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Thursday, February 27, 2014

What do the People Say they Want (from probably the largest global survey ever)?

Survey says, overwhelmingly, a good quality education. Better healthcare is number 2, followed up by better job opportunities. But last on the list is, action on climate change.

The Washington Post reports on real-time results from an ongoing survey by the UN that is answered by over 1.4 million people over the world. The data is accessible here. Play around with it; it's pretty cool.


I've always seen the problem of climate change as the same problem of why the common room in shared apartments is always the dirtiest. The tenants are aware of it, even despise it, but nobody wants to start cleaning up because the costs of doing so are private, while the benefits are shared by all. And so is it with climate change: cleaning up entails costs whose benefits are probably realized far in the future when the present generation is dead. Unilateral action by countries to tackle climate change entails costs, while the benefits are shared by all.

Now if only there was such a thing as a world government... The world is in need of global citizens.

HT to Ian Thorpe, @ithorpe.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

opendata.NGO.ph

In case you've missed it, the Philippine Government has recently launched data.gov.ph, a web portal that holds government datasets, making them easily available to the public. It is one of my favorite new initiatives of this administration - a testimony to transparency, open government, and participatory governance. While the site still needs more content, I can only hope that in the coming months, many can make use of the data that's already available, not only to generate cute infographics, but hopefully to produce high-quality analytic work that is helpful to governance. I often criticize the government, but I believe it deserves applause in this case, for starting something fresh and promising.

Original Image from Open Data Philippines' Facebook Page

In the meantime, I've been mulling over about why we haven't seen quite the same movement take-off for civil society: NGOs, think tanks, and news organizations. It was civil society that was active in calling the government to become more transparent, and they are even now mostly behind the push for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, and yet, it remains difficult to obtain data from this very sector. Shouldn't we soon also push for a movement like opendata.NGO.ph?

Typhoon Haiyan makes the case for civil sector transparency more readily apparent. When the storm hit, the government immediately launched FAiTH, the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub, to track foreign government donations. You can see from the site that there was a total of $551 million dollars pledged. But what you can't see is how this money was actually spent, and when. Most of this money went to NGOs. But there is no easily accessible site where you can find how their work is going and how they have spent (or haven't spent) the funds. Some organizations were diligent early on in providing updates, like Ayala Foundation. But it seems this hasn't continued. If you wanted to get data, you had to contact each organization one by one, most of whom fail to reply. I know, because I tried.

A few years ago, I had the unfortunate experience of trying to obtain data. An organization, which shall remain unnamed, had published an excellent investigative piece on the political economy of how government was distributing funds. So I requested for their raw data to replicate the analysis and see if I could add insights. Access denied. They said they were protective of the data, given that their research assistants had worked hard to obtain it. It's best, they said, that I collect the same data myself. Now I concede this is reasonable, and I do not wish to generalize much from this personal experience, but it has since left me wondering about why civil society, who should lean towards providing public goods, has been reluctant to become more open, while they call on government to become more so.

Must we not also push for civil society to become more open with their data? Some will say that it costs resources to do this. Others will be reluctant because why should they release data that they could potentially be criticized about? But these obstacles have not been an excuse for the government in its recent push for greater transparency. I salute them.

Data is the next great public good, and there has been an increased movement around the world towards openness. I hope we realize it is not only government that should provide it. The next big movement should be about opendata.NGO.ph.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Bloodletting

Imagine if your physician said to you one day, upon diagnosing you had a common cold, that what you need is to bleed. Perhaps a liter of blood would do the trick, he says, or maybe more. You'd be repulsed, wouldn't you? You'd never return to this quack again.

But had this been the recent past, you might have been more receptive. Bloodletting, after all, persisted right up until the early 1900s. It was common treatment for almost all medical ailments. Barbers bled you -- hence those red-and-white poles that have come to signify barber shops. They opened your veins using sharp instruments called lancets. If you were lucky, they used leeches. The practice was so widespread, the French imported 40 million leeches a year in the 1830s for medicinal purposes.

It is well known today that bloodletting is ineffective and in many cases harmful to patients, but it took around 2000 years to discover it. Reading about the old practice today is cringe-inducing. Physicians brought suffering, when they thought they were doing good.

I have often been asked by old friends, since arriving from abroad, what it is exactly that I research as a graduate student, and I often like to start my explanation with bloodletting. Around 1835, Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis decided to evaluate the merits of bloodletting. He looked at 77 patients with a case of pneumonia and divided them into two groups: those who were bled 1-4 days after illness and those who were bled late, 5-9 days after. It was important that both groups were as comparable as possible, and were of the same age. He applied statistical analysis to compare outcomes between both groups. And his results were, as he remarked then, "startling and apparently absurd." It seems that bloodletting did not decrease, but increased mortality. 44% of those who bled early died, while only 25% for those who bled late did. Below is his wonderful figure reproduced, which I've taken from the internet:


Today, drugs in the US can no longer be legally sold without having been subjected to clinical trials that establish them to be safe and effective. Evidence plays a critical role.

In the field of development and public policy though, the careful evaluation of programs and policies is now only becoming more commonplace (but mostly with NGOs and not governments). It is an exciting development. Although I doubt that there are many "bloodletting" programs out there, it is not obvious which ones are ineffective and wasteful of resources. The job is to discover these and understand how to make them better. It is an endeavor I find great importance in, and try to contribute to, as a graduate student.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why are Remittances Primarily Consumed, Not Invested?

It is a concern that dominates the migration research agenda, but I hear it too often with practitioners as well: migrant households do not spend their remittances well; they consume rather than invest. Hence, we should conduct financial training and entrepreneurship programs.

Michael Clemens and Timothy Ogden points out in a new paper why such assertions could be flawed:
It should not surprise anyone that migrant households do not tend to invest most of their remittances. Overseas work is often attractive precisely to those households that lack profitable investment opportunities at home (Basok 2000; Clemens and Tiongson 2012). ...
... If households are investing in migration, most of them have assessed the benefits and costs of that investment relative to other investments they could make—and determined that migration is superior to most other options. The surprise would be to see migrant households investing massively in assets other than the asset of having family members abroad, since they have already made big sacrifices to invest in migration, revealing that it is one of their best options—at least until the migration investment option is already exploited. ...
... Second, there is extremely little evidence that remittances are less likely to be invested than any other kind of income. If we want to know why most remittances are not invested, we need to ask why most income is not invested, that is, why there are few investment opportunities at the origin. This question is more difficult but vastly more useful.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Michael about this a few years back. I can still remember his striking analogy: if migration is indeed an investment, then why is our first reaction always to ask why its returns are not invested? Hasn't the investment been already made? It is similar to asking an investor who earns a killing from his stock market portfolio why he uses his money primarily to eat better food and buy better clothes. It would be strange to accuse him of not investing his returns in other stocks or of not starting a new business. He is probably already choosing his best investment available. So he buys a watch or a fancier cellphone. Who are we to say there's a better investment and he is making all but the wrong choices?

We should ask instead why other forms of investment opportunities are limited. And this is not simply the fault of wrong choices on the part of migrants.

There is of course probably more to it. Incidentally, I am pondering on this while I myself am involved in an evaluation of a financial training program, aimed at helping migrant households spend better. I hope to get the bigger picture.