In Box

When No One's Looking

Election monitors aren't stopping violence -- they're just making sure it happens before they get there.

From Afghanistan to Indonesia, Georgia to Malawi, election season brings with it a time-honored tradition: the migration of international monitors to far corners of the world -- eyes guarding against fraud, vote-buying, and outright cheating.

Advocates have long claimed that the presence of election-day observers, while certainly providing no guarantee, helps ensure free and fair elections and delegitimizes political actors who would try to rig the vote. But new research that examines 19 years of elections in Africa argues that, when it comes to stopping at least one type of election fraud -- voter intimidation through violence -- election observers aren't putting an end to it; they're just ensuring that it happens before they arrive.

Looking at the three months before 330 African election rounds from 1990 to 2009, Amsterdam-based political scientist Ursula Daxecker examined the effect that monitors from organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, and the National Democratic Institute had on election-related violence. What she found was alarming: The probability of violence in the three months leading up to elections increased a stunning 200 percent when international monitors were present for election day -- an indication that the extra scrutiny may be having a perverse effect. What's more, Daxecker found that the presence of monitors has no statistically significant effect on violence on election day itself.

Often, when an election turns ugly, observers look to indigenous factors for an explanation. Was an unpopular incumbent afraid of losing votes? Were there more fringe challengers contesting a wide-open ballot? Daxecker's research serves as a warning not only that the worst election-related violence might go unseen by monitors, but that international forces play a role in how and when it unfolds -- even when they have the best of intentions. It's also a reminder that, for any country struggling with democracy, election day is just a small part of a much bigger picture.

Illustration by Chris Gash

In Box

The Slow Track to Happiness

Religion makes you poorer. It also makes you happier. If you think that's a contradiction, you're wrong.

Anyone who has been in a Muslim country during Ramadan knows the transformation that comes about with the first sighting of the crescent moon.

During the holy month, the devout fast from sunrise to sunset. Bustling thoroughfares go quiet; office hours are shorter to accommodate fasting employees; and business grinds to a halt, to the frustration of expats and foreign partners.

Now, a new paper from two Harvard University researchers confirms what until now has only been a nagging suspicion: Religion isn't good for the economy.

Economists Filipe Campante and David Yanagizawa-Drott examined data from every Ramadan since 1950, using the amount of time spent fasting as a measure for intensity of religious practice.

Focusing on countries that were more than 75 percent Muslim, they found that when people spent more time fasting -- when Ramadan fell during the long days of summer, for instance -- it took a bigger toll on economic growth. Increasing the average daily fast in a country from 12 to 13 hours, for example, decreased GDP growth by about 0.7 percentage points, the authors found. More-intense religious practice, in other words, left worshippers poorer. And being poorer makes you less happy, right?

Wrong. Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott also found that Muslims who went through a more intense Ramadan season reported feeling happier. Increasing the average fast from 12 to 13 hours boosted by 4 percent the chance that respondents would describe themselves as being happy that year.

Most interestingly, however, the economic losses don't come as a result of productivity squandered during a month of lethargy and hunger. Rather, the slowdown in growth comes from Muslims making different choices post-Ramadan about how they live their lives -- namely, what jobs to take and how to divide their time between work and worship. Spending more time praying, it seems, leads Muslims to make decisions that result in slower economic growth -- but greater happiness.

Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott's research is yet another indicator that increasing GDP growth may not be the best way to improve a population's overall well-being. But it also raises interesting questions: If people are happier working less and worshipping more, then why don't they opt for that choice without the extra Ramadan nudge? And is this trend specific to Ramadan and Islam, or does it hold for people who spend more time in church or synagogue?

These are paths for future research, the authors say. In the meantime, for Muslims north of the equator, Ramadan falls smack dab in the middle of summer this year. For those celebrating, the days will be long and difficult, but, if Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott are right, they will have a happier year.

Illustration by Chris Gash