28 January 2014

My favourite thing about the World Bank Nairobi office

It's a pretty close tie between the Nyama Choma crisps and the statistics-packed toilet paper.

The panoramic view from the 17th floor across Nairobi isn't bad either, but somehow I didn't manage to prioritise taking any photos of that. 

27 January 2014

Safety nets and economic growth

Stefan Dercon wrote a paper a couple of years ago about how cash transfers might boost growth - by focusing on investments in ECD, smoothing geographical mobility, or smoothing the school-to-work transition.

To those possible avenues, Harold Alderman and Ruslan Yemtsov (ungated) now add:
  • improving financial markets
  • improving insurance markets
  • improving infrastructure (through public works programmes), and
  • relaxing political barriers to policy change
I find the last one particularly interesting. So for example, Ghana recently tried to offset the removal of fuel subsidies with a doubling of the coverage of the still-small national cash transfer programme to 150,000 households - helping to avoid Nigeria-style protests. Alderman and Yemtsov note that Indonesia pulled a similar trick on subsidy reform, and Mexico's safety nets helped usher NAFTA in.

But this political point goes beyond relaxing barriers to policy change, to relaxing barriers to technological change. Otis Reid pointed out to me this paper by economic historians Avner Greif and Murat Iyigun which argues that:
"England’s premodern social institutions–specifically, the Old Poor Law (1601-1834)–contributed to her transition to the modern economy. It reduced violent, innovation-inhibiting reactions from the economic agents threatened by economic change."
To be crude - it's worth paying off the Luddites so they don't get in the way of growth-enhancing technological change.

Economists prove importance of transparency in social protection?

"We find that the mistargeting of a cash transfer program in Indonesia is significantly associated with increases in crime and declines in social capital within communities. Hence poorly administered transfer programs have a potentially large negative downside that extends beyond the pure financial costs that have been the focus of the literature to date."
A new paper by Lisa Cameron and Manisha Shah  (ungated). A similar point made by my colleagues Ian and Nils a few years ago based on some qualitative fieldwork.

Cameron and Shah conclude that:
"This study underscores the importance of targeting programs in a way that is acceptable to the a ffected communities. Program acceptance can be enhanced by improving targeting accuracy and by transparent communication of this mechanism and the program's aims to the general population."

DFID discovers "Economic Development"

Justine Greening sounded very pleased with herself this morning for discovering this thing called "economic development." Very impressive stuff from an "International Development" Minister. Actually the policy changes all sounds pretty reasonable and balanced. I like the talk of new partnerships between UK accountants, insurers, Stock Exchange folks, major retailers, and their counterparts in developing countries. Perhaps just a few things rankled:
"For the first time we have financed business projects in developing countries through returnable loans…which means our money comes back when businesses are successful."
Isn't that what the CDC has been doing since 1948?
"Smart aid can take the form of building a better tax regime, helping to reduce trade barriers, or giving entrepreneurs and small businesses an economic launchpad. 
It can also be focusing on what the Prime Minister calls the Golden Thread. In other words, helping to build the institutions, the values by which individual rights to liberty and property are safeguarded…elements that represent a green light to companies thinking about investing in a frontier economy."
I buy that aid can help improve tax regimes (look at Rwanda and Burundi) and reduce trade barriers. But build institutions? If the lesson you got from Acemoglu and Robinson is that aid can build institutions, I'm pretty sure you're reading it wrong.
"I’m acutely aware that Britain’s future economic strength depends on us increasing our global exports ... We all recognise the importance of the world’s new emerging powers ... But what about tomorrow’s BRICS and MINT countries? ... we could wait until these markets have grown, until they are less risky and the opportunities are more obvious. ... But how much better to start our relationships with these countries sooner rather than later." 
Which is basically fine in practice, but perhaps we should be careful about our language given that actually we started our relationships with most of these countries some time ago ...

(ahem: see the few countries that Britain has not invaded) 

... and that in many cases our self-interested engagement with developing countries didn't work out so well for them (see for example the mysterious case of the disappearing Indian colonial-era textile industry).
"As the Prime Minister has said, we’re in a global race and if we want to be ahead of the game, we can’t simply follow the crowd."
Does repeating the word 11 times make it so?

Cash transfers taking off in South Sudan

Tombura-Yambio Catholic Diocese launched a Conditional Cash Transfer project last friday - supporting 120 households looking after children whose parents have died of HIV/AIDS, with 200 SSP per month ($63/£38) each.

This is the second NGO-implemented one I'm aware of, after the Save the Children pilot in 2011 (incidentally, whatever happened to that?).

Meanwhile a new civil society initiative Fresh Start South Sudan calls for putting oil money directly in the hands of the poor.

Thanks to Tom for the links.

Addendum: A friend reminds me that DFID have planned cash transfers as part of the Girl's Education project - published details here on the very good DFID project tracker.

20 January 2014

What can be done about India’s failing primary schools?

This is a guest post by Abhijeet Singh, Research Officer at the University of Oxford

It’s that time of the year again. As India’s Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) was released last week (15th Jan), we are reminded of how abysmal learning levels in the country are. Most children are in school, but very few are learning. Less than half the children in Grade 5 can read a Grade 3 text, and only about a quarter can divide a three-digit number by a one-digit number. And the learning levels seem to be going down every year.

Remedies that won’t work

The real question is what can be done to improve learning outcomes. And the first lesson is that most of what is being proposed is not promising:

Inputs alone won’t improve learning: School reform in India seems to consist mostly of getting kids in school and then improving the inputs they get. But this ‘business-as-usual’ approach doesn’t work. The decline in achievement levels in government schools has coincided with major improvements in inputs. Across developing countries, the link between increasing school resources and student achievement is surprisingly weak: building libraries, providing more money to schools, teaching aids like flipcharts or providing a laptop to every child all don’t seem to improve learning by much, if at all. Upgrading school inputs won’t solve this mess.

Private schooling won’t do too much either: ASER documents, as do a number of studies, that students in private schools do better on average than students in government schools. But these students come from better-off households, with more educated parents – so it is hard to tell whether the schools caused this difference in test scores. 

Two recent studies – one study tracking the same children for 7 years that I recently authored, and another based on a randomized evaluation of school vouchers, both find that private school students do better in a number of dimensions, (English, Science and Hindi) even after background factors are accounted for. But even here the ‘private school effect’ is only a small part of the gap between students’ actual achievement and any objective standards of quality we expect a functioning school system to deliver. And in some key areas, such as Maths, we don’t see any private school effect at all. 

The key constraint is service delivery (but reform is hard!): A quarter of government school teachers seem to not come to school on a given day. And when in school nearly half of the teachers are not teaching. Researchers have looked for solutions: for example, giving teachers performance bonuses, monitoring attendance with cameras, and even giving them detailed information about their students’ learning needs. But even when these interventions seem to have an impact, it is hard to see how these can be scaled up. 

So what might work?

Better pre-school preparation: One new pattern highlighted in ASER this year is that children in government schools seem to start earlier than children in private schools and are less ‘school ready’. A recent paper of mine, published this month in the Oxford Review of Education, finds the same pattern but goes further: gaps between children in the private and government sectors arise before school entry and aren’t just a reflection of household incomes and parental education: at least part of the failure probably comes from the failure of government pre-schools. Investing in early childhood education could be the best investment to make, including in developing countries, but most of India’s anganwadis (pre-school centres) aren’t geared towards education at all.

Supplementary teaching: Karthik Muralidharan, one of the most prominent researchers into primary schooling in India, had a different proposal for India’s Five-Year plan. He suggested supplementing class teachers with more teaching assistants who can provide individual learning support (which has been shown to improve test scores in India). And then to facilitate a system that allows the best of these teaching assistants to become regular teachers and receive preference in hiring. This will not be a cure-all, but it could improve matters significantly. And it could be sustainable not just economically but also politically.

Rethink what is taught and how: A more far-reaching reform, proposed both by the ASER team and by Lant Pritchett, is to rethink what we expect students to learn in primary school. The system focuses on a grade-specific curriculum that requires teachers to complete a list of topics per year, regardless of what students need. The curriculum is targeted at the top 10% of children, the other 90% gain nothing because they are already too far behind. And in a setting where children from many grades sit in the same class, a grade-specific syllabus might not be something to aspire to anyway. Much better to focus on the skills we expect children to acquire, rather than the textbook chapters a teacher can tick off whether or not the children have really understood.

Reforming a situation so dire will not be easy. But the first step, in all of this, is to acknowledge the problem. Perhaps the saddest thing of all about the latest ASER report is the government’s refusal to accept that a problem exists and that it is getting worse. This is not the first time such denials have occurred. India cannot progress without assessing whether children are learning at school and without evaluating what works in the school system and what doesn’t. As reactions to the ASER report demonstrate, India’s researchers and civil society have made that leap. It is time the government does so too.

07 January 2014

A new theory of why Brits don't like immigrants #awkward

"As it seems to be the day for chucking one's opinion into the fray, here is mine, as an immigrant of 23 years to these lovely shores. Many British people seem to find foreigners challenging. This a country which runs on rules, etiquette and routine. Foreigners are, de facto, more likely to be ignorant of those rules. Having to explain them is awkward. Awkwardness must be avoided at all costs. Don't get me wrong – you certainly like us individually and as individuals. But as one group to another, you tolerate us grudgingly; you tut a lot and roll your eyes, when we don't know that one stands on the right of the escalator."
Alex Andreou 

All economists care about is money

"The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. ... the love of money is detestable"
JM Keynes, writing in 1930 about what the world might be like in 2030.