Place in the world?

MR: Says he’s for human rights, human dignity, elections. Wants to promote those principles and end conflict. But ties that back to the American economy. No specific mention of poverty overseas.

BO: Says we are stronger now, with stronger alliances. Also pivots back to the economy.

So far, foreign policy is pretty much limited to war.

Mali in first few minutes!

Romney mentions takeover of Mali by “terrorists,” in discussion of Libya and terrorism more generally. (I won’t count discussions of Middle-East/North Africa… just focused here on sub-Saharan Africa). Romney offers vague call for need for a plan to address terrorism. But Romney surprises me with a mention of an African country within first 2 minutes!

Blogging on mentions of Africa and development in Prez debates

It’s been a very busy fall, and I’ve largely neglected this blog. But tomorrow night is the final U.S. Presidential debate, and the topic is foreign policy. I’ve decided to “live blog” on all discussion of Africa and issues related to foreign aid and development. Why do I have this sneaking suspicion that my fingers won’t fatigue from too much typing?

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.



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) –

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!

Princeton-in-Africa accepting applications from ’13ers and recent U.S. grads

Princeton-in-Africa is currently recruiting candidates for its 2013-2014 fellowship year. The application is available here.

While the organization was originally formed to provide opportunities for recent Princeton graduates, PiAF is now accepting applications from graduating seniors in the Class of 2013 and young alumni from any nonprofit college or university in the U.S. Fellowships are highly competitive, and fellows are placed in truly extraordinary opportunities across the continent.

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.