Shove vs. Nudge vs. None

When I first read about this new paper by a slew of economists including Esther Duflo, it was presented as part of the wave of evidence that has recently come out saying that unconditional cash transfers are just as effective at changing behavior as conditional cash transfers. The primary difference being that monitoring costs were significantly smaller, needier households would be more likely to get assistance, and there would be more flexibility in what individuals will spend the money on, likely, as they’re not being asked to do any one particular activity or investment with it.

It may be a matter of semantics, but I don’t think that this paper is actually making that claim (nor do I think they authors are really making that claim). One of the problems with measuring effects of unconditional cash transfers is that flexibility. Because individuals can spend the money where they deem it most useful or necessary, aggregate effects, or averaged effects tend to be small or even zero. In the simplest of terms, if I give three people $100 and one spends it on new shoes to plow his fields in, one spends it on school fees, and one spends it on hospital bills, the first may have a better crop output, the second may spend more time in school, and the third may be healthier but on average, income, education, and health effects are small for the group. They may all be better off, or perceive themselves as better off, but as they are better off on different metrics, we can’t observe the effect.

This idea of targeting “labeled cash transfers” as opposed to conditional ones or unconditional ones is an attempt at getting to somewhere in the middle. If we label the transfer, it implies it’s for a specific purpose, which means that we should be able to see the effect on a single metric. We know that some individuals will use the cash transfer for something other than what is labeled, but likely compliance will be high without significant monitoring costs.

Overall, though, it’s hard to imagine that recipients don’t imagine they are in some way being monitored. I can’t imagine being handed money, told explicitly it was for school, and then going and spending it on something else. Even if I were up for that, I’d be afraid of getting caught, or not being eligible for a subsequent payment. So, while this program reduces monitoring costs, which are high and probably not very effective, I don’t think this paper shows that unconditional cash transfers are as good as conditional ones, but rather that labeled cash transfers are as good as conditional ones but with fewer costs associated with them.

I also don’t doubt the principle in theory that unconditional transfers are just as good. Basic economic theory says that individuals are rational and though I may doubt that in principle, I’d guess that on average individuals will use additional funds to make themselves better off as it makes sense to them. If someone wants new shoes and someone wants to send their kids to school, and someone needs to pay hospital bills, they likely know better what will increase their own welfare. But I do think an aggregate effect on welfare is more difficult to measure with the unconditional transfers.

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) have been shown to increase human capital investments, but their standard features make them expensive. We use a large randomized experiment in Morocco to estimate an alternative government-run program, a “labeled cash transfer” (LCT): a small cash transfer made to fathers of school-aged children in poor rural communities, not conditional on school attendance but explicitly labeled as an education support program. We document large gains in school participation. Adding conditionality and targeting mothers make almost no difference. The program increased parents’ belief that education was a worthwhile investment, a likely pathway for the results.

Benhassine, Najy, Florencia Devoto, Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Victor Pouliquen. Turning a Shove into a Nudge? A “Labeled Cash Transfer” for Education. NBER Working Paper 19227.

Hunger seasons

This week’s events have reminded me why I don’t want to go back to school. As I struggle through writing an application essay and wonder whether I’m really too old for this, my thoughts turn to grandiose schemes of changing the world.

Last week, a colleague and I were discussing the seasonality of hunger in some farming communities, particularly in East Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa. I was so pleased with myself, thinking about a “Hunger Season,” and my journalist brain got a little revved about how I could write a book about it, only to find this one: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.

My take so far, it’s a little grandiose and self-pat-on-the-back-y, but it’s well written and very well researched. It paints a fascinating and illuminating portrait of subsistence farmers in Kenya, going hungry, seasonally, for just the reasons my colleague and I had been discussing earlier. It’s definitely worth a read.

I hope to finish it this week, if my own grandiose essay writing doesn’t get in the way.

A Zimbabwe Update

My arrival in Harare a few weeks ago almost perfectly coincided with the most recent call for elections, and I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. Watching Zimbabwe come out of hyperinflation has been astonishing, as an economist, and as a person trying to become a Zimbabwe scholar (sort of), a call for elections was electrifying.

Of course, my euphoria was short-lived. The first person I talked to about it responded with “they probably won’t happen.” The second with “no one actually thinks they will happen.” The third delved into a lengthy explanation of the coalition government and the problems associated with the implementation of the new constitution and how they likely wouldn’t happen on time and suddenly, I realized how little I actually knew.

I’d been here before. That is, I’ve jumped into a country I knew very little about with a few weeks’ worth of research under my belt and tried to answer some questions about it. I’d never been to Zimbabwe before. Zimbabwe is a place you can read a lot about. The hyperinflation, president of seemingly millions of years Robert Mugabe, agriculture and land reform, cholera and the UN, and so much more.

For all of this, things in Zimbabwe seem to be working. Sure, the power went out a few times on the streets, but even as traffic snarled, people got to where they were going and were improbably polite about it. Everyone seemed so kind and helpful. There wasn’t the constant blaring of horns you hear in Delhi or Kolkata. It didn’t seem nearly as crowded as Dar or Kampala. Though I was warned not to walk around at night and got plenty of stares for going on a jog through a park nearby my hotel, I felt incredibly safe driving around the country and walking through Harare during the day. We even managed to get buy-in from a relevant ministry on my project without too much leg work.

That’s not to say that things are perfect. An estimated one third of Zimbabweans under the age of 49 suffer from HIV/AIDS. Though the official unemployment rate is lower than that of the US (6% to 7.7%), an estimated 70-90% of Zimbabweans aren’t working for wages. Cash is short due to dollarization and prices are much higher than one would expect.

And elections, it seems, as so many tried to tell me, will be delayed. So perhaps everything doesn’t work quite as well as I had thought.

It’s really beautiful, though.


For reading on Zimbabwe, I’ll recommend the two books that were given to me as I took on this project. I’m sure there are many more good ones and I’d be happy to read/share if anyone has suggestions.

  1. Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (Voice of Witness)
  2. Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa

More on adolescent girls, because, yeah

I just realized that I never shared this work with you all. This post was written almost four months ago, but I think it’s still relevant. And even more so now as the papers are all live on the Girl Effect website. I hope you enjoy it!

My coauthor and I spent the last week finishing up our issues paper on adolescent girls for DFID and the Nike Foundation. It’s been this super crazy, whirlwind kind of project where I’ve learned so much and met so many amazing people. It’s exciting, but it sure was exhausting. I’m really excited to be able to share our findings, here they are!

So, what do we find? For the most part, programs that seek to use social norms to reduce societal discrimination against adolescent girls aren’t very well-studied. With the exception of a very small number of programs, both quantitative and qualitative analysis are lacking; overall there has been little effort to sufficiently randomize participants and perform rigorous pre- and post-intervention analysis. Thus the ability to causally identify statistically significant effects of these programs is incredibly limited.

There are a few rays of light, however. We found three programs–Tostan, Meena Communication Initiative, and Promises–that promote gender-equitable behaviors and discourage violence and discrimination against adolescent girls using social norms language or methods. All three of these programs employ multifaceted interventions. That is to say that while each has a goal of reducing discrimination or ending FGM/C, the actual process includes community conversations, social norms marketing through popular culture medium such as comic books and television shows, community declarations, school programming and more.

It seems that this is the way programs in the developing world are going. Recently, Markus Goldstein posted about his new paper on a child club program to promote the status and welfare of adolescent girls in Uganda. Though it doesn’t seem to have a strong social norms component, ELA is multifaceted, and thus multi-outcome.

In terms of sexual behavior, the girls who participate in the clubs show significantly better HIV and pregnancy knowledge than the control group.   They are also 12.6 percentage points more likely to report always using a condom when they have sex (which matches up with a reduction in those reporting often or occasional use of a condom).   They also experience a striking reduction in fertility – at follow up, treatment girls are 2.7 percentage points less likely to have a kid (26 percent of the baseline mean).   Now since they also report no increase in use of other forms of contraception, these things taken together strongly suggest that they are markedly reducing their risk of exposure to HIV.

My favorite part of reading this paper was this interactive effect. It’s very cool and I think will provide an strong template going forward for programs that wish to engage communities and have profound, lasting effects. Both Markus’ research and ours suggest that the narrowly focused, difficult-to-replicate, difficult-to-scale-up RCTs such as those heralded in Poor Economics and More Than Good Intentions have some growing to do.

So many NBER papers I want to read today

Good thing I’m traveling this afternoon. (All gated, sorry.)

  1. Long-Term Neighborhood Effects on Low-Income Families: Evidence from Moving to Opportunity Abstract: We examine long-term neighborhood effects on low-income families using data from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) randomized housing-mobility experiment, which offered some public-housing families but not others the chance to move to less-disadvantaged neighborhoods. We show that 10-15 years after baseline MTO improves adult physical and mental health; has no detectable effect on economic outcomes, youth schooling and youth physical health; and mixed results by gender on other youth outcomes, with girls doing better on some measures and boys doing worse. Despite the somewhat mixed pattern of impacts on traditional behavioral outcomes, MTO moves substantially improve adult subjective well-being.
  2. New Evidence on the Impacts of Access to and Attending Universal Childcare in Canada Abstract: In Canada, advocates of universal child care often point to policies implemented in Quebec as providing a model for early education and care policies in other provinces. While these policies have proven to be incredibly popular among citizens, initial evaluations of access to these programs indicated they led to a multitude of undesirable child developmental, health and family outcomes. These research findings ignited substantial controversy and criticism. In this study, we show the robustness of the initial analyses to i) concerns over whether negative outcomes would vanish over time as suppliers gained experience providing child care, ii) concerns regarding multiple testing, and iii) concerns that the original test measured the causal impact of childcare availability and not child care attendance. A notable exception is that despite estimated effects stemming from the policy indicating declines in motor-social development scores in Quebec relative to the rest of Canada, our analyses imply that on average attending childcare in Canada leads to a significant increase in this test score. However, our analysis reveals substantial heterogeneity in program impacts that occur in response to the Quebec policies and indicates that most of the negative impacts reported in earlier research are driven by children from families who only attended childcare in response to the implementation of this policy.
  3. Profitability of Fertilizer: Experimental Evidence from Female Rice Farmers in Mali Abstract: In an experiment providing fertilizer grants to women rice farmers in Mali, we found that women who received fertilizer increased both the quantity of fertilizer they used on their plots and complementary inputs such as herbicides and hired labor. This highlights that farmers respond to an increase in availability of one input by re-optimizing other inputs, making it challenging to isolate the returns to any one input. We also found that while the increase in inputs led to a significantly higher level of output, we find no evidence that profits increased. Our results suggest that fertilizer’s impact on profits is small compared to other sources of variation. This may make it difficult for farmers to observe the impact of fertilizer on their plots, and accordingly this affects their ability to learn about the returns to fertilizer and could affect their decision to adopt even in the absence of credit constraints.

A rant on fertility rates and other nonsense

Amid the great twitter shutdown of Thursday morning, I inadvertently got myself into my first twitter fight. I’m still not entirely sure how we got to the point of this person, previously unknown to me, accusing me of believing that condoms were not a form of conception, but I think it had to do with her not reading a post of mine from last year.

When it ended, we somehow were talking about the US fertility rate. I was trying to make that point that if only 1% of women of child-bearing age in the US were pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding, we would have far fewer than 4 million babies born per year, while she wanted to insist the the right wing agenda was fighting abortion in order to increase the fertility rate of whites.

We were clearly talking past each other. Nonetheless, I thought of the conversation Saturday morning when a friend forwarded me this “the world is coming to an end because white women in the US aren’t having babies” article from the WSJ. There are so many things wrong with this piece, starting with the inherent racism (the fertility rate may be 14/1000 inhabitants, but it’s the immigrants who are having babies, which is going to wipe us out), to the misuse of statistics (I’m not sure how a slight increase in fertility constitutes “sinking like a stone,” but hey, I’m not a statistician or demographer or economist or anything…oh, wait…).

The set of solutions proposed by the author are equally problematic and short-sighted. While I admit that universities are in need of reform and education is too expensive, I am flummoxed by the observation that we should send fewer people to college. Apparently, fewer people (read: women) in college means people will have more babies which means more people paying taxes. Women leave college or the workforce to get pregnant or take lower wage jobs so that we can have more tax revenue? I’m confused. Despite the apparent appeal to the mercantilists who wanted to keep people poor so they would work hard, it goes entirely counter to his contention that we need people to be innovative and entrepreneurial. How do you expect people to be innovative if you don’t let them receive training in what’s already been done? Besides, I think the idea that we’re innovative because our population is growing is backwards. We don’t need more people in order to be more innovative, we need more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars to incentivize discovery, to provide opportunities, and to care for people who cannot take care of themselves.

Further, nowhere does the author promote pro-child policies that don’t utilize the tax code. There’s no talk of parental leave or support (such as expanding the Family Medical Leave Act, which just turned 20), child care, or other pro-parent policies. There’s no talk of improving public schools, so that having a child in a place like Chicago or New York isn’t subject to the constraint (held for some, not all) to be able to pay for private school.

National Book Award Finalists

I was pleased to see this week that Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity was named the National Book Award Winner for Non-fiction. I finally finished in a flurry of plane rides in October, fighting exhaustion and will-I-make-it-back-to-the-East-Coast stress in the shadow of Hurricane Sandy. Yes, I was one of those lunatics people trying to fly into the storm. I just made it, thankfully–I think my students would have revolted had I not–and haven’t picked up a book since then. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It doesn’t paint a particularly pretty picture of development, aid, poverty, or India, but that’s kind of the point.

Congratulations to all the winners! Thanks for keeping words beautiful.

The cutting edge of social norms research

At the conference in London last week, more than a few people were curious about who is doing work on social norms and in what contexts. The simplest answer is that Betsy Levy Paluck, Princeton professor of psychology and my coauthor on a piece about reducing gender-based violence, is working at the forefront of this research. Read pretty much anything by her if you want an idea of things that are going on.

Last year, a World Bank blog post declared social norms to be one of the most exciting areas of research for development, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what exactly social norms are. In our work last week, we heard many wanting to conflate social norms with societal norms or cultural norms.

From the issues paper Laurie Ball Cooper and I presented in London (2012):

Norms are often defined as models or patterns, and societal norms are often defined as the customary rules that govern behavior in a given community (Geertz, 1973). By contrast, social norms are “individuals’ perceptions about which attitudes and behaviors are typical or desirable in their community” (Paluck and Ball, 2010; Cialdini and Trost, 1998). This definition is derived from an extensive social psychological literature focusing on social norms as “socially shared definitions of the way people do behave or should behave” (Paluck, 2007; Miller, Monin and Prentice, 2000). Social norms include both descriptive norms (perceptions about behaviors that are common in the community) and injunctive norms (perceptions about which behaviors are desirable in the community) (Prentice, 2008; Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren, 1990). Individual attitudes and beliefs can be distinguished from these community-oriented concepts of norms: attitudes are individuals’ “evaluative stance toward the self or something in the environment,” and beliefs include “understandings (thought of as factual) of the self or something in the environment” (Paluck and Ball, 2010).

Social norms research is starting to appear in more and more venues. A paper I mentioned briefly in this space examined the intersection between social norms and inheritance laws. This paper reflects how legal reform must take into account local context if it hopes to effect change. The inheritance reform had particularly significant effects because it interacted with the social norm that fathers provide for their sons in Ghana. And a recent World Bank working paper examines corruption through the lens of social norms.


Ball Cooper, Laurie, and Erin K Fletcher. “Reducing societal discrimination against adolescent girls: Using social norms as a tool for behavioral change.” DFID Adolescent Girls technical paper. October 2012. (Available December 2012, hopefully).

Cialdini, R. B., L.J. Demaine, B.J. Sagarin, D.W. Barrett, K. Rhoads, and P.L. Winter (2006). “Managing social norms for persuasive impact.” Journal of Social Influence, 1(1), 3-15.

Cialdini, Robert B., Carl A. Kallgren, and Raymond R. Reno (1991), “A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: A Theoretical Refinement and Reevaluation of the Role of Norms in Human Behavior,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 24, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, San Diego: Academic Press, 201–34.

Miller, D. T., B. Monin, B., & D.A. Prentice (2000). Pluralistic ignorance and inconsistency between private attitudes and public behaviors. In D. J. Terry and M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Attitudes, behavior, and social context: The role of norms and group membership. pp. 95- 113. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Paluck, Elizabeth Levy, and Laurie Ball (2010). “Social norms marketing aimed at gender based violence: A literature review and critical assessment.” New York: International Rescue Committee.

Paluck, E.L. (2007). “Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict with the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda.” Yale University.

Prentice, Deborah A. (2008). “Mobilizing and Weakening Peer Influence as Mechanisms for Changing Behavior: Implications for Alcohol Intervention Programs.” In Prinstein, M.J., & Dodge, K.A. (Eds.). Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.

The unit of analysis

Bill Easterly put a quote on his non-blog yesterday from a Jane Jacobs book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, (now almost 30 years old) on the unit of analysis in development questions. It makes a case for considering other units of analysis than the nation.

Nations are political and military entities… But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for rise and decline of wealth.

As a labor economist, I’m kind of surprised that it’s still an issue, but it seems necessary to reiterate even 30 years after Jacobs brought it up in her book. Though Easterly and Jacobs were talking about wealth and economics in particular, I think the insight is relevant for all kinds of decision making, and especially important when we’re talking about social norms (yes, I’m on a social norms kick–it doesn’t help that a friend told me last night that all my research was boring except for the social norms stuff. I’m here all night, folks).

At the risk of sounding like an echo, I was a bit taken aback last week how many of the people at the conference wanted to talk about scaling up to national level, how to effect change at a national level, and how to measure national-level social norms (some confusion around the term, here), even while admitting how watered down programs get at that level and how difficult it is to generalize across countries. Research suggests that reform and program implementation at that level are not very compatible with leveraging social norms for behavioral change due to lack of identification with the relevant social group (the nation).

Examining a different “why” in development, aid, and girls

I was in London last week at the behest of the Nike Foundation and DFID for what I’m told was a very unique event, the first of its kind, on the status of adolescent girls in the world. It was a whirlwind couple of days with lots of amazing conversations, lots of confusing conversations, and lots of learning. My coauthor and I were both struck by the tremendous amount of experience and wealth of knowledge around that room. I could not have fathomed anything like it before getting on a plane to the UK.

It was definitely the first time I’d ever been in a room like this. 70 people from various development agencies–both funding and programmatic–people who work in the field, people who work in development administration and a few like me, who work with numbers and evidence and research.

At the end of it all, I was totally exhausted. By the time we even finished our first dinner, I was curious as to whether I would make it through the rest of the week, but I left with a much greater sense of the work that is being done and the challenges of implementing the kinds of programs and collecting the data I study. I hope that practitioners also left with some insight into how they can make my job of evaluating easier.

Given that the work we produced for this conference was on using social norms to reduce societal discrimination against girls, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the “why?” I don’t mean the “why are we here?” or “why are we doing this kind of research?” I think the community convened this week has a very clear idea of why they think this research is important, though I think they have a harder sell to some of those that fund it. I mean the why rather in a sense of why does this work? And why doesn’t it work? I think a lot that was discussed is about “what works” and “how should we proceed” and the other why is actually very important if we’re concerned about expansion, replication, and scale.

What works is only so useful a question in development if you are looking at comparable populations, comparable implementers, comparable geographies, and similarly changing economies. That’s almost impossible. But if we can say this works, and this works because of they way it interacts with more global phenomena–like desire to conform to a group, or desire not to be embarrassed–, that helps us figure out how to take it somewhere else. Because then the question of how to effect the same behavior change in another environment becomes not “what worked over there?” but rather “how does the mechanism through which we achieved change there come to work over here?”

I grant that it’s a more complicated question. And it may seem silly coming from me compared to someone with decades of experience in the field, but I do think there are big contributions to come from social norms research and other mechanisms. There are several avenues to be explored, but it’s nice to have a bit of a grasp on one of them.