A rant on fertility rates and other nonsense

Amid the great twitter shutdown of Thursday morning, I inadvertently got myself into my first twitter fight. I’m still not entirely sure how we got to the point of this person, previously unknown to me, accusing me of believing that condoms were not a form of conception, but I think it had to do with her not reading a post of mine from last year.

When it ended, we somehow were talking about the US fertility rate. I was trying to make that point that if only 1% of women of child-bearing age in the US were pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding, we would have far fewer than 4 million babies born per year, while she wanted to insist the the right wing agenda was fighting abortion in order to increase the fertility rate of whites.

We were clearly talking past each other. Nonetheless, I thought of the conversation Saturday morning when a friend forwarded me this “the world is coming to an end because white women in the US aren’t having babies” article from the WSJ. There are so many things wrong with this piece, starting with the inherent racism (the fertility rate may be 14/1000 inhabitants, but it’s the immigrants who are having babies, which is going to wipe us out), to the misuse of statistics (I’m not sure how a slight increase in fertility constitutes “sinking like a stone,” but hey, I’m not a statistician or demographer or economist or anything…oh, wait…).

The set of solutions proposed by the author are equally problematic and short-sighted. While I admit that universities are in need of reform and education is too expensive, I am flummoxed by the observation that we should send fewer people to college. Apparently, fewer people (read: women) in college means people will have more babies which means more people paying taxes. Women leave college or the workforce to get pregnant or take lower wage jobs so that we can have more tax revenue? I’m confused. Despite the apparent appeal to the mercantilists who wanted to keep people poor so they would work hard, it goes entirely counter to his contention that we need people to be innovative and entrepreneurial. How do you expect people to be innovative if you don’t let them receive training in what’s already been done? Besides, I think the idea that we’re innovative because our population is growing is backwards. We don’t need more people in order to be more innovative, we need more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars to incentivize discovery, to provide opportunities, and to care for people who cannot take care of themselves.

Further, nowhere does the author promote pro-child policies that don’t utilize the tax code. There’s no talk of parental leave or support (such as expanding the Family Medical Leave Act, which just turned 20), child care, or other pro-parent policies. There’s no talk of improving public schools, so that having a child in a place like Chicago or New York isn’t subject to the constraint (held for some, not all) to be able to pay for private school.


National Book Award Finalists

I was pleased to see this week that Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity was named the National Book Award Winner for Non-fiction. I finally finished in a flurry of plane rides in October, fighting exhaustion and will-I-make-it-back-to-the-East-Coast stress in the shadow of Hurricane Sandy. Yes, I was one of those lunatics people trying to fly into the storm. I just made it, thankfully–I think my students would have revolted had I not–and haven’t picked up a book since then. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It doesn’t paint a particularly pretty picture of development, aid, poverty, or India, but that’s kind of the point.

Congratulations to all the winners! Thanks for keeping words beautiful.

The cutting edge of social norms research

At the conference in London last week, more than a few people were curious about who is doing work on social norms and in what contexts. The simplest answer is that Betsy Levy Paluck, Princeton professor of psychology and my coauthor on a piece about reducing gender-based violence, is working at the forefront of this research. Read pretty much anything by her if you want an idea of things that are going on.

Last year, a World Bank blog post declared social norms to be one of the most exciting areas of research for development, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what exactly social norms are. In our work last week, we heard many wanting to conflate social norms with societal norms or cultural norms.

From the issues paper Laurie Ball Cooper and I presented in London (2012):

Norms are often defined as models or patterns, and societal norms are often defined as the customary rules that govern behavior in a given community (Geertz, 1973). By contrast, social norms are “individuals’ perceptions about which attitudes and behaviors are typical or desirable in their community” (Paluck and Ball, 2010; Cialdini and Trost, 1998). This definition is derived from an extensive social psychological literature focusing on social norms as “socially shared definitions of the way people do behave or should behave” (Paluck, 2007; Miller, Monin and Prentice, 2000). Social norms include both descriptive norms (perceptions about behaviors that are common in the community) and injunctive norms (perceptions about which behaviors are desirable in the community) (Prentice, 2008; Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren, 1990). Individual attitudes and beliefs can be distinguished from these community-oriented concepts of norms: attitudes are individuals’ “evaluative stance toward the self or something in the environment,” and beliefs include “understandings (thought of as factual) of the self or something in the environment” (Paluck and Ball, 2010).

Social norms research is starting to appear in more and more venues. A paper I mentioned briefly in this space examined the intersection between social norms and inheritance laws. This paper reflects how legal reform must take into account local context if it hopes to effect change. The inheritance reform had particularly significant effects because it interacted with the social norm that fathers provide for their sons in Ghana. And a recent World Bank working paper examines corruption through the lens of social norms.


Ball Cooper, Laurie, and Erin K Fletcher. “Reducing societal discrimination against adolescent girls: Using social norms as a tool for behavioral change.” DFID Adolescent Girls technical paper. October 2012. (Available December 2012, hopefully).

Cialdini, R. B., L.J. Demaine, B.J. Sagarin, D.W. Barrett, K. Rhoads, and P.L. Winter (2006). “Managing social norms for persuasive impact.” Journal of Social Influence, 1(1), 3-15.

Cialdini, Robert B., Carl A. Kallgren, and Raymond R. Reno (1991), “A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: A Theoretical Refinement and Reevaluation of the Role of Norms in Human Behavior,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 24, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, San Diego: Academic Press, 201–34.

Miller, D. T., B. Monin, B., & D.A. Prentice (2000). Pluralistic ignorance and inconsistency between private attitudes and public behaviors. In D. J. Terry and M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Attitudes, behavior, and social context: The role of norms and group membership. pp. 95- 113. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Paluck, Elizabeth Levy, and Laurie Ball (2010). “Social norms marketing aimed at gender based violence: A literature review and critical assessment.” New York: International Rescue Committee.

Paluck, E.L. (2007). “Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict with the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda.” Yale University.

Prentice, Deborah A. (2008). “Mobilizing and Weakening Peer Influence as Mechanisms for Changing Behavior: Implications for Alcohol Intervention Programs.” In Prinstein, M.J., & Dodge, K.A. (Eds.). Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.

The unit of analysis

Bill Easterly put a quote on his non-blog yesterday from a Jane Jacobs book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, (now almost 30 years old) on the unit of analysis in development questions. It makes a case for considering other units of analysis than the nation.

Nations are political and military entities… But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for rise and decline of wealth.

As a labor economist, I’m kind of surprised that it’s still an issue, but it seems necessary to reiterate even 30 years after Jacobs brought it up in her book. Though Easterly and Jacobs were talking about wealth and economics in particular, I think the insight is relevant for all kinds of decision making, and especially important when we’re talking about social norms (yes, I’m on a social norms kick–it doesn’t help that a friend told me last night that all my research was boring except for the social norms stuff. I’m here all night, folks).

At the risk of sounding like an echo, I was a bit taken aback last week how many of the people at the conference wanted to talk about scaling up to national level, how to effect change at a national level, and how to measure national-level social norms (some confusion around the term, here), even while admitting how watered down programs get at that level and how difficult it is to generalize across countries. Research suggests that reform and program implementation at that level are not very compatible with leveraging social norms for behavioral change due to lack of identification with the relevant social group (the nation).

Examining a different “why” in development, aid, and girls

I was in London last week at the behest of the Nike Foundation and DFID for what I’m told was a very unique event, the first of its kind, on the status of adolescent girls in the world. It was a whirlwind couple of days with lots of amazing conversations, lots of confusing conversations, and lots of learning. My coauthor and I were both struck by the tremendous amount of experience and wealth of knowledge around that room. I could not have fathomed anything like it before getting on a plane to the UK.

It was definitely the first time I’d ever been in a room like this. 70 people from various development agencies–both funding and programmatic–people who work in the field, people who work in development administration and a few like me, who work with numbers and evidence and research.

At the end of it all, I was totally exhausted. By the time we even finished our first dinner, I was curious as to whether I would make it through the rest of the week, but I left with a much greater sense of the work that is being done and the challenges of implementing the kinds of programs and collecting the data I study. I hope that practitioners also left with some insight into how they can make my job of evaluating easier.

Given that the work we produced for this conference was on using social norms to reduce societal discrimination against girls, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the “why?” I don’t mean the “why are we here?” or “why are we doing this kind of research?” I think the community convened this week has a very clear idea of why they think this research is important, though I think they have a harder sell to some of those that fund it. I mean the why rather in a sense of why does this work? And why doesn’t it work? I think a lot that was discussed is about “what works” and “how should we proceed” and the other why is actually very important if we’re concerned about expansion, replication, and scale.

What works is only so useful a question in development if you are looking at comparable populations, comparable implementers, comparable geographies, and similarly changing economies. That’s almost impossible. But if we can say this works, and this works because of they way it interacts with more global phenomena–like desire to conform to a group, or desire not to be embarrassed–, that helps us figure out how to take it somewhere else. Because then the question of how to effect the same behavior change in another environment becomes not “what worked over there?” but rather “how does the mechanism through which we achieved change there come to work over here?”

I grant that it’s a more complicated question. And it may seem silly coming from me compared to someone with decades of experience in the field, but I do think there are big contributions to come from social norms research and other mechanisms. There are several avenues to be explored, but it’s nice to have a bit of a grasp on one of them.

International Day of the Girl

Today is International Day of the Girl, the first Day of the Girl, in fact, as established by the United Nations. My twitter and inboxes are overflowing with tributes to girls, and links citing the value of empowering (one of my least favorite development buzzwords) girls, and reminders to check out various girl-positive campaigns. By coincidence or design, next week, I’m headed to London for a meeting on this very topic with DFID and Girl Hub. A coauthor and I have just finished a paper on using social norms interventions to reduce discrimination against and adverse treatment of adolescent girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that most programs aren’t studied with the rigor that would lead us be confident in definitive, causal effects. Worse, still, many of the programs we found seem more likely to reinforce social norms that make discriminatory behavior seem common or accepted (such as: people in this community marry off their girl children at an early age), which might justify discriminatory behavior or harmful practices. I cannot share the final product just yet, but hope to be able to by the end of November.

It also happens that today follows the shooting of a child education activist in Pakistan by the very anti-girl Taliban. Fourteen year-old Malala Yousufzai gained notoriety for her anonymous blog on education in Pakistan for the BBC and has become an outstanding spokesperson for gender equality and girls’ education in Pakistan. Former First Lady Laura Bush encourages all to speak out against such violence in the Washington Post and to support girls’ education and safety around the world. The New Yorker calls Malala “the girl who wanted to go to school” and gives a bit more background.

Now that I’ve depressed you, if you’re looking for something uplifting, I suggest reading a Meena comic book (this one, for example: Rosa_meena_Count_your_chickens). The Meena Communication Initiative is a social norms marketing program that’s been in place for almost 15 years all over Southeast Asia. It does a great job of encouraging gender-equitable behavior through community involvement without reinforcing stereotypes or emphasizing the prevalence of discrimination.

Below is a list of a few things I’ve found around the internet today on girls and International Day of the Girl. Updates forthcoming and suggestions welcome. Happy Day of the Girl!

The UN is taking this day to call for an end to child marriage, and World Learning reminds us that despite advances, there’s “still a long way to go.” TrustLaw Women highlights a program by ICWR and CARE-Ethiopia called Gatekeepers, which encourages community members to go door-to-door, educating their neighbors about the health consequences of child marriage.

Sipendi siasa or Governance Woes in East Africa

Today’s post comes to you from a very different part of the world and different part of academia. Ruth Carlitz is a graduate student at UCLA in Political Science and is in the early stages of her dissertation on governance and technology in East Africa. She’s also an East Africa rockstar, having lived there for a few years before graduate school, and continues to work with several on-the-ground development and governance projects in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. I had the pleasure of visiting Ruth while she was living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and she has had the good fortune to return several times since. She keeps me updated, so I thought she could update you all a bit, too, about what she is doing in that part of the world. Tomorrow, back to your regularly scheduled programming…  –EKF

As I stepped up to the customs counter in Dar Es Salaam, I put on a big smile, hoping that that my passable Swahili – and the fact that I wasn’t on an overpriced safari – would prompt someone to waive the $100 entry visa. I was only there for a few days, after all.

“Nasoma sayansi ya siasa!” I cheerily explained [I study political science].

“Sipendi siasa,” the paunchy, tired-looking customs official gruffly replied [I hate politics].

One hundred dollars later, I reflected on how his response gets at the heart of what I had been studying in Uganda and Tanzania this summer, and what I plan to explore further in my dissertation – namely, the promotion of ‘good governance’ by non-governmental actors.

While any number of factors has led to the decreasing popularity of traditional foreign aid, more and more development folks are focusing on governance reform.[1] The development community is coming around to the idea that poverty is largely a function of poor institutions and hence, reforming those institutions is the key to poverty reduction. Strategic interests may still rule the day, with governance reforms providing a fig leaf. However, I’m still curious to know what – if any – impact they are having.

I spent the past few months looking at how governance aid initiatives play out on the ground. In particular, I’m interested in the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to promote government accountability in East Africa. How do rising access to mobile phones, and less dramatic, but still noteworthy, increases in Internet access and innovation interact with governance and governance aid.

Over the past few months, I have been working with the Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative (ATTI). ATTI supports organizations in Africa that encourage citizens to use technology to hold their leaders accountable by providing access to credible public information, influence, and stewardship of resources. I have been documenting the experience of two ATTI-supported projects in Uganda in order to identify and understand motivation for and barriers to participation. Understanding who participates in these initiatives has important implications for their ultimate impact on accountability, particularly in East Africa, where politics has long been characterized by clientelism and catering to special interests. For instance, if these new initiatives only ‘empower’ the usual suspects (people who are already participating actively – typically urban, educated, middle-class men) they may fail to realize their goals of making government more accountable to the broader public.

My preliminary analysis shows that there are indeed major barriers to participation in these new initiatives, some of which pertain to technology access, and others having to do with politics. Given that I study sayansi ya siasa [political science] rather that sayansi ya kompyuta [computer science], I’ll focus on the latter.

In many cases, it seems that the main barrier to participation is that potential users just don’t see the point. Like my friend the customs official, they would prefer to avoid politics. Why engage with a government that has been historically unresponsive to the needs of ordinary citizens? Why take time and money to do something with no guarantee of improving anything? Beyond such pragmatism, the ‘voiceless’ to whom such initiatives aim to give voice may have good reasons for staying silent in regimes with histories of restricting free speech.

Development practitioners and scholars, myself included, often expect people to jump at any chance to improve their lot, since the challenges they face are so pressing. This ignores the fact that people have their own strategies and coping mechanisms for dealing with hardship—be it poverty or corruption—and may not be so eager to change them.

My time with these organizations has underscored the importance of meeting people where they are – understanding why people do what they do, and how new solutions can be integrated into their existing ways of working. Organizations like ATTI, CIPESA and Twaweza are making a conscious effort to do this, but it remains a challenge.

[1] For a discussion of recent shifts in foreign aid delivery see: Simone Dietrich and Joseph Wright, “Foreign Aid Delivery and Democratic Consolidation in Africa,” Unpublished Manuscript. (2012): 1–40; Richard Nielsen and Daniel Nielson, “Triage for Democracy: Selection Effects in Governance Aid,” Prepared for Presentation at the Department of Government, College of William & Mary, 5 February 2010. (February 1, 2010): 1–41; S Claessens, D Cassimon, and B Van Campenhout, “Evidence on Changes in Aid Allocation Criteria,” The World Bank Economic Review 23, no. 2 (July 24, 2009): 185–208.

Related: Marc F. Bellemare writes about intrahousehold allocation of mobile phones. It matters who gets the phone depending on what your goals are!

CCTs and Crime

The connection between poverty and crime is both well-established and notoriously difficult to distentangle. We know that high-crime areas are likely to be poorer than low-crime areas, and yet we don’t usually profess that crime causes poverty, although a certain blogger/writer team of economist and journalist is quick to remind you that crime doesn’t pay. We might expect poverty to cause crime for a number of reasons–idleness leads to thrill-seeking, social norms make stealing appear common or acceptable, families may not be able to feed their families without stealing–but separating one effect from the other is incredibly difficult.

In a careful and very well executed new paper by three economists at the PUC-Rio, crime is in fact lowered in the face of conditional cash transfers, or a directed attempt to put more money in the hands of low-income families while simultaneously requiring their kids to go school/not work during school hours. The authors exploit the expansion of the program–to pay benefits to families with older children–to causally identify the effect of additional income on crime.

The authors find that expanding the Bolsa Familia program to include 16- and 17-year olds did have a dramatic, causal effect on crime rates.

My primary question on the paper has to do with the expansion. Because the program had already been in place for some time, many families lost some income when their children turned 16 and thus were no longer eligible for benefits. Many of these same families would regain benefits with the expansion. So, did crime increase as these children aged out? Surely there’s some variation in average age and distribution of children in the program by school, so we should be able to at least speculate on whether there is something about turning 16 and 17 that makes one particularly prone to criminal behavior, or whether leaving the program leads to more behavior. Perhaps we can’t identify it the same way causally, but it’s an important dimension, I think.

The second problem I have is stylistic: a clear link to a number in a table with words such as “the program expansion lead to an average X% decrease in crime” would have helped make reading easier.

h/t: @franciscome

Cited: Laura Chioda, João MP de Mello and Rodrigo R. Soares. “Conditional Cash Transfer Programs: Bolsa Família and Crime in Urban Brazil.” PUC Working Paper No. 559.

Inheritance and education as substitutes

The effect of inheritance laws on gender equity is a subject that remains largely understudied; most of the information we have is anecdotal or follows from intuitive reasoning. It makes sense that in places where land ownership is a significant predictor of future outcomes and job opportunities are limited, not owning land (or not inheriting it) would likely lead to worse outcomes. Given that inheritance laws tend to favor male children (and in some cases first-born male children), it stands to reason that women and girls would have the most to lose from disinheritance.

In a twist, a working paper by two Italian economists shows that inheritance actually leads to less investment in schooling, and more investment in health for male children, but not for female children. The paper relies on a policy change in Ghana which changed inheritance from a primarily matrilineal system to a more patrilineal system, leading to more male sons inheriting land from their fathers. The authors show, using a difference-in-difference strategy, that males who were subject to the new laws, and thus more likely to inherit land, eventually obtained one less year of education than boys who weren’t subject to the law. They were also healthier using a height-for-weight z scores, indicating higher investments in nutrition and health, which would be necessary for more efficient working of land.

The argument is that inheriting land/investments in health and education were close substitutes due to the social norm that fathers provided for their sons’ livelihoods. If a father could not provide for his child by giving him land, he could send him to school or set him up with an apprenticeship. Given limited resources, the parents might choose education over investments in health. With inheritance laws favoring sons of fathers, that “over-investment” in education ceases and higher investment in health follows. This is likely only an issue for parents for whom the constraints are binding–i.e., they have a limited amount of resources to spread around. The poorer a family is, the more likely they are to run up against this constraint, and thus the effect of the patrilineal inheritance laws is likely greater for the landowning poor than wealthier landowners.

For girls, the results are somewhat ambiguous, and theoretically, the outcome is difficult to predict. Whether girls are affected by disinheritance of land as a result of the changed law (through lower nutrition and higher education?), is likely closely tied to the social norms regarding providing for girl children. If the social norm is “people in this community (should or do) set up girls to provide for themselves,” as it appears to be for boys, we would likely see such changes in investments. If the social norm doesn’t reflect an obligation to girl children, then the change in inheritance laws shouldn’t have a great effect.

Source: La Ferrara, E. and A. Milazzo (2011) ‘Social Norms, Inheritance and Human Capital. Evidence from a Reform in the Matrilineal System in Ghana’. A preliminary draft.

No manejamos este tipo de informacion or Caracas, part I

This is Part I of II, a bit of my August Caracas adventure. It’s a bit different style than perhaps other work you’ve seen here, but I hope you enjoy it. The following is cross-posted at Caracas Chronicles.

We’re not quite seated, but I’ve already launched into my well-rehearsed spiel. For perhaps the fifth time that day, I say I’m an American, an economics professor and I’m looking for data on domestic violence and gender-based violence in Venezuela. I want statistics, raw data, information about programs, confirmation that there really was no women’s shelter in the whole country, basically anything she could give me.

Milta Armas, a 40-something, curvy woman, starts telling me about how many women experience violence, but she refuses to look me in the eye. Armas keeps her hands in her lap, fingering a copy of the new domestic violence law, which I’m sure she’s going to hand to me later. The hype on legal reform, I expect, but not the details she’s ratling off, barely audible over the din of the INAMUJER lobby. I start jotting down her words and numbers, thinking this was easy. It only took me two ministries to start to get information. I just had to show up.

Then she pauses.

“These are, of course, what happens in the world, not in Venezuela. We don’t have these statistics for Venezuela.” Suddenly, I remember. “This,” I think to myself, “is why my expectations for this trip were low.”

I press her a little more. If those aren’t Venezuela statistics, what does she have? What data are even collected? What do we really know?

“Well,” she says without the slightest hint of embarrassment, “no manejamos este tipo de informacion.”

Oh brother.

It’s not just that the National Institute for Women, a program that houses a domestic abuse helpline and runs workshops for women living in slums on how to recognize and combat domestic violence in their homes and communities, doesn’t seem to have any information on the things they spend all day dealing with, it’s that the language she used was all too familiar. Her words mirrored exactly those of a representative of the Ministry for the Popular Power of Women, which is where I’d wasted the previous day. It was the same language I would hear later in the week as I talked to the National Police (CICPC) and when I tried to make an appointment with the National Defender of Women’s Rights.

No manejamos este tipo de informacion. And no one could tell me who does. My task, wasn’t just daunting, it was impossible. If there were no national statistics on domestic violence at the highest levels of government, I wasn’t sure to find much else.

In reality, of course, (and reality is always shady in Venezuela), there are statistics; it’s just a question of whether you know the right person to get a hold of them.

A source, who asked not to be named to make sure she keeps getting data, showed me a leaked booklet outlining statistics on the national 24/7 helpline 0-800-MUJERES, maintained and run by INAMUJER. They keep a tally of who is calling, why, what kind of abuse they are experiencing, whether they’ve called before, who the aggressor is, their mental state and more. It’s all very run-of-the-mill information that is collected on hotline calls in other places, certainly in the US. It also probably represents that best guess they have as to changes in levels of domestic violence over time, but it was not information they were willing to give to me, or even acknowledge that they had. I snuck a quick photo of a key data table – which you can see above.

I can understand why they might not trust me. Caracas’ violence problems are world-renowned and a source of embarrassment for the government and citizens; I see why they might not want a foreigner to publicize another ugly aspect of it.

Milta Armas told me that one time, there was some information, and they had put it on the website, only that as soon as they got it up, “there was an attack by the opposition to try to make the government look bad.”

“That is not a serious answer,” Ofelia Álvarez told me when I related the story. Ofelia runs Fundamujer, a nonprofit dedicated to studying and eradicating violence against women, out of her home and mostly on her own.

As one of the most visible and prominent advocates for women in Venezuela—nearly everyone I talked to sent me back to her—she has spent decades fighting the same fight I fought in just a few weeks. The issue is politically awkward: no one wants to fund studies, no one wants to support discussions. A pilot study she coauthored was abruptly defunded before it was rolled out to a representative survey group. No one handles that kind of information because there’s no desire to, she told me.

It’s not that we can’t; it’s that we don’t.

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