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Andrew Reynolds on Egypt

Andrew Reynolds has a good op-ed in the New York Times on Egypt’s electoral system. Reynolds is one of the world’s top scholars on electoral systems, so I’m happy to see the Times give him space to discuss this topic.

While advising civil society groups and political parties on election issues earlier this year in Cairo, I found that the voices of Egyptians who were at the forefront of the revolution were stifled during the secretive election-planning process.

On countless occasions, political parties went to the ruling military council to object to drafts of the electoral law and were brushed off with piecemeal changes. Civic groups concerned about the representation of women and minorities were not even given a seat at the table. And the United Nations, which played a major role in assisting Tunisia with its election, was denied access to election planners in Cairo.

This is all, true, but I actually disagree with this point:

Unlike in Tunisia, which successfully used a simple across-the-board proportional system to include many voices in the country’s legislative assembly, Egypt’s multilayered system is likely to marginalize new progressive, secular and liberal groups that lack grass-roots networks across the country.

The sidelining of smaller Islamic and secular parties would damage citizens’ faith in the democratic process, and the exclusion of the minority Coptic Christians from significant representation in Parliament could be catastrophic.

As I’ve mentioned, Egypt’s system really favors small parties almost as much as Tunisia’s did. Yes, the nominal tier is a mess, but the list tier of seats is pretty forgiving of party fragmentation.  In fact, Egypt’s list tier of seats, at 332 seats, is larger than the entire Tunisian Constituent Assembly, with 217 seats.   Average district magnitude is even slightly larger in Egypt.  It’s true that liberal and secular parties will be marginalized, but only because of their own actions.  You can only blame the system for so much.

That being said,  read the article.  Also, is you are looking for the best online repository of worldwide ballot samples, check out Reynolds’ collection.

How not to run a development program

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, has adopted the “oh f- it, I don’t even care anymore. Let’s just throw laptops out of a freaking helicopter.” theory of development.

“The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has devised a bizarre plan for deploying its new XO-3 tablet. The organization plans to drop the touchscreen computers from helicopters near remote villages in developing countries. The devices will then be abandoned and left for the villagers to find, distribute, support, and use on their own.

OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte is optimistic that the portable devices—which will be stocked with electronic books—will empower children to learn to read without any external support or instruction. The strange scheme reflects the OLPC project’s roots in constructivist education theory, which emphasizes self-directed learning.”

There are so many problems with this idea, I don’t know where to begin. For starters, I’m wondering how the tablets won’t break when falling out of a helicopter. I suppose the local kids could just order new parts online with their tabl – oh wait.

Now I could be wrong, this plan could turn out to be a great success. Of course, we will never know, because its implementers (shockingly) don’t seem to have any plan to really measure progress.

“We’ll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go back a year later and see if the kids can read,” Negroponte told The Register. He reportedly cited Professor Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment as the basis for his belief that dropping the tablets will encourage self-directed literacy.

I know not every intervention can be measured by Randomized Control Trials, but shouldn’t there be any attempt to develop some  way to observe a causal mechanism? (Okay, where the tablets land may be “random”, but that doesn’t count). Seeing what a society is like one year later is about the worst way one can evaluate any program. Are they worried about spillover effects, or the other billion variables that exist in a society that might have some impact on literary during the year? How would they know what an increase in literacy looks like if they aren’t willing to measure a baseline sample? It’s true that the villagers may find the tablets to “distribute, support, and use on their own.” It’s also true that the tablets might start a civil war Maybe the parents will be so busy playing Angry Birds, they will fall short on their other duties, and agricultural output will decrease, leading to mass death. None of these scenarios are likely, but neither is making everybody literate by chucking electronics out a window. So, what if OLCP comes back and they find that everybody in the village is dead? Would they be willing to attribute that to the computers? If not, they shouldn’t assume the same causality they are willing to claim if the kids can read.

With that being said, if OLPC is looking for part-time help, I would be more than willing to fly the helicopter.

A formal model of talking animals crossing rivers

Via James Fallows, come this great metaphor, about a frog and scorpion, for Earth Day:

“There is a serious question about whether we should worry more about slow-heating crises like carbon pollution (poached frogs) or seemingly improbable catastrophes like the Japanese tsunami and nuclear failure (black swans). The answer may lie in another zoologically suspect fable, the frog that is persuaded to ferry a scorpion across a river. The frog believes it is safe because it would not be in the scorpion’s self interest to sting it midstream. The scorpion does so anyway, saying “It’s my nature.” Current conservative theory assures us that we can trust markets to avoid oil gushers in the ocean, nuclear meltdowns on our coastlines, and climate catastrophe for our children. But we’ll still get stung, because when corporations see a profit, they just can’t help themselves.”

The part of me that hates junk science loves this story as, while obviously fiction, isn’t the debunked boiling frog metaphor that people still use so often.  The part of me that loves political science, however, hates it because it’s a failure of rational choice theory in favor of a cultural argument.

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