Joining the Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik!

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining the Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (German Institute for Development Policy) in Bonn, Germany! I’ll be working in their Governance, Statehood, and Security group, doing research and providing policy advice on forced displacement in fragile and conflict affected countries.

I’m excited to have the opportunity to put my skills and knowledge to use working on this topic – I’ll be able to continue applying my knowledge on technology and development to this topic, while also working with experts on migration, geography and economics to produce policy-relevant scientific research.

The intersection of academia and public policy is the space I most enjoyed occupying during my PhD studies, so I’m thrilled to be in a place where my research can speak directly to critical policy issues in the development and peacebuilding fields!

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Where Are the Legislators (Who Ostensibly Pay for Data)?

I watched from a distance on Twitter as the World Bank hosted its annual data event. I would love to have attended – the participants were a pretty amazing collection of economists, data professionals and academics. This tweet seemed to resonate with a theme I’ve been focused on the last week or so: There is a data shortage such that even the most advanced countries can’t measure the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The European Statistical System can only produce around 1/3 of #SDG indicators, according to Pieter Everaers of @EU_Eurostat #ABCDEwb — Neil Fantom (@neilfantom) June 21, 2016

I replied to this tweet with a query about whether there was evidence of political will among EU member states to actually collect this data. In keeping with the “data is political” line that I started on last week, political will is important because the European Statistical System relies heavily on EU member states’ statistics offices to provide data. The above tweet highlights two things for me – there needs to be a conversation about where the existing data comes from, and there need to be MPs or MEPs (legislative representatives) at meetings like the World Bank’s annual data event.

Since Eurostat and the European Statistical System were the topic of the tweet, I’ll focus on how they gather statistics. Most of my expertise is in their social and crime stats so I’ll speak to those primarily, but it’s important to note that the quality and quantity of any statistic is based on its importance to the collector and end user. Eurostat got its start as a hub for data on the coal and steel industries in the 1950s, and while its mandate has grown significantly the quality and density of the economic and business indicators hosted on its data site reflect its founding purpose. Member states provide good economic data because states have decided that trade is important – there is a compelling political reason to provide these statistics. Much of this data is available at high levels of granularity, down to the NUTS 3 level. It’s mostly eye-wateringly boring agricultural, land use, and industrial data, but it’s the kind of stuff that’s important for keeping what is primarily an economic union running smoothly(-ish).

If we compare Eurostat’s economic data to its social and crime data, the quality and coverage decrease notably. This is when it’s important to ask where the data comes from and how it’s gathered – if 2/3 of the data necessary to measure the SDGs isn’t available for Europe (let alone say, the Central African Republic) we need to be thinking clearly about why we have the data we have, and the values that undergird gathering good social data. Eurostat statistics that would be important to measuring the SDGs might include the SILC surveys that measure social inclusion, and general data on crime and policing. The SILC surveys are designed by Eurostat and implemented by national statistics offices in EU member states. The granularity and availability varies depending on the capacity of the national stats office and the domestic laws regarding personal data and privacy. For example, some countries run the SILC surveys at the NUTS 2 level while others administer them only at the national level. A handful of countries, such as France, do the surveys at the individual level and produce panel data. The problem is that the SILC data has mixed levels of availability due to national laws regarding privacy – for example, if you want the SILC panel data you have to apply for it and prove you have data storage standards that meet France’s national laws for data security.

Crime and police data is even more of an issue. Eurostat generally doesn’t collect crime data directly from member states. They have an arrangement with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime where crime and police data reported to the UN by EU member states gets passed to Eurostat and made available through their database. One exception is a dataset of homicide, robbery and burglary in the EU from 2008-2010 that is disaggregated down to the NUTS 3 level. When I spoke with the crime stats lead at Eurostat about this dataset he explained that it was a one-off survey in which Eurostat worked with national statistics offices to gather the data; in the end it was so time consuming and expensive that it was canceled. Why would such a rich data collection process get the axe? Because it’s an established fact that crime statistics can’t be compared across jurisdictions due to definitional and counting differences. So funders reasonably asked: What’s the point of spending a lot of money and time collecting data that isn’t comparable in the first place?

A key problem I see in the open data discussion is a heavy focus on data availability with relatively little focus on why the data we have exists in the first place, and by extension what would go into gathering new SDG-focused data (e.g. the missing 2/3 noted in the opening tweet). Some of this is driven by, in my opinion, an over confidence in/fetishization of ‘big data’ and crowdsourced statistics. Software platforms are important if you think the data availability problem is just a shortage of capacity to mine social networks, geospatial satellite feeds and passive web-produced data. I’d argue though that the problem isn’t collection ability, and that the focus on collection and validation of ‘big data’ distracts from the important political discussion of whether societies value the SDGs enough to put money and resources into filling the 2/3 gap with purpose-designed surveys instead of mining the internet’s exhaust hoping to find data that’s good enough to build policy on.

I’m not a Luddite crank – I’m all for using technology in innovative ways to gather good data and make it available to all citizens. Indeed, ‘big data’ can provide interesting insights into political and social processes, so finding technical solutions for managing reams and reams of it are important. But there is something socially and politically important about allocating public funds for gathering purpose-designed administrative statistics. When MPs, members of Congress, or MEPs allocate public funds they are making two statements. One is that they value data-driven policy making; the other, more important in my opinion, is that they value a policy area enough to use public resources to improve government performance in it. For this reason I’d argue that data events which don’t have legislative representatives featured as speakers are missing a key chance to talk seriously about the politics of data gathering. Perhaps next year instead of having a technical expert from Eurostat tell us that 2/3 of the necessary data for measuring the SDGs is missing, have Marianne Thyssen, the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion that covers Eurostat, come and take questions about EU and member state political will to actually measure the SDGs.

The World Bank’s data team, as well as countless other technical experts at stats offices and research organizations, are doing great work when it comes to making existing data available through better web services, APIs, and open databases. But we’re only having 50% of the necessary discussion if the representatives who set budgets and represent the interests of constituents aren’t participating in the discussion of what we value enough to measure, and what kind of public resources it will take to gather the necessary data.

 

Diagnosis Matters: Preventing human trafficking on the demand side

I was watching the news past Saturday when Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, took time out from a talk on iron ore prices (or something along those lines) to discuss the ongoing issue of people smuggling. It’s a short video that you’ll have to follow the link to see (The Australian doesn’t provide embed code), but what’s interesting is Abbott’s prescription for stopping people smuggling. The logical issues with his argument are worth unpacking because they’re routinely used by politicians everywhere who either don’t understand what they’re dealing with, want to change the argument, or some combination thereof. None of which leads to good policy outcomes.

Abbott says in the interview that the key issue is human trafficking. In order to stop the human trafficking one has to stop the boats getting to their end destination. This is an interesting way of framing the issue. Others might argue that the people on these boats aren’t being trafficked as much as they’re fleeing persecution and paying people to arrange passage. But regardless of why these people are paying to get onto boats, if the problem is the traffickers is Tony Abbott’s solution of turning back the boats going to stop the traffickers from sending people out on boats?

We could look at this in two ways. Both are economic, with one focused on supply and demand and the other focused on changing the economics of the transaction. The supply/demand argument is fairly straightforward. People are being persecuted, in this case Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar, so they pay traffickers to put them on a boat out. If you buy this model, then is it really useful to stop the boats if you want to decrease trafficking? Not really; the conditions that spur demand for traffickers’ services still exist, so people will keep paying to risk their lives at sea. Assuming they never return to Myanmar the human trafficking problem works itself out when all the people who want to leave have done so.

The second way to look at this is transactionally. Let’s assume that demand for the traffickers’ services is fixed. People are going to pay them no matter what. The problem with turning back the boats as the solution for stopping human trafficking is when the transaction between migrant (refugee) and trafficker takes place; the trafficker gets paid before the refugee boards the boat. Their pay isn’t dependent on the boat arriving anywhere, so turning the boats back doesn’t cut into their revenue. Indeed, by turning the boats back you’re just sending back people who will be repeat customers. If I were a trafficker I’d be all for this.

Basically Abbott has misdiagnosed the problem, then prescribed a solution that just makes the problem worse. This isn’t unique to Abbott – there are plenty of politicians the world over who have made this an art form. The main question we have to ask now is whether he and politicians in the U.S. and Europe who face their own migration issues are up to the intellectual task of governing, are misrepresenting the problem to fit an anti-refugee policy position, or some combination thereof.

Putting the ‘political’ back in political economy

I stumbled across an article in the New York Times a few days ago by Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and a regular contributor to the blog Marginal Revolution. Entitled “Income Inequality Is Not Rising Globally. It’s Falling.”, it takes a crack at attempting to indicate that while country-level income inequality is increasing the overall effects of globalization are leading to less aggregate income inequality globally, and that this is a good thing. I always enjoy reading Cowen’s stuff even when I don’t agree with him, and in this case I have a few contentions as a political scientist about his argument.

These contentions developed after seeing a comment from a friend on Facebook about the article. He noted that the key problem isn’t income inequality, but wealth inequality. The way that income and growth are structured in the modern world, if you start from a position of higher wealth and asset ownership, the more you benefit from the structure of the global economy. If you rely on a bi-weekly paycheck though you face nothing but downward pressure on your economic position, unless you work in the information, research, governance, or financial sectors (which happen to all play key roles in globalization). Cowen though says that while this country-level trend is unfortunate, we shouldn’t miss the point that globally income inequality has dropped. This is where I have my biggest contentions with the argument, since economics is about politics, and like Tip O’Neill said all politics is local.

To make his argument Cowen has to invert the relationship between people, politics and economic systems. In effect, he argues that we should be happy that while at the local (or national) level the economy might be a mess, it’s important that at a global system level income inequality is decreasing. For this to hold up, we have to assume that systems, in this case the global economic system, are what people are responsive to, things that people can’t or shouldn’t be motivated to change. While Cowen is more humane than many of his libertarian counterparts, believing that safety nets should still exist for the workers who lose in national wealth inequality, he still makes what I think is a problematically common mistake in economics. Implicit to Cowen’s argument is that economic systems exist in parallel or outside the impact of politics. Instead of discussing the tangible problem of increasing wealth and income inequality at the national level as something that can be changed through policy and intervention, he finds an abstract way to claim the system is working. This is a huge problem from a public policy perspective.

At a fundamental level Cowen’s argument subverts the notion of representative democracy. The models of economy have become the ends in themselves, things that politicians and policy makers have applied normative value to, and thus try to shape laws and policy for. This is where the democracy problem comes in. In the United States, we ostensibly elect officials to create policies that support the public interest. When those representatives make economic policy that is based on a set of models that actually lead to massive inequality and economic hardship, they are no longer representing their constituents and instead are representing the abstract notion of market economics. If my congressional representative’s response to a total failure of the economy in my district is to say “there may be no jobs and wages might be way too low, but at least on a global scale income equality is down” then they are not representing the needs of their constituents.

This is the inherent problem with Cowen’s argument, and it has knock on effects since policy makers listen to him and other’s from his school of thought. Essentially he is arguing that a system that has failed at the level where it matters (the citizen level) due to particular aspects of the socio-political nature of finance-driven markets shouldn’t be changed at the local level because it seems, depending on how you cook define the numbers, to be working at an abstract global level. It dehumanizes economics, which is an inherently very human enterprise. In case we forget our history, such things as the Reign of Terror, Communist revolutions, and Jesus’s life and teachings were in response to fundamentally broken and/or exploitive economic systems. If tally the score in those three cases, it would be: System Maintenance 0 : 3 Revolutionary Uprising (and Violence).

Politicians and public intellectuals who focus on abstract and contorted ways to justify the maintenance of an economic system that tangibly fails the public would do well to heed the lessons of history. Abstract arguments about the way the global system is working won’t mean much when the pitchforks come out at the local level.

Quick thoughts from the #Tech4PP Twitter chat

I followed (and even participated!) in NDI’s Twitter chat today on using technology to increase political party and electoral participation. If you’re interested you can find the thread by searching the hashtag ‘#Tech4PP’. There were a lot of good examples of tech being used to increase participation, make processes more transparent, and boost inclusion in the political process. Below are a few quick thoughts that supersede the character limit:

1) I thought it was interesting that the chat tended to center around software and hardware, of which there were many interesting examples, but I tended to see less about the human or legal components of the process. I think it’s going to get really interesting to do experimental and empirical research on changes in political participation as social media and mobile based tools become increasingly available. ProTip for my academic friends who study political participation: look at this thread since it has a ton of examples you’d be interested in.

2) I saw a theme in the chat that asked about how we transition from digital outreach to human participation. I thought the framing was interesting since it set up technology as the causal mechanism of participation. I’m not sure I buy that directionality in a generalizable way; perhaps there are examples of this, but on average across cases I’d be inclined to think that the technology/participation relationship hinges more on the intervening variable of pre-existing political interest and knowledge of the issues within the community. I see a use for regression analysis here.

3) I threw a comment into the mix about the need to understand the regulatory and legal environment in a country where any kind of digital political participation software is being used. I’ll admit I’m surprised I didn’t see more on this topic, since it’s a pretty fraught space. Some of the more interesting questions around data ownership, regulatory effects on access to technology, and the cost of broadband could play a significant role in the overall impact of technology on political participation.

These are just a few questions that came to mind as I followed the thread – it was a good one, and I think there are some really good examples of tech for political participation that can be pulled out of it by researchers who are interested in learning more about the space.

Poverty (and Social Development Writ Large) is Not an Innovation Problem

I came across an article a friend posted on Facebook yesterday about the work that the MasterCard Foundation is doing to reduce poverty in Africa. Since some of my work is in the ‘techno-innovation 4 development’ sector, I was curious to give it a read. It was everything that makes me *sigh* and/or *shake my fist* at the ‘development innovation’ field.

The article starts from a logical premise that misunderstands what poverty is. Poverty, fundamentally, is when there’s not enough stuff available for all the people in a polity or community to meet their needs. In the modern world we measure capacity to gather the stuff we need in terms of money. I read the article waiting for the part where the MasterCard Foundation addresses the fundamental dilemma of people not having enough money to get the stuff to meet their needs; it never came. There were other things about the article that could be highlighted as problematic, but they are all secondary to the fact that the poverty reduction program being discussed doesn’t address poverty reduction. So what does it address?

“The MasterCard Foundation, with huge assets of $9 billion, is an independent entity without a single MasterCard executive on its board. But its financial work in Africa syncs up nicely with the efforts of Mastercard, the company, to nurture a cashless society as the African continent continues its economic rise.” Basically, they’re developing a market for non-cash monetary services. This is fine; I appreciate the convenience of my debit card, and my bank that allows me to access my money when I’m working abroad. But providing these services in Africa is not poverty reduction, and presenting it as such is at best intellectually dishonest. 

There’s a lot more I could say about this article, but the point is that it highlights a consistent problem in the development innovation space. At times we are too easily captivated by ‘solutions’, losing sight of the fundamental causes of the problems we’re trying to solve.

 

 

NATO, the U.S. and Ukraine: A political economy of bad options?

Since I’m not an expert on Ukraine, the greater region it’s situated in, or much of the history, I’ve primarily observed and absorbed the various op-eds, arguments and blog posts I’ve seen from others. I don’t really have much to add about Ukraine or the politics of the region itself, but I have found the debate about what the best options are for the U.S. and NATO to be interesting. It seems that we’re encountering the limits of security-centric foreign policy, and profit-at-all-costs national economic outlook. Russia isn’t playing a complex game, the problem is that NATO and the U.S. don’t have the right tools to counter Russia’s fairly straight forward behavior.

As part of foreign policy, security is important, but it has limits. In the U.S. we have big military, big intelligence community, and relatively small everything else. Our military is powerful, but that’s only useful if we’re willing to use it; Russia knows we’re unlikely to put troops on the ground in Ukraine, so they can be pretty provocative along the Ukrainian border and with their special forces. We have big intelligence, but so what? We’re not going to put boots on the ground, and we’re not winning the diplomatic game…so what’s our massive intelligence apparatus gaining us? We’re not going to invade, and our token support to Kiev in terms of materiel, Geneva agreements and IMF packages doesn’t help much when the U.S. and NATO have no real leverage to change Russia’s behavior.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the U.S. has let it’s diplomatic capacity and creativity wane quite a bit the last 20 years. I wouldn’t say that U.S. diplomats are less talented, but I do think we have a pair of political economic problems that keep them from being able to be creative and offensive. We just unpacked one in the last paragraph; foreign policy is increasingly viewed as a security problem, so funding goes to security apparatus over diplomatic capacity. This has a knock on effect of causing anything not directly security related to effectively not be part of foreign policy. In principle energy policy, monetary and banking policy, and trade would be part of a strong foreign policy; in practice, they aren’t really. I’d argue that this is a unfortunate outcome of a national economic zeitgeist that favors short term profit and privatization above all else.

Let’s look at energy. To keep it simple, Russia provides a lot of gas to Europe; if NATO gets too aggressive, Russia will turn off the gas. Russia has the leverage because the U.S. and NATO don’t really have any viable energy alternatives. The diplomats don’t have much to work with because, particularly in the U.S, natural gas and petroleum interests work hard to prevent the expansion of renewable energy sources, and the export of gas and oil, with the help of compliant policy makers. This makes sense for those industries since they want to protect their market caps and profit margins. The problem is that this takes energy policy out of a NATO diplomat’s toolkit. Thus we end up with limited capacity to quickly scale a market for alternative energy, which could replace as least some of the need for Russia’s gas while also driving the price down (gas supplies don’t decrease but demand does). There’s potentially serious leverage for the U.S. and NATO here, but we can’t take advantage of it.

I’ve simplified these issues quite a bit to make my point, but perhaps some simplification is in order. Russia doesn’t need to play a complex game in Ukraine because they have a solution that the U.S. and NATO can’t effectively respond to. Perhaps the West’s real problem is continuing to make increasingly complex arguments to justify our drift toward a one dimensional foreign policy, when what we need to do is make fundamental changes to how we think about the role of domestic investment, research and development, not exclusively as profit-making pursuits, but also as keys to our ability to project power in an increasingly multi-polar world.

 

Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor’: Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote the first half of this pair of posts, focusing on the problems in Nicholas Kristof’s piece on why professors should be more engaged in the public debate. I came down pretty hard on it, not because I disagree with the general sentiment (my doctoral research and interests are very policy relevant and I make an effort to be in the policy space as much as the academic), but because his logic was surprisingly faulty and he didn’t seem to have any understanding of the institutional culture and expectations of academia. In effect, he missed an opportunity to discuss the actual problems facing the academy, and how these prevent professors from being more publicly engaged.

Fortunately, Michelle Goldberg wrote an excellent rejoinder about the plight of two highly respected public intellectual-professors being let go after long careers with Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health for failing to raise 80% of their salaries in external grants. While Kristof went off on confused, ill-informed tangents about what makes an academic or academic field relevant in to the public space, Goldberg focused on what Kristof should have been writing about: the corporatization of universities, where pulling in external funding is the difference between having a job and not. Doing ground-breaking research counts for nothing it seems, unless you hit the your fundraising target. I’ll take this a step further; the problem facing universities and researchers isn’t just the outcome of bad business planning at the university level. It’s the politicization of research, and by extension validity and truth.

To start: I don’t have a problem with the idea of encouraging professors in research-oriented fields to seek external funding. Part of my dissertation studies were funded by money my dissertation supervisor pulled in; he was able to hire me as a research assistant when the department didn’t have funds immediately available to give me a stipend. At a much larger scale pulling in something like a National Science Foundation (or National Institutes of Health) grant can give a department the latitude to fund students (saving money in the core budget), hire post-docs, pay visiting scholars, and generally increase the capacity to do research. This can be a useful model for certain projects, especially in the natural sciences where the costs of equipment and logistics can run into the millions of dollars. But there’s a danger to universities placing a demand that professors raise significant portions of their salaries through external grants, while not maintaining core budgets to keep them on during lean times.

One is the business model. The Mailman School, like many large research schools, relies heavily on government research grants. These days its not good to be relying on federal research grants, especially if you’re in the social and behavioral sciences. If an academic institution decided to hitch its financial wagon to the soft money strategy of external funding, then politics in Washington is currently delivering a harsh lesson in how the political economy of ridiculous budget battles affects university staffing. But this isn’t merely a technical budgeting and forecasting issue; budgets and Federal spending don’t live in an otological bubble, disconnected from politics and popular sentiment. This is where Kristof fell off the wagon and Goldberg hit the nail on the head. To quote:

“Kristof is right that universities have become inhospitable places for public intellectuals, but he misses the ultimate cause. The real problem isn’t culture. It’s money.”

Basically it was the only thing Kristof was right about, which is why it’s unfortunate that he only dedicated one short paragraph at the beginning of his article to it. But it’s not just money, it’s the interplay between Congressional politics and how we proxy the public interest with Federal (and State) budgets. Congress is the policy representation of our societal id, and as Kristof notes there’s a strong current of anti-intellectualism in that id these days. This is where the political economy of how we define validity, truth and public good comes in, and why we’re in such a pickle even though at times we’ve been leaders in natural and social science research.

Let’s start with the obvious; a Senator or House member doesn’t get elected by telling their rabidly anti-intellectual constituents that they’re wrong or ignorant. They also don’t get elected by telling their corporate funders that truly empirical research based on first principles has indicated that their business model or industry is god-awful for the public good. In combination, this is a solid reason for a member of Congress to be unsupportive of Federally funded research, since most of it points out uncomfortable truths about our economic system, global warming, poverty, infrastructure, system of government, etc. But let’s assume that a member of congress really wanted to understand what was going on in all that natural and social science research. How many are trained to properly evaluate science (social and natural) research?

Thanks to Business Week, we can find out. In the House, we have 1 microbiologist, 2 engineers, and 1 physicist, out of 433. In the Senate, there’s 1 engineer, out of 100. That’s a grand total of 5 out of 533 members of the Legislative branch. It’s important that we know this, since Senator Tom Coburn passed a bill that effectively gives Congress the ability to pick and choose with research gets funded through the National Science Foundation. Essentially, Coburn politicized the process of scientific and empirical inquiry. Don’t like research about homeless people because it shows that your anti-poverty policy prescriptions are fanciful lies? You can cut funding for it. Running for office and your petroleum industry donors find climate research distasteful? No problem, you can eliminate that in that NSF funding stream. We have allowed politicians, only 1% of whom might be even remotely qualified to understand science research, to be the ones who decide what is worthy of scientific inquiry even if they have no idea what a P-value or co-linearity is.

This is what was so infuriating about Kristof’s article; while peddling insulting caricatures of zany academics and their ethereal models and theories, it failed to address the real problems facing academia and universities. Goldberg hit on the problem of funding and what it means for the vibrancy of a research community, but the problem goes farther than that. As a nation we’ve allowed ourselves to be duped into believing that we can be world leaders in research, commerce, and foreign policy among other things, while simultaneously dismantling and defunding the institutions that for the last 70 years have been key to our success.

Fundamentally this isn’t a problem of university funding structures or academics doing their jobs, those are just symptoms. At it’s core, this is a problem of an American society that has given into cynicism and handed the reigns to politicians who prey on fear and ignorance. The only way to beat this slump is to regain our national spirit of inquiry, adventure, and critical thinking, the exact things made us leaders in research and discovery for much of the last 70 years.

Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor’: Part 1

This will be a two-parter since there’s a lot in it. It’s been interesting reading the initial article about why professors need to be involved in public debate from Nicholas Kristof and seeing the rejoinders, particularly Michelle Goldbergs’ article about Columbia University’s decision to let two of their best professors of public health go. I’m a doctoral candidate whose research agenda is a hybrid between political science and public policy, and I haven’t decided yet on whether I want to go into academia or public policy, so I’ve found this debate interesting. Starting with Kristof, who I usually enjoy reading, I agreed with his sentiment at a meta level, but found the article generally ill-informed and at times oddly contradictory. Continue reading “Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor’: Part 1”

Samoa Post: End of semester observations

So I’ve been in Samoa for a semester now, working with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and getting things in order to do dissertation fieldwork. I’ll probably post again before the end of the year, but here are a few key themes that have emerged in conversation as I’ve developed relationships with my counterparts.

Continue reading “Samoa Post: End of semester observations”