No loo, No I do

A few weeks ago, a coauthor sent me a job market paper from an environmental economics student at Yale. Though in a very different department than me, we have similar interests and she thought I would find the paper interesting. Not only did I find it interesting, I found myself wishing it had been my job market paper. Apparently, so did a lot of people. The paper has been blowing up my twitter feed and was featured on the World Bank’s Development Impact Blog.

The paper evaluates the effects of a media campaign in Haryana, India designed to encourage women to make latrine presence a requirement for marriage. The project is particularly interesting because it allows for reasonable evaluation of a campaign targeting social norms without the the randomized control component so in vogue in economics right now. In addition, it provides real evidence as to the causal effect of skewed sex ratios. While we have speculated and reported on the effects of sex ratios, many of which I’ve discussed here, there is little statistical evidence. Now, we have some. It’s pretty great.

In summary, the paper shows that men of marrying age are more likely to build latrines when they live in areas with a more skewed sex ratio. Thus, a woman’s bargaining power in demanding a good that has an outsized benefit for her (privacy, sanitation, health) increases when she becomes relatively ‘scarce’ on the marriage market. While this doesn’t discount the other, more undesirable possible effects of a skewed sex ratio (bridenapping, increased violence against women, etc), it is certainly evidence that women are leveraging their bargaining power to improve their outcomes.

In addition, the means to test a social norms marketing campaign are huge. My own work on such campaigns directed at reducing gender-based violence showed the near impossibility of successfully and credibly evaluating their impact. The use of a sex ratio as a (somewhat?) exogenous measure of potential impact is novel, exciting, and I’m sure will be in use by many papers to come. There’s the obvious question of whether it’s plausibly exogenous, but perhaps we’ll save that conversation for another day.

The paper has two parts, one presents a theoretical model to explain the mechanism and the other presents empirical evidence from the program itself to show how a skewed sex ratio has increased women’s bargaining power, at least on this one dimension in Haryana, India. I have some nitpicky comments, like the theory section needs to be more thoroughly explained, or there are square brackets where there should be curly ones, but overall, I think it’s a great paper. It’s kind of wonkish, but you can download the paper here, if you’re interested. Good luck in Chicago, Yaniv!

A lawyer, an economist and a social psychologist walk into a bar…

Over the last few months, I’ve been hard at work on an amazing project with two even more amazing coauthors. Through my undergrad, I’ve come into contact with so many fantastically smart people and as we all grow professionally, we’re starting to collaborate and work together on various academic projects. It just so happens that this most recent collaboration was proposed to me by a lawyer, to write a handbook chapter on gender-based violence, or GBV, from a social psychology perspective, with the other coauthor being a social psychologist. It starts to sound like a joke, but I promise it’s not.

I delved into this world of social psychology with some trepidation. My advisors expressed their qualms about the project, and not just because it would take time away from finishing my dissertation (it has, but it’s all going to get done). Academics in general, and economists in particular, are wary of crossing disciplinary lines, and there are good reasons for that hesitation. We’ve all been “raised” in very different academic environments, with not only different advisors, but different canonical texts, different standards for what constitutes research, for what constitutes a conclusion, different styles of writing, of citation, etc. In this light, our differences can seem overwhelming, to the point of excluding all possibility of collaboration. When it comes down to it, though, we’re all interested in asking interesting questions and finding answers to them. It’s that curiosity, that drive to solve problems, that I think unites us as academics. Certainly, we all took these (at least theoretical) pay cuts for a reason other than “summers off”.

In the research I did for this paper, and am still doing as organizations get back to me, and more sources and programs come to light, has opened up a whole new world in terms of how we present information. While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we ask questions, and particularly survey questions, I’ve spent less time in thinking about how we present information to change behavior. It’s easy to agree that gender-based violence is an undesirable outcome, but with the wealth of experience that tells us how easily we can alienate those we try to teach, how teaching can backfire in the face of culture and how unique individual situations are, it’s harder to say that we know how to combat it.

Programs that follow the dicta of social norms marketing fall squarely in this idea of how do we present information to change behavior. It’s a term that at first confused me, the economist, but quickly took hold. We talk about social norms all the time from what constitutes appropriate dinner talk to the acceptability of practices like FGM or honor killings in certain communities. As regards gender-based violence social norms, is gender-based violence acceptable? Or, rather, are there certain situations under which beating your wife is acceptable? We find that the answers to these questions are rather different, and how we pose them to survey respondents greatly affects the data to come out of such surveys.

The marketing part is the presentation of information. Through pamphlets or television shows or radio programs, advertisements, participatory workshops or events, social norms marketers try to present information about social norms, or rather present information about desirable social norms, using methods that are familiar, or not. Some of the most successful social norms marketing programs for gender-based violence rely on what are essentially soap operas and likable characters to portray desirable behavior.

Perhaps it’s my relatively naivete in the subject, but it really warms my heart to see new campaigns like this coming out. While in all reality, they really haven’t been sufficiently evaluated, the glimmers of promise in their success at creating desirable social norms around violence (it’s not okay to hit your wife, ever; rape is not something real men do, etc) bode well.

My coauthor recently sent me these videos from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, featuring a famous Congolese rapper in various roles portraying strong, loving, respectful real men. Real men who make their wives dinner when they’re late coming home from work instead of beating them and real men who treat women as equals instead of demanding sexual favors in return for employment. The videos don’t have subtitles and I don’t speak much French, but they’re cool nonetheless. I don’t see them winning an Oscar by any means, but hopefully they’ll change someone’s mind.