Democracy Lab

Smokeless Stoves, Girl-Friendly Schools, and the Bloc That Wasn’t

Academic economists usually air their new ideas first in working papers. Here, before the work gets dusty, a quick look at transition policy research in progress.

Smoking Break

Looking for a cheap way to save millions of lives each year in rural parts of poor countries -- and prevent soil erosion and slow global warming at the same time? For some years now, development specialists have been touting the virtues of simple, cheap, high-efficiency cooking stoves that can reduce indoor air pollution from open fires -- one of the most prominent causes of respiratory illness and premature death in parts of Africa and Asia. What's more, along with protecting householders (especially children) from smoke inhalation, they cut back the use of brushwood that otherwise protects fragile soils from erosion and reduce total greenhouse gas emissions. (This is one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton, among others, has become a passionate advocate of  "clean cookstoves.").

But there's a catch: To get any benefit from these stoves, they have to be used. According to a scientifically controlled study by Rema Hanna (Harvard), Esther Duflo (MIT), and Michael Greenstone (MIT) that was conducted in a poor village in India, introduction of the stoves did reduce smoke inhalation in the first year. But in the three years following, the stoves ceased to make a noticeable difference. "Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately," the economists report, and "did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly." The sobering lesson, of course, is that engineering studies back home have limited predictive value on how technology will be used in real-world development settings. Up in Smoke: The Influence of Household Behavior on the Long-Run Impact of Improved Cooking Stoves. MIT Economics Department Working Paper. Download free here.

Forged in Adversity

Non-specialists tend to assume that Eastern Bloc economies were one undifferentiated train wreck before the collapse of the Soviet empire. But in fact these newly freed economies had quite different characters in terms of social and human capital and traditions of entrepreneurship. And while none of them has had an easy time integrating with Europe, it shouldn't be surprising they've followed widely divergent paths in managing the transition. If you really want to understand what happened, you could spend a few months perusing the literature -- or you could cut a number of corners and read this splendid big-picture analysis of two decades of wrenching change written by Anders Aslund, who made his reputation predicting the economic implosion of the USSR long before it was fashionable.

Don't expect me to summarize the summary. But I can offer you a sneak preview: Those difficult decades left Eastern Europe in surprisingly good shape to recover from this last global recession. Indeed, Poland is now in a far better position to grow than the countries on the southern periphery of the Eurozone. Lessons from Reforms in Central and Eastern Europe in the Wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Peterson Institute Working Paper WP 12-7. Download free here.

Go Girl

There's now a virtual consensus among development specialists that reducing gender inequality is critical to jumpstarting economic growth in the poorest countries -- and that the surest route to greater equality lies in education. But western educators learned decades ago that the culture of inequality deterring female empowerment is all too often reinforced in school. Among other problems, girls are inclined to defer to boys and therefore get less out of the classroom experience.

A group of researchers (Harounan Kazianga, Dan Levy, Leigh Linden, and Matt Sloan) working under the auspices of the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Germany have confirmed that what's true in Europe and America applies to ultra-poor Burkina Faso as well. They compared traditional primary schools with "girl-friendly" schools created under the BRIGHT program, which is funded by the U.S. government. (BRIGHT schools, by the way, are apparently co-ed, but go out of their way to make themselves attractive to girls by adding more and better trained female teachers, setting up separate bathrooms for girls, etc.) The results have been pretty spectacular, increasing girls' enrollment rates and raising test scores for both boys and girls. The Effects of "Girl-Friendly" Schools: Evidence from the BRIGHT School Construction Program in Burkina Faso. IZA Discussion Paper No. 6574. Download free here.

Islamic Derivatives

For all the bad rap following the collapse of the financial bubble in 2008, financial derivatives remain indispensable in managing risk in modern economies (your economist-narrator said defiantly). But sharia law bars financial speculation just as it bans interest. And more often than not, the creation of a derivative -- say, a bet on the price of gold in six months -- requires that one party to the transaction have speculation in mind. Is there any way to make derivatives acceptable in financial systems governed by Islamic law?

According to Andreas Jobst (Bermuda Monetary Authority) and Juan Solé (Bank for International Settlements), the answer is a definite maybe. By their reading of the literature, sharia does offer significant wiggle room, allowing derivatives in a variety of circumstances. What's important now, the authors argue, is to codify acceptable practices in the relevant countries so that parties that do derivative contracts don't bear the risk that their agreements will be declared invalid when there are efforts to enforce them. Operative Principles of Islamic Derivatives -- Towards a Coherent Theory. IMF Working Paper WP/12/63. Download here free.

Spillovers from Microfinance

The idea that the introduction of formal ways to borrow and save can make a big difference in the poorest of places is now widely accepted. Indeed, tiny loans from both non-profits and profit-seeking businesses seem to be the fashion these days, financing everything from cell phones to farm equipment.

What's less clear, though, is their impact on the welfare of people other than the immediate beneficiaries. Jeffry Flory, an economist at the University of Chicago, examined one particular aspect of the question: The degree to which access to formal savings and credit served as a safety net in times of crop failures and other disasters. In a study of isolated villages in central Malawi, he found that a one percentage point increase in households with formal savings increased the number of households receiving inter-household gifts/loans by about three percentage points, along with the expected improvements in health outcomes.

A serendipitous finding, you say? Yes, but there is one catch: The obligation to support extended families and friends in hard time is, in a sense, a tax, and thus may well reduce the incentives to save and invest in just the sort of places that most desperately need it to grow.  Micro-Savings and Informal Insurance in Villages: How Financial Deepening Affects Safety Nets of the Poor, A Natural Field Experiment. Milton Friedman Institute Working Paper 2011-008. Download free here.

Trade and the Arab Spring

It's one thing to engineer a political revolution, and quite another to build a successful economy from the wreckage of autocracy and exploitation. Can the Arab Spring countries (Egypt and Tunisia for now, but who knows later on) find the means to become prosperous? Most relevant here, can the West make a difference in their fate?

Economists Thorvaldur Gylfason, Inmaculada Martínez-Zarzoso, and Per Magnus Wijkman explore one element: The potential for gains from greater economic integration, both within North Africa and between North Africa and Mediterranean Europe. They conclude that trade represents enormous untapped potential within the Arab Spring countries -- not an intuitive result, by the way -- and that Europe has the opportunity to use preferential access to its markets as a carrot to make economic reform easier. Solid potential. How Free Trade Can Help Convert the "ArabSpring" into Permanent Peace and Democracy. CESifo Working Paper 3882. Download free here.

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Breaking the Arab News

Egypt made al Jazeera -- and Syria's destroying it.

While civil war rages on the Syrian battlefield between regime loyalists and myriad rebel factions, another battle is taking place in the media world. Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, the two Gulf-based channels that dominate the Arabic news business, have moved to counter Syrian regime propaganda, but have ended up distorting the news almost as badly as their opponents. In their bid to support the Syrian rebels' cause, these media giants have lowered their journalistic standards, abandoned rudimentary fact-checks, and relied on anonymous callers and unverified videos in place of solid reporting.

Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were founded by members of the Qatari and Saudi royal families, respectively, and their coverage of Syria faithfully reflects the political positions of their backers. There's big money behind both stations: Al Jazeera was created with a $150 million grant from the emir of Qatar in 1996, and annual expenditure on the network's multiple channels reached nearly $650 million by 2010, according to market research firm Ipsos. The story is similar with Al Arabiya, which was launched in 2003 with an initial investment of $300 million by a group of Lebanese and Gulf investors led by Saudi businessman Waleed al-Ibrahim, the brother-in-law of the late Saudi King Fahd. Hard numbers on the annual operating budgets of these channels aren't known, but they're likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The much smaller, U.S.-government financed Alhurra, by way of comparison, costs around $90 million annually to run.

Coverage of the Syrian uprising has drained these channels' resources. Prime-time advertisements have been reduced or canceled altogether, thereby decreasing revenues. In place of carefully reported segments, some newscasts rely almost exclusively on citizen journalist "eyewitness" accounts and uploaded media footage readily found on YouTube. For the non-Arabic-speaking viewer, news coverage of Syria on these channels is akin to CNN's iReport -- the monthly interactive half-hour citizen journalism show -- but for several hours a day. It is not uncommon to tune in to either channel and find that the first 20 minutes of a newscast consists of Syrian activists -- some with shady backgrounds -- based either outside or inside Syria reporting via Skype on events that took place hundreds or thousands of miles away.

When Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera do comment directly on Syrian affairs, they tend to paper over the rebels' flaws and emphasize the conflict's religious fault lines. Perhaps the low point of both channels' Syrian uprising coverage was when they gave a platform to extremist Sunni cleric Adnan al-Arour, who once said of Syria's Alawite minority that Sunnis "shall mince them in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs" for their support of President Bashar al-Assad. While Al Arabiya referred to "the sheikh" as a "symbol of the revolution," Al Jazeera introduced him as someone "who is described as the biggest nonviolent instigator against the Syrian regime."

These Arabic-language stations have done their worst work when the political stakes of their coverage are the highest. In early July, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a close friend of the Assad family and son of a former Syrian defense minister, fled to France. Several weeks later, he broke his silence via Saudi media and embarked on a religious pilgrimage to the kingdom, offering himself as a unifying figure to lead Syria's dysfunctional exile opposition. Only within the realm of fantasy would Syrians -- who have paid with the blood of thousands to bring down the Baathist dictatorship -- agree to allow a former regime insider to succeed Assad.

But that seems to be the scenario that Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are not only taking seriously, but perhaps supporting. Both channels initially covered Tlass's defection extensively, but after Tlass chose to make his statements exclusively to Saudi media -- including Al Arabiya and the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat -- Al Jazeera shunned him. Al Arabiya described the defection of Tlass -- who held no power whatsoever at the time of his departure -- as a "severe blow" to Syrian military power. It also recounted how several of his family members oppose the regime, but failed to mention his uncle Talal, who currently serves as deputy defense minister.

To be sure, reporting from inside Syria is perilous. The country is, in fact, the most dangerous place in the world for reporters, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Bloggers and journalists have been repeatedly detained by the regime since the conflict began, and at least 18 journalists have lost their lives in the country since November. Furthermore, government minders continuously accompany reporters who are allowed into the country.

But the networks use the very real challenges of reporting from inside Syria as an excuse to avoid stories that challenge their preferred narrative. Elsewhere, for instance, articles have raised questions about the credibility of the widely quoted Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based Syrian opposition outlet -- but Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya haven't touched the story. Newspapers around the world have also focused on the presence of terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, among the anti-regime fighters -- but such a possibility is rarely, if ever, entertained on the main Arabic stations.

Both channels also suffer from a "Yasir Arafat" dichotomy -- a reference to the late Palestinian leader, who had a habit of tailoring his message depending on his audience. The stations' rhetoric differs greatly depending on the language they broadcast in. For instance, Al Jazeera English and Al Arabiya's English-language website have broached the topic of al Qaeda fighters in Syria, even as it goes unmentioned on their vastly more influential Arabic-language counterparts. Instead, the Arabic-language channels continually host guests who refute any suggestions of the sort.

Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are not unique in compromising their journalistic standards in Syria. Western media organizations such as the Guardian were fooled by an author claiming to be a gay girl in Damascus -- and who turned out to be an American man living in Scotland. The BBC World News editor also criticized the sensationalism of initial reports of a massacre in the town of Houla, writing, "it's more important than ever that we report what we don't know, not merely what we do."

Of course, the other side has been just as bad. Iranian propaganda outlets recently stepped up their defense of Iran's Baathist ally, publishing a series of articles that accuse Qatar of financing terrorism and colluding with Israel. Such Iranian media attacks had commonly targeted the Saudi government but are a new phenomenon with regard to Qatar, with which it shares the world's largest gas field. Russia Today, in both Arabic and English, has mirrored Iranian state media outlets in it coverage, referring to any anti-regime protesters as terrorists or militants, while turning a blind eye to the regime atrocities. Like Iran, Russia Today has also targeted Qatar, accusing it of "playing in tune with Washington's policies in the region."

But the real loss here is for Al Jazeera, a channel that was followed by tens of millions of Arab viewers last year at the height of the Arab uprisings and is today a shadow of its former self. After I wrote about the station's bias in favor of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood last month, more than a dozen of the channel's employees confirmed the fact to me in emails.

Al Jazeera employs the same tactics in its coverage of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a part of the domestic opposition movement, as it does with the Brotherhood's Egyptian counterpart. Arabic-language Al Jazeera had earlier assigned its Syria desk to Ahmed Ibrahim, the brother of Anas al-Abdah, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC). Ibrahim goes by a different name in order to avoid being affiliated with his brother. (Al Jazeera denies that Ibrahim works under an alias or exhibits bias. "This is his name as it appears on his passport," a spokesman for the network said. "He’s been in senior roles at Al Jazeera for 10 years, where it has always been his name. He did not change it when the Syria story broke and he has no political affiliations inside or outside of Syria.")

As a result of this relationship, according to several Al Jazeera insiders, Brotherhood-friendly analysts are frequently invited to air their views. For instance, SNC member Mohammad Aloush, a familiar guest on Al Jazeera, published a long op-ed on the channel's website stating that the new Syrian Muslim Brotherhood covenant is a "message of assurance" to the Syrian people and that "nothing better has been presented." ("We have numerous checks and balances in the newsroom to ensure balance, and Ahmad has no input on website op-eds," an Al Jazeera spokesperson told FP.)

Fortunately, criticism of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya has increased along with its biased coverage. Fadi Salem, a Dubai-based Syrian researcher specializing in media, accused both channels of "pay[ing] handsome amounts of money to anonymous callers with information regarding Syria" and recycling YouTube videos as if they were from different parts of the country. "Many opposition figures [who are inside Syria] but do not see eye to eye with Saudi or Qatari foreign policy on Syria are 'banned' on both channels," Salem told me. Al Jazeera flatly denies paying anonymous callers for information on Syria.

A large segment of Al Jazeera's and Al Arabiya's audiences, appalled by the Syrian regime's brutality, no doubt genuinely believes that this is strictly a battle of good versus evil. For the Saudi and Qatari governments, however, Syria's fate directly affects their political future -- they want to see the fall of the regime for either personal or strategic reasons. The looming end of Assad's Syria is yet another chapter in the transformation of the old Arab state order, which began with the fall of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the end of Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. It is a story that is simply too important to be left in the hands of media outlets looking to advance their own narrow interests.

Note: This article has been amended since publication to include Al Jazeera's responses.