When is a movie more than a movie? When it gives you a role model

Over at Let’s Talk Development, I write about an experiment that showed an inspirational movie to Ugandan high school students and led many of them to pass their math exams:

How going to the movies helped Ugandan high schoolers pass their tests


What books to read on Rwanda?

rwanda booksRwanda is an exciting country with a tragic history. Before a recent work trip there, I asked the Twitterverse for book recommendations about the land of a thousand hills. Here is what I heard back, along with a few of my own. (Asterisks are on the ones I’ve actually read.)

On Rwanda today

On the genocide

Many thanks to Adolfo Avalos-Lozano, Sarah Baird, Danielle Beswick, Erika Edwards Decaster, Alice EvansAndrew Gerard, Seva Gunitsky, Mike Holmes, Robert MartenJonathan Mazumdar, Gaby Saade, for Elisabeth Turner for suggestions.

[Updated 8/23/2017 at 2:30pm]

A history of Liberia’s women? A review of Helene Cooper’s Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

madame presidentIn 2005, Liberia elected its first woman president. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was also Africa’s first elected woman president. (Guinea-Bissau and Burundi both briefly had women as acting presidents.)

In Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Helene Cooper recounts the story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s life: from precocious child to teen mom to victim of domestic violence to Harvard graduate to international financier and — ultimately — to head of state.

But of course, any such biography also gives a history of the country, and here Cooper does something special. As she tells individual stories to make broader movements more concrete, she chooses stories of women. She tells the stories of
  • “Josephine, who cooked every day for the Taylor soldiers who raped her,” and
  • “a terrified Mary Warner [who] strapped her four-year-old son on her back and ran from place to place, finally pressed up against a gate outside the United Nations compound, desperately seeking shelter,” and
  • Louise Yarsiah, who was leading a group of women in prayers for peace when Charles Taylor’s security chief showed up. Yeaten’s soldiers drew their guns, and Yarsiah’s women kept praying. Ultimately, the soldiers stood down.

Cooper also demonstrates how women organizing women brought about Sirleaf’s election and then re-election. She tells of other powerful women within Sirleaf’s government, like Mary Broh, mayor of Monrovia. This is not just the extraordinary journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but also the story of thousands of other extraordinary Liberian women. Cooper imagines how Liberia’s brutal history grew a generation of women activists: “Little girls do not come out of the womb vowing to become activists for female power. They don’t spend their childhood thinking about how they will repair the indignities, large and small, that bleed women daily. It’s a series of things that multiply and turn ordinary women into movements of female determination.”

As Johnson Sirleaf achieves gains in the country over the course of her presidency, I couldn’t help but feel a growing dread, knowing that the devastating Ebola epidemic of 2014-2015 was on its way. I actually met the author, Helene Cooper, during the Ebola epidemic, when we appeared on the same news program after she had returned from a trip to Liberia and I had worked on estimates of the potential economic impact of the epidemic. She was deeply knowledgeable, and it shows in her reporting here.

This is a sympathetic biography; Jina Moore wrote in the New York Times that it “valorizes Johnson Sirleaf rather than complicates her.” But Cooper also doesn’t whitewash: Johnson Sirleaf’s supporters aren’t above buying voter cards from their opponent’s supporters for booze money in the run-up to an election, and Johnson Sirleaf appoints her own son to a key government position.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully narrated by the author’s sister Marlene Cooper Vasilic. As Audiofile puts it, the narration makes the story “all the more powerful. … Vasilic’s facility with pidgin makes the few direct quotes come alive.”

Even if technology improves literacy, is it worth the cost?

Ben Piper reports on insightful work that he and co-authors have done comparing various education technology intervention in Kenya in terms of both effectiveness (do they improve reading ability?) and the cost-effectiveness (what’s the cost per reading gain?).

I recommend his full post (or the research paper it’s based on). Here are a couple of highlights:

When compared to traditional literacy programs, the more intensive ICT interventions did not produce large enough gains in learning outcomes to justify the cost. This is not to say that each of the ICT interventions did not produce improvements in students’ reading ability…. [But] the cost-effectiveness of all of these programs might still be significantly lower than a clear investment in high quality literacy programs…. In additional to monetary cost, an opportunity cost existed…. Many of the teachers, tutors, and students lacked exposure to technology and the time and energy spent on learning how to use the technology reduced the amount of time for instructional improvement activities. 

When costs are considered, there are non-ICT interventions that could have larger impacts on learning outcomes with reduced costs; one such option could include assigning the best teachers to the first grade when children are learning how to read, rather than to the end of primary school as many schools do.

Economists will disagree with the standard errors if I understand the specification right: Randomization is at the district level and I don’t believe the authors cluster the standard errors. 

But I don’t think that will change the fundamental message here: Even if there are some gains from education technology, we have to ask when they will be most likely to be worth the cost.

To improve educational outcomes, help households to smooth consumption throughout the year

A new paper by Paul Christian and Brian Dillon poses this question: “Does a consistently seasonal diet during childhood have long-run effects on human capital formation?” They use Tanzania’s Kagera Health and Development Survey — a 19-year panel survey — to answer the question. As you can see from the figure below, Tanzania has dramatic seasonality: Children have very different access to food in some parts of the year than in others.

histogram of seasonality

Christian and Dillon develop a structural model — which you can read all about in the paper — and use the household data to estimate it.

Here is a taste of the results:

We find a robust, negative relationship between consumption seasonality and human capital formation. Across specifications, the negative relationship between seasonality and human capital is 30-60% of the magnitude of the positive relationship between average consumption and human capital (in the same units). … The effects of seasonality on height is greatest for children in utero and during infancy, during the critical first 1,000 days of life. Effects on education are most pronounced for older children, suggesting that behavioral channels such as dropping out of school to help on the farm are more important in this sample than early life impacts on cognitive performance. When we further allow for heterogeneity by both age and gender, we see that the height effects during infancy are concentrated among girls, while the education effects during adolescence are largely driven by boys.


How to improve the quality of education in Africa? Start with the evidence from Africa!

A new study was just published in the Review of Educational Research:  Identifying Effective Education Interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Meta-Analysis of Impact Evaluations, by Katharine Conn from Columbia University. Here is a subset of findings (emphasis added):

I identify educational interventions with an impact on student learning in Sub-Saharan Africa. After a systematic literature search, I conducted a meta-analysis synthesizing 56 articles containing 66 separate experiments and quasi-experiments and 83 treatment arms…. A key finding is that programs that alter teacher pedagogy or classroom instructional techniques had an effect size approximately 0.30 standard deviations greater than all other types of programs combined. Limited evidence further suggests that pedagogical programs that employed adaptive instruction or teacher coaching were particularly effective

In case you don’t have access, the earlier, open-access dissertation version has the same sample and the same findings reported in the abstract. 

That version was one of six reviews that Anna Popova and I synthesized in our paper What Really Works to Improve Learning in Developing Countries? An Analysis of Divergent Findings in Systematic Reviews (open-access version).

Researchers as healers or witches?

“A researcher [mtafiti] is an important person because he indeed is the one who discovers everything [anayegundua kila kitu].” – Mzee Thomas Inyassi

Melissa Graboyes describes how research participants in Tanzania see the medical researchers who come to them for samples and information. On the one hand, “East Africans noted the similarity between researchers and doctors: they both gave out medicine and helped the sick recover.” On the other hand…

As healers and witches are understood to rely on the same skills, once researchers were compared with healers, it was not such a stretch to compare them to witches. … Witch doctors often work at night and want blood. … Researchers also worked at night, collecting blood samples by going door to door or collecting night-biting mosquitos by walking around in the bush. For both witches and researchers, blood was valued above all other substances and its use was shrouded in secrecy.

This, from Graboyes’ intriguing book The Experiment Must Continue: Medical Research and Ethics in East Africa, 1940-2014.

Lest you think this is limited only to medical research, consider the following passage from Kremer, Miguel, and Thornton’s randomized evaluation of a girls’ scholarship program in western Kenya:

There is also a tradition of suspicion of outsiders in Teso, and this has at times led to misunderstandings with NGOs there. A government report noted that indigenous religious beliefs, traditional taboos, and witchcraft practices remain stronger in Teso than in Busia (Were, 1986).

Events that occurred during the study period appear to have interacted in an adverse way with these preexisting factors in Teso district. In June 2001 lightning struck and severely damaged a Teso primary school, killing 7 students and injuring 27 others. Although that school was not in the scholarship program, the NGO had been involved with another assistance program there. Some community members associated the lightning strike with the NGO, and this appears to have led some schools to pull out of the girls’ scholarship program. Of 58 Teso sample schools, 5 pulled out immediately following the lightning strike, as did a school located in Busia with a substantial ethnic Teso population. (Moreover, one girl in Teso who won the ICS scholarship in 2001 later refused the scholarship award, reportedly because of negative views toward the NGO.)

Witches or healers?

One take away from this is that researchers need to do more to make sure participants understand what they are participating in.