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David McKenzie's blog

Making Disaster Relief More Like Funeral Societies: A Review of Dercon and Clarke’s Dull Disasters

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I was recently at the Novafrica conference in Lisbon, where one of the keynote talks was given by Stefan Dercon. He based it around a newly released short book he has written with Daniel Clarke, called Dull Disasters (open access version). The title is meant to indicate both the aim to make dealing with disasters a dull event rather than media circus, as well as to discuss ways to ‘dull’ or reduce the impact of disasters.
Stefan started his talk by noting that disaster relief may well be the part of the whole international development and humanitarian system that is the least efficient and has had the least research on it. The book starts by noting the predictability of responses “every time a natural disaster hits any part of the world, the newspaper headlines ten days later can be written in advance: ‘why isn’t the response more coordinated?’. He gives the examples of the responses to the earthquakes in Nepal and Haiti, to Hurricane Katrina, and to Ebola as examples. But he then notes the crux of the problem “…The truth is everybody argues for coordination but nobody likes to be coordinated”.

Conditional on your parents, does your country matter for early childhood human capital? Surprisingly no!

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There is a large literature that emphasizes the importance of investments made in early life for lifetime outcomes. Does growing up in a poor, conflict-afflicted country have a negative impact? There are many reasons to think yes, including the disease environment, quality of medical facilities, availability of nutrition, quality of early-childhood education facilities etc.

Weekly links July 8: lions, forests, journals, and income transfers – just another Friday

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  • Veracities on David Card and Stefano DellaVigna’s work in progress on what gets in top economic journals. They have data on submissions to top journals and assess how editor and referee assessments relate to subsequent citations.
  • On Let’s Talk Development, Damien de Walque on giving income transfers to mothers vs fathers, and how a Belgian painting may have it all wrong.
  • Andrew Gelman on some issues with reproducibility in economics and the reluctance of journals to consider comments. I like this: “I do think there’s an unfortunate “incumbency advantage” by which published papers with “p less than .05” are taken as true unless a large effort is amassed to take them down. Criticisms are often held to a much higher standard than held for the reviewing of the original paper and, as noted above, many journals don’t publish letters at all…In journals, it’s all about the wedding, never about the marriage”
  • J-PAL interview with Oriana Bandiera – watch out, it includes another story about Zambia that has crocodiles and lions on the loose.
  • The Washington Post covers the recent experimental evaluation by Seema Jayachandran and co-authors of Payment for Ecosystems Services (PES) to reduce deforestation in Uganda. “owners of forested land in 60 villages in the Hoima and Kibaale districts of western Uganda were offered $ 28 per year (70,000 Ugandan shillings) over two years for every hectare of forest that they did not harvest or chop down for other economic reasons. By comparison, in 61 other villages, nothing was offered — but rates of deforestation were monitored by satellite in all villages.The result was that while forest cover decreased by between 7 and 10 percent in the “control” villages, it only dropped between 2 to 5 percent in the designated “treatment” villages, suggesting that the incentive payments were preventing a significant number of landowners from selling large trees for timber or charcoal, or chopping down forest to grow more crops.”

Weekly links July 1: UBI in India would cost a heap, war and cooperation, mobile phone panel surveys, and more…

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Weekly links June 24: Small island development gone bad, grit in developing countries, naturalization impacts, and more…

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Weekly links June 17: evaluating industrial clusters, simulated patients, environmental research in development, and more…

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Have RCTs taken over development economics?

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Last week the “State of Economics, State of the World” conference was held at the World Bank. I had the pleasure of discussing (along with Martin Ravallion) Esther Duflo’s talk on “The Influence of Randomized Controlled Trials on Development Economics Research and on Development Policy”. The website should have links to the papers and video stream replay up (if not already, then soon).

The first part of Esther’s talk traced out the growth in RCTs in development economics. She pointed out that in 2000 the top-5 journals published 21 articles in development, of which 0 were RCTs, while in 2015 there were 32, of which 10 were RCTs – so pretty much all the growth in development papers in top journals comes from RCTs. She also showed that the more recently BREAD members had received their PhD, the more likely they were to have done at least one RCT.
In my discussion I expanded on these facts to put them in context, and argue against what I see as a couple of strawman arguments: 1) that top journals only publish RCTs, and that RCTs have taken over development research; and 2) that young researchers have a “randomize or bust” attitude and refuse to do anything but RCTs. I thought I’d summarize what I said on both here.

Weekly links June 10: hardworking poor people, the practicalities of RCTs, what is clever in marketing experiments, marshmallow tests revisited, and more…

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  • From VoxEU – people in developing countries not only earn a lot less than those in developed countries, they also work longer hours and have less leisure – as a result “Adults in poor countries …are even less productive than we thought.”
  • All the Stata cheatsheets from Geocenter in one place
  • In Scientific American: does financial stress literally hurt?
  • In the Washington Post wonkblog, more evidence why the Marshmallow test is probably not measuring what you think it is – “this uncovers a broader problem with how we perceive the actions of people who live very different lives than we do. We brand certain actions and choices as mistakes, when they might simply be developmental adjustments necessary to cope with their environment. For those who don't worry about their next meal, because they never had to, choosing a marshmallow now instead of two marshmallows in a few minutes, all things equal, could only be the result of impulse-driven folly. For those who do have to worry about the next meal, passing up food now for the promise of food later is the misguided move.”

Weekly links June 3: Small begets big, expert predictions, process evaluation, measurement, and more…

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Book Review: Grit – Takeaways for Development Economists and Parents

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Angela Duckworth’s new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance has been launched with great fanfare, reaching number two on the NY Times Nonfiction bestseller list. She recently gave a very polished and smooth book launch talk to a packed audience at the World Bank, and is working with World Bank colleagues on improving grit in classrooms in Macedonia. Billed as giving “the secret to outstanding achievement” I was interested in reading the book as both a researcher and a parent. I thought I’d continue my book reviews series with some thoughts on the book.

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