Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Flatland (yet again).

After my posts on Edwin Abbott's great book "Flatland" (here and here) this drawing by xkcd has to be posted:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Wonga Coup & In Search of Enemies.

Last Friday I handed in my dissertation proposal (see here) and therefore did some recreational reading:

In Search of Enemies [*]

This book is written by John Stockwell; a former CIA officer and Chief of the Angola Task Force managing the Agency's 1975 covert operation during the Angolan civil war. He became a critic of the United States' government policies, resigned and wrote the only detailed, insider's account of a major CIA covert operation. The book includes many interesting parts. For example, Stockwell mentions how a colleague CIA officer told him one night in Lubumbashi (Congo) how he had Patrice Lumumba's body in the trunk of his car. Even today - despite evidence that there has been several CIA plots to kill Lumumba - the US maintains it had no direct role in his eventual death. Combined with many practical examples on how to 'misinform' US Congress and conduct a covert operation, this is a great read.

The Wonga Coup [**]

In March 2004, Equatorial Guinea was the target of a planned coup d'etat by a group of British, South African and Zimbabwean mercenaries led by Simon Mann; a British mercenary and former British SAS officer. The country is tiny and its president - Obiang Nguema - is accused of cannibalism, mass murder, billion dollar corruption, and rule by terror. The reason for the coup... oil. The coup, however, failed and Mann had been serving a 34-year prison sentence in Equatorial Guinea, before receiving a presidential pardon on humanitarian grounds on 2 November 2009. Adam Roberts does a great job in discussing the run up and the aftermath of the coup. Note: Please read Frederick Forsyth's "The Dogs of War" first; it described an attempt by mercenaries to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea in 1972. The similarities is scary.

As a final note: Obiang is still in power and - from wrongingrights - recently visited the United States and took some pictures with the Obamas... oil.

[*] John Stockwell. 1978. In Search of Enemies. New York: Norton.
[**] Adam Roberts. 2006. The Wonga Coup. New York: Perseus.

Monday, March 29, 2010

How to do proofs.

Please click here.

An example:

A cow have four more legs than no cow.
No cow has five legs.
Therefore, a cow has nine legs. QED

Saturday, March 27, 2010

South Africa, Israel, and Tea Parties.

  • Earlier this month South Africa started the 100-day World Cup countdown. In 2004 I studied for 8 months at the University of Pretoria (Go Blue Bulls!!). During that period FIFA announced that South Africa would host the 2010 World Cup. Our group of exchange students (around 10) told each other that we would all be there. So, now 6 years later, I have tickets for 5 matches (the group, the 2nd round and the quarter final). To make me even more exited the BBC's Jonah Fisher already bungee jumped off Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium. 73 more days to go!
  • Israel's prime minister - Bejamin Netanyahu - was in the US last week to talk with President Obama about Israel's government’s policy of continued building in East Jerusalem; a major point of contention with the Obama administration (see among others here and here). I just can't help to think about a drawing I saw some weeks ago:

  • Title: Haiti launches plan for reconstruction...
    Builder 1: "Why are most of the constructed houses built on the wrong side of the border?"
    Builder 2: "Israeli construction company..."
  • Since beginning 2009 so-called Tea Party protests are taking place throughout the Unites States. Today there was another big one in Nevada: the wise, competent and I-really-want-her-to-be-the-new-US-president Sarah Palin also gave a speech (see here. Please know that I am sarcastic!). These Tea Party protests - a reference to the Boston Tea Party that protested taxation without representation - are a series of nationally-coordinated protests against a prominent role for the US government in the economy: they for example dislike a high tax rate in the US and are against the recent health care reform. In a great piece, Bruce Bartlett argues that the views of the "Tea Party crowd" are based upon false beliefs about the burden of federal taxes.

Great week: Dissertation proposal and grant.

Last week was busy but fantastic for two reasons: 1) I handed in my dissertation proposal, and 2) together with a colleague I received a grant to undertake a network experiment in the DR Congo.

Dissertation proposal

In their third year, Political Science PhDs at Columbia (a.o. me) have to hand in their dissertation proposal; a 12 page document outlining: dissertation topic, why we should care, contribution, the approach, literature review, etc. Before handing in one needs to obtain signatures of two faculty members that 'sponsor' the project. Then in May one defends the proposal to a committee of four professors. Yesterday I handed in my proposal after obtaining signatures from Kimuli Kasara and Macartan Humphreys.

Below you find a required one-page summary (if interested I can send you the 12-page document that elaborates on what is written below - especially on the approach):

Title: Forced Migration and the Provision of Public Goods: Evidence from the DR Congo

Much recent work has focused on the impact of diversity - whether in ethnicity, caste, race, language, income, age, occupation, education or religion - on public good provision. Diverse communities - compared to homogeneous communities - seem to do a worse job of producing public goods such as schools, widening roads and providing good health care. Also why this could be the case has been taken up.

Given the interest in the impact of diversity on public good provision it is surprising that little work has been done on the impact of migration on public good provision. First, migration by definition leads to diversity - at the very least the cleavage native versus immigrant is (temporarily) created. Second, migration also impacts public good provision in ways that go beyond diversity. This dissertation will focus on forced migration in the developing world. Currently over 26 million people are internally displaced (IDP) and over 10 million are refugee; the far larger majority of these forced migrants reside in the developing world (UNHCR 2009). Especially these migrants - because they have a home they would like to return to, and host communities are likely to be very fragile - are likely to impact public good provision negatively.

However, from a unique and representative survey undertaken in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo we obtain an extraordinary result. Contrary to the diversity and public goods literature – and the additional negative bias that we expect from migration – we find that migration and public goods provision is positively correlated.

How can this be the case? This dissertation takes this puzzle head on, and argues that this could be the case for four reasons:
1. migrants' opportunity cost to contribution is likely to be lower;
2. migrants are often dependent on and therefore feel grateful to the host community;
3. migrants are easier forced than natives to contribute to the public good;
4. migrants may want to settle and be accepted, and therefore are willing to send a costly signal.

First, because of the strategic nature of public good provisions, the dissertation’s formal part will work out these channels in more detail by making use of game-theory. Second, the dissertation's empirical part will be based on four pillars: 1) interviews with both natives and migrants, 2) survey-work, 3) geographic mapping, and 4) behavioral games.

The stated hypotheses will be tested in Eastern DR Congo; one of world's regions most affected by forced migration. First, it experienced one of the world's largest refugee inflows when in 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, over 2 million Hutu refugees moved into the country; many of them are still present. Second, sustained fighting over the last decades has put the IDP number at over 2 million; most of them are to be found in the East One of world's regions most affected by forced migration.

If you would like to read the 12 page document please send me an email. I will be distributing this proposal widely - to a wide range of different professors, policy makers in the Congo and outside the Congo, but also friends and family. If you have any suggestions or remarks on the proposal, please let me know!

Grant for network project.

Together with a friend and colleague (Neelanjan Sircar) I applied to a summer research grant by Columbia’s Applied Statistics Center and Columbia's Center for the Study of Development Strategies. Yesterday we heard that we got the grant! Below you find the our grant proposal's introduction:

Title: Latent Network Structures and Public Goods Games

Many aspects of our lives are governed by social networks, making it critical to understand how these networks impact human decision-making. While for many years much work on networks has been done in fields such as computer sciences and sociology, it has been largely absent in the economics and political science literature. In addition, an individual’s strategic decisions about how to interact with another individual are impacted not only by previous interactions with the other individual, but also by the other individual’s previous interaction with friends and acquaintances. Whether I contribute to a public good depends on my expectations of what other people do, and I use these. Work that makes use of experiments to understand social networks, while potentially very informative, has been limited. We propose an experiment that addresses the role of existing network structure and observable individual attributes upon public good provision. The experiment will be conducted in a lab at NYU (where individuals are taken from a single class) and in 5 villages in Eastern Congo. In both cases the samples have previous social interaction and developed interpersonal preferences, what we will refer to as a latent social network.

Networks will take a central role in both mine and Neelanjan's dissertation. With regards to my dissertation obtaining a clear understanding of the formation and the importance of networks (think of migrants vs natives in Congolese villages) in strategic situations (think of contributing to public goods) is crucially important. This experiment is therefore the first empirical step in our dissertations.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Did the health care reform bill pass?

As Nancy Pelosi - Speaker of the US House of Representatives - said today “Last night, we made history.” Why? Did the health care reform bill pass? Please click HERE to get a clear and sophisticated answer (and do keep on refreshing).

Friday, March 19, 2010

Gay soldiers = genocide.

I can be really brief about this: WTF!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

More things.

  • There is a classic scene in Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian where the hero sets off in search of a secret band of insurgents. “Are you the Judean People’s Front,” he asks a group of malcontents. “The Judean People’s Front!” they reply in disgust. “We’re the People’s Front of Judea … The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f***ing Judean People’s Front … And the Judean Popular People’s Front. Splitters!”

    This is how
    a recent post on
    Reuter’s Africa news blog started. The post continues by discussion how insurgent factions in Sudan’s strife-torn west keep on fracturing. First, it is a short but great read. Second, it made me think of Eastern DRC where groups also constantly split, and the groups' names consistently - and humorously - include words such as “Liberation”, “Democratic”, etc. Third, why do rebels groups splinter? Is it possible that groups split because a lower ranking leader now earns X but can earn X+Y if he splits. Is it likely that these days it is no longer about 'winning the war'; i.e. growing as large and powerful as possible.
  • If you don’t know TED yet, please change this and check out their website and especially their videos. In one word: Brilliant! A friend of mine recently send the following video I hadn’t seen yet. The story that comes with the video: "Mark Roth studies suspended animation. The art of shutting down life processes and then starting them up again. It's wild stuff, but it's not science fiction. Induced by careful use of an otherwise toxic gas, suspended animation can potentially help trauma and heart attack victims survive long enough to be treated."

  • A long time ago I was a PhD student in economics (after my coursework I swapped to political science) and one of the videos that went around those days at Tiburg University is this video by Yoram Bauman - the world’s only stand-up economist. Mankiw’s Principles of Economics are translated. It is great.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rapid Response Mechanism.

The New York Times recently aired “What are you carrying?” by Nicholas Kristof; a video emphasizing the hard work women do in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Please see Texas in Africa's March 11 reaction to it. She is critical; starting with "Is the New York Times trying to exasperate us with its shoddy, stereotypical coverage of the African continent?"

A brief note from my side: At minute 0:15 one sees Kristof together with Stefan Lehmeier; manager of the RRM. Stefan is a friend and the RRM is a great program. In brief, the Rapid Response Mechanism has relief stocks and staff pre-positioned in key locations in order to provide emergency shelter, NFI kids*, education, water and sanitation to IDPs who have been ‘accessible for fewer than three months’.

While follow-up to their interventions is inconsistent and often slow and NGOs with emergency-response capacity – knowing that the RRM is operating – have often not felt pressure to respond to the needs of new IDPs, the Rapid Response Mechanism is widely recognized as a very successful program.

Tomorrow our Voix des Kivus’ technical coordinator will – unfortunately for us – leave Bukavu to start a new job in Lubumbashi. We did obtain a great replacement; who is also an employee of the RRM. Knowing that RRM needs to react in a timely and effective manner, the high-quality and real-time information that Voix des Kivus provides on local level events throughout Sud Kivu is of much value to them.

* NFI = Non-Food Items; such as blankets, buckets, and plastic sheeting.

Monday, March 15, 2010


  • Somebody invited me to the Facebook group “Kan deze baby uil meer fans krijgen dan Geert Wilders” (i.e. “Can this baby owl receive more fans than Geert Wilders”). Geert Wilders is the - unfortunately - very popular extreme-right politician in the Netherlands. Most people know by now (see here and here) that I am not a big fan of him. Consequently, please join.
  • Saturday I had a Skype call with two South Africans whom I did not know. They asked the day before for a Skype call because they were going to Lubumbashi this week, and wanted to know about the security situation. They said they read my blog and therefore knew that I was in Lubumbashi about a month ago. Incredible. Mom: it is not only you that reads my blog!
  • Finally, and completely random, hereby still the best explanation of hell.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On archival work in the 70s.

During some quality procrastinating-time last week I read two articles from the 1970s about doing archival work on the Democratic Republic of Congo; one in Katanga [1], the other in Brussels [2]. Some excerpts:
  • "Photocopying of letters will usually have to be done at major urban centers like Lubumbashi. In 1973, there were a handful of photocopy machines scattered throughout Lubumbashi. One or two machines were in use at UNAZA, and there was even a priest who personally owned two photocopiers. However, it is difficult to predict which machines will be operable at any time, for they are heavily used; breakdowns are frequent; and spare parts and supplies are difficult to obtain." [1, p.188]
  • The documents in these archives, like the headings, are written either in Flemish or French. There appears to be no consistent logic or "sociologic" underlying which documents are in which language. [2, p.288]
  • Physically, the documents are in excellent condition: easy to read and to reproduce. The cabinet in which they are stored is located near a window in a spacious, quiet, well-lit corridor, where the researcher can comfortably work. [2, p. 290]
Although I am nuts about old documents and maps, I think that archival work is not my thing; I have problems sitting still and quiet. However, reading about it - and in general thinking about how life must have been back then - does make me really enthusiastic.

[1] Thomas Q. Reefe. 1976. Some Archives of Shaba Region, Republic of Zaire. History in Africa, Vol. 3, pp. 187-192.
[2] Willy De Craemer. 1977. The Congo/Zaire Archives of the Northern (Flemish) Belgian Jesuit Province in Brussels, Belgium. History in Africa, Vol. 4, pp. 287-290.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Did you know...

... that during the First World War, a tiny Belgium force traveled 2,500 miles from Kinshasa in the DRC across the African continent to attack Italy's Ethiopia from the west (and were successful!). Read it here.

Belgian Force Publique leaving Kinshasa.

Funny. PhD related links.

These days I am busy writing my dissertation proposal. My friends think ahead and one of them sent me the following link with things I shouldn't say at my dissertation defense. Here is one of them:

I also received the following video from one of my Professor's here at Columbia. He thought it was great. I am not sure. :)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Three more blogs.

I just added three more blogs to the side bar. The first is a good blog on Africa, the next two are great blogs on the DR Congo: African Arguments, Congo blog, and Solo Kinshasa. From the Congo blog:

Congolese: "It seems that the Haitians live like us."
Other Congolese: "The difference is that there, the food falls from the sky."

Bad week.

Last week was a bad one for two reasons:

The Dutch municipality elections took place last Wednesday (March 3) and the big winner is... Geert Wilders. In the two cities where his (very) right-wing party participated it became the biggest (Almere) and second-biggest (the Hague) party. Not only am I very disappointed in many Dutch people, I am also afraid for the parliamentary elections that will take place in June.

If this wasn't enough, although I had seen it coming, last Thursday (March 4) it was announced that MONUC is leaving the DRC. I have been (and am) critical of MONUC, but please stay! Don't go! Jason Stearns - as always - has a good post on it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

One of the reasons why I love Africa.

Last January - when in Bukavu - I visited a school where a friend of mine is the general director. Together with Macartan we are trying to find some funds to buy several basic laptops so that the students can learn word processing, a bit of excel and basic programming; some of those necessary skills students of the DR Congo have to learn but don't. Recently the school had bought new locks and we were assured that now it was absolutely impossible to open the computer room without a key. A good lock, however, is necessary but maybe not sufficient...