India-bound!

It’s (almost) official! I think I actually have a ticket and am leaving for India and the Philippines for the rest of the summer on Friday. I’ll post updates here as the mood strikes me, but feel free to follow @ekfletch and @EPoDHarvard on twitter for more frequent (and perhaps less related) content (pictures of all the momos I’m going to eat? Anyone?).

For now, I’ll leave you with the World Bank’s new project to determine the economic cost of child marriage, a well-funded, but really huge undertaking:

What is the economic cost of child marriage? We don’t really know. Studies – including those by the World Bank – suggest a range of negative impacts of child marriage on human development outcomes. For example, Bank staff have estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa child marriage may account in some countries for up to one-fifth of drop-outs among girls at the secondary level, and each additional year of delay in the age of (child) marriage could potentially increase the likelihood of literacy and secondary school completion by several percentage points for the affected girls. Another study published a few years ago in the Journal of Political Economy suggests similar impacts in the case of Bangladesh.

Insert joke here about Boston accents…

It’s been a crazy spring. Weather-wise, life plans-wise, travel-wise, just kind of nuts all around. I realize much of this is self-induced craziness. I’m the one looking for a job. I’m the one who jets off to Portugal for the weekend. I’m the one who can’t sit still.

It seems, though, that I might have found something to help calm the waters of a few of those things, and perhaps stir up some others. I’m excited to announce that I have accepted a position as a postdoctoral researcher at Evidence for Policy Design, a group within Harvard Kennedy School‘s Center for International Development. I will be working with Rohini Pande and Erica Field, spending some time in India, and working on several really cool research projects pertaining to women’s labor force participation, banking, the environment, and policy making in India. It’s an opportunity to continue my own research on gender, violence and discrimination in the developing world, to get some experience in the field, and to work with and around a large group of incredibly smart people doing awesome research on gender, development, and related fascinating topics.

I’m absolutely over the moon excited. I will be learning from the very best and there is likely no job that better fits my interests and skills.

I will be very sad to leave Lafayette College. The students here are wonderful. My colleagues here are phenomenal. They have become fantastic friends, mentors, coauthors, yoga buddies, running partners, cycling partners, and so much more in a very short time. I don’t imagine that those things will change; I know how to make sure I’m not forgotten. (mwahahaha).

I’m also grateful for the outpouring of congratulations and support I’ve already received from friends, family, and colleagues. I feel so fortunate to have all of you in my life. The best responses I’ve gotten so far have been from my dad and the woman who cleans the room I teach in at 8am. My dad said, “buy a plane ticket home and we’ll drink the ’82 Mouton!” (I didn’t, for the record). The woman who cleans my classroom said, “Congratulations! When are you moving to Connecticut?” A wonderful, subtle reminder that Cambridge is not the center of everyone’s universe, even if it’s about to become mine.

On vocabulary and observation at the ASSA (a little late, but you know what they say…)

As a first-time job market candidate, the annual ASSA meetings every January are stressful and busy and kind of terrible, but as I’ve gone more and more, I’ve realized they’re kind of awesome. My two favorite events are the CSWEP mentoring breakfast and the CU reception, but everywhere you go, you’re running into people you want to have a conversation with, people you haven’t seen in a year or more, people who want to ask you something or share something exciting. I spent most of the weekend hearing about cool papers, having great conversations about economics, and seeing people I care about. I’m a big fan, turns out.

Even if it’s 0 degrees F and we’re all tromping around in the snow that the city won’t clear.

But I digress. One of the other events I was excited for this time around was the T. Schulz memorial lecture put on by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. I like ag economists.

The lecture was given by Michael Kremer of Harvard. It wasn’t a traditional lecture in the sense there wasn’t much talk of big ideas or themes. He really just presented a new paper, which was a bit disappointing, but, taken at face value, ultimately interesting.

The paper was trying to ascertain the extent to which asset-collateralized debt would be successful in an experimental setting in East Africa (yes, likely a community that has seen plenty of these interventions). Most of the debt we take on in the US is asset collateralized, if you don’t pay your car loan, they take your car, for instance, but it’s not like that in many other parts of the world. Collateral for loans, especially small loans, often comes in the form of guarantees from family or neighbors, or some cash reserve itself, or sometimes none at all. So, asking whether individuals saw these loan as different is an interesting question if someone is trying to institute them.

Perhaps the most important result is that people were paying back their loans, and not only paying them back, but paying them back early, which Kremer attributed to debt aversion.

As Kremer started in on his preliminary results, the first things I heard were not his interpretation, but rather whispers from all sides around me.

“Neighborhood effects.”

“Peer effects.”

“Why should we think debt aversion is driving this behavior?” There seemed to be a consensus, at least in my part of the audience, that individuals were paying back their debts not because they disliked having debt, per se, but that they thought it made them look bad in the eyes of their neighbors. Some of the first questions following the lecture pertained to the interpretation of the observations.

Two ideas immediately came to my mind during this exchange. The first has to do with quantum physics and how when we observe something, we change it. The second is that many of the whispers around me could be re-interpreted as a discussion of social norms. In the peer effects interpretation, borrowers could see their peers repaying and thus be more likely to repay. And in the social norms sense, borrowers could perceive that having debt is not seen well by the community and thus be more likely to repay. It seems that much of the debate could have been settled by a survey question or two regarding attitudes about debt, social norms around debt, and the perception of debt aversion on a community level. “What percentage of people in this community pay their debts on time?” or “How are people who don’t pay their debts treated in this community?” Or something like that.

It strikes me that the language economists and other social scientists use to explain similar phenomena are often very different. Also, it seems that Kremer could have fairly quickly disabused his critics of their notions had he conducted at least a little surveying on debt aversion and social norms.

Standard of living and measuring welfare effects

A few posts caught my eye today by bloggers discussing different, but related topics. All of them suggest that the most measurable outcomes are not necessarily the metrics of policy success or failure we should focus on.

Francisco Toro, at his new blog the Campaign for Boring Development, comments on how microfinance may not raise the incomes of participants, but it does have the potential to increase standards of living.

Matt Yglesias, at Slate, slams the media for misinterpreting (willfully?) the CBO report that says the equivalent of more than 2 million full time (equivalent) jobs will disappear as a result of the ACA. The Plum Line says it’s not a “job-killer,” but people might choose to work fewer hours because now they can afford healthcare. Is that really so bad?

Development Bloat

Marc F. Bellemare has a piece in Foreign Affairs today on development bloat, or how myriad causes and niche agencies and mission creep are harming the ultimate goal of development, to increase and stabilize incomes for the poor around the world. His argument is that funneling money to secondary needs diverts resources from meeting the basic ones, the ones that,if met, would ultimately lift everyone out of poverty.

Many of the things promoted nowadays by development — breastfeeding, the use of cookstoves, gender equality, environmental sustainability, an independent media, Internet access, and so on — fall into place naturally once people have met their basic needs, such as clean water, plentiful and nutritious food, and found a steady source of income. In other words, many conditions targeted by idealistic development goals arose in wealthier countries as byproducts of higher incomes, and trying to provide them at the same time as more fundamental things puts the cart before the horse.

It’s an excellent, important read and though I’m with Marc on most of his points, gender equality doesn’t belong on this list. Stabilizing incomes is necessary and great and ultimately the goal, but if half of your population (or often more than half of your population) is systematically denied access to those basic needs, it doesn’t matter that much that they’re being “met” on a national- or community-level.

In an extensive review of the literature, Esther Duflo shows that development itself, or higher incomes, does not necessarily lead to gender equality. If it’s something we care about, and I believe that we should, then a dedicated policy infrastructure devoted to improving outcomes for women and girls is necessary to ensure that development works for everyone.

Shove vs. Nudge vs. None

When I first read about this new paper by a slew of economists including Esther Duflo, it was presented as part of the wave of evidence that has recently come out saying that unconditional cash transfers are just as effective at changing behavior as conditional cash transfers. The primary difference being that monitoring costs were significantly smaller, needier households would be more likely to get assistance, and there would be more flexibility in what individuals will spend the money on, likely, as they’re not being asked to do any one particular activity or investment with it.

It may be a matter of semantics, but I don’t think that this paper is actually making that claim (nor do I think they authors are really making that claim). One of the problems with measuring effects of unconditional cash transfers is that flexibility. Because individuals can spend the money where they deem it most useful or necessary, aggregate effects, or averaged effects tend to be small or even zero. In the simplest of terms, if I give three people $100 and one spends it on new shoes to plow his fields in, one spends it on school fees, and one spends it on hospital bills, the first may have a better crop output, the second may spend more time in school, and the third may be healthier but on average, income, education, and health effects are small for the group. They may all be better off, or perceive themselves as better off, but as they are better off on different metrics, we can’t observe the effect.

This idea of targeting “labeled cash transfers” as opposed to conditional ones or unconditional ones is an attempt at getting to somewhere in the middle. If we label the transfer, it implies it’s for a specific purpose, which means that we should be able to see the effect on a single metric. We know that some individuals will use the cash transfer for something other than what is labeled, but likely compliance will be high without significant monitoring costs.

Overall, though, it’s hard to imagine that recipients don’t imagine they are in some way being monitored. I can’t imagine being handed money, told explicitly it was for school, and then going and spending it on something else. Even if I were up for that, I’d be afraid of getting caught, or not being eligible for a subsequent payment. So, while this program reduces monitoring costs, which are high and probably not very effective, I don’t think this paper shows that unconditional cash transfers are as good as conditional ones, but rather that labeled cash transfers are as good as conditional ones but with fewer costs associated with them.

I also don’t doubt the principle in theory that unconditional transfers are just as good. Basic economic theory says that individuals are rational and though I may doubt that in principle, I’d guess that on average individuals will use additional funds to make themselves better off as it makes sense to them. If someone wants new shoes and someone wants to send their kids to school, and someone needs to pay hospital bills, they likely know better what will increase their own welfare. But I do think an aggregate effect on welfare is more difficult to measure with the unconditional transfers.

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) have been shown to increase human capital investments, but their standard features make them expensive. We use a large randomized experiment in Morocco to estimate an alternative government-run program, a “labeled cash transfer” (LCT): a small cash transfer made to fathers of school-aged children in poor rural communities, not conditional on school attendance but explicitly labeled as an education support program. We document large gains in school participation. Adding conditionality and targeting mothers make almost no difference. The program increased parents’ belief that education was a worthwhile investment, a likely pathway for the results.

Benhassine, Najy, Florencia Devoto, Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Victor Pouliquen. Turning a Shove into a Nudge? A “Labeled Cash Transfer” for Education. NBER Working Paper 19227.

Hunger seasons

This week’s events have reminded me why I don’t want to go back to school. As I struggle through writing an application essay and wonder whether I’m really too old for this, my thoughts turn to grandiose schemes of changing the world.

Last week, a colleague and I were discussing the seasonality of hunger in some farming communities, particularly in East Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa. I was so pleased with myself, thinking about a “Hunger Season,” and my journalist brain got a little revved about how I could write a book about it, only to find this one: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.

My take so far, it’s a little grandiose and self-pat-on-the-back-y, but it’s well written and very well researched. It paints a fascinating and illuminating portrait of subsistence farmers in Kenya, going hungry, seasonally, for just the reasons my colleague and I had been discussing earlier. It’s definitely worth a read.

I hope to finish it this week, if my own grandiose essay writing doesn’t get in the way.

A Zimbabwe Update

My arrival in Harare a few weeks ago almost perfectly coincided with the most recent call for elections, and I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. Watching Zimbabwe come out of hyperinflation has been astonishing, as an economist, and as a person trying to become a Zimbabwe scholar (sort of), a call for elections was electrifying.

Of course, my euphoria was short-lived. The first person I talked to about it responded with “they probably won’t happen.” The second with “no one actually thinks they will happen.” The third delved into a lengthy explanation of the coalition government and the problems associated with the implementation of the new constitution and how they likely wouldn’t happen on time and suddenly, I realized how little I actually knew.

I’d been here before. That is, I’ve jumped into a country I knew very little about with a few weeks’ worth of research under my belt and tried to answer some questions about it. I’d never been to Zimbabwe before. Zimbabwe is a place you can read a lot about. The hyperinflation, president of seemingly millions of years Robert Mugabe, agriculture and land reform, cholera and the UN, and so much more.

For all of this, things in Zimbabwe seem to be working. Sure, the power went out a few times on the streets, but even as traffic snarled, people got to where they were going and were improbably polite about it. Everyone seemed so kind and helpful. There wasn’t the constant blaring of horns you hear in Delhi or Kolkata. It didn’t seem nearly as crowded as Dar or Kampala. Though I was warned not to walk around at night and got plenty of stares for going on a jog through a park nearby my hotel, I felt incredibly safe driving around the country and walking through Harare during the day. We even managed to get buy-in from a relevant ministry on my project without too much leg work.

That’s not to say that things are perfect. An estimated one third of Zimbabweans under the age of 49 suffer from HIV/AIDS. Though the official unemployment rate is lower than that of the US (6% to 7.7%), an estimated 70-90% of Zimbabweans aren’t working for wages. Cash is short due to dollarization and prices are much higher than one would expect.

And elections, it seems, as so many tried to tell me, will be delayed. So perhaps everything doesn’t work quite as well as I had thought.

It’s really beautiful, though.

DSCN0740

For reading on Zimbabwe, I’ll recommend the two books that were given to me as I took on this project. I’m sure there are many more good ones and I’d be happy to read/share if anyone has suggestions.

  1. Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (Voice of Witness)
  2. Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa

More on adolescent girls, because, yeah

I just realized that I never shared this work with you all. This post was written almost four months ago, but I think it’s still relevant. And even more so now as the papers are all live on the Girl Effect website. I hope you enjoy it!

My coauthor and I spent the last week finishing up our issues paper on adolescent girls for DFID and the Nike Foundation. It’s been this super crazy, whirlwind kind of project where I’ve learned so much and met so many amazing people. It’s exciting, but it sure was exhausting. I’m really excited to be able to share our findings, here they are!

So, what do we find? For the most part, programs that seek to use social norms to reduce societal discrimination against adolescent girls aren’t very well-studied. With the exception of a very small number of programs, both quantitative and qualitative analysis are lacking; overall there has been little effort to sufficiently randomize participants and perform rigorous pre- and post-intervention analysis. Thus the ability to causally identify statistically significant effects of these programs is incredibly limited.

There are a few rays of light, however. We found three programs–Tostan, Meena Communication Initiative, and Promises–that promote gender-equitable behaviors and discourage violence and discrimination against adolescent girls using social norms language or methods. All three of these programs employ multifaceted interventions. That is to say that while each has a goal of reducing discrimination or ending FGM/C, the actual process includes community conversations, social norms marketing through popular culture medium such as comic books and television shows, community declarations, school programming and more.

It seems that this is the way programs in the developing world are going. Recently, Markus Goldstein posted about his new paper on a child club program to promote the status and welfare of adolescent girls in Uganda. Though it doesn’t seem to have a strong social norms component, ELA is multifaceted, and thus multi-outcome.

In terms of sexual behavior, the girls who participate in the clubs show significantly better HIV and pregnancy knowledge than the control group.   They are also 12.6 percentage points more likely to report always using a condom when they have sex (which matches up with a reduction in those reporting often or occasional use of a condom).   They also experience a striking reduction in fertility – at follow up, treatment girls are 2.7 percentage points less likely to have a kid (26 percent of the baseline mean).   Now since they also report no increase in use of other forms of contraception, these things taken together strongly suggest that they are markedly reducing their risk of exposure to HIV.

My favorite part of reading this paper was this interactive effect. It’s very cool and I think will provide an strong template going forward for programs that wish to engage communities and have profound, lasting effects. Both Markus’ research and ours suggest that the narrowly focused, difficult-to-replicate, difficult-to-scale-up RCTs such as those heralded in Poor Economics and More Than Good Intentions have some growing to do.

So many NBER papers I want to read today

Good thing I’m traveling this afternoon. (All gated, sorry.)

  1. Long-Term Neighborhood Effects on Low-Income Families: Evidence from Moving to Opportunity Abstract: We examine long-term neighborhood effects on low-income families using data from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) randomized housing-mobility experiment, which offered some public-housing families but not others the chance to move to less-disadvantaged neighborhoods. We show that 10-15 years after baseline MTO improves adult physical and mental health; has no detectable effect on economic outcomes, youth schooling and youth physical health; and mixed results by gender on other youth outcomes, with girls doing better on some measures and boys doing worse. Despite the somewhat mixed pattern of impacts on traditional behavioral outcomes, MTO moves substantially improve adult subjective well-being.
  2. New Evidence on the Impacts of Access to and Attending Universal Childcare in Canada Abstract: In Canada, advocates of universal child care often point to policies implemented in Quebec as providing a model for early education and care policies in other provinces. While these policies have proven to be incredibly popular among citizens, initial evaluations of access to these programs indicated they led to a multitude of undesirable child developmental, health and family outcomes. These research findings ignited substantial controversy and criticism. In this study, we show the robustness of the initial analyses to i) concerns over whether negative outcomes would vanish over time as suppliers gained experience providing child care, ii) concerns regarding multiple testing, and iii) concerns that the original test measured the causal impact of childcare availability and not child care attendance. A notable exception is that despite estimated effects stemming from the policy indicating declines in motor-social development scores in Quebec relative to the rest of Canada, our analyses imply that on average attending childcare in Canada leads to a significant increase in this test score. However, our analysis reveals substantial heterogeneity in program impacts that occur in response to the Quebec policies and indicates that most of the negative impacts reported in earlier research are driven by children from families who only attended childcare in response to the implementation of this policy.
  3. Profitability of Fertilizer: Experimental Evidence from Female Rice Farmers in Mali Abstract: In an experiment providing fertilizer grants to women rice farmers in Mali, we found that women who received fertilizer increased both the quantity of fertilizer they used on their plots and complementary inputs such as herbicides and hired labor. This highlights that farmers respond to an increase in availability of one input by re-optimizing other inputs, making it challenging to isolate the returns to any one input. We also found that while the increase in inputs led to a significantly higher level of output, we find no evidence that profits increased. Our results suggest that fertilizer’s impact on profits is small compared to other sources of variation. This may make it difficult for farmers to observe the impact of fertilizer on their plots, and accordingly this affects their ability to learn about the returns to fertilizer and could affect their decision to adopt even in the absence of credit constraints.