You just don’t get me

Timothy Taylor has an excellent write up on the behavioural economics results coming out of the recently-released 2015 World Development Report. One of the most striking findings is that World Bank staff tend to overestimate the tendency for poor people to be fatalistic. From Taylor’s post:

What do development experts think that the poor believe, and how does it compare to what the poor actually believe? For example, development experts were asked if they thought individuals in low-income countries would agree with the statement: “What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me.”  The development experts thought that maybe 20% of tthe poorest third would agree with this statment, but about 80% actually did. In fact, the share of those agreeing with the statement in the bottom third of the income distribution was much the same as for the upper two-thirds–and higher than the answer the devleopment experts gave for themselves!

A number of other bloggers have picked up on this result, albeit without too much discussion about what this implies. I think the implicit assumption here are that development professionals are out of touch with the poor. I think there’s a number of ways we can interpret these results. Here’s the graph in question:

control_wdr

So the first possibility is the implicit one, that Bank staff don’t know what the poor believe, and possibly even that they assume the poor are fatalistic, possibly to a fault. Development economics is only starting to turn its head towards the convergence of fatalism, aspirations and economic outcomes (see, for example, the recent paper by Kate Orkin and her co-authors on aspirations in Ethiopia). The story that development experts buy into this belief is an easy one to believe, but not necessarily the right one. Note that it doesn’t at all take into account what the truth is, only perceptions.

Imagine your life’s outcomes are determined by (A) your own actions and (B) everything else, including randomness. How much weight would you put on (A) vs (B)? There’s no easy answer to this, but it is perfectly possible that the world’s poor ARE poor because (B) is actually much larger than (A). When you live in a country with terrible institutions, no social safety net, frequent economic or environmental shocks, it becomes very clear that (B) dominates (A).

So the second possibility is that Bank staff aren’t assuming the poor are being fatalistic, but that they are being realistic. That they (correctly?) judge that they have little control over their own lives. If they did, then they probably wouldn’t be poor. In this case, if the responses from the above sample are genuine (we might worry that respondents would be unwilling to admit that they have little control), then it’s the poor who have it the wrong way around: they are too optimistic about how much control they have over their own lives.

The second possibility isn’t necessarily any more likely than the first, but we should be cautious about what stories eventually emerge out of the above figure – there are a number of potentially overlapping biases at play, to the extent that it is not just a straightforward story of development professionals not `getting’ the poor.

Make love, not development goals

"Son, we need to talk about your development indicators."

“Son, we need to talk about your development indicators.”

I was pleasantly  surprised to see this post by Chloe Safier on Duncan Green’s excellent blog. From her final paragraph:

Ignoring that people have – and enjoy – sex diminishes the full reality of people’s experiences and relationships. If the development and donor communities, could shift their conversations around sexual and reproductive health and rights, empowerment, and gender to include the people’s whole sexual lives, we’d all be better off.

Safier is basically making the case that a focus on reproductive rights is not enough, that the development industry also needs to start discussing how to improve people’s sex lives – not so much in a broad sense (e.g. maximizing per capita orgasms) but more of a Sen-style capabilities approach to ensure everyone has the potential for a decent sex life.

I’m not sure I can fully embrace Safier’s recommendations – that the ever-growing list of NGO/donor priorities should include sexual enjoyment, but this is more due to a general unease about NGO mission creep than about a focus on sex.That said – I am astonished by infrequently developmentistas talk about how important sex is for human welfare. At risk of sounding ageist, I suspect this because the field is still dominated by the middle-aged and older crowds, cohorts who have a pretty solid history of looking down on talking openly about sex. I don’t know whether this is purely generational, or just a fact about getting older – I’ll report back in 10 or 20 years or so.

Economists, in turn, see almost incapable about talking sensibly about sex. Last year, at a seminar in Oxford – I witnessed a group of academic economists argue over why birth rates went up in regions of Spain after outbursts of Basque separatist violence. The consensus was that violence forces people indoors, which in turn lowers the opportunity cost to sex. That is, now we are unable to go to the park, we’re more likely to stay at home and, well, get it on. Upon reaching this conclusion, the room of mainly-male academics erupted in a bout of giggling.

This may well be true – but it’s emblematic of the way that we (economists) tend to bulldoze over sex with standard Econ 101 explanations. We can, in part, thank the late Gary Becker for taking all the fun out of sex.

Or the emotion – there’s a lot of reasons we jump into each other’s arms. To take the Spanish example: extreme stress tends to drive us to do things which mitigate stress, sex being at top of that particular list.

Time for a global sexual satisfaction index? Maybe not – but it’s still refreshing to see this being discussed openly.

Come work for me (in London)

choice

CGD is hiring a research assistant to work full time here at in the London office with Vijaya Ramachandran and me. The work would primarily be on Illicit Financial Flows, but also to support other research which Vij and I work on, which include humanitarian assistance/firm growth in Africa as well as land tenure work.

You can read the full ad and apply here.

This is a great opportunity to get involved with a really important and exciting line of research. Let me also take this moment to say: CGD is a fantastic organization to work for. My 10 months in the London office have been some of my happiest to date – it is one of the rare places where I actually feel excited on a Sunday evening knowing that I’ll see my colleagues the next morning. Even though many of us all work on different things, we act like a big family, one which I would encourage anyone to join.

We wish to become your friends if we may

“Kikuchiyo, a fake birth certificate and stolen armour does not make you a samurai.”

I recently received an e-mail from the renowned “Journal of Economics World” whose tagline is “From knowledge to wisdom!”

Dear Matthew Collin ,

This is Economics World (ISSN 2328-7144), a professional journal published across the United States by David Publishing Company, New York, NY, USA.

We have learnt your paper “ Persistence in the effect of  birth order on child  development: evidence from the Philippines ” in the 2014 CSAE Conference on Economic Development in Africa, March 23-25, 2014, St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, UK.

We are very interested in your research and also would like to publish your other unpublished papers in Economics World (ISSN 2328-7144). If you have the idea of making our journal a vehicle for your research interests, please feel free to send electronic version of your papers or books to us through email attachment in MS word format.

Currently, we are trying to invite some scholars who are willing to join our editorial board or be our reviewers. If you are interested in our journal, please send your CV to us. Hope to keep in touch by email and can publish some papers or books from you and your friends. As an American academic publishing group, we wish to become your friends if we may.

Economics World is, as best I can tell, a `paper mill’ – a place where the truly desperate send their work (paying roughly $60 a page!) to show that it can be published.

Not today EW, not today.

Rule of Law, Goma edition

Jessica Hatcher over at Vice News has an amazing piece about a Peace One Day-sponsored concert in Goma, hosted by none-other than R&B/hip-hop star Akon and…… Jude Law?

Well worth a read. My favourite passage:

Akon, in black PVC trousers, diamond studs, and a black hooded cardigan, burst onto the stage. The people of Goma responded. Police strained to hear on their walkie-talkies. “Ladies say yeah!”, he shouted, communicating in neither Kiswahili nor French. The crowd, who couldn’t understand, echoed distorted versions of his chants. “I wanna make love now now now now,” he sang, to an almost all-male crowd.

The music was intoxicating, the stage-craft ambitious. At one point, Akon stepped into a giant clear plastic ball and surfed the crowd — though the audience of five or six thousand wasn’t quite dense enough so he fell three times, and at one point a team of robo-cop style United Nations police went to the rescue. The speakers pumped out gunshot sounds for a few seconds, but that was quickly cut off. Foreign aid workers cringed at the song, Smack That, which glorifies domestic violence. Much of the audience looked bemused, but those at the front kept up the arm-waving and screaming. “It’s amazing!” said one British aid worker as he drifted past aglow.

Land grabs in everything: couldn’t you have just have bought your daughter a pony edition

By most accounts, the recent swath of large scale land acquisitions are being driven by investors wishing to capitalize on rising food prices or expectations of greater demand for land. However, some just want to give their daughter a nice birthday present:

Within months, Heaton was journeying through the desolate southern stretches of Egypt and into an unclaimed 800-square-mile patch of arid desert. There, on June 16 — Emily’s seventh birthday — he planted a blue flag with four stars and a crown on a rocky hill. The area, a sandy expanse sitting along the Sudanese border, morphed from what locals call Bir Tawil into what Heaton and his family call the “Kingdom of North Sudan.” There, Heaton is the self-described king and Emily is his princess.

Uh, what?

Heaton says his claim over Bir Tawil is legitimate. He argues that planting the flag — which his children designed — is exactly how several other countries, including what became the United States, were historically claimed. The key difference, Heaton said, is that those historical cases of imperialism were acts of war while his was an act of love.

At 200,000 hectares, this partially qualifies the, uh, Kingdom of North Sudan to be counted as a land deal in the Land Matrix. This dude even wants to use the land for large scale agriculture:

The next step in Heaton’s plan is to establish positive relationships with Sudan and Egypt by way of converting his “kingdom” into an agricultural production center as his children, especially Emily, wanted.

Hat tip to Karol Bodreaux.

Malawi: The Next Generation

Malawi will have its next presidential election in just a few days. Kim Yi Dionne posted some photos of the four most prominent presidential candidates. One stood out to me:

img_2183

I’m a little unclear as to what “Generation Change” comprises. If Atupele Mulizi is indicating that his election would essentially be a changing of the guard, then this slogan is pretty appropriate, given that Atupele is the son of former president (and all around disaster) Bakili Mulizi. But if, by “generation change”, Atupele is indicating that he is bringing something new to the table, then this is more than a little awkward. Similarly, the DPP candidate Peter Mutharika is the brother of the late president Bingu wa Mutharika.

In other news, Joyce Banda’s campaign slogan relies on good old fashioned promises of more transfers to the rural population, with “Continued Fertilizer Programme. More Crops, More Food.” Where have I seen this strategy before?

When blind is not beautiful

"Hello? Is it a placebo effect that you're looking for?

“Hello? Is it a placebo effect that you’re looking for?

Note: this is an expanded version of a post published at CGD’s Views from the Center Blog

Over at Boring Development, Francisco Toro picks up on the recent Bulte et. al. paper which attempts to implement a double-blind protocol in a `standard’ policy RCT. The study’s abstract:

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in the social sciences are typically not double-blind, so participants know they are “treated” and will adjust their behavior accordingly. Such effort responses complicate the assessment of impact. To gauge the potential magnitude of effort responses we implement a conventional RCT and double-blind trial in rural Tanzania, and randomly allocate modern and traditional cowpea seed varieties to a sample of farmers. Effort responses can be quantitatively important—for our case they explain the entire “treatment effect on the treated” as measured in a conventional economic RCT. Specifically, harvests are the same for people who know they received the modern seeds and for people who did not know what type of seeds they got; however, people who knew they had received the traditional seeds did much worse. Importantly, we also find that most of the behavioral response is unobserved by the analyst, or at least not readily captured using coarse, standard controls.

So it appears that most of the treatment effects in this study are driven by changing behaviour by the farmers who knowingly-received modern seed varieties. Toro touts this as some sort of massive blow to the randomista movement:

This gap between the results of the open and the double-blind RCTs raises deeply troubling questions for the whole field. If, as Bulte et al. surmise, virtually the entire performance boost arises from knowing you’re participating in a trial, believing you may be using a better input, and working harder as a result, then all kinds of RCT results we’ve taken as valid come to look very shaky indeed.

….

Still, the study is an instant landmark: a gauntlet thrown down in front of the large and growing RCT-Industrial Complex. At the very least, it casts serious doubt on the automatic presumption of internal validity that has long attached to open RCTs. And without that presumption, what’s left, really?

Even if you take the results of this paper at face value (and there are some good reasons we shouldn’t), it’s hard to see here why these results should be that troubling.

The reason that medical researchers use double-blind protocol in clinical trials is to try and pin down the exact physiological impact of a medicine, independent of any conscious or subconscious behavioural response. Placebo effects have been fairly well established, so figuring out that medicine X has an effect above and beyond the health effects created by taking a sugar pill are important. One very important thing to note, however, is that unless there is a no-placebo control group, researchers using double-blind protocol will be unable to identify the total average treatment effect of a medicine: we will know what the impact is compared to someone else given a pill, but if we randomly selected someone in the population (with the same characteristics of the study group) to receive the treatment, we can’t say much about what the overall effect will be. Also, fairly critically, while double-blind studies allow us to make the assumption that placebo effects are similar across treatment and control groups, we cannot say anything about how they would compare to an explicit non-blind clinical trial (i.e. placebo effects might be quite different when the treated know they are treated).

Most development randomistas are answering substantially different questions than medical scientists. It is fairly easy to establish the efficacy of a set of agricultural inputs in a controlled setting: we know fertilizer `works’ in that it improve yields. We know vaccines work in savings lives and that increasing educational inputs, to some extent, improves educational outcomes. This was Jeffrey Sachs’s reasoning when he sold much of the world on the Millennium Village Project: we know what works, we just need to implement it. But most of us running RCTs aren’t interested in the direct impact of an intervention, holding behaviour constant, because it is precisely this behaviour that matters the most. If our question is “do improved seeds work in a controlled setting?” then a double-blind RCT is well and fine, but if our question is, “do improved seeds work when you distribute them openly, as you would do in pretty much any standard intervention,” then you need transparent protocols to get at the average treatment effect you are interested in.

Many economists are interested in mechanisms – in picking apart the behavioural responses to a given treatment. In this respect, the Bulte et. al. paper is very interesting: here we have an intervention which works primarily through behavioural response rather than a change in household resources, etc. This is intriguing and worth picking apart for getting a better sense of why interventions like these work. However, from the perspective of a policy wonk, we might care less: if you give people improved seeds then yields go up. If you de-worm children then schooling goes up. These are answers worth knowing even if that’s all we know.

For those of us interested in behavioural responses, we don’t necessarily need to run around running double-blind RCTs to get a handle on them. Consider this excellent paper by Jishnu Das and others on the effect of anticipated versus unanticipated school grants: when parents knew that their child’s school would be receiving more money, they reduced their own spending on school inputs enough to completely offset the gains from the grants. In a world in which we could have run the grant programme as a blinded RCT, it would have looked like grants were successfully in raising test scores – but it would have told us preciously little about how grants operate in the real world.

There’s another issue here: imposing blinding in many development RCTs creates some substantial ethical issues. Imagine, for instance, that you could fool a Kenyan farmer into not knowing whether or not she received high quality fertilizer or a bag of dirt. The average farmer might behave as if she has received nothing, she might also behave as if she had received a perfectly good bag of fertilizer, or she might hedge and use some of it, realizing that it may not be useful. Some of these decisions may be sub-optimal: if the farmer knew she was in the control group, she might have opted for a different planting method, one which would have resulted in a higher yield. In this particular example, obscuring the treatment from our study group actually runs the risk of doing them harm, especially if they believe they are treated and take complementary actions which are in fact wasteful if they are not actually in the treatment group. 

The thing you should take away from the Bulte et. al. study shouldn’t be “all RCTs are biased because we aren’t measuring placebo effects”  but instead “behavioural response matters for evaluating real-world policies.” The latter statement actually reinforces the need to have transparent RCTs, rather than to try and mimic the double-blind nature of clinical trials.

Who you gonna call? A mob

stoning

“Look, I’d had a lovely supper, and all I said to my wife was: “That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.” “Blasphemy! “”

Large crowds are inherently scary. Not, perhaps at first glance, but those of us that live in large cities do so under the assumption that while crowds are somewhat chaotic  and have the potential for danger, they will never be intentionally malevolent, at least not towards us. Yet there is still an unease there, of the type that underlies the kind of horror frequently employed in post-apocalyptic zombie films or John Carpenter flicks, that very quickly the crowd can turn against you.

Perhaps this is not totally unreasonable source of anxiety – while most violence in London (where I’ve recently started living) tends to be of the individual-on-individual sort, mob violence is more frequently a reality for many living in developing countries. Take, for instance, this new report by the incredibly prolific NGO Twaweza on violence in Tanzania. Drawing upon a nationally-representative phone survey, one of the most striking results is deaths due to mob violence appear to be more common (or are as commonly-perceived by respondents) than ordinary murders: twaweza

In fact, as many people are killed by mobs as by ordinary citizens, police and the national army combined. If we consider mob violence to be a form of extra-legal justice, imagine a government which executes more people than those who commit murder. While these figures are based on perceptions and should be taken with a grain of assault, it’s worth noting that forensic investigations into violent deaths in Dar es Slaam reveal that at least 10% are due to mob justice, still a staggering number.

Yet, outside of the occasional hushed ex-pat dinner party conversation or resigned lamentations by locals, I’ve rarely hear people actually discuss the causes and consequences of mob violence in much detail (although as I write this I suspect that a reader will soon point out that something akin to a Journal of Mobbing Studies which I will have overlooked). Malawi, where I lived for some, seemed particularly afflicted with mob violence centred around automobile accidents, where the drivers of cars found to be at fault were often assaulted, and sometimes killed. This happened with enough frequency to create a culture of “fleeing the scene,” where drivers who were not even directly connected to an accident drove off for fear of being blamed and attacked (this was the basis for a film I shot whilst living there). I began thinking about the issue again when, recently, one of the respondents in a survey I’m helping run in Dar es Salaam was killed by a mob after (purportedly) murdering another resident. 

What leads to mobbing and why does it appear to be more prevalent in societies with dysfunctional institutions? Let’s take the armchair economist position for a moment: it would probably be fairly easy to write down a herding model where people update their beliefs about a person’s guilt based on the behaviour of others. Person 1 decides, for whatever reason, that the accused is guilty, person 2 updates his/her beliefs based on person 1’s belief, and so on, until you have a mob which is convinced that the accused is guilty. If you combine that with a utility function that inversely weights the disutility or ‘guilt’ one might feel  from being personally responsible for a death (I take comfort in knowing I probably didn’t throw the fatal stone), it’s easy to see how mobs might easily form in a context where punishment would otherwise be uncertain.

While this sort of explanation is rather intuitive, I find it a bit unsatisfying for three reasons: i) it ignores the drivers of the probability of punishment in the counterfactual and ii) it assumes that mob behaviour is solely defined over the desire to inflict justice on the guilty. It also tells us nothing about why people are more likely to be stoned to death in Dar es Salaam than, say, Myrtle Beach. A couple of thoughts:

i) What happens if we don’t stone people to death? Most socio-cultural explanations share a similar premise: people rely on mob violence precisely because they do not trust the formal justice system to get the verdict right. If the police and judiciary are capable of finding and punishing the right person, our need to rely on selection-via-herding decreases. If this is true, then strengthening the formal justice system should reduce mob violence. This falls apart if people can selectively engage the formal system – if mob justice isn’t just about guaranteeing some form of punishment, then perpetrators may still choose vigilantism over bringing in the police. This brings me to the next thought:

ii) Is this really about punishment? As with most social/political/economics concepts, Monty Python got there first: in Life of Bryan overzealous women disguise themselves with fake beards so they can throw stones at people for the fun of it. If mobs are primarily made up of young angry men, then we might begin to suspect this has more to do with the tendency for young, angry men to enjoy a bit of the ultra-violence.

Is there a quick fix here, other than waiting for the legal system to become strong enough to both reasonably guarantee punishment of those that commit the initial crime and those who engage in mob justice? Given the snowballing nature of mob violence, moving quickly to both disrupt the initial signal (that the accused must be guilty) and raise the cost of participation (a less extreme version of the Desmond Tutu method of mob justice defusal, perhaps). Do we need a roving band of mob-busters to save the day?

Or perhaps it is reasonable that mob justice is so infrequently subject to policy discussion – it is something which probably declines as countries get richer and their institutions grow more robust, so is it really deserving of too much scrutiny? 

Don’t damn the man, migrate away from him

obi

“Sorry Luke, it would frankly be immoral for me to suggest you leave your aunt and uncle’s farm to fight the Empire. Keep your head down and consider moving somewhere a little less Empiresque.”

In a recent blog post, Bryan Caplan goes after the argument that poor people who wish to migrate away from dysfunctional states should stay there and fix their political system.

When I point out that would-be immigrants are trying to save themselves and their families from hellish Third World conditions, my critics often respond, “They ought to stay home and try to fix their broken political systems!”

For many of the world’s poor, the chances for successful change are slim to none. When compared with the gains from migration, the decision is a bit of a no brainer. Furthermore,  a persons’ decision to migration (flee) should already contain some information about their ability or will to influence their own political system, so these are often the last people who should be sticking around. Given that most of us living in rich countries go out of our way to protect ourselves and our families from unnecessary risks, the suggestion that poor migrants should put themselves on the line is a little unfair.*

Yet Caplan takes what should be a straightforward counter-argument based on the expected returns to political activism and instead tries to moralize it by hatin’ on political activists.

Thus, suppose Jacques the desperate Haitian father has an opportunity to escape to Miami, where he can shine shoes and send money home to feed his kids.  Instead, he chooses to let his kids go hungry so he stays in Port-au-Prince and fights tyranny with political leaflets and soapbox speeches.  Noble?  No more than John.  The righteous man knows that meeting his family responsibilities is more important than playing Don Quixote.

Then he goes after the very notion of activism itself and, in a one-man demonstration of Godwin’s law, manages to link activism with Hitler.

Indeed, triumphant activists routinely give new meaning to the word “tyranny.”  See Lenin, Hitler, and Mao for starters.

Yikes. It’s one thing to point out that staying in Haiti is not always the most cost effective way to improve your life, it’s quite another to condemn those who have what I would describe as “activist preferences.” The decision to stand up to the man isn’t an easy one, nor does it often make economic sense, therefore we should never condemn anyone for failing to stand up against the man when they have everything to lose and nothing to gain.

Yet judging whether or not political activism will be successful is pretty difficult stuff. Actually, I would argue that successful political activism is defined by its unpredictability, which makes it terribly hard to put a normative judgement on. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi which kicked off the Tunisian revolution and possibly the entire Arab Spring made very little rational sense – Caplan would label Bouazizi as irresponsible for the family he left behind when he killed himself.

I agree that it would have been wrong to condemn Bouazizi if he had instead taken a boat to continental Europe, and I would like to live in a world where other people can easily escape, but shouldn’t we also do our best to support those who have revealed a preference for `fighting tyranny?’ While the world would be immeasurably better off with more open borders, achieving that milestone does not permit us to ignore the injustices that remain around the globe, be they political or economic.

 

 *Although it should be noted that the migration decision, especially if done illegally, can itself be very risky.