Paper Acceptance Day!

When I was working for myself, I had a lot of conversations with development practitioners that started with an element of intuition, and ended with one of frustration:

“We think X thing is happening, but we’re not really sure…” or “we think we could do this thing we’re doing better…” and then “…but we don’t have the technical skills on staff,” or “…we’ve asked like 85 consultants to do this and no one wants to help us.”

Usually, these requests came in fields that I (at the time) was certainly no expert in. Livelihoods analysis, tertiary child protection systems, community-based disaster recovery management programming, etc. They almost always meant diving into new literatures and exploring problems of measurement and data use in ways that were novel and particular and had to somehow hew to the very real limitations faced by those implementing these programs: namely, time, but also expertise and sheer number of people.

These were also the projects that I have loved taking on, taking ideas that are firmly based in practitioner experience and helping make sense of how to use data and econometrics and innovative measurement and descriptive tools in ways that are practical and implementable. Getting to work with inquisitive and innovation-oriented development professionals is one of the things I love best about my job.

I also love when we get to share these projects. I’m super pleased to announce that one such project (or rather, our write-up of the work) has been accepted at World Development!

With Richard Barad, a GIS specialist, and Chris Hillbruner, then Deputy Chief of Party for FEWS NET, we piloted a method to use large-scale household and remote-sensed data to describe livelihoods in a way that was compatible with participatory methods and comprehensible to practitioners in the field. Quick summary:

  1. Collect HEA-compatible variables from large scale household data like the LSMS from the World Bank (agricultural activities, livestock ownership, etc.)
  2. Spatially interpolate these data!
  3. Identify relevant remote-sensed data that pertains to livelihoods (soil quality, ground cover, distance to markets, passable roads, etc.)
  4. Export all the data to grid squares and perform principal components analysis and cluster analysis
  5. Make pretty maps! Go Forth! Discuss! Use to understand food emergencies!


I stress that it’s both because a lot of people we spoke with are pushing forward some neat and innovative methods to do something similar, but in a way that was difficult to implement. What we propose is certainly still in beta, but we think can be put in place quickly to inform emergency situations and to validate other types of data collection.

Abstract below, and a yet-to-be-finalized copy is here and tweetstorm is here.

Understanding livelihoods patterns is a key component of food security and poverty analysis. The Household Economy Approach (HEA) is a leading method of conceptualizing, organizing, and analyzing information on livelihoods systems that is widely used within the food security analysis community. This approach is typically informed by data collected using qualitative methods. However, the increasing availability of large-scale household survey datasets presents an opportunity to explore the degree to which these data can be used to strengthen HEA analysis. Here, we present the results of a novel pilot study that uses large-scale household survey data to create livelihoods products for Nigeria, using a combination of spatial interpolation, principal component analysis, and cluster analysis. We show how these techniques can leverage existing data to create low-cost maps of quantitatively described livelihoods that are stable over time and conceptually consistent with products derived using traditional methods.  We also outline future research for how to incorporate these outputs into practitioner analysis.

*Paper acceptance day was actually yesterday


Child Marriage and Integrated Programming

I spent part of this morning (very early this morning) speaking to a joint meeting of experts on child marriage from UNFPA and UNICEF from the South Asia region. Earlier this year, I coauthored a directed literature review of white papers and scholarly literature from 2014 to 2018 on child marriage in South Asia and was asked to share some thoughts and findings.

The paper is forthcoming, and I’ll be sure to post it when it’s available, but presenting the findings very briefly this morning to my colleagues forced me to think about big picture lessons. In doing so, my thoughts coalesced on one important point. Namely, as the research around child marriage has evolved, so too has the thinking about how to address the problem, changing from a single-minded, narrowly focused assignment of poverty as the root cause and thus poverty alleviation as the solution, to nuanced understanding of the heterogeneity of the experiences of child brides and the deep cultural, social, political, legal, and normative institutions that shape both the practice and responses to programming designed to stem it.

Viewing child marriage as a systems problem, one that is subject to feedback loops and responsive in ways we may not fully expect or plan for (externalities or unintended consequences) is an increasingly recognized and necessary way to view programming. In addition, the increasing recognition of the subnational heterogeneity and increasing availability of quality data and studies on particular groups and their child marriage institutions is an important step in better placing the problem in its social and political contexts. I’m excited to see continued work in this area that recognizes, for instance, how cash transfers may increase secondary school attainment and delay the very youngest child marriage, but also increase marriage at age 18, or how outlawing child marriage may influence sex selection, or how to make girls’ empowerment and agency interventions effective and safe for girls in an environment with strong, persistent patriarchal norms, or how norms that appear to be changing and flexible may be more pliant in the face of macro-economic changes and individual-level shocks. Developing methods and evaluation tools to test the efficacy of integrated programming is a frontline problem for child marriage programming, as well as other social programming.

All said, there are so many exciting areas of research, and I love being deeply ensconced in these debates with scholars and practitioners. Paper to come shortly!


Some Personal/Professional News

Fall is marked by change, and while the aspens are turning yellow all over Colorado, it seems it’s my turn, too. I am very excited to announce that I am joining Results for Development as an Economist/Researcher as of today! R4D guides development projects around the world in the health, nutrition, governance, and education spaces. I will be working with their Rapid Feedback Monitoring, Evaluation, and Rapid Learning Team to bring the technical side of evidence generation and evaluation design in-house, but also supporting projects across the organization in formative research and data analysis with a keen eye towards policy and program design.

It is a phenomenal opportunity, but it is also one that necessitates leaving Colorado and moving to Washington, DC. I am heartbroken, obviously, to leave my family and my mountains.

I am also sad to be leaving behind my own consulting work. I have worked with amazing partners all over the world for the past three years on so many interesting questions. I am grateful to everyone who hired me, worked with me, and let me try out my nutty ideas. FEWS NET, the IRC, Bead For Life/Street Business School, Promethean Community, Al Mokha, are just a few of my awesome partners. I have learned so much from of you, and I think we have accomplished some great things, too.

One of the best things about this R4D job is that my actual job is pretty similar to what I have been doing. I’m handing over much of the administrative work, the sales-y parts, and the risk to a larger organization. (There might even be someone to help me with data cleaning once in awhile! What kind of PhD turns that down?!). In turn, I get more time to think deeply about econometrics, about research, about survey experiments, about evaluative design, about policy, about programming, about equity, about research ethics, about measurement. Can you tell how excited I am?!

I am. I am super excited to join this extremely talented and creative team and take on a new portfolio of work. So, let me know if you’re in DC. Or come visit!

(Also, because several people have asked, I am keeping my house–it’s for rent starting mid-December if you know anyone who wants to live in an adorable 1910s duplex in Washington Park West.)

Measuring Difficult Things

I’m super excited to be giving a talk on Wednesday at the One Earth Future Foundation, a local, homegrown, interdisciplinary think tank here in Colorado working on all sorts of issues related to sustainability and making sure that we can keep living on this planet.

Because I don’t get to give talks very often, I may have gotten a bit excited and planned to talk about, well, basically everything I have done the past few years (and frankly a lot that I’m hoping to do in the next few!). The abstract is below. Really looking forward to a fun discussion!

Measuring Difficult Things

Social norms, unobserved characteristics, and hidden statuses can exert significant effects on outcomes ranging from domestic violence to armed group participation to social capital and network formation. In quantitative analysis, not being able to account for these factors can lead to biases in our estimation and thus incorrect or incomplete policy prescriptions. Even when we are able to see that these factors exist, finding a way to include them in our estimation is often limited by issues of measurement. In this talk, I give an overview of some my research on how to measure difficult things, beginning with social norms and intergenerational effects in a study of refugees, list experiments, and how to generate representative samples of hidden populations. I explore challenges in measurement, offer lessons from the field, and describe prospective work that aims to continue deepening our understanding of how to approach measuring difficult things.

Just how much do adults influence their kids?: Nyarugusu edition

In my first paper with Seth Gitter and Savannah Wilhelm on refugees in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu Camp, we showed that, among child respondents, there appears to be a strong social norm around reporting violence at school. Children believe their peers will report victimization, kind of regardless of the things we might think would matter. Boys and girls think their peers would report at roughly the same rate, and the type of violence doesn’t seem to change their perceptions much either.

A natural question to come out of this is whether these attitudes and perceptions are coming from their parents. Luckily, I designed this survey exactly to get at that kind of question. A novel and important part of this study was to survey linked child-parent pairs, so we can compare children’s responses to their parents. We have a second paper, now a Towson University working paper, out to deal with just that question. Here we’re still using the vignettes (one-line short stories of hypothetical situations), so there is some measure of uncertainty given the randomization of the vignette characteristics, and we’re still concerned with reporting norms, not direct victimization, but we have some pretty interesting findings.

First, parents’ and kids’ answers are positively correlated, so while we cannot necessarily identify the mechanism, there does appear to be some intergenerational transfer of attitudes or social norms.

We use the error terms from the parent regressions (basically the variation in the observations that cannot be explained by the vignette characteristics) to represent this sort of nebulous “parent” effect. When we put these error terms into the kid regressions, there is a large and statistically significant effect on those terms. In other words, the unobservable stuff that determines a parent’s answers is clearly and significantly related to his or her kid’s answers, controlling for both the vignettes that children hear and their demographics.

But they’re not perfectly correlated. We wouldn’t expect them to be, given the vignette randomization, so we rely on grouped vignette characteristics to tell us a little more. Parents saw some violence type distinctions where kids did not; sexual violence (teasing or touching) was perceived as more likely to be reported than other types of violence.

Finally, the specific way the surveys were set up allow us to dig a little deeper into parent thinking. Parents were screened at the beginning of interviews and asked to identify and give consent for one of their children to be interviewed immediately after their own survey. Largely, this was the child in the age range who happened to be at home and we believe this to be relatively random (school is half day, most adults had several children in the age range of both genders, parents were chosen via random walk, etc.). Gender and age are balanced for the child sample.

So, given that the child was selected before any data collection took place, we examine the data to see if parents answer vignettes differently depending on gender of the victim, conditional on the gender of the child who was interviewed after them. Spoiler alert. They do. Parents who selected a boy child to be interviewed and heard vignettes about boys were more likely to think the hypothetical victim would report violence. This isn’t true about girls. We think this effect might be something like priming, that the child to be interviewed might be at the top of the parent’s mind while he/she is taking the survey.

Seth and I will be presenting this paper at the MIEDC conference at the University of Minnesota at the end of April. We’re super excited to share it with everyone!

Pop the Champagne: An ode to great coauthors

Yesterday, I took a quick career mentoring phone call with a post-doc at CUNY Futures Initiative. After I had given her the rundown of what I presume to be my extremely fascinating job and life, the post-doc asked me how I managed to keep one foot in academia with everything else I had going on.

I have great coauthors, I told her.

And it’s so true.

Yesterday, I received notification that the first paper using the data I collected with the IRC in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu refugees camp was accepted for publication at Migration Letters. Time to break out the champagne, but first, lemme go update my CV real quick…

K, I’m back.

As background, the IRC hired me in 2015 to conduct a two-country, two-stage investigation of social norms of violence in schools in refugee camps. We started with focus groups and key informant interviews with Burundian and Congolese refugees in Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania, displaced Iraqis in Arbat IDP camp in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, and out-of-camp Syrian refugees in urban Sulaymaniyah. These results were used to inform a survey of 300 randomly selected child-parent pairs in Nyarugusu. We were unable to complete the second phase of research in Iraq.

The survey covers lots of things, but specifically in this newly accepted paper, with Seth Gitter at Towson University and his senior thesis student, Savannah Wilhelm (now all graduated and grown-up, *sniff*), we examine norms around reporting violence to authorities and characteristics of children that may predict reporting in Nyarugusu. I love these data for many reasons, not just because they’re my baby, but because I think they’re a unique and novel contribution to an understudied field.

We survey young kids in an environment where very few large-scale surveys have been done (we have ~300 child-parent pairs, though this paper only looks at the children’s responses); we talk about violence in ways that are designed to mitigate retraumatzation and reduce under-reporting; and the findings are really interesting. Gender, either of the respondent or the hypothetical victim, has no significant bearing on the willingness of kids to report violence. In an extremely unstable, vulnerable environment where kids have fled violence, or grown up with stories of their parents fleeing violence, there appears to be a normative expectation that kids report victimization, and they feel comfortable doing that at school.

I think that’s huge.

This is also the first paper for which I’ve gone through the whole process with a student co-author, which was extremely rewarding. I honestly cannot gush enough about how great it’s been to work with Seth and Savannah (and now Seth and Lauren, and hopefully more to come!). Abstract is below. A second paper using the parent responses as well is in the works and hopefully we’ll get to share that soon, too.

Reporting Violence Against Children: Social Norms in Nyarugusu Refugees Camp

There is substantial evidence to show that the two million children living in refugee camps are vulnerable to violence, although little is known about under what circumstances children will report that violence, complicating efforts to reduce vulnerabilities. We presented 300 children in a Tanzanian refugee camp (Nyarugusu) with hypothetical vignettes regarding a victim’s response to violence. Vignette characteristics were randomized (e.g. victim, perpetrator, and location) to test what factors influenced reporting. Respondents believe the victim was more likely to report violence at school or adolescent perpetrators. Surprisingly, we find no substantial difference based on victim or respondent’s gender.

On Giving Tuesday, Please Remember Refugees


Friends and colleagues often ask me questions like, “should I give money to X organization that you have worked with?” and “if I want to support refugees and displaced persons, where should I give?” Since Thanksgiving is behind us, but Giving Tuesday is upon us, I thought I would take the opportunity to share the answers that I often give to these questions, starting with my quintessential “do your research” mantra.

More personally, last week, one of my refugee staff who had been relocated to the US was faced with eviction. My sister and I got a Friday-midnight text message from my friend obliquely explaining the situation. My sister sprung to action on Saturday morning and I have cried at least three times reading the donations list as high school friends and colleagues donated, and then people who follow me on twitter but I’ve never met in real life, and then people who I’ve never even interacted with on twitter opened up their wallets. Y’all are wow, just wow. I do not know how to begin to thank you and hope that my heart hugs reach you from way over here in the Mile High City. I know Eloco’s heart is also soaring.

Wherever and whether you decide to give, or not, on Giving Tuesday or any other day, I hope your Thanksgiving was filled with light and love and that it follows you into a bright, shiny New Year. This is my small way of paying it forward. Here we go.

  1. First and foremost, do some research. Before donating, read up on organizations through charity raters like Charity Navigator or the Catalogue for Philanthropy (DC-area only) or GiveWell. Newer, smaller, and local organizations (both in the US and in camps or other countries) may not be on lists like these, so take their recommendations with a grain of salt, but it’s always good to know what the consensus is on how organizations are using their money from available information and neutral (or as neutral as possible) evaluations. Keeping up on what the charities you want to support are doing takes precedent over all of what I have to say here.
  2. Decide what’s important to you and find an organization that does that. Do you want to support refugees in America? Or in camps? Or out-of-camp refugees? Specific camps? Specific populations? Do you want to support GBV or anti-violence programming or education or safe spaces for children or access to clean water? Do you want your money to go to immediate, need-action crises like the Rohingya or Mediterranean crossings? Or long-lasting, ongoing crises like the displaced Congolese or Somalis?
  3. Or just go with a big organization that does everything. There is plenty of need, so if you don’t have a specific cause and just want to help refugees, consider giving to a big organization that will put your gift towards where they need the most help. Big organizations, like the IRC or Oxfam or other groups that help resettle refugees, will be able to move funds around and devote some of their budget to higher-level advocacy and advertising, which can multiply the impact of your gift.
  4. Balance local and big-organization giving. If you live in New York or Boston or DC or Florida (or anywhere else with a large, existing PR community right now), you are likely seeing an influx of Puerto Ricans into your communities. With ongoing power outages and food and medicine shortages, many Puerto Ricans are moving to the mainland and they need all kinds of support. Local organizations that are on the ground are well positioned to assess their needs and provide those resources. Similarly, local organizations will have a good idea of which populations are already in your community and know what their needs are. There are almost certainly refugees from other countries being relocated in your community (and have been for some time); find out who is supporting them and feel free to contact them, be it New American Pathways, the IRC, or a small local church . For instance, Colorado has long had large Vietnamese and Russian refugee populations, but more recently seen influxes from Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan. I just learned about Street Fraternity Brotherhood in Denver, which works with young male immigrants and refugees, and while I cannot personally vouch for their work, I’m totally behind the idea. If you’re looking for a small organization on the ground in a camp or in a non-camp situation where there are lots of refugees, these exist, too, but go through contacts in-country to find them and make sure they money is going to where you think it’s going.
  5. Resist bandwagoning. Remember when the ACLU was inundated with donations earlier this year with the announcement of the refugee ban? It created awesome momentum and great press (and most accounts suggest that the ACLU has put that money to good use), but small organizations often cannot use all of those funds efficiently. If you’re inclined to donate to a particular cause that is getting a lot of attention, consider finding a smaller organization that works toward the same or similar cause but doesn’t have the big name or fundraising apparatus.
  6. Yeah, yeah, Erin, how about specifics? Okay, fine. (COI note: I do not benefit personally from any of these organizations, but I mention them because I have witnessed their work first-hand or know someone integral to their programming.)
    1. Upwardly Global works with highly educated immigrants (not just refugees) who are searching for opportunities that better match their skills in the US. Economists should love this one (reducing search and job mismatch frictions!)
    2. IRAP works across the country with volunteer lawyers to provide legal support for refugees.
    3. The IRC supports primary and secondary schools, marginalized populations, gender-based violence awareness and reporting, as well as high-level advocacy and resettlement in the US.
    4. MSF is always there, in the worst, most dangerous of situations.
    5. Oxfam provides clean water and sanitation education in many camps.
    6. UNFPA The family planning arm of the UN doesn’t solicit donations on the scale that UNHCR or UNICEF do (both of which do lots of work with refugees generally and education specifically and would also happily take your money), but I have been consistently impressed working with UNFPA at the caliber of their staff, their commitment to evidence-based programming, and their drive to reach the most vulnerable girls, wherever they happen to be working.
    7. Andi Leadership for Young Women supports peacebuilding and conflict resolution across cultures.
    8. “Every refugee in Atlanta comes through Clarkston at some point,” or so says my ATL-bound sister. Clarkston Community Center outside of Atlanta, GA provides bicycles, and computing and language classes in a community where many refugees first land. Clarkston Community Health Clinic offers free health services to the refugee population there, too.
    9. If you’d like to help more organizations that are on the ground and doing pathbreaking work, consider supporting an organization that identifies and supports social innovation start-ups like The Resolution Project or Echoing Green Fellowship. You may not be able to direct your money towards refugees in particular, but you will support social innovation around the world and beneficiaries are often working with refugees due to the increased publicity around displaced populations.
    10. Did you know that the CDC works on immigrant and refugee health? If you’re looking for a low-cost option to help, call your congresspeople and encourage them to support funding for the CDC and population-based surveys like the Census to make sure we know how best to serve these populations.
    11. Obviously, there are tons more organizations that work in camps and as resettlement organizations and to support refugees here and abroad. This list should not be considered exhaustive in any way nor should it be used to dissuade you if you were going to go with someone else. Also, if I failed to include an organization here, it probably just means I am not personally familiar with their work.

Last but not least, Eloco’s family is still in need. If that story in particular resonates with you and you’d like to help an individual or a family, let me know. I would be happy to introduce you to a number of refugees all over East Africa and in America who are constantly asking me to “keep them in mind” and to “search for a benefactor” for them. One trying to set up a milk business in Burundi, another setting up rotating savings and credit associations for war widows in Nyarugusu camp, another trying to go to school in Uganda, another trying to get into a Ph.D. program in Cameroon, etc.

All my love and gratitude.