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Twenty Years of WGAPE: Interview with Daniel Posner and Edward Miguel

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Edward Miguel and Daniel Posner at 2012 WGAPE Meeting

Edward Amy Shipow (Global Networks Senior Associate, CEGA) interviews Daniel Posner (Political Science, UCLA) and Edward Miguel (Economics, UC Berkeley, CEGA) about the evolution of the Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE), which they co-founded  two decades ago. Now co-led with colleagues Amanda Robinson (Political Science, Ohio State University) and Amma Panin (Economics, University of Louvain), WGAPE brings together faculty and advanced graduate students in economics and political science who combine field research experience in Africa with training in political economy methods. The group has met semi-annually since 2002 to discuss the work of its core members and invited guests. 

Amy:  It’s been twenty years since you both founded the Working Group in African Political Economy. I wanted to take this opportunity to talk with you both about how WGAPE began, how it’s evolved over the years, and where it’s going. Tell me about WGAPE’s inception. Where did you get the idea to start this type of convening? 


“The idea came from a prior group, the Laboratory in Comparative Ethnic Processes (LiCEP), which was composed of political scientists working on ethnicity and politics. We would have periodic meetings, structured along the lines of what is now known as WGAPE rules (and, before that, “Wilder House Rules”). Kanchan Chandra, a graduate student at Harvard at the time, had a Social Science Research Council MacArthur Grant that came with resources to host a seminar or a workshop. She approached David Laitin, who was at UChicago and running Wilder House, to ask if he would come to the workshop. He responded that he would be happy to host at Wilder House and proposed that we hold the meeting under Wilder House rules (i.e., papers were read and circulated in advance of the meeting and everyone was expected to read ahead of time).

LiCEP went on for several years and was a formative group for many young scholars working on issues of ethnic politics. After LiCEP ran its course, my colleague Miriam Golden approached me about organizing a working group under a center she ran that sponsored cross-disciplinary working groups bringing together faculty from multiple social science disciplines and UC campuses. I reached out to Ted about co-running the working group.

I had met Ted for the first time at a seminar he gave at Stanford. Ted had just been hired at Berkeley, and David Laitin invited him to Stanford to present his paper on ethnic diversity and school funding (it would later become his classic article with Mary Kay Gugerty on Ethnic Diversity, Social Sanctions and Public Goods). David asked if I would fly up from LA to attend the seminar and go to lunch with Ted. I did. So, when Miriam approached me about organizing the working group, I thought of Ted.”


“I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It seemed like a great opportunity to build something up. The first organization-building I did was through WGAPE and I’ve brought these learnings to building other institutions such as BITSS and CEGA.  I learned a ton through Dan – the way we collaborated through colleagues across institutions and how to make a network work across disciplines.”

When did you and Ted realize you had more in common with each other than just interest in political economy?


“I was chatting with Ted over dinner at the first WGAPE meeting. He was a visiting fellow at Princeton at the time, and he mentioned that he didn’t quite know what to say when people at Princeton asked where he was from, since he was now living in Berkeley but he was originally from New Jersey. I asked him where he was from in New Jersey, and it turns out we were from the same town, Tenafly. Turns out, Ted and I grew up four blocks away from one another!”


“Yes, it was the next academic year 2002-2003, I was on leave from Berkeley and visiting the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton. There were three WGAPE meetings that year, and I flew back to California each time to catch them!”

Who was in the room at the first WGAPE meeting? 


“When Miriam invited me to start a working group she advised me to come up with something that would be useful for my research agenda. At the time, I had colleagues at UCLA who knew a lot about Africa, and others who were doing rigorous, data-oriented political economy work, but nobody who combined what, at the time, were discrete skill sets. Meanwhile, a generation of young scholars, many trained by Bob Bates at Harvard, combined these skills: a commitment to deep immersion in field work in Africa, alongside training in modern political economy approaches to doing social science research. So my idea was to use the working group to bring these people together.

Our first meeting was in September 2002. In addition to Ted and myself, participants included Clark Gibson (UCSD), Smita Singh (Stanford), and Pierre Englebert (Pomona College), Mary Kay Gugerty (University of Washington), and Micheal Kevane (Santa Clara). Our second and third meetings were also at UCLA. When our initial funding ran out, each faculty member who was part of the group alternated raising money at their departments to host future meetings.”


“And Farhan Zaidi, a doctoral student who used data from Ghana who went onto this incredible career in sports analytics. He is now President of the San Francisco Giants and was the former General Manager of the Dodgers. Check out Moneyball, if you want to learn more about Farhan’s work with Billy Bean and the Oakland A’s.”

What would you say are the key ingredients of WGAPE?


“I would point to three key ingredients:

1) The meeting format: read papers in advance; no presentations – just discussion. The ethos of discussion is providing support to make the work better.

We have a collective enterprise to make each other’s work better. This ethos is reflected in the norm we ultimately adopted of accepting pre-analysis plans and early stage work alongside polished papers. This makes WGAPE different: participants understand that meetings are about taking advantage of the brain power and experience in the room to maximize feedback, rather than to show your audience of peers how smart you are.

2) A combined commitment to deep knowledge of field work in Africa with modern political economy training.

At the core of WGAPE is a commitment to knowledge and understanding of Africa with modern political economy approaches and use of rigorous social science frameworks. One of the things that makes the meetings work is that people in the room have different strengths that complement each other. Some people’s econometrics are stronger than others, others’ area-experience and expertise is deeper. The combination of those different kinds of expertise and experience, and the application of this combination to make the research better, makes WGAPE work.

3) Having graduate students in the room.

The experience of being in the room, hearing about the research in a different, broader way is important. In their first year, graduate students tend not to say much. They might be a little intimidated. But they still learn a lot from listening to these incredible comments and learning from the ethos of intellectual vulnerability. Having graduate students speak first came a bit later to ensure that their voices are heard.

I give Ted a lot of credit for the supportive tone of the discussions. In-your-face grandstanding is very common in economics. It’s competitive. But Ted, as the most senior economist in the room, sets the tone in a positive way by being super positive and ever constructive in his feedback. Together, I think we were good at being supportive, at using our comments to provide constructive feedback rather than to tear people down.”


“In our field in the academy, it is often very hierarchical. Within academics, we all know what it means to be an Assistant, an Associate, or Chair. It is ingrained in academic culture, but it’s not very productive to the production of knowledge. Having your ears open to good ideas, regardless of who is sharing it, is important. From its outset, WGAPE has always welcomed academics at different career stages, all seated together, all with equal air time. Dan, very early on, set the norm that graduate students should be allowed to make comments first to ensure that more junior scholars have air time. I see this as a key ingredient of the WGAPE culture so people know when to step forward and to step back. As faculty, when we step back to hear grad students, they say 90% of the comments we would have said. This levels the playing field and makes it more collaborative.”

Can you share more about the integration of African scholars into WGAPE’s leadership and administration? When and why did that become central to the mission?


“It was always an aspiration to bring in more African scholars as WGAPE participants, but it became possible when Hewlett and the National Science Foundation (NSF) started supporting us. Prior to that, our resources came from individual members who were able to underwrite hosting a meeting. The budgets for the meetings tended to be small, with few resources to bring in people from great distances. The first step towards bringing in more African scholars was getting outside funding for our annual national meetings, and using some of that funding to extend invitations to scholars from Africa. But then we realized: let’s just have the meeting on the [African] continent. Amma Panin was invited to present at the first of these meetings in Cape Town and was fantastic. She was obviously smart and amazing, so we thought – let’s bring her in as a member of the Organizing Committee.

We had also always aspired to turn WGAPE into a research incubator through small grants that we could disburse. We could then use the WGAPE meetings as an opportunity for recipients of the grants to garner initial feedback and, later in the life of their projects, present their research again for further feedback. That way WGAPE could generate scholarship by identifying promising projects and people and then nurturing the projects over their lifespan.

The other thing to note about the resources from NSF and Hewlett is that they enabled us to support many of the grad students who grew up in WGAPE and then got jobs. When they negotiated their first jobs, they often negotiated for funds to start WGAPEs in their institutions. For example, Amanda Robinson and Kim Yi Dionne started MGAPE (Midwest WGAPE) because they had a great experience in WGAPE as graduate students and wanted to create their own regional WGAPE. Macartan Humphreys and others at Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and NYU likewise created CAPERS, the Comparative African Political Economy Research Seminar. I also started the Boston-based B-WGAPE when I was briefly at MIT, which continues today.”


“It is a testament to the model that it has been so copied and replicated. People participated in it as grad students, went elsewhere, and still wanted that community. For many people, WGAPE has been one of the most constructive intellectual communities they have been a part of, and we are seeing this expand even on the continent. For example, Kelly Zhang has also been organizing a localized version in Nairobi called the Working Group in Kenyan Political Economy.”

Can you tell me about a WGAPE experience that stands out to you both personally and professionally?


“I remember a discussion in 2004 at a meeting hosted at Caltech of Melissa Gonzalez-Brenes’ paper, “Domestic Violence and Household Decision-Making: Evidence from East Africa.” There was an intense discussion about the right econometric specification to use in the analysis, which then turned to a debate about which Swahili verb form she was using for the verb ‘to beat.’ The discussion encapsulated what WGAPE was about – a community of scholars equally comfortable debating economic specifications and Swahili verb forms. It is rare and emblematic.”


“I’ve learned so much from each WGAPE meeting, from reading the papers to participating in the conversation. I have great memories of all the dinners, lunches, and connecting with people. It sounds frivolous but it’s been incredibly meaningful to feel part of a community. Professionally, we were ahead of the curve. Either the first or second meeting, folks were presenting plans for field projects and the plans for their surveys and experiments. We were reviewing pre-analysis plans before the term pre-analysis plans was coined! I had never been in that type of innovative setting before.

Also, there is so much more awareness now in economics and political science of treating people with respect and having the right tone, especially with regards to bullying and gender bias. I feel proud that Dan, myself, and other leaders of the group, from the beginning, established a culture that we could be proud of today. The whole point is that everyone is treated with respect and together we generate good research. I give Dan lots of credit for setting the tone.”

What do you hope WGAPE looks like twenty years from now?


“I hope that WGAPE remains unchanged in its core orientation, in that it’s still committed to combining the most rigorous social science research with a real commitment to, and relevance for, what’s happening in Africa. I hope it continues to be a forum for grad students to be exposed to top scholars at different levels at different universities. And, I hope to continue building the WGAPE community by bringing in more African scholars to WGAPE. There are incredible, highly interactive scholars studying Africa, but we want Africans to be centrally part of the WGAPE community.”


“I agree and I think that it’s interesting to think about how WGAPE grows. Because there’s such intense interaction in the room, it limits the amount of people possible to be in the room. This could be why there are spin-offs of WGAPE. In some sense, there has to be some limit to size – the relative intimacy enables us to provide substantive comments and share thoughts to better the research. So, there should be more meetings, in more countries, in more cities, more frequently. These meetings would keep the essence, spirit, and model of WGAPE but would catalyze further opportunities to have those interactions intensively.”

If you had a few million dollars in extra funding, what would you want to do with it?


“I want to significantly build out our grant program to offer more funding to more scholars. As a grant administering organization, we offer not just a jury of academics who can be good judges of promising projects, but we offer recipients opportunities to present their research ideas and receive feedback at two meetings. At one meeting they present their research designs, and at the second, an initial draft of their papers once they have conducted their research. We also match grant recipients with mentors who can provide further support. This opportunity to receive mentorship and feedback at different stages of the research project is really unique.”


“More funding to seed more meetings would be great. More meetings in Africa ideally that would include both African scholars and international scholars. The intellectual community is really global and we gain so much from those interactions. We need to continue to bring more people into the broader network through these more localized meetings.”

What are you most proud of with WGAPE?


“I am most proud of the training mission of graduate students and junior faculty. The scholars who benefited, who learned, whose research improved – this taught them how to run their own seminars after they finish their training. The roster of WGAPE participants and alumni is amazing. For the next twenty years, I hope that the next scholars will mostly be based in sub-Saharan Africa or other LMICs. This is where we are hoping to move with WGAPE.”


“I am also proud of how many of the papers that were discussed at our meetings were ultimately published and made a splash.” [See the archive of WGAPE papers here].

Anything else to share?


“We are fortunate to have CEGA as an institutional home for the past ten years because administrative support is hugely helpful.”


“CEGA has been critical for keeping WGAPE going – for fundraising and for organizing the meetings. It’s the oldest CEGA program, founded 5 years before CEGA! Hopefully what we’ve learned through WGAPE, the interdisciplinary nature, and our approach to training, are the seeds of CEGA.”

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