Friday, April 30, 2010

IRC photo.

Tomorrow CSDS will host a workshop on leading research on the social impacts of development interventions. Raul and I will give a presentation on the impact evaluation we help Macartan Humphreys with in Eastern Congo. In brief, that project is a large community- driven reconstruction project implemented by the IRC and Care International. There will be lots of IQ points in the crowd and we have almost two hours (we present 45 minutes and then we have more than one hour for discussion), so we prepared well to get most out of it. While preparing I came across this picture (I did not make this picture - I haven't seen roads this bad yet):

Respect for the IRC, and all those other organizations doing good work in difficult circumstances!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

China in Africa.

Tazara line (train Tanzania - Zambia)
“As soon as we have problems, we ask someone else to take care of them for us,” Isaac continued. “We ask the Europeans. We ask the Americans. We ask the Chinese. We will run this train into the ground, and then we will tell the Chinese we need another one. This is not development.” I thought of the wreckage by the tracks. In China, there is no such thing as metallic waste. Armies of migrant workers scour the countryside with hammers and chisels, collecting and selling every scrap to the insatiable smelters that feed the country’s industries. Here, by contrast, was a land without industry.
This is Columbia Professor Howard French in a recent article in The Atlantic [1] in which he discusses the infrastructure projects currently being undertaken in Africa by the Chinese. Does it promise the transformation of the continent, or merely its exploitation? He ends with the following, less-then-optimistic paragraph:
I [Howard French] asked him [a Congolese lawyer in Lubumbashi] if the arrival of the Chinese was a new and great opportunity for the continent, as some have said. “The problem is not who is the latest buyer of our commodities,” he replied. “The problem is to determine what is Africa’s place in the future of the global economy, and up to now, we have seen very little that is new. China is taking the place of the West: they take our raw materials and they sell finished goods to the world What Africans are getting in exchange, whether it is roads or schools or finished goods, doesn’t really matter. We remain under the same old schema: our cobalt goes off to China in the form of dusty ore and returns here in the form of expensive batteries.”
[1] Howard W. French. 2010. The Next Empire. The Atlantic. May 2010.

Monday, April 26, 2010

CSDS/ASC miniconference, and Latent Social Spaces.

Last Saturday was great. The Applied Statistics Center and the Center for the Study of Development Strategies held a miniconference at Columbia University for those who had received summer research grants. Eleven people presented their projects' research designs. Topics ranged from the long-term impact of the Peruvian civil war on local level institutions to evaluating the impact of education on HIV/AIDS on sexual behavior. Together with Neelan, I presented our network project in Eastern Congo. Faculty was present, everybody had to read all the project descriptions in advance, and everybody was assigned as a discussant to at least one presentation; we had many long and lively discussions. From seven onwards we had dinner at Macartan's place to continue the discussions in a more informal setting. It was really nice to have people from political science, economics and statistics discussing similar topics together - we do not do this often enough.

Latent Space Models and Aggregate Relations Data

I was discussant for Tyler McCormick's project called "How many X’s do you know?". Tyler is is a PhD Candidate in the statistics department and works together with Tian Zheng. The project builds on Peter Hoff's 2005 seminal article on Latent Space Models [1].

Aggregate relations data
It is often difficult to obtain information about a sensitive group; HIV/AIDS-infected people, people that have been raped, etc. One could ask in a survey "Are you a member of X?" - where X is the sensitive group - and then add up all the people that say 'yes'. However, it is unlikely that people tell the you truth. One can get around this problem by asking "How many members of X do you know?". The answers to these questions is so-called aggregate relations data.

Homophily and diadic interdependence
However, people are more likely to know 'similar' people - something that is called homophily. For example, if X is "Rose" - a common name among older women - and people are more likely to know individuals of the same age it is likely that older people know more people called "Rose" than younger people. If I want to estimate the size of a respondents network based on this information I would over (under) -estimate the network size of older (younger) respondents.

This complicates research on networks. The figure below gives 2 possible network structures among three people. The dotted line is a link that could be formed. On the left hand side we have that T is - for example - friends with N and P (the solid lines), while on the right hand side this is not the case. Consequently, it is more likely that N and P become friends in the structure on the left then on the right.

In other words, whether N and P form a link is dependents on how N and P are connected with a third person. This is the defining characteristic of networks and is called "diadic interdependence".

It is also highly problematic. For example, let's say we want to run a logit or probit regression where the dependent variable is whether person i and j form a link. Whether a link is formed dependents on whether i and j have links with other people (how they are connected in the network). The problem is that one can't just control for that as those other links are dependent variables in their own right. The problem is similar to autocorrelation in time series models.

Latent social space
A solution to this is to bring structure to the error term by making use of a so-called latent network space. In brief, all people have a position in an unobserved d-dimensional social space that gives us information about the underlying social structure. Actors with closer positions in the latent space are more likely to have interactions. For example, let's say that we have a two dimensional space and there is a polygon for the group of people called "Rose" - the size and shape of the polygon dependent on the group's variance over the two dimensions. Then an older person is more closely located to the "Rose"-polygon than than younger people.

Thus by combining the ideas of latent network spaces and aggregate relational data one can get rid of diadic interdependence and obtain information about a sensitive group such as: 1) the size of HIV/AIDS-infected people in society, 2) whom to approach if one wants to find a HIV/AIDS-infected person (who is most likely to know one), and 3) how homogeneous is the group of HIV/AIDS-infected people.

Very interesting stuff!

[1] Peter D Hoff. 2005. Bilinear Mixed-Effects Models for Dyadic Data. Journal of the American Statistical Association. 100, 286-295.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tropical Gangsters.

I just finished the book "Tropical Gansters" [1] by Robert Klitgaard; an academic and a policy advisor to developing country governments on economic strategy and institutional reform. The book is about his 1986-1988 experiences in Equatorial Guinea when he was an economist/administrator of a (for the country's size) enormous economic rehabilitation project funded by the World Bank. He worked (or at least tried to work) with a team of ministers to design a structural adjustment program, reform sectoral strategies, and undertake rehabilitation projects (see his CV for more information).

What struck me most in this book is how next to (of course) economic issues, especially politics - the process by which groups of people make collective decisions - is important for economic development. Klitgaard candidly writes about the difficulties he faces while (trying to) work because of coups attempts, the replacement of ministers at the whim of the president, and the importance of traditional leaders - in the President's home town of Mongomo - for national politics. Interesting as this is exactly why after studying economics I am now at Columbia. All in all, nice book and an informative read.

[1] Robert Klitgaard. 1991. Tropical Gangsters. One Man's Experience With Development and Decadence in Deepest Africa. New York: Basic Books.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Last June reclamation and construction work began for La Cite du Fleuve; a huge Dubai-like city that is to be built in... the Congo river. Jason Stearns recently had a post on this. According to the plan, La Cite du Fleuve will span 375 hectares, include 10,000 apartments, 10,000 offices, 2,000 shops, 15 diplomatic missions, 3 hotels, 2 churches, 1 university, 3 day care centers and a shopping mall. It will take 8 years to build. The project is financed by Mukwa Investments via Hawkwood Properties, a Lusaka based company that serves US and European investors. Here are two pictures after doing a bit of google-ing:

I was first planning to post my following, very constructive reaction and leave it at that: WTF!

While I am still of that same opinion, this project also reminded me of a recent TED talk by Stanford economist Paul Romer. In brief Romer's idea to help countries break out of poverty is the creation of "charter cities". The latter are city-scale administrative zones governed by a coalition of nations. On his website he discusses three cases: (1) Canada develops a Hong Kong in Cuba, (2) Indonesians flock to a manufacturing hub in Australia, and (3) states in India compete for the chance to build a charter city. What about a fourth one: (4) La Cite du Fleuve? Watch the TED talk or check out the website on Charter Cities.

Hattip to Caroline (the hub of CSDS) for the blog's title.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Post Hamptons.

So I am back from a weekend in the Hamptons; more specifically we were from Friday to Sunday in East Hampton; a village located in a beautiful area on New York's Long Island with much nature and close to the beach. It is also known as the "Playground of the Rich" where people with money helicopter in from New York for a weekend.

Two things made me think of Eastern Congo while in the Hamptons. First, there were a lot of 4x4s and wooden houses. In contrast to the Congo, however, the 4x4s were not owned by development agencies, and the median price of a house in the Hamptons is several million dollars; with a large number of them topping the tens of millions of dollars. Second, I noticed how upset I was with how Hamptonites spend their money: the excessively large houses; the large number of expensive cars standing in the driveways; the over-representation of shops like Ralph Lauren and Tiffany Jewelry Shop in city center; etc.

Probably what upset me most is that it struck me only now again that the difference between us living here and people living in Africa is so large. When I came back from fieldwork last summer I wrote a post using the words "what a fucked up world" when discussing the difference between my living standards here in New York and those I had in Africa. However, over the last months my life in New York has become 'normal' again; I order a bottle of wine when I like, I go to the cinema whenever I want, and I spend almost 100 dollars on a weekend in the Hamptons without thinking.

This sucks. Two things, though. First, when I came back last time from fieldwork I asked some colleagues (with much more field experience) whether they also had difficulties coming back from conflict-torn, poor regions into a city where it is normal to pay hundreds of dollars for a handbag. They said "yes". However, they also said that this feeling lessens over time. People seem to adapt quickly to new environments was their experience - the Hamptons made this clear for me. In addition, I can see how from an emotional point of view this is probably also a good thing. Second, I am happy, though, to go back to Africa soon. I miss it.

Me looking towards mom and dad (the Netherlands).

Friday, April 16, 2010


It's 320am and I just came back from Columbia; I arrived this morning at the department at 545am. Yet another 20+ hour work day; since Sunday my days have been like this. Anybody said something about a 36-hour work week? ;). The amazing thing of being here is that at 3am there are still students walking around on campus and the main library is populated. Also, I am currently eating a before-bed-time snack; a freshly-cut, sliced-meat sandwich - something I got in one of the many supermarkets still open. I love this city!

It's not all work, though. Tomorrow, with some fellow PhD students, I'll be heading for a weekend to the Hamptons on Long Island where we hired a small house next to the beach. We have beer, steaks, a football (read: a proper ball to play soccer) and I also took Robert Klitgaard's "Tropical Gangsters" [1] with me. Great weekend ahead!

[1] Robert Klitgaard. 1991. Tropical Gangsters: One Man's Experience With Development And Decadence In Deepest Africa. New York: Basic Books.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Biography of the Continent: Africa.

Today I finally finished John Reader's “A Biography of the Continent: Africa” [1]. This 800+ pages book is one of the best histories I’ve read about Africa; starting several hundreds of millions of years ago with the creation of the Atlas and the Cape Fold Belt mountains at the continent’s northern and southern extremities, and ending with the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1994 South African elections. The latter shows how Africa is host to humanity’s extremes: on the one hand the potential to hate and kill with such intensity to kill hundreds of thousands, and on the other hand the potential for peace and reconciliation under Nelson Mandela.

It is maybe because these two extremes are so clearly present in Africa that I am so attracted to the continent. Anyhow, especially John Reader’s very last paragraph is great:

SPEAKING IN MAY 1995, a Catholic theologian in Rwanda, Laurien Ntenzimana, confessed to having been shocked by the genocide in his country, but not astonished. People live behind a mask, he said, which the winds of history occasionally blow aside. The genocide was shocking, but only those who were naive about human nature could be astonished. He told an inquiring reporter: “I have the impression that you have not yet discovered man, either in his grandeur or in his misery; he can always surprise us”.

People live behind a mask, which the winds of history occasionally blow aside. Wow!

[1] John Reader. 2007. A Biography of the Continent: Africa. New York: Vintage Books.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Can you rape in 10 minutes?

Last October I had a post on Captain Moussa Dadis Camara - who seized power in a coup d’état in 2008 in Guinea after the death of longtime dictator Lansana Conté - losing his keys. Today the New Yorker published an article by Jon Lee Anderson that deals with the September 28 (2009) massacre that took place in Conakry - the country's capital - when Camara's forces attacked a large, peaceful rally at the national soccer stadium (here).

Luckily Camara has a good and convincing reason why his forces could not have committed rape. As Anderson notes in the article: "He (Camera) added that the September 28th incident had begun and ended in ten minutes. As for the allegations of rape, he scoffed, "Can a military man with a gun in his hand rape a women in ten minutes?" Shaking his head side to side, he smiled and said, "I don't think so.""

Good point! More seriously, luckily Camara has been out of office since the assassination attempt on him on 3 December 2009 when he was shot by his aide-de-camp, Aboubacar Diakité. While he was airlifted to Morocco for treatment, Brigadier General Sékouba Konaté was placed in charge of Guinea. The latter seems to behave, and elections are planned for June this year.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Misconceptions of DRC conflict.

Jason Stearn has a great post today with five major misconceptions of the DRC conflict:
  1. The conflict in the DRC is all about minerals;
  2. Coltan, a key ingredient for cell phones, is the main mineral traded in the Congo;
  3. The FDLR is composed of Interahamwe and ex-FAR who carried out the 1994 genocide;
  4. The CNDP is a Tutsi militia;
  5. The UN mission has failed to protect civilians in conflict zones.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sierra Leone and network data.

Last Thursday - together with colleague and friend Neelanjan Sircar - I visited the IRC HQ and had a meeting with Paul Amendola and Jeannie Annan (IRC's Director of Research and Evaluation). I met Paul two weeks earlier when he told me about an interesting project that he is spearheading for the IRC. In brief, because of the high cost of conducting large surveys to obtain mortality data, the IRC is embarking on a twelve month project in Sierra Leone to test whether these surveys can be replaced by having selected health workers report mortality data via cellphones. By surveying several complete villages at t=1 and again at t=12 the real mortality rates are obtained. This true picture will then be compared with the data obtained via cellphones from the health workers.

The part especially interesting for us is that complete villages will be surveyed. This is a unique opportunity to obtain so-called network data; how people are related to each other and what their position in a society is. Few complete networks (e.g. a complete village) are ever sampled. Moreover, not only will this network data be informative for the IRC, networks are a central topic in our dissertations. Neelanjan focuses on the role of brokers in the political process because of their knowledge of local-level networks. I, on my turn, will focus on the network impact of village cleavages - especially those formed by migration - on public good provision.

I just finished reading an interesting working paper by Rachel Glennerster, Ted Miguel, Alexander Rothenberg on Sierra Leone [*] that relates closely to this project and my dissertation. In brief:

They look at the impact of ethnic diversity on public goods provision and collective action in post-war Sierra Leone, and find that local ethnic diversity is not associated with worse local public goods provision across a variety of regression specifications, local outcomes, and diversity measures. Given the large migration flows due to the 1991-2002 civil war, a big problem is sorting. That is, individuals from a particular ethnic groups or with certain (unobserved) tastes for public goods, could migrate to more or less diverse areas. To address this concern of endogenous local ethnic composition they use an IV strategy that relies on ethnic diversity data from 1963. Next to concluding that ethnic diversity has not a negative impact on public goods, the paper discusses how the historical development of inter-ethnic relations in Sierra Leone, as well as the continued strength of local tribal chiefs could be possible explanations for this finding. Nice paper!

[*] Rachel Glennerster, Ted Miguel, Alexander Rothenberg. 2009. Working Together: Collective Action in Diverse Sierra Leone Communities. Working paper, November 2009.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Evaluating DRC police reform.

In 2009 - funded by $60m from DFID - the Congolese government started a reform in order to have a "more Accountable Security and Justice Sector that works for the benefit of the people of DRC including a Police Service that provides improved security and the Rule of Law for the population" (see here). After the program's end in 2014 one - of course - wants to know whether the reform was successful, and therefore the program includes an evaluation component.

This evaluation component recently took up contact with CSDS asking whether we could have a look at the evaluation. As a result, last week, after receiving the project and the evaluation documents, together with 3 other PhD Candidates trained in these issues and Macartan, we spent much time thinking through the evaluation. We produced a 12-page document with issues related to, among others: the evaluation's research design, it's sampling method, and the (French) survey questions.

It was a great experience! First, it is interesting to read about other projects. Second, as part of the PhD Program, we took specific courses how to do good evaluations; now we can put this knowledge into practice. Third, by discussing other projects' evaluations we learn a lot for future evaluations that we are likely to undertake for our own dissertations.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ken Robinson at TED.

In 2006 at a TED conference creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenged the way we're educating our children. I wish I could give presentations like this: