No manejamos este tipo de informacion or Caracas, part I

This is Part I of II, a bit of my August Caracas adventure. It’s a bit different style than perhaps other work you’ve seen here, but I hope you enjoy it. The following is cross-posted at Caracas Chronicles.

We’re not quite seated, but I’ve already launched into my well-rehearsed spiel. For perhaps the fifth time that day, I say I’m an American, an economics professor and I’m looking for data on domestic violence and gender-based violence in Venezuela. I want statistics, raw data, information about programs, confirmation that there really was no women’s shelter in the whole country, basically anything she could give me.

Milta Armas, a 40-something, curvy woman, starts telling me about how many women experience violence, but she refuses to look me in the eye. Armas keeps her hands in her lap, fingering a copy of the new domestic violence law, which I’m sure she’s going to hand to me later. The hype on legal reform, I expect, but not the details she’s ratling off, barely audible over the din of the INAMUJER lobby. I start jotting down her words and numbers, thinking this was easy. It only took me two ministries to start to get information. I just had to show up.

Then she pauses.

“These are, of course, what happens in the world, not in Venezuela. We don’t have these statistics for Venezuela.” Suddenly, I remember. “This,” I think to myself, “is why my expectations for this trip were low.”

I press her a little more. If those aren’t Venezuela statistics, what does she have? What data are even collected? What do we really know?

“Well,” she says without the slightest hint of embarrassment, “no manejamos este tipo de informacion.”

Oh brother.

It’s not just that the National Institute for Women, a program that houses a domestic abuse helpline and runs workshops for women living in slums on how to recognize and combat domestic violence in their homes and communities, doesn’t seem to have any information on the things they spend all day dealing with, it’s that the language she used was all too familiar. Her words mirrored exactly those of a representative of the Ministry for the Popular Power of Women, which is where I’d wasted the previous day. It was the same language I would hear later in the week as I talked to the National Police (CICPC) and when I tried to make an appointment with the National Defender of Women’s Rights.

No manejamos este tipo de informacion. And no one could tell me who does. My task, wasn’t just daunting, it was impossible. If there were no national statistics on domestic violence at the highest levels of government, I wasn’t sure to find much else.

In reality, of course, (and reality is always shady in Venezuela), there are statistics; it’s just a question of whether you know the right person to get a hold of them.

A source, who asked not to be named to make sure she keeps getting data, showed me a leaked booklet outlining statistics on the national 24/7 helpline 0-800-MUJERES, maintained and run by INAMUJER. They keep a tally of who is calling, why, what kind of abuse they are experiencing, whether they’ve called before, who the aggressor is, their mental state and more. It’s all very run-of-the-mill information that is collected on hotline calls in other places, certainly in the US. It also probably represents that best guess they have as to changes in levels of domestic violence over time, but it was not information they were willing to give to me, or even acknowledge that they had. I snuck a quick photo of a key data table – which you can see above.

I can understand why they might not trust me. Caracas’ violence problems are world-renowned and a source of embarrassment for the government and citizens; I see why they might not want a foreigner to publicize another ugly aspect of it.

Milta Armas told me that one time, there was some information, and they had put it on the website, only that as soon as they got it up, “there was an attack by the opposition to try to make the government look bad.”

“That is not a serious answer,” Ofelia Álvarez told me when I related the story. Ofelia runs Fundamujer, a nonprofit dedicated to studying and eradicating violence against women, out of her home and mostly on her own.

As one of the most visible and prominent advocates for women in Venezuela—nearly everyone I talked to sent me back to her—she has spent decades fighting the same fight I fought in just a few weeks. The issue is politically awkward: no one wants to fund studies, no one wants to support discussions. A pilot study she coauthored was abruptly defunded before it was rolled out to a representative survey group. No one handles that kind of information because there’s no desire to, she told me.

It’s not that we can’t; it’s that we don’t.

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Striking a balance in data collection

A big part of my research time is spent on violence against women, gender-based violence, domestic violence, and harmful traditional practices. Though sometimes all whipped into a category of “women’s issues,” I’ve argued before that these are problems that everyone should care about, that they exert severe effects on our health and well-being as a society, emotionally, physically and economically.

Currently, I’m mired in two data collection projects, both with various degrees of hopelessness. I’ll write more later about my time in Caracas, but suffice it to say for now that there simply isn’t data available on issues like the ones I mention above. Or if it is available, no one’s going to give it to me. No surveys, no police data, no statistics on hotline use, nothing. We don’t know anything.

Conversely, in a meta-analysis of programs for adolescent girls that I’m writing with a colleague, my coauthor came upon a study suggesting that in order to correctly assess prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) we should submit randomly selected female villagers in rural areas to physical exams.

I was shocked and disgusted when she sent me the study. I don’t doubt for a minute that the most accurate way to gauge prevalence of FGM is to randomly select women and examine them, but seriously? I am astounded that no one thought through the psychological consequences of women who have already been victims of gender-based violence being examined by a foreigner who thinks they are lying about whether they’ve been cut.

These days, it’s a good reminder for me that in collecting data there is such a thing as too much, and such a thing as not enough. It’s all about striking a balance.

Food Aid and Conflict

As a researcher I’m incredibly interested in conflict, its causes, and its effects. It may have started with “how do I get my brother not to get mad at me?” and continues with “how do we get people to not beat up their loved ones?” Though I heard someone mention the other day that the world has less conflict now than ever, it’s still worth looking into the causes of it.

In that vein, Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian have a new NBER working paper examining how food aid causes conflict. In a earlier paper, they presented some relatively straightforward relationships between food aid and need. Essentially, we send food where it is needed, but donor countries respond more to internal shocks than shocks in the recipient country. So, we send food where it’s needed, but mostly only if we have extra. The follow-up paper, or how that food aid contributes to civil war, is the one whose abstract is here.

This paper examines the effect of U.S. food aid on conflict in recipient countries. To establish a causal relationship, we exploit time variation in food aid caused by fluctuations in U.S. wheat production together with cross-sectional variation in a country’s tendency to receive any food aid from the United States. Our estimates show that an increase in U.S. food aid increases the incidence, onset and duration of civil conflicts in recipient countries. Our results suggest that the effects are larger for smaller scale civil conflicts. No effect is found on interstate warfare.

There are plenty of questions about this, but my first thought is why we don’t see an effect on interstate warfare? Particularly in places where tribal allegiances or religious allegiances are more salient than national ones, what makes food aid have a differential effect on different types of conflict? Is there some sort of endogeneity in the places we send food aid based on their form of war? It seems like we might restrict food aid to places who are violating borders, which would pose a problem for their identification strategy.

See also Marc Bellemare for his two cents.

Nunn, Nathan and Qian, Nancy. “Aiding Conflict: The Impact of U.S. Food Aid on Civil War” (January 2012). NBER Working Paper No. w17794.

Nunn, Nathan and Qian, Nancy. “The Determinants of Food Aid Provisions to Africa and the Developing World” (December 2010). NBER Working Paper No. w16610.

Cartoon Violence

There are all sorts of studies that claim that cartoon violence, particularly of the video-game variety, encourages children to be violent, but this morning I was treated to a cute little analysis of violence that most likely isn’t actually engendering any violence. It does bring up questions of exactly what is being represented, though. Does violence in New Yorker cartoon articles correlate with rates of violence in the real world?

There are myriad questions, of course, that one could ask that might strengthen or weaken the relationship. Whether the total number of cartoons (violent or not) is constant over decades, turnover in the cartoonists, who the cartoonists are, etc.

I’ve never really known any cartoonists, so I can’t say much about their average temperaments, or sources of inspiration, or how much they read the news, or how much their cartoons reflect other trends in society. It’s reasonable to assume that, however inaccurately, they have some idea of what’s going on, even if they don’t metaphorically have their finger on the pulse of the nation. But more than rates of actual violence or murder in real life, I wonder if the increases can be associated with differing levels of depression or other mood disorders. A quick google search did not reveal an easy way to get depression statistics in the same format as the New Yorker cartoon violence data (and even if it did, it’s unlikely that there are enough data points to get a statistically significant answer). I’m sure a health economist friend (or even my mom) could help me out with this, were I to pursue it.

Then, I thought, maybe confidence in government? This WSJ graph has historical presidential approval ratings. The discontinuities would make it difficult to analyze, but  could be aggregated over each decade. There might be a story, or even better, might be a story about stability. Perhaps more volatility in presidential approval ratings over time means more violence. Or some combination of level and volatility?

Regardless of the outcome of such a search, this is clearly not a case of causation. Even asking whether cartoon violence is predictive or reflective of actual trends in depression or presidential approval ratings would take much finer data and many more assumptions. But I think it’s fun to try to link trends in media to trends in other facets of life. I used to tell a friend, who complained often about seemingly obvious journalism–“People use technology to do stuff”-type articles, for instance–that they’re necessary for the historical record. They’re also for nerdy economists to read and try to find patterns over time.

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.