Open City

On Saturday 24 August I gave a short presentation at the Open City mini-conference, responding to the prompt ‘ideas for making Cape Town a more Open City’.

Titled ‘Open Accountability’, my presentation looked at some of the work the Social Justice Coalition and its affiliates are doing to make data around municipal budgets and service delivery more available to the public, and to hold municipalities and private contractors accountable for their delivery of basic services.

Here are some references to material I showed in my presentation:

The Social Justice Coalition

Ndifuna Ukwazi

Imali Yethu

SJC report on the Khayelitsha Mshengu Toilet Social Audit

Analysis of Cape Town’s 2013/2014 Draft Budget for the Imali Yethu project by Ndifuna Ukwazi and the Social Justice Coalition.

Lungisa by Cell-Life

Also see these articles:

Shaun Russell on data-driven activism and the Khayelitsha social audit, ‘The Power of Data as evidence‘, 16 August 2013, on the Ndifuna Ukwazi website.

On the International Budget Partnership site, The Social Justice Coalition Uses Social Audit to Clean Up Sanitation Issues in Cape Town.

Service Charge Revenue

Service Charge Revenue depicted in the Imali Yethu analysis of the City of Cape Town’s Draft Budget for 2013/2014


Debunking the ‘Tragedy of the commons’

Just a brief post to link to an important essay I came across a few years ago, Ian Angus’ refutation of Garrett Hardin’s popular text ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) – Debunking the `Tragedy of the Commons’ (2008). The idea of the tragedy of the commons (that shared resources will always be depleted) has become a figure of speech, an idea that is apparently self-evidently true; in common with other popular ideas such as ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘broken-window’ theory in urban design and policing, it needs challenging.

(Sidenote: while looking for Angus’ text again I found this reference to Elinor Ostrom, who received the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economics in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2009, and whose work also apparently goes some way towards debunking the ‘tragedy’…


An editorial in the Guardian praises the work of Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee – the ‘randomistas’ – in conducting randomised control trials on development initiatives. Would like to see Ben Goldacre’s comment on the quality of their trials, as it’s one of his areas of specialty.

Particularly interested in the mention of their research into whether recipients of free mosquito nets value them – ‘an emphatic yes’. Kudos to them for questioning the simplistic (and non-evidence-based) idea that people only value things they have to pay money for; a convenient fiction for the interests that want to charge for goods and services (like water).

In praise of … Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee
Through lots of microstudies, they make a subtle case for one big argument: aid really can help poor people
6 June 2011

Since the banking crisis broke, the different schools of economic thought have gained much exposure. You’ve heard of the Keynesians, the monetarists, the behaviouralists. Well, now meet the randomistas. The nickname given to the work done by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo refers to their use of randomised control trials, familiar to whitecoats working in science labs but not so common among crumpled development analysts in, say, West Bengal. Yet Banerjee and Duflo put the random trial to excellent use to find out what works. Want poor families in north India to immunise their children? Offer the parents a small bag of lentils as an incentive and vaccination rates make a startling jump, from around 5% to almost 40%. Or take the question of whether poor Africans really value mosquito nets they are given free. Much debated within university faculties, it took a randomista to go out to west Kenya and find the answer (an emphatic yes). Duflo and Banerjee tell these stories in a lovely new book called Poor Economics. As they admit, randomistas cannot answer some big questions – how to tackle food prices, for instance. But through lots of microstudies, they make a subtle case for one big argument: aid really can help poor people, provided the money follows the evidence. The economists back home lining up to warn George Osborne his plan isn’t working must wish there was some simple experiment to settle the manner, without making guinea pigs of us all.