Archive for June, 2012

Podcast break

Power outages in Addis — at least in my neighborhood — are short but still more or less a daily occurrence. At the office we have a generator that kicks in, but at home I like to think of these outages as “podcast breaks.” Here are two I listened to recently that are particularly worthwhile, even if your power is on:

  • Planet Money has a nice, non-technical summary of Oregon’s randomized Medicaid program. (Previous post on the same subject with more technical details here. Recent NYT coverage here.)
  • Ira Glass spoke in Princeton earlier this year, and he discussed how This American Life has been moving towards more investigative reporting — they brought down a lousy judge in Georgia, for example. Their latest investigative installation is incredible: What Happened at Dos Erres tells the true story of the long-lost survivor of a massacre in Guatemala that wiped out an entire village. It’s a great use of a human narrative to make you care about an important but disturbing story, from the role of the US in that era of Guatemalan history to the role of the investigations in modern Guatemalan politics. The reporting was done in tandem with ProPublica, so there’s an excellent prose version you can read here.

(They’ve also shared some updates on the story here.)


06 2012

Addis taxi economics

A is in his early 20s, and he’s my go-to taxi driver. He speaks good conversational English, which he picked up in part through being befriended by a Canadian couple who lived in Ethiopia for a while. Addis traffic is crazy but a bit more forgiving than some cities I’ve seen — there don’t seem to be many real traffic rules, but there’s more deference to other drivers. “A, you drive like a pro,” my friend says. “How long have you been driving?” “Oh, just six months!” (We gulp.)

In Addis “taxi” is used to refer to both ancient minibuses that drive set routes throughout the city and to traditional blue-and-white cars — often ancient-er — that will take you wherever you want to go. (Google Images of Addis taxis here.) A‘s car is the latter type, an old model that breaks down often and has one window handle you have to pass around to roll down each window.

Minibuses charge a flat rate on pre-specified routes, usually just a few Birr (ie, less than $0.20 US), but the personal taxis can charge much more. So having a few reliable drivers’ cell numbers is helpful because the prospect of your continued business helps ensure that you’ll get a better price for each ride.

Regarding taxis more generally: always negotiate a fare before you get in. Depending on the mood of the driver, current traffic and road construction, and the evident wealth, race, or nationality of the prospective passenger, the prices quoted will vary widely. I was once quoted 60 Birr and 150 Birr as starting prices ($3.50 and $8.80 US) by two drivers standing right next to each other!

Almost all of the taxi business seems to come from internationals and upper-class Ethiopians. Thus, taxis often congregate around the neighborhoods, hotels, and restaurants frequented by these groups. You’ll also get quoted a higher starting price if you’re seen coming out of a nice hotel than if you pick a cab just around the corner.

Starting prices definitely differ by race as well. (Here I cite conversations with Chinese-American and Bengali-American friends living in Addis.) Drivers will generally assume you’re from America (if you’re Caucasian), China (if you’re East Asian), and India (if you’re South Asian) and charge accordingly. White people get the highest starting prices, whereas if they assume you’re Chinese or Indian the starting price will be about 70% of the white price. This is, of course, entirely anecdotal, so econ PhD students take note: there’s some fascinating research to be done on differential pricing of initial and final fares for internationals living in Addis. In economics this differential pricing is called price discrimination (which can actually be good for consumers as it allows producers to provide services to a broader range of people, who often have different preferences and ability to pay).

A doesn’t own his taxi, and says that most drivers don’t either. Instead, he rents/leases his from a man who owns many taxis. That guy made enough money (“he is rich now!”) that he now goes to Dubai to buy other cars to import into Ethiopia. (Dubai is the go-to place for importing many things here.) A pays the owner a flat rate to have the taxi for a 10-day period, with more or less automatic renewals as long as he’s doing well enough to keep paying the fee. If he gets sick or wants to take a day off he has to pay that day’s rental fee out of earnings from another day, so A gets up at 6 am and drives until after midnight. Seven days a week.

A is only six months into the job, but he’s already looking for the next gig. He aspires to work as a tour guide — better pay and better hours, he says. And, I think, less risk of injury: almost all the taxis in Addis are from an era before airbags and seatbelts became commonplace. I think A would be a great tour guide — I hope it works out.


06 2012

Sweet tooth

Turns out this fad isn’t limited to New York and DC — there’s a cupcake place a couple blocks from my office: 

(Cupcake Delights, in Addis’ Bole neighborhood)

Now if only we can get a Chipotle?


06 2012

What we will lose

In the language of the Tuvan people, khoj özeeri means not only slaughter but also kindness, humaneness, a ceremony by which a family can kill, skin, and butcher a sheep, salting its hide and preparing its meat and making sausage with the saved blood and cleansed entrails so neatly that the whole thing can be accomplished in two hours (as the Mongushes did this morning) in one’s good clothes without spilling a drop of blood.

That’s from this National Geographic article, which analogizes lost linguistic diversity to lost biodiversity. Here’s the kind of knowledge we might lose:

Smaller languages often retain remnants of number systems that may predate the adoption of the modern world’s base-ten counting system. The Pirahã, an Amazonian tribe, appear to have no words for any specific numbers at all but instead get by with relative words such as “few” and “many.” The Pirahã’s lack of numerical terms suggests that assigning numbers may be an invention of culture rather than an innate part of human cognition. The interpretation of color is similarly varied from language to language. What we think of as the natural spectrum of the rainbow is actually divided up differently in different tongues, with many languages having more or fewer color categories than their neighbors.

For more on the ties between language and color, check out the amazing recent RadioLab podcast, “Color.” And FlowingData features a cool map showing the geographic clustering of endangered languages.


06 2012

Monday Miscellany

  • I thought this essay (PDF) by Chris Blattman was excellent. It’s a summary of three recent books (two by scholars, one by a former general) on issues surrounding children and warfare, mixed in with some of Blattman’s observations about working in such a charged field.
  • GiveWell on needs in meta-research.  But meta-research isn’t everything: see this recent post by Jed Friedman on the “tyranny of the known” and the Copenhagen Consensus.
  • Adam Ozimek and Noah Smith argue that we should have more immigration of high-education workers to the US.
  • What was the environmental impact of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

In 1990, some 250,000 turtles were imported into Britain to feed the demand of young Turtles fans who wanted them as pets. For only a few pounds, kids could easily buy a small turtle, not knowing that it would grow to be the size of a dinner plate. When the kids no longer wanted to take care of the animals, they were often dumped in rivers and ponds, where they devastated native ecosystems. The problem became so severe that the European Union banned the sale of the most popular breed, red-eared terrapins, in 1997.


06 2012

Rainy season is here

The view from my office window:


06 2012

Where are the programs?

An excerpt from Bill Gates’ interview with Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers (about a slum in Mumbai):

Bill Gates: Your peek into the operations of some non-profits was concerning. Are there non-profits that have been doing work which actually contributes to the improvement of these environments?
Katherine Boo: There are many nonprofits doing work that betters lives and prospects in India, from SEWA to Deworm the World, but in the airport slums, the closer I looked at NGOs, the more disheartened I felt. WorldVision, the prominent Christian charity, had made major improvements to sanitation some years back, but mismanagement and petty corruption in the organization’s local office had hampered more recent efforts to distribute aid. Other NGOs were supposedly running infant-health programs and schools for child laborers, but that desperately needed aid existed only on paper. Microfinance groups were reconfigured to exploit the very poor. Annawadi residents dying of untreated TB, malaria and dengue fever were nominally served by many charitable organizations, but in reality encountered only a single strain of health advocate—from the polio mop-up campaign. (To Annawadians, the constant appearance of polio teams in slum lanes being eviscerated by other illnesses has  become a local joke.) I tend to be realistic about occasional failures and “leakages” in organizations that do ambitious work in difficult contexts, but the discrepancy between what many NGOs were claiming in fundraising materials and what they were actually doing was significant.

In general, I suspect that the reading public overestimates the penetration of effective NGOs in low-income communities–a misapprehension that we journalists help create. When writing about nonprofits, we tend to focus either on scandals or on thinly reported “success stories” that, en masse, create the impression that most of the world’s poor are being guided through life by nigh-heroic charitable assistance. It’d be cool to see that misperception become more of a reality in the lives of low-income families.


06 2012