living in Kigali website; a creative outreach officer for the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego; a very experienced financial literacy consultant; and a great general contractor. 
In other words, our initial membership already constitutes a complete entrepreneurial and creative ecosystem. Moreover, only two weeks after our trial opening we’ve recorded several instances of collaboration. Several Office(r)s have hired other members for work and have referred each other to paying clients through their network of contacts.
If you're a freelancer or start-up based in Kigali, make sure to check out The Office and watch out for events and happenings on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheOfficeRW) and Twitter (@TheOfficeRW)

Humanitarian Aid in South Sudan 2013

The UN has just published its annual mammoth humanitarian aid coordination effort for South Sudan, and it has GRAPHS. LOTS of GRAPHS.

Up to 4.5 million people are expected to need food and livelihoods support in 2013, so it's kind of a big deal.

The document pulls together needs analysis across 12 sectors ("clusters") and details costed plans for response by 114 non-governmental organizations and UN agencies, adding up to over $1.1 billion.


Finally kudos to UNDP and OCHA for signing up to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). The next job is to actually publish some data ...

20 November 2012

Social protection in Congo (Brazzaville)

Colleagues Anthony Hodges and Clare O’Brien have a new working paper out with Lisile Ganga from UNICEF on possibilities for social protection for the Republic of Congo. The bottom line - universal child allowances are affordable and would have a huge impact on poverty.
The Republic of Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, is a country with striking contrasts between its status as an oil-rich, low middle-income country and its high levels of poverty and child deprivations. Social protection provision is largely limited to a small minority in the formal sector of the economy. 
This paper presents the results of quantitative micro-simulations on the cost, impact and cost-effectiveness of different policy options for cash transfers in Congo, including universal and targeted child allowances, old-age pensions and disability benefits, along with an analysis of the existing social protection system, the policy framework and institutional capacity. 
While a poverty-targeted child allowance would be the most cost-effective option, in terms of cost per unit of reduction in the poverty gap, institutional and technical constraints make large-scale poverty targeting unviable in a country with very weak governance. Universal categorical approaches would be much simpler to implement, while still being financially feasible given Congo's substantial fiscal surplus (14% on average in 2006-10). Under the assumptions employed for the simulation, a universal allowance for children under 5 would reduce the national poverty headcount by 9% while costing only 0.7% of GDP.

19 November 2012

Probably the best economics blog in Rwanda

There are actually quite a few economists here in Kigali, but as far as I can tell, none of them are blogging. So... I'm laying claim to the title. I'm here for three months. Get in touch if you have any good ideas on policies for productivity and job creation, have a better Rwanda-based economics blog than this one, or want to buy me a beer. Cheers!

18 November 2012

A simple way to improve the targeting of cash transfers

Many social cash transfer programmes in poor countries are targeted on the poorest people through a "proxy-means test." This is a way of estimating the hard-to-measure actual poverty of a household through an easy-to-measure proxy - the ownership of assets such as quality housing or a vehicle.

An alternative method of targeting is "self-targeting" in which the experience of receiving assistance is made unpleasant to discourage the rich from applying - such as through requiring manual labour.

A new paper adds a simple layer of self-targeting onto the existing proxy-means test for a programme in Indonesia with good results. Instead of travelling round to households to administer the test at their home - participants are simply requested to travel themselves to an office to make their application. This simple added inconvenience made a big difference to the effectiveness of the targeting.
per-capita consumption was 13 percent lower for beneficiaries in the self-targeting villages than those under the status quo. Moreover, exclusion error was actually less of a problem in self targeting than in the status quo: the very poorest households were twice as likely to receive benefits in self-targeting than in control areas.
Alatas, Banerjee, Hanna, Olken, Purnamasari, and Wai-Poi, Ordeal Mechanisms in Targeting: Theory and Evidence from a Field Experiment in Indonesia, http://economics.mit.edu/files/8449

15 November 2012

The cost of currency controls in South Sudan

One of the ways that South Sudan has managed to avoid currency depreciation after its collapse in oil revenues, has been to impose hard controls on access to foreign currency. Instead of rationing limited foreign currency through price (to the highest bidder) - rationing has been at the discretion of the authorities. As a result, Kenyan airline Jetlink hasn't been able to convert its South Sudanese Pounds into hard currency with which to buy fuel, and has just announced the suspension of all of its flights.


HT: @bankelele

The wonder of markets

Why are economists so crazy about capitalism and free markets? This video shares some of the wonder.



HT:@m_clem

11 November 2012

Gettin' by digging gold

Fascinating article by Hez Holland on the artisanal mining business in South Sudan. The numbers sound kind of crazy but then South Sudan is a kind of crazy place. 
Leer Likuam sat on the edge of a shallow trench, puffed his pipe and boasted he once found a 200-gram gold nugget bigger than his thumb ...  
On the international market, Likuam's prize lump would fetch $11,000, an enormous sum in a country where the average teacher earns just 360 South Sudanese pounds, about $90, per month ... 
On an average day he might dig up six grams, worth around 1,200 South Sudanese pounds ($270), he said. "Some days you're lucky."
That seems far too high to really be an average day. Perhaps some more boasting. But then
In the last year alone, Likuam has bought 10 cows, each worth around 1,000 pounds.
Predictably the government is keen to get in on the action and get some big foreign companies in to do some real exploration that they can tax. Given the rather weak relationship between government revenues and public services, I'd like to see some research on the current scale of the industry and how many people are making a living with it, and then what we might expected to see from large commercial mining in terms of both revenues and local employment. One of the key messages from WDR2013: not all jobs are equal for development. 

10 November 2012

Against Malaria Foundation

As part of my personal evidence-based living regime (ahem) I'm planning a £1,000 donation to the Against Malaria Foundation. It's at least partly selfish - one of the few ways that spending money can actually bring you happiness is by spending it on other people (can you tell how smug I feel writing this?). There has also been a lot of analysis into the effectiveness of buying bednets. Givewell estimate that the marginal cost of a net is $5.15, and that by buying enough of them, you can probably save a child's life for about $1,600 (or £1,000). I had been hesitating over a recent story about behavioural adaptation by mosquitoes to nets, but responses from Givewell and AMF have basically reassured me. Unless anyone has any other good objections?

Givewell:
our positive view on LLINs remains in place. There is strong evidence that LLINs reduce malaria and save lives and only preliminary/suggestive/mixed evidence that insecticide resistance may reduce their impact. In addition, it appears to us that the malaria control community has been devoting at least some attention and investigation to this issue for a long time, has developed a reasonable knowledge base (if one that has plenty of room to grow), and still recommends the use of LLINs regardless of the resistance situation. 
Indeed, the fact that we’re discussing this issue at all speaks to the extraordinarily and unusually strong evidence base (and supply of data) behind ITN distribution. For most aid interventions that donors can fund, the set of “things that could go wrong” is large and broad, and we have little evidence to address most of them, but when looking at LLIN distribution, the salient concerns are few and specific enough that the malaria control community is able to put substantial resources into specifically investigating them.
 And AMF:
Currently both issues – resistance to pyrethroids and changed time of biting - are not widespread. Currently LLINs remain highly effective in reducing the incidence of malaria.
 And why not, here's the Donation Page

09 November 2012

Excellent World Bank blogging

This is very entertaining. Apparently its now ok for World Bank staff to elaborately and brazenly take the piss out of the editor of the Lancet and DFID staff. HT: JustinSandefur

08 November 2012

Mental illness in Juba


This is a photo by Hannah McNeish of a mentally ill lady abandoned by her family and locked up in Juba Prison, where
"she receives no psychiatric drugs or any other care. In a city described quite aptly yesterday as "an aid orgy" that the journos claimed surpasses Kabul and Eastern DRC, it's horrible to know that there are around 50 people trapped in dark and dirty cells in the capital going slowly madder as there is no money for medicine."
I saw something similar in a slum in Nairobi. Winding through a dark dirty crowded maze of alleys and dwellings I caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a person locked in a small dark room. I was in a hurry and it wasn't the safest part of town so I didn't stop to ask questions but it creeped the hell out of me. Here is more from Hannah on prisoners in Juba.

07 November 2012

You can do it Matt!


This is a message of support for Matt (of Aid Thoughts international blogging stardom), who has 24 days left until he submits his PhD thesis. Matt I hope you conquer.

06 November 2012

Rapid increase in financial access in Rwanda

Impressive results from the 2012 Finscope survey for Rwanda. Since 2008, access to commercial banks has increased by 60%, access to other non-bank formal financial services (e.g. Savings And Credit Co-operatives (SACCOs)) increased by 275%, and total financial exclusion has fallen by almost half. Someone is doing something right.


Johannesburg in the 1890s

That's the verdict of South African journalists Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak on arrival in Juba. Like Johannesburg in the 1890s. " We have never seen an aid orgy like this one - not in Kabul, not in eastern DRC, nowhere." 
 TH

Minerals in Mongolia

Mining experts estimate that the country possesses as much as $1 trillion worth of untapped precious metals and minerals in at least 6000 sites. That works out to potentially over $333,333 per every man, woman and child in the country.
 Brookings  Kari

Killer facts on migration

With a nod to Duncan Green - I asked Michael Clemens for some "killer facts" on migration after being invited to put some questions to a panel a few weeks ago. In the spirit of Adam Ozimek's call for more blogging on migration, I'm reposting them here.
  • Economic gains to even modestly greater global migration flows are much larger than the total elimination of all policy barriers to trade and all barriers to capital flows (source).
  • 82% of the Haitian-born who have left poverty have done so by leaving Haiti (at a PPP$10/day poverty line, i.e. 1/4 of median income for the bottom decile of UK incomes)  (source).
  • A Ghana-born, Ghana-educated semi-skilled construction worker earns at least six times the real living standard for doing exactly the same job in the US versus Ghana (source). 
  • A McDonalds worker can make up to 10 times as much in real terms doing exactly the same job in one country versus another country (source).
Which is your favourite fact?

WDR 2013: Jobs (but no migration please)

I went to the UK launch of the WDR this afternoon at the shiny new ODI offices in London. The bottom line is similar to but less poetic than something the Nigerian Central Bank Governor said in Oxford a few months ago:
"If a politician tells you that they are going to create a job, throw them out of the window. Fix the roads, fix the power, fix the security, and the people will create their own jobs."
Or in the report's words "Labor policies matter less than assumed" (as an aside, Kathleen referred a few times to this page (38) as their "tweets" which jarred for some reason - but its a good summary of the arguments).


Stefan Dercon had a great line on the WDR as a valiant attempt to construct a coherent narrative from an incoherent literature. He also pointed out the lack of any political economy analysis. Which leads to the obvious criticism about migration.

I thought I'd wait until I'd actually read the thing before commenting, but yeah, its pretty weak. Here is the WDR explaining "Global patterns of migration":
The decline of transportation costs, the growth of Persian Gulf economies following surges in oil prices, and the entry into world markets of developing countries with large populations have all stimulated a surge of migrant workers worldwide. 
Differences in expected earnings between the country of origin and the country of destination are an important reason for people to migrate. Earnings gains, however, are offset to varying degrees by the direct costs of migration (such as transportation fees and intermediation services) as well as by indirect costs associated with the difficulties of adapting to a different culture and society and leaving family and friends behind. These costs also help explain aggregate migration flows.
As well as those "costs" there's also the whole global apartheid thing, in which a person's right to choose where to live and work is determined by the country of their birth and not by their talents or aspirations. There are 700 million people who would like to permanently move to another country - including over 38% of the population in every sub-Saharan African country surveyed (the WDR does cite the Gallup World Poll, just not this particular finding).

Gabriel Demombynes notes that the 2009 WDR (Economic geography) was much stronger on migration. As from a quick glance was the 1995 WDR (Workers in an integrating world). Perhaps the problem is just fatigue?

Blattman on Cameron and the UN

Well worth a read in full if you haven't already:
This is a big leap for the UN. Cameron is trying to haul them into the 1990s. He’ll get a lot of credit for that. You’ll forgive me, though, for wishing we didn’t live in a world where we’re delighted when our global government is just 20 instead of 40 years behind the times.
I also liked a line that a friend told me on Friday:
But this "golden thread" just isn't really a "thread." It's just a list.

05 November 2012

Development success in Bangladesh

in the past 20 years Bangladesh has made extraordinary improvements in almost every indicator of human welfare. The average Bangladeshi can now expect to live four years longer than the average Indian, though Indians are twice as rich. Girls’ education has soared, and the country has hugely reduced the numbers of early deaths of infants, children and mothers. Some of these changes are among the fastest social improvements ever seen. Remarkably, the country has achieved all this even though economic growth, until recently, has been sluggish and income has risen only modestly.
 The Economist  TH

02 November 2012

Bigot of the Year


Britain's most senior Catholic has been named "bigot of the year" by Stonewall for writing that gay relationships are "harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved," that gay marriage is "madness" and a "grotesque subversion" of a human right, and making a bizarre analogy between the introduction of gay marriage and the reintroduction of slavery.

All of which is pretty disgusting, but I'm such a nerd that I'm almost more annoyed when he explicitly uses the word "evidence" when I'm pretty sure there is no such evidence.
All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.
Cardinal, that's a step too far. It's also personal - I managed without a father just fine thanks for your concern Cardinal. All children deserve love but the gender of their parents is irrelevant, and that is an evidence-based statement.
Research has shown that the kids of same-sex couples — both adopted and biological kids — fare no worse than the kids of straight couples on mental health, social functioning, school performance and a variety of other life-success measures. 
In a 2010 review of virtually every study on gay parenting, New York University sociologist Judith Stacey and University of Southern California sociologist Tim Biblarz found no differences [my emphasis] between children raised in homes with two heterosexual parents and children raised with lesbian parents.
Is there an award for evidence-abuser of the year?

What Works in Aid to Education

many of the lessons of what works in foreign aid to education are known, but they are not implemented. These lessons are of two sorts,  
1: the interface of aid with education systems in recipient countries To make a difference, what is of paramount importance is to start at the level of the whole education sector—rather than to pick out the sub-sector most popular with donors and channel a disproportionate share of funds to make this ‘work’ better, for this distorts a government’s sector-wide planning. [Ed: Girl's Education anyone??]
2: the ‘nuts and bolts’ of education systems themselves—what makes them work, how the different bits fit together and how aid monies can distort priorities, making the government co-ordination efforts more difficult as well as creating fragmented accountability. Add to this the projectized capacity development and the untouched institutional or organizational development, together with any lack of leadership or ownership of the capacity development, and the distorting influence of aid monies likely trumps their contributions.

31 October 2012

Poverty in Japan

Noah Smith smacks down Bryan Caplan on the causes of poverty in the US with some simple comparative analysis:
Or perhaps Caplan is just dead wrong. Perhaps his preconceived notions about poverty, developed in self-imposed isolation from the actual phenomenon, are simply not an accurate guide to extant reality. 
As it happens, I have had a fair bit of contact with the Japanese poor. In general, although they do engage in more bad behavior than other Japanese people, they engage in less bad behavior than middle-class people in America. In general, they work very hard, abstain from drugs, don't have children out of wedlock, and obey the law. Every day they get up, slave away diligently and conscientiously for 8 or 10 hours at a mind-numbing menial job at pittance wages, and every night they return to sleep on the floor of tiny bare rabbit-hutch studio apartments barely larger than my bathroom. They were born well-behaving and hard-working and poor, and they will die well-behaving and hard-working and poor. Every day, even as people like Bryan Caplan inadvertently mock their struggles, the Japanese poor make a mockery of Caplan's prejudices and stereotypes. 
If I had never seen the Japanese poor - if my only contact with poverty had been with the American poor, who tend to bully and rob people like myself at alarming rates - then I expect I would find Bryan Caplan's thesis quite reasonable, and even obvious. But that is why, if you want to know what is actually going on in reality, you have to get outside your bubble. 

28 October 2012

Cash transfers in Northern Kenya

The BBC have a short clip here of the new DFID Minister Justine Greening visiting the Hunger Safety Net Programme in Northern Kenya, where eligible households are said to get $40 every couple of months via a "Smartcard."

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OPM is managing the evaluation of the project: you can see the Year 1 impact report here.

24 October 2012

Surveys, lions, and suicide bombers

The opening paragraph of the OPM survey manual is fucking cool:
OPM has an ability to carry out surveys in amazing places, ranging from the deserts of Northern Kenya via the mountains of Pakistan to the tiny islands of the Maldives. People deal with the usual challenges of sand, snow, sea sickness, and occasionally with hazards such as lions or suicide bombers.

23 October 2012

The impact of remittances on poverty in Nigeria

"the receipt of internal remittances reduces the poverty headcount of households by 11.14% and poverty gap by 9.7% while the receipt of international remittances reduces poverty headcount, poverty gap and squared poverty gap by almost 100%"
From a new working paper by Nnaemeka Chukwuone, Ebele Amaechina, Benjamin Okpukpara, Evelyn Iyoko and Sunday E. Enebeli-Uzor (via the Partnership for Economic Policy).

18 October 2012

New media, new work

So Newsweek has announced that it is closing its print edition, a few days after Alan Rusbridger was forced to deny that the Guardian has similar plans. Andrew Sullivan, who blogs at the Newsweek-owned "Daily Beast" reflects
The shift in my own mind has happened gradually. Even up to a year ago, I was still getting my New York Times every morning on paper, wrapped in blue plastic. Piles of them would sit in my blog-cave, read and half-read, skimmed, and noted. 
Until a couple of years ago, I also read physical books on paper, and then shifted to cheaper, easier, lighter tablet versions. Then it became a hassle to get the physical NYT delivered in Provincetown so I tried a summer of reading it on a tablet. I now read almost everything on my iPad. And as I ramble down the aisle of Amtrak's Acela, I see so many reading from tablets or laptops, with the few newspapers and physical magazines seeming almost quaint, like some giant brick of a mobile phone from the 1980s. Almost no one under 30 is reading them. 
I sympathise. I look at the Guardian website almost every day, but I can't remember the last time that I actually bought a paper copy. Sullivan continues
I also began to wonder what a magazine really is. Can it even exist online? It's a form that's only really been around for three centuries - and it was based on a group of people associating with each other under a single editor and bound together with paper and staples. At The New Republic in the 1990s, I knew intuitively that most people read TRB, the Diarist and the Notebook before they dug into a 12,000 word review of a book on medieval Jewish mysticism. But they were all in it together. You couldn't just buy Kinsley's perky column. It came physically attached to Leon Wieseltier's sun-blocking ego. 
But since every page on the web is now as accessible as every other page, how do you connect writers together with paper and staples, instead of having readers pick individual writers or pieces and ignore the rest? And the connection between writers and photographers and editors is what a magazine is. It defines it - and yet that connection is now close to gone. Around 70 percent of Dish readers have this page bookmarked and come to us directly. (If you read us all the time and haven't, please do). You can't sell bundles anymore.
Which is exactly how I read these days. The Guardian website is basically the only "bundled" media I consume. The rest is a personally selected collage wrapped up in my Google Reader account, consisting of all the important economics, development, and Africa bloggers, academics, with a couple of comics (Dilbert, XKCD), and my favourite Guardian and FT weekend columnists thrown in. This is quite a natural progression, given that it is almost (marginally) costless for me to do this. [Warning: Descent into wild conjecture and ill-thought out theory rapidly approaching]. Coase's theory of the firm bases the existence of companies on the role of transaction costs. As transaction costs external to the firm disappear, so does the reason for the firm. Which leads to an atomised media economy, where individuals are firms.

But I still read the Guardian. I suppose that there is a role for organisations to provide the raw news - the unknown unknowns that I don't know I might be interested in, and thus wouldn't search for or subscribe to. Someone who has a culture and values that I think I can trust. 

What does all of this mean, if anything, for the rest of the economy? In my line of work, we already have a similarly atomised economy. Many consultants are independent, and assemble into temporary teams for specific projects, establishing "mini-firms" that come together for a particular task and then disperse. At present the process of assembling these teams is a costly one. Searching for potential team members for very specialised roles and then assessing their quality is time-consuming. These are Coase's transaction costs, and provide a strong case for the existence of consulting firms - transaction costs can be minimized through a centralized process of quality assessment ("recruitment"), which doesn't have to be repeated for every project. This is also why networking is so important. Diamond, Mortensen, and Pissarides won the Economics Nobel Prize in 2010 for developing new models of "frictional" unemployment, driven by this process of search and matching. So this is a costly process with relevance to the wider economy and significant macroeconomic implications. But this large problem also presents a large opportunity. There are big gains to be made from improving this search and matching process. Already some of the biggest firms in the world are ones in the business of search and information sharing. Whether it be through linkedin or some other kind of online database or network - will further reductions in frictional transaction costs lead to further atomisation of the firm? Presumably there is still a role for a "Guardian" - a multi-purpose provider who can tell you about the unknown unknowns - the things that you wouldn't think to search for to begin with, and whose values and culture you can trust. 

Whether any of this makes any sense, and what the implications of this are for youth unemployment, well, you tell me.

What do Africans think about the UN?

There is an interesting paradox here: the people (e.g., Mozambicans) who know least about the UN give it the highest rating, whereas people who seem relatively well informed (e.g., South Africans) have far more mixed opinions.
I'm not sure that paradox is the word they are going for there.... from Afrobarometer

12 October 2012

The State of the Game between Juba and Khartoum

I continue to be fascinated by the nature of the strategic interaction between Juba and Khartoum, without really pretending to understand it very well. As it turns out, Juba's strategy seems to be push ahead with a Kenya pipeline whilst resuming export through North Sudan in the meantime, to give them an alternative option. So what is Khartoum's optimal response to such a move?

A friend suggests that Khartoum's strategy is to continue to create chaos in Jonglei (South Sudan) in order to disrupt future exploration, knowing that a Kenyan pipeline would not be economically viable without further discoveries.

I thought I'd also email someone who is an actual game theory expert, who makes the interesting point that - a little counter-intuitively - it may actually be in Khartoum's interest to encourage the development of a Kenya pipeline, as a way of credibly committing themselves to continued future cooperation on mutually favourable terms.
Paraphrasing the words of the great philosopher Sting, “If Someone Does Not Trust You, Set Them Free“.

05 October 2012

The oil deal

I haven't read any coverage yet, so I've just had a quick skim of the actual agreement (available here, HT: Nicki Kindersley). 

As a reminder, pre-agreement North Sudan wanted to charge half of the value of the oil, or around $36 a barrel. South Sudan wanted to pay $1 a barrel. 

It looks like there is a 

- processing fee - $1.60 per barrel
- transportation fee - $8.40 per barrel for one oilfield and $6.50 for the other
- transit fee - $1 per barrel

so a total of $11 or $9.10

plus a Transitional Financial Arrangement (payoff) of an additional $15 per barrel until a total of $3.028 billion has been paid (at production of 180,000 barrels per day this would take just over 3 years).

So - whilst this seems like a good deal for North Sudan in the short run and a good deal for South Sudan in the long run, my main concern is the hold-up problem. What is stopping North Sudan ripping up the agreement in 3 years, demanding a higher cut, and just confiscating oil (again). Here is Tony Venables from Oxford in a paper on these issues;
Even if the purchaser and investor entered an agreement before the investment is undertaken, ex post the purchaser may act opportunistically, breaking the agreement and only offering a lower price ... 
The hold-up problem between states is radically more severe than that within countries because the whole domain of international law is fragile: essentially, the concept of national sovereignty constitutes a barrier to the enforcement of any contract entered into by states.
Thoughts?

27 September 2012

Livelihoods 2.0

Duncan Green outlines an emerging new approach at Oxfam;
how do these projects differ from traditional income generation? For decades, NGOs have been showing up in communities and persuading people to raise chickens or rabbits, open tailors, or plant the latest new wonder crop. The record is decidedly mixed. What’s different about this latest round? 
- Involve local government and private sector from the outset – they are the only long term guarantors of ‘sustainability’. 
- Scale – it’s no use just running a pilot and then crossing your fingers. From the outset, you have to think how your intervention needs to be designed to benefit 100,000s of people, rather than 100s 
- It’s about value chains, not just production. Often the real barrier is not growing or making stuff, but finding the credit you need to keep you going between planting and harvest, getting the product to market (the roads here are terrible, gulleyed by rain and gouged by illegal logging trucks), or finding a reliable buyer who pays decent prices. Multiple actors need to be involved – it’s no use just funding a local NGO to hand out seedlings. Systems analysis is essential 
- Advocacy: a systems approach resembles a micro version of Dani Rodrik’s bottlenecks to growth. Resolving one bottleneck (eg supplies of decent seeds), allows the effort to move on until it hits the next one (roads, access to finance, quantity and quality). Some of these can be incorporated into the programme, but many require local level advocacy (eg lobbying the public works department to do something about the roads, or the state bank to start lending to long gestating crops like rubber).

26 September 2012

What are the policy research priorities for South Sudan?

There was an interesting session at the IGC Growth Week at the LSE today on South Sudan, with speakers including the President's Economic Adviser Aggrey Tisa Sabuni (also doing a public lecture at LSE on 2 Oct), former Minister Luka Biong Deng, IGC Juba staff Peter Biar Ajak and Utz Pape, and trade economist Pierre Sauvé. You can read my notes on twitter under the hashtag #growthweek.

One thing that stood out for me were the suggestions for policy research priorities by Utz Pape; land rights, mobile money, the labour market, macroeconomic management, and oil management. For me, the economics of the macro and oil issues are fairly straightforward, the question is the politics of implementation. The questions on land rights (would improved private land titling increase agricultural investment?), mobile money (what is the best regulatory system to encourage development?), and the labour market (why is it so dominated by foreigners?) are all interesting.

Any other ideas for important research questions?

25 September 2012

Dowden on DFID

Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society on the new DFID Ministers. Interesting stuff.
How does it look from Africa? Two things matter for African presidents and ministers. They like to establish personal relationships and trust in face to face talks with the same people over a long period. Secondly they like to deal with people who know something about their country’s history. They do not like ministers who talk down to them (as Mitchell did) or those who just read a brief on the plane as they fly in (as Douglas Alexander did). 
The recent reshuffle ignores these aspects and casts doubt over how much this government cares about development and its relations with Africa.
... 
[Greening] talks of a line by line investigation to ensure value for money which sounds good, but is actually nonsense. How can someone with no experience of development, with an annual accounts mentality, judge the value of long term development projects?
... 
although the indications are not propitious for a dynamic team working creatively to help get Africa nearer to the MDG targets in the next three years, I will not write off any of these appointments. But they look more like internal political expediency than what Africa and the rest of the developing world needs right now.

War and Peace

Presidents Bashir and Salva Kiir met in Addis yesterday to finalise a peace deal.

Just two days earlier, Sudanese planes airdropped supplies, possibly weapons, to an anti-government militia deep within South Sudan. UN troops provided confirmation that planes dropped packages in the area. The Small Arms Survey also confirm the pattern through 2009-2012 of Chinese-made arms being supplied (in contravention of a UN embargo) by Sudan to militia in Darfur and South Sudan. 

Either Bashir is not serious, or perhaps more likely, he is not in control.

21 September 2012

How do we scale up personalized support? (policy response to heterogeneity)

The CGAP Graduation pilots seem to be getting good results (evaluations with Esther Duflo here and Dean Karlan here). My instinctive reaction is that personalised, individualised, tailored support may very well be successful, but is it possible to set up systems to implement this routinely at scale?

The need seems to be clear. Perhaps the key bottom line from the microfinance impact literature is heterogeneity - people are different, their needs are different, and one-size-fits-all policy has all sorts of different impacts, both positive and negative, on different kinds of people.

Similar results seem to be emerging on support for small businesses (a lit review by David McKenzie here and and evaluation from Ghana here), and in education and early child development (see this great episode of This American Life covering Paul Tough's new book How Children Succeed).

Meanwhile in the UK, Iain Duncan Smith has decided that the benefits system is far too complicated (it is complicated) and so it needs to be simplified, rolling 6 different benefits into one "Universal Credit." But maybe, just maybe, complicated people need complicated support? And is that a realistic goal for developing countries with weak government systems?

19 September 2012

Regional Integration - East African Community

I'm sitting waiting for a connection at Nairobi airport. I have about 80,000 Burundian Francs ($50) that I forgot to change in Bujumbura.

   Me: Hi, do you take Burundian Francs?

   Nairobi Airport Forex Lady: AaaaahahahahahhaHA! Nobody takes Burundian Francs!

14 September 2012

Africa Express

What to say about Africa Express? I like Simon Ayre's take:
After five days of thinking about it, it’s time to write something about the Cardiff leg of the Africa Express tour that traveled across the country last week. But what do I write that hasn’t already been said? How do I put into words an experience that left me sat down staring into space for nearly forty minutes when I got home?  
I can’t. I’ve tried, I’ve deleted what I’ve written and tried again and again. I’ve given up and come back to it- I just can’t come up with anything that would do it justice.
Here's a five star review of the Manchester show, and a detailed review of the London show. Apparently Fatboy Slim called a Mali trip "like the greatest ever edition of Later ... with Jools." Which is close but not quite right. It's better than that. The London show was more like a live 5-hour mashup-style remix. Like Girl Talk played by 50 live musicians jamming.

In any case, thanks to Damon Albarn and Ian Birrell and all of the artists for making it all happen.

This audience-shot video gives a bit of a taste (HT: Matt).

12 September 2012

First, do no harm: Post-2015 Development Goals

Some ideas from Dani Rodrik put the priority on the responsibility of rich countries to not get in the way of development, so;
  • carbon taxes and other measures to ameliorate climate change;
  • more work visas to allow larger temporary migration flows from poor countries;
  • strict controls on arms sales to developing nations;
  • reduced support for repressive regimes; and
  • improved sharing of financial information to reduce money laundering and tax avoidance.

11 September 2012

How not to market your university



From the website of the University of Burundi (with thanks to Google Translate). Where do I enroll! To make a serious point though, is this a pernicious influence of the aid industry?

04 September 2012

How to improve capacity building

Shanta Devarajan at the World Bank thinks we should be focusing on demand-side interventions (demand for improved performance, rather than "supply-side" interventions focused on training etc to improve the supply of improved performance), and then doing rigorous experiments to test these interventions (yes, RCTs).
SD: It is definitely not just about technical solutions. At the first level it is a question of incentives. And it is even deeper than that. At a fundamental level, it is a problem of politics.
Well worth reading in full. (HT: TH)

03 September 2012

Aid for Infrastructure in Fragile States

This is a guest post by Maham Farhat from OPM.

Development sometimes feel like a bit of a catch- 22. Economic growth requires decent "institutions" and political stability, but in many ways good institutions require a decent level of economic development to begin with. Nowhere is this more relevant in aid policy than large scale infrastructure development. Infrastructure projects have the potential to spur development through crucial inputs such as employment, connectivity and capacity building. But mismanaged they can do more harm than good, by fuelling corruption and environmental degradation. 

A recent report published by OPM and Mott MacDonald (funded by DFID) looks at donor engagement in infrastructure development in Fragile and conflicted affected states (FCAS). The findings of the report are striking. Donor engagement in FCAS is patchy on following the recommended OECD principles and there is surprisingly little hard evidence to support the notion that infrastructure development results in peace building and stabilisation. Or for that matter even simple and much trumpeted outcomes like employment generation are supported by little hard evidence. 

Existing evidence seems to suggest that "Quick Impact Projects" as implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan have a questionable record of achievement whereas community driven development projects have been shown to produce more lasting results in terms of encouraging peace and stability in local communities. Private investment can work wonders in sectors like power and telecom, a case in point being the rapidly developing telecommunication sector in Afghanistan, but attracting large scale private investment is difficult in the transport and water sectors where returns to investment are realised at a much later stage. A mix of case studies on South Sudan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Congo demonstrates that the effectiveness of donor aid in the infrastructure sector is highly dependent on country context. This is not to argue that infrastructure investment should be dumped by donors, just that much more evidence is needed to evaluate what works and what doesn't.

30 August 2012

Do Urban Livelihoods Programmes Work?

Apparently not in Sri Lanka.
The authors conduct a randomized experiment among women in urban Sri Lanka to measure the impact of the most commonly used business training course in developing countries, the Start-and-Improve Your Business program. They work with two representative groups of women: a random sample of women operating subsistence enterprises and a random sample of women who are out of the labor force but interested in starting a business. They track the impacts of two treatments -- training only and training plus a cash grant -- over two years with four follow-up surveys and find that the short and medium-term impacts differ. For women already in business, training alone leads to some changes in business practices but has no impact on business profits, sales or capital stock. In contrast, the combination of training and a grant leads to large and significant improvements in business profitability in the first eight months, but this impact dissipates in the second year. For women interested in starting enterprises, business training speeds up entry but leads to no increase in net business ownership by the final survey round.
Suresh de Mel, David  McKenzie, and Christopher Woodruff , "Business training and female enterprise start-up, growth, and dynamics: experimental evidence from Sri Lanka" (HT: @timothyogden)

Modern Growth and Development in the UK

We may still be coming through the deepest recession in living memory, but we are for the most part incomparably better off than we were in the Silver Jubilee year [1977]. Incomes have doubled on average. We need devote much less of our spending to necessities such as food, leaving us free to spend more on leisure pursuits. As a nation, we are vastly better educated. We have moved decisively away from a manufacturing economy towards one based on services. Many more of us work in professional and whitecollar occupations. Women are much more established in the labour market and have made particularly substantial strides in educational attainment.
From IFS, Jubilees compared: incomes, spending and work in the late 1970s and early 2010s

29 August 2012

The sky is falling!

Amongst dire warning of pending global vegetarianism, the Guardian notes
"The UN predicts that we must increase food production by 70% by mid-century"
What on earth does that mean? Is that a big number or a little number? A little context maybe? Handily I've just finished reading Tyler Cowen's excellent "An Economist Gets Lunch," in which he notes:
"during the period 1949-1990, new technological innovations boosted agricultural productivity by an average of 2.02 percent a year. From 1990 to 2002, this same rate of improvement fell to 0.97 percent"
Where would those rates get us? By my calculation, we would need a roughly 1.35% annual rate to get to that 70% increase target by mid century. A significant increase on the present rate, but certainly achievable in the context of past gains.


(Note also that this is just pure productivity gains from technological innovation - meaning no additional land inputs required)

15 August 2012

The economics of female genital mutilation

We also had a presentation on female genital mutilation, or female circumcision as some insist on calling it, and it seemed to me it could be characterized, at least in part, as a multiple equilibrium, collective action problem with tipping points. So I asked what they knew about tipping points -- the point where the social pressure switches from doing it to not having it done as fewer and fewer have the procedure done to them
From Mark Thoma's recent trip to Kenya.

03 August 2012

Child-focused budgeting

Interesting new briefing note from John Channon here at Oxford Policy Management on his work with UNICEF on "child-focused budgeting." This represents an interesting strategic shift for UNICEF from doing project-based work to getting to grips with government systems and PFM in order to help governments think more clearly about the outcomes and impacts of their programmes in health, education, and social protection, and better achieve their own goals with regards to outcomes for children.

John concludes:
"For donors looking to adopt a similar approach to UNICEF, there is an important underlying message: to achieve the changes in service delivery that many donors want to see – and governments themselves want to make – effective PFM systems must be in place first. These are the foundations for enabling wider, more sustainable social change, as the PFM approach ensures funding is aligned with policy priorities and long-term goals, rather than simply financing short-term projects, however superficially attractive these may be."
See the full note (just 4 pages) here

27 July 2012

Psychology and Economics

There are good reasons for keeping prospect theory out of introductory texts. The basic concepts of economics are essential intellectual tools, which are not easy to grasp even with simplified and unrealistic assumptions about the nature of economic agents who interact in markets. Raising questions about these assumptions even as they are introduced would be confusing, and perhaps demoralizing. It is reasonable to put priority on helping students acquire the basic tools of the discipline. Furthermore the failure of rationality that is built into prospect theory is often irrelevant to the predictions of economic theory, which work out with great precision in some situations and provide good approximations in many others.
-- Daniel Kahneman "Thinking, Fast and Slow"

20 July 2012

Does deworming really work?

The latest Cochrane Collaboration review of the evidence on the impact of deworming on various outcomes has come out decidedly less than optimistic.

Here's a summary by the very smart Alexander Berger from Givewell, some discussion on the Public Library of Science blog including comment from one of the Cochrane authors and Alan Fenwick from SCI, and finally a rebuttal to the review's findings on schooling from IPA, JPAL, CEGA, Deworm the World, and the authors of the original Busia experiment on deworming.

I haven't spent enough time looking at the details to come to a strong opinion here, but one point made on the IPA blog seems evidently correct - random assignment should be enough to ensure pre-treatment balance between treatment and control. That is the whole point of random assignment. And  following the recent debacle of the medical journal the Lancet being forced to retract the key finding of a social-science-y study after some actual social scientists pointed out a mathematical error, combined with my disciplinary and professional loyalties, I'm inclined to go with the social scientists rather than the doctors on this one.


Update: Thoughts from David McKenzie

Doing governance is hard #163826353

First the good news: a new evaluation report from a community driven reconstruction programme in Eastern Congo (HT: Sarah Baileyshows yet again that it is possible to evaluate messy hard-to-measure governance interventions using rigorous quantitative methods. IPA and JPAL have an evaluation of a similar programme in Sierra Leone.

Now the bad news: this kind of design only works with interventions at the local level because you need a large sample size of units - in this case villages. National-level interventions give you a sample size of one, not very conducive for quantitative analysis.

And the worse news: these local level governance interventions don't seem to work. Both this Congo study and the Sierra Leone study find no improvement in local governance.

Now for some better news: we actually already know what a lot of the national-level governance interventions that need to be done are. They are boring. Things like audits of government accounts. South Sudan has finally just published the audit of the 2007 accounts, to apparent astonishment and outrage by parliamentarians. It's pretty grim reading. Though I'm not sure how anyone is actually honestly surprised. Still, it's probably not totally outlandish to think that audits done a bit quicker than 5 years after the fact might improve budget governance.

And now for the worst news of all: much of this easy, boring, national-level governance stuff is around accountability - which means the national leadership intentionally putting in place limits on its own power. Binding its own hands. You have to be an incredibly enlightened leader to purposely reduce your own power. The whole point of the politics game is increasing your own power. Which means that you need people to demand accountability and force leaders into action. And despite all the talk about governance from the international community, we aren't really interested or able to be the ones doing the demanding.

19 July 2012

How to find an NGO to support

It is likely that bigger and more well-established agencies will be better able to answer these questions than smaller ones, though these do not have to be international agencies. This is an important observation as it suggests that bigger, more experienced, and more independent organizations with a greater range and depth of skills and deeper knowledge of the countries in which they are working are more likely to make wiser choices about how to deploy their funds than are smaller and newer agencies, which are often run and staffed by people with little development and country experience. It should be added that there are not only many competent nationally based poverty-focused organizations but that many of these have a better understanding of poverty and especially how it might be eradicated faster than do some international agencies. Also, it must not be thought that it is only the bigger agencies that do good development work: many smaller, especially locally based, agencies perform very valuable work. Additionally, a number of smaller agencies set up by people now living in the industrialized world but based on a deep understanding of the local communities in need—such as Send a Cow—continue to have a significant impact. The challenge is finding out about them.
Thoughts from Roger C. Riddell, a Non-Executive Director at Oxford Policy Management, writing in a special issue of  "Ethics and International Affairs" (HT: themonkeycage)

18 July 2012

Whither participation?

Esther Duflo's recent Tanner Lecture (download it here, really, go and read it now) offers a provocative attack on the dogma of community participation in NGO development projects. The lecture builds on ideas expressed here and here and drawing from the recent behavioural economics literature on limited attention. Sometimes a bit of paternalism is good for us. Good defaults are good. You don't need to worry about most services in England because everything just works.

I asked people in Masisi a few weeks ago whether they had been consulted enough by the big international NGO running the programme in their town. Some were happy, but some were a little nonplussed - "it's their [BINGO] programme - let them decide how to do it". One guy who had not been selected for assistance (through a very participatory community ranking exercise) suggested that if big international NGO wasn't going to pick him, then maybe they should be doing the work of selection and not asking him to spend half a day doing it (note this is in no way a criticism of BINGO, they exemplars of best practice. It is a tentative criticism of that best practice, which is widely supported). 
Many social programs insist on beneficiary participation in management, claiming that it is valuable and instrumental for program success. 
Perhaps, for rich parents who have the luxury of being able to spend time worrying about their children’s educations, participating in the Village Education Committee and being given a voice to obtain more resources for their schools is indeed empowering. Poor parents may care just as much about education, but may have no energy left to figure out exactly how to work the system or to figure out what they might be able to accomplish when they are given vaguely defined powers ... perhaps, finding ways to make schools actually work without the community having to worry about it at all would be even more empowering.
Back in England, I can't imagine anything worse than having to meet all of my neighbours after work to figure out how we are going to run the rubbish collection or fix the potholes in the road. That stuff just gets done. Services get delivered without me having to think about it at all. All I need is a mechanism to complain if things don't work, but don't ask me to help you plan how to fix it. 

There is a great quote from the earlier paper "Mandated Empowerment" (HT: @thrh)
Both examples raise concerns about committing ourselves entirely to antipoverty strategies that rely on the poor doing a lot of the work.
When you put it like that, it sounds pretty sensible. The implication of which is not I think "don't consult people," quite the opposite - provide an open platform for suggestions, comments, and complaints. Just consider how much work you are asking from your "beneficiaries."

Your thoughts?