Links round-up

Hi all,

So, these are the last links I’ll send from DFID, before I start at the Center for Global Development next week. I made a spectacularly inarticulate speech at my virtual leaving do on Wednesday, luckily not recorded for posterity; it was really difficult to find the right words to express my appreciation of the last decade or so here. It still is. But I’ll make a brief attempt in this intro. I had an amazing time here for three main reasons: firstly, what we do matters; DFID advisers have influence on what happens in developing countries, what research gets undertaken and how much is spent on matters of fundamental importance for human welfare. Getting it right, or better, is a big deal. Secondly, DFID is full of amazing people: there are so many people here who know things I don’t know and think about them in ways that do not occur to me, and there are many opportunities to learn from each other and to swap ideas. A friend today said he was glad I bang the drum for cognitive diversity, and I’m happy to do so, because I really believe in its value. And thirdly, there are always new problems to tackle. Describing something as a ‘treadmill’ is meant to be an insult, but the challenge to keep learning and keep moving on to new problems made me happy. Not all treadmills are boring.

Thanks to the many of you who have already signed up to receive these from CGD. I won’t be checking this e-mail any more, so if you haven’t done so yet, please e-mail me at or (both cc’d). For GDPR reasons, I won’t be taking other e-mail addresses across with me. And now, the links:

  1. I wrote a note about being an adviser in DFID this week as well, an one of the things I emphasised was how important it is to keep in touch with the data – keeping track of it, understanding what it really means, and getting to grips with how it’s collected. This is not a nerdy point about numbers, a way to cultivate a technical view of the world. Data matters because it records human experience, and this absolutely brilliant piece from Maggie Koerth illustrates this better than I ever could. She tells the story of a man named Bob Duffy, who died recently. She describes his life, his death (which can be distressing, so please be aware), and his entry into the mortality statistics in the US. She looks at the forms his doctors had to fill out, the decisions they made and the impact this had on how his death was counted – excluded from the count of Covid deaths, despite the likelihood of this being the cause. It is amazing data journalism, and captures perfectly why data matters, and why it matters that we understand its genesis. Related: data is one thing; organising and presenting data another. Andrew Gelman has found the worst Coronagraph of them all, and it will test your faith in humanity.
  2. The Economist on Leonard Wantchekon and the African School of Economics he founded, highly recommended. It also dips into his extraordinary life, including his imprisonment and escape; and considers how the questions he asks are shaped by his heritage (he is from Benin).
  3. George Akerlof has a habit of doing the kind of economics that fundamentally revises what economics is, the consequence of a mind that seems to home in on extremely big questions. This fantastic interview (and podcast) covers a lot of very important terrain, but particularly focuses on the role of collective identity on the structure and behaviour of economies and economic agents. He talks about the role of teams, groups and the narratives they build in achieving progress, and how economics has failed to adequately capture this. And not just economics, countries. As he says, “… the fundamental problem here is … that the American people have lost the concept that we are a we.” And if you need more eminent economists in conversation, here’s Josh Angrist, laying the smack down on peer effects.
  4. People are terrible, French electoral politics edition: A very clever paper looks at French local elections and finds that for right-wing parties, having a woman listed first on the ballot causes them to lose votes (all ballots require one male and one female candidate from each party, listed alphabetically).
  5. This week in rainfall instruments for everything: a new paper uses rainfall to investigate adherence to lockdowns, and their effect on the spread of Coronavirus. In 20 years time, when people are still using rainfall as an IV for institutions or something, I foresee seminar participants raising their hands to ask how the dealt with the effect of Coronavirus, which as we all know is also instrumented for by rainfall…
  6. This week in dip-my-priors-in-honey-and-feed-them-to-me-on-a-thick-slice-of-cake: a really cool experiment in Pakistan finds that under conditions of weak performance (and the possibility of corruption) greater autonomy, rather than greater oversight, may be the best way of generating improvements, a finding that will not doubt chime with Dans Rogger and Honig, who both have research pointing in this direction.
  7. There is so much glorious marginalia this week that I’m not even going to attempt a theme, it all deserves to be CLICKED RIGHT NOW: first, Senator Ben Sasse has given the most hilariously terrible high school graduation speech in history; as bad speeches go, this beats even Michael Jordan’s historically petty hall of fame induction speech. Staying on odd features of American politics, this thread collects the most outrageous facial hair in American political history (only facial hair, Donald Trump’s attempt at the Johnny Bravo look doesn’t qualify). And in sports news (irritating both the anti-cricket and anti-basketball camps at my leaving do), FiveThirtyEight have dipped their toes in the world of cricket, with a piece on the prospect that Coronavirus will force the retirement of India’s greatest captain (it’s actually second greatest, MSD < Ganguly). And since The Last Dance dissed him as ‘Gary Payton’s dunking partner’, a reminder that prime Shawn Kemp was a serious problem.

I may need a week or so to get to grips with CGD IT, so there may not be a links next week, but I will do my best.

Have a great weekend, everyone – and an enormous thanks to everyone in DFID!


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