Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Books: The State of Africa – A History of Fifty Years of Independence by Martin Meredith

A highly readable summary of all major events in Africa since independence. The book is mostly written chronologically taking a sweeping glace across Africa to introduce the reader to major political, economic and social happenings.

Important leaders’ biographies are given and their personalities are well discussed with Meredith showing how many changed from hopeful young leaders to ruthless tyrants. Racial (e.g. Rwanda, South Africa) and religious (e.g. Nigeria, Sudan) tensions are not shied from, and neither is Africa as a cold-war pawn (“one of the paradoxes of the Angolan conflict was that Cuban forces were given the task of defending American-owned oil installations from attacks by American-backed rebels”), and the domino effect caused by large tribal groups with historical hostilities living across national borders is well explained.

The book is a great introduction to everything modern Africa. Below is a link to the book:

Another great book I’ve read by Martin Meredith is ‘Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa. It is a brilliantly written book, and, to my surprise a read page-turner. It takes you from the start of the nineteenth century (when colonisers started to move inland) to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

As well as reading like a historical novel, the book is very informative packed with stories explaining relations between the Brits and the Boers; the Boers and the Zulu; Brits and Zulu; Zulu and Sotho; Sotho and Brits; Sotho and Boers; Sotho and Khoisan (the actual only groups of people who were really in South Africa more than about 600 years ago – the rest are all migrants). Disputes and alliances existed between all groups and it almost makes you amazed that there actually is as much racial harmony in South Africa as there is.

I was left with the impression that of all British atrocities around the world, no group was more mis-treated than the Afrikaaners – the invention of concentration camps and scorched earth policies to fight against this group is hardly Britain’s finest hour and makes me amazed as much harmony exists between white groups as does exist.

Reading the book really helps to place modern-day South Africa in perspective, and helps to understand how apartheid came about (it is great to visit the Apartheid Museum in Joburg too). There are many well-crafted individual stories that help to understand key protagonists such as Cecil Rhodes and various Boer generals as well as key African tribal leaders.

The end is heart-breaking with the Brits accepting Boer racial discrimination in order to keep the peace between the two white groups. Black people, who had previously had the vote for over 100 years in Cape Colony were disenfranchised for white peace.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Interesting Bog Entries for Friday Afternoon

Neuroeconomics: Of evolution and idiots. Oh dear.

Nudge: Second guess yourself. Or, think like a crowd would, and you can improve your own best-guess. This website is related to the book below:

Freakonomics: Economics could improve kidney donation rates and save lives. Yes money is involved; surely money can’t be so dogmatically disgusting that it is worth some extra deaths to hold onto that view/feeling?

This site is associated with the below book:

Econlog: Ashamed to be an economist. Holding onto beliefs that how preferences are formed doesn’t matter. Only how they are revealed matters.

Below is a link to the author’s book – The Myth of the Rational Voter – which at how voters systematically vote for bad economic policies.

Scientific American: Power cars with potholes! Nice.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hats off to Sotho Queuing Etiquette

A few days ago, I had to renew my ‘six month pass’ which allows me to cross over into South Africa without having to queue to get my passport stamped. In the queue waiting with other people for the six month pass, I noticed what seemed to me to be a pretty ridiculous system in place. It went something like this:

  1. Queue to get a form to complete
  2. Take form away and fill out
  3. Re-queue (in same line) to get six month pass.

After all that, I even noticed the border guard screw up and throw away some forms! Also quite interesting was that some people required a form and others didn’t. This time I did not – the first time, I did. In any case, it seemed that it really wasn’t that important either way and may have just depended on the whim of the border guard.

The queuers (mostly but not all Sotho) naturally formed a brilliant and, I thought, fair way to deal with this crazy system. You queue at the back when you first join, and get the form when you reach the front.

But, once you have completed the form, you are allowed to ‘merge in turn’ at the front of the queue, with one person in the main queue going to the window followed by someone who had just completed the form.

This seemed to happen naturally, and one person even explained it to an older lady who followed the previously unspoken rule without hesitation. I was highly impressed – and as an adherent to the queuing-obsessed British culture, I feel qualified to judge other peoples’ queuing skills J

Going academic... (you can stop reading here J)

... I remember skimming an article on queuing in developing countries maybe a year ago – I think it was set in Morocco* (I’ve tried to re-find the paper on the internet, but have not managed to find it). It was trying to show that the lack of ‘fair’ queuing (fair as in everyone waits their turn and it’s first come first serve) is, in fact, socially optimal.

The idea is that people who need any given service most fight harder for it than those who need it less. For example, a soon as a train ticket booth opens, the people who get the tickets are the ones who fight hardest. They put in the most effort because they have the most need for the train tickets. The lack of ordered queuing is therefore socially optimal.

(As an economist, I would have to wonder why there was excess demand, and would probably recommend increasing ticket prices, but maybe there are reasons not to do this. Maybe a Government does not want to exclude poor people from train travel, for example.)

It is a very interesting theory and allows for the person who most needs the service most to get it, but without the socially costly need for long waits, and still allowing poorer people a chance to access a service. That is, rather than proving need for a service by camping out over-night or during work-time a la Wimbledon, everyone can all turn up on time and fight it out. As a whole, the population has more work time (increasing production and therefore wealth) and more leisure time (making everyone happierJ).

I must confess that I have one rather severe problem with the theory though. It seems to me that in order for it to work, ‘initial endowments’ (that old chestnut) of height, weight, age, strength, fighting-for-a-place-in-the-queue-skill would have to be distributed equally. If some people had a natural advantage, they might beat someone else despite less need.

It seems that, if this is an alternative to putting up prices, the system is simply favouring strong, (probably young, probably males) over other people. I am not sure why this might be better than favouring (probably older, probably male) richer people. And it comes with the added social disadvantages of (i) giving a incentive to cultivate strength and argumentative/fighting skills with potential social repercussions (ii) wasting people’s time who think they have a chance to get a (e.g. ticket) but they don’t get one, with economic costs.

*I’m not sure if I would classify Morocco as a developing country or not.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Man that Maketh the Clothes

A few days ago I had to go outside in the cold early in the morning, so I put on my coat. A Mosotho colleague (you know who you are J) made a comment about how nice my coat was saying that 'you guys always have nice coats'.

I didn't really enquire who 'you guys' are - it might have meant ODI fellows or 'Westerners' or white people or foreigners.

In any case, I asked how much s/he thought it cost. 'R800 (£60) or more' and went on to explain that another colleague had bought a really nice coat in the US.

In fact, the coat cost me about R200 (£15) from Ackermans - a sort of South African Primark.

Put a white guy in a cheap item of clothing here and, it seems, it instantly looks like it is good quality in the eyes of some people. This statement is, of course, a testable hypothesis and may or may not be true. I am curious to know whether or not it is. I hope to be able to test it in conjunction with a research psychologist, who also happens to be my sister.

Anyone fancy being a model in the interest of advancing the boundaries of human knowledge and the glamour of being able to participate in one of few psychological experiments ever done in Africa?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Clothes that Maketh the Man

For no particular reason, I have decided to smarten myself up a bit. This consists mostly of wearing ties. Of course, I don’t take the tie off the moment I leave work, so also wander around town in a shirt and tie. This has led to one interesting observation:

I get asked for money (or job, or something else) a lot less frequently when I am wearing my tie.

This is not an observation confined to Lesotho. I have noticed the same thing in the Europe too: the smarter I am dressed, the less likely I am to be approached by a beggar enquiring whether I could ‘spare some loose change’, or by Big Issue sellers. Walking down the street in jeans and t-shirt will generally result in an approach fairly regularly. If I am wearing a suit though, I am completely and deliberately avoided.

What does this say? One option is that beggars (or simply what I might call ‘chancers’ in Lesotho) are slightly intimidated by people who appear to be ‘above them’ (whatever that means), and don’t feel comfortable asking.

But these people are both used to asking for money (or whatever) and actually have something to lose by not asking. For the very poor, that loss is potentially important.

Rather, it seems to me that (a) richer people tend to be better dressed, and (b) richer people are less likely to give money. I don’t know what the reason for that is – perhaps they are in more of a rush, and ‘can’t spare the time’ (busy jobs), perhaps their free time has a higher value, and they don’t want to spare the seconds dipping into their pockets, perhaps they have particular beliefs about not giving or the ‘correct’ context for giving, perhaps they are more stingy.

Research tends to indicate that the richer someone is, the more money they give to charity, but the less they give as a *proportion* of their income.

Either way, it seems that those asking for money tend to chose not to waste the effort asking. That is, the disutility (unhappiness) in terms of the effort of asking is higher than utility (happiness) that would result from the expected amount received. What’s more is that when I am well dressed, I am not asked for money, even when the street is not crowded – that is, by asking me, they do not miss the chance to ask anyone else. It really is not worth the breath asking!

Here in Maseru, there is even a man who, I have noticed, leaps up and chases white people who are not besuited (is that a word? If not, it should be.) He can be (and has been to me) pretty forceful in his asking, and you have to make an effort to walk past him (sort of dodge him). But the other day, I walked past him with a tie on. He made his usual request, but without any conviction, as if he knew the tie meant he would get nothing (he couldn’t possibly know with me – on occasions and randomly, I have given him money, on other times, not).

Given that people put their own money on the line simply to save breath, and that most of these people could definitely use the money, I am led to conclude that (bar another realistic explanation – and do please offer!) better dressed (and probably richer) people are less likely to give money on the street.

I have speculated as to the reasons above, and wouldn’t like to make any value judgment, but I do find it an interesting observation. Has anyone else noticed this, either in Europe or in a developing country? Should I be making a value judgment – is it good or bad? Does anyone think that they actually *behave* differently in terms of generosity depending upon dress? Why? (Do ‘the clothes maketh the man’?)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Recent Interesting Blog Entries

Neuroworld: We never admit we are old. “18-29 year olds said that they think someone is old when they turn 60. Nothing shocking there. Stepping up a rung, 30-49 year olds said that someone doesn’t traverse the threshold of old timeyness until 69. For 50-64 year olds? Geezerdom doesn’t start until you’re 72. For those 65 years plus a few, the magic number is 75.”

Econlog: Genetics and the future of religion. Religious people have more children than non-religious people. If religiosity is partly genetic, the world will become more religious.

It makes me think of a recent book by an editor of the Economist about the socio-cultural-geo-political-(economic?) challenges the world faces as a result of the trend of increasing religiosity in the world. Below is a link:

Marginal Revolution: Convert an Atheist! Staying on the theme of religion, here is a new Turkish TV game show.

Econlog and The Undercover Economist: Voters are stupid. We cannot tell the difference between an incompetent and an unlucky government from an economic perspective and we reward luck more than competence.

If these links are interesting, the bloggers have each written excellent books. The Undercover Economist is a great introduction to every-day economics, and the Myth of the Rational Voter looks at how voters systematically vote for bad economic policies. Both excellent but very different books.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Circumcision and HIV

Circumcision reduces the chances that males will catch HIV but not the likelihood that their sero-negative partners will catch it.

This finding is a pity, but females would still benefit indirectly from increased circumcision since there would be fewer HIV positive males.

The full article is available here and the BBC report is here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Potato caused explosion in world's population

Here is an interesting post by one of my favourite bloggers, Chris Blattman. Here is the first two sentences:

"From 1000 to 1900 the world's population grew from 300 million to 1.6 billion. Urbanization more than quadrupled.

The culprit? According to a new paper by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian: the potato."

(And I've stolen his image idea too :) )

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Books: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

This blog should have occasional reviews of books I read on economics/human behaviour/Africa/... . I have just finished reading ‘Predictably Irrational’ by Dan Ariely – a behavioural economist. The book draws on his own experiments which reveal systematic deviations from strict rationality in human behaviour. Here are some nice examples:

• People have difficulties judging how much a new product is worth. We have to compare them to similar things we are already aware of. Our existing knowledge serves as ‘anchors’. Usually these should be prices, but Ariely wondered whether other things might serve as anchors too. He auctioned a number of products to his students using blind bids (everyone writes their highest bid on a paper without consulting and the highest bid wins).

Before bidding the students were asked to write down the last two numbers of the (US) social security number as if it were a dollar value. After bidding, the students handed in their paper and were asked whether they felt that writing down the last two digits in their social security number influenced their bid. Everyone quickly dismissed the suggestion.

The below table show the average values bid:

Range of last two digits of social security number








Cordless trackball







Cordless keyboard







Design book







Neuhaus chocolates







1998 Côtes du Rhône







1996 Hermitage







• “Honest people” cheat, but just a little and a ‘moral reminder’ prevents cheating. Ariely conducted a number of short tests using general knowledge questions like ‘Which is the longest river in the world?’ or ‘Who is the Greek Goddess of love?’, or mathematical question. Participants were financially rewarded for each correct answer.

In different groups, different levels of opportunity for cheating were given, from nothing – the participants had to hand in their paper and the experimenter marked it, to full opportunity – the answers were distributed, the participants marked their own answers and then destroyed their answer sheet, simply telling the experimenter their score and several ranges in between.

The group which could not cheat reported the lowest average score, but all other groups had similar scores. That is, they had similar levels of cheating regardless of the likelihood of being caught. An important lesson for law enforcers. Even more interesting is that the standard deviation of the scores did not vary significantly amongst the groups suggesting that almost everyone cheated, but just a little.

Why do honest people cheat? Ariely suggests that we have a moral compass that prevents us from doing ‘bad things’ but this only kicks in at a certain level of dishonestly.

Can we make people more honest? Yes! Ariely conducted similar experiments but this time some groups were asked to recall the 10 commandments before taking the tests (as many as they could remember) or to sign a paper stating they ‘understand that the study falls under the MIT honour system’ before telling the experimenter their score.

Those that had the ‘honesty anchor’ reported similar mean test scores to those who were unable to cheat and there was no significant difference between the religious and non-religious honesty anchor. It suggests that honesty can be ensured if people are reminded of any honesty/integrity rules soon before the moment of temptation.

Here is a link to an interview with Dan Ariely by the Economist.

Although I’m not against ‘mainstream’ economics at all – indeed, I think it is both a useful baseline, and deviations from most economists’ beliefs don’t often matter for policy. But I am fascinated by behavioural economics, and think that ‘mainstream’ theories can often be slightly adapted to accommodate ‘irrational’ behaviour – indeed – many apparently irrational things, I think, are often not irrational at all.

Here is a paper of mine that was recently published in the Journal of Economic Psychology that looks at how people view income from different sources differently. Few people see or use £200 as a present from their granny in the same way as £200 from overtime in the same way, for example. Here is the abstract to the paper if you are interested:

In this paper we use a behavioural approach to studying household consumption behaviour in Malawi. In particular we are interested to know whether households use mental accounting when consuming different categories of good. It is useful for assessing the impact of remittances on household consumption behaviour. We use 1998 cross-sectional data to find the following key results: (i) mental accounting systems are in operation; (ii) remittance income exhibits a lower marginal propensity to consume than other income sources, (iii) remittances are widely used to fund education consumption, (iv) credit plays an important role in funding education and farming.

Don’t let the cleaner see the mess! or My own apparently strange behaviour.

So I’ve been writing about other things that strike me as a little strange at first sight, and didn’t see why I should be excluded from that. So what is (one of my many) strange behaviour?

I have a lady who comes in to my house once a week to clean/do washing etc. (Being a class-shy Brit, and feeling slightly guilty about it, I can’t quite bring myself to call her a ‘cleaner’). I noticed that the day before she comes in, I find myself cleaning the house to make sure it is not too dirty. When I caught myself doing it, I thought I must be crazy, and started to ask myself why I do it?

I admit that I am not entirely impartial when pondering the answer, but a bit of self-introspection can go a long way (it’s the ultimate observant-participant methodology), but I have come up with three reasons, all under the assumption that I do what makes me happy (or perhaps, less unhappy).

1. I care about what people think about me (I don’t think that is a bad thing – it helps to keep our behaviour in check). Even though I don’t like cleaning, and that makes me somewhat less happy, I like even less the idea that she might think I am messy. So I do the cleaning.
2. My own happiness depends on other people’s happiness. I particularly find myself doing the more unpleasant things so that she doesn’t have to. Even though I don’t like doing the most unpleasant things, knowing that she is suffering doing them makes me even more unhappy than doing them myself. (This behaviour can me problematic – it means I can be taken advantage of easily.)
3. I am British, and the British don’t like ‘class’. Even though we are aware of it, we try to deny it. Hence, we include the barman (I have been a barman) with our rounds to make it feel like we are drinking together as ‘equals’ (“and one for yourself, mate” or “and whatever you’re having”*) or we get slightly embarrassed about giving too openly to charity or we appear to be very interested when someone tells you they do the most menial job (I have done many of these!)**. By doing a part of her job, it makes me feel like we are ‘in this together’ as equals, and allows me to deny in a true British way, any differences in class. So, again, although I don’t like doing the cleaning, the idea that we are somehow not equals makes me much more unhappy than doing some of the cleaning.

I’ve tried to write this in economics (it’s a language of its own!) below***. When thinking about it, I realise that this is not the only time I have caught myself doing these things. People doing things for me in an obvious way seems to make me uncomfortable. So, although I don’t mind consuming goods and services that other people have worked to produce, I don’t like it being produced in front of me (any relation to my meat-eating habits?). I don’t like people packing my bags in supermarkets for example. I still feel very slightly uncomfortable being served food in a restaurant, or having my hair cut, and am only just getting over the (so far) life-long annoyance I feel when a shop assistance asks if they can help me.

And yet, in a totally hypocritical way, I have no problem consuming goods that I know people have worked in factories to produce, warehouses to store, lorries to ship it to me, shops to stock (but not the selling bit), offices to organise. Strangely, I have worked in many crappy jobs in factories, warehouses, shops and offices, but none of these feelings have changed.

Maybe these reasons help to explain my apparently strange behaviour. I am sure that there might be other reasons, but these three come to my mind. Has anyone else caught themselves doing anything similar?

*I can’t actually remember the last time I bought the barman a drink, but I am considerable more likely to do so in a crowded bar in order to ensure quick service the next time – again my behaviour is mainly explained by increasing my own happiness. (It might also be because I am both more likely to be in a crowded bar after having consumed a certain quantity of alcohol and become overly generous in such a state.)

**Read ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox for more examples of how the British (she talks about the English but a lot of her points are more widely applicable). Notice how interested you are next time you meet someone who tells you they clean toilets for a living.

***My happiness = depends on {amount cleaning I do (-); what other people think of me (+)=f(how clean my house is) (+); other people’s happiness (+)=f(amount of cleaning they do) (-); overt class divide (-)=f(joint cleaning effort) (-); other things}. – This must even be a solvable function to find out how much cleaning I do! At least in theory...

Strange behaviour in the boardroom?

Next in my series of attempting to explain apparently strange behaviour is an entry on 'strange behaviour in the boardroom'.

I think I mentioned in an email to some folk some time ago the odd behavior regarding air conditioning in the Finance Boardroom of the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning in Lesotho.

The boardroom is (coincidently?) one of the few rooms where the air conditioning works. It gets pretty hot in there, and the moment people walk into the room, someone turns on the air conditioning. Interestingly though, the temperature is always set to 16 degrees Celsius. Clearly, that is a bit chilly, and after a little while, some one will get up and switch it off. It then starts to get hot, and it will go back on at 16 degrees again. This happens repeatedly throughout the meeting (which can go on for several hours or even several days).

No one seems to have noticed that it is possible to set the temperature to a more comfortable 20 to 22 degrees. But is this a realistic belief? The same people have worked there for years, and some even have working air conditioning in their own offices (and maybe even homes). I don’t think that it is possible for no one to have noticed that the choice does not have to be between 16 degrees and off. So why does it happen?

I am thinking that it relates to impatience. If we write down a model that indicates that you get positive utility (happiness) from being cooler when it is too hot, but that the longer it takes, the less utility you get. In addition, you get positive utility from being warmer when it gets too cold (16 degrees is too cold), and the longer it takes to get warmer the less positive utility you get.

You get negative utility from having to get up to switch the air con on and off, but there are always several people who might switch the air con off and there is a chance some one else might crack before you.

That means that, when it is hot, if you put it to 16 degrees, you are more happy because you get cooler quickly. There is only a small chance that it will be you who switches it off when it gets too cold.

Similarly, if you switch it off when it gets too cold, you become happier because it gets warmer. You want it to get warmer as soon as possible, and there is only a small chance that it will be you who has to switch the air con back on when it gets too hot. You are therefore probably better to switch it off.

Of course, you have to be very impatient not to place it at a more reasonable temperature whether you are switching it on or off.

Interestingly, I have experimented with getting to meetings early (or rather, less late than everyone else) and switching the air con on at around 22 degrees. No one touches it throughout the meeting! After all, where is the incentive? It is already neither too hot not too cold when you first come in. You want nothing to change. And quickly.

Does this happen to anyone else? Does it happen in developed countries, does anyone know?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Skiing in Lesotho or Please don’t give us business – we would have to work!

Over the weekend, I went skiing for the day at Lesotho’s only ski slope, Afriski. I tried to book it about a week in advance over the telephone through the company’s office in South Africa, only to be told that all bookings had to be made 2 weeks in advance – even if no accommodation was required and you only want to ski for the day. It was explained to me that they could have a maximum of 250 people on the slope (there is only one slope).

It would be possible to just turn up, but you risk not getting being able to ski. Overall I was strongly discouraged from going although it was hinted that there was a chance that it might just be okay. I asked whether I could book 1 week in advance since they already knew how many people had already booked and would know if they had spare capacity. No I couldn’t – it has to be booked 2 weeks in advance. But if I want I could turn up after a 3 hour drive from Maseru but I might not be able to ski. Great.

In the end I (and everyone I went with) would be passing nearby anyway, so decided to go. The people at the ski slope welcomed us, and said that there was no problem. There were far fewer than 250 people on the slope, but presumably the lady I spoke with in the head office already knew that since most booking had already been made when I phoned.

She discouraged tourism in Lesotho and risked missing out on revenue for her business for very little reason as far as I could tell. Why did she do this? I would like an economic/social/psychological explanation, and all I can think of is that she was scared that someone would turn up and not be able to ski, and that she would get the blame. Far better to discourage all business and keep the clients away than to risk an unhappy client.

It reminded me of an episode of Yes Minister in which there is a hospital which wins all the awards for being the best run and cleanest hospital in the country and has the lowest number of deaths. The rub? There are no patients. And none of the medical or administration staff want any – how could the minister dare to risk such a well run hospital with such things as patients?! See a clip here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Why we dream

Here is a great article in Scientific American summarising the theories which may explain why we dream.

Sorry about lack of posts on Lesotho for a while -- one will come soon!