Archives for Africa



Fighting Poachers From the Lab

Wildlife activists have a new method for fighting Africa’s increasingly bold elephant poachers.  Historically, scientists and governments have struggled to determine whether a piece of ivory was poached illegally or was obtained before the 1989 international ban on ivory trading, which has left some African governments with enormous stockpiles of ivory to manage and protect.  But a team of scientists recently determined that it’s possible to use the amount of radiocarbon in an ivory tusk to determine what year the animal died — and, by extension, whether the ivory was illegally poached.  

“The amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere nearly doubled during nuclear weapons tests from 1952 to 1962, which steadily dropped after tests were restricted to underground. This has been dubbed ‘the bomb-curve,’” explains a BBC article on the study.  The resulting significant variations in atmospheric radiocarbon allow for highly accurate dating.  Scientists also hope that the technique will help shed light on poaching hotspots.  Kevin Uno, the study’s lead author, told the BBC that the technique “would dovetail very nicely with DNA testing which tells you the region of origin, but not the date.”



Can Connectivity Kill?

The standard narrative around technology in the developing world usually focuses on the positive: cell phones make it easier to check crop prices, transfer money, and understand violence.  But a new study, summarized in Foreign Policy, finds that all this connectivity can also increase political violence in violence-prone regions and countries:

new study by Jan Pierskalla of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies and Florian Hollenbach of Duke University looks at the relationship between mobile phones and political violence in Africa. They found that from 2007 to 2009, areas with 2G network coverage were 50 percent more likely to have experienced incidents of armed conflict than those without. The clearest overlaps between cell coverage and violence were observed in Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

The authors think that improved cell-phone coverage helps insurgent leaders overcome what’s called the “collective-action problem” — that people are reluctant to join group endeavors when there’s a high level of personal risk. But better communication helps leaders recruit reluctant followers, whether they’re demonstrating for higher wages or killing people in the next town.



What Can We Learn From Congress and African Farmers About Losing Weight?

I have an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which I call for some respect for Congress’s fiscal cliff idea. Congress, back in 2011, couldn’t agree on a budget, so it came up with a way to force the hand of its future self.  This idea of forcing one’s own future behavior dates back in our culture at least to Odysseus, who had his crew tie him to the ship’s mast so he wouldn’t be tempted by the sirens; and Cortes, who burned his ships to show his army that there would be no going back. 

Economists call this method of pushing your future self into some behavior a “commitment device.” [Related: a Freakonomics podcast on the topic is called "Save Me From Myself."] From my WSJ op-ed:

Most of us don’t have crews and soldiers at our disposal, but many people still find ways to influence their future selves. Some compulsive shoppers will freeze their credit cards in blocks of ice to make sure they can’t get at them too readily when tempted. Some who are particularly prone to the siren song of their pillows in the morning place their alarm clock far from their bed, on the other side of the room, forcing their future self out of bed to shut it off. When MIT graduate student Guri Nanda developed an alarm clock, Clocky, that rolls off a night stand and hides when it goes off, the market beat a path to her door.

Read More »



Banned Products, Available in Poor Countries

In a recent Harry Hole mystery novel, The Leopard, Jo Nesbø (an economist as well as novelist) has Harry ask someone, “Where would you go to get it [a particular anesthetic] now?” and is answered, “Ex-Soviet states. Or Africa….The producer sells it at bargain-basement prices since the European ban, so it ends up in poor countries.” When rich countries ban something, they increase its supply to poor countries that refuse to ban it.  Prices are lowered to consumers there.  Rich countries’ safety is enhanced, poor countries’ worsened, with the only consolation that consumers in poor countries become able to obtain the harmful substance at lower prices.  Are people in each country better off, worse off, or what?



The Busara Center

Behavioral economics has a new testing ground: the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi, Kenya. The lab, which will be open to researchers and students from around the world, is hosted by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA).  Here’s its website blurb:

Busara is a state-of-the-art facility for experimental studies in behavioral economics and other social sciences, located in Nairobi, Kenya. The core of Busara is a pool of participants from the Nairobi slums, combined with a cluster of 20 networked computers with which researchers can investigate economic behavior and preferences. A central feature of the computer setup is that all computers have touchscreen monitors; together with specially developed paradigms, this allows for the participation of not only computer-illiterate, but entirely illiterate populations.

Johannes Haushofer, the Scientific Director of the Center, gave us a little more information: Read More »



The Violent Legacy of Africa’s Arbitrary Borders

Even if they haven’t heard the term Scramble for Africa, most people know that something went wrong when the continent was divided into nation states by European colonial powers.

Some economists, however, have taken the time to quantify the destructive nature of Africa’s national borders. Authors Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou have released a new working paper showing how arbitrary border decisions have affected war and civil unrest in Africa, particularly among split ethnic groups and their neighbors. Not surprisingly, the length of a conflict and its casualty rate is 25 percent higher in areas where an ethnicity is divided by a national border as opposed to areas where ethnicities have a united homeland. Examples of divided (and conflicted) groups are the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, and the Anyi of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The conflict rate is also higher for people living in areas close to ethnic-partitioned hot-spots. Read More »



Bargain Hunting for Charities

Gosh that sounds so stingy. When we are charitable, we don’t want to be cheap. This is our moment of giving, of generosity, not bah-humbugness. Alas, that is exactly what we should be. If we go to a restaurant for chicken wings, what would you think of the following prices:

4 chicken wings: $8
6 chicken wings: $8
8 chicken wings: $8

Which would you opt for (assuming more is always better)? Naturally, it shouldn’t require much thought. So why not apply this to charity?

This is what Givewell does. (And I’m pleased to say, you can see the imprint of lots of research from Innovations for Poverty Action on their assessments and recommendations). You may remember I blogged about Givewell over the summer, and how there is no correlation between their assessment of organizational effectiveness and the horrid measure often used by those in search of a good charity, “general administrative and fundraising expenditures as a proportion of program expenses.” Read More »



What Do Hockey Visors and Birth Control Hormone Shots Have in Common?

The New York Times recently reported that using Depo-Provera, one of the most popular contraceptives in eastern and southern Africa, may increase a person’s risk of transmitting HIV. I fear this is a case for The Guardian‘s Ben Goldacre… where a study gets a bit (understatement) too much spin in the media. I first became aware of this while in Uganda and saw the following headline in the local paper: “The injectable contraceptive that could double the risk of women contracting HIV.” That sure sounds like the shot itself does something. Or could this instead be a by-product of behavior change? Huge difference if you are deciding what birth control to use!

The Times article cited a study recently published in The Lancet, which showed that women using hormonal contraception—primarily the injection more commonly known in the U.S. by its brand name, Depo-Provera—were twice as likely to acquire HIV from their infected partners, and twice as likely to transmit the virus to their HIV-negative partners. Read More »