26 June 2012

Good aid meets bad governance: The case of bednets in Masisi

So apparently the donors and the Government of DRC agreed to split 50:50 the cost of providing insecticide treated bednets for every family in the Masisi district. There are now 100,000 donor funded nets sitting in the hospital in Masisi town, waiting there for months to be distributed by government staff, and taking up scarce space in the hospital. And there is no sign of those government funded nets.

Guardian economics fail #636352747

If the Guardian's economics leader writer actually knew even the very first thing about economics, he might be able to recognise that an increase in supply normally leads to a decrease in prices. And so new tall buildings in London should generally be celebrated for being exactly what is needed to cut rents, and are basically a total economic free lunch for the city and the country. And if you don't believe me, try the leading urban economists at Harvard or the LSE.

25 June 2012

Governance conditionality in South Sudan

Howard French makes the case in the Atlantic for governance conditionality in South Sudan.
In South Sudan, in fact, the major complaint is that the West failed to impose conditions on the country's fledgling leadership when it clearly had the power to do so. These conditions might have included strong press and freedom of speech laws, a powerful independent audit agency, signature of EITI, guarantees for political opposition, a limitation on presidential mandates, etc. 
All of which sound like pretty sensible ideas to me. 

He quotes Nhial Bol, editor of Juba-based newspaper the Citizen
"Why can't the West learn from its previous mistakes? Why have they supported us and imposed no conditions?"
Actually the West has learnt from its previous mistakes. It has just learnt the wrong lesson. Giving aid with conditions attached is pretty thoroughly out of fashion these days, following the widespread backlash to structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s and 90s.

But that nasty 80s conditionality was all about which particular policies to pursue. Governance conditionality isn't about imposing particular policies, but demanding democratic government.

As Paul Collier put it a few years ago (here and here):
"The essence of governance conditionality is that aid is being used to increase accountability not to donors, but to citizens." 
And the final word to Michela Wrong:
If you cut all aid to Kenya, people are going to die. So I don’t think that’s a solution. But I will say that aid donors have to look very closely at what they do. If you have a government whose ministers are setting out to steal the equivalent amount of money that they receive in aid, then you have to wonder why western donors are continuing with that relationship. I don’t think the answer is to cut them off, but the answer lies very much in doing what Edward Clay, the British high commissioner of the day, was doing. Which is to be very confrontational, to humiliate these people in public, to call them to account, to deny them visas. The aid relationship needs to be less automatic, less lazy, less complacent, and much more abrasive.

How to get a job at UNDP

Apparently don't bother doing anything as absurd as actually applying for one on their website. From the DevEx LinkedIn forum:
SK: Is there anyone in this group who was successful in getting an assignment by applying in the UNDP website? 
GP: Not so far. I was working in Kabul earlier this year, and was then invited to fill out the paperwork to join a pre-approved list of consultants. 
SK: Ya that's what I thought. I don't think anyone ever gets a job through that website. It is such a ripoff. The World Bank is far more transparent and fair in employing consultants. 
TN: I feel that a proportion of the advertised roles are already filled by the previous incumbent. It is possible that their contract is up for renewal and UN rules require that the position be advertised. I hope I'm wrong, but this process puts an awful lot of people to an unnecessary inconvenience, and for nothing. 
SK: Also they need a minimum number of application to go through the process. I'm told that sometimes people do get through the website. So do apply, except that it is such a laborious process. 
JE: I think it is a waste of time and energy applying for many of these postions with UN and ADB as well. People are already in place and the advertisement is to provide the appearance of an open selection process. Unless 'invited' to apply for a specific postion, I personally won't waste my time. 
JML:  I worked as a Programme Officer for UNDP Timor-Leste for 3 years and then had a short-stint in the regional office in Bangkok. I then took a break for motherhood and for the past year have been applying to get back in the game. It is hard. I agree with TN’s post and sadly know it is the case for some of the vacancies. 
SM: I agree to the comments, UNDP must think of refining the process,if they want to keep the already working people, at least they must not waste others time and resources. 
This a double tragedy that they raise a hope for jobless, waste their time and unnecessiarly to show fairness,which in reality .....................they may tell it better. 
SK: Thanks for your responses. I recently wrote to UNDP to highlight some of the anomalies in the application process. For example a lot of jobs will ask for a financial proposal, except that there is no scope in the application format to provide one. The motivation section does not accept more than 1000 characters!

Exciting new results from the Millennium Village in Ghana

Only joking. Six years in, and Bonsaaso [the MV in Ghana] primary school has no toilet.
"Our toilet facilities at Bonsaaso primary school are not working at all," said Owusu [acting headteacher]. "The children have to go home when they need to use the toilet."

24 June 2012

Google weather forecast slightly off in Masisi

I was quite impressed when a quick pre-departure google search brought up the weather in Masisi immediately. 

I was less impressed when I arrived with waterproof boots and trousers to be told that it's the middle of the dry season. 

23 June 2012

Sudan Links

Or rather, John Asworth's Sudan links:

1. An important statement from the UN recognising that the basis for demarcating the border is the 1956 border, not the current de facto border that Khartoum has been pushing as a basis for negotiation.

2. "Has the AU become a pawn in the hands of the Khartoum regime?" A question apparently on the lips of many South Sudanese.

3. An excellent open letter from South Sudanese to Salva Kiir on corruption. Really well written. Members of the international community concerned about corruption might want to start here.

4. The Budget Speech. Including details on financing plans. Of a total SSP 6.4 billion budget, 10% is expected to come from domestic non-oil revenues, 15% from reserves, 15% from domestic borrowing, and the remaining 60% from yet to be negotiated international loans and oil/mineral concessions. So, er, good luck with that (and let's really hope that Khartoum will be pressured into making a fair deal on oil soon).

22 June 2012

On capacity building

Hypothesis: Effective organisations are built by insiders who have learnt how effective organisations work whilst at a different, established, effective organisation, rather than by outsiders coming in and making bad organisations into good ones.

Application to development: it might be better for large international NGOs to directly hire more local staff to deal with ground-level implementation than to “partner” with local organisations and try to delegate tasks to them, and struggle with that whole capacity building thing, which is inherently incredibly difficult, especially when you are an outsider, and which very few people seem to really know how to do very well. If someone works for you directly, you have far greater control over their work, and they get to experience working in an established effective organisation, which may well do more for capacity building in the long run.

Any thoughts? In particular any data or evidence, even anecdotal?


A better stated hypothesis by email from Monica: a lot of the soft skills stuff that comes up with capacity building  (i.e. leadership development, management training) is very important but very difficult to teach. It is better learned through "modeling" than workshops. Think students in the West with expensive long degrees who still need to do unpaid internships to learn how to actually do a job.

Market traders in more-efficient-than-UN-logistics shocker

Because of poor infrastructure in DRC, transporting large quantities of NFIs can be costly and slow. Vendors already familiar with the fair methodology are able to mobilise for fairs in less than a week. Initially UNICEF believed that it would be difficult to persuade vendors to travel beyond a certain radius from their centre of activity. However, the attraction of potential customers at a fair draws vendors from far and wide, and vendors have shown creativity and agility in transporting large quantities of supplies to fairs in areas that are hard to access by even the best NGO and UN logistics teams. Partners have set up fairs in areas where it would have been logistically nearly impossible to mobilise for large distributions. In 2010, UNICEF partners paid upwards of $3.5 million to hundreds of local vendors, allowing them to expand their capital, open new shops, hire additional employees and contribute to the recovery of the local commercial sector. [emphasis mine]
Paul Harvey and Sarah Bailey: Cash transfer programming in emergencies

Sometimes I wonder if there isn't some truth to Bill Easterly's slightly paranoid "the aid industry is Marxist!!" ranting.

Updates from IPA

A couple of exciting research results in the Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) 2011 Annual Report;
Our work on youth employment in northern Uganda produced promising results in 2011. An evaluation of a government cash transfer initiative called the Youth Opportunities Initiative Program showed that transfer recipients on average were nearly twice as likely a year after receiving the grant to be employed in a skill based profession. Recipients earned on average almost 50 percent more than their peers, accruing a 35 percent rate of return on the transfer.
and results from one of the 9 ongoing evaluations of the BRAC graduation model:
Early results from West Bengal, India show that this type of ultra-poor program leads to a 15-25 percent increase in household consumption in the first year after the program’s completion.

20 June 2012

The State of the Humanitarian System

There is a new edition coming out in a couple of weeks, but until then, the data on coverage from the 2010 State of the Humanitarian System caught my eye.   
On average, total humanitarian contributions equalled over 85% of total stated requirements in 2007 and 2008, compared with 81% in 2006 and only 67% in 2005. However, the needs of affected populations have gone up as well, and are still not matched by resources, so the result is a nearly universal perception of insufficiency, despite quantitative evidence of progress.
So; yet again; things are getting better, but they are still really bad. Unmet humanitarian need means that people are dying for the sake of what is really pennies in the grand scheme of things (overall funding for the sector is around $7 billion, considerably less than, say, the $50 billion US residents spend on their pets each year). 

If you take the data at face value, the simple framing of the problem as a quantifiable one with some kind of definite limit, I find incredibly encouraging. Perhaps the really interesting question though is what that data really means. "Humanitarian need" is presumably some kind of function of the actual need on the ground, but processed through the humanitarian agencies on the ground who report those needs to funders. And the agencies are locked in a very long repeated strategic game with those funders - for instance agencies have incentives to overstate need in order to get more funding. But donors know this. And agencies rationally prefer funding before a disaster happens rather than after, but it is presumably harder to both fund raise and demonstrate impact when you have averted a crisis (i.e. nothing happened) than when you responded to one has started (i.e. something is clearly happening). And what on earth is the line between humanitarian need and development need?

You may have noted a couple of "presumably"s in that last paragraph. Anyone know of any studies on game theory and the political economy of humanitarian fundraising?

19 June 2012

Sex and social media

"Conversations about the use of social media bear more than a passing resemblance to teenage chat about sex –we’re all talking about it, a few of us are doing it and even fewer of us are doing it well."
On using social media for Think Tank communications. God knows what kind of traffic that headline is going to get me.

Sex, fame, and economic geography

"We seek cities because there are a greater range of girls at the bar, of reproductive choice. Number one. 
Number two is there are better outcomes for health and wealth. And now we care more about the environment, and cities are better for the environment. But above all, talented people seek cities for fame. They can't get famous in the fucking village."
Boris Johnson. I'm not a fan, but it's a great quote. 

18 June 2012

The Khartoum regime is the obstacle to peace in Sudan

International observers often underestimate the extent to which the Islamist military regime in Khartoum is the single most important obstacle to peace in and between the two Sudans. South Sudanese (and the people from Darfur, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, Abyei, eastern Sudan, Nubia in the far north, and indeed ordinary citizens all over Sudan) know the nature of the regime with which they are dealing, which is why they are circumspect about negotiations and steadfast in their military resistance. To point at weaknesses, failures and even abuses by any or all of these parties misses the point that they all feel they are locked in a life or death struggle with a ruthless, sophisticated, patient and very clever adversary (an adversary, incidentally, which can and does run rings around most western politicians, diplomats and analysts).
--John Ashworth

15 June 2012

Fuel protests coming in Khartoum?

The Sudanese Minister of Finance Ali Mahmoud told parliamentarians on Wednesday that the austerity measures the government is currently applying are a reflection of the level of “bankruptcy” in state coffers.
In a related context, a Sudanese political analyst has predicted that the ending of fuel subsidies will almost certainly lead to a popular uprising. 
According to Omer Abdel Aziz, a professor of political sciences, there is a likelihood of 95 percent that the decision will spark a popular uprising when it comes into effect. 
Sudanese opposition parties have already vowed to protest against the ending of fuel subsidies.

The size of the fuel subsidy about to be cut in Sudan is $2 billion a year. To put that in context, with a population of about 35 million people, the subsidy is roughly the same size as the one the government tried to cut recently in Nigeria, which was $8 billion a year across 158 million people. The abrupt removal of the subsidy in Nigeria led to widespread protest.

I really don't think it is at all clear that the Southern leadership is facing any more popular pressure than the Northern leadership over the economic implications of the oil shutdown. Hopefully a demilitarized border zone would allow an oil deal to be made.

A quantitative history of RCTs

From a new report by the Behavioural Insights Unit at the British government (with Ben Goldacre and David Torgerson) on using RCTs in policy. 
Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are the best way of determining whether a policy is working. They are now used extensively in international development, medicine, and business to identify which policy, drug or sales method is most effective. They are also at the heart of the Behavioural Insights Teamʼs methodology. However, RCTs are not routinely used to test the effectiveness of public policy interventions in the UK. We think that they should be.
(HT: Tim Harford's twitter feed)

13 June 2012

Are Oxford Admissions Fair?

Chris Cook at the FT wrote an article a few months ago breaking down admission rates to Oxford by type of school at different stages of the process (see graphic below). Jonathan Portes summarised the stages thus;
  • first, the relative probabilities that students from different types of school got "very strong GCSEs"; ranging from 3.4% for a student from the poorest tenth of schools, to 23.4% for those from independent schools;
  • second, the probability that a student from each type of school who got "very strong GCSEs" did in fact apply to Oxford at all, ranging from 14.1% to 24.6% (even higher for pupils from the richest tenth of state schools;
  • third, the probability that such a student who did apply got admitted - over half for pupils from independent schools, but only about 15% for students from the poorest schools. 
So there were disparities at each stage of the process. Students from state schools in poor areas were less likely to get very good GCSEs, less likely to apply, and less likely to be accepted.
Oxford Application Success probabilities (FT Analysis) 
Source: FT

Which sounds pretty damning. I sent this analysis to a friend involved in the admissions process, and he highlighted the important role of the special admissions aptitude test in the process, ignored by the FT and Portes.

There is now some evidence backing up his position, from a new working paper by Bhattacharya, Kanaya, Stevens, all at the Economics department in Oxford, and two of whom who have also been involved in admissions themselves (and thus had access to that test data, which is not in the public domain).

They describe the admissions process as follows:
About one-third of all applicants are selected for interview on the basis of UCAS information, aptitude test and essay, and the rest rejected. Selected candidates are then assessed via a face-to-face interview and the interview scores are recorded in the central database. This sub-group of applicants who have been called to interview will constitute our sample of interest. Therefore, we are in effect testing the academic efficiency of the second round of the selection process, taking the first round as given. Accordingly, from now on, we will refer to those summoned for interview as the applicants.
They then find no difference between admission rates for independent and state schools for those invited for interview. This implies that all of the gap in admission rates between independent and state school students (with equal GCSE scores) found in the FT analysis, is down to poorer performance by state students in the Oxford-set aptitude test. Now, of course the average independent school applicant is undoubtedly better prepared for this aptitude test than the average state school applicant, but this does seem to somewhat let Oxford off the hook.

And finally some advice for potential applicants from a survey of admissions tutors (52 responded) contained in the paper; don't spend too much time on your UCAS statement. Do make sure you get good grades and prepare well for your interview. 

Weight attached to different factors in Oxford admissions process 
Source: Bhattacharya, Kanaya, Stevens survey of Oxford admissions tutors

06 June 2012

South Sudan oil revenue shutdown starting to bite

Here's the latest inflation figures for South Sudan from last Friday - prices jumped 30% between April and May.

I'd be interested to see the figures for Northern Sudan, but last time I checked the Northern stats agency had a much longer delay on releases.

I don't think its necessarily clear yet that the South is feeling the pressure any more than the North (though I'm open to persuasion). In any case, I'm still hopeful that as both sides gradually run out of options (boosting tiny non-oil collections, begging corrupt elites to give back the money they stole...) they will be forced to make that deal and get production going again.