Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

Regarding the above picture of DRC government troops with their mobile phones, Alexis Madrigal from the Atlatinc wrote in his column last year:

I don’t know what to say about this photograph aside from suggesting that an enterprising PhD student write a dissertation on “Cell Phones in War.” How are fighting, killing, and controlling territory different when you can call your brother after battle, post a photo of your squadron on the march to Facebook, or play Angry Birds between skirmishes?

Part of the answer to Alexis’ question comes in a newly published article in the American Political Science Review by postdoctoral fellow Jan Pierskalla and PhD candidate Florian Hollenbach (ht the Monkey Cage).

In a nutshell, the authors’ findings suggest that cell phone coverage in Africa increases the likelihood of political violence. The abstract is below:

The spread of cell phone technology across Africa has transforming effects on the economic and political sphere of the continent. In this paper, we investigate the impact of cell phone technology on violent collective action. We contend that the availability of cell phones as a communication technology allows political groups to overcome collective action problems more easily and improve in-group cooperation, and coordination. Utilizing novel, spatially disaggregated data on cell phone coverage and the location of organized violent events in Africa, we are able to show that the availability of cell phone coverage significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict. Our findings hold across numerous different model specifications and robustness checks, including cross-sectional models, instrumental variable techniques, and panel data methods.

It will be interesting to see how this paper resonates with different audiences, such as the ICT4D community and political scientists. Some have already started to question the methodology and underlying assumptions in the paper.

But despite the findings of this study, like it or not, at some point technology cheerleaders will have to come to terms with a simple fact: if technology helps us overcome problems of collective action, there’s no reason to believe that this can only happen when it comes to virtuous collective action. And it shouldn’t take a PhD to know that.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

Trac FM – Monitoring Service Delivery

The Indigo Trust has awarded a grant of €13,500 to TRAC.fm to expand the network of organisations that use its data collection software to inform their social campaigns.

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Trac FM provides radio stations in Africa with software and support to involve their listeners in reporting on failing governments services through SMS. Through Trac FM’s online interface, radio presenters get a clear and instant overview of SMS-poll results which they present to listeners during radio debates. Stations invite local leaders to comment on collected data and Trac FM makes sure data reaches responsible authorities. Trac FM wants people to be part of the running of their society and provide them with a platform to participate and discuss policy issues in an accessible and objective way.

Interesting initiative. Would be interested in finding out whether they measure their impact on service delivery and, if so, how.

Can Informed Public Deliberation Overcome Clientelism? Experimental Evidence from Benin

picture by geezaweezer on flickr

Brilliant paper by Leonard Wantchekon

This paper provides experimental evidence on the effect of “informed” town hall meetings on electoral support for programmatic, non-clientelist platforms. The experiment takes place in Benin and involves real candidates running in the first round of the 2006 presidential elections. The treatment is a campaign strategy based exclusively on town hall meetings during which policy proposals made by candidates are “specific” and informed by empirical research. The control is the “standard” strategy based on campaign rallies followed by targeted or clientelist electoral promises. We find that the treatment has a positive effect on self-perceived knowledge about policies and candidates. The data also suggests a positive effect of the treatment on turnout and electoral support for the candidates participating in the experiment. The results suggest that new democracies may contain electoral clientelism by institutionalizing the use of both town hall meetings in electoral campaigns and policy expertise in the design of electoral platforms.

Read the full paper here [PDF]

High-Frequency Data Using Mobile Phones: Incentives and Accountability

Great research note  [PDF] by Croke et al. (2012). Here’s the abstract:

As mobile phone ownership rates have risen dramatically in Africa, there has been increased interest in using mobile telephones as a data collection platform. This note draws on two largely successful pilot projects in Tanzania and South Sudan that used mobile phones for high-frequency data collection. Data were collected on a wide range of topics and in a manner that was cost-effective, flexible, and rapid. Once households were included in the survey, they tended to stick with it: respondent fatigue has not been a major issue. While attrition and nonresponse have been challenges in the Tanzania survey, these were due to design flaws in that particular survey, challenges that can be avoided in future similar projects. Ensuring use of the data to demand better service delivery and policy decisions turned out to be as challenging as collecting the high-quality data. Experiences in Tanzania suggest that good data can be translated into public accountability, but also demonstrate that just putting data out in the public domain is not enough. This note discusses lessons learned and offers suggestions for future applications of mobile phone surveys in developing countries, such as those planned for the World Bank’s “Listening to Africa” initiative.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that part of the design used financial incentives as a means to reduce nonresponse and attrition rates. In the technology and development world there has been lots of talk about “incentives to participate”, where the practical shortcut is often the provision of financial incentives. In Tanzania, for instance, the authors report that “respondents who successfully completed an interview were rewarded with an amount varying from $2 to $4”, not a negligible sum in the Tanzanian context.

Interestingly, in the working paper [PDF] from which this note is drawn, a footnote sheds some light on how effective these rewards were:

Remarkably in both Sudan and Tanzania the amount of the reward did not have a discernable impact on response rates.

But these findings are not as surprising as they may seem. Indeed, there is a good deal of evidence from behavioural economics pointing out that financial incentives might not work as well as traditional economics (and economists) would predict.

And a noteworthy excerpt on the limits of transparency and the role of existing institutions and actors:

One lesson is that  providing citizens with relevant, timely, and accurate data  about the actions of politicians, policy makers, and public service providers is not sufficient. For the data to have impact, they need to be accessible and disseminated widely, and in ways that allow them to be utilized by already existing institutions and actors.

This is an interesting point, although I am not sure to what extent existing institutions are enough. In the field of technology and governance, I believe that it has become quite clear that very little is achieved when technological solutions are not coupled with institutional innovations.

But that’s another story. In any case, a great read, and the type of effort that is badly needed in this space.

Has Democratization Reduced Infant Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa?

picture by Teseum on flickr.

Masayuki Kudamatsu (2006)

Does democracy help babies survive in sub-Saharan Africa? By using retrospective fertility surveys conducted in 28 African countries, I compare the survival of infants born to the same mother before and after democratization to identify the effect of democracy. In measuring democracy, I adopt a theoretically motivated definition of democracy: universal suffrage and contested elections for executive office. I find that infant mortality falls by 1.8 percentage points, 18 percent of the sample mean, after democratization. The size of the reduction is larger for babies born to mothers from disadvantaged groups. I also find that the replacement of a chief executive by democratization is the driving force behind these results. Additional evidence suggests that improvements in public health service delivery, not an increase in affluence, are the key mechanism in which democratization has reduced infant mortality.

Download [PDF] here.