Links I Like [8.15]

Does Fair Trade Help Poor Workers?  (Or read The Taste of Many Mountains)

Turns out the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ report isn’t associated at all with actual ease of doing business

Two ways to think about causality

Science isn’t broken, it’s just really REALLY hard

Three Things Secular Development Academics and Practitioners Can Learn from the Faith-Based Development Community… and vice versa

A curated list of technical blog posts about impact evaluation

Faith Meets the Evidence-based Spirit

This week I was forwarded an article in which Jessica Jackley (the co-founder of Kiva and crowdfunding aficionado) was interviewed in Christianity Today. The article, entitled Faith Meets the Entrepreneurial Spirit, deserves a read.

That being said, I’d like to comment on several points made in the interview:

In your book, you share how the Bible verse “the poor you will always have with you” (Matt. 26:11) haunted you when you were a child. How do you think about Jesus’ words today?

This idea doesn’t haunt me in the same way today. Instead I see it as a sobering reminder that there are always people I can look for to serve and to help. At any moment in time when I have something to offer, there will be someone who has a need to receive. And roles can easily switch—we all have times in our lives when we need to reach out for help as well.

YES! This verse inspires action not passivity. Also, this video clears up some misnomers about the verse in question.

How has the microfinance industry evolved during the time that you’ve been involved in it?

People have become much more aware that microfinance can be a great tool for poverty alleviation. I’ve loved seeing an appreciation for the real power of not just one intervention: not just a microloan, but a microloan plus a microsavings account or microinsurance [insurance for health and property risks for those living on $1 to $4 a day] or other microfinance products. I think that’s where things get really powerful.

However, there’s been a backlash in recent years. But microcredit is not a silver bullet for poverty alleviation. Nicolas Kristof talks about how there are no silver bullets, but only a buckshot approach: you need a lot of smaller things to get things accomplished.

There are some studies that say microcredit hasn’t been as effective with actual poverty alleviation as many hoped it would be. But I think there is often a positive impact regardless. In my experience, I’ve seen other kinds of changes in people’s lives. I’ve visited with women, pre-loan, who speak quietly and don’t make eye contact. After they ask for a loan, they are much more confident and can see what is possible in their lives in a different way. They’ve had the opportunity to work outside the home and to build new relationships as a result. That, to me, is real change. Even when microcredit operates as relief rather than development, there is still value there.

I’ll list my thoughts…

(1) There are more than just “some studies” that say there may be better ways to spend money to help the poor than through microfinance. A more realistic characterization of this finding may be ‘almost all’ randomly assigned studies with proper control groups support this finding. In fact, J-PAL has a nice policy brief summarizing the nuanced yet largely disappointing findings of the best studies on the impact of microfinance. I even blogged about it when it was released.

(2) Most of the studies support the idea that microfinance is mostly used for purposes of consumption smoothing by providing mechanisms for savings and insurance. Rather than tapping into the so-called innate entrepreneurial ability of the poor, the evidence shows that the poor are no more entrepreneurial than the rich. Certainly some are real entrepreneurs (maybe 10%) and they benefit tremendously. But most people who own businesses in developing countries do it because of a lack of other alternatives, rather than because they are born entrepreneurs. So, yes, providing savings and insurance mechanisms may be part of a beneficial financial package, but that is decidedly different than a poverty alleviation strategy that aims to thrust everybody in developing countries into entrepreneurship.

(3) Jessica’s observation is a classic response of well-intentioned people when presented with evidence contrary to their prior beliefs – especially when the evidence suggest they ought to tweak or change the focus of their work. Egos and feelings are sensitive and sometimes we’d rather come up with a story that soothes us rather than be humble and accept that perhaps we don’t know how to best help others, alleviate poverty, and promote the development of God’s Kingdom. But here’s the thing, observations like this are prone to illusions and misunderstandings. Jessica talks about observing a difference in psychological well-being of women who participate in microfinance. If that’s true (and we may not even be so sure), we still are unable to identify the impact of microfinance on psychological well-being. Why? Because by only observing women pre-loan and post-loan we have nothing to compare these women with. Perhaps improved psychological well-being is a general trend in the region. Perhaps it isn’t. The fact is, the observation Jessica shares here does not tell us anything about ‘impact’ and is hardly a rebuttal to the evidence of the studies mentioned above. For more on this see my piece in Why Dev or Marc Bellemare’s recent post on the need for statistical literacy.

(4) Finally, what Jessica suggests: that the most beneficial impact of microfinance may be the effect it has on psychological well-being rather than financial well-being is a valid point. But we don’t have to just rely on flimsy observations with no control group and guess about how to help others, we can (and some of us are) rigorously studying this mechanism. For more see the work on aspirations and the economics of hope.

What do you wish the church would do differently to help alleviate poverty?

In my experience, churches often have calls to action that are very much intertwined with evangelism. For me, it was tough to figure out how and when to pair those two pieces and when to have them be separate things. I was never comfortable evangelizing. I just wanted to try to love people and to serve people, which I think Jesus calls us to do. And if anyone wants to talk to me about my faith, I’m happy to share about my beliefs and my personal experience.

I sometimes find that the idea of having to actively evangelize while you’re doing whatever service you’re doing can really hamper people, as it did for me in the past. We think, “I’ve got to do all this together. If I’m serving in a soup kitchen, I feel all this pressure to tell people exactly why I’m here.” For me, it made things weird. I didn’t want to force conversations or make someone else my project.

I think the question was asking about the institutional church rather than personal faith integration. The question about what the institutional church can do differently to help alleviate poverty is quite interesting. I have two thoughts:

(1) This question (at least in part) was tackled by Bruce Wydick last week on his blog: Three Things Secular Development Academics and Practitioners Can Learn from the Faith-Based Development Community… and vice versa.

(2) Faith-based development typically keeps the church at the periphery of their work – perhaps for good reasons. But there are many other reasons why centering a development or poverty alleviation program in local churches may be beneficial. I am currently thinking a lot about this question as I write up and analyze the results from my work in Kenya. So stay tuned!

The Plural of Story Isn’t Data

A couple weeks ago I was enjoying the warm evening air in Myanmar when an article popped up multiple times on my Twitter feed. This happens from time to time in the development economics Twitterverse – and I like to take note. This particular article was published by WhyDev, and online community of development professionals that are “committed to getting development right”. I, and I suspect many readers of this blog, would fit in quite nice with the folks over at WhyDev.

The article was entitled “We’re all Storytellers (and Why it Matters)“, was well written, but (I think) skipped over some critical details. Quoting the famous Nigerian novelist, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, from her famous Ted Talk on the Danger of a Single Story the article concluded:

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

I responded with the following comment:

Thanks for writing this Stephanie.

I’d like to point out some challenges and caveats to telling stories in development. First, one of the points of Ms. Adichie’s famous Ted Talk is that everyone has their own biases about the world. They are unavoidable. Biases are how we simplify and make sense of a complex and dynamic world. Therefore, it is very challenging to make observations about events in the world and tell stories independent of these biases. Second, straight observation is tricky and is often misleading. It may be observed that those who participate in a program (say microcredit) are better off after participating in the program. It could be, however, that these differences are caused by a selection bias where individuals who are well-organized, more motivated, and risk-loving participate in the program while individuals who don’t posses these attributes and abilities don’t participate. Straight observation will leave us unable to untangle what is truly happening. Is the program causing the observed differences or is there some other observable characteristic that is the real determining factor? Without data we don’t know.

So, yes! Stories matter and many stories matter, but the plural of story isn’t data. It is precisely due to the power of stories that we must ensure that our stories represent reality. Good storytelling must be coupled with good data analysis.

To which the author responded:

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your comment! And I totally agree that good storytelling must be coupled with good data analysis. I think the two can (and should) be quite complementary.

Rigorous data analysis is important for understanding what works and what doesn’t, and also for helping understand why. Gathering in-depth interviews can also help give insight into data trends. I recognize that taking one story (or even several stories) without context (or even with context, but that is subject to a series of biases) and then trying to say that these anecdotes are indicative of broader trends is just not a good idea. And, unfortunately, it does happen a lot.

I think the sweet spot is really in finding the stories that reflect the realities that data point to, and using each to support the other. And, where they contradict each other, to find out why. Data can be subject to manipulation and misinterpretation, and so can personal stories. I think we’re all trying to work hard to make sure that neither of those things happen.

Yesterday, my full response to the original article was posted and featured on WhyDev, entitled: “We’re all Storytellers, but the Plural of Story isn’t Data“.

So the Garment Industry Makes you Uncomfortable…

Recently there have been quite a few musings out there about the garment industry; typically focusing on it’s atrocities and and its exploitative tendencies.

Most recently the following video went a bit viral:

Jason Kerwin, over on his blog, reflected on this video in a post entitled “Garment workers are people, not props for your viral video“, saying:

But wait a second – who did make my clothes? Specifically, who are the people in the video who (it is suggested) made the t-shirts being sold? The only people with any agency in the video are the westerners who are choosing not to buy the shirts. The garment workers appear only in still photos in which they appear harrowed and fearful. They don’t do or say anything.

Who is Manisha? Why does she work in this factory? Does she support the idea of consumers refusing to buy the clothes she is paid to make?

A little over a week ago, John Oliver (comedian and professional opinionator) ranted in this video about the perils of fast fashion. His point is more that huge multinational garment corporations need to be more diligent with understanding the specifics of their supply chain. A fair point, but one that is motivated by a similar feeling that motivated the makers of the above video. A general lack of comfort with the reality of how cheap our clothes are being made and sold for today.

I get it. This reality sucks. The solution, however, is more complicated than simply not buying cheap clothes. Both Jason and I (and probably any other development economist) will point you toward a video documentary done by NPR’s Planet Money on the story of a t-shirt being made from start to finish. In particular, the following video that actually does record the words, thoughts, and feelings of a Bangladeshi garment worker making one of the world’s lowest wages.

Jasmine may be making one of the lowest wages in the world, but she is making a wage. So, if the garment industry makes you uncomfortable… do something about the real causes of the low wages and exploitation… the lack of alternative opportunities, the lack of just and fair trade agreements between countries, and the lack of viable avenues out of poverty.

Thoughts on Foreign Aid

Matt Collin, a research fellow over at CGD – Europe, has a nice quick and dirty video on the issues and reality of foreign aid.

He brings up a good point that is often hastily brushed over in the aid vs. trade debate. (Which apparently is still a thing, because my post on ‘The Great Aid Debate’ is still constantly one of my most viewed blog posts.)

It seems to me (at least in the public realm) we’ve lost track of the long-run vs. short-run dynamic.

In the long-run economics 101 tells us that markets are efficient, profits converge on zero, price equals marginal cost, etc. etc. In the long-run aid is, ideally, not a thing we want to be dealing with. Here’s where it gets tricky.

J.M. Keyens (yes, the Keynes v Hayek guy) has this quote that is often said in jest: “In the long-run… we’re all dead.”

The sad reality is for too many people around the world this is not a joke. And THAT’S why we need to ditch this meaningless aid vs. trade debate and focus on three things:

  1. Advocating our national governments to budget for more foreign aid.
  2. Invest in organizations and agencies who are committed to using aid most effectively. (i.e. elevating the most poverty per dollar spent.)
  3. Learn how aid can be used in ways were it doesn’t harm long-run development, but also doesn’t forget about those who are currently trapped in grinding poverty.

The Economics of Hope

Two years ago I was a senior in college and sitting in a professor’s office discussing several topics I could focus on for a senior thesis. At the time the economics of happiness was gaining a lot of momentum as a research topic. I asked my professor if I could think about the concept of hope from an economic perspective. We did some searching for relevant literature and didn’t really find much. I moved on to a different topic.

Fast forward to now. The economics of hope has a growing and promising literature. I have plans to travel to Myanmar to try and collect data to better understand this topic. As I begin to dig into the literature, I thought it would be nice to record a roadmap of sorts.

Two summary resources provide a great starting point, and much of the insights in this blog post:

What does hope have to do with economics?

At first it may seem like there is not much connecting a light and fluffy topic like hope with cold and calculating economics. Generally economists have a lot to say about a lot of things. But hope is a topic that has historically belonged to theologians, philosophers, poets, and signer-song-writers. At second thought, however, hope is fundamental to any economic activity. Consider the words of Martin Luther:

Everything that is done in the world is done by hope. No husbandman would sow one grain of corn, if he hoped not it would grow up and become seed; no bachelor would marry a wife, if he hoped not to have children; no merchant or tradesman would set himself to work, if he did not hope to reap benefit thereby. How much more, then, does hope urge us on to everlasting life and salvation?

And John Stuart Mill:

A hopeful disposition gives a spur to the faculties and keeps all the working energies in good working order.

What we talk about when we talk about hope

There are a couple ways the word hope is used in english language and the difference between the two is subtle. Consider the difference between two sentences: “I hope it is sunny tomorrow.” and “I hope to go for a run tomorrow.” Both use the term hope but in different ways. Both terms indicate some sort of uncertainty but the second usage implies human agency. I may hope it is sunny tomorrow, but there is nothing I can do to make it sunny. I also may hope to go for a run tomorrow and I certainly can do things to make that happen. Lybbert and Wydick create a helpful figure to represent the differences between “Hope 1”, “Hope 2”, “Hopeless 1”, and “Hopeless 2”.

Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 8.56.51 PMHopelessness 1 is experienced by someone with both low agency over the future and low optimism about the future. This is a person who is feeling both hopeless and helpless. For example a victim of a famine who has no food availability in the future and no way to get it either. Hopelessness 2 is experienced by someone with high agency over the future but low optimism about the future. This is a person who is feeling hopeless but not helpless. For example someone who works very hard to survive but doesn’t see a future of any other way of life. Hope 1 is experienced by someone with low agency over the future but high optimism about the future. This is someone who hopes it will be sunny tomorrow. Hope 2 is experience by someone with both high agency over the future and high optimism about the future. This is someone who hopes to go for a run tomorrow.

As Lybbert and Wydick explain:

Distinguishing between these types of hope is useful, but individuals often experience hope as a combination of Hope 1 and Hope 2. Both types of hope, for example, are manifest in the case of a famine victim, or someone who is trapped, lost, or stranded, where a person may have to take painful but proactive steps to survive (internal agency) while awaiting relief or rescue (external to agency). Consider similarly the plight of someone suffering from a potentially terminal disease, in which there is some probability that a breakthrough in treating the disease may occur in the future. Survival thus depends on two events: (i) that the breakthrough occurs by time t; and (ii) that the patient is able to survive until time t. Hope for the patient thus consists of Hope 1 (hope that the breakthrough will occur) and Hope 2 (hoping to remain as healthy as is possible until the breakthrough arrives), which implies some degree of agency that may involve costs. (We might call this type of hope “Hope 1.5.”) In contrast, a person beset by hopelessness has concluded that the joint probability of these events is sufficiently dwarfed by the agency costs of survival, ensuring the unfortunate outcome.

 

Hope seems to matter (some evidence) 

Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, and Jeremy Shapiro have a (2011) working paper entitled Targeting the Hard-Core Poor: An Impact Assessment. In it they evaluate a program designed to provide development services to people who don’t (for whatever reason) take up microfinance when it is offered to them. The program transferred assets (cow, goat, chickens) worth about $100 to the ultra-poor in Murshidabad, India. The results of the program were huge! 21% increase in earned income. 15% increase in consumption. An hour more work per day. Large psychological health effects. These effects are surprising given the amount of the asset transfer. What could be happening? Why are the benefits of giving an extremely poor person in India $100 WAY more than $100? What is making this return so large? Several things could be happening:

Perhaps the asset freed up a “nutrition based poverty trap”. In such a trap wages are so low that by working all day an you would only make, say, 800 calories, far lower than the necessary 1200, or so, calories needed per day. In this type of situation you will not be able to work or work very little and you will be very unproductive and stay very poor. So perhaps an asset transfer allows you to earn a small return on the asset (i.e. the cow gives milk, the chickens lay eggs etc.) and this pushes you above the necessary 1200 calories per day. Now the return on a $100 asset transfer is magnified by the workings of the labor market that you are now able to take advantage of because you are now able to put in a full day of work. Even if the labor market wages are still very low the return from the ultra-poor asset transfer will be quite large.

This nutrition based poverty trap isn’t what seems to be happening in Murshidabad. If the people were so poor that they didn’t have enough food to eat to work for enough hours every day then by giving an asset (such as a cow), all of the extra consumption should be in the form of food. Because feeding yourself adequately is the most productive thing to do. But in this impact assessment the authors find similar increases in overall consumption (15%) and food consumption (17%). People seem to be increasing expenditures in everything, not just food. Moreover, within food consumption the ultra-poor seem to be substituting for higher priced food that is not necessarily the most calories. For example less grains, more meat. Basically if these people were starving they would have maximized the calories available with their resources.

Another possibility is a so-called “credit trap”. In other words the ultra-poor do not have the ability to gain credit (due to a lack of durable assets to use as collateral, or lack of access to a provider, etc.). This again doesn’t seem to be the case because the program in Murshidabad, India was implemented by a microcredit organization explicitly targeting these people because they couldn’t get them to borrow money. So there was a organization in the area providing credit without a restriction of having collateral.

Still another possibility is mental health or psychological health. The beneficiaries of the program recognized fewer symptoms of depression, fewer symptoms of stress, and feeling much happier. This perhaps (as hypothesized by Duflo) could be the mechanism that leads to the large returns on the $100 asset transfer to the ultra poor. The question is whether there is such thing as a “hopelessness trap” (or as Dalton, Ghosal, and Mani (2013) call an “aspirations failure”). Said differently the expectation of future poverty exacerbates current poverty.

Take for example a seamstress. There is a huge difference between the productivity between sewing by hand and having a sewing machine. Additionally there is a big difference between having a mechanical sewing machine and a manual sewing machine. Additionally, there is a difference between having one mechanical sewing machine and two mechanical sewing machines. And so on and so on. In economist speak, the production function for a seamstress has discrete steps. An investment has a threshold before it becomes profitable. The problem is you can’t buy one tenth of a machine. You have to buy the whole thing. If someone is so poor and “hopeless” that they think they will never be able to cross the critical threshold for profitability, there is little incentive to be as productive and rational as possible. Perhaps you should spend more time buying toys for your child rather than save for a sewing machine if you never think you’ll be able to save enough for a sewing machine.

Hope then is a capability (a la Amartya Sen). Hope is a fuel that makes us capable of achieving things. And it also provides motivation to invest in business, education, health, etc.

So, how do we make people hopeful?

There could be many ways, several that have been recorded in the literature so far include:

For a long time those working in development have been focusing on external constraints to economic outcomes. We always think of the obvious things like credit, or agricultural inputs, or business skills training, or health, or nutrition, etc. Perhaps it is time to think about the internal constraints to economic outcomes. Things like aspirations, beliefs, or attitudes. All things that make up what we call hope.

(There is also a theological perspective of all this. Undoubtably, there will be more on that later.)

Why I “Do Development”

A common discussion topic between my classmates and I (between studying, of course) is why we each have chosen our areas of interest in applied economics. In a department as diverse as MSU’s Agriculture, Food, and Resource Economics Department, this discussion often is quite interesting. Some of us are interested in environmental resources (water quality, non-point pollution, energy) some are interested in producing food efficiently and some of us are interested in the field (which is ever growing in popularity) of development economics.

My standard answer to the question, why work on international development issues when there are areas of the United States that need help too (i.e. Detroit) is: “There are entire countries like Detroit”. That’s really just part of my full answer. But here’s a map to back up this idea:

USmap.0 (1)

 

HT Vox.com

The Impacts of Microfinance

My last post highlighted seven randomized evaluations of microfinace programs from around the world. I’ll admit, you have to be a little wonky to read through even one of the papers completely. Luckily, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) has created an easy to understand policy bulletin. [Read the entire brief here] Here are some highlights:

Key Results:

1. Demand for many of the microcredit products was modest.
2. Expanded credit access did lead some entrepreneurs to invest more in their businesses.
3. Microcredit access did not lead to substantial increases in income.
4. Expanded access to credit did afford households more freedom in optimizing how they earned and spent money.
5. There is little evidence that microcredit access had substantial effects on women’s empowerment or investment in children’s schooling, but it did not have widespread harmful effects either.

figure 2

 

Take-up is an important indicator of the success of any customer focused enterprise. In settings where access to the services of the MFI were provided to anyone who passed as “eligible” (poorly defined) 13-30% actually took advantage. That’s 3 out of every ten people. At best! (Even in places where access to the MFI was selected out of a group of people who expressed interest for microcredit take-up was roughly around half of the population.) This fact alone should be a huge reality check for those who advocate for microfinance as the vehicle which paves a road out of poverty for the masses.

Screen shot 2015-02-27 at 9.22.07 PM

 

Microcredit did lead to increased business ownership in some locations. But a quick statistics lesson and a caveat seem important.

First, for a lesson in statistical significance. Only two out of the seven studies reported results of statistically significant difference between the treatment group and the control group. What this means is that the other five studies did not find much variation in increased business ownership of those who had access to MFI’s compared to those who had no access to MFI’s. This is important as the impact (or average treatment effect) of any program represents the effect of those who received treatment minus the effect of those same people who did not receive treatment. It is actually impossible to measure this, as we can’t go back in time and see how a household would fair in the absence of an MFI. When we randomize assignment (access to the MFI, in this case) we are mimicking this experimental ideal by comparing individuals who are statistically the same.

Second, increased business ownership may not be something we want to see from an MFI. Spend any time in any developing country and you will notice that there is no shortage of small businesses. They line the street and side alleys. Some mistake this popularity in business ownership as a propensity for entrepreneurship among the global poor. It may rather be due to a lack of other viable alternatives for economic activity which drives this popularity in business ownership than anything else. Starting a business is often easy, it’s sustaining it and expanding it which is the hard but important part.

Screen shot 2015-02-27 at 9.22.34 PM

 

In summary microcredit fails to impact the things that matter most, consumption (economists favorite observable variable for economic well-being) and social well-being. In fact some studies find decreases in these outcomes!

What does this mean for microcredit moving forward? I don’t think these studies should spell the end for microcredit as a micro-development strategy around the world. I simply think our collective enthusiasm for this medium of assistance needs to be a bit more muted and our expectations need to be a bit more realistic. Also, perhaps microcredit misses the target of what the global poor actually need. Many use microcredit as a way to smooth consumption when income (particularly for farmers) is lumpy. Perhaps we need to think more about products that assist in helping people have more freedom with how they spend their money. Clearly microcredit is not perfect, much can be done to tweak and improve this method. Of course, the best way to do this is through iteration. Trying something new, testing it, gathering feedback, and improving.

Captivated by Elite Capture in Development

Community-based and -driven Development projects have become an important form of development assistance, with the World Bank’s portfolio alone approximating $7 billion. A review of their conceptual foundations and evidence on their effectiveness shows that projects that rely on community participation have not been particularly effective at targeting the poor. There is some evidence that such projects create effective community infrastructure, but not a single study establishes a causal relationship between any outcome and participatory elements of a community-based development project. Most such projects are dominated by elites, and both targeting and project quality tend to be markedly worse in more unequal communities. A distinction between potentially “benevolent” forms of elite domination and more pernicious types of capture is likely to be important for understanding project dynamics and outcomes. Several qualitative studies indicate that the sustainability of community-based initiatives depends crucially on an enabling institutional environment, which requires government commitment, and on accountability of leaders to their community to avoid “supply-driven demand-driven” development. External agents strongly influence project success, but facilitators are often poorly trained, particularly in rapidly scaled-up programs. The naive application of complex contextual concepts like participation, social capital, and empowerment is endemic among project implementers and contributes to poor design and implementation. The evidence suggest that community-based and -driven development projects are best undertaken in a context-specific manner, with a long time horizon and with careful and well-designed monitoring and evaluation systems.

This is the abstract of Mansuri and Rao’s paper “Community-based and -driven Development: A Critical Review“.

My time in Kenya got me thinking a lot about (what I learned is called) “elite capture” in development program implementation. It’s the idea that decentralized and localized development projects may suffer from the local implementers or politicians influencing the target of the program so that it benefits them more directly, instead of the people the project is designed to help. Reading about this stuff is fascinating! Two excellent papers I’ve read so far on elite capture are:

Pan and Christiaensen (2012) “Who is Vouching for the Input Voucher? Decentralized Targeting and Elite Capture in Tanzania” Do the political elite get greater access to “pro-poor” agricultural input vouchers in Tanzania? Yes.

Sheely (2015) “Mobilization, Participatory Planning Institutions, and Elite Capture: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Rural Kenya” Does encouraging ordinary citizens to attend participatory local government planning meetings reduce the influence of the elite on local politics? No.

Sorry for the pay walls on the links, but if this has peaked your interest, The Economist has an excellent summary article: Targeting Social Spending.

Africa’s Grand Narratives

As if peace, prosperity, and progress can be wished into being with scented narratives, Afro-optimist narratives such as the “Africa Rising” stories have been zeitgeist in the last few years. A simple Google search of the phrase “Africa Rising”, at the time of writing this article in November 2014, turns up over 21 million references. But irrespective of la chanson du jour, Africa is neither hopeless nor hopeful. It simultaneously carries potential for hopelessness and hopefulness. When it comes to the task of building strong states, citizens and leaders of African countries have a choice to make, of what to carry into the future and what to leave in the dump of history.

A great excerpt from a great piece by Atta Addo over at the London School of Economics. I hesitate to call this a ‘must read’ as it is simply necessary for anyone interested in doing any work “in Africa”.

For more on re-writing the grand narrative of Africa, see a previous post: “How (not) to Write about Africa