Thrilling roller coaster with a long wait — a review of Kwei Quartey’s Gold of Our Fathers

Kwei Quartey writes mysteries that give a window into current Ghanaian social issues. Some authors with African ties — Quartey was born in Ghana and grew up between Ghana and the US — cringe at the assumption that they are writing “ethnographic texts dolled up as literary fiction,” as Taiye Selasi put it. Quartey — to the contrary — embraces that role in his crime novels: His first book with detective Darko Dawson of the Ghana Police Service explored polygamy and traditional religion, his second dealt with street kids, his third was set in the oil industry, and — in Dawson’s fourth outing — we come to the gold mining industry in Gold of Our Fathers.

Dawson is a highly capable detective. He’s not corrupt. He’s faithful to his wife. (He almost cheated in the last book, but he just couldn’t do it!) He occasionally smokes pot but he’s trying to kick the habit, with broad success. He’s so capable that at the beginning of this book, he is transferred far from the capital, Accra, to fill in for a deceased officer in Obuasi, a rural gold-mining district in central-southern Ghana. As soon as he arrives a Chinese immigrant miner is found murdered. Dawson is on the job!

My favorite Darko Dawson novel is the second, Children of the Street. This one, by contrast, felt like two novels in the one. The second half is captivating. The first half is paced very slowly (it took me weeks to work my way through) and has far too much language that sounds like “teaching Westerners about Ghana,” as in this exchange:

“How far, boss?” the sergeant asked, slang for “How goes it.”

or this one

Dawson: “I’m broke—can you mobile me a little cash?” 

Dawson’s wife Christine: “Okay—I’ll send what I can by MTN Money.”

Presumably Dawson knows how he and his wife send money and she wouldn’t clarify. There are many other examples. 

I’ve never been to Ghana, and maybe this won’t bother you if you haven’t either, but I prefer the unapologetically immersive style that lets readers catch up on local culture rather than bringing them along by the hand.

If you haven’t read Darko Dawson, start with the first or second book. This book is a great ride if you don’t mind waiting a while to get to it.

How development economists think about development vs how other economists think about development?

In a recent EconTalk episode, Russ Roberts interviews Chris Blattman about his experiment with Stefan Dercon on sweatshops in Ethiopia. 

This exchange amused me.

BLATTMAN: Getting a bad shock when you’re poor means–

ROBERTS: Death.

BLATTMAN: –can mean really terrible things. For these guys, not death. If you have a Grade 8 education in Ethiopia and you have a family that can support you, they’re outside option in the end is living at home and not having anything to do and not being able to contribute to the family, not having any spending money, and maybe having a harder time finding a husband or a wife. Maybe also bad things happen in the household. Maybe you’re contributing to your younger brother going to private school. But these people are not on the margins of death. This isn’t who sweatshops are hiring, at least in this case.

This is NOT to critique the great work that Russ Roberts does on the EconTalk podcast.

But it’s a reminder that many choices in developing countries are not about life or death, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have major implications for human well-being.

Chris Blattman on the incubation of ideas until opportunity strikes

Is a factory job better than a cash grant and some training? Chris Blattman and Stefan Dercon have a recent study in Ethiopia where they test these two options with a randomized-controlled trial. Back in December, Chris Blattman discussed with study with Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast.

In one interesting bit, Blattman highlights how holding onto an idea and repeatedly seeking an opportunity to implement it can ultimately bear fruit. I transcribed it (abridging a little for readability).

Since you have 300 people lining up for these jobs, instead of taking the first 50 in line who are qualified for the job and hiring them, why not see if we can find a factory owner who will find 150 who are qualified and instead of taking the first 50, we’ll flip a coin and we’ll take 50 out of those 150 qualified applicants as random and we’ll follow them over time and we’ll look at what happens to their incomes and their health and their career trajectories.

I had this idea as a graduate student 10 or 12 years ago, and I always thought, “Every time I meet a factory owner I’m going to feel him out. And I did. Once in a while I’d be on a plane to Uganda to work on one of my projects, usually related to poverty or conflict, and maybe I’d sit by a factory owner, and I’d say here’s this idea that I have, and they’d usually look at me kind of funny. They wouldn’t leap at the possibility. I was just this person they met on a plane, and I was a graduate student. I probably didn’t approach it well, and so it never really materialized.

So I was at a conference in London and there was an Ethiopian businessman who was sort of a real estate mogul. He was giving a talk to a group of development economics at the International Growth Centre, and I approached him afterwards and said, “That was terrific,” and I really enjoyed talking to him and we kept chatting and I said, “I had this idea. I think that your firms not only help achieve growth, but I think they might actually be tools of poverty alleviation. Here’s an easy way to answer that question.” And he said, “That sounds great. Let’s do it.” And so literally five or six weeks later we were on the ground in Ethiopia doing the first randomization.

I recommend the whole conversation.

Getting true voluntary consent for your field experiment may be harder than you think

Kim Dionne recently interviewed Melissa Graboyes on the excellent new Ufahamu Africa podcast. Graboyes wrote a history – The Experiment Must Continue: Medical Research and Ethics in East Africa, 1940-2014. I’m reading the book, and Graboyes provides a rich picture, filled with first-person reports from East African participants in research.

Dionne asked Graboyes for key takeaways. Here’s one on consent, which very much applies to social science research.

People regularly mistake the idea that they are participating in an experiment and it’s designed to benefit them personally, rather than the experiment is designed to generate data that can be used to answer important questions and hopefully get us closer to solving some important problems. This disconnect is really profound and it jeopardizes consent.

The basic components of consent laid in the Nuremburg code, laid out in European guidelines, laid out in U.S. national law, is that consent has to be informed, it has to have understanding, and it has to be voluntary. So we can inform people by giving them a consent form translated into Swahili. We can inform them by reading that consent form in Swahili. But if they don’t understand what we’re saying and can’t accurately describe back the kind of experiment they’re participating in with the commensurate risks and benefits that go with it, that’s not really voluntary consent, and it jeopardizes the idea that they are autonomously choosing to participate. I think that there’s a lot of research going on that is stumbling at that step, that we’re formally checking all the boxes we need to, but that we’re not adhering to the real meaning of what that rule is supposed to be about. [I’ve edited very slightly for readability.]

The interview has much more, and the podcast overall is a delight. I recommend it and Graboyes’ book.

What do African schoolteachers think about mathematics?

George Bethell has put out a report via the World Bank, Mathematics Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Status, Challenges, and Opportunities. It brings together an array of analysis on current mathematics performance and teaching around the continent.

I’d like to highlight two elements. First, a survey in 6 African countries shows teacher attitudes towards math. Now, it’s just 70 teachers per country (roughly 50 primary and 20 secondary), so this is suggestive only. Key findings: Almost all teachers agree that mathematical skills are useful for everyone (except in DRC). But between 24 percent and 62 percent of teachers don’t believe that “everyone has the potential to be good at mathematics,” depending on the country, and a majority of teachers in all countries except Cameroon believe that “you have to have the right sort of brain to be good at mathematics.” It’s easy to imagine that these kinds of beliefs then play into the way teachers teach. (You can read more about it in Appendix A of the report.) Of course, I also don’t know how different these are from other parts of the world. The point is not whether these 6 countries are worse or better than other countries, but that teachers in these country have these particular beliefs about math education which may well affect pedagogy.

what-do-african-teachers-think-about-math

The report also lays out what he sees as the big research questions that remain in this area.

  1. How can countries in SSA monitor trends in mathematical achievement?
  2. How do learners understand mathematical concepts as demonstrated by their teachers? How do they approach mathematical problems?
  3. How effective are the textbooks currently being used to teach basic mathematics in SSA?
  4. How can national assessments of student achievement in mathematics be improved so that they provide policy makers and teachers with the information needed to improve outcomes in mathematics?
  5. Where Open Educational Resources have been used as the basis of, or to supplement, formal teacher education development programmes, have they been effective?
  6. Which of the e-learning and m-learning technologies in the classroom have the greatest potential to raise levels of numeracy and mathematical competence? What are the challenges of introducing e- and m-learning technologies – especially in fragile states?

Calling all researchers! To work!

math-questions-to-be-answered

Quick take: “I failed, no matter how hard I tried”: A mixed-methods study of the role of achievement in primary school dropout in rural Kenya, by Zuilkowski et al.

In Kenya, virtually every child enrolls in primary school, but many don’t complete it. Stephanie Simmons Zuilkowski, Matthew Jukes, and Peggy Dubeck use mixed methods to explore why.

Three findings stood out to me:

  1. In interviews with both youth and with parents, the youth (age 14-15, mostly, but some older) were “universally” characterized as the main education decision makers. In many cases, parents encouraged them to stay in school but the youth opted to drop out.
  2. Lower performing youth were more likely to drop out of school. This isn’t surprising but it’s useful to see it quantified. It comes out in both the quantitative and the qualitative work here.
  3. Free primary school isn’t free (and I’m not even talking about pure opportunity cost; I’m talking about simple out-of-pocket costs).

Okay, to the study! They point out why cross-sectional studies may miss the point in understanding dropout rates:

A cross-sectional study may identify proximal factors affecting dropout risk—perhaps pregnancy or the need to work for pay (Ball 2012)—but not the earlier factors that put the child on the trajectory toward dropout. In interviews with parents and teachers, proximal reasons for dropout may become the post-hoc rationale for a child’s dropout obscuring the underlying trigger factors.

Finding 1: Who decides on dropouts?  Admittedly, it’s a small sample for this part: They spoke with 21 youth and 20 parents. In most cases, the interviews were conducted separately. Of the youth, half had dropped out. Here is the key finding: “In our interviews with the dropouts in this sample, the youth were described universally as the principal educational decision-makers, both by the parents and by the youth themselves.” Notably, both youth and parents talked about the importance of education. “The stories of all 11 children who dropped out began with some variation of: ‘I wasn’t doing well in school.’” Many of the quotes highlight relative performance and the inability to get extra help. To me, this points back to the importance of structuring education systems that help teachers to teach to the right level (see here and here for more on that). Many of these children simply weren’t getting instruction at their current level.

Finding 2: “A student with a literacy composite score one standard deviation above average would have fitted odds of dropout that are 40% lower than those of the average scorer. A student with a numeracy score one standard deviation above average would have fitted odds of dropout that are 17% lower than those of the average scorer.” N=2,500+

Finding 3: “Despite the official abolition of school fees, all 13 schools the sampled youth attended had charged fees for extra teachers, books, or materials. Nine of the 21 interviewees—five students and four dropouts—said they had been sent home to get money for fees or materials. Children who could not gather the required amounts were not generally allowed back in class.”

I recommend the paper.

book review: A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa, by Dominique LaPierre

lively history of South Africa in stories…apparently with errors

Dominique LaPierre writes a completely engaging story of South Africa, translated from the French by Kathryn Spink. For those, like me, who mostly know South Africa through the words of Nelson Mandela (as in the wonderful, highly recommended Long Walk to Freedom), this history fills in much more of the history of this fascinating nation. For example, the initial Dutch presence in southern Africa stemmed from the Dutch East India Company’s desire to provide vegetables for passing ships, with no desire for conquest or empire there.

The history is not comprehensive: As the author says in his note, “I did not set out to compile an exhaustive history of South Africa. Rather, I wanted to recount, as accurately as possible, a powerful human epic” (ix). He does exactly that. He recounts the history through people’s stories: Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant (and, shortly thereafter, the first inter-racial heart transplant, in defiance of apartheid); Helen Lieberman, a white speech therapist who worked in poor townships; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the work for reconciliation; Nelson Mandela; Wouter Basson, a doctor who spent his career developing unconventional weapons against blacks (such as poisoned underclothing intended to assassinate Archbishop Tutu (p186-7), various pre-Mandela presidents; and the architects of apartheid.

I was particularly struck by the influence of Nazism in informing the apartheid regime. Disappointingly, I went on to read the following in Martin Rubin’s 2009 review of the book in the LA Times: “Apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was undoubtedly influenced by Nazi ideology, but the highly colored account here of his visiting Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s as a student is a flight of fancy. In fact, by this time Verwoerd was well established as a leading South African intellectual and a full professor at Stellenbosch University: He had been a graduate student in Hamburg and Leipzig, but in the mid-1920s.” He sums up: “The overall result is a profoundly unsatisfactory historical record.” As I listened, I was struck by LaPierre’s occasional rhetorical flourishes, saying – for example – that black South Africans had “a cultural richness and a religious fervor unseen anywhere else on the continent.”

The history has many holes, sometimes the personal focus leads to confusing jumps in time, and as Rubin’s comment above highlights, some of the tales are fanciful. But LaPierre effectively introduces us to many of the major players in the history of the
Rainbow Nation.

Note on content: A little bit of strong language (when quoting the police) – 2 f-words. A few references to sex. Lots of profoundly
offensive racism.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook, read by Stefan Rudnicki. Solid performance.