A Checklist for the Modern Development Bureaucrat

If you are ¬†a fan of podcasts then you really should be listening to NPR’s Hidden Brain. This week’s episode is a fascinating look at the impact of “checklists” or “to-do” lists used across a number of different professions to offset human error. It recounts how,¬†during the development of the¬†Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber in the late 1930s, a fatal cash of a prototype plane led to the US Air Force to mandate the practice of running through check lists prior to future flights. While experts in high-skill professions like piloting or surgery typically feel confident in their abilities to get the job done, the addition of routine (and mundane) checks forces them to guard against unlikely but high-cost events.

In another recent podcast the journalist Sarah Kliff frames this as treating mistakes as plane crashes rather than car crashes, the former requiring a full rethink of how procedures are performed. She recounts how hospitals in the US began using checklists to reduce the incidence of central line infections. Even though medical staff are highly-trained professionals who should know the correct procedures to reduce the chance of contamination, infection rates plummeted once they were forced to use checklists prior to a procedure (there were of course other complementary changes in policy).

This led me to wonder whether or not `checklist culture’ is reflected in modern development policy.¬†One might argue that in some ways policy has become too checklist oriented. Many reform agendas – ranging from anti-money laundering standards to private sector reforms –¬† rely on a simple list of indicators or policy changes that a country needs to check off in order to be compliant.¬† While many of these agendas are centered around outcomes or processes worth achieving anyway, many are shallow in nature. This results in brittle institutions that look good on paper, but are incapable of doing much beyond that, a point laid out a long time ago by Lant Pritchett when he first spoke of isomorphic mimicry.

But there may be some ways in which the checklist mentality might be useful for decision makers in the development space. We know from psychology and behavioral economics that people often exhibit cognitive biases in their decision-making. This leads them to make decisions that are bad for them in the long term, but while the ramifications can be substantial, they are largely confirmed to the individual level.

The stakes are potentially a lot higher when those cognitive biases and errors are being made by those that make decisions that effect hundreds, thousands or millions of other people. It would then seem important that development professionals be able to act as impartial, rational decision makers, alas there is evidence that we’re just as flawed as the rest of humankind. A recent working paper by researchers from the World Bank and the Universities of East Anglia and Oxford brought development professionals from DFID and the WB to investigate, aaaaaaand the results ain’t too pretty.¬†From the paper’s abstract:

“Experiments conducted on a novel subject pool of development policy professionals (public servants of the World Bank and the Department for International Development in the United Kingdom) show that policy professionals are indeed subject to¬†decision making traps, including sunk cost bias, the framing of losses and gains, frame-dependent risk-aversion, and, most strikingly, confirmation bias correlated with ideological priors, despite having an explicit mission to promote evidence-informed and impartial decision making. These findings should worry policy professionals and their principals in governments and large organizations, as well as citizens themselves.”

Thankfully, development professionals are not unchecked autocrats, out decisions are confined by the structures of the institutions we work for. But what we don’t know is whether those institutions mitigate or amplify our biases or priors – I think cases can be made in either direction. Development¬†bureaucrats certainly have to jump through a lot of hurdles to get their projects off the ground – but those `checklists’ are largely around mitigating risk, ensuring a proposal has been properly vetted and that it is likely development-friendly. There is some evidence from the above paper that deliberation is effective in reducing these biases, but one wonders whether the type of deliberation that the subjects (in this case DFID economists) participated in mirrors at all the kind of peer-review or administrative checks that the average bureaucrats at DFID or the World Bank goes through.

So maybe we need checklists specifically to offset our biases. I’ll start with a few ideas for both bureaucrats and researchy-economists working on a proposal or note or paper, but would be interested to hear what yours would be.

  1. Is there any rigorous evidence supporting the argument I am making?
  2. Have I sat down and examined whether my beliefs are based on emotion or reasoning?
  3. Would an ordinary person who doesn’t study development or economics understand what I am saying?
  4. Have I made the case that my proposal addresses a development/poverty question, rather than justifying its existence through internal or external politics or momentum around some issue?
  5. Have I listed, at least in my own head, the reasons why I might be wrong about this?
  6. Would someone in another team/department/institution make better use of these resources that I control?
  7. Have I written down a contingency plan for when things go wrong?
  8. Have I thought about how I will know if something has gone wrong?

By the way, you can find the podcasts I mentioned here:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


Orbital Mechanics has created an incredibly creepy, yet riveting video showing every single nuclear detonation from 1945 onward.


You would be excused if your first reaction is “holy shit, we’re absolutely bonkers.” That was my first reaction.

My second thought was: “we were lucky that, aside from the obvious first two bombs, we were relatively lucky in that nothing ever went wrong.” But I was wrong to think that – nuclear testing led to long lasting, negative effects on the cognition of people who were exposed to the radiation while in utero. Sandra Black and co. have a really interesting paper examining the effect on Norwegians (apparently due to atmospheric conditions, a large hunk of radiation form nuclear testing landed in Norway):

Research increasingly shows that differences in endowments at birth need not be genetic but instead are influenced by environmental factors while the fetus is in the womb. In addition, these differences may persist well beyond childhood. In this paper, we study one such environmental factor – exposure to radiation –that affects individuals across the socio-economic spectrum. We use variation in radioactive exposure throughout Norway in the 1950s and early 60s, resulting from the abundance of nuclear weapon testing during that time period, to examine the effect of nuclear exposure in utero on outcomes such as IQ scores, education, earnings, and adult height. Importantly, we are able to examine the effects of exposure each month in utero to determine the periods when exposure is most harmful. We find that exposure to low-dose nuclear radiation, specifically during months 3 and 4 in utero, leads to a decline in IQ scores of men aged 18. Moreover, radiation exposure leads to declines in education attainment, high school completion, and earnings among men and women. We are also able to examine whether these effects persist across a second generation – we find that the children of persons affected in utero also have lower cognitive scores, suggesting a persistent effect of the shock to endowments. Given the lack of awareness about nuclear testing in Norway at this time, our estimates are likely to be unaffected by avoidance behavior or stress effects. These results are robust to the choice of specification and the inclusion of sibling fixed effects.

Hat tip to Kottke.


I drink your milkshake


The Ethiopians appear to be close to finalizing construction of a large hydroelectric dam on the Omo river, primarily to generate power but also to support local irrigation efforts.  Over the past five years the project has received substantial foreign financing and investment by China and indirectly by the World Bank. However, there appears to have been little consideration of the potential downstream impacts: the Omo river feeds Lake Turkana, which is a source of livelihood for a large number of communities in northern Kenya. The possibility that the lake may be partially drained is obviously upsetting a lot of people, although it does not seem that the Kenyan government is making a big fuss over the project.

This is a typical problem of negative externalities: the Ethiopians aren’t factoring in the welfare of Kenyan Turkana residents in the decision to build the dam. There’s actually some research showing that this is a common problem. From a recent World Bank paper by¬†Sheila Olmstead and Hilary Sigman:

This paper examines whether countries consider the welfare of other nations when they make water development decisions. The paper estimates econometric models of the location of major dams around the world as a function of the degree of international sharing of rivers. The analysis finds that dams are more prevalent in areas of river basins upstream of foreign countries, supporting the view that countries free ride in exploiting water resources. There is weak evidence that international water management institutions reduce the extent of such free-riding.

By their very nature dams generate inequality in the flow of water between upstream and downstream areas. It is easier to pay the cost of hurting downstream communities when they are are in a different country (hey, they don’t vote for you). Ergo, countries are more likely to build dams when the costs are external.

It would be interesting to see what mitigates these effects – it is possible that Kenya’s relative indifference is due to lack of political power on the part of the northern tribes. Are dams with substantial cross-border costs less likely in areas where the proximate ethnic group is quite powerful?


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:


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?

Don’t damn the man, migrate away from him


“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 РCaplan 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.

Sexist reasons for gender equity

I’m doing some reading on joint-titling in low income countries. In an article in Feminist Economics,¬†I came across a description of the city of Chandigarh in northern India, where the local government decided to implement a joint titling policy for slums, not because they particularly cared about getting women access to land, but because they felt that nagging wives would stop their husbands from selling it!

One last, important reason why Chandigarh is an interesting place for studying informal settlements is that it recently introduced an innovative way to prevent property sales in regularized settlements ‚Äď ‚Äė‚Äėjoint titling.‚Äô‚Äô The government has decided to allot houses in the name of both husband and wife, replacing the earlier policy of¬†recognizing only the head of household, usually the male, as the homeowner. Joint titling was implemented because government policy-makers believed that women are inherently more attached to their homes than men and would therefore resist any attempt by their husbands to sell the house for profit. These gender differences in attitudes towards the¬†home, officials assumed, would reduce property sales and enhance the effectiveness of housing policies.

It’s good to be the president


Since the unexpected death of Bingu wa Mutharika, I’ve been rather hopeful for Malawi. While Mutharika had an incredibly promising start, his second term was marred with paranoia, aggression and growing signs of dynasty-building and patronage politics. Thanks to a heart attack, we were graced with Joyce Banda, the country’s first female president, who appears to be both modest and incredibly pragmatic, while naturally eschewing¬†the big bwana syndrome while has characterized so much of Malawian politics.

Banda’s sudden¬†appearance¬†on the global scene has excited a lot of people. Perhaps unfairly, many consider her to be Malawi’s best chance of rising above the seemingly-endless cycle of dashed expectations. The Guardian recently ran a behind-the-scenes piece on her which, while captivating and well done, only serves to further entrench these hopes.

To a large extent I share these expectations, and was happy to hear that Banda had decided to sell off the presidential¬†jet¬†and cut the presidential salary to less than what an Oxford post-doc makes in a year. Then I chatted to my mother the other day, who pointed out to me that while watching a BBC show on the posh London hotel Claridge’s, she had spotted Ms. Banda’s husband, having booked for 11 nights with his entourage¬†of fifteen people (it happens at about the 11 minute mark here). Indeed, it appears that Ms. Banda also stayed at Claridge’s during her first state visit to the UK, during which she made the announcement about selling off her jet. While rates for a basic room at Claridges are roughly¬†¬£400, its suites (which the programme suggests the Bandas stayed in) can be as expensive as¬†¬£3,000 a night. The doorman proudly quips “it is Mr. President,” referring to Joyce Banda’s husband, noting he had been to Claridges before.

Perhaps the Banda’s get a special a discount, or the donors ponied up the cash for their London stay, or perhaps Richard Banda has a good pension from serving as Malawi’s Chief Justice. Maybe it’s reasonable to expect heads of state to enjoy a little luxury. Still, it’s awfully good to be the president¬†(or at least the president’s husband).

Get your assumptions out in the open

Oxfam has just released a new report calling for a moratorium on land deals in developing countries. Well worth a look – this should be subject to a robust debate. Lacking the time for more substantive analysis* (see end), let me turn to comparative advantage and look a little closer at one their killer facts:

Indeed Oxfam’s calculations suggest that the land acquired between 2000 and 2010 has the potential to feed a billion people, equivalent to the number of people who currently go to bed hungry each night.

Sounds like a lot of people. The defence of this calculation is tucked away in the footnotes:

The country and area of individual land deals for the purposes of agriculture, forestry, and livestock, covering a total of 40.3 million ha, were obtained from http://landportal.info/landmatrix/get-the-detail/database.csv (downloaded 25/07/12). The potential annual cereal production on acquired land was then calculated for each country by summing the product of the area of each deal and the average national cereal yield (data source: http://faostat3.fao.org (downloaded 25/07/12)). The food energy available from the potential cereal harvest on acquired land in each country was calculated by multiplying the potential production volume by the kcal available from one tonne of cereal in the given country (obtained by dividing the annual food energy supply by the annual food supply quantity, in both cases for cereals excluding beer (data source: Ibid.)). The number of people that could potentially be fed from acquired land in each country was then calculated by dividing the potential annual supply of food energy by the product of 365 days and 1,800 kcal (the FAO’s global minimum daily energy requirement per capita). National totals were then summed to arrive at a global total. On the assumption that the vast majority of the land acquired in the past ten years could be used to grow food, whether or not investors intend to use it in that way, and that the publicly available data is a reasonably representative sample of the total database, a conservative estimation was made that if about 40 million ha could feed about 240 million people, then 203 million ha is likely to have the potential to feed more than 1 billion people

So there’s an assumption here that the land being sold could, if left alone, supply food with the same yield as current production in the country it was purchased. I think this depends on assumptions over the availability of labour to farm this land if it were left free and the marginal product of labour (i.e. would we expect average yields to increase if people left some farms to take up the free land). Oxfam seems to be relying on a pretty optimistic opportunity cost to these land deals – that the¬†counter-factual¬†is a world in which this land sprouts average yields instantly and international food distribution gets the food to the right people who need it.

Of course Oxfam’s calculations may not be¬†considering¬†the¬†counter-factual¬†of no land deals – instead they might just be pointing out the value of the land, in terms of feeding potential, is quite high. This notion is reinforced by the fact that a large chunk of the land deals are for the purpose of growing food to feed people in other countries. A debate about the impacts of these land deals should also consider the impacts on the hungry in investing countries, as they are part of this one billion figure. Anyway,¬†I’d like to hear your comments about the underlying assumptions.

Klaus Deininger, Rabah Arezki and Harris Selod have a recent paper showing that land deals more likely to happen in countries with poor land governance and tenure security. While the Oxfam report does point this out, the violation of the rights and lack of compensation paid to displaced landholders might be a more solid starting point than numbers generated primarily to alarm people. Then again, I suppose that’s the goal of these reports.

*Apologies for the lack of posting – I’m currently in the last couple of months before submitting my PhD, so expect I’ll be able to return full-force by the end of the year.

Dar es Salaam and the megacity

Joe Boyle at the BBC has written an interesting piece on the rapid growth of Dar es Salaam. ¬†It’s a fairly pessimistic read, starting out hopeful but then sketching the city as under-siege¬†from ¬†informal hordes, only to find salvation in Singapore-style urban planning.

The UN estimates that 70% of Dar es Salaam’s population live in informal settlements; there are no slums in Singapore.

Slum clearance would be vital to any regeneration project. It would involve rehousing possibly hundreds of thousands of people, and the extra headache of clarifying the legal status of the land that has often passed down through generations of families without any legal paperwork.

Most of my work in the last two or three years of my PhD has been focused on the slums of Dar. I’ve written about my views of slum formation on this blog¬†before: I do think they represent a missed opportunity, but I’m not sure that slum clearance is the answer. While there is something appealing about wiping the slate clean and doing things properly, the Tanzanian government doesn’t have a history of well-managed land expropriation, often botching both the relocation and compensation of those displaced.

In one of the¬†neighbourhoods¬†where our¬†land titling project¬†is running, over 200 homes have been marked for demolition by the local authority due to their proximity to a river (which was the source of major flooding in December). Ostensibly, all houses within a certain distance are to be bulldozed, but glancing around it’s clear that the targeting has been a little haphazard, and many people are still holding out under the assumption that the actual¬†clearance¬†might not happen for months or years.

There’s little discussion in Boyle’s piece about an alternative route: giving the residents of slums good reasons to embrace formality. We often look at the informal property market as being inherently¬†dysfunctional, but it’s amazing just how well they do work in allocating a scarce resource to incoming migrants. The government would undoubtedly (I think) prefer everyone to have formal titles, so they can be identified, taxed, and regulated. But what¬†slum-dwellers¬†need to see is a formal system which gives them protection from unnecessary¬†expropriation, lets them buy and sell with relative ease, and gives them access to the sort of public goods and infrastructure that taxes¬†should buy you. Over the last decade, the government tried to get everyone to buy-in, advocating a cheap, renewable tenure system which would required everyone to pay land rent, but it failed to deliver on the¬†pro-quo¬†of infrastructure and services.

The slum¬†clearance¬†route would do this bluntly, by pushing people into planned housing and trying to do the same with newcomers, but I think formal systems which are put in place without good incentives for everyone to invest in them are bound to fail. Boyle’s article discussed the creation of a new master plan for Dar es Salaam as a means to curb slum formation. It might be worth noting that the last master plan was updated in 1979, just before several decades of absolutely massive informal growth.

Finally, I’m also a bit perplexed by the comments of Taweza’s Rakesh Rajani:

He says Tanzania could face a similar conflagration to Kenya in 2007, when thousands of people were killed in post-election violence.

Rajani undoubtedly is more in touch with the average Dar es Salaamer than I am, but I still find such a prediction hard to swallow. Yes, there are tensions, both today and historically, especially with young men (David Brennan’s article on the Tanu Youth League makes for some good reading), but the sort of violence Rajani is afraid of needs both a spark and incentives to keep the flame alight. I don’t know if I see either in Dar es Salaam, although I am typing this from my desk in Oxford.

Hat tip to @AndreaScheible for the BBC link.



One evening, back in 2010, I found myself stuck in Dar es Salaam’s soul-destroying evening traffic. I was trapped on Ocean Road, which leads from the ferries crossing the harbour past the presidential grounds. Often clogged with government workers and ex-pats trying to escape to the peninsula and beyond, the local street sellers have long-since adapted to this particular group, often selling international magazines (the Economist!) and informational maps and posters. It is here that I picked up my 2010 African Leaders Calendar poster, which devotes 90% of its space to African heads of state and 10% to anything calendar related.

I never put the poster up Рit always sat on a shelf behind my desk in the department. It started seeming terribly out of date after the Arab spring and the second Ivorian civil war, so I started crossing presidents off when they were no longer in office. Not as part of some macabre hit list, but just to keep track of who had left. Out of the 56 countries represented, about 12 heads-of-state are no longer in power. The reasons for an X are myriad Рfailed re-elections, retirements, untimely deaths, revolutions and coups. Not always, but often, an X represents a shift for the better Рor at the very least change.

Today I crossed off Professor John Evans Atta Mills, president of Ghana, who died yesterday. It’s not¬†totally clear what illness Mills died of, possibly a complication of his throat cancer. I’ve written before of the tendency for African president to unexpectedly fall off their perches, felled by common ailments of the elderly such as cancer or strokes.

Two and a half years have seen an attrition of about 20%s. How long until that number hits 100%? At the top of the poster sit two of the stalwarts: Museveni and Kagame. I fear it will be quite some time before this calendar is finished.

By the way, if anyone can get their hands on either the 2011 or 2012 posters, let me know.