“The Other Way COVID Will Kill: Hunger”

That is the title of a recent New York Times article, by Peter S. GoodmanAbdi Latif Dahir, and  on how complications driven by the spread of the coronavirus has led to increased challenges for many people in accessing nutritious and healthy food. The article is a tour de force—reporting from Afghanistan, South Africa, India, South Sudan, and Kenya—and begins with the following vignette.

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COVID-19 and Conflict—New Working Paper

What does the threat of and the policy response to COVID-19 mean for inter-group conflict worldwide?

This is the question at the center of a new (and short) working paper, by me and my super-star colleague Colette Salemi. In this paper, using data from the ACLED Project, we track time-series trends for different types of inter-group conflict and evaluate discernible changes taking place as global awareness of COVID-19 spread.

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Aspirations and Real Estate Investment in Rural Myanmar — New Working Paper

Aspirations, or future-oriented goals, influence how we make choices in the present. In recent years, development economists have developed a particular interest in the way aspirations influence human behavior. The figure below plots my calculation of the number of published articles that mention “aspirations” cataloged in the EconLit database from 1956 through 2016.

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A Quantitative Measure of Hope: A working paper

Over the past year an a half I’ve been working as a Research Assistant with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy – Burma. Housed at Michigan State University, the project is generously funded by USAID’s Bureau of Food Security. It has been a tremendous experience. I’ve traveled to Myanmer twice (see blog posts and pictures here, here, and here), I’ve provided technical support for both rural household survey administration and calculating price volatility, and was able to create and implement my own survey aiming to quantitatively measure a concept commonly known as hope.

This work on measuring hope is what ultimately became my MS Thesis. I’ve written quite a bit about this work. First in the Economics That Really Matters blog, then in the Global Food For Thought blog, and in USAID’s Agrilinks blog, along with many other of my own blog posts along the way. This was my first real academic research project that I was able to oversee from start to finish. It was a lot of work, but an experience I found out that I particularly enjoy.

You can find my entire MS Thesis posted on the MSU AFRE website. As is often the case with these things, the Thesis itself became quite long. So since its completion, I’ve been trying to break the whole document down into shorter, more journal-style papers. I’m happy to say, I’ve succeeded on one such paper so far:

Measuring Hope: A Quantitative Approach with Validation in Rural Myanmar. Here is the abstract:

Development economists are increasingly paying attention to the role of hope in observed behaviors relating to investment, production, and consumption decisions of the poor. Although several studies have examined how the concepts of hope and aspirations may fit into existing economic theories, empirical studies have yet to validate a reliable approach to measure hope. This paper seeks to fill this gap by adapting a quantitative approach to measure hope, developed by psychologists, to the context of rural Myanmar. We present three empirical tests of measurement validity. This study finds that the hope measurements seem to be correlated with expected determinants in a way supported by theory, are similar but distinct from other psychological concepts, and are positively correlated with welfare perceptions. This study provides an initial foundation for viable and reliable quantitative measurements of hope in developing countries and identifies future avenues of research to improve the measurement of hope.

We’ve just submitted this paper to a journal, but if anyone has any comments or feedback, my co-author and I would love to hear them.

‘Learning Toward Transformation’: A working paper from my time in Kenya

In the year following my graduation from college, and before starting up graduate studies at Michigan State, I lived and worked in Western Kenya. I was working with the Africa Theological Seminary, which was developing a new economic development program and wanted some evaluation work done on this new program.

When I arrived in Kitale, Kenya and realized that my first task was to convince a bunch of theologians and missionaries of some fundamental needs for a rigorous and credible program evaluation. We needed (1) a control group, (2) two survey rounds, and (3) random assignment – in order to achieve the so-called gold standard of program impact evaluation… the randomized control trial.

Ultimately, I was unsuccessful in arguing for random assignment, which (in hindsight) was probably for the best. But I was able to sufficiently argue for a control group and two survey rounds, in the form of a baseline and endline survey. With these features in place, we were able to implement a difference-in-differences evaluation methodology.

Now, the program I was evaluating was being implemented by the Africa Theological Seminary. This being the case, their goals were a little more involved than the typical secular development program. Not only did they want to inspire social and economic change, they also wanted to generate positive spiritual change. Many faith-based development programs (at least in theory) hold these desires. In fact, the desire is so popular it even has it’s own name: “transformational development”. Many well-known faith-based organizations – such as World Vision, Compassion International, World Renew, Hope International, and Partners Worldwide – make explicit their goals of so-called transformational development.

Unfortunately, the ‘credibility revolution‘ has not fully caught on within the faith-based development community. So there is a severe lack of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in achieving the goals of “transformational development”. In my view, this is quite a shame, because there are a lot of things that the secular development community could learn from the faith-based development community (and vice versa) if only some faith-based organizations engaged in some rigorous program evaluations.

This is where my working paper comes into the fold. I report some of the findings from the Africa Theological Seminary program evaluation as well as develop a simple evaluation framework for transformational development programs. Here is the abstract of the paper:

Transformational development—integrating the three goals of positive material, social, and spiritual change—is a popular concept among organizations and individuals who work in faith-based development. Despite broad agreement about the theory of transformational development, very little research has been produced that empirically investigates how to best achieve these goals. By using a difference-in-differences empirical strategy this study provides an example of a simple, yet rigorous, evaluation approach for measuring real progress toward meeting the goals of material, social, spiritual change. While providing detailed explanations of the evaluation methodology, this study presents early impacts of a church-based business skills training program in Western Kenya. In this study I find little evidence of impacts of material and social change, which is not surprising given the evaluation took place over only 18 months. I do, however, find statistically significant and positive evidence of spiritual changes, specifically in attitudes towards faith integration in work and business.

The paper is currently out for review, but I’d love to hear feedback or critiques or comments.