Monthly Archives: December 2012

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

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United Nations Intervention in Mali: The Changing Face of the “War on Terror”

Rebels in Northern Mali.

Rebels in Northern Mali.

The United Nations Security Council yesterday unanimously approved a resolution supporting an African-led military intervention in northern Mali intended to dislodge Islamic militants operating in the region. The resolution calls for nonmilitary measures, including political reconciliation, elections, and training of Mali’s military forces before as a precursor to deployment of a 3,330-strong force backed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The government of Mali has been struggling to counter the growing influence of al Qaeda-linked groups in the northern part of the country. Two groups, the National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) heave been pushing for greater independence.

Blogging at Turtle Bay, Colum Lynch notes that the Security Council resolution provides broad authorization for foreign governments to “take all necessary measures” and provide “any necessary assistance” in support of Mali’s fight against Islamic extremists. Such measures could range from the deployment of military advisors and the provision of training and material support, to the use of drones or other forms of direct military intervention in northern Mali.

The Security Council’s decision was somewhat surprising, particularly given the fact that the organization had been so hesitant to consider the situation in Mali previously. However, the decision also reflects a new tactic in the war on terror. Rather than engaging directly in operations against Islamic extremists, the United States and other western nations are deferring to local and regional governments in the region to address the issue. This tactic raises an interesting question. What happens if the regional peacekeeping forces are unable to address the threat? How far should U.S. support go? At what point does the United States transition from “advice and support” to “direct intervention”? Would such a (revised) role require Congressional approval? Would Congress even support such an initiative? And more generally, would such a move transition the role of the United Nations from peacekeeping to peacemaking? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Development Aid Priorities

The Guardian’s Datablog today has a fascinating map  illustrating global development aid flows over the past decade. They’ve been running a contest for the best map, and today’s entry shows the winner.

The interactive map highlights aid received and given by each country, both in total, over time, by source and by sector. You can also put the map in motion, and see how aid flows have changed over time.

The map provides a compelling way to view the changing global priorities in development aid. You see, for example, the rise of Iraq as a major recipient of foreign aid following the 2003 U.S. invasion. But the map also helps to raise some interesting questions, particularly around the basis on which foreign aid should be distributed. Given the ongoing debate over the fiscal cliff and the pressing desire to cut government spending, it seems clear that foreign aid is going to be expected to do more with less in the future. Yet Americans have always vastly overestimated the amount of foreign aid the country provides. A 2010 survey found that Americans believed foreign aid was one quarter of the total U.S. budget, but believed that it should “only” be 10 percent. In truth, foreign aid comprises less than one percent of the federal budget. The belief that we can balance the federal budget by cutting foreign aid (or public television, for that matter) is simply absurd.

But the broader conversation about the role of foreign aid and its relationship to foreign policy priorities is a conversation worth having.

What do you think? What should American foreign aid priorities be? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live. Good luck!

Measuring Economic Activity and Development in Africa

Lagos, Nigeria

Lagos, Nigeria

According to a report by Reuters, Nigeria’s gross domestic product will grow by 40 percent in the second quarter of 2012. If correct, Nigeria’s GDP would increase from $273 billion to $370 billion, and Nigeria would become Africa’s second largest economy in Africa. Growth forecasts suggest that Nigeria would surpass South Africa to become Africa’s largest economy within a few years.

The move has significant implications for Nigeria and the rest of the developing world. Symbolically, Nigeria’s newfound economic prowess could afford the country greater leadership and influence on the continent, particularly within West Africa.

Nigeria’s larger economy would also have important policy effects for international institutions. By increasing its GDP, Nigeria’s debt ratio (the size of the country’s national debt as a proportion of the total size of its economy) will nearly be cut in half. At the same time, the improved economic status of the country could affect its ability to secure concessionary loans. When Ghana’s GDP was increased by more than 60 percent in 2010, its debt-to-GDP ratio fell from 40% to 24% and the World Bank reclassified it from a low income to a lower-middle income country.

So how did Nigeria and Ghana grow their economies so dramatically? In truth, they didn’t. Gross domestic product is the total value of goods and services produced win a country in a given year. But in most countries in most years, economists don’t actually go out and add everything up. Instead, they start with a year in which a fairly accurate survey was conducted and adjust it annually based on other variables like population growth. In both Ghana and Nigeria, the dramatic increase in GDP was not the result of sudden and dramatic economic growth. Rather, in both cases, the upward shift in GDP was the result of how the number was calculated and which base year was used.

This methodology raises several important questions.

First, how accurate is the baseline year? If the baseline year is incorrect, then all subsequent calculations based on that initial estimate also be inaccurate. The exclusion of the informal sector, which can include everything from sales by unlicensed street vendors to prostitution to the sale and trafficking of illicit drugs, often leads GDP to be underestimated. A 2010 World Bank report estimated the size of the informal economy in the United States as 8.8 percent of the formal economy. The median figure for developing countries was 41 percent. In the countries with the largest informal economies (such as Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Georgia, and Panama), it exceeded 60 percent.

Second, how old is the baseline year? When Ghana’s GDP increased in 2010, it was because Ghana shifted its baseline year from 1993 to 2006. Similarly, Nigeria’s baseline year shift from 1990 to 2008 will likely account for a significant portion of the increase in its GDP. Think for a moment about the importance of the baseline year. In the early 1990s, the cell phones which are no so ubiquitous across Africa will still in their infancy, widely unavailable on the continent. This one example illustrates how dramatically the structure of an economy (and a society) can shift in a relatively short period of time.

This means that GDP figures for developing countries are best thought of as general estimates falling within a wide margin of error rather than concrete numbers that reflect real, on the ground economic activity. It teaches us that we should be critical consumers of data.

Those interested in learning more about this questions would be well advised to seek out Morten Jerven’s new book, Poor Numbers: Facts, Assumptions and Controversy in African Development Statistics, forthcoming from Cornell University Press.

What do you think? Should we continue to use GDP as a proxy measure for development? If so, how can we acknowledge the limits of that figure while making meaningful decisions? If not, what do we use instead? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Pedagogy: Maintaining Student Engagement

Word Cloud on Student Engagement from the Berlin Fang's North Institute blog.

Word Cloud on Student Engagement from Berlin Fang’s North Institute blog.

Faculty Focus’ Teaching and Learning blog this week listed their top 12 teaching and learning articles for 2012. The list covers some great topics, including strategies for engaging students, developing effective online assignments, helping students move from surface to deep learning, addressing the challenges of group work, and debating the pedagogical effectiveness of PowerPoint.

But the one that struck me the most dealt with student perceptions of multitasking. Unless you’ve been teaching on a remote desert island (and even then, I’m not sure) you’ve had to deal with students texting, surfing the web, or engaging in other activities which distract from the learning process. Among my colleagues, some have banned electronic devices outright, some attempt to manage it on a case-by-case basis, and others take a permissive attitude, concluding that students are only hurting themselves through their actions.

But Marellen Weimer’s post on her Teaching Professor blog cites several studies showing sharp declines in student performance among multitaskers. Faced with this evidence, do we have an obligation to intervene and help students avoid this pitfall?

For me, a similar question arises with respect to class attendance. Should we require class attendance, penalizing those students who choose not to come regularly?

Here’s my solution. On the first day of class, I share a scatterplot diagram with my students. The figure, based on data collected from my classes over the past few years, graphs class attendance against final grades. I also tell students I don’t grade based on attendance. Yet in these classes—particularly in the larger sections—there is a clear correlation between the two. While there a few outliers—students who come regularly but nevertheless struggle, and the occasional student who can do well without coming regularly—the graph shows that, on average, every class missed after the first leads to a one step decline in final grade. In other words, students who miss one class over the course of the semester perform at the same general level as those who miss none. But students who miss a second class generally earn a grade one step lower (a B- rather than a B, for example) than a similar student who missed didn’t miss class. This continues in a straight linear regression all the way down. Interestingly (perhaps alarmingly), students always seem to be surprised by the data.

From my perspective, this solution provides students with the data they need to make an informed decision while leaving them the agency to actually make that decision. Now I’m considering a similar graph on multitasking.

What do you do to address the challenges of maintaining student engagement? How do you manage classroom attendance and multitasking issues? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live. Good luck!