After 11 months in Africa, I spent two wonderful weeks in the United States visiting friends and family. Some of my thoughts during the trip, in chronological order:
1. British people get really pale in the winter time.
2. People don't really buy all those expensive handbags, do they?
3. The North East is really cold.
4. The average American doesn't have ANY idea what life is like for the average African.
5. Oregon is really cold.
6. What's tempranillo?
7. I'm dehydrated; why isn't anyone selling water sachets?....oh yeah I can drink the tap water.
8. Los Angeles is sometimes really cold.
9. Wow, Hulu might actually make money with its premium service.
10. DC is really cold.
11. GAAH what is this Friday song?! I need to go back to Ghana!
12. Tamale is really hot.
George the monkey eats his dessert (apples) first, then picks the green peppers out of his salad.
When I am in Tamale, I often share my lunch with the office monkey, George. It seems to me that when I share my food with George, my eating habits improve.
There are two reasons for this. The first is simply related to quantity. I don't like to waste food, so normally I clean my plate even if I am no longer hungry. When George is around, I give him my leftovers when I get full.
The second reason has to do with externalities. When I buy food for myself, I often get lazy and buy fried street food that is available nearby. If I share food like this with George, I feel bad for feeding him rubbish. I used to buy egg pies and give George the egg yolk, which I don't like anyway, before I decided that monkeys should probably watch their cholesterol too. As a result, if I know I will be sharing with George, I am more likely to travel farther to get healthy food I will feel good about sharing with the monkey.
I don't know a lot about the field of behavioral economics, but it seems to me that humans, as social animals, may be psychologically wired to internalize externalities through the feelings of guilt and warmfuzzies/self-righteousness.
The other day I called British Airways Ghana to confirm my flight from Accra to New York. The booking agent asked for the reservation code. Because of the bad connection and my American accent, the agent couldn't understand what letters I was saying, forcing me to use phonetic code to spell them (A as in alpha, B as in bravo...etc.)
I've never learned the NATO phonetic alphabet, and I find having to come up with my own codes strangely stressful-- there is pressure to quickly come up a good word that won't be confused with any other word. It has to be sophisticated and unique, but not too nerdy. (You can't go around saying "H as in heteroskedasticity", for example.
When I came to the letter "F", I said the first thing that came to my mind: "F as in fufu."
The room full of Ghanaians and expats gallantly stifled their laughter till I finished my phone conversation.
Chris Blattman’s blog recently critiqued an article by Dan Pallotta arguing that earmarking funds for programs with proven impact is actually less impactful than using the money for further fund-raising efforts. Pallotta makes an argument that spending on fund-raising allows you to, in essence, leverage your funds and get a much higher return on investment than you would if you’d spent that money directly on programs.
Blattman makes two counter points:
1. The effectiveness of the programs you are funding feeds back into your ability to use your money to raise more funds.
2. It’s not clear that lack of funds is the binding constraint in aid.
I’m a bit skeptical of Blattman’s second point—I thought I was out here getting malaria to make sure that scarce development resources were spent on programs with the highest impact. I think it is more correct to think of funds and good practice as being similar to labor and capital—in most circumstances you can add more of one or the other and improve outcomes, but are most effective when increased together.
I think Blattman’s first point is completely correct. Pallotta is right that fund-raising can increase impact, but program impact is fundamental to fund-raising effectiveness and meaning. Donors should be attracted by good programs. In a rational world with perfect information, donors would know exactly how much money they wanted to spend, and they would choose the program with the highest impact-per-dollar. This is how these institutional funders Pallotta is complaining about behave. However, in the real world, human behavior is less rational and more suggestible. If fund-raising can actually increase the number of dollars out there to be used on development, it can indeed be highly impactful. Note that fund-raising that just diverts funding from one project to another from a fixed pool of resources doesn’t get to claim this—unless the program it diverts money to is more impactful that the program it diverts money from.
Which brings us to the next point-- if your programs don’t have impact, it doesn’t matter how much you leverage your dollars- you are just using more money badly. Palotta’s proposal to use seed money to fundraise is similar to the concept of hedge funds. Hedge funds can’t make huge returns without leveraging their initial funds with loans, but if they don’t put the leveraged funds in investments with good returns, they are just wasting everyone’s money.
Palotta also argues that you often can’t know what is going to be impactful ex ante. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel and give up on trying to target impactful programs. Market investors often can’t know which stocks will take off, but no investor would throw money at one without trying to make an educated assessment of its future value. If funding truly is a scarce resource, you have to have some standard for choosing which programs to fund and which not to.
Polatta may be right to encourage donors to allow their funds to be used for further fundraising, but this only makes sense in concert with an emphasis on evaluation. After all, what is the point of all that fundraising if you aren’t going to do anything good with it? And for fundraising to matter, Blattman must be wrong about money not being a binding constraint. If money is a binding constraint, then you can’t fund everything, and it becomes all the more crucial to have some way of assessing the best programs.
Most surveys have a field at the end for comments where surveyors can record anything important about the survey not addressed elsewhere. My survey did—and I found that most of the time, surveyors record nothing important in the comments field. Typical entries include:
1. The obvious:
“The survey was completed successfully”
2. The nice but not particularly important:
“Respondent was very friendly”
3. Somewhat useful information about attitudes toward your survey:
“The respondent complained it was too long”
“The respondent hated the food security section”
4. The confusing:
5. The amusingly mis-written:
“Good Intercourse” (An actual comment from one of my friend Linda’s surveys)
Occasionally, a surveyor will use the comments section to record very important information about seemingly contradictory information in the survey. For example, if no household head is recorded, the surveyor might note that the household head is working in another region and thus didn’t meet the residence requirement to be recorded as part of the household, even though that person has decision-making power for the household. Another example: if a respondent opts out of a question or section, this can be recorded so that the information is not thought missing.
This is how the comments section should be used. Reducing comments to only include important information has the benefit of reducing time-consuming string field data entry, and reducing the number of comments that must be sorted through during analysis.
How do you improve use of the comments section? Next time I do a training, I will include a section on using the comments field—giving examples of useful comments and unnecessary comments, and emphasizing that it’s okay to leave the section blank if there is no important information to record.
This is also an area where electronic surveying has an advantage. Many electronic survey platforms allow surveyors to add comments on each question. This focuses the surveyor on recording information that is relevant to understanding survey responses. It also allows the surveyor to address an inconsistency as soon as it comes up, rather than waiting till the end of the survey, when the surveyor may have forgotten about the issue.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.