Ixcanul: A celebration and a caution around indigenous culture

This week I saw Ixcanul (a word in the Mayan language Kaqchikel for “volcano”), a beautiful, compelling movie about a young Mayan woman in rural Guatemala who seeks to rebel against the life laid out for her. Just when I though the plot was unfolding in predictable ways, it surprised me again and again.

Maria and her family are tenant farmers, speak only Mayan, and observe traditional practices, which the film observes and admires. But at the same time, each encounter with the Spanish-speaking world reveals the enormous disadvantage this family is at. They can never speak for themselves, as demonstrated in this exchange when a woman comes to take the population census.

health-department

The ultimate results of this communication barrier — which parallels a massive socioeconomic gap — are disastrous. The film is devastating and gorgeous. See it.

Other reviews: 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 28 reviews and 83/100 on Metacritic (“Universal acclaim”) with 16 reviews.

The trailer

In the US, it’s currently streaming on Netflix and is rentable on Youtube and Amazon, at least.

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.

The respective value of theory and of field experiments

This is Antoinette Schoar of MIT.

On theory:

Theory is a way of organizing your thinking. In the end it’s setting up a hypothesis so that you have something to test. That’s why I also think that theory is most useful when it gives enough structure that it can actually allow you to refute hypotheses. The most frustrating theories are the ones that are so flexible that they fit any finding. This doesn’t help me to make better sense of the world. But it’s important to start from a theoretical framework rather than just a story because it forces you to be more precise. I think of myself primarily as an empiricist, so theory to me is very helpful when it helps me to unearth new empirical insights.

On field experiments:

What I really like about running field experiments is that even if you’re working with one bank or one NGO because you have to engage with the organization to implement something on the ground, if you want to do a good job, you have to get involved in the details. Which means that you get constant feedback on what is feasible and what is implementable or what is practical and what is just a pipe dream. What sounds great in an ivory tower may be impossible in the real world.

Of course, there are many more things in economics than theory and field experiments, but they are two important things.

From Tim Ogden’s Experimental Conversations: Perspectives on Randomized Trials in Development Economics 

Why don’t people take up savings products?

This is Xavier Giné at the World Bank

Part of the take-up problem, especially in the case of savings, is that some of these products are pretty crappy. If we see no demand for these products, maybe that’s a good thing actually. If you put money into one of these accounts, check the balance a few times, make a few withdrawals, half or all the money has been eaten up by fees. So the characteristics of the product are very important.

That’s from Tim Ogden’s Experimental Conversations: Perspectives on Randomized Trials in Development Economics.

Beyond savings products, this is important because there is a temptation to lump interventions together (How effective are home-based child care visits? How effective is teacher training?) when in fact there is massive diversity in the particulars of the interventions. Sara Nadel and Lant Pritchett have referred to this as “high dimensional design space,” and Popova et al. document it in the case of teacher training interventions.

There is no reason to believe — ex ante — that all interventions in the same “category” will have the same effect. Indeed, in work Anna Popova and I did analyzing randomized controlled trials of education interventions, we found that in many cases, the variation in impact within categories exceeded the variation across categories, per the table below.

variation

So, as Giné says, “the characteristics of the product are very important.”