Research Internships in Africa

Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) has posted a number of summer internships for projects across the continent, including my own with Pia Raffler, “Meet the Candidates,” based in Uganda. Apply today and share widely!

  • Desired start date: April 2015 through July 2015
  • Deadline to apply: Applicants will be reviewed on rolling bases
  • Commitment:  A minimum of 10 weeks is required
  • Please note: All IPA internships are unpaid

Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to discovering what works to help the world’s poor. We design and evaluate programs in real contexts with real people, and provide hands-on assistance to bring successful programs to scale. IPA is accepting interns for the Spring/Summer 2015 globally. These positions offer an opportunity to gain first-hand experience in an organization undertaking cutting-edge development research.

Meet the Candidates Intern (Kampala, Uganda)

IPA seeks a qualified applicant for the position of internshipfor the “Meet the Candidates” projectin Kampala, Uganda.

This study seeks to assess the role of information in the selection of effective politicians in the context of the 2015 primary elections and 2016 general elections in Uganda. In particular, we contrast the effect of political information – in the form of “Meet the Candidates” sessions – on voter behavior in intra- (primary) versus inter-party (multiparty) electoral environments. In addition, we propose to study the extent to which programmatic information on candidates’ platforms can dissuade citizens from voting along non-programmatic lines. The main project activity consists of a structured question and answer session with candidates, which will be recorded and screened in a random subset of polling stations. Data collection activities include a survey in selected constituencies, and collection of official electoral results at the level of the polling station.

This position offers an opportunity to gain first-hand data management and field experience in an organization undertaking cutting-edge development research. The position is based in Kampala, Uganda with possible travel throughout Uganda. The principal investigators are Pia Raffler and Melina Izama Platas.

The intern will work closely with academic researchers and other field staff to perform a variety of tasks including, for example: data management, data cleaning, survey design and pretesting, field team management, partnership relations, intervention planning and implementation. Desired start date: June 2015.

Desired Qualifications and Experience:

  • Bachelor’s degree in economics, social sciences, public policy, or related fields
  • Master’s degree preferred
  • Stata skills (or other data analysis software preferred)
  • Experience with data management
  • Flexible, self-motivating, able to manage multiple tasks efficiently and a team player
  • Fluency and excellent communication skills in English
  • Familiarity with randomized controlled trials preferred

Experience living in a developing country is a plus

Note: this internship is unpaid.

How to Apply:

If you are interested, please send a resume and cover letter to and Please specify Internship MTC in the subject line.

Uganda’s ailing education sector

Uwezo has just released its 2013 East Africa Report. The results for Uganda are dismal, and stagnant across the East African region. Less than half of Ugandan children aged 10-17 were able to pass a Primary 2 exam in literacy and numeracy:

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There is widespread consensus that while campaigns like Education for All and the removal of schools fees have increased access to school, learning has not ensued. In sum, schooling is not education. We need to think much more carefully about the goals of education systems in Uganda and beyond. The challenge of stagnant or declining learning outcomes is not Uganda’s alone.

I discussed these issues last Sunday on NTV Uganda‘s Fourth Estate, together with Chris Obore and Morrison Rwakakamba, hosted by Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi. In Part I we discuss pension sector reform, and in Parts II and III Uganda’s ailing education sector:

K’naan, honestly

K’naan, a Somali-born musician known worldwide for his 2010 World Cup song, “Wavin’ Flag” (among others), wrote a brutally honest op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times. It is rare to read someone who bares themselves so nakedly to the world — startling, searing, and awesome (a word I am afraid has lost its power with overuse). Most of us are too afraid to face the harshest critiques of ourselves, let alone announce them publicly.

SO I had not made my Marley or my Dylan, or even my K’naan; I had made an album in which a few genuine songs are all but drowned out by the loud siren of ambition. Fatima had become Mary, and Mohamed, Adam.

I now suspect that packaging me as an idolized star to the pop market in America cannot work; while one can dumb down his lyrics, what one cannot do without being found out is hide his historical baggage. His sense of self. His walk. I imagine the 15-year-old girls can understand that. If not intellectually, perhaps spiritually.

I come with all the baggage of Somalia — of my grandfather’s poetry, of pounding rhythms, of the war, of being an immigrant, of being an artist, of needing to explain a few things. Even in the friendliest of melodies, something in my voice stirs up a well of history — of dark history, of loss’s victory.

So I am not the easiest sell to Top 40 radio. What I am is a fox who wanted to walk like a prophet and now is trying to rediscover its own stride.

Uganda: The Health of the Nation

Published online Nov. 4, 2012 in The Independent.

The Health of the Nation
By Melina Platas Izama

Since Uganda hit 50 recently, it seems as good a time as any to check its vitals. There is the heartbeat of the economy and the temperature of the masses, the pressure of the politics and the weight of history. The health of this nation in one word? Resilient.

The Jubilee celebration was not made up of unfettered jubilation, as one might expect at 50 years of independence, but instead doused with a heavy coat of introspection.

The pristine Kampala Road, captured in black and white photos, is hardly recognisable today – a bustling, grating and downright stressful stretch of earth.  Cynics wandered and wondered aloud, are we better off now than we were a half-century ago? Teachers are striking, projects stalling, health clinics leaking staff, money, and drugs. This version of events is familiar. We listen to it every morning and read it every day. Frankly, it’s exhausting.

The health of the nation is in part a function of the health of its people. And here we have some great stories to tell. The greatest story of all is the about the survival of children. In the last fifteen years, death in infants and young children has fallen by nearly 40%. The drop in child deaths was faster in the past five years than it has been in decades.  This is fantastic news.

When Uganda raised her flag for the first time, mothers across the newly birthed state could expect more than one in five of their children to perish before age five and 13% of newborns would not survive their first year. This year, as the flag was raised once more, the death of a child is not foreign, as it should be, but neither does it go hand in hand with motherhood.

The results of the most recent round of the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which have been instrumental in documenting these trends, have just been released for Uganda. Conducted across the country in more than ten thousand households, the DHS has been conducted in 1988, 1995, 2000, 2006 and 2011. While there are a number of improvements to report, the story of child survival, particularly in the last decade, stands out. It is perhaps the greatest achievement of the new millennium in Uganda. Continue reading “Uganda: The Health of the Nation”

Ghana through a lens

I recently returned to Kampala from three weeks in Ghana — Accra, Tamale, Upper East and Upper West. My visit coincided with the untimely passing of Ghana’s president, John Atta-Mills, the swearing in of new president John Dramani Mahama (who, coincidentally, just published his book, My First Coup d’Etat), and the three day funeral that followed. Below are some shots from around the country:

University of Ghana, Legon
Basilica of St. Theresa, Nandom, Upper West
Tamale, Ghana
A city in mourning, Accra, Ghana

“New” U.S. Africa Strategy

It’s finally summer and that means more time for writing, I hope. The White House recently released its “New U.S. Strategy Toward sub-Saharan Africa.” I can’t tell how new it is, based on the 4 key pillars:

The Four Pillars of the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa
The United States will partner with sub-Saharan African countries to pursue the following interdependent and mutually reinforcing objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development. Across all objectives, we will: deepen our engagement with Africa’s young leaders; seek to empower marginalized populations and women; address the unique needs of fragile and post-conflict states; and work closely with the U.N. and other multilateral actors to achieve our objectives on the continent.

Fact sheet and full report.

Bad news sells, are you buying it?

Published online April 3, 2012

In the past several weeks there has been much discussion of Africa’s image, prompted in large part by the Kony 2012 video (which has become too exhausting to discuss at this moment).

There are perpetual debates about Africa’s leadership, political or otherwise, and the prospects for continent’s future. These conversations are played out everywhere from the airwaves to your neighborhood bar.

The arguments are not new. Africa gets a bad name and her image is tarnished by unrelenting negative press.  Western media, it is argued, is particularly problematic, projecting an image of Africa that paints Africans as both hapless and helpless and the western world as their saviors. The stories that sell are those that deal in death and violence, poverty and hopelessness.

At the same time, the debates on local radio stations and in the streets are often just as pessimistic. Headlines in local papers highlight corruption scandals, the failure of public services and violent deaths.

Why is it so much easier to sell and tell a negative story? The western media alone are not the culprits; bad news sells everywhere. And the pubic is complicit, after all, as consumers of bad news. Critical views, especially those aired publicly, are important for accountability and multi-sided public debate is valuable in its own right. But at some point we have to interrogate our own role in shaping the debates about society, politics, and progress.

I recently returned to Kampala after a 6-month sojourn in the U.S. and as always, I am always amazed by the changes that have taken place while I was away. Granted, I am occasionally greeted by the expansion of a pothole I thought had finally been filled up for good, but more often than not, the changes are positive ones.

Every time I come back there are new buildings that have gone up, new shops that have opened, and new businesses and products breaking into the market. The streets of Kampala are cleaner and less cluttered than when I left them. Fewer matatus crowd the roads and public buses bustle efficiently through town. City garbage collectors dash to their trucks with bags full of trash and scoop up plastic bottles that have clogged drains and ditches. The same is also true, though less surprising, whenever I visit Rwanda.

This time around, I arrived in the midst of a roaring debate about who was responsible for the death of a policeman who had been hit in the head with a stone during a demonstration by the opposition group, A4C. Following this incident, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni visited the home of the fallen officer, and photos of him with the grieving family were splashed all over the papers. The policeman’s clearly meager existence prompted debates about the poor pay and living conditions of the police, and many saw President Museveni’s house-call as a political maneuver.

I struck up a conversation with a cab driver one evening not long after the demonstration. The young man fully blamed the policemen for the unfortunate event, and remained an ardent supporter of de facto leader of the opposition, and the leader of that particular demonstration, Kizza Besigye. The young man had lived under the same president his entire life, and was tired of Museveni. University graduates can’t get jobs, he said, and everything is run by members of the same ethnic group – the president’s ethnic group. There is no change, he said.

We drove past one of many multi-storied buildings under construction. What about all this construction, I said, pointing – this city is growing and changing every day. He laughed. That building is owned by one of five people, like all the buildings in town. Both of his mobile phones began ringing and we drove on.

There is much to be frustrated about when it comes to governance and political leadership, whether you are in East Africa or elsewhere. Change does not come soon enough, and when it does, it comes in fits and starts. Politicians everywhere tend to flip flop on important issues, and then pick petty fights to derail what would otherwise be good policies. Corruption and unemployment are high, and access to economic and political opportunity is not equal. But the narrative, whether at home or abroad, is often hyperbolic. The positions that get the most attention are those that are most extreme, and thus there is an incentive to make them so.

Bad news sells, and we are just as responsible for this state of affairs as the news organizations we are so quick to castigate. We are addicted to narratives that we hate, and we gravitate toward clichés that we know can’t be true. The same phrases sprinkle news stories time and again, and while we sneer at them, they play a tune we can easily sing along to.

The stories aren’t going away anytime soon, and even good news plays to stereotypes. Senegal’s recent presidential turnover had commentators falling over themselves – they always knew the country had been a “beacon of democratic stability in a troubled West Africa!” Rather than passive consumers of these hackneyed formulas, we fight back, as we should. But no sooner do we switch off the radio than we become producers of our own hyperbolic platitudes.

As we approached home my driving directions periodically interrupted our lively cab-ride conversation – turn right at the dirt road, turn left after that house. There are still no street signs and in the final stretch we bumped along on dusty roads. But alongside them are a string of new homes and a towering apartment complex. A sprawling new shopping mall has sprung up just moments away from home. No need to join the Saturday rush into town to shop these days, which is great news. There are simply too many cars on the road!

The Kony2012 social network: how a viral video spreads

A look at how pre-existing networks allowed Invisible Children to get the word out. (h/t @laurenrprather)

Source: SocialFlow

Screenings of Kony 2012 were halted in Uganda after provoking anger at a showing in Lira.

In other news, the International Criminal Court has found Thomas Lubanga guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers in the DRC. This is the first verdict handed down by the court.

Mahmood Mamdani on Kony 2012

I’ve been waiting for Mahmood Mamdani to weigh in on Kony 2012. His piece was finally published today in the Daily Monitor. The discussion of Invisible Children comes only at the end of the piece. Mamdani calls on the tens of millions of viewers of Kony 2012 to remember that the LRA is not just a one-man show, but comprised of many people, children and adults, who will need to be reintegrated back into their communities when the LRA is finally no more. There are no simple solutions.

“The 70 million plus who have watched the Invisible Children video need to realise that the LRA – both the leaders and the children pressed into their service – are not an alien force but sons and daughters of the soil. The solution is not to eliminate them physically, but to find ways of integrating them into (Ugandan) society.

Those in the Ugandan and the US governments – and now apparently the owners of Invisible Children – must bear responsibility for regionalizing the problem as the LRA and, in its toe, the Ugandan army and US advisers crisscross the region, from Uganda to DRC to CAR. Yet, at its core the LRA remains a Ugandan problem calling for a Ugandan political solution.”

My own two cents will be published in The Independent this week.

The curse of political inequality

“Prosperity depends on innovation, and we waste our innovative potential if we do not provide a level playing field for all: we don’t know where the next Microsoft, Google, or Facebook will come from, and if the person who will make this happen goes to a failing school and cannot get into a good university, the chances that it will become a reality are much diminished. There is a lot to worry about here. Our schools are failing and American youth is less likely to graduate from high school or college today than in the 60s. We are no longer the country of opportunity and upward mobility that we once were — largely because that upward mobility crucially depended on the expansion of mass schooling.

The real danger to our prosperity lies in political inequality. The U.S. generated so much innovation and economic growth for the last 200 years because, by and large, it rewarded innovation and investment. This did not happen in a vacuum; it was supported by a particular set of political arrangements — inclusive political institutions — which prevented an elite or another narrow group from monopolizing political power and using it for their own benefit and at the expense of society. When politics gets thus hijacked, inequality of opportunity follows, for the hijackers will use their power to gain special treatment for their businesses and tilt the playing field in their favor and against their competitors. The best, and in fact the only, bulwark against this is political equality to ensure that those whose rights and interests will be trampled on have a say and can prevent it.”

That’s Daron Acemoglu in the Huffington Post. He’s also blogging at Why Nations Fail. Another thought: the process that allows for the production of the next Steve Jobs or Larry Page also allows for the production of great political leaders.

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