Incentives and Development Conferences

A few days ago, I started studying for the GRE.  Needless to say, my dormant procrastination skills have awoken with rancour.  Today these skills are being put to blog use. 

Policy makers and development programme designers seem to love incentives.  Want women to deliver babies at accredited health centres?  Give them a cash reward for doing so. Need health counsellors to enrol more people for tuberculosis traetment? Try cash incentives.  Malawians don’t return to clinics for their HIV test results?  Give them some $.

Everyone loves a good incentive (source:

Humans do respond to incentives. So why not use them on ourselves?  More specifically, I’m thinking about international development conferences.

A few months ago, I went to a development related conference in Colombo.  It was hosted at a beautiful hotel on the coast and attended by people from all over the world.  A bilateral aid agency paid for my tickets and conference fees, and gave me a very large corpus of cash for other expenses (accommodation, local travel, dinner, alcohol, shopping, laundry, etc).  Without being in any way thrifty, I saved a few hundred dollars.  I did not need to submit any receipts and was allowed to keep the excess money.  I wonder if having an incentive to spend less could reduce the overall costs of such events.  Perhaps reimbursment based on actual expenses and a cash bonus to the person who spends the least?  The amount of the bonus would need to be precisely calculated, and there would have to be a mechanism to ensure that people don’t just say “I spent $0”.  So the bonus would have to be less than the actual expected expense, else everyone would just say “I spent 0”.  There would also need to be a cap on expenditure.  The admin costs of this system may negate the benefits, but I would be interested in seeing some experimental data – randomly assign some conferences to be fully lump summed, some to be have half participants on lump sum and half on incentive scheme, and some to have only the incentive scheme.  This could also give us some interesting insight into how much development professionals value these conferences…

The second similar area where incentives could be used is choosing locations for conferences.  I am not sure how this is presently done, but surely there should be an open bidding process for the larger events.  Recently, the 10th International Conference on Aids in Asia and the Pacific was held in Busan, South Korea.  It is unlikely that Busan, as wonderful as it may be, was the most efficient venue for this event.  Korea is one of the more expensive countries in Asia, and getting to Busan is not nearly as convenient as hubs like Singapore, Bangkok, or Hong Kong.  In addition, Korean is not widely spoken in the region, and I don’t know how many Busanese speak English.  To be sure, there are advantages of hosting in a wealthier city – it’s likely that Busan has more stable water and electricity, as well as access to other facilities, than Ulan Bator or Port Moresy.  But either way, an open bidding process, where potential organizers in different cities can bid for larger conferences, could incentivize more tightly managed international development events.  Big agencies should also publish data on how much these events cost.

Coming soon:  a series on auto economics.  That’s not doing economics on oneself.  It’s the economics of auto rikshaws in Delhi.  Should be fun.

Does skin colour predict success in the entertainment industry?

Of late, I have been daydreaming about bizarre studies I would like to see the data and/or results of.  This, I believe, has been a function of three things:

1. Jetlag.  Kabcity recently returned from a lovely two week vacation in the US of A, which has been doing annoying things to his body clock (and yes Kabcity does occasionally enjoy referring to himself in the third person…don’t worry he won’t make it a habit)

2. My office moving from a location within walking distance to an area that’s a 20-minute auto ride away, allowing ample daily time for mind-wandering

3. Reading More Than Good Intentions and Poor Economics, both of which are about quantitative evaluations/studies of development projects

So during my jetlagged commute back from the office this evening after having recently attended a lecture by the authors of Poor Economics , I started thinking about what I’d do when I get home, and considered watching a Bollywood film.  Then I started wondering what it would be like if my life at that moment were a scene in Bollywood.  Looking around me, I noticed an average looking couple in an auto.  They were too dark to become mainstream Bollywood stars, which naturally led me to this very old hypothesis: Indian film stars are serially fairer than the average Indian.  I then started wishing I had some data showing me level of whiteness (can we measure skin colour?  I don’t know.  Will google) across various industries.  On my return home, I found a website listing Bollywood’s Top-Earning Celebrities, which included the following luminaries (photos are all from the hyperlinked website):

I had to make that in Word.  The hyperlink in the Shah Rukh Khan box is this.

These guys are all much whiter than the mean Indian whiteness.  The country’s most common profession by far is agriculture.  A google image search for “Indian Farmer Face” (without the “Face” it’s not very useful) yields this:

These guys are not as white as the film stars.

Are similar patterns observable in other places?  Eg, in the US does the “level of blackness” predict success in the entertainment industry among blacks?  Will Smith and Beyonce, the two black stars that immediately came to my mind, definitely seem whiter than the mean, but I definitely don’t know enough to make ridiculous sweeping generalizations like in the India case. Similarly though, what about whiteness of white actors?  It’s unusual to see super pale people on the big screen.

An interesting control case might be professional sports, where ability is likely matter more than anything else (this assumes no discrimination).

Some other tangential thoughts on India and skin – are white collar workers whiter than their blue-collar counterparts (if yes, how much of this is due to greater exposure to the sun?)?  Are Indians living outside the country whiter than those living in India? Are TV stars whiter than movie stars?

Other data I’d love to see :

  • How much does marriage cost the state?  This would include tax discounts but also things like judge costs of divorce cases. Revenue would include marriage license fee (if there is such a thing).
  • What has been the expenditure on randomized control trials in development?  Can we quantify the benefit of these?  A more detailed post on RCTs may be coming up soon.
  • What is the average daily revenue and profit of Delhi’s “traffic vendors”?  These are guys who sell random things to people in cars/autos.  Commonly seen items include model airplanes, coconut, magazines, and tools to clean your car.  How much does profit vary by type of product?  By part of Delhi?  Are there barriers to entry in this market?  Who are the suppliers and how are products selected?