28 March 2013

Aid and religion

I'm generally enough of an aid evangelist that I can put aside my rabid atheism when it comes to religious aid organisations. I suppose that makes me a bit of a consequentialist - when the need is so great, I don't really care about people's motivations as long as they are doing good.

But are they really doing good? A new paper by Niklas Bengtsson in Economic Development and Cultural Change looks at a village-level education project run by a church in Tanzania. They find substantial positive impacts on literacy and education attainment - but - only for the children of Protestants. The children of Catholics living in the same village were unaffected.

Now this wouldn't necessarily be a problem if these programs were all being funded with private donations, but close to a fifth of NGOs receiving support from USAID are Christian organisations, with apparently similar proportions from official donors in Europe. All of which is quite worrying.

Now maybe the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania is not typical of most religious aid organisations, and others are much better at providing assistance to people of different faiths, but it does raise some serious question marks. 

The solution to Britain's housing crisis

I just had a great idea inspired by David Goodhart. Clearly the reason that poor countries have monstrous governments is that all the smart liberal citizens who might have otherwise overthrown them have chosen to use their exit rather than their voice and left the country, so we should force them all to stay.

Similarly, the reason that Britain has absurd policies, such as the housing policy that leads to the smallest and most expensive houses in Europe, is that everyone who might otherwise have complained has left - about 1 in 10 Brits or 5-6 million people live abroad. So there's a simple solution, ban emigration from Britain, forcibly repatriate the 5 million, and all our political problems will naturally be solved. The "post-liberal" political solution. Sounds great huh?

25 March 2013

Chasing Misery

My friend Kelsey is creating a book of essays by women who work in humanitarian aid, and the Kickstarter campaign has just gone live. She needs to raise $11,690 to cover the costs of design, editing, formatting, printing, and building a website. She's a really good writer, as her woefully neglected blog attests, with lots of stories to tell from South Sudan, Darfur, and elsewhere, so if that's your kind of thing (which it really should be if you're reading this kind of blog), you should make a contribution to the campaign, and share the link with your networks.

20 March 2013

What are the barriers to work for women in developing countries?

Bob Rijkers and Rita Costa have a really interesting recent paper looking at gender differences in rural employment in developing countries, something I've been thinking about a lot in Rwanda over the last 3 months. In Rwanda the government has an ambitious goal to increase off-farm employment, and if this goal is to be reached there needs to be a big shift in female employment. Young women are currently much less likely to start their own businesses than men, and more likely to get "stuck" at home or running the family farm. 

Bob and Rita document that in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, women are also much less likely to establish a rural non-farm business, and that the businesses they do establish are less productive.

The reason that the businesses are less productive is not down to education or access to capital, but the sectors that these businesses are in. And this is where their quantitative story ends. They conclude that "Collecting panel data would help us better understand the causal mechanisms underlying the patterns documented in this paper and would permit a richer representation of the dynamics of rural labor markets"

But actually I think some qualitative work could get you a lot further a lot faster on those crucial policy questions of why women are less likely to start a business and why, when they go, it is in a less profitable sector.

An American who worked in Rwanda for several few years told me that teenage girls often aren't allowed out of the house as much as boys, for both security reasons and that they have more housework duties. Which means they get less exposure to the people and places around them, and less chance to think about what kind of market opportunities there are out there.

I also think that there is a strong cultural element around gender norms and what kind of work is acceptable for women. The New Times in Kigali tells the story of Nadine, one of only four female moto drivers in a city where there are hundreds. She quit tailoring because it didn't make enough money, and now driving a motorbike taxi she takes home enough to pay for rent, school fees, and childcare.
Naturally, challenges have come her way, the biggest being lack of support from some of her relatives who insist she is in a male field. 
“Nobody in my family approved of my choice to be a motorcyclist. In fact, they accused me of being a prostitute because I was joining a ‘male’ job. It was hurtful and discouraging but I decided to go with it anyway,” she narrates.
Presumably actually there is loads of sociological / anthropological research out there on this, anyone got any ideas? In England it took a world war for women to finally get access to "male" fields. What will it take to achieve such a cultural shift in developing countries?

19 March 2013

Kigali to Oxford

This draft has been sitting here since I got back a week ago, because I wasn't sure how passionate and emotional and angry I was comfortable with being in public. The short story is, as I sat in the coffee shop at Kigali airport waiting for check-in to open, a man who I'd met a couple of days earlier asked me with total sincerity to take one of his children with me back to England so that they could get a better education and a chance of a better job, which for some reason really got to me. A man who totally seriously wanted a total stranger to take one of his children thousands of miles away because he knows that living standards are so much better in rich countries. And he couldn't move himself because of our totally self-absorbed immigration policies. So I'll skip the rant, but sometimes it just breaks my heart that we live in a world where such desperation is so mundane.

In other news, 3 months away is probably too short for any proper reverse culture shock, but I do admit to being mystified by the battery-powered electric salt and pepper grinders in the apartment I am renting, which make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Also a few people have commented that I've lost weight, which I hadn't noticed at all, but seems plausible following a typically overwhelming first-trip-to-the-supermarket-following-a-period-of-developing-country-living. Seriously, no wonder we have so much obesity when food is this cheap and easy.

How (and why) to do a corporate blog

Jason Fried and David Hansson of 37Signals argue in their book Rework (and the video above, HT: my favourite business writing blog) that companies should "emulate chefs." Why do you know some chefs better than others? Not because they spend money on advertising, but because they teach you their secrets - they explain recipes on TV and they publish their recipes in books. And all of this is free advertising for their restaurants. Why don't businesses do this? Because they are scared of competitors stealing their ideas. But the truth is it isn't about the ideas as about the execution and the mastery. Chefs aren't worried about someone stealing all of their recipes and opening a new identical restaurant next door and putting them out of business, it just doesn't work like that. Nobody is going to steal your idea and put you out of business. But when you share your ideas, you teach people something for free and you build an audience and a relationship based on trust and openness rather than marketing and selling. This is both more interesting for the reader, as well as being a strong signal of confidence, that you are good enough to let it all hang out. It's countersignalling, that you are so good you don't need to really bother with marketing, and that you are so confident in your expertise that you can teach others how to do it and not need to worry about whether people will keep paying for your services, because you are confident that you can do it better.

And you see this in the development blogosphere. The best blogs are written by experts in their field who are being open about their process and teaching you something with honesty. Look at Chris Blattman's advice posts or field stories, Development Impact's super-technical stats posts, or Duncan Green's internal Oxfam wrangling. All of these guys have built massive audiences who trust them and are interested in what they have to say because they are open and not just trying to sell you something. Most corporate blogs suck because they are all marketing and promotion, and readers smell that in a second and turn off. It is the opposite of countersignalling, it's trying too hard, like using complicated words in an attempt to sound clever when writing simply is actually harder and it shows. Smart writers write clearly and let their ideas do the talking, and let the words get out of the way. Smart business bloggers open up and say something of value that isn't directly selling and is playing the long game, building an audience and building trust. And once you have an audience, they will forgive you a bit of promotional guff.

All of this may or may not be written a prospective new OPM blog in mind. 

11 March 2013


Alex Andon just sent me the link to his new venture ChatBasket linking up developing country artisans with US consumers via an online chat room. It's a cool idea - maybe we can increase the value of trade if western consumers value and will pay for that personal connection and narrative behind a product (see also http://significantobjects.com, in which consumers paid around $45 for a $1.50 object that comes with a totally made-up background story). You can support the crowdfunding campaign and/or buy a handmade Guatemalan iPad case here.

10 March 2013

British attitudes to immigration

Analysis of the electorate's view of immigration, by the anti-racism campaigners Searchlight, the thinktank British Future and others, shows there is a majority for sanity and solidarity out there, which could be coalesced. A quarter of the population are hardline anti-immigrant – some of them racist. But another quarter, essentially Guardian and Economist readers, support multiculturalism. The remaining 50% are up for grabs, but can be won over.
Neal Lawson in the Guardian