Adorable child in NGO fund-raising photo sues for royalties

The law firm Klayme, Chaise, & Steele LLC announced today that one of their clients was suing the prominent non-governmental organization (NGO) Care for the Children (CFTC) for unauthorized use of the client’s photo as a child.. The lawyers revealed their client is now a sophomore at a university, but refuses to give his name or home country to protect what is left of his privacy. The client remembers vividly the day he came across the cover of the CFTC brochure “Give for the Sake of the Children”, which featured a picture of himself as a child. The lawyers said, “At no time was permission given to CFTC by the child, his parents, or legal guardians to take such a photo, much less to broadcast innumerable copies of it around the Western world to gather funding for this organization.”

Moreover, the lawyers said, “at no time was our client compensated by Care for the Children, a beneficiary of such organization, or even aware of the existence of this organization.” Klayme, Chaise, and Steele LLC have filed a court petition to have Care for the Children turn over its photographic records to bolster their claim.

Lord Mall Blacke, a spokesman for Care for the Children, said they doubted the lawyers could prove their client was the same as the one in the photograph. “We don’t keep records of individuals in our photographs. We don’t know when this photograph was taken, or where. We can only guess it was somewhere in Africa. Or maybe Haiti.”

Other NGOs with similar photo and fund-raising practices are watching the case nervously.

DISCLAIMER: Klayme, Chaise, and Steele LLC is a fictional limited-liability corporation under New York State law, and hereby reserves the right to make fictional statements about non-true occurrences and related non-existent organizations and individuals to score heavy-handed satirical points for serious purposes.

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Are terrorists statistically significant?

tsa_securityHere’s another discussion relevant to the earlier post that DO SOMETHING is not a helpful government response to the current terrorismscare:

[T]he key point about identifying al-Qaeda operatives is that there are extremely few al-Qaeda operatives so (by Bayes’ theorem) any method you employ of identifying al-Qaeda operatives is going to mostly reveal false positives.

(From Matthew Yglesias via Tyler Cowen ONCE AGAIN, I think I’m now Tyler’s full-time RA).

How does this relate this to our usual statistical analysis? Proving someone is a terrorist is analogous to proving a nonzero effect that confirms an economic theory. We allow a rate of false positives of 5 percent (“statistical significance at the 5 percent level”) for showing that, say, good institutions have a positive effect on development. The false positives do not automatically swamp the true positives, because the true effects of  one thing on something else are not as rare as terrorists.

To have a low rate of false positives, we have to accept a high rate of false negatives. But we don’t care about false negatives. You failed to show an effect of your favorite magic ingredient X on development? Too bad, the burden of proof is on YOU if you want to add your ridiculous theory to the existing development knowledge.

Contrast airport security, where we DO care about false negatives (i.e. failing to detect a terrorist). To reduce false negatives even more (as everybody is demanding ), we would have to accept MORE false positives. This would swamp even more the rare genuine terrorists.

Yglesias used a hypothetical rate of false positives of 0.1 percent in his discussion of screening 15 million British Moslems. Of course, TSA makes it much worse by screening each and every of the 800 million airline passengers annually in the US -- including my 80 year old mother whose only suspicious behavior is hiding her handbag in fear of NYC purse snatchers. A false positive rate of 0.1 percent times 800 million means that false positives would be 800,000 people.

Have you seen 800,000 terrorist suspects milling around at airport security? No, I haven’t either. So the true TSA false positive rate must be even lower, which must mean the false negative rate must be a lot higher than the TSA would like to admit (as confirmed by audits). Intensified universal screening cannot possibly work: QED. (For useful alternatives, consult the people in the know.)

As Shakespeare once said about TSA:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

OBLIGATORY AID PARALLEL TO TODAY’S APPARENTLY UNRELATED NEWSWORTHY TOPIC: the Do Something approach in aid has not been a great success either. Although it is still popular in aid and social activism, as illustrated by the nearly 300,000 followers on Twitter of @DoSomething, who wrote the following “Tweet”:

Its really easy to be a critic. Its really hard to be a do-er who actually makes stuff happen.

Stuff happen like click on a non-binding poll on their web site whether unnamed state legislators who don’t check web sites should pass laws against texting while driving. That may be easier than being a critic.

UPDATE: announcement today that TSA will piss off 14 mostly Muslim countries by subjecting fliers from those countries to the US to universal invasive screening. Thank goodness the terrorists are so dumb they would never think of flying from ANOTHER country besides these 14!

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How to write about poor people

  1. world-bank-poverty-numberUse a precise definition of poverty: living on less than $1.25 a day, adjusted for purchasing power. Give the precise number who fit that definition.
  2. Ignore the recent revision of  this number by 42%.
  3. Do not excessively analyze geographic or ethnographic distinctions amongst poor people.blank-world-map
  4. Discuss the following: poverty traps, vicious circles, aid financing gaps.
  5. There probably won't be time left to discuss the following concepts: initiative, savings, inventiveness, resourcefulness, adaptation to local conditions, or local knowledge.
  6. Discuss only income, health, access to clean water, and literacy. Leave it to anthropologists to cover areas like happiness, traditions, ceremonies, festivals, friendships, kinship, love between men and women, or love between parents and children.
  7. ug2_palenga_2boys_05Display pictures of poor children (alternatively women).
  8. Don't show pictures of poor men, who make your audience think of drunkards, wife-beaters, or janjaweed.
  9. These topics are only for Marxists: power, class, discrimination, oppression, or history.
  10. Your knowledge about poor people should come from other writers who observe these rules.
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Tiger Woods thoughtfully explodes “Halo Effect” myth in development

I am sure all of you had the same reaction I did as Tiger Woods slid into taudry tabloid hell: “thanks, Tiger, for creating a teachable moment for development economics!” Our expectation that celebrities will be model citizens, contrary to vast evidence, is based on the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect is the idea that someone that is really, really good at one thing will also be really good at other things. We thought because Tiger was so good at being a golfer, he also must be very good at to have and to hold, forsaking all others, keeping thee only unto her as long as you both shall live…

What Tiger considerately did for our education was to show how the Halo Effect is a myth. This blog has a undying affection for those psychological foibles that cause us to strongly believe in mythical things, and the Halo Effect is a prime example (and the subject of a whole book on its destructive effects in business.) Why would marital fidelity and skillful putting have any correlation?

OK fine and good, but many of you are asking: What the Vegas Cocktail Waitress does this have to do with development? The Halo Effect was discussed in a previous blog, but when assaulting psychological biases, you can never repeat the attack enough. Not to mention that we all remember the psychology literature more easily when illustrated by a guy with 10 mistresses.

So if we observe a country is good at say, technological innovation, we assume that this country is also good at other good things like, say, visionary leadership, freedom from corruption, and a culture of trust. Since the latter three are imprecise to measure (and the measures themselves may be contaminated by the Halo Effect), we lazily assume they are all good. But actually, there are plenty of examples of successful innovators with mediocre leaders, corruption, and distrustful populations. The US assumed world technological leadership in the late 19th century with presidents named Chester Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes, amidst legendary post-Civil War graft. Innovators include both trusting Danes and suspicious Frenchmen.

The false Halo Effect makes us think we understand development more than we really do, when we think all good things go together in the "good" outcomes. The "Halo Effect"  puts heavy weight on some explanations like "visionary leadership" that may be spurious. More subtly, it leaves out the more complicated cases of UNEVEN determinants of success: why is New York City the world’s premier city, when we can’t even manage decent airports (with 3 separate failed tries)?

The idea that EVERYTHING is a necessary condition for development is too facile.  The principles of specialization and comparative advantage suggest you DON"T have to be good at everything all the time.

So the true Tiger Woods Effect tells us something else more interesting than the false Halo Effect: that if you are very, very good at hitting a 1.68 inch ball into a 4.25 inch hole, then you can often get away with everything else for a long time. But sometimes not forever.

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How to Make an Advocacy Video about Africa, Take II

Dear Readers, Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Reasonable people may argue that if Emmanuelle Chriqui sucking on a Popsicle is what it takes to make some people care that there is a country called the Democratic Republic of Congo, then, well, that’s a good thing. And if Nicole Ritchie babbling nonsense about mothers eating their babies increases attention to Darfur, that’s a good thing too. I’m not so sure.

When these videos “educate” Americans that Africa is a boiling mess of rape, starvation, and war, we get people who believe that Africans are only able to survive thanks to OUR aid, so we must “save” them. As we’ve debated on this blog before, this can lead to the support of wrong-headed policies that could have a real impact (a bad one) on real people’s lives.

And when we reassure people that they are “making a difference” by performing the most mundane, irrelevant of tasks (like buying a coffee, clicking a link, or sending a text) we squander the finite time people have for learning about people they will never meet in places they will never visit. We absolve them of the responsibility and hard work it takes to educate themselves about the world around them and do something constructive (like be an Aid Watcher!).

As for real suggestions: Don’t let my inability to come up with the miraculous recipe for the perfect advocacy video serve as an excuse to stop criticizing what is blatantly bad right now. As we keep saying on this blog, stopping something that is harmful is still positive change. Figuring out how to educate disaffected or uninformed people and get them to act is a difficult problem, and it needs a lot more than a blog post’s worth of time to solve.

So while I don’t claim to have the definitive list, I will venture a few preliminary suggestions. Honestly, these strike me as a little thin and in some cases fairly obvious, but again the examples of bad practices I cited in the original post would suggest otherwise. Please do draw on your expertise to add thoughts and other suggestions in the comments (as well as any examples you think are praiseworthy) and maybe we can come up with some workable principles.

1. It’s okay to assume that people know nothing about your cause. But it’s not okay to use this as an excuse to pander to the lowest common denominator, like sex or celebrity worship.

2. Don’t exaggerate numbers to attract more attention. This throws any claim of credibility and objectivity you might have into question. Do use accurate numbers to convey the scale and importance of your cause. Be as specific as possible in the limited time about exactly where, why, and when the crisis is occurring. Simplistic and extreme portrayals generate simplistic and extreme policies.

3. If you are using celebrity spokespeople, make sure they are well-informed about your cause and respectful of the people in the video. Though not the perfect example, I think the videos and slideshows here (see the second video from the bottom, for example) avoid sensationalism, do a good job of being specific about what is going on, and make good use of an informed celebrity spokesperson.

4. If you are going to use images of Africans, don’t engage in blatant stereotyping, and be respectful of your subjects. The Good Intentions Are Not Enough blog has some good posts on the use of photography in aid marketing; similar principles could apply to videos.

5. Be transparent about what you will do with donations and proceeds from merchandise sales.

6. Be honest about the impact that the action you are requesting will have on the cause you are supporting.

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How to Make an Advocacy Video about Africa

Videocamera-elephant.pngPhoto credit

1. Assume that the people watching your video know nothing about your cause.* In fact, as far as you are concerned, their brains are completely devoid of content and unable to grasp any complexity.

2. When it comes to death, violence, and sickness, use the biggest, most impressive figures you can find, whether or not they are true. As long as the figure was once cited by someone, somewhere, you’re in the clear.

3. If possible, make a T-shirt (or baseball cap, or we just can't quite get over this one, a thong) and plug it in your video.

4. Do include celebrities. There are a few eloquent and well-informed celebrity spokespeople who conscientiously educate people about important causes. But that’s boring, so get the ones who spout incoherent nonsense,** and/or use really inappropriate props.

5. Most of these go without saying: include: yourself, as a savior/hero; poker** ; and Africans who are simultaneously needy and threatening (undernourished, emaciated, toting AK-47s).

6. Emotion: good. Loud music: Good. MTV-style editing: good. Good vs. evil: good. Nuance: bad. Eschew nuance.

7. Don’t waste any scarce video-seconds on how the actions you are inspiring will have an impact on the people for whom you are raising consciousness. Just go ahead and leave it out. Too complicated. Or, maybe there is no impact. There’s no time to figure it out.

*Actually, this is a real suggestion I found on an online guide to making advocacy videos.

**Favorite vacuous celebrity quote from this video, courtesy of Save Darfur Accountability Project: “We are not as ignorant as people think we are, we simply don’t know, and it’s not our fault!”

***Thanks to astute reader Andy Hall for sending us this one.

Click here for the follow-up post, How to Make an Advocacy Video about Africa, Take II.

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No more African stereotyping that justifies military intervention

by Leonard Wantchekon, NYU Professor of Politics I would like to thank everyone for their comments on my previous post, Africans already got the idea: “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions.” This is very helpful and healthy.

How many countries that can be considered to be at war, in Africa? The two clear cut cases are Somalia, and Sudan. But you can add Chad and to some extent Congo. That is 4 out of 54 countries in Africa. That is 7 percent of Africa. You can throw in Nigeria or Kenya because of electoral violence. But would we call India a country at war?

It is important to have an accurate picture of conflict in Africa for at least three reasons.

First, policy response would radically differ if we think 20 percent of countries are at war or if it is only 7 percent. In one case, it might be useful to have a neutral rapid intervention force or a trusteeship of failed states. In the other case, all is needed might be technical assistance to courts, and police forces that can be handled locally.

Second, if we want to promote investment and tourism in Africa, it is really counter-productive to exaggerate the security situation. We also need to report progress, which has been significant in the past 10 years.

Third, we really need to underline the fact that political conflicts in Africa are increasingly peaceful despite economic hardship and the sometimes brutal repression as in Zimbabwe. Morgan Tsvangirai should be praised to not have responded to Mugabe’s violence by street violence. Zimbabwean opposition has shown incredible restraint and maturity in their struggle to establish democratic institutions in their country.

Regarding the strong man syndrome, I am not saying that it has have disappeared. Instead, I am saying that things are moving in the right direction. First, a majority of people reject it and second, the new “strong men” are nowhere near the “old” ones in terms of their autocratic style of government. Wade or Museveni are not, and can not possibly be, Mobutu or Eyadema. In addition, why call Obasanjo a strong man, even if he tried and failed to extend his term in office? But I entirely agree with Jeff Barnes when he says we now need to investigate “how do we translate this stated desire for strong institutions over strong men into reality”?

The development challenges in Africa are enormous. But we need to use serious empirical evidence to identify what the real problems are and to acknowledge progress. We need to be careful not to perpetuate this idea that it is “all the same everywhere and all the time in Africa.”

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Africans already got the idea: “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions”

A reaction to President Obama’s speech in Ghana by Leonard Wantchekon, NYU Professor of Politics Overall, I like the theme of the President Obama’s speech in Ghana. Africans must own their future by strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law in their countries, and by becoming less reliant on assistance. I also like the idea of a real partnership between Africa and other developed countries based on trade. It is very much in line with what most of us would think. He said:

America can also do more to promote trade and investment. Wealthy nations must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way.

As Africans reach for this promise, America will be more responsible in extending our hand. By cutting costs that go to Western consultants and administration, we want to put more resources in the hands of those who need it, while training people to do more for themselves.

What I find a bit questionable is this:

Africa is not the crude caricature of a continent at perpetual war. But if we are honest, for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun ... These conflicts are a millstone around Africa's neck.

My sense is that in saying this he has helped to perpetuate, perhaps unwittingly, the very caricature that he questions. Conflict is NOT as constant as the sun in Africa. While this may have been the reality of the 1970s and the 1980s, it is certainly no longer the case. He forgot to add that many of these conflicts were proxy wars between the US and the former Soviet Union (such as that in Angola), or were manufactured by France (such as that in Congo Brazzaville).

The average African country is at peace. Moreover, it is a democracy, albeit one with relatively weak state capacity, such as Liberia, and Mali. Zimbabwe is the exception, not the rule. And even in Zimbabwe, where there is 90% unemployment, incredible hardships and repression, most people want democracy, not another war.

Freedom, especially freedom of the press, has also drastically improved in the majority of African countries, to the point where Reporters Without Borders have ranked several African nations above developed countries such as Italy and Japan.

Of course, democracy is—as Obama put it—“more than holding elections - it's also about what happens between them”: good governance, human rights, etc. But I see no path to good governance, human rights, and even conflict resolution in Africa unless elections are held regularly. In addition, elections are intrinsically valuable, beyond their potential effect on governance. I am sure Nelson Mandela would agree with that. In fact, various Afrobarometer surveys from 1999 to 2009 suggest that nearly 70% define democracy purely in terms of political rights, not in terms of governance. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no significant difference between rural and urban citizens, or between more educated and less educated citizens.

In terms of the strongman syndrome, things have changed for the better. All across Africa courts and unions have tried (most of the time successfully) to block and prevent constitutional changes that would allow the sitting president to run for an additional term (African presidents have therefore been less successful than the Mayor of New York City in this regard!). Afrobarometer surveys suggest that 75% of Africans reject military rule, 73% reject a one-party system, and 79% reject strongman rule.

I would like the President to acknowledge more clearly that Africans have already got the idea that “Africa doesn’t not need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”

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Response to MV tourism operator on “Should starving people be tourist attractions?”

Dear Michael (or Dr. Grosspietsch, whichever you prefer): Thanks for taking the time to respond, which is very admirable in itself (I am still waiting a week later to hear from the US Army Lieutenant General William Caldwell IV on the Army’s approach to development.)

I have also read the comments on both my post and yours on Aid Watch, and I have read the post of Donald Ndahiro, the local director of the Rwandan Millennium Village (MV), on Huffington Post that responded to the Magatte Wade post that began the controversy (I will of course let Ms. Wade speak for herself in response to Mr. Ndahiro).

I have considered your letter and these other responses carefully, and I am open to the possibility that I was wrong.

In the end, however, I don’t find your responses or others have really addressed my central concern from the earlier post. I agree with commentators like geckonomist: “I simply can't find in his text any other tourism attraction than : extremely poor people.” I continue to believe that the whole idea of tourists going to see poor people simply because they are poor -- or to see the interventions targeted at these poor because they are poor -- is degrading. It perpetrates the patronizing view that the poor are some faceless mass of helpless victims which the MV is rescuing, which is part of the flawed philosophy of the MV itself.

Respecting the individuality, humanity, and dignity of every person, no matter how poor, is a sacred and fundamental cause. I believe our debate has generated so much discussion because of the importance of this cause.

As another commentator suggested, let’s apply the Golden Rule: if I was poor and still in my birthplace of West Virginia, would I want tourists coming by to see how poor I was and how some project was rescuing me from my miseries? If I was sitting at the bedside of my child with a life-threatening illness, would I want a tour group coming through to see how the heroic doctors were saving my child? No thank you.

As Moussa Blimpo (an NYU Econ Ph.D. student whom I respect a lot and who posted on this blog a very relevant article on Self-Esteem in Africa) said in his comment: “If you had a market for pornography (yes, the actual) in the MDV with the consent of the local, would you have set up a porn tour? I guess, no, and the reason is a similar reason your critics are raising.” (Yes, I am selectively quoting commentators who agreed with me, not to get any extra credit from having a few in agreement, but because they put my concerns better than I can put them myself.)

You say criticism of the rules (“don’t give them candy”) is unwarranted because it be worse if these rules were broken. You are missing the point -- if it is necessary to announce such rules, then there was a problem with offensive behavior by tourists already, which I believe is inherent in the nature of poverty tourism.

You and Mr. Ndahiro also offer the defense that this tourism project is “community-driven.” I have heard this kind of term abused way too often in aid discussions (as have some of the commentators) and would need a lot more detail about who is involved in the tourism project and who is not, who is for and who is against, how and whether all the villagers subject to tourist view had given their consent, and what alternative choices the villagers had.

You also mention that there was a problem with excess visitors to the MV before your project came along. I agree with you that the “poverty tourism” problem began with the MV itself, and you are not to blame for this.

I am sorry for the pain that my criticism evokes in you and your well-meaning partners. I get a lot of harsh criticism also, including from some of the commentators on these posts, and I try to learn from it. Criticism is a necessary feature of a society of free and equal individuals, to hold everyone accountable for their actions, and to correct mistakes. I salute your good intentions, but I sincerely believe your Millennium Village tourism project is a mistake.

Best regards, Bill

PS Sorry for the delay in responding, I was caught up with some intense activity in the non-blogging part of my job (not involving Argentina, the Appalachian Trail, or South Carolina).

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Should starving people be tourist attractions?

millennium-village-tourist.gif Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade on the Huffington Post touched a raw nerve about condescension towards Africans. She noted that a tourism operator was marketing one of Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Villages (MVs) as a vacation destination and quoted from the brochure "Please do not give anything to the villagers -- no sweets.”

I decided to look more into the MV tourism project, not to pile on, but because I believe patronizing attitudes towards Africans is a BIG issue in aid. The web site gives this introduction:

The Millennium Village Tour is a unique experience that introduces the … poverty traps in south-eastern Rwanda and the successful intervention package of the UN Millennium Villages Project.

I agree with Wade that it is dehumanizing that the villagers are just exhibits for tourists teaching them about abstractions like “poverty traps,” and are also to be used as propaganda for the MVs’ “successful intervention.”

The brochure that bothered Wade really is cringe-inducing, including also this line:

Please do not eat or drink in public. Many people in Bugesera District are still suffering from malnutrition…

If the MV is so successful, why are people still starving? Instead of worrying about hiding their food, why don’t the tourists pitch in on some MV project that helps the starving get food and nutritional supplements?

The tourism company offering the Rwanda MV tour is called EOS Visions and is headed by some German professionals. They have country subsidiaries, and it was the Rwanda one (staffed by Rwandans) that offered the MV tour. There are some benefits for the villagers as the company advertises 70 percent profit sharing with the local community. Obviously, there were some good intentions here. It’s never easy to negotiate encounters between very rich and very poor people, and some might think that these quotes from a tourist project are a minor issue.

The real problem is that patronizing attitudes towards the African beneficiaries of the MVs follow naturally from the ideas that inspire the MVs – that the poor are helpless victims and it is up to foreigners with superior expertise and funds to rescue them. Condescension towards Africans is both offensive AND a sign of a counterproductive approach to development.

Try looking at the poor Rwandans living in the MV not as anonymous and interchangeable exhibits for a “poverty trap,” but as individuals who possess rights and human dignity just like us. Then we maybe we will understand that the most impressive, knowledgeable, and motivated soldiers in the war on poverty are usually poor individuals themselves.

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Reader survey results: probabilities, halos, and leaders

What a relief to talk about something other than my distinguished colleague Prof. Sachs.... over to you, Dambisa Moyo! Now back to real work: the reader survey generated a great response – thank you readers! It confirmed a well known psychology experiment, but also contained surprises I did not expect.

The question was which was more probable, (A) or (B)?

(A) a country succeeds at economic development, or

(B) a country succeeds at economic development with a wise and capable leadership.

60 percent of you readers voted A, and 40 percent chose B. (Interestingly, a small sample on my Facebook page voted in the same percentages on the same question.)

On one level, A is the right answer, because B is a subset of A. A contains all successes, both (1) those achieved with wise leadership, and (2) those achieved with any other means. B only contains (1), and so is less likely than A. Well known psychology experiments find the same thing -- that many people have what is called the “conjunction fallacy” (again from my continuing Mlodinow and Kahneman obsession) that would cause them to choose (B). A set of outcomes that fits a plausible story is thought to be larger than one unrestricted by ANY story, even though ANY restriction on the set of possible outcomes always makes that set less likely than an unrestricted set. An explanation usually trumps no explanation, even if it gets the probabilities wrong!

But on another level, the reaction of many readers made me aware of how I had phrased the alternatives too sloppily, which taught me something about how the language we commonly use is often fuzzy on exactly what probabilities we are talking about. I think many of those who voted B were interpreting the question differently: when is development success more likely? With good leadership (B)? Or when the quality of the leadership is unspecified, and so could be either good or bad (A)? Obviously (B). Neither our brain wiring nor our education is good enough to give us linguistic precision about probability and randomness. So my sloppy language created a coalition in favor of (B) between an incorrect answer and a correct answer! How many such coalitions exist on development issues?

There is another related bias that is, called the “halo effect,” often discussed in recruiting job candidates (and also the subject of a great business book). An interviewer who quantifies one positive trait in a candidate excessively assumes that the candidate also performs well on other traits. Later quantitative evaluation finds the traits are not as correlated as the interviewer (or any of the rest of us) assume. So, for example, a beauty queen is not as likely to be a nice person as you think (could this be an excuse to mention the hilarious Miss California parody by Lisa Nova?).

What does this have to do with development? Well, a country that performs well on GDP per capita is also assumed to perform well on having wise and capable leadership. The latter is hard to quantify, so in many cases, our halo effect bias never gets corrected.

So sloppy language about probability, the conjunction fallacy, and the halo effect all make us assume that if the country has a good economic outcome, there is also a good political outcome (wise and capable leadership), even if we have no independent evidence that the leadership is wise. We do this in all countries (and assume bad leaders in unsuccessful countries), and then we notice a strong association between quality of leaders and development success! Therefore (adding the correlation=causation fallacy for good measure, which has its own cartoon) good leaders cause success! This amounts to the most elementary fallacy of them all – circular reasoning – which is still amazingly common in development debates.

Now would anybody like to go back and reread the “Asian success mythology” discussion, and think from yet another angle about whether East Asian successes were due to wise and capable leaders? And maybe if the leaders were not so perfectly wise in East Asia, we don't necessarily want to imitate everything they did?

I guess the lesson in the end is to be precise about probabilities, and demand independent evidence on the whole "wise and capable leadership" thing, rather than just assuming it when things turn out well.

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How ethnic profiling explains Dani Rodrik’s fondness for industrial policy

Airline passengers recently ejected an innocent Muslim family from an airplane because they were afraid the family were terrorists. Similar reasoning explains why Dani Rodrik favors industrial policy as a key to success. Before getting overly critical of Dani, whom I admire a lot, let me confess I have frequently committed the same type of reasoning error myself, and so does virtually everyone else. But it’s still wrong.

All of us are making the amazingly common mistake of REVERSING CONDITIONAL PROBABILITIES. The airline passengers perceived from media coverage that the probability that IF you are a terrorist, THEN you are a Muslim is high. Unfortunately for the poor family, the passengers confused this with the relevant probability, which is the chance that IF you are a Muslim, THEN you are a terrorist (which is extremely low even if the first probability really is high, because terrorists are very rare).

So here is Dani Rodrik on success and industrial policy: “the countries that have produced steady, long-term growth during the last six decades are those that relied on a different strategy: promoting diversification into manufactured … goods” (cited in Economist’s View).

So Dani concludes, “What matters [for growth in developing countries] is their output of modern industrial goods” and that developing countries will have to get busy with “real industrial policies.” Finally, “external policy actors (for example, the World Trade Organization) will have to be more tolerant of these policies.”

Unfortunately, Dani is also REVERSING CONDITIONAL PROBABILITIES. Dani’s evidence is based on what he believes is the high probability that IF you have had steady growth for six decades, THEN you had industrial policy. This is interesting, but this is not the right probability in deciding whether to choose industrial policy, which is “IF you have industrial policy, THEN what is your chance of steady growth for six decades?”

This second, correct, probability would seem to be pretty low, since many other countries -- especially African and Latin American -- extensively tried industrial policies over the past six decades with low and erratic growth as a result. Attempts at forcing investments into industrialization led to a huge pileup of debt in Latin America in the 1970s, which erupted into a debt crisis in 1982 and subsequent lost decades, when the productivity of the investments proved to be low. The more extreme results in Africa include the Ajaokuta steel mill in Nigeria which went through $6 billion but never produced a bar of steel, or Tanzanian manufacturing, which had NEGATIVE growth of output per worker despite heavy capital investments. (For more on this see this paper.)

I am really going through a MAJOR Mlodinow slash Kahneman phase about how economists (present company included) misinterpret data. To all of you who I am tormenting with this stuff, I promise to move on to something more constructive soon, like maybe another edition of our popular series Notes from the Field.

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African men call for UN to protect white women

stephen-lewis.jpg (Mother’s Day Edition)

OK that didn’t really happen, but just think how white men would respond if it did.

What happens of course is the reverse: white men offer themselves as saviors of African women.

One random example: Stephen Lewis the former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa (2001-2006) said that UNAIDS “utterly and tragically failed to protect the women of Africa” and he is calling for a new UN agency for women to supply the missing protection.

And it matters not whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, or female genital mutilation, or child brides, or honour killings, or the absence of property rights, or the absence of inheritance rights, or the absence of laws against rape and sexual violence, or the need to guarantee economic autonomy, or the dismal limits of political representation … in each and every case, and countless more, the world cries out for a women’s agency to intervene.

I of course agree that all of these things are horrific tragedies, and that oppression of women, and violence against women, is one of the most terrifying violations of individual freedom that we see in the world today.

But what would work pragmatically to better the situation? White men who run aid agencies or offer themselves as advocates for African women have to think through some hard questions.

(1) Is a direct outside intervention to save African women likely to be effective?

Doesn’t an effective intervention require the cooperation of African men? How likely is that to be forthcoming if African men are marginalized and ignored as the outsiders intervene in sensitive gender relations? Especially if African men are stigmatized through over-generalization as war criminals and rapists (or the slightly more tame stereotype as wife-beaters who spend all the household money on alcohol?)

(2) How credible are white men calling for gender equality in Africa when we don’t have it at home?

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We can make bad news look worse…and for Africa, we can make even good news look bad

Lost in the confusion of the Spring Meetings this weekend in Washington was the release of the IMF/World Bank Global Monitoring Report (GMR) 2009, the annual song of woe about lack of progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. You would think the current supply of bad news was adequate for our needs, but the GMR has long made a specialty of portraying the poor nations as bleakly as possible and this year’s report was no different. We learn:

  1. We face a “development emergency”, because “The triple jeopardy of the food, fuel, and financial crises is pushing many poor countries into a danger zone, imposing rising human costs and imperiling development prospects.” This statement seems oblivious to the reality that the three nicely alliterated crises have moved in opposite directions – the financial crisis has brought food and fuel prices back down to pre-food and fuel crisis levels, as their own Figure 1.2 on page 26 shows.
  2. The annual GMR ritual requires stating that Africa is worst: “At the regional level, Sub-Saharan Africa lags on all MDGs, including the goal for poverty reduction.” As I previously complained in a now published academic paper, arbitrary choices on how to define the MDGs make Africa look worse than it would look in other equally plausible formulations of progress. In particular, some of Africa’s achievements on health, education, and water are portrayed as “failures”, even when they match or exceed other regions or the historical rate of progress of the rich countries. Lastly, the GMR gives Africa little credit for once again surpassing 5 percent GDP growth in 2008, continuing a growth spurt in the new millennium that just happens to be the highest growth in Africa’s history.

Yes, things are tragically bad for many poor peoples right now. But making them look even worse than they are, although helpful for mobilizing support for aid agencies, is disrespectful towards the real achievements of those same poor.

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Self-Esteem in Africa

by Moussa P. Blimpo (the author is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics at NYU from Togo.) A prominent university professor in the US goes back to his home country in Africa with his American Master’s student who wanted to get some field experience. The professor is unable to schedule a meeting with a key political leader whereas the student does get a meeting with the African leader.

Last summer, in a heated discussion with some friends and graduate students at the University of Lome in Togo, a pre-doctoral student says: I need to find a white guy on my committee.

In 2000 when I got to France to start college, I asked to take one year of prerequisite courses before I started the normal 4-year math degree because I believed that my high school diploma from Togo was not on par with the French equivalent. Fortunately my brother attended the same university and he convinced me then that we actually cover more materials in Togo than the French.

By and large, it seems that Africans have a negative bias toward their own capability and the aptitudes and that of other Africans. This bias is present at all level of the African society. There are many possible explanations for this:

  1. It seems to most that white people made most modern scientific advancements and discoveries in human history and this is subconsciously promoted through our normal schooling.
  2. A rational choice and statistical discrimination: Given the rampant corruption and the resulting mediocrity of the decision makers and the servants, any foreigner is de facto assumed to be able to do better.
  3. Legacy of slavery and or colonization: Just as recent research has suggested a relation between trust and slavery, it is likely that many other social attitudes and perceptions persist.
  4. The continued presence of the predominantly white aid workers and the importance and attention given to them by the leaders. Local scholars are marginalized in favor of westerners who work under the banner of the international organizations. For example, it is much easier for any World Bank consultant to meet with and to be listened to by a minister or to appear on national tv in Africa than professors in African universities.

This attitude could be a big impediment to the much-needed innovation in African societies. Spreading technologies is great in that it avoids reinventing the wheel. But in my view, many innovations respond to contextual needs and demands. Therefore, homegrown innovations to solve day-to-day challenges are a must to development. My view is that point 2 and 4 are the dominant. Readers’ thoughts are welcome.

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Is There Such a Thing as a Good Colonialist?

An ongoing exhibition at NYU’s Casa Italiana introduces American audiences to a new Romantic hero, the Italian explorer and conquerer Pietro di Brazza. In three small but fascinating rooms of photographs, maps and drawings, the exhibit lays out the argument that Africa would have been better off with more of the kinder, gentler colonialism of Pietro di Brazza, and less of the harsh colonialism of Henry Stanley, the Anglo-American explorer in the service of the notorious most ruthless imperialist ever, King Leopold of Belgium. Brazza-by-Nadar.jpg

Pietro Savorgnan di Brazza, photographed by Felix Nadar in Paris, around 1882

Born in Rome and educated in France, Pietro di Brazza joined the French Navy at the age of 18. His early expeditions, up the Ogoué river (now in Gabon) and across the Batéké plain (now part of Congo-Brazzaville), laid the groundwork for the French colonial empire in Equatorial Africa.

On his expeditions, he carried with him French flags and bestowed them on tribal leaders as symbols of protection against other predatory colonial powers. He signed a treaty of friendship with the leader of the powerful Batéké tribe, Makoko Iloo I, which would eventually cede much of what is now Congo-Brazzaville to French control. As a reward for his successful explorations, France made Brazza the Commissioner General of French West Africa, where he governed for 15 years.

Examining the allegiances, writings and portraits of the two explorers, the exhibit draws a studied contrast between the humanist ideals of Brazza, who opposed slavery and fought to prevent France from granting concessions to commercial merchants in Africa, and the mercenary tactics of Henry Stanley, whose exploration of Lake Victoria and the Congo River led the way for King Leopold to establish an empire of unprecedented brutality and exploitation in what is now the DRC.

Brazza was a man ahead of his time, the curators contend, who understood the need for sustainable development, and treated the natives with tolerance and respect. “I believe that the future of Western Africa and the Congo basin depends on the rich indigenous culture and trade—not on colonization through European immigration,” he said in a speech to his admirers in Paris.

Still, the exhibit left us wondering: Do we really need a colonialist hero? Is the world short on idealized portraits of rugged white men in native gear, posing against romantic backdrops of sand and mountains? For all Brazza’s noble ideals, should we pass lightly over the fact that he was in fact the colonial governor of French Congo and Gabon? That his “gift” of Congo and Gabon to the Republic of France opened the door to decades of war and commercial exploitation? That his presence in the Congo robbed its inhabitants of their right to self-rule?

After all, Brazza could not control the massive tide of history that his explorations and his friendship treaty with the Batéké leader set in motion. He himself fell out of favor with the French government, was dismissed from his post, and died in Algiers a disillusioned man. His last report, decrying the abuses of power in the French West Africa that followed from evidence of Leopold’s enormous profits in the rubber trade, was suppressed and has still never been released.

Brazza may have truly believed that the French flags he gave to the tribal chiefs were peaceful offerings of protection, symbols of liberté, egalité, and fraternité. But from our vantage point today it’s hard to see them other than as the symbols of colonial domination that, in very real, enduring terms, they were.

True, some colonial empires were better than others. Some colonial rulers were more benevolent than others. But colonialism, stripped of all its “White Man’s Burden” justifications, is at its core a kind of violence. And any historian who ignores this is engaged in hagiography, not history.

You can still catch “Brazza in Congo: A Life and Legacy” which runs through April 17 at NYU’s Casa Italiana. You can also see a mural created by the Brazzaville artists from the Poto-Poto School of Painting to commemorate the meeting between Brazza and Makoko Iloo I, at the National Arts Club.

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Do You Have To Be Pro-Aid To Be An Authentic African?

The always provocative and insightful Chris Blattman asks:

How come all the Africans getting press on the aid debate are conservatives and libertarians? Moyo, Mwenda, Hirsi Ali. The list is getting longer. All make good points (well, at least Mwenda does) but these hardly strike me as indigenous voices. Most seem to be channeling Milton Friedman. There's nothing wrong with a little Friedman in your thinking, but is this "authentic Africa" or the product of elite education in the West?

I see two hypotheses: (1) Africans hate aid; and (2) it is easier to get on camera if you are African and hate aid.

I'm going to lean towards... um... number 2.

Where are the Africans on camera with something different to say? Reader suggestions welcome.

Why wasn’t anyone complaining all those years when most African economists were employed by or consulting for the aid agencies, and thus automatically could not criticize aid? And why isn’t anybody complaining about “elite education in the West” for Latin Americans, Turks, Indians, Indonesians, Koreans, or Chinese, some of whom also borrow ideas from Milton Friedman? Is there a double standard for Africans?

I think Blattman’s hypothesis (2) may be partly correct. I would add corollary (2b): Africans working for aid agencies and repeating their platitudes are just as boring as all other aid officials, few of whom show up on camera. How about hypothesis (3): there are a variety of African opinions on aid, and it is healthy to have an aid debate taking place within Africa.

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When Will There Be Good News? Does it Help There Already Was Some?

In the midst of the general doom and gloom, fears about how the crisis will affect poor countries, and fierce criticism of markets, states, and aid agencies, perhaps it’s healthy to step back to the big picture, to recognize there has already been some very real good news. The graph below shows some overall statistics for the developing world:


This graph has a mixture of good news that all of the much-criticized triad of markets, states, and aid can take partial credit for. Markets obviously get at least some credit for the reduction in global poverty and increase of global average income. States supply public goods like education, water, and health, and there has been progress on all of these. Aid deserves some credit for successes in health, as already stressed in a previous blog post.

One group that doesn’t deserve much credit is “development experts,” because there is a terrible crisis of confidence in development economics now, where we all freely confess we don’t really know what to advise governments on how to speed up development.

Positive stories are also important to correct unbalanced stereotypes, like the one discussed a couple of days ago by June Arunga on this blog about the rich American woman who couldn’t believe Africans had cell phones. The figure below shows the huge cell phone boom in Africa (the world’s most rapidly growing cell phone market). This one is a success for resourceful African entrepreneurs, like Alieuh Conteh who started a cell phone business right in the middle of the civil war in the DR Congo, with makeshift cell phone towers made out of pieces of scrap metal welded together. He got millions of subscribers and eventually sold the company for a ten-figure sum.


Yes, there is a terrible crisis now, not to mention that all of these indicators are still deeply unsatisfactory, so we all keep criticizing and holding accountable the market, state, and aid actors who fall so woefully short. But let none of us forget how much development already happened over the last half-century, which may inspire us with hope that more step-by-step improvements in markets, states, and aid could make even more development possible.

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Asian Success Mythology

The blog yesterday provoked a lot of healthy debate about my claim that industrialization is mainly market-driven rather than state-driven, using Korea, China, and India as examples of industrialization out of poverty. I know I am going against the conventional wisdom of the great Asian “developmental state,” authoritarian and heavily involved in planning industrialization. So let me explain why. When I said we can only test what works on average, I am talking about what propositions are testable and falsifiable, using Karl Popper’s definition of what is “real” science. There is no way to test policies if you allow what works to be different in every year and every country, since a hypothesis about ANY policy will always fit the data perfectly under this assumption. I am not implying imposing the same blueprint everywhere, since “what works” is usually too general and can only guide general policy orientation. Of course, I agree that context matters a lot and so policy-makers should use whatever alternative sources of information or political instinct they have available to adjust the policy orientation to local circumstances.

So my general claim is that heavy reliance on markets is associated with long-run success, using as data the Asian successes, the earlier European and North America/Australia/New Zealand successes, the failure of non-market central planning in the Communist Bloc, and the failures of statist policies in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. It is true that Asian successes used state intervention more than the earlier European examples, but on average state intervention does poorly across all countries, so we have no Popper-standard evidence that state intervention contributed to their success. So my claim is based on evidence, not ideology.

We could also test industrial policy using within-country data. A well-known old study by Korean economist Jong-Wha Lee ("Government Interventions and Productivity Growth," Journal of Economic Growth, 1(3), September 1996, 391-414) found that government-favored sectors in South Korea actually had worse productivity growth than those that were not government-favored.

There is also the fact that South Korea (which had populist policies in the 1950s), India, and China had rapid growth after they shifted towards much LESS state intervention in the economy. I’m not sure that this one would pass the Popper test, however, since economists’ attempts to explain short- to medium-run shifts in growth have not been very successful world wide.

Now, let's go back to country data and look at the suggestion that we focus only on the success stories in East Asia. This has indeed been the predominant approach and has reinforced what I think is the fallacious conventional wisdom on the "industrial policy success" in East Asia. Looking only at the successes causes "survivor bias" about what really works.

Suppose we have a group of drivers leave New York at the same time to drive to Washington, and we interview the first 5 drivers who arrive in Washington. We find that they drove Lamborghinis at 150 mph, weaving in and out of traffic down the New Jersey Turnpike and I-95, out-running Highway Patrol cars who tried to stop them. Are they models for success getting from New York to Washington?

No, because since we only studied the “successful” first 5 drivers to arrive, we didn’t know about the vast majority of Lamborghini “failures” – the drivers who got into fatal accidents or were caught by the Highway Patrol and jailed for insanely reckless driving. On average, this approach was a disaster. On average, soccer moms driving mini-vans outperformed the Lamborghini drivers, if we study BOTH successes and failures.

So Asian success either happened in spite of statist industrial policy, not because of it, or industrial policy was an incredibly risky strategy that usually fails but occasionally has big successes, possibly in East Asia.

Either view would help explain why a huge amount of effort spent imitating East Asian success stories has NOT successfully replicated that success anywhere else.

So I stand by my claim that the 66-year-old idea of state-promoted industrialization has failed, and that it was irresponsible of Collier and UNIDO to resurrect it as a “major conceptual breakthrough.”

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