Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Do we need evidence on the efficacy of rural roads and electricity?

This paper on rural electrification program in Kenya finds,
We do not find meaningful medium-term impacts on economic, health, and educational outcomes nor evidence of spillovers to unconnected households. These results suggest that current efforts to increase residential electrification in rural Kenya may reduce social welfare. 
This paper on India's rural roads construction program finds,
There are no major changes in consumption, assets or agricultural outcomes, and nonfarm employment in the village expands only slightly. Even with better market connections, remote areas may continue to lag in economic opportunities.
The fact that we are trying to generate evidence on rural roads and electricity baffles me. What is it that we takeaway from such papers? What is it that the "headline readers" among development professionals would takeaway?

Is it that the high upfront investments that are required with any kind of rural infrastructure (since it cannot leverage economies of scale) is social surplus reducing, and therefore undesirable (in econ-speak)? Or is it that grid electrification/BT roads is not cost-effective to comparable alternatives? Or that rural infra works have leakages which make them social surplus reducing or engendering incentive distortions? Or that the measurement approach that the researchers take is limited in that it is not able to capture all the potential general equilibrium effects - after all without electricity and roads you cannot have a life of modernity, which I guess is a salient material objective of development? Or is it even that developing countries should make choices between roads and electricity for their villages and nifty innovations like deworming, nudges, shiny technology Apps, micro-insurance, self-help groups, cash transfers, and so on? Or is it that the short-term benefits of roads and power are small - if so, what about the long-term benefits? 

Note that neither paper even qualify its findings with such a preface.

In fact, a cursory reading of the abstract, as is what happens most often, can easily leave one with the takeaway that rural roads and rural electrification are a bad use of public money. We only need to look at how much damage this one work contributed to misleading the fiscal austerity debate. Clearly, this time is no different. No pun intended.

A more appropriate response to such papers and the comes from Lant Pritchett's description of these as "kinky development",
What the World Bank chose to highlight in its official publicity about Dr. Jim Kim’s visit (to Somalia) was that it had figured out a way to use mobile phone surveys to track the poverty status of people in Somalia on a quarterly basis. Imagine the joy and celebration among Somalis to know that the World Bank was going to promote Somalia’s national development not with a port upgrade, or a road or electricity or water, or even a school or a clinic, but by being able to track and tell them every quarter just how poor they really are—something I suspect they know quite well already...
Perhaps promoting energy source diversification is why President Obama, while touring a power plant in Africa, thought it politically expedient to promote the Soccket ball. For those of you who still have not been introduced to this technological marvel, the Soccket ball is a soccer ball containing a battery that is charged by the kinetic energy of being kicked. This contraption is perhaps one of the best illustrations of the gap between development realities (the average Ethiopian consumes 52 kwh of electricity and the average American 13,246 kwh) and the “solutions” being proposed by the world’s elite: ban coal and limit hydro and if Africans want power, let them kick some soccer balls round.
This nails it
In another 2013 Center for Global Development study, Benjamin Leo used the authoritative Afrobarometer and Latinobarometer surveys to document the discrepancy between poor country citizen preferences and U.S. foreign assistance allocations. In Africa, surveys asked the question “In your opinion, what are the most important problems facing this country that government should address?” and grouped the responses into eight broad categories. In Africa, 71 percent mention jobs/income among their top three problems, 52 percent mention infrastructure, and 63 percent name either jobs/income, infrastructure or economic/financial policies as their priority. Independently of what we may think African priorities ought to be, only seven percent named health, four percent education, and one percent governance as among the top three problems the government should address. Yet of American assistance to Africa from all agencies (e.g. USAID, PEPFAR, and MCC), only six percent goes to jobs/income and only 16 percent to jobs/income and infrastructure. Fully 60 percent of American assistance goes to areas that the Africans surveyed think are distinctly lower-tier priorities.

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