Saturday, January 13, 2007

What I've Read Lately, and What Exactly I Do Here (Loooong)

I'm back from vacation and getting settled back into the routine. Sort of.

First of all, here's what I thought of the books I read recently. Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter was amazing. It's about a colonial officer in west Africa, but it could've been set anywhere; just a good story about a dude trying to be honest and/or happy. Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was nowhere near as cool as I was expecting ever since I put it on my list several years ago. Maybe it's an accurate portrayal of Nigerian tribal life, but it didn't really have a plot or storyline as such. Rory Stewart's The Places In Between, I'd seen on some NY Times best of 2006 list, which, after reading it, is a total shocker. It's a travel narrative by a dude that walked across Afghanistan six weeks after the Taliban fell. It's a pretty rad adventure, but the guy seems pretty cocky about his knowledge of the world, and he doesn't bother to explain who he is or where he came from. He drops hints that he's been in the British Army, worked for the Foreign Office, and he's some sort of historian or writer that also walked across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal, but with the meager scraps he offers you you're still left puzzled. He did say some interesting things about nation-building and aid workers, which I've copied wholesale here (and is hopefully considered "fair use"):

I now had a half dozen friends working in Afghanistan in embassies, think tanks, international development agencies, the United Nations, and the Afghan government, controlling projects worth millions of dollars. A year before, they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and a year later they would be in Iraq or offices in New York and Washington.
Their objective was (to quote the United Nations Assistance Mission in
Afghanistan) "the creation of a centralized, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law." The worked twelve- or fourteen-hour days drafting documents for heavily funded initiatives on "democratization," "enhancing capacity," "gender," "sustainable development," "skills training," or "protection issues." They were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, with at least two degrees--often in international law, economics, or development. They came from middle-class backgrounds in Western countries, and in the evening, they dined with each other and swapped anecdotes about corruption in the government and the incompetence of the United Nations. They rarely drove their SUV's outside Kabul because their security advisers forbade it.
Some, such as the two political offices in Chaghcharan, were experienced and well informed about conditions in rural
Afghanistan. But they were barely fifty out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions of law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women's rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance and civil society; and to speak of a people "who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government." But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi's wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region. The people of Kamenj understood political power in terms of their feudal lord Haji Mohsin Khan. Ismail Khan in Herat wanted a social order based on Iranian political Islam. Hazara such as Ali hated the idea of a centralized government because they associated it with subjugation by other ethnic groups and suffering under the Taliban. Even within a week's walk I had encountered areas where the local Begs had been toppled by Iranian-funded social revolution and others where feudal structures were still in place; areas where the violence had been inflicted by the Taliban and areas where the villagers had inflicted it on one another. These differences between the groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas.
Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.
In a seminar in
Kabul, I heard Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, say, "Afghans have been fighting for their human rights for twenty-five years. We don't need to tell them what their rights are." Then the head of a major food agency added privately, "Villagers are not interested in human rights. They are like poor people all over the world. All they think about is where their next meal is coming from." To which the head of an Afghan NGO providing counseling responded, "The only thing to know about these people is that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."
The differences between the policy makes and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal. He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghan's diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change it.*

*Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographic societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn't their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.
Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures in the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.
Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in

Yikes. It's not like I thought development was actually working before I read this, but still. Like usual, I don't think there are any easy answers. The only thing I do know is that it makes me wish I'd been born about 70 years earlier, because I could've made a pretty bad-ass Lawrence of Arabia-type.

And I read another book on Afghanistan, The Bookseller of Kabul. I expected a book about a liberal, open-minded man struggling against oppression under successive regimes and during civil war. Not so. The bookseller is strictly profit-driven, and he treats the people (especially the women) in his family like shit. I had a pretty positive impression of Southwest/Central Asian Muslim culture after visiting Pakistan and reading Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, but I did only manage to speak to two women in three weeks of touring Pakistan, and these latest two books plus The Kite Runner paint a pretty dismal and hopeless picture of Afghanistan. But even if they are accurate and there presently isn't much reason for hope in the region, that's even more reason to not give up.

Enough about that. After four months some of you may be wondering exactly what I'm doing here and why I keep complaining that the office has no chairs, so here's the history of Innovations for Poverty Action--Kenya as I understand it. Sincere apologies for any inaccuracies.

Maybe ten years ago, Harvard prof Michael Kremer (who created World Teach) started working with one of his friends from World Teach, who was the Africa regional director of a Dutch NGO, International Christian Support (now International Child Support). Professors in the US (Kremer, my boss Ted Miguel, Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, others) partnered with ICS until the end of last year doing deworming, scholarship, uniforms, textbooks, HIV/AIDS education, extra teacher provision, and other sorts of health and education interventions. That partnership has ended and we now operate under Innovations for Poverty Action. Our big thing is randomizing interventions with treatment and control groups so that you can get accurate statistical estimates of the effect of aid programs. So after the interventions we spend tons of money to track down and survey the recipients of our aid (and the control groups) to see if our programs are actually doing any good.

I believe IPA is officially run by a Yale development economist Dean Karlan. All the profs are closely tied to the Abdul Latif Jamal Poverty Action Lab at MIT. Mostly the employees are younger Kenyan field officers (FO's) who administer surveys or distribute scholarships or deworming drugs, a few Kenyan data analysts and one young, usually western, evaluation consultant (EC) that is the go-between for the principal investigator professor and the field staff for each project. The organization may not be the most effective in the universe, but it's pretty good. It's a collaboration of numerous professors in the United States, all extremely intelligent, none that I know of with an MBA. We don't really have the funding to hire a full time manager capable of handling both the western academics and the Kenyan staff, so we hire a wonderful consultant as much as we can, and we get inexperienced college grads, pay them a pittance, tell them they'll get good letters of recommendation for grad school from top professors, and hope they can make up the difference. For the most part it seems to work. I guess by "work" I mean that we get papers published in top academic journals. As for alleviating the grinding poverty in western Kenya, we're still working on it. First we need to paint the walls and buy new chairs, desks, computers, and vehicles.

I'm the Tracking EC. In 1998-2003 ICS administered a deworming program in primary schools in the Budalangi and Funyula divisions of Busia district. The program was randomly phased in, so some students in the district received more years of treatment than others. People have evaluated deworming before, but they randomized the deworming within a given school, and since deworming has huge externalities (if your friends don't have worms in their poop, you're less likely to get worms yourself) the results weren't great. But ICS randomized across schools so you can get a more accurate measurement. The short term results were outstanding. (See Ted Miguel and Michael Kremer's 2004 Econometrica paper for details. Seriously, google scholar "worms miguel kremer" or I can send you the pdf if you don't have JSTOR access.) It's the cheapest way anyone had found to increase school attendance. In 2003-2005 we tracked down the subjects and re-interviewed them. I started working for Ted on this project in early 2005. The FO's administered a survey on all sorts of stuff (schooling, health, fertility, labor market outcomes, the home, family, religion, social capital, and more). These are all adolescents we're tracking down, so a ton of them have moved to Nairobi or Mombasa and one even moved to the UK, but we do long-range tracking, so we managed to get something like 83% of the sample (including the Londoner). In Berkeley I worked to clean the data as it came in, which is being made into the Kenya Life Panel Survey (KLPS), which should be a cool new source of data on adolescents in developing countries. Starting in Summer 2007 we will again track and survey the subjects, so the data will end up even more interesting after it's followed kids for over ten years.

In addition to the KLPS, I also work on the Girls Scholarship Program. In 2001 and 2002, ICS ran a scholarship program in 175 primary schools in Busia and Teso districts. We randomly selected half of the 175 to be eligible for scholarships. The scholarships were awarded to girls in standard six that scored in the top 15% of all girls in the scholarship schools on the end-of-year exam. (Kenyans take an exam to finish primary school after standard 8 (the KCPE) and they take yearly practice exams in years prior.) The scholarship was worth two years' of school and uniform fees. In the short run the program was great. It made girls at the top do much better on the test, and it even helped girls that had scored low on pre-tests and were thus unlikely to win the scholarship. In Busia district, it even seemed to help boys, even though they were ineligible for the scholarship (it sucks to get chicked, even in Kenya.) Tragically, there was a fatal lightning strike at one of the schools in the Teso district which affected attrition rates, so that part of the data isn't as clear. (google scholar "Miguel Kremer Thornton Incentives to Learn" to see the working paper.) Now in 2005 and 2006 we've had a team of FO's tracking down the girls and administering a survey very similar to that from the KLPS. We've got two months of tracking left. Right now we've got over 70% of the girls surveyed, and we're hoping to survey over 80% before we finish. My team tells me that one of the girls moved with her family the US, but they can't seem to locate her.

So my job is to manage the team of five FO's and the data collection and cleaning process. I go to the field about once a week just to watch the surveying (it's in Swahili, I don't understand much), I collect all the surveys they get, I get the data entry firm to enter them, I get the data analysts to check the double-entry of the data, I write code to check the final data for skip-pattern and logical errors, and I construct the data into one big massive dataset.

So that's what I do. Tomorrow I'm going to church at the "Jesus Praise Center" with Roselyn, the wonderful office cleaning lady.


  1. dude didn't you read "Things Fall Apart" in Struck/Gullickson?

    I read Bookseller and Kite Runner. In Kite Runner I thought that the relationship between the dude and his servant was supposed to be a metaphor for the relationship between Afghanistan and the US. What do you think?

    also you should put long quotes in the "blockquote" tag

  2. I'm glad I'm not the only person who felt that way about Things Fall Apart. Maybe it's more impressive for people who don't know anything about Africa. I found it, as you described, largely lacking plot. (I loved another Achebe book I read, Man of the People, short but - it seemed - an excellent characterization of "African" politics.)

    FYI, Dean Karlan is at Yale.

    Your pictures are awesome.