On the role of ideas in economic policy making

I was not aware of the recent success in the Guatemalan sugar industry. Since the 1980s, sugar production in the country has increased at an annual rate of about 7%, far outstripping similar countries. Rising production has occurred in tandem with better working conditions.

A new paper (ungated here) by Alberto Fuentes stresses the role that a “small team of managers motivated by Elite Solidarism, an interpretation of the Vatican II Catholic Social Doctrine” played in bringing about the changes. I haven’t read it carefully yet, but it strikes me as a good example of how ideas can have independent causal power. A more general version of this argument is well expressed in Dani Rodrik’s recent paper “When Ideas Trump Interests.” The two together seem like a good match for teaching about constructivism and the role of ideas in economic policy making.

Political aid targeting

I was listening to EconTalk the other day and Chris Blattman was being interviewed. The whole interview is good and I suggest you listen to it. After agreeing with almost everything Chris said, I found something to quibble with right around the end. Here is the quote:

"What weak states in Africa have—and will learn—to do is learn to target that money better towards supporters. […] The danger point with aid is when states that are receiving it are strong enough to use it effectively for their own political ends. I think right now a lot of states in Africa don’t have that organizational capability in the same way that states in Latin America have developed it. I think that is when it will become trickier."

The comment reminded me of a recently published paper in World Development, Why there Should be No Political Foreign Aid Curse. In the paper the authors argue that there shouldn’t be an aid curse (where aid hinders democracy) because aid is less fungible, more conditional, and less constant than oil revenues. Both the authors of that paper and Chris seem to believe that right now, at least in Africa, donors are doing a pretty good job controlling where aid goes and therefore limiting the influence of local politics on aid allocation. Two recent papers (one of them by me), as well as other anecdotal evidence, have made me think that this view is probably wrong because it underestimates the power of recipients to direct aid for political goals.

The first paper is How Aid Targets Votes: The Impact of Electoral Incentives on Foreign Aid Distribution by Ryan Jablonski. Looking at Kenyan data from 1992 to 2010, Ryan shows that aid from the African Development Bank and World Bank was disproportionately targeted to areas that supported the sitting President. He also shows that aid helps Kenyan presidents win elections.

The second paper is Aiding and Abetting: Project Aid and Ethnic Politics in Kenya by me. While Jablonski looks at aid from two donors across all sectors, I examined project from all donors in only two sectors. I also picked a time (late 1980s and early 1990s) when Kenya and its donors were on very bad terms. This is the time when donors cut programme aid to Moi pending democratization. During this tense time, donor project aid still went to the parts of Kenya that were part of Moi’s ethnic base. It seems pretty clear that, at least in Kenya, aid is targeted according to a local political logic.

The biggest issue here is generalizing from Kenya to other African countries. Kenya certainly has a higher organizational capability than many other African states, and this suggests that maybe Kenya is fairly unique in its ability to direct aid to politically important areas. However, Kenya in the 1990s was also unique in that it faced a small group of fairly homogenous donors (not much Chinese lending) who were not fans of the Kenyan regime. The fact that political aid targeting took place under these unlikely circumstances suggests to me that a lot more countries might be capable of this kind of targeting today.

Research shortcuts

Over the last few years I’ve developed a few tricks for getting articles and books quickly and I think that they might be of interest to other people. I’ll use examples from the two places where I’ve taught (AU and VT), but I imagine the basic ideas generalize to other institutions. I’ll also give examples of how to automate these tricks using TextExpander. The first trick modifies journal URLs to get fast access to articles and the second modifies library search URLs to get fast access to books. Both are only of use to people that have access to university libraries.

URL modification for journal articles

The first shortcut modifies journal URLs so that you access the article through your library. In my experience (n=2), this involves adding your library’s proxy URL after the end of the journal’s host name. In the case of AU, this requires adding “.proxyau.wrlc.org” and in the case of Tech, it involves adding “.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080”. Both should ask for a login and then allow you to download the article.

For example, perhaps you might want to read Chris Blattman et al’s article “Generating Skilled Self-Employment in Developing Countries: Experimental Evidence from Uganda.” The URL for that article is “http://qje.oxfordjournals.org/content/129/2/697.” To access it through Virginia Tech, you would go to http://qje.oxfordjournals.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/content/129/2/697.

Adding text to URLs manually like this is tedious, so I altered a TextExpander script (from here) to automate the process. The script is below. My solution is clunky, but it has been consistently working for me. To change it for your institution, you would need to add your institution’s proxy URL in place of the Virginia Tech one (in bold below). You can find the URL for your library by visiting a journal webpage from one of your library’s databases. You can also just ask a librarian and they should be able to help.

#!/usr/bin/perl -w

use strict;

#Get the text from the clipboard
$text =`pbpaste`;

#Insert the library string (by replacing .com with .com and the string
$text =~ s/.com/.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu\:8080/ig;

#Insert the library string (by replacing .org with .org and the string
$text =~ s/.org/.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu\:8080/ig;

#Output the text
print $text;

If you assign that code snippet to a shortcut in TextExpander then when you see an article that you like you just copy the URL, type the shortcut, hit enter, and download the pdf.

Fast and precise book search

Book searching should be done by ISBN numbers, but in my experience libraries make this time consuming by requiring you to click “advanced settings” every time you want to search. Rather than doing that, you can instead just paste in the library’s search URL and then add the ISBN. For Tech, the URL is “http://vt.summon.serialssolutions.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/search?t.isbn=" and for American the URL is "http://american.summon.serialssolutions.com/search?t.isbn=”. Your library hopefully has a similar URL. To find it, go to the advanced search settings for the library and then search by ISBN. Then look at the URL and grab all of it until the part that specifies an ISBN. Again, doing this by hand gets old and we can automate it with TextExpander. For Tech, you just add the following string to TextExpander as a shortcut: “http://vt.summon.serialssolutions.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/search?t.isbn=%clipboard%key:enter%”. When executed that string will take the ISBN number from the clipboard and search the Tech library for any book with that number. In my work, I usually find the book on amazon, then copy the ISBN from the amazon page of the book, then run the TextExpander shortcut.

I use these tricks daily and they have saved me a lot of time. Hopefully they’re of use to others too. If you improve on these ideas (the journal hack needs work), please send me a message @ryanbriggs.

Waka Waka

I don’t follow football or FIFA news, but I recently found out that the the new World Cup song isn’t so popular (see here or here). The response on twitter was an uptick in #WakaWaka, a callout to Shakira’s anthem from the 2010 World Cup.

Not only is Shakira’s song (with South African group Freshlyground) better, but tonight I found out that it also has a really interesting history. The chorus samples the song Zamina mina (Zangaléwa) from the Cameroonian band Golden Sounds. The band was formed in the 1980s by members of Cameroon’s National Guard.

It is hard for me to track down the actual history of the song, but my best reading of this is that the original song came about after WWII as an homage to African infantry. Scattered sources that I couldn’t verify also claimed that the song had anti-colonial themes. In the 1980s, Golden Sounds picked up the song and made the awesome version above. Shakira may have heard the song in Colombia, where it was apparently quite popular.

A sample of the song also appears at the end of the Vampire Weekend cover of the Springsteen song I’m going down.

Talk at the Foreign Service Institute

Earlier today I had the pleasure of visiting the Africa Area Studies program at the Foreign Service Institute where I gave a talk on the basics of foreign aid to Africa. I and a great time and got to share overly honest slides like the one below.


The students are in an intense, short program but seemed up to speed on major issues and asked great questions. I especially enjoyed one linking possible issues of aid dependence (and related governance concerns) to oil dependence.

The slides for the talk are available to download here.