Some reflections on two months without social media

Happy New Year, Friends! I am back from my social media break, and though I wish I could say I was refreshed and ready to take on the world again, I’ll admit that I am simply not. I promise that with each day, I’ll be more ready, but today, I’m taking it easy still.

The first few days of my break were really easy; except for the first day, I didn’t even think about logging on to twitter or facebook or anything else. The only one I really missed the whole time was instagram, but I found that I replaced a lot of those interactions with more intimate person-to-person interactions, a friend sending me pictures of her baby, me sending links to friends via text message. Election day was my first slip, and I needed a little support afterward as crying in the Atlanta airport by myself did not seem the healthiest way to deal with that disappointment.

There were times when I found myself navigating to twitter or facebook without thinking about it. I’d signed out, but it rapidly became clear how much I use them as a distraction from what I should be and want to be doing. I also struggled with what to read. Still being a little nomadic (I went from a blue state to a red state to a blue state that used to be red to a red state that used to be blue in a matter of a week), it was hard to keep a lot of physical material around.

It was nice, and I think necessary, to take a break from the newscycle. The election, its aftermath, Obama’s last days. I can parse all these things later. Not reading about it, or just reading a few articles a day that Apple News decided were up my alley, helped keep my stress level low.

I did lots of other things, too. I ran my first half marathon; I took up skate skiing; I joined a Masters’ swim team run by an old swimming buddy and her husband. I read a lot of books, including Swing Time, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Homegoing. I don’t recommend trying to read any of these simultaneously, but I do recommend them all whole-heartedly.

I didn’t totally succeed at a break. I occasionally logged into facebook or read the tweets that twitter was really worried I was missing and so sent to my inbox. But I also didn’t totally commit, either, by deleting or suspending accounts. I didn’t feel that I could, especially in this transition phase. I did take them all off of my phone, at least, so I think I spent less time looking at my phone.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to going cold turkey was just how much both my social and business ventures are intimately connected to social media. Some friends started using facebook to discuss half marathon logistics, so if I didn’t log on, I was totally out of the loop. Similarly, I joined a facebook page dedicated to finding housing when the local paper proved almost useless (the page eventually was, too, but I’m blaming Airbnb for that, a story for another time). I went to a Duke event in Denver, both trying to make friends and potential business connections, a few of whom used LinkedIn to contact me soon afterward. I logged in when I hadn’t heard from them via email, and there they were. And then there are all the webpages that let you sign in with a social media account.

I still managed to find mindless things to take up my time, like crossword puzzles and sudoku, so perhaps it’s better spent reading tweets and longform journalism and the news, but who knows?

Overall, I’m glad I did it. It wasn’t catastrophically lonesomeness-inducing, as I’d feared, and I certainly managed to fill the hours with more effective work and activities. I think I will spend less time total in these spaces going forward, but I will continue to use them to inform my writing, give me ideas of what to read, and let me stay in touch on a few key issues, and with a few key people. Oh, and occasionally to see pictures of cute babies.

But when I can’t deal with it all, I know that I can turn it all off, and I won’t hesitate.

Happy 2017! Hope to see some of you in Chicago for the ASSAs!

A little social media break

Dear friends,

I’m taking a break from all the social media things (fb, ig, twitter, blogs, and yes, even snapchat) until the end of the year. I aim to read more, write more, take more pictures, and spend less time looking at my phone.

Some closing thoughts for the rest of 2016: Stand with Standing Rock; Make sure to VOTE!; Happy Thanksgiving; Merry Christmas; Happy Hanukkah; Happy Kwanzaa; Happiest of Birthdays to all my Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Capricorn loves; and All the Best in the New Year!

Text or email me if you miss me too much. See you on the other side!



ICYMI: Is a $1 billion coffee sector in Yemen a good idea?

Is the right investment for Yemen? Is this model is the right way to rebuild and augment the coffee sector? Keep reading!

This post is Part 4 of a five-part series on measuring Al Mokha’s impact in Yemen. (Links to Part 1Part 2, & Part 3). It is also available on Al Mokha’s blog, where you can read previous segments as well.

In my last post, I talked about numbers, about progress and about impact we could measure at Al Mokha. Economists tend to get wrapped up in numbers. This group of people is richer, you might say, and an economist wants to know, okay, but how do measure “rich”? Is it how much money or how many assets they have; is it how much they earn? How do you get a representative sample to answer your questions? How do you know that someone’s observable (or unobservable) characteristics aren’t influencing the way they perceive the question?

Economists have largely settled these questions. With a little effort, you could get to a point where you could measure “rich” satisfactorily, where you could answer the question of who is richest.

But some questions are simply unanswerable within the paradigm of statistical causality. Some of those questions are ones that Al Mokha wants to answer.

For instance, is coffee the best answer to Yemen’s woes?

The government of Yemen certainly thinks it’s an important part of the equation:

Coffee production and export is a vital contributor to Yemen’s economy, with tens of thousands of families relying on it for income. Yet, the recent waves of conflict have challenged the sustainability of many of these farms, as the frequent shortage of water, lack of access to transportation, and the absence of an infrastructural support system have drastically affected production and output. Hence, post-conflict agricultural rehabilitation will need to address the revival of coffee production as an integral economic sector. (Abdulrahman Al-Eryani, Economic Development Officer, Embassy of Yemen in the US, podcast).

So, clearly a big deal, but does agricultural investment and revitalization represent the best way to jumpstart Yemen’s GDP growth? To employ those who might otherwise engage in terrorism? To increase the welfare of Yemen’s farmers and citizens? Will increasing demand for coffee lead to more coffee production, or are there other associated outcomes that are actually more favorable?

Best is a really tough word for economists. In order to really answer these questions, I’d ideally want two identical Yemens, one in which Al Mokha goes in and injects a bunch of demand into the coffee sector perhaps along with some other programming, perhaps not, and one in which Al Mokha never existed. This Al Mokha-less world would be our counterfactual. Without a counterfactual, I can’t say from a statistical or causal standpoint that Al Mokha coffee is doing great things for Yemen or for the United States’ foreign policy goals. The old correlation is not causation cliché is very important here.

But that’s just one counterfactual. To get the “best” answer, I’d probably also need a couple of other Yemens. One where someone goes in and injects cash into tourism, another into foreign aid, another into call centers, and really any number or combination of other development strategies. After we played out all the scenarios, I’d measure things like terrorism and farmer incomes, and all sorts of other outcomes and see which Yemen came out on top. And we’d have to do all this before any intervention, too, because we need a baseline. This is clearly not going to happen, not least of all because it would take some supremely awesome bending of space and time, but also because it wouldn’t be ethical to take Yemenis through the ringer like that.

If we’re unable to answer the question of whether this is the best model, can we at least determine whether is it a good model?

I think the answer is yes.

Sana'a University Crest

First, we can look at what other people have said. Lots of smart economists, organizations, and thinkers have written about how to improve farmers’ lots in the developing the world. A growing literature shows how fair trade might not be all that great for farmers. Higher prices don’t necessarily offset lower yields and while some Fair Trade households in Mexico saw greater schooling for girls, there wasn’t much effect for boys (e.g., Gitter, Nunn). Maybe farmers just need better access to storage for their products to smooth out prices over time.

We can also look at how individuals respond to incentives. For instance, farmers may change their crops when faced with the possibility to reduce price volatility. These farmers like stable prices and so will choose crops that give them that (or at least more of that). If we think about how this applies to Al Mokha’s model, we can ask questions like: Are coffee prices stable right now? Can Al Mokha help stabilize them through increased demand? How much demand is needed?

We can use these insights to shape our model.

Second, we need to decide what are Al Mokha’s goals? These are often not so easy to measure. There are lots of metrics we might want to think about: Are Yemenis happy? Are farmers (subjectively or objectively) better off? Is violence less extreme or affecting commerce less? Is the United States government happy with Yemen’s policy progress?

From there, we can go back to the original intent of Anda (Founder of Al Mokha): to promote a development model based on exports of Yemeni coffee where Yemenis are decision-makers about how that market develops. To hear him describe it, he knows deep in his gut that this is the way to go, but he also wants to know that he’s on the right track. That’s the hard-to-measure part.

If we can’t measure everything we would like to either due to inability to collect data or a fundamental “unmeasurability” of some metric, then perhaps we should go back to those experts, those papers. Does Al Mokha make a compelling case for fomenting development through a relatively hands-off model of building up the coffee sector?

Yemeni coffee roaster

For that, we must ask, Who are the relevant stakeholders and experts to whom we can pose this fundamental question? Do we care about the opinions of policymakers? Diplomats? Consumers? People in the military? Economists? Yemeni farmers? Other Yemenis? And what about ideology? Does a strategy based in free-market, neoclassical economics appeal to people at different ends of the political spectrum? Does it matter?

Right now, we are moving forward on the basis of this two-pronged approach:
we tap the wisdom of experts and stakeholders and we scrutinize and apply the latest economic research. To that we add entrepreneurial optimism and strive towards coffee’s $1 billion opportunity for Yemen.

Anda confidently holding stability sign

“I’m positive I’m right” (Anda)

But that’s a lot of generalities. You want specifics. How will Al Mokha show it is improving lives? How will Al Mokha show it is making Yemen stable?

In the next post you’ll hear from Anda as he declares with bravado, “I’m positive I’m right” and you’ll hear from me as I say, “Prove it”.

Erin wearing nerd glasses

“Prove it” (Erin, photo courtesy of Breyt Photography)

For now, I’ll leave you with this: From deep in our guts and to our most logical, quantitative rebuttal, we’re thinking hard about how to make sure that Al Mokha has an impact that is large, positive, and scalable.

Those interested in trying Al Mokha’s coffee can shop at

Erin is Al Mokha’s Board Advisor in developmental economics. She has no financial interests in Al Mokha and has received no compensation for this post.

The power of Grandmothers

This NPR Goats and Soda story is too good not to share. In Swaziland, a successful (or least appears to be successful–can we evaluate it?) program to reduce child abuse via grandmothers is my new favorite thing. By empowering children to approach and talk to grandmothers about their experiences, and giving grandmothers the tools to get kids the assistance they need,

They use stories with animals to give kids friendly characters so that children can easily recall pathways for help. Grandmothers go door-to-door to introduce themselves and their role in the community, normalizing the practice and making sure everyone knows it is a visible role.

The program has helped address one of the challenges of child abuse — helping children understand that certain kinds of treatment are not OK and should be reported to a grandmother or another trustworthy adult.

I love this. My current research in Tanzania is partially focused on identifying people in communities who can play this sort of role, to model new social norms, or to be neutral arbiters and safe havens. I’d love to see it evaluated and replicated.

The Quant-y, Measurable-y Stuff

This post is Part 3 of a five-part series on measuring Al Mokha’s impact in Yemen. (It is also available on Al Mokha’s blog, as are Part 1 & Part 2)

Erin and a Tanzanian woman smiling with an orange dirt background
Author (on right) in Nyarugusu, Tanzania, during a project for the International Rescue Committee 

As a development economist with interests that are a little outside the norm, I spend a lot of my day thinking about how to measure unmeasurable things. How prevalent is a certain belief? And how does it affect people’s behavior? Can one violent event, or experience, be objectively seen as worse or more violent than another? And if so, what determines that violence—scope, tenor, frequency? How do we fix it?

So, when Anda told me he wanted to start thinking more about impact and measurement at Al Mokha, I jumped up and down with glee. From the moment he and I first talked development and coffee in Cambridge almost a year ago, I’d been questioning, “cool, but how do you measure that?”

As an aside, when I tell someone I’m an economist, there are a few common tropes that people immediately fall back on. There’s often an immediate question of whether I can do their taxes (I could probably hack it, but you’re better off with a CPA) or help them pick stocks (I am the last person you want doing that).

And then there’s the belief that I must work with GDP and trade or exchange rates.

I don’t do any of those things, but I do think that GDP is a great place to start thinking about measuring Al Mokha’s impact. Al Mokha doesn’t want to just sell coffee; it wants to fundamentally change Yemen’s economy by revitalizing a sector that has been decimated. And if you can revitalize a sector that at one point dominated an economy, you should be able to see change at the GDP-level.

GDP word graphic with jumbled mess of economics terms

GDP is deceptively simple. When you hear about it on the news, GDP is a single number, maybe a few numbers if someone talks about year-over-year growth and growth in a particular quarter, but usually just one number. That number, however, is made up of literally thousands of numbers, of transactions between people and firms and countries and governments. In many countries, as in the US, there is an entire government agency devoted simply to measuring GDP, to making the rules about what counts in GDP and what doesn’t.

Yemen has been seriously suffering in the GDP department. According to the Yemeni Ministry of Planning, Yemen’s GDP is projected to shrink by almost 35% in 2016. Compare that to a paltry 1% shrinkage seen during the Global 2008 Recession in the US.

If the (or one) goal is to grow Yemen’s economy rather than to shrink it, what would it take to increase Yemen’s GDP via coffee? The most straightforward way would be to increase the size of the coffee sector. Economists like to think about questions like this as changing extensive or intensive margins. The extensive margin would be to increase the number of acres planted. But we can increase the size of the coffee sector without planting one more coffee plant, if the price of coffee beans from Yemen simply goes up, or yields are higher due to better fertilizer use or some other factor (the intensive margin).

"Coffee Up" word graphic with U a coffee cup

So, we started by asking a simple question, how do we raise GDP? And with one logical step, we already have four or five different outcomes we could try to measure (either separately or in tandem with GDP):

  1. acres of coffee planted
  2. kilograms of beans harvested in total
  3. coffee prices
  4. coffee yields (kilos of beans per acre)

And inside each one of those is also a list of measurable outcomes. For instance, do higher coffee prices lead to higher incomes for farmers? Or middlemen? And which is desirable (or is it both)? We went from one seemingly simple number to lots of measurable outcomes. Al Mokha is trying to figure out which ones it cares about.

Yemen coffee farmer picking coffee cherries

Finally, we also have to think about what may come out of this project that isn’t so good. “Unintended consequences” is kind of a loaded term right now if you’re following elections in the United States, but economists use the term a lot. We also call them externalities. While Al Mokha’s goals are to promote economic growth and diminish the appeal of violent insurgency, some may see pumping money into a failing state as foolish. It’s possible that any extra income going to farmers could be siphoned off by insurgent groups. Or that kids will be taken out of school to work in the fields. Or that creating demand for coffee will reduce agricultural space devoted to food, which is problematic in a country that is considered extremely food insecure by the World Food Program.

Some of the above are measurable, albeit with a lot of effort. We can examine what (little) data is coming out of Yemen from the government and international organizations. We can poll farmers who are supplying coffee about how much they are planting and earning. We can add up all the coffee production in the country and show how it changes year over year, and from there do a little back-of-the-envelope calculation on GDP change. We could show how higher prices of coffee offset negative welfare impacts (ala this paper on Quinoa in Peru by Bellemare, et. al.). Not that any of these is particularly easy in practice, but there’s at least a path to understanding them.

Yemeni man holding basket of bright red coffee cherries

Furthermore, lots of outcomes Al Mokha hopes to achieve are not measureable. I’m going to save that for my next post, the nebulous and qualitative, and leave you with this: deciding what to measure and how to measure it is an ongoing process. GDP is a great place to start. It is a number that is widely recognized as a measure of economic success, and an area that is visibly and severely suffering in Yemen right now. GDP-level change is the kind of change we’re hoping to accomplish.

So what does a change in GDP actually look like? I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: doubling Yemen’s current coffee production (of 19,800 tons in 2013) will increase GDP somewhere between 0.30 and 3.73 percent. That may sound small, but it’s not. That’s $109 million – $1.3 billion.

It’s clear there’s huge potential to increasing coffee production at an economy-wide level and big picture, we’re focused on that. But there’s all those components, too. We’re going to keep digging down, into yields and acres planted, into where the money ends up and how it is spent, and into how it changes outcomes for families. We believe that impact is important. Al Mokha is trying to sell coffee, but with a purpose, and a seemingly simple goal to sell coffee will have many disparate impacts all over the economy, from the very biggest measurement, to the smallest.

Calculation, for those nerdy enough to care: First, note that good numbers from recent years are hard to come by, so these are estimates, but the leave us with answers that are generally on the same order of magnitude. If coffee production is 19,800 tons (2,200 pounds a ton, 2013 estimate from the Yemen Ministry of Agriculture), and farmers receive $2.50 per pound, doubling production would mean an extra $109 million in the economy, which is about 0.30% of 2013 GDP estimate of $35 billion (World Bank). However, GDP only counts finished goods, so if we take the US consumer price of Al Mokha coffee, at $30/pound, you end up with an extra $1.3 billion in the economy, a 3.73 percent change.

The reality is probably somewhere in the middle in terms of what would get counted in Yemen’s GDP as it is unlikely that U.S. consumer prices or green coffee bean prices are the relevant metric, beans will be priced differently according to quality, and ultimate benefit to farmers and Yemen depends on much value-add is done in-country and how much is exported. But even lower estimates of prices and current production yield effects on the same order of magnitude. If we assume exporters are getting $6/lb., that yields $261 million for a 0.75% increase in GDP.

Those interested in trying Al Mokha’s coffee can shop at

Note: I am Al Mokha’s advisory board member in development economics. I have no financial interests in Al Mokha and have received no compensation for this post.

Things I felt like sharing today

  1. I’m reading about lots of obscure methods of explaining the variation in multiple variable combinations, like principal components analysis and partial least squares regression. Or at least, they are obscure to an economist; I imagine they are taught more frequently in other fields. I had to laugh at this Stata help note on partial least squares: “This program is provided for educational purposes. It is difficult to recommend the PLS composites for any serious empirical work (see Rönkkö, McIntosh, and Antonakis (2015).” #movingonthen
  2. Talking with a doctor friend last weekend, I can’t speak to how true this is, but replace ‘clinician’ with ‘teacher’ and ‘hospital’ with university and you have a conversation I’ve had many times: “We don’t have great clinicians in (xyz speciality) at (supposedly one of the best hospitals in the country). They don’t incentivize you to be a good clinician. You’re rewarded based on your research dollars and sometimes patients suffer. Only schools like (by some estimation the best medical school in the country) produce good clinicians because they have the resources to devote to them, but the school doesn’t care about you if you want to be a good clinician. They’re just biding their time until they can push you out.”

World Refugee Day

I haven’t been writing much the past couple of years, or rather, I haven’t been writing in this space. Much of my day-to-day work is writing academic papers, reports, proposals,etc. Today is June 20, World Refugee Day, and I want very much to tell you about my experiences working with refugees over the last six months, but I’m just not there. So, instead, I’ve put together a short list of links. Taken together, they give a picture of refugee life that is not as visible in day-to-day coverage of refugees, though perhaps not as coherently as if I had put together a narrative. It will come, one day.

  • 65.3 million people were displaced by the end of 2015. That’s about 1 in 113. More stats from UNHCR.
  • In Kenya, hundreds of thousands of people are in danger of being forcibly removed from refugee camps. My colleague and friend, Stephanie Schwartz, on why this is a really bad idea. Forced repatriation from refugee camps has a long and messy history in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
  • In Sulaymaniyah, refugees and displaced Iraqis are participating in Refugees Got Talent, a celebration on #WorldRefugeeDay. You can see performances and hear stories on their facebook page.
  • Why we shouldn’t use the terms refugee and migrant interchangeably and some other FAQs.
  • Refugees are almost certainly at greater risk of sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and gender-based violence, and have fewer tools to address such problems in the face of limited mobility, poverty, proximity to abusers, and lack of access to services.
  • In Nyarugusu, two of my enumerators are trying to finish master’s degrees in Tanzanian universities. They tell their stories about the desire for education on this fundraising page. The fundraiser is technically closed, but they’re still short a few hundred dollars to be able to graduate. Let me know if you are interested in helping out.
  • UPDATE 6/21/16: Owen Barder on distinguishing migrants vs. asylum seekers and why it’s so hard. Key (mouthful of a) quote: “The intrinsic interconnectedness of persecution, conflict, economic collapse, environmental degradation, and natural disasters makes it impossible to separate these motives for migration.”