New protocol for promoting active citizenship?

I have written previously about some of the not-so-successful attempts to promote more active citizenship in Africa. But one proposal that I am pretty sure has not been tried, and was suggested to me just this evening by my nephews, Jack and Henry, and my niece, Lucy…

Active Citizen
Active Citizen

… is an “Active Citizen” sweatshirt. Who knows — it’s fashionable, looks great, and it really leaves others asking, “What does it mean to be an active citizen?,” and, “How can I be one too?”

Next step: random dissemination and thorough impact evaluation!

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.

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.

Solid democratic trends across African continent

A new report from StandardBank does a nice job of highlighting positive trends in leadership alternation via elections in sub-Saharan Africa this past year, and previews some of the important elections to come in 2012. While the news we read and hear each day tends to paint a continent in perpetual crisis, a broader view suggests that, “Today, Africa is more peaceful than at any stage in its post-independence history.”

A template for writing about African elections

I just came across Sean Jacobs’ interesting blog, “Africa is a country,” which directed me to this  piece about how predictable African elections, and their failings, have become. Reads like a “mad lib” story — in this case, humorous and clever because it rings sadly true…

“….Nothing underscores the apathy and inconsistency that characterize Western diplomacy in _____ more than the current impasse…The legitimacy crisis threatens to trigger another round of civil war in a country that has already __________ (short-phrase recap of how many people died there in recent memory, thereby justifying interest).”

“The ____________[major INGO] cited serious irregularities, including the loss of _____ (electoral documents) in _______ (city/town/village), a _____ stronghold….. Meanwhile, according to ________ (INGO) multiple locations in _______ (another city/town/village), a bastion of __________ (current ruler) supporters, reported impossibly high rates of 99 to [over] 100 percent voter turnout, with all or nearly all votes going to the incumbent.” (Note: Some wisely fix this slightly lower than 99 percent; adjust as needed.)

“….As grievances and disputes over electoral law arose, the CENI [independent electoral commission] failed to provide an adequate forum for dialogue with the opposition.” (Sorry, players, that one goes verbatim in every election post-game.)


Africa rising, but not necessarily in democracies

This week, The Economist cover shouts, “Africa Rising: After decades of slow growth, Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia.” As it points out, this past decade, six of the 10 fastest-growing economies were African, and the IMF expects African growth to chug forward at a rate of about 6% this year and next.

Map from The Economist

It’s great to put a spotlight on the fact that Africa is not perpetually mired in stagnation and misery. There’s good reason to be hopeful, and while American investors are always slow to the party when it comes to Africa, in a world with few good investment options, maybe some greenbacks will flow to the continent.

As a political scientist, the obvious question I wanted to ask was, what are the sources of variation in growth, and what are the political factors influencing those patterns? Obviously in a few cases, most of the story is natural resources – Angola and Equatorial Guinea. But is the quality of democratic politics any predictor of growth outcomes?

I did a quick analysis: I calculated the average 10-year polity scores (which is a measure of regime type, ranging from -10 – hereditary monarchy to +10 – consolidated democracy) for the period 1997-2006. Then, I plotted the IMF average annual economic growth figures on the Y-axis for the period 2007-11. All sorts of caveats apply – for all of the countries, 2011 is a forecast, and for some countries, other years in the series are projections as well, and of course, the quality of data are pretty mixed. But are recent patterns of economic growth in any way predicted by prior patterns of democratic politics?

Ugly stata scatterplot produced by yours truly

It doesn’t look that way… there’s no real pattern in the data. Obviously, this is just a straight-up scatterplot and there’s lots of interesting ways one could do this analysis more seriously. In the lower left corner, the tragedies of Swaziland and Zimbabwe are clear, but several other pretty autocratic countries are doing just fine in terms of economic growth. Meanwhile, the Southern African democracies of South Africa and Botswana are advancing at a more lackluster pace, albeit from a much higher level of development than almost all the rest of Africa. Ghana is a real stand-out on the positive side, having enjoyed successful leadership replacement and high economic growth.

But in sum, there is no clear pattern at the country-level. African successes and failures are emerging in a wide range of manifestations.

Good news on AIDS in Africa

Each year, the international AIDS establishment makes something of a strategic choice: Remind the world of the severity of the epidemic, how much more needs to be done, and how we are failing the world’s most vulnerable; Or, highlight what’s working, demonstrate that the substantial resources invested are making a difference, and that things are generally getting better. This year, they’ve clearly taken the latter approach, and indeed, there is much to celebrate.

In preparation for World AIDS Day (December 1), UNAIDS has released its annual report, which reports some promising statistics:

In South Africa — the country with the largest number of infections in the world, and where for years, a woefully inadequate response was arguably responsible for a substantial rise in deaths and orphaned children — a full 95% of HIV positive pregnant women are now receiving highly effective antiretrovirals for preventing transmission to newborn children.

New HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa are down by more than 26% since 1997; and in South Africa, new infections dropped by one-third between 2001 and 2009.

Between 2009 and 2010, ARV coverage rose by 20% in Africa.

The report details some modeling exercises that demonstrate the important impact of various prevention and treatment interventions. Undoubtedly, social scientists will weigh in over the next several months/years to assess the robustness of those claims, but whatever the cause, if these epidemiological trends are accurately portrayed, this is great news.

Gay tolerance as possible UK aid conditionality

This week, the BBC reported on UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that aid recipients should protect human rights, including the humane treatment of homosexuals. It launched a discussion of what could become a new form of aid conditionality long practiced by donor countries, but more typically in favor of the adoption of certain types of economic policies and governance structures.

Of course, there is a touch of bitter irony in the demand — while a full 41 of 54 commonwealth countries have laws banning homosexuality, in most cases these are legacies of British Imperial law.

In various African countries, leaders rebuffed the proposal.

From the Ghanaian Minister of Trade and Industry, Hannah Tetteh:

Our society does not accept the practice of gays and lesbianism

A Zambian government spokesman said they will not enact pro-homosexuality laws to get British aid. And in Uganda, the proposal caused a “fury.”

This may emerge into one of the great North-South values clashes in the years to come. While democratic practices have often been attached to loan conditions, virtually no leaders  have taken the public stance that they actually oppose democracy, even if they undermine the institution in practice. In the case of homosexual tolerance, however, given low public support, leaders are taking stark and uncompromising positions, and some countries are looking to toughen their approach rather than the reverse.

(See my recent post about the extent of harsh treatment towards gays around the world, especially in Africa.)

Village research part II

We stood in front of the trading area and a few other people came by. Our guide’s son, Richard, told us that several of them would be attending our meeting. We smiled and thanked him, but also tried to make two points: first, we had brought a few refreshments for our meeting – about 8 sodas – and those were still in our car, quite a walk away from here. At the very least, we would want to go get them. Second, we were really hoping to have a conversation with just a small group of people to talk about how things worked in the village, not to call a village meeting.  “Oh sure,” he said. “That’s ok.” And I assumed that as magically as this meeting was being arranged, it would be modified to our requested format.

We continued to proceed up and over the hill. Richard explained that some villagers were on their way to a meeting with British American Tobacco, and would plant and sell for them. Meanwhile, as per our protocol, Ruth was receiving SMS messages on her phone that the questionnaires were going fine. Our enumerators were finding the households and conducting the interviews, but they would later explain that these were extremely impoverished and difficult conditions, even for this poor area.

We agreed that we would hold the meeting near where we parked our car – which was in front of a small but solid structure that we learned was a church for the community, one of the three Seventh Day Adventist churches in the village. It was very hot out, and we had toured the village, so we decided to proceed to the car and wait there for our 2pm meeting. We arrived before 1pm and already about 8 people were sitting on the stoop in front of the church. Ruth and I were both hungry and thirsty, but we were also conscious of not eating in front of a group of people who might be hungry, but for whom we did not have an adequate supply to share. So we subtly climbed into the car, kept our heads low, and scarfed down our peanut butter sandwiches. It was so hot out, and my throat was so dry, I practically choked on a glob of peanut butter, but quickly washed it down with a few swigs of warm water.

When we exited the car, there were about 15-20 people hanging around the front of the church, and more seemed to be coming. Each new person would shake our hand, and those of everyone else present. Ruth began to conduct the interview under the sliver of shade cast by the church, but in so doing was unable to face most of the people who were also protecting themselves from the blazing mid-day sun. I asked if we could have the meeting inside, which was easily arranged since the church leader was in our midst and opened the door.

We entered the room, which was simple and dark, but relatively cool. Before I could help, the church deacon placed two chairs in the front of the room, and we would face two sets of pews, divided by a small aisle – about 4 rows that could fit about 5 people each on either side. The women and some children filed in to our right, all of the men to our left. Among the adults, there was no crossing of the aisle.

Ruth guided the group interview, which was mostly dominated by a few men who felt comfortable speaking. The women were not silent, but it was clearly not a balanced discussion. They answered our questions clearly, told us about how decisions were made, the sources of frustration, and the problems of education, poverty, and a recently unpunished murder in the community.

Our plan was to serve refreshments mid-way through the discussion, but we brought just 8 sodas for a planned group of 4 or 5. There were now at least 30 people in the room. So while Ruth carried on with the meeting, I stepped out and called Richard – our field coordinator, not the elder’s son, who was still in the meeting –  to ask his advice. He asked me if there was a nearby place where I could buy more. Nothing within at least 45 minutes each way by my estimation. So he asked to get on the phone with the elder, and I passed my phone to him. They spoke for a few minutes and I got back on. Richard told me to skip the refreshments altogether. The elder would tell people to go home after the meeting. I was glad to not cause a commotion, but felt badly that we would not be able to provide our small token of appreciation.

Ruth continued and concluded the group interview, gathering the information we needed. At the end, one man stood up and said something more or less like the following: “This is a great day for our village. On this day, for the first time ever, the wazungu (white people) have come. Together, we will remember this day forever. God must have been smiling on us. We will build a primary or a secondary school and we will name it after Ruth and Evan.” We smiled. I was glad they were happy to see us. But as always, we had taken great pains to explain that we were researchers, that we would try to provide knowledge to the wider world about the challenges they faced, and we hoped that out of our work would come some positive benefits. But we were not providers of goods or services and could not arrange for such provisions. People said they truly understood. But nonetheless, the hopes for something else were still there. The ethical dilemmas of doing research, frankly of doing anything in these communities, are ever-present. Just because the education is so poor, and we could see that first-hand, does not imply it was our responsibility to fix it. But it’s also heartbreaking to see the problems, to get back in our car, and to drive away.

Ruth in the church after our meeting