27 September 2018

The best thing about cash benchmarking is it highlights just how small most aid is

The best take on the new cash benchmarking study from Rwanda was this one by Michael Kevane:
"the main takeaway is that neither intervention (when evaluated at the low Gikuriro cost of $141 per household) improved child outcomes." Yikes. I guess though if household size = 7 that is only $20 per person.
Should we really be surprised that giving someone $20 doesn't improve any measurable outcomes? Maybe Kevane's maths is wrong and household size is smaller, but $20 is so small we could double it and still not expect to see anything.

That's one big advantage of cold hard individual cash transfers, they make explicit what the actual amount per person is, which is not so obvious when its one big community project costing loadsamoney and affecting loadsapeople. John Quiggin made this point years ago.

Last year, DFID gave £2.6 BILLION pounds to countries in Africa. That's so much money! How are they still so poor when we give them BILLIONS of pounds every year? Well, hold on, there are 1.2 billion PEOPLE in Africa. So that works out at just over £2 each for the whole YEAR. Of course it doesn't go to everyone, let's say the money is perfectly targeted on the poorest 10% of people. So they get £20 each.

Somehow there is a lot of magical thinking that by pooling money together it somehow automatically has totally outsized impacts. Of course its possible that smart investment in research or better governance can have truly outsized impact if it can nudge a country toward a slightly higher growth rate, but that isn't what most aid is even trying to do, and even when it is they stuff is wicked hard and we can expect most attempts to fail.

Aid is great but less hubris please. And less ridiculous implicit expectations from what aid could plausibly achieve from the sceptics too.

Don't Buy Local

This summer I finally got around to doing my first Park Run, joining the now millions of people around the world who turn up on Saturday mornings for a free 5km timed run around their local park (I managed a not too shabby 27 minute time, roughly average for my age). 

I also work on global development, so was pretty disappointed to receive an email announcing a new clothing line from the founder of Park Run that will be manufactured exclusively in Europe. Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE was concerned with the “horrendously exploitative … factories in the Far East employing questionable practices, paying the lowest wages and exposing their workers to dangerous conditions”. 

Paul is right to be concerned about the wellbeing of East Asian factory workers, but moving those jobs to Europe is not the solution. Moving manufacturing jobs from places where jobs are scarce, to Europe where jobs are not scarce, is not a good thing. 

My point is not a new one; Paul Krugman, the nobel-prize winning left-wing economist wrote more than ten years ago in praise of sweatshops. But the point still stands, and is still apparently missed. The factories in which most of our sports gear are made have poor working conditions compared with jobs in rich countries, but they are usually preferable to the actual alternatives facing people unfortunate enough to be stuck in poor countries.

In 1980, before it became the workshop of the world, extreme poverty in China was close to 90 per cent. Today it is less than 1 per cent. That change would not have been possible without the manufacturing industry. It’s hard to think of anything else that has had a bigger positive impact on human wellbeing that the transformation of China’s economy. 

And it’s not just China that has benefited. Now that wages are starting to rise in China, manufacturers are moving on to other lower-income countries, such as neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia, but also further afield, to Ethiopia and Nigeria. 

Researchers Rachel Heath and Mushfiq Mobarak looked at what happened in Bangladesh when garment factories started opening. As factories rewarded basic literacy and numeracy, girls who lived in villages near to new factories chose to stay in school longer. The effect on education was bigger than a government social programme explicitly designed to increase schooling. In Ethiopia, Chris Blattman and Stefan Dercon found that people use factory jobs as a safety net. Pay and conditions may be poor in the new factory jobs, but they are always there, even when other informal means of getting by fall through. 

So what is a concerned Park Runner to do? Ultimately pay and conditions in poor countries will only improve when workers get better outside options. Thanks to the hard work of poor Chinese in the 1980s and 1990s, China’s economy has grown, wages have risen, and Chinese workers today can afford to ask for more and turn down the worst offers. The best way to encourage that trend is to continue to buy things made in poor countries. Other ways to give poor people more options are to just give them cash directly (you can do literally that at givedirectly.org), to go on holiday to poor countries and spend money on services from poor people, or if you’re a citizen of a rich country to encourage your government to make it easier for people from poor countries to come and work in your country. 

I have nothing but admiration for Paul Sinton-Hewitt’s founding of Park Run, and of his desire to create an inclusive and ethical line of sportswear. I just hope he reconsiders his decision not to support jobs where they are needed most.

20 September 2018

Probably the best new research in global education economics

A couple of months ago the Centre for Education Economics asked me to edit their Annual Research Digest - a series of essays by leading thinkers on their favourite research paper from the past year.

The Digest is out today and I'm really pleased with how its come out, a fantastic set of blogs summarising a fascinating set of papers.

Here's the summary, and you can download the full report here.

18 June 2018

How smart are teachers in developing countries?

Eric Hanushek, Marc Piopiunik, and Simon Wiederhold published some fascinating analysis in a 2014 NBER working paper (link) comparing the literacy and numeracy of teachers to the overall population (with a university degree) in a range of OECD countries. In the figures below, the grey bars show the gap between the 25th and 75th percentile of skill for all university-educated adults in each country, and the red marker in the middle shows the median skill level of teachers in that country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, teachers in Finland are the highest skilled internationally, but also within Finland they are drawn from relatively high in the distribution of adults. This fits with common narratives about teaching being a particularly well-regarded, and selective, profession in Finland.

As far as I'm aware, no such comparison exists for low- and lower-middle-income countries. Tessa Bold and coauthors present results on the tragically low absolute level of teachers in sub-Saharan Africa (link), and similarly Justin Sandefur presents data comparing the skill level of teachers in sub-Saharan Africa to students in OECD countries (link). But neither compare the level of skill of teachers in Africa to teachers in high-income countries, and to the skill of other adults in Africa.

So I made one*. The World Bank's STEP Skills surveys use the same literacy assessment as the OECD PIAAC survey that Hanushek et al used, so I replicated and extended their graph, adding on the countries from the STEP data in which it was possible to identify teachers and their literacy level - specifically Vietnam, Colombia, Armenia, Georgia, Ghana, Kenya, and Bolivia. 

The first point to note is how low the overall distribution in lower income countries is. The majority of adults (in urban areas) who have graduated from university fall into the Level 2 category, whereas in high income countries most fall into Level 3. The PIAAC guide (copied below) explains what these levels mean: Level 2 tasks “may require low-level inferences” whereas Level 3 tasks require “navigating complex texts”.

The second point to note from the figure is the remarkable regularity of average (median) teacher performance in each national distribution. There is some variation, but most teachers in high-income countries are roughly in the middle of the distribution of university educated adults. Teaching in lower-income countries tends to be more selective - the median teacher is much closer to the 75th percentile of adults in Colombia, Ghana, and Kenya.

These two facts, the low overall level of literacy skill amongst graduates in the lower middle income countries, and the position of teachers within the distribution, imply an upper bound on the ability of a more selective recruitment process to improve the average quality of teachers. If for example Ghana and Kenya managed to increase the selectivity of the teaching profession enough to raise average teacher skills to above the 75th percentile (something no other country has done), this level could still be well below Level 3 on the PIAAC scale.

Getting better teaching is critical for improving education in developing countries. This data highlights the scale of one aspect of the challenge. Education systems are going to have to figure out how to deliver for children with teachers who may be able to make "low-level inferences" but are unable to "navigate complex texts."


*Thanks to Laura Moscoviz at the Education Partnerships Group for assistance with the graph!


08 June 2018

Are Rwandans really too scared to answer surveys honestly? (TLDR; Probably no)

Hi Roving Bandit blog fans! Long time no write. I've just relocated from London to Kigali, so I'm hoping that being in a more stimulating environment is going to encourage me to start blogging more frequently. Probably the best economics blog in Rwanda!

I'll kick things off by just regurgitating some recent twitter chat. A couple of days ago I posted Gallup survey findings that Rwanda is the 3rd most accepting countries for migrants in the world (pretty cool Rwanda).

The brilliant Dina Pomeranz responded "A friend who works at Afrobarometer told me that survey responses from Rwanda are problematic in general, because people tend to answer "it's very good" to everything (out of fear of repercussions)."

This would indeed be worrying were it the case, but I was sceptical. Afrobarometer doesn't actually operate in Rwanda, but I thought I'd take a look at some responses on some of the surveys that have been done here.

First, the 2014 National Household Survey asks people about satisfaction with some government services.

- 45% said they were dissatisfied with water services
- 23% said they were dissatisfied with roads 

That seems to be a lot of people who were not afraid to give a negative answer to a survey. 

The 2015 DHS asks people about their experience of personal violence, and a large number of people do say they have been affected.

Finally, a 2016 government survey by the Rwanda Governance Board also asked people about their satisfaction with a range of government services. Some were pretty positive, some not so much. There was

-  31% net dissatisfaction with social protection services 
-  38% net dissatisfaction with hygiene & sanitation services. 
-  45% net dissatisfaction with infrastructure services 

These do not at all look to me like the kind of numbers you'd expect from people so cowed by fear that they are afraid to give negative responses to an anonymous survey. Maybe its time for the team at Afrobarometer to take another look at Rwanda?

08 February 2018

Ark Blogging: The British government’s new plan to get children learning

Over at the Ark blog:
"The new DFID education policy “Get Children Learning” was published last week. As its name suggests, the policy is all about moving the needle on learning outcomes. It sets out a strategy to tackle the learning crisis in developing countries, which has left 90 percent of primary school leavers in low-income countries without basic literacy or numeracy.  As a strategy, it’s relevant and ambitious, and it’s been widely welcomed by the education sector. 
Of course, tackling a crisis this deep and complex is easier said than done. So how does DFID plan to do it? 
Three priorities underpin DFID’s strategy to tackle the learning crisis and form the backbone of their new policy: better teaching, education system reform, and targeted support to the most marginalised kids. And permeating the strategy are three themes – more and better research; more attention paid to the political economy of education reform; and the “Best of British” – how UK expertise can be better leveraged to improving schools in developing countries.  These themes are interesting because each represents a fairly fundamental shift in or crystallisation of thinking from DFID, and together they provide some insight into how the strategy will be executed. The “Best of British” theme in particular reflects a new willingness by DFID to think more strategically about how to facilitate cross-system learning.
Read the rest here