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Conditional cash transfers for energy poverty... and murder reduction

Conditional cash transfers — paying people to change behavior, usually to spur positive ‘social’ outcomes — continue to be in the news. Much of the focus is on their use as poverty reduction tools (Bolsa Familia in Brazil, JSY in India) through encouraging behaviors like antenatal care visits and sending children to school.

Two recent article — one in the NYT, one in Mother Jones — highlighted the use of CCTs and other targeted cash transfer tools for dramatically different outcomes.

In the NYT, poverty and energy issues were at the fore:

The Indian government subsidizes households’ purchases of cooking gas; these subsidies amounted to about $8 billion last year. Until recently, subsidies were provided by selling cylinders to beneficiaries at below-market prices. Now, prices have been deregulated, and the subsidy is delivered by depositing cash directly into beneficiaries’ bank accounts, which are linked to cellphones, so that only eligible beneficiaries — not “ghost” intermediaries — receive transfers.

Under the previous arrangement, the large gap between subsidized and unsubsidized prices created a thriving black market, where distributors diverted subsidized gas away from households to businesses for a premium. In new research with Prabhat Barnwal, an economist at Columbia University, we find that cash transfers reduced these “leakages,” resulting in estimated fiscal savings of about $2 billion.

There’s even more “smart” targeting coming soon. My advisor and colleagues in India have been working to “[describe] how the LPG subsidy could be even more completely targeted to the poor without any actual ‘taking away’ of the subsidy from the rich and middle class, which would likely trigger heavy political push back. As a result, several hundred million additional poor Indians could have affordable access in the next decade without increasing subsidy costs to the government (indeed probably reducing them) or LPG imports — both not likely to be popular.”

In Mother Jones, CCTs were being used to reduce murders:

Richmond hired consultants to come up with ideas, and in turn, the consultants approached [Devone] Boggan. It was obvious that heavy-handed tactics like police sweeps weren’t the solution. More than anything, Boggan, who’d been working to keep teen offenders out of prison, was struck by the pettiness of it all. The things that could get someone shot in Richmond were as trivial as stepping out to buy a bag of chips at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Boggan wondered: What if we identified the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble?

It seems to be working.

It was a crazy idea. But since ONS was established, the city’s murder rate has plunged steadily. In 2013, it dropped to 15 homicides per 100,000 residents—a 33 year low. In 2014, it dropped again. Boggan and his staff maintained that their program was responsible for a lot of that drop-off by keeping the highest-risk young men alive—and out of prison. Now they have a study to back them up.

On Monday, researchers from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a non-profit, published a process evaluation of ONS, studying its impact seven years in. The conclusion was positive: “While a number of factors including policy changes, policing efforts, an improving economic climate, and an overall decline in crime may have helped to facilitate this shift, many individuals interviewed for this evaluation cite the work of the ONS, which began in late 2007, as a strong contributing factor in a collaborative effort to decrease violence in Richmond.”

The Koch coke pile in Detroit

The NYT reports on a growing pile of coke, a byproduct of refining, in Detroit. In this case, the coke is produced as a result of tar sands refining; due to its high sulfur and carbon content, it is largely useless in the developed world. It seems that Koch brothers, who have purchased the coke from tar sands operations in Alberta, plan to sell it abroad.

Coke, which is mainly carbon, is an essential ingredient in steelmaking as well as producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum.

While there is high demand from both those industries, the small grains and high sulfur content of this petroleum coke make it largely unusable for those purposes, said Kerry Satterthwaite, a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services, a commodities analysis company based in London.

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said.”It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.”

Murray Gray, the scientific director for the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, said that about two years ago, Alberta backed away from plans to use the petroleum coke as a fuel source, partly over concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of it is burned there, however, to power coking plants.

Traditional cooking and household energy use in the Library of Congress online archives

In the past few weeks, a lot of people have been mining the LoC photo databases for images of public works posters, images of cities early in their development, etc. The archive is outstanding and a lot of the pictures, negatives, schematics, and drawings are available online in multiple resolutions.

I ran some searches for household energy, hearths, cooking fire, cooking stoves, etc and found a number of fascinating results. Many of the pictures from the US were not available online yet - in particular, two libraries of “cooking technologies” from the 1920s and 1930s weren’t around. I’m working on getting access to those through some data request channels. A few that were accessible are below. The majority are from Sikkim and were taken by Alice Kandell between 1965 and 1971. The large one above is supposedly from Jerusalem and was taken between 1900-1920. The seventh one below is from 1908 in Paterna, Spain.

Clearly a wealth of interesting historical information in the archives. Looking forward to further explorations.

Tackling the world's forgotten killer

My advisor, writing at CNN:

About the worst thing you can do is stick burning stuff in your mouth. Every year, tobacco kills more than six million people, according to the World health Organization. Including secondhand tobacco smoke affecting non-smokers, it is the chief cause of ill-health (measured as lost years of healthy life) among men globally and for everyone in North America and Western Europe.

The terrible disease burden imposed by tobacco is recognized by most people, but the risk of another form of smoke is also highlighted in the new “Global Burden of Disease” report released last Month in The Lancet - smoke from cooking fires. About 40 percent of the world still cooks with solid fuels, like wood and coal, in simple stoves that release substantial amounts of the same kinds of hazardous chemicals found in tobacco smoke directly into the household environment. Indeed, a typical wood cookfire emits 400 cigarettes worth of smoke an hour.

This “household air pollution” is responsible for about 3.5 million premature deaths each year. Perhaps it is not surprising that the impact on health is so high when one considers that this smoke particularly affects a very vulnerable group - poor women in developing countries.

Cookstoves & the shadow of the past

There’s been a lot of “controversy” in the development sphere over the value of cookstove projects, stemming largely from one large trial in one country using one (arguably not) improved stove. The abstract nicely sums up their point:

We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions). The difference between the laboratory and this study’s field findings appears to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and use ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

Cheers to JPAL for bringing in researchers from diverse backgrounds to think about and work on household air pollution and cookstoves. The field moves forward when alternative perspectives force us to think in new ways.

The rub, though, is that many of us in the field are acutely aware of the explicit requirement that any intervention be fully vetted with the community before being deployed. This isn’t the first time the development world has been interested in cookstoves; past large-scale interventions have had mixed success in part due to precisely what’s outlined in the article. Fully vetting devices in the community to make sure they are culturally appropriate, usable, clean, and efficient is a known requirement.

There’s always a chance an intervention will still fail, but due diligence dictates prolonged and complete community engagement. Because a product is available on the local market and has claims of “proven” laboratory performance means little. The laboratory provides a first step to grade stoves — but the field is where final decisions should be made. And the value of an ‘improved’ label is heavily diluted - we’re barraged by dozens of these products regularly. We derive value from meaningful, beneficial, and unobtrusive interaction with and use of appliances. Devices that fail to provide those traits fail to be used. This is definitely true here and seemingly true everywhere.

Two fundamental conclusions from the recent brouhaha stand out. First, the astonishing hype surrounding this article fits within the larger patterns we see in the news machine. A single article, statement, or editorial snowballs and catalyzes a lot of discussion (in the popular media for a news cycle, and in academia for an eternity). Not a bad thing in and of itself, but problematic when the media ignores the history of available knowledge and treats the news as something profoundly new and unequivocally true. Second, the coverage helps focus and hone the message of those working in the field — never a bad thing. It reminds us of past learnings and helps light a path forward.

In a blog post from June 18 on National Geographic, Radha Muthiah (the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) and the authors of the above article write,

This research, and the work of others, suggests that the first goal must be to develop cookstoves that people would actually want to acquire, use, and maintain—in addition to ones that meet clear guidelines and standards for cleanliness, efficiency, and safety. To ensure that scarce development resources are spent wisely, all promising cookstove designs must be tested in real world settings to assess their long-run benefits on health and greenhouse gas emission prior to large scale adoption of clean cookstoves. Moreover, additional research should continue in order to provide greater insight into what types of social marketing can improve the general acceptance of the stoves.

No argument there.