Friday, October 26, 2012


Blogging has been slow. I leave this Wednesday for two months to the Netherlands (to Wageningen University) and have been working hard to get things finished before, and have a bit of a social life. As an "I'm-sorry-that-I-haven't-blogged-in-a-while" hereby a picture that I'm sure will make you happy for the rest of the day: 
(ht to my little brotter)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Vampire Squid From Hell.

Was reading the magazine NewScientist yesterday and there was a short article about the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, literally "Vampire Squid from Hell". They look like this:

The Vampire Squids from Hell use their thin, rectractable filaments like a fishing line, letting them drift and... collect bits of waste. These guys "munch on any dead plankton, crustacean remains and faecal matter that happens to pass by, making them the only cephalopod not to hunt living prey." Well. That's a bit disappointing given their impressive name and appearance. [1]

In the same issue NewScientist reports research by Kyung Jin Min and colleagues (recently published in Current Biology) that finds how "Eunuchs had an average lifespan of 70-years -- 17 years longer than their non-castrated contemporaries". One theory is that "... testosterone-fuelled reproduction comes at a price. When testosterone is lacking, the body shifts amino acids useful for cell proliferation to cellular defence." Mmm. Given I'm a social scientist, what about this one: Women make men do self-destructive things in order to have sex.

[1] From recently published research in Proceedings of the Royal Society by Henk-Jan Hoving.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What to write in your acknowledgements or preface?

In the last few days I've read several articles by Oded Stark who does very interesting work on (among others) migration. Some of his most interesting articles were written in a time when not only the research's identification strategy was important, but also the idea (these days the balance seems to shift sometimes too much to the first). And interesting research was very much put forward in the 80s and 90s by some of my favorite authors: Oded Stark (economics), Mark Rosenzweig (economics), James Scott (polisci and anthropology), and the like. A bit like some of my current day favorite authors: Herbert Gintis, Samual Bowles, and the like.

In the acknowledgements of his 1985 paper "Motivations to Remit: Evidence from Botswana" with Robert Lucas in the Journal of Political Economy, Oded Stark writes:
“Since this is a joint product, the authors would like to blame each other for all remaining errors.”

And yesterday I started (re-)reading James Scott's 1976 "The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia". A must-read (together with all his other books) for those working in the developing world. In the preface he writes:
"At this point in the standard preface it is customary for the author to claim total responsibility for error and wrongheadedness and to absolve others of blame. I am not so sure I want to do that. While I am happy to stand or fall with what I have written, it is also clear that I have learned so much from so many scholars that a great many of us are implicated in this enterprise. If it should turn out that I am on the wrong track, I suspect that many of them are on the same errant train with me!  
I wish also to report that my wife and children, who have their own scholarly and other concerns, had virtually nothing to do with this volume. They were not particularly understanding or helpful when it came to research and writing but called me away as often as possible to the many pleasures of life in common. May it always remain so."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Peter the pessimistic 'Expert'.

The presentation last week (see previous post) went well and the days have been busy since. The main goal for upcoming weeks is to get words on paper. That is, write my dissertation. But, of course, more than that happened last week: among others me being an 'expert' for a SIPA course. This was quite fun.

Students of Columbia's Master "MPA in Development Practices" have to do an assignment in which they have to "apply the concepts and tools from the readings, as well as the class discussions and practical exercises, in order to produce a coherent, well justified design for a country-specific development program." This they then have to present to a panel of four experts who give comments. In addition to three real experts (a professor from SIPA, a professor from the National War College, and the chair of the Millennium Promise), I sat in as well.

A total of four projects were presented, each by a group of 6 SIPA students. Each group received a problem and several (hypothetical) millions of dollar. And each group then had to design a development program (+- 40 pages each) to solve one of the following problems, in brief:
  1. Youth unemployment in Tunisia;
  2. Low levels of agricultural productivity in Haiti's northern corridor;
  3. Slow recovery of Sri Lanka's eastern province;
  4. Provincial malnutrion in Mozambique.
Needless to say I know little about Tunisia, Haiti and Sri Lanka, and only a bit more about Mozambique because of my dissertation's Africa focus, and found myself using what I learned from old development economics courses. Of course I also made some remarks regarding evaluations, cellphones and surveys, which is much closer to my current work. Of the four people in the panel I was probably most pessimistic, though. There were three major points that I emphasized:
  1. Incentives: All four presentation expected complete government buy-in and participation. I emphasized that they should not take this for granted. While outsiders might have the best of the project in mind, bureacrats or local government officials might not. The latter's incentives might be different: they might see a development project as a way to get a new car or some extra money to buy a television. They might also not been paid for months and very unwilling to take on extra work.
  2. Local capacity: All four projects involved new, additional management structures and the need for local capacity. The to-be-created management structures were to be embedded in ministries. Some others structures would be cross-ministry with bureaucrats from different departments sitting in. All projects, of course, were directly reporting to the prime-minister or president. This held even for the 'small' projects; say $10 million. Important is to keep in mind that each of these projects will join another several hundred (if not thousand) projects that already take place in the country: there are so many World Bank projects, each developed country has a large set of development agencies and NGOs, etc. All of these projects want to put management layers like this in place -- often burdening developing countries' governments that are underfunded and do not have enough staff in the first place.
  3. Tradition: Each of the four projects would spend a lot of time and money on trainings, workshops, etc. For example, to decrease corruption in Tunisia it was suggested to have a set of information meetings to discuss ways to increase transparency. Or to increase productivity in Haiti it was suggested to hold meetings with farmers and tell them about new farming techniques and seeds. I pushed back on this a lot for two reasons. First, these issues (corruption, gender, farming, etc.) do not change from one day to the next. Farming, to give one example, is based on centuries of tradition. They are often the result of structural issues and do not change due to a workshop. Using one type of seed might not depend on output but risk (i.e. decreasing variability in output). Second, who are we to come in and say "you do X, that's wrong, do Y". I have been working in Congo for the last 4-5 years and still do not know the place. We do not know a country after reading 2 or 3 books about it. I really think that we -- us young-dog but well-meaning Westerners -- have to be more humble.
Was I too pessimistic. Maybe. Maybe not. It is important to mention them I think, though. SIPA students go on to be the world's leaders and while these were hypothetical cases, several of these students will definitely be spending 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars for developing projects in the very near future.

Monday, October 1, 2012

"Characterizing Migrant Integration" at Columbia.

This Wednesday (October 3) I present the paper "Characterizing Migrant Immigration: An Analysis of Pro-Social Behaviors in the Congo" at the Comparative Politics Seminar -- jointly sponsored by Columbia's Department of Political Science and the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP). This is joint work with Neelanjan Sircar and is work in progress. Chris Blattman agreed to be the discussant. So it is a good Seminar and a good Discussant, now let's hope the paper is up to standard! A preliminary abstract: 

In this paper we seek to learn how migrant populations integrate into new communities. We do so through an analysis of pro-social behaviors -- benevolence and reciprocity -- between natives and migrants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We design a novel set of dictator games that takes into account the dyadic and network aspects of pro-social behavior, which allows us to retrieve empirically robust estimates of migrant integration.

Feel free to join! Lunch and refreshments will be served at 12:15 and the seminar will run from 12:30 until 2:00. It takes place in the Lindsay Rogers room (Room 707), International Affairs Building at Columbia University.