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USAID finally gives resources direct to beneficiaries February 5, 2010

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Via AP:

US Puts Locals in Charge of AIDS Spending

U.S. and South African AIDS workers say putting more of the decision-making in local hands can help stretch donor money, amid concerns international giving will be limited because of the global recession.

…instead of channeling U.S. funds to South Africans, CRS would now serve as a partner for monitoring, clinical and other services, and would now be paid by the South Africans.

”The person in charge, who is the local partner now, they decide what they need and they pay for it,” Stark said in an interview Thursday.

This is great. While the motivation may not be pure, I am excited to see the US for the first time putting resources directly into the hands of beneficiary communities’ agents and letting them be buyers of services. Anyone know who at USAID okayed this one?

Hernando de Soto’s talk at UC Berkeley January 29, 2010

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The Shining Path had cache because it protected to property rights of poor people in Peru—gave people a sense of security to their tenure

  • In cities then, 65% of people had control of land but no title
  • At the same time, a lot of people didn’t have business rights either—and so, a lot of liability

There were questions whether poor people in Peru even had beliefs in conventional land ownership

  • Turned out that communities had local knowledge and records of who owned what—so it wasn’t that people didn’t believe in formal conventions of land ownership

Formal titling destroyed Shining Path’s business—was an antiterror strategy at its heart (more…)

Will Ghana avoid the resource curse? A new blog December 8, 2009

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The recent discovery of large offshore oil fields is a crucial moment in Ghana’s story. Will Ghana fall prey to the resource curse–the corruption, crime, and environmental calamity–that has befallen so many other developing countries that discover oil? Or will it pass the test of governance and use the revenues of such a project to raise the standard of living for its people?

While time will tell, I have decided to start a blog to track news and centralize information on Ghanaian oil development, with the hope that it may serve academics, journalists, and decision-makers and help Ghana “avoid the curse.” Check it out at http://avoidthecurse.wordpress.com.

–Jason Burwen

Interesting recent links 18-Nov-09 November 18, 2009

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1. 30-40% of World Bank funds are stolen, challenges Stever Berkman. “[T]he pressure to disburse funds makes it easy for corrupt people in borrowing countries to divert and steal from aid programs with impunity.”

2. Do cellphones outnumber light bulbs in Uganda? While the numbers aren’t easy to find, it’s clear that cellphones are outpacing access to grid electricity in poor parts of the country–and probably sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.

3. Cloud computing + cellphones = bottom of the pyramid services. (Skepticism of BoP notwithstanding, it’s a clever connection.)

4. Mechanical Turks + P2P + refugees = the Give Work app. Now if only I had an iPhone to test it out. (Or maybe I should stop error-checking my data and outsource it.)

India Shining? Technological progress and the poor November 17, 2009

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I recently visited my hometown, Delhi after a hiatus of two years and was awed by the increase in financially well off middle class. The growth in the number of people traveling in Toyotas and Hondas, owning large furnished apartments, working in large multinational companies was phenomenal. On the other end of the spectrum I still saw the country depicted in the movie “Slumdog Millionairre”, where thousands of people do not get a couple of meals a day. This has shown that though India has shown growth over the years, inequality between rich and poor has risen as well.

Technological advances have played an important role in development of a country. India has successfully used its skilled workforce in providing services in Information Technology, Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical sciences. This has created a large number of jobs leading to the growth of the Indian middle class. Most of these sectors are based on providing services thereby the country is emerging as a service economy.

India would need investments in specific sectors to create jobs for the uneducated, low-income communities. Stronger government measures are needed to make people at the bottom of the pyramid self-sustainable. Finding its niche in agriculture and other product driven sectors would be important. The point I want to make is that economic development of communities at the bottom of the pyramid is equally important if not more as compared to investments in social programs. Employing people by generating jobs in manufacturing will be a key element to growth and reduce inequality.

Care should also be taken to design correct measures so that resources are not clustered in a particular city or town. Some examples are restricting the maximum number of industries in a particular city to allow moving businesses and manufacturing units to other towns and villages. Providing tax credits to foster new manufacturing units would be other policy instruments needed to build a product-based economy.

Establishing proper infrastructure would be an essential step in moving in this direction and is currently high on the government’s agenda. I believe that policy decisions to invest in both product and services sector would be important for economic development of the country.

Tania Dutta

I am statistically “Educated” November 5, 2009

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This summer while I was teaching at a government school in Pakistan, I asked a tenth grade student, “Which is your favorite country in the world besides Pakistan?” He answered “Karachi”. Karachi is the most populous city of Pakistan. In the 11 years of this students’ education, his teachers had forgot to tell him the difference between a city and a country.

In another encounter, while a student was talking with me about religion, another student said, “Sir! he will not go to paradise because he is a Shia.” I asked that student, “Who is a Shia?”. He had no answer but he remained adamant that his colleague being a Shia won’t be going to paradise anytime soon.

As Policy analysts, we are “designed” to worship statistics. We often forget, how little these statistics mean in the developing world. The students I was talking with were not the exceptions but the rule in the developing world. They were a part of 56% Pakistanis who are statistically “educated”. Policy analysts will feel good about themselves when they realize that this 56% is a rise from ten years ago when this figure was about 40%. But what does this number really mean? May I dare say, NOTHING!!

It is happening all over the developing world. Teaching quality everywhere is abysmal. For those of you who are interested in International education do watch this video on quality of education at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOImnAOkjWs and think how do we approach the question of literacy in the developing world.

Muhammad Azfar Nisar – MPP/MIAS 2010

Sharing Educational Opportunity (or Why I’ll Give the News Another Chance) October 14, 2009

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I’ve been thinking of quitting the newspaper. Every day for the past week I’ve woken up to news that’s left me distraught, grieving and very very angry – Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize as US drones turn parts of Pakistan to rubble and terrorists retaliate with suicide bombings, photographic evidence of sexual violence and torture amidst war in Iraq. So I decided, I’m done.

But today is a wonderful new day of faith. A seemingly inconsequential link on Facebook led me to discover Babar Ali, a 16 year old boy in West Bengal, India, who is changing the world from his own backyard. By day, Babar is a diligent, high-achieving student at a formal local school but in the afternoons he is teacher and headmaster to eight hundred other children from poor families who regularly attend school in his backyard. He, along with nine other volunteers like him, teaches the lessons as he learns them in his classes. And guess what, he’s been doing this since he was 11.

For everyone who’s interested, BBC News carried the whole story here .

I’ve been trying to figure out why his story moved me so much. And no, it’s not just because it’s the highlight of a really bad week. I think what amazes me the most is this young boy’s magical, infectious optimism. When he was 9 years old he discovered two things: One, that he could teach, he enjoyed it and was good at it. And two, that he should teach, because there were so many other children who could not afford the same opportunity. So this ordinary kid from an average family, armed with nothing but a purpose, started a school.

Of course he’s had some help along the way – donations pay for books, local officials help procure food supplies as an incentive to maintain attendance, and 9 other young men and women volunteer as teachers. But at the end of the day, it’s a very simple community-based model for delivering education to the poorest, and especially to children who work to help their families get by.

As a student of public policy, though, I’m itching to ask, has the model worked? Are literacy rates in Babar’s village actually falling as a result of his intervention (as some news reports have vaguely claimed)? How consistently are the kids coming to school (apparently, there’s roll call!)? How many girls v.s. boys are in attendance? All that and then I’m thinking.. upscaling, potential for replicability. But how do you replicate a 9 year old’s sense of responsibility and community? How do you replicate an initiative that’s being driven not by compensation but by shared motivation alone?

– Khadija Bakhtiar, MPP 2010

LAN Houses and truancy in Brazil October 1, 2009

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A neat article on the explosion of LAN Houses in Brazil, and the contrasting tensions between greater digital inclusion, entrepreneurship, and education (or rather, truancy). Having visited a standard secondary school in Brazil, I can’t imagine that truancy due to LAN houses is particularly concerning–not much in the way of education is available in the public schools that poor Brazilians have access to. It seems like LAN houses could be an excellent platform for connecting educational services with children of poor families.

Poverty, discount rates, and “impatience” September 22, 2009

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When we look at poor people, in general we observe behaviors that at first blush suggest that poor people have different discount rates–that is, that they greatly value money today over more money tomorrow, whereas non-poor people put less value on money today compared to more money tomorrow. High interest loans are an obvious example, but also the way in which households allocate resources, or the spending upon receiving an unexpected windfall have led past observers to wonder aloud about the “myopia” of the poor–and not incidentally, an effort to “educate” the poor on savings behavior.

Abhijit Banerjee of the MIT Poverty Action Lab might lead us to believe that this is the myopia of the economist. In his latest paper, The Shape of Temptation: Implications for the Economic Lives of the Poor, Banerjee uses some smart microeconomic modeling to show that temptations–the activities that provide immediate benefit but with large later costs–are declining with income–that is, that the intensity of temptation is related to one’s economic status. Stated another way, CONTEXT MATTERS. (Um, duh, but we are dealing with economists, after all.) And I quote:

…two individuals with identical discount rates but with different initial wealth levels can end up with very different levels of apparent patience: the initially poor agent will appear to be impatient and the initially rich one will appear to be patient.

Beyond striking a blow for the “context matters” approach to behavior, Banerjee is making a second point: we shouldn’t expect systematic differences in discount rates among culturally and geographically homogeneous populations–that is, economic status does not shape our “inherent preferences,” but rather the interaction of those inherent preferences with the environment.

Which, in my book, is a good argument: that the poor are not so “different” than you or I.

Randomized-control trials and the pillars of microcredit December 10, 2008

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Via the FT, a great exposition on how little we know about whether (and how) microfinance works to improve the lives of the poor. It includes a rundown of some excellent randomized-control evaluations of microcredit, sequentially taking down supposed “pillars” of microfinance as not necessarily so crucial.

It’s centered on the work of Dean Karlan at Yale, one of the Innovations for Poverty Action folks. And while randomized-control trials aren’t any sort of panacea, I’m glad to see that they’re getting more play and significance in the mainstream press…especially since Berkeley’s firing up it’s rando with CEGA.