Monday, May 28, 2007

encouragement design

I want to spend a little time explaining the basic idea behind the research that I'll be doing while I'm in Ghana. As you probably know, the overall idea is to examine the impact that microfinance loans have on the well-being of the borrowers and their households, with "well-being" measured in a variety of ways (many of which I will get into in a later post).

A central problem with measuring the imact of microfinance (or, to some extent, any anti-poverty program) is that you have to find a way to isolate the effect of the program itself so that you don't ascribe good (or bad) outcomes to the presence of a loan when they are in fact the result of something else. The classic example from microfinance is selection bias. Most microfinance borrowers run very small, informal businesses ("microenterprises" in the development lingo), but of course some people are better entrepreneurs than others, and as a result some people will be more successful than others. It's pretty easy to imagine, furthermore, that someone with good entrepreneurial skills might be systematically more likely to seek out a microfinance loan (because they're more ambitious, resourceful, willing to take risks, etc). Therefore microfinance might appear to make businesses more successful, when in fact all that you're seeing is that successful people are more likely to have microfinance. It could also be the case, on the other hand, that people who have experienced random bad outcomes ("negative shocks" in the lingo) might be more likely to seek out microfinance, so microfinance could appear to have no impact or negative impacts simply because many of the people who got loans were worse off to begin with.

The bottom line is that you can't compare borrowers to non-borrowers and see who is doing better and ascribe what you find to microfinance, because there is no reason to think that microfinance clients have the same characteristics (and therefore the same average outcomes) as non-clients. There are several different ways to get around this (my thesis, for example, looked at outcomes for individual borrowers before and after credit, rather than comparing borrowers to non-borrowers), but probably the best way is to do a randomized field experiment. What this would mean in a perfect world is that you have randomly assigned treatment and a control groups, with both groups consisting of microentrepreneurs who want and are eligible for microfinance. The treatment group get loans, the control group doesn't. The problem, obviously, is that you have to identify a bunch of new borrowers, but then randomly deny half of them credit for a period of time. Although that kind of control group methodology is common in, say, clinical drug trials, you can see how it might be logistically difficult to manage with microfinance loans (especially when an area has more than one MFI, so that control-group members could potentially seek loans elsewhere) and how MFIs might be wary on ethical grounds.

What my advisor is attempting, in Ghana and in India (with myself and my fellow IDECer JP as his research assistants, since he's not actually going to either of those places this summer), is a more feasible iteration of a randomized field experiment. It uses the concept of an instrumental variable, which is basically a way of measuring a causal relationship indirectly so as to subvert some of the bias problems that may be inherent in that relationship. In the microfinance context, we want an instrumental variable that is strongly correlated with receiving a microfinance loan, but has absolutely nothing to do with whatever positive outcomes we expect microfinance to cause.

In this case, what I will be doing is creating random treatment and control groups of microfinance-eligible microentrepreneurs who aren't currently MFI clients. The people in the treatment group will be encouraged to take a microfinance loan (essentially we'll heavily market microfinance to them), and the people in the control group won't be. People in either group are then free to get a microfinance loan if they choose to. The idea is that, hopefully, lots more of the people in the treatment group (the ones who had microfinance marketed to them) will decide to get loans, so that there will be a very strong correlation between being in the treatment group and having a microfinance loan. At the same time, having been told how great microfinance is will not, in itself, have any conceivable impact on whether or not your business does well or your family eats more meat, etc.

Thus if we want to know if microfinance increases a person's likelihood of buying a productive business asset (of course, we already know it does, because I said so in my thesis, and I'm always right) we can estimate the relationship between the encouragement "instrument" and the likelihood of buying a business asset. Since we know that the encouragement itself has no impact on buying a business asset, any estimated relationship between the two can be attributed to microfinance. The upshot in all this is that our instrument (the encouragement) is completely random--people in the treatment group should have, on average, characteristics identical to those of the people in the control group--so bias problems are completely avoided.

That's the theory anyway. This particular methodology hasn't been used for a microfinance field experiment before, so we simply don't know how well it's going to work. If take-up of microfinance isn't significantly higher in the treatment group, we're kind of screwed. But if it does work, the results should be both interesting and econometrically sound, which is great.

leavin' on my mind*

I'm starting to get more freaked out about leaving the country. I think my anxiety is emanating from a couple different sources, most of which I can do something about. I don't know very much about what is going on when I get there (where I'll stay in Accra that first night, how I'll get to Kumasi, when I'll meet up with the IDEC students that will be there also, etc), but obviously those are things I can plan or find out. I have a ridiculous amount of stuff crammed into my little apartment, and I'm not sure if it will all fit in a storage unit, but packing up some more of it and getting some price quotes on storage units would probably help.

And then there's the fact that I will be very far away from the west coast of the United States for 3 months. This is obviously a choice that I am making freely, and for the most part happily. I'm already be accustomed to being away from many of the people that I care about, so the additional distance will be difficult, but probably not overwhelming (one concern that I have is the ease of internet access in Kumasi--I don't think connections are as fast and cheap there as in India, and apparently there's an energy crisis happening in Ghana, so electricity could be especially inconsistent). I'm even used to be away from DWE for longish stretches of time, which helps. But usually "longish" means 3, not 13, weeks. By the time I get back, we will have been dating for almost a year, but a fourth of that will have been while I was in Ghana, to say nothing of the weeks and weeks that he has spent travelling as well (I know it's hard to believe, but I swear he and I do actually know each other--surprisingly well, in fact). I want desperately to tell you that I am not pathetically depressed about leaving in general, and leaving DWE in particular, but I really kind of am both depressed and pathetic.

To ease my pain, I think I'm going to make up a reason that I "need" to go to Target today. I can't really afford to engage in much retail therapy, but I can at least soak up the shiny American materialism, and probably pick up some more packing tape or something.

*This, as you may know, is the slightly modified (should be "your", not "my") title of a Patsy Cline song (well, I don't know who wrote it, or if someone else sang it before her, but she does a version of it). Last night I had a dream that I was auditioning for my old high school drama teacher and I had to sing a song for her. I practiced a Lionel Richie song (don't ask me why or which one...I think it wasn't even a real song, just something my subconscious made up), but then when I got up for my audition, they played "Foolin' 'Round" (by Patsy Cline) instead, so I got all flustered and tried to sing that instead. And then my drama teacher criticized my outfit, and then I woke up. All in all, much better than my usual anxiety dream, which involves climbing down from someplace precarious and high up without sufficient footholds.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


One of my favorite exchanges from the television show Monk:

Monk: "There's an old saying: don't change ANYTHING EVER."
Natalie (Monk's assistant): "THAT'S an old saying?"
Monk: "I've been saying it for years."

Despite the inherent appeal of Monk's advice, and despite the possibility of disconcerting some of my most loyal readers, I'm revamping the j-curve a bit. Taking advantage of my impending research job in Ghana, I've decided to focus more specifically and formally on economics and on the microfinance research that I will be conducting. Although I will still be writing, in general, for a lay audience ("lay" when it comes to econ, of course--y'all are brilliant and technically skilled in your various fields), my economics- and research-related posts will become more numerous, and may become a bit more technical and/or narrowly focused.

Having said that, this blog will still be as effective a means as ever for keeping up with my personal life. I will still post pictures and tell stories in which I get groped by a 15-year-old in public or get into yelling matches with rickshaw drivers over the equivalent of 11 cents (or whatever the Ghanaian equivalent of those stories are). And as always, read what you want and ignore what you want; I will still love and respect you even if you don't read a word of what I write. To facilitate selective reading, I will start using the "labels" function, which you will see at the end of this post (a shout-out to Rebel's blog for giving me the idea and letting me see how it works). My currently plan is to just label each post as either "personal" or "economics", so that if you use the search function at the top of the page, you can type in "personal" to weed out the posts where I discuss, say, the problems I'm having with defining a random control group. Which is not to say that my economics-related posts won't be interesting and accessible, it's just to say that I don't expect you to care just because I do.

This is a bit of an experiment, so we'll see how it goes. In the meantime, I'm done with grading (yay!) and I am going to spend the evening catching up on other peoples' blogs and just generally goofing off.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Graduation was a blur, albeit a lovely one. My mother and DWE were both there, along with my dear friends/fellow graduates, including E, M, H, JSOC, and many others that haven't been mentioned specifically on this blog but are wonderful people with whom I greatly enjoyed sharing the past two years. The ceremony was (mercifully) less than an hour and a half long, and the name-calling and stage-crossing part happened very quickly. All I really remember is that my friends cheered (and I cheered for them, of course) and that the woman reading the names pronounced my last name incorrectly (she made an "i" sound where there is clearly an "o"'s a subtle difference, but it drives me crazy, as many of you know).

Most of the good pictures are on my mom's camera, so I'll have to wait until I get them from her to post them, but in the mean time here's a nice one of her and me, posing in the midst of the post-graduation mob.

The next day my mom and I did the tourist thing on one of DWE's double-decker buses (you know, 'cause he hooks me up with free tickets), did some quick shopping downtown, and had lunch at Pier 39. She headed back to Bakersfield that afternoon, at which point I transitioned into my Completely Unproductive and Inert phase, which lasted until late Sunday night. Since then I've done a couple of hours of grading (Intro Macro last USF obligation, if you don't count Ghana) and not much else. Tonight I went to a little shindig at a bar down in the Mission thrown by my pal and fellow IDEC-er JP (not to be confused with B's JP, although this one is French as well). JP and I are doing essentially the same research project this summer, only he's working in Chennai with IMED (he also spent Winter Break in Chennai doing yet a different project).

So once I finish grading the finals it's just packing up my apartment and getting ready for Ghana. In addition to travel preparation, JP and I need to come up with a draft of our survey, and I need to talk to the 1st-years that I'll be in Ghana with about logistical stuff. 3 and a half weeks to go...

Friday, May 18, 2007

what's even better than winning?

The econ party was last night. The food was a little better than usual for a Bon Appetit-catered event (I have to say--they aren't as good at USF as they were at Willamette), and there was a reasonably good turnout.

(Before I go on, I have to mention that E, who is still staying with me, just got out of the shower and seems to be doing some kind of dance/mime show combination for me in his underwear. He does a lot of singing and dancing.)

Anyway, back to the party. They announced the winner of the various awards, including the IDEC award. As you may recall from a previous post, I predicted that JSOC was going to win. But of course I'm human, and I'm inordinately enamored of myself, so I wanted to win also. I'm happy to report that the award results left me totally gratified: JSOC and I tied to win, meaning that I both won and guessed the winner correctly. The only problem was that H and I had a bet riding on it (if JSOC won, H bought me a pitcher of beer; if I won, I bought H a pitcher), and we both won the bet (or lost, depending on how you look at it). And, of course, in a larger sense, the whole thing is a bit silly. JSOC and I both worked really hard and did well, but then again so did E, H, and the girl we don't know that well (not to mention the many people not nominated that also worked really hard and did really well). Don't get me wrong, I love winning, but given what a collaborative experience grad school was for me, the whole award thing is kind of bogus.

Well, the sheets for the futon are probably about ready to go in the dryer, and I have a lot to do before my mom gets here, so I suppose I should get to it. I'll probably post pictures of graduation tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

almost a graduate

The work associated with receiving my masters degree is now officially over. I took my macro final last night (it didn't go that well, but it doesn't matter--worst case scenario is that I get an A-) and turned in my last journal article summary this morning. The only obligations that I still owe to USF are my TA duties, which are down to grading one set of problem sets and a portion of the final exam for Intro Macro.

I had no idea what I was going to wear to graduation (under the gown, I mean), but fortunately I just dug a dress that I'd forgotten about out of the back of my closet. It still fits (better than it did back when I bought it, if I recall correctly) and it's cute (despite being a few years out of style), so I'm wearing it. While I had the dress on, I decided to try on the whole ensemble ("regalia" is I suppose the word I'm looking for): cap, gown, and hood. The hood was confusing, but I think I figured it out. Anyway, prior to tonight, "graduating" and "having a masters degree" had seemed like very abstract concepts and had not roused much of my enthusiasm, but I have to admit that when I looked at myself in the mirror in my graduation get-up, I got a little choked up. I am really happy to be getting this degree, and I also miss my dad and wish he were here (and also that song "My Hometown" by Bruce Springstein, which has nothing to do with graduating but is full of melancholic nostalgia, was playing on my computer at the time).

In other news, I finally purchased my ticket to Ghana. I leave June 13th and return on September 12th. I will be leaving SF around June 7th, so I only have a couple weeks left to pack, move, and deal with all of my travel preparations (immunizations, visa, writing a draft of the survey, etc).

DWE is in Guayaquil (why-a-KEEL), Ecuador right now, where he apparently has a "translator" who doesn't speak english very well. He was in SF this past weekend, though, and I got to spend a lot of time hanging out with him. On Saturday I decided I wanted to take some pictures of him/us so that I could have a picture of us that I like to take with me to Ghana. He was trying to work while I was doing our little photo shoot, and he became increasingly irritated as I kept making him pose for pictures because I didn't like how I looked.

After several pictures that looked sort of like the one above, I decided I just looked bad... I powdered my face and put on some lip gloss. That was better, but...

...then I figured out that if I sat behind him, I could hide my double chin. Note the increasingly strained expression on his face.

Unsurprisingly, this was DWE's favorite picture of himself. Oh, and I apologize for the gratuitously "couple-y" pictures. I know it is somewhat (okay, very) obnoxious. I'm sad that you guys haven't gotten to meet him yet, and somehow it makes me feel like you sort of know him if you know what he looks like. And besides, isn't he handsome? (Okay, I know, I'm just making it worse now. I'll stop.)

Saturday, May 12, 2007


I'm back, and there's lots to report from the past week:
  • The thesis is absolutely, officially done. I was officially "passed" (actually, I got a "pass with honors"), meaning that no more revisions are required and everyone is happy and I can graduate and stuff.
  • Ghana dates and details have been firmed up a bit. I'll be there from approximately June 14th to September 14th (will probably be buying the tickets tonight). I'm excited to be there for 3 solid months, and will probably need all that time to accomplish what my advisor would like me to do. The downside is that I will miss MJ's wedding, which is a huge disappointment, but I suppose I'm starting to have something that may someday resemble a career, and that a few sacrifices may have to be made.
  • All I have left, school-wise, is my macro final on Tuesday. I'm so over school that I can barely bring myself to study.
  • I was nominated for that "Best IDEC Student" award (not the actual name of the award), along with E, H, and JSOC (and another girl in our program that we don't know that well). This works out nicely, because the overwhelming likelihood is that someone that I like a lot will win the award. And I'm happy enough just putting on my resume that I was a "finalist" for it, so it's okay if it's not me (my predicted winner: JSOC).

Okay, I guess I didn't have that much to report. And DWE is looking for my Ghana ticket for me, so I should probably be paying more attention to him. More soon.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

pee cola

It's been a low-key, funky weekend here. On Friday night I came down with a bizarre, sudden fever and really severe chills. These went away eventually, but the next day I was achey and exhausted and feverish all day. The odd thing is that I don't have a sore throat or stuffy nose or anything else that I would expect to accompany a fever. DWE reported similar symptoms this weekend, so I probably got it from him (or vice versa, I suppose).

Whatever it was, it seems to be mostly gone today, with the exception that my head hurts every time I stand up. At four o'clock this afternoon I decided that I was done being in my apartment, so I took BART out to the Target in San Bruno. I got a dress that was on clearance for $19.58 that I will take to Ghana with me. I'm trying not to buy much clothing for Ghana because I don't really need to; I already have stuff I can bring and I'm going to pack much more lightly than I did for India. But bringing fewer outfits also means that I want to make sure the ones I do bring work really well, and this dress should be good for field work: it is lightweight, modest, won't easily show dirt or sweat, and is comfortable with out looking slobbish.

While I was at the mall where the Target is, I popped into Barnes & Noble to see if they had a book on Ghana, which they did. I didn't buy it, but I flipped through it a bit and found out a few things, including what vaccinations I'll need (yellow fever, hep A, and malaria pills--typhoid too, but I think the one I got for India is good for 3 years) and approximate food/lodging costs (cheap, but maybe a bit more expensive than India--not that I care, since I won't be paying for anything). I also found out that a local, popular brand of cola is called "Pee Cola" (apparently "Pee" is a common surname in Ghana).

I have a doctor's appointment at 8:45 in the freakin' morning tomorrow, so I'm going to make some vague attempt to go to bed early, I think.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Well, the exciting news that I alluded to yesterday is that I have a job for the summer. My advisor is paying me to go to Ghana to collect some baseline survey data for a new microfinance field experiment that he's doing. I'm not yet sure of any of the details, but I'll probably leave mid-June and be gone for about two months (MJ--I will do everything possible to be home for your wedding, but I can't promise at this point). There are three IDEC 1st-years doing their summer field research in Ghana (one of whom is Ghanaian), so I will be primarily with them. They are using the same methodology that E, M, and I used for our theses, so I can also be a resource to them as they're implementing their survey. We'll be in rural areas somewhere outside of Accra, the capital, but I don't know any more details beyond that.

As you can see below, Ghana is in West Africa, between Cote D'Ivoire and Togo. (Also note Equatorial Guinea, which was "discovered" by the Portuguese, sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon.)

It is also just an 8-hour drive, or so I've been told, from Ghana to Nigeria, which is where Muffin will be for a month or so at some point early this summer. It probably won't be feasible to go visit him, but wouldn't that be cool?

Random side note about this map: "Zaire" is now the "Democratic Republic of Congo". (Does anyone remember Mike Meyers doing "Coffee Talk" on SNL? "I'm getting verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves--I'll give you a topic. The Democratic Republic of Congo: neither democratic nor a republic--discuss.") It's been DR Congo for a while now, I think longer than Cote D'Ivoire started insisting that English speakers stop calling it "Ivory Coast". So who knows why it's Zaire on this map.

So, that's the story, kids. I'll provide details as they become available, and in another post I'll describe in some (but not too much) detail the nature of the surveying I'll be doing, because it is mildly interesting.

feeling defensive

When I talked to DWE this morning he asked me if I was "feeling defensive" and it kind of annoyed me. But of course now that I'm done I think it's hilarious. (And I'd like to briefly say that DWE was particularly wonderful and supportive today, which mostly makes up for how freaking often he is out of town.)

My thesis has officially been defended, and I think it went quite well. I should mention at this point that thesis "defense" is, in my opinion, sort of a courtesy title in my program. We don't exactly get ripped to shreds. Basically we give a 20 minute PowerPoint presentation on our thesis, and professors (and students, if they want) ask us a couple of questions. Sometimes the questions are rather pointed. If you have your shit together, it's no big deal. What I had to do today should not be compared to what PhD candidates have to do.

I was still freakin' nervous, of course. I wasn't very worried about getting questions that I couldn't answer (because I do, generally speaking, have my shit together), but I was concerned about sounding inarticulate or getting tripped up in the middle of a sentence or going over my time. As it turns out, I managed to present the information clearly and articulately and without looking at my notes; I had to rush a bit at the end because of time constraints, but I essentially said everything I wanted to say. I knew the answers to the questions I was asked, and for one question I had the "right" answer insofar as I had done the correct thing methodologically.

So now you're saying to yourself, okay, great, but why is she blogging instead of out partying right now? I was out celebrating, of course, from about 6 to midnight, but then DWE and I headed home so that we could spend a little quality time together, and now he's sleeping, but I'm not quite tired yet. Well, okay, I'm tired now, but I wasn't when I started writing this post. And I may not sound drunk, but you'd be surprised how long it's taking me to both formulate these words and type them correctly.

I have other exciting news, but I'm going to save it for tomorrow (or actually later on today, given that it's after midnight), both to create suspense and because I'm too tired to tell you now.

So yeah, today was good. And you all are fabulous for being so attentive to and supportive of my little grad school milestones.

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