Successful Twaweza evaluators’ workshop

I am on my way home from the Twaweza evaluators’ conference in Dar es Salaam… literally on my way, posting this on the second leg of my air journey to JFK, having departed Dubai around 4am… which suggests that now even international air travel offers no respite from the distractions of the web. But I digress.

The meeting was really extraordinary in so many ways. Twaweza’s Learning, Monitoring, and Evaluation manager, Varja Liposvek, brought together several evaluation teams — including the “LPT” team (Lieberman, Dan Posner and Lily Tsai), the AIID team from University of Amsterdam (Chris Elbers and Jan Willem Gunning), and James Habyarimana, who represented his Georgetown-based team. And a new JPAL/IPA project was presented by Twaweza’s Youdi Schipper. The approximately 40 attendees included various managers from within the organization; and a host of researchers and development specialists, including from the World Bank, Innovations for Poverty Action, Oxfam, the International Budget Project, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, and DFID.

Although the room contained many distinct perspectives, the conversation was unified around a willingness to rigorously question every proposition, including how to conceptualize and to measure the intervention and associated outcomes, and how to judge the quality of evidence. I have attended many similar events, in which the attendees also came from different perspectives, and this one was remarkable for the unified willingness to engage constructively.

The first day of the conference involved hearing from the various evaluation teams, including ours, and in all cases, the studies are not yet complete. LPT and AIID have actually been evaluating Twaweza’s work, in the case of LPT by focusing on their education initiative, Uwezo. The other projects have initiated RCT’s to test related propositions that will inform future work. It was an extremely useful discussion and rewarding for us to see the care and attention with which our client was listening to and keeping track of these studies and thinking about ways to incorporate the findings into their mission.

Along these lines, more extraordinary from my perspective, was the second day — in which Twaweza’s director, Rakesh Rajani, announced to us all — look, we remain devoted to Twaweza, we know that these evaluations are not complete and only evaluate parts of what we do… but we also know from these studies, and from our experience and intuition to date, that much of what we are doing is not having the impact we would like. So let’s not simply keep doing the same thing; let’s make some substantial adjustments to better position ourselves for success.

In this regard, Twaweza is in a uniquely favorable position as compared with most NGO’s. I don’t know all of the specifics, but Twaweza’s donors appear to have a pretty long and patient time horizon. Unlike the average NGO, which is constantly fighting for its own survival, and under severe pressure to demonstrate quick results, Twaweza can afford to admit they didn’t have all the right answers before they started.

Again, particularly gratifying from the perspective of development/evaluation researchers was the stated commitment (and I’ll report back to see if this happens) to incorporate evaluators to a much greater extent in both the theorizing and design of their work going forward. (That willingness was not part of the first stage…) We now all have a basis for thinking about what doesn’t work and some intuition about why, and hopefully, this will allow both Twaweza and the evaluators to make some better and more focused bets about what might have the desired impact on the key outcomes of citizen agency and service delivery.

I learned a great deal from the workshop. That said, I wouldn’t yet bet my home that Twaweza will achieve its goals or that we or any of the other evaluation teams will be able to detect any treatment effects from research that we might design going forward. The core mission of trying to increase citizen agency and improve development outcomes through information provision is a challenging one. But I think that Twaweza has already set a valuable example for researchers and development practitioners in terms of how to engage in a manner that sparks careful, creative, and critical thinking, incorporating necessary theoretical and practical concerns. I’m glad that 50 hours of flying and brief abandonment of my family was not in vain.

Sadly avoiding Nairobi this week…

I was scheduled to fly out to Nairobi this Saturday night to do 3 days of work, including some social science research methods training to the Uwezo staff, before heading to Dar es Salaam for a multi-day conference with the various teams that have been working on the Twaweza initiative. In light of the awful attack on the Westgate Mall, a place I have frequented several times, and the fact that it was not absolutely essential to be in Nairobi, we decided to bypass Kenya altogether. I’ll go “straight” (i.e., with two other layovers) to Tanzania instead. Notwithstanding the pleas from the Standard Newspaper against international travel advisories… my inbox piled up this morning with lots of them and frankly, I just couldn’t justify to myself or to my family a good reason for entering the fray in the midst of all that’s going on, especially since it would likely be impossible to be very productive. But I’m disappointed to not be going to Nairobi, and more so that Kenyans are taking it on the chin once again.

Meanwhile, I know it’s 2013, but I’m still dumbstruck by the ubiquitous nature of communications technology and social media during a terrorist attack. Seems as if many citizens at the scene, despite threats to life and body, have been using their smartphones to broadcast images from the mall. Shabaab and the Kenyan military have been exchanging public tweets about who has the upper hand in the standoff. CNN writes, “ Are you in Nairobi? Send us your images and experiences, but please stay safe.” Unfortunately, the spectacle and global stage of violence almost certainly makes it a more appealing strategy for the very groups who perpetrated these heinous acts.

P.S. I know I have been a delinquent blogger for quite some time. I really don’t know how these folks with full time jobs can manage to blog so frequently… but perhaps the Fall will bring greater inspiration and speedy fingers in generating blog-worthy posts. I am likely to tweet more frequently at @evlieb

Learning about citizenship in Rural Kenya

As part of our ongoing work with Uwezo in Kenya, Dan Posner, Lily Tsai and I commissioned two great Ph.D. students — Brandon de la Cuesta (Princeton) and Leah Rosenzweig (MIT) — to help us learn more about what citizens in rural Kenya are doing (or not doing) to exercise their rights as citizens, particularly in the primary education sector. Much of our initial research during the first couple of years of our work on this project has showed virtually no effects from information campaigns, and we thought it was important to get a fuller understanding of the range of actions citizens can and do take. But we concluded that additional closed-ended surveys would not be the way to go, because frankly, we were concerned that we might not be asking the right questions.

So, we sent Brandon and Leah off for a few months of field research, working with our senior project manager, Jessica Grody, and various Uwezo staff, to conduct more open-ended interviews, conduct focus groups, and simply observe what is going on, in order to try to generate some better ideas for our ongoing research concerning what types of information might drive active citizenship. Their findings will help drive our future research agenda on this project, and in the meantime, they just shared with me a few pics from their days in the field.

students reading in class

students reading in class

primary school children with their head teacher in Nandi East

primary school children with their head teacher in Nandi East

Brandon speaking with the chief in Nandi East at a Baraza for farmers

Brandon speaking with the chief in Nandi East at a Baraza for farmers

posters from a classroom in Meru South

posters from a classroom in Meru South

African perspectives on Kenyan election

Next week’s presidential election in Kenya is being closely monitored both because it is the first under its new constitution, because democratic institutions are still in their infancy across Africa, because the last election resulted in so much bloodshed, and a few of the leading candidates are scheduled to stand trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity. The New York Times has been covering pretty closely, but I thought it was worth taking a look at how the election is being viewed from various African perspectives.

AU: The African Union is sending the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, to lead a team that will monitor the Kenyan elections, part of its ongoing efforts to promote democratic processes.

Uganda relies heavily on the port of Mombasa for imports and exports, so post-election violence in Kenya could significantly harm the Ugandan economy. The tea industry in particular has expanded in recent years, with farmers planting more acres and new factories rising to process the crops to take advantage of high prices on the international market.

Ugandan security officials have also been monitoring the situation, partially in response to the severe fuel shortage that struck Uganda during Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008.

However, Ugandans have also discussed what Kenya’s first presidential debates and planned devolution could mean for Uganda. To date, President Musaveni has not shown any interest in participating in a debate, and there has not been sufficient political pressure to encourage him to engage in open discussion with any opponents.

Although the presidential candidates in Tanzania participated in a debate during the 1995 election, Tanzania has not held such a debate since then. Due to the perceived success of the Kenyan debates, several Tanzanian politicians and members of the media have expressed an interest in trying to implement one during the next campaign season.

Within Kenya, foreigners and immigrants are preparing for potential disruptions to their businesses. Shops in the city of Kisumu, located in the home province of candidate Raila Odinga, were looted and vandalized following the previous election, so shopkeepers, many of South Asian descent, are boarding up their stores and staying closed for at least two days after the election.

The United States has said it will be neutral, and President Obama recorded a video message urging the Kenyan people to refrain from violence in this election. The video was widely covered by Kenyan media.

Guest Post: Kenya’s first presidential debate

(Jessica Grody is Project Manager for the Uwezo Evaluation Team, and is currently based in Nairobi)

Yesterday marked a historic event in Kenya: eight candidates participated in the country’s first ever presidential debate. With less than a month to go until the March 4th elections, the presidential aspirants assembled for the first of two organized debates, broadcast across the country on multiple television and local radio stations and live-streamed on YouTube. It would be easy to write many pages chronicling the faults and missteps of this election process, which include a fight over the election date itself, a series of delays in voter registration following the botched procurement of voter registration kits, last minute party defections by candidates who failed to win their party’s nominations, and of course the impending ICC trial of a leading candidate to investigate his role in the 2007-2008 post-election violence, but I choose instead to focus on some of the many positive aspects of the debate.

Perhaps the first sign of success was the interest in the debate itself. Despite the cynical assertions I hear regularly that in this election, like in all others before, people will vote along ethnic lines, everyone I know in Nairobi, friends and colleagues, taxi drivers and security guards, tuned in to hear the candidates make their cases for why they deserve your vote. While the six leading candidates were originally invited to attend, the two others whose names will appear on the ballot won the right to participate after one successfully obtained a court order to guarantee his inclusion. While I’m not sure if their inclusion added to the discussion or merely took time away from the candidates who are more legitimate contenders, it is significant that they were able to avail themselves of the justice system to participate in the democratic process.

The debate lasted more than three hours and addressed tribalism, education, health, corruption, security, and other issues. I heard criticisms that the rhetoric was less debate and more stump speech, but three hours of conversation on the major issues facing Kenyans provided a fairly clear understanding the candidates’ positions and was definitely democracy-in-action.

This debate also highlighted achievements towards equality and inclusion. Even though Martha Karua is not expected to win, it’s notable that a female candidate is participating as a respected contender. The debate was moderated by one male and one female news anchor, and the pre- and post-debate analyses included both male and female experts and commentators.

As a quick aside, during his answer to the question asked about education, Peter Kenneth talked about the need to improve the quality of education rather than just the quantity, and pointed out that increasing school inputs (classrooms, books) is not equivalent to improving learning outcomes. That is one of Uwezo’s main focuses, so it was encouraging to have that message repeated by a presidential candidate.

A lot could go wrong between now and the inauguration of the next president, most seriously a repeat of the ethnic violence sparked by alleged fraud during the previous election, but the completion of this first successful presidential debate deserves to go down in the books as a positive step towards an open and fair democracy in Kenya.

Great new research on African political economy

I am just heading home now from the African Studies Association meetings in Philadelphia, and I have to say, I was impressed by several really interesting presentations that make me quite optimistic about what we can learn about initiatives to enhance democracy and governance in Africa; and about both the practice and deeper understanding of ethnic politics. Political scientists working on Africa are doing a lot of innovative and interesting research on substantively important topics.

Yesterday, at a panel on information and government accountability, Jeremy Weinstein presented some of his work (joint with Macartan Humphreys) in which they described their massive experiment in Uganda creating and distributing parliamentarian “scorecards” to provide citizens information about the quality of work being done by their elected representatives. Another paper, presented by Guy Grossman (also joint with Humphreys and with Gabriella Sacramone-Lutz) investigated the impact of mobile phone technology on “interest articulation” or the inclination of voters to contact their representatives, again in Uganda. Kelly Zhang presented her Kenyan-based research investigating the impact of providing information about the quality of government spending on citizen attitudes and behaviors. And Lily Tsai presented a paper (joint with myself and Dan Posner) on the effects of some aspects of the Uwezo initiative in Kenya, which provided parents information about their children’s literacy and numeracy levels, and information about how to be more active citizens. (I apologize for including my own paper in a post entitled “Great new research…”)

Lily Tsai presents at ASA (lousy photo by me)

Lily Tsai presents at ASA (lousy photo by me)

The papers provided a systematic look at some of the possibilities and limitations of “open government” for improving accountability, action, and service provision. I will not summarize all of the nuanced findings here, but it’s clear that openness and transparency do not lead to immediate sea-changes in citizen-government relations. This is unfortunate news because a lot of money is being spent with potentially overly-optimistic results in mind. But it’s better to identify what’s not working and to try to explain why, than to continue operating under the assumption that any initiative to make citizens more informed with lead to better quality government. In a deeper way, this work forces us to reflect on the role of an informed citizenry in democratic government.

As Lily, Dan, and I try to point out in our paper, we need to try to really clarify the many nuanced conditions under which it’s even plausible that these types of initiatives would have the desired impact, and hopefully all of this research will help “democracy entrepreneurs” to do better, more impactful work. Despite the many null findings, I think many of the scholars working in this area still believe that information campaigns and technologies of some form will have the desired effects.

Today, I discussed four great papers on ethnic politics in Africa: Willa Friedman’s investigated the determinants of participation in the Rwandan genocide, using new villeage-level data on the numbers of people accused in the Gacaca courts of perpetrating crimes. She finds, among other things, that more people were accused — and thus likely more participated — in villages where there was a high level of Hutu education and Hutu unemployment. A reasonable interpretation: personal frustration contributed to individuals’ decision to participate in the holocaust.

The other three papers focused on ethnic voting. Liz Carlson described some experimental research and analysis of Afrobarometer survey data that shows the extent to which many Africans will under-report their bias towards voting for co-ethnics in situations where other people are present. This type of mis-representation says something about the negative connotation of ethnic politics among Africans, and forces us to question the accuracy of uncorrected surveys. Claire Adida presented her related work from Benin, in which she experimentally induced citizens to express (non) support for their ethnically ambiguous president (of both Yayi and Nago descent) following a “prime” that indicated his association with one or the other ethnicity. Finally, Nahomi Ichino and Noah Nathan presented their paper – forthcoming in the American Political Science Review – which showed that in Ghana, in areas where the president’s ethnic group constitutes an increasingly large share of the population, individuals from other ethnic groups are likely to vote for him. They argue, plausibly, that this is because those individuals, despite being from a different ethnic group, will actually benefit from the President’s largesse in ways that would not happen if a candidate of their own ethnic group were elected.

Sometimes I leave academic conferences wondering why I do what I do. This one actually left me pretty energized and quite impressed by the ambitious work of colleagues in the field.

Strikes across Africa

Should we be thinking more about recent strikes in Africa?

It’s been just a month since platinum miners went on strike in Marikana, South Africa — and the police, in turn, unleashed deadly force, killing more than 30. Recent reports suggest that some of those killed may have been fleeing the scene. And as the Times reports today, this has unleashed a series of wildcat strikes across the country, which may be propelling labor unrest unknown since the apartheid days. The unjust police reaction to the Marikana strike has prompted various legal and political challenges, including by young firebrand Julius Malema.

As someone who thinks about politics in South Africa and the rest of Africa, my initial thought was that as usual, this type of mobilization was unique to the former. We tend not to think of many African countries as being organized along the class lines of Western Europe or Latin America. I can’t recall the last time I saw an African politics course syllabus with an article or lecture on “organized labor.”

But I’ve been noticing that workers have been striking more and more in various African countries. For example in the health and education sectors in Botswana and Swaziland during the past couple of years. And a more thorough review of strike activity in Kenya suggests a growing pattern, as detailed below.

If true — and more research might highlight that my characterization is a myopic one — we should be asking, what is going on, and what are the implications of strikes for growth, development, and equality? In countries where very large shares of the population are unemployed, formal sector workers occupy a strange position. On the one hand, they are still “labor,” and in many cases may well be receiving extraordinarily low wages on an international scale, poor working conditions, and lack any sense of job security. On the other, formal sector employees are typically very highly paid relative to most everyone else, and their actions may simply deepen inequalities while impeding productivity and investment. The workers at Marikana clearly met an unjust response for their demands… but they were demanding a take-home pay increase to about $1,500 a month, when the typical wages are one-half to one-third that amount.

It’s too early to make any assessments of the impact of such strikes, but it might be an interesting dissertation topic to consider both the causes and/or consequences of strikes across space, time, and sector in Africa. Labor politics are sometimes considered old school, but with growing economic development across the continent, they could become increasingly important. What are the effects in terms of the distribution of income and the quality of service provision following such strikes? Who wins and who loses? One of the key claims of striking teachers has been that they are not paid enough to warrant the hard work expected – so one question is whether gains achieved from strike-induced collective bargaining lead to any increases in the quality of service? Or do they simply lead to a greater concentration of income? In the U.S., to read about the Chicago teacher’s strike from Randi Weingarten (American Federation of Teachers President) and Nich Kristof, who would normally be pretty sympathetic to the plight of organized teachers, one can be left feeling pretty confused about whether the strike is about education or protecting union members.

Anyway, I throw this out, hoping it might spark some further research and discussion, and perhaps an interesting research project.

A REVIEW OF STRIKE ACTIVITY IN KENYA OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS

Teachers

Indeed, teachers have been striking for the past couple of weeks! They want a a 300% salary increase, plus allowances for housing, and medical care, which they say were promised to them under a 1997 agreement the government has failed to honor (Nation).

In 2011, the Kenyan teachers struck for 4 days, until the government conceded to permanently employ some of the temporary contract teachers (All Africa).

Striking Kenyan teachers (2011) – africanews.com

And back in 2009, teachers walked out for 10 days over salaries (BBC).

Doctors and Nurses

Meanwhile, doctors have just started to strike, even though the government declared the strike illegal because doctors provide necessary services (Standard Media; Nation):

The previous strike lasted 10 days in December 2011, and the government agreed to hire more doctors and provide more money for training and equipment (All Africa).

Nurses also went on strike in March 2012, government fired 25,000 health care workers for not showing up to work but later rescinded the dismissals as part of the deal that ended the strike (All Africa).

Other Public Sector Employees

Kenya Broadcasting Corporation workers briefly went on strike in March (Capital FM):

Private Sector Employees

But it’s not just public sector employees who have been striking.

For instance, Kenya Airways just laid off 453 employees in an effort to reduce costs. The company says this was necessary partially because of concessions they had to make to the union in the 2009 strike, which KQ claims has made it too expensive to keep all these employees (Nation).

Although Kenya’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga ordered the company not to fire anyone… they did it anyway (Nation)

And flower farm workers have gone on strike a few times – In 2006, it led to mass layoffs (Mail & Guardian). And in 2011, the strike was reportedly more about poor working conditions including sexual harassment, no sick days,  losing their jobs if they are injured at work (All Africa).

*Many thanks to Jessica Grody for even more assistance than usual on this post!

Is free stuff bad for development?

Thanks to Guy Grossman for forwarding this piece from Uganda’s New Vision, lamenting the detrimental effects of free education:

THE day Government started paying tuition for all school going children, was the say parents ‘declared’ a holiday from taking care about their children’s education. What a shame.

Almost all school management committee became dull. Government stood at a distance and barked, but did not care to bite. Years down the road, the rot seems to be perforating its way through free education’s foundation in the country.

A decade down the road, Government is gradually realising that the parents stealthily put so much weight on its back, and this is gradually eating down the country’s quality of education.

As I ‘ve written about before, I’ve heard much the same thing from various head teachers in Kenya, absolutely lamenting the detrimental effects of free primary education (FPE)! The simple argument is that when parents don’t have to pay, they feel no stake in the school, no obligation to participate in management, and they simply delegate education to government. And because poor people in poor areas are not paying any kind of direct income tax, given low or non-existent incomes, they are not engaged in any type of fiscal contract. It’s pretty painful to think that in trying to provide universal primary education (and beyond) in these East African countries that the plan itself might actually be causing harm to the quality of learning.

Of course, so far, the evidence concerning the negative effects of FPE on parent involvement is only anecdotal. It certainly stands to reason that what’s really going on is that the parents who previously were most active in schools are deciding that the quality of education is too low, and they are opting to send their children to private schools instead. And in turn, a new crop of parents, who would not have sent their children to school unless it was absolutely free, have emerged. So what’s changed is not the attitudes or behaviors of parents, but simply the population of parents associated with the newly free primary schools. Indeed, a paper by Bold et al (2010) at the Centre for the Study of African Economics finds that FPE has resulted in the selection of weaker children into public schools, which in turn may be correlated with parental attitudes and behaviors.

All of this raises the question of the implications of free stuff in poor settings. In particular, from a development standpoint, how can citizens be encouraged to “consume” or take advantage of goods and services that are privately and publicly welfare-enhancing? How do governments, donors, local leaders, humanitarians get citizens to take advantage of disease prevention strategies and educational opportunities when convinced that the status quo is leading to severe under-consumption?

One of the most interesting and counter-intuitive ideas that I encountered when I first started doing research on HIV/AIDS several years ago was the idea of “socially marketed condoms.” The idea was that if you just give away condoms they will seem worthless, and no one will want or use them. But if you charge a little, and provide a bit of value added marketing, they are going to value it more, increasing both demand and usage. This was the argument of the international NGO, Population Services International (PSI) and many others, and the notion was accepted on faith by many, including me.

But as various scholars and analysts have pointed out, including Banerjee & Duflo in their book on Poor Economics (I admit, I hadn’t really read it until this summer, and it’s breathtakingly good), it turns out that the free condom argument probably wasn’t correct, or at the very least, was overly simplistic. Whether it’s bednets (Rwanda is about to distribute 6 million for free), home water purification, or condoms, several pretty careful studies show that usage is often not affected by subsidies, even to free.

Education is a trickier good to consider in this context. For the examples above, presumably the quality of the good is the same – of course if the free bednet has holes in it, we would expect that a quality net for a price would be preferable. And this is relatively easy to establish. When it comes to education, parents who opt for private school presumably are choosing a better quality school.

But the argument being made by the Ugandan writer and the various Kenyan head teachers it not about sunk costs inducing commitment to usage. It is really more about what causes parent citizens to perceive a sense of responsibility to make institutions successful. In this sense, payment serves as a symbolic indication of responsibility and ownership. I could certainly be convinced that there are other useful commitment mechanisms apart from payment, perhaps ritualistic ones, and maybe these ought to be considered to address some of the perceived costs of free.

On ipads in rural development reseach

In June of 2011, when our Uwezo evaluation team was getting ready to go out into the field with our household survey, I marveled — or more accurately, panicked — at the sight of mountains of paper that we kept hauling into our conference room from the local copy center. We needed to verify, collate, and stamp each questionnaire, distribute each to its appropriate box, and transport them out to the rural villages, where we would conduct our studies. Later, those thousands of pages would be marked up, separated from their identifying cover sheets, and transported back to Nairobi for coding. A team of coders would take on the tedious task of inputting all of the responses into a databse. And fearing the possibility of coder error, we transported the thousands of pages of anonymous surveys back to the U.S., so we could check back on any suspicious data entries.

It was 2011, and it was clear that there had to be a better way. But I had just heard from a colleague about his horror stories with a tablet-based survey: the programming was faulty, and despite great cost and effort, the research project was completely unsuccessful. Despite my intrigue, I was easily persuaded that it was too soon to bring tablets into rural Kenyan villages and think that we could effectively field a large survey in a relatively short amount of lead time. So we used up quite a few trees and hours, but successfully completed our work the “old fashioned way.”

Still, researchers are clearly out there using tablet-based surveys for all types of social research, and Markus Goldstein of the World Bank offers two excellent posts (part I and part II) on the use of Computer-Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI). In it, he thoughtfully reflects on some of the tradeoffs I discuss above, while clearly coming down on the side of technological progress!

Now I must admit that while I was in Kenya this June, conducting more informational and informal conversations around the country, I found my trusty new ipad to be invaluable. The new version allows you to swap in a local SIM card, so it was possible to use Kenya’s quick, reliable, and very inexpensive mobile 3G network virtually everywhere. While speaking with volunteers in informal offices in rural villages, I could take notes, upload them to a cloud, take photos, and plot the best route home using google maps. And in terms of one issue that Goldstein does not discuss, I did not sense that my device was in the least bit distracting for those with whom I was speaking. (Distracting for me, perhaps, as there is always that temptation to check email…) I had feared on our last survey that the introduction of a high-tech device into people’s homes would make the survey enumeration even more artificial and distorted than the endeavor necessarily must be. I did not find that to be the case. I am quite certain that a glimmering tablet would not have impeded the quality of a household survey — and as Goldstein points out, it almost surely would have assisted in maintaining accurate skip logics (for instance, if you ask a question about whether someone attended school as a child, you won’t pig-headedly ask the follow up question, what is the highest grade you ever completed.)

In any case, I will be curious to learn more about the experiences of others as they leverage this technology to more efficiently and accurately study social processes in the developing world.

Kristof on not romanticizing African poverty

I must admit that I appreciated Nich Kristof’s candor in a discussion of African poverty in his NYT column today.

Alfred Nasoni and his wife, Biti Rose, have had seven children in this village of Masumba. Two died without ever seeing a doctor. Alfred and Biti Rose pulled their eldest son out of school in the fourth grade because, they said, they couldn’t afford $5 in school costs for a term. And they farmed only part of their 2.5 acre plot because they lacked money for seeds.

Yet poverty is sometimes romanticized, and it’s more complicated than that. Alfred, 45, told me that even as his children were starving, he spent an average of $2 a week on local moonshine and 50 cents on cigarettes. He added that he also spent $2 or more a week buying sex from local girls — even though AIDS is widespread.

All this hints at an uncomfortable truth: The suffering associated with poverty is sometimes caused not only by low incomes but also by self-destructive pathologies. In central Kenya, a recently published government study found that men, on average, spent more of their salaries on alcohol than on food.

When visiting various households and schools in Kenya over the past year, I have heard many mention the idea that parents simply can’t afford the very small contributions being requested at schools, or to pay for books, or a morning meal for a child. But in those same areas, most households own cell phones, and purchase top-up time each week; and moonshine businesses seem to be thriving.

I have no interest in being a moral crusader, telling people that they shouldn’t have a drink when they live in the abject conditions that they do. But I also think we need to recognize that “can’t afford” sometimes needs to be more correctly understood as “doesn’t choose to spend the limited household resources on X.” Part of breaking the cycle of poverty in so many African (and other) countries must include devising incentives to get parents to invest in the nutrition and education of their children. Shifting resources away from tobacco and alcohol use certainly seems like a prime candidate. I hate the way that sounds, and I’d love to hear the evidence that most households choose child welfare over short-term parent pleasures in their budget allocations. But I suspect that very often, this is not the case.