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Policy Research Working Paper (PRWP) series publication roundup from the weeks of November 2nd and 9th

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This blog continues a new bi-weekly feature that highlights recent working papers from around the World Bank Group that were published in the World Bank’s Policy Research Working Paper Series. This entry highlights 13 papers that were published in the weeks of November 2nd and 9th. In these weeks’ publications, a number of papers were published related to the impact assessment of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are highlights of select findings.

Some of the first evidence of socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak using novel phone survey data has started to be published. In these studies, longitudinal household survey data, which combines pre-pandemic face-to-face household surveys with a phone survey during the pandemic, are analyzed. A paper on socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 in four African countries presents an early assessment of the effect of the pandemic outbreaks, using high-frequency phone surveys conducted for the World Bank Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS). A food security study in Mali provides one of the first estimates of the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on food security. Finally, a study on COVID-19 and food security in Ethiopia evaluates the protective effect of a large transfer program in Ethiopia against the adverse pandemic shock.  

  • The paper on the LSMS phone survey documents the headline finding of COVID-19 socioeconomic impacts in Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria, and Uganda. First, false beliefs about the virus remain prevalent (Figure 1A), and government control of containing the spread of the disease is positively associated with individual knowledge of the disease and uptake of precautionary measures. For instance, in Malawi, the only country that did not issue stay-at-home orders, households exhibit lesser knowledge of and behavior changes around COVID-19 (Figure 1B). Additionally, the paper shows that 256 million individuals, 77% of the population in the four countries, are estimated to live in households that have lost income due to the pandemic. Food insecurity is disproportionately felt by poorer households. Finally, the rate of student-teacher contact has dropped from a pre-COVID-19 rate of 96% to just 17%.

Figure 1: False beliefs about COVID-19 and change of behaviors, Josephson, Kilic, and Michler (2020) 

Figure 1: False beliefs about COVID-19 and change of behaviors, Josephson, Kilic, and Michler (2020)
  • The food security study in Mali provides evidence that the pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in food insecurity. The paper underscores the importance of understanding the heterogeneity in food security. Notably, households in urban areas are at least 33% more likely to experience moderate food insecurity than those in rural areas. 
  • A food security study in Ethiopia assesses the effectiveness of Ethiopia’s social protection program, the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), in mitigating the adverse shocks to food security during the pandemic. The results show that household food security deteriorated in the aftermath of the onset of the pandemic. However, almost all of the adverse shocks to food security were offset by PSNP. Food insecurity of PSNP households increased by only 2.4 percentage points during the pandemic, in contrast to the increase of 11.7 percentage points of non-PSNP households.  

In response to the pandemic crisis, governments around the world have been increasingly implementing cash transfer programs. Three publications assess cash transfer programs and discuss implications for designing a social protection system. A paper on a cash transfer program in rural Niger examines whether the program can protect against adverse economic shocks by droughts. A paper on the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) in Turkey evaluates the impact of the world’s largest cash transfer program on refugees. Lastly, a paper on a public workfare program in rural Laos assesses the effectiveness of using local leaders to select program beneficiaries.  

  • The assessment of the cash transfer program in rural Niger shows that cash transfers increase household consumption by about 10% on average. Importantly, this increase is concentrated mostly among households affected by drought shocks. Moreover, cash transfers increase savings and help income smoothing in agriculture and off-farm businesses when shocks occur. These findings suggest that cash transfer programs targeting poor households can foster resilience by facilitating savings and income smoothing. 
  • The paper on the ESSN in Turkey shows that ESSN caused a moderate increase in the diversity and frequency of food consumption and reduced the use of negative coping strategies. Additionally, the study provides the interesting evidence that refugees quickly alter their household structure and living arrangements in response to their eligibility status for the program. Refugees who were deemed ineligible responded by sending their school-aged children to beneficiary households. This indicates that policy makers should consider possible spillover effects when designing cash transfer programs.  
  • The study on a public workfare program in rural Laos, where village heads played an important role in selecting program beneficiaries, shows that village heads are progressive in their targeting, prioritizing the poorer households in their villages. Further analysis reveals that, to assess the welfare status of households, village heads rely on a combination of easily observable household characteristics, forming a holistic impression of household welfare, rather than on specific indicators. The authors conclude that, in this specific program, targeting by village heads provided a much quicker and less expensive alternative process to such options as a full proxy-mean-tested approach, without compromising the targeting efficacy of the program.

Two papers focus on the role of the government, institutions, and culture  in controlling the spread of COVID-19. A cross-country study investigates a large difference in the pandemic spread and mortality rate across countries, using preexisting vulnerabilities, the government’s mobility restriction policy, institutions, and culture. A study of building trust in urban Punjab examines the role of public communication in improving citizens’ attitudes toward state directives on hand-washing, social distancing, and avoiding congregational prayers, as well as perception of state capacity, and trust in state institutions.

  • The results from the cross-country study show that preexisting vulnerabilities increased the pandemic’s spread and/or mortality rate. Contrary to what many think, on average, government delay in mobility restriction policy, democracy, and social norms related to individualistic culture and general trust do not show a significant association with the pandemic’s outcomes. However, a delay in government mobility-restriction policy amplified the harmful effects of the preexisting vulnerabilities on pandemic mortality. 
  • In a study of building trust in urban Punjab, authors conducted informational treatment trials through a phone survey of urban residents in Pakistan’s Punjab in the early stage of the pandemic. The informational treatments were designed to increase citizens’ support for the government’s COVID-19 policies. Participants in a treatment group received various endorsements for the state’s capacity to implement these policies. Assessing various informational treatment arms, the authors find that, on average, the information treatments have little effect on support for government policy, perceptions of state capacity, or trust in state institutions. The findings highlight the limits of using public communication to build trust in state institutions. 

The PRWP series encourages the exchange of ideas on development and quickly disseminates the findings of the research that is in progress.

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