GEP Course Notes: Game Theoretic Approaches

Scott Barrett’s Environment and Statecraft heavily relies on game theory to make its arguments about environmental treaty-making. But what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

Well, first it is important to note that Barrett has a lot of company with his approach. A nice article written in the Atlantic Monthly back in 1993, “Can Selfishness Save the Environment?”, explicitly considers how game theory was used then to discuss environmental cooperation. More recently, The Scientific American described Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s use of Game Theory to predict the failure of the 2010 Copenhagen climate talks before they happened. And in 2011, some tried to use game theory to find ways pass the negotiating impasses at Durban: “Climate Change Solution Proposed by Scientists Incorporates Game Theory.”

In 2008, The Telegraph went so far as to say “Game theory could save the world.” That is nonsense, of course. Why? Well, while game theory does provide us with some useful tools for viewing strategic behavior (I’m not assigning Barrett without good reason!), it has a number of weaknesses as a basis for prescription, including:

  • It is only as good as its inputs, including assumptions about preferences which are rarely well understood
  • Some actors will choose to act ethically, rather than selfishly
    • However, that is not to say they are more likely to support solutions that also are in their self-interest!
  • There are a lot of limits to acting rationally… We’ll talk a bit more about this in class.
  • It is not really a theory. Rather, it is a set of analytical tools which require theoretical inputs.
  • All of which means that different analysts may come up with different predictions and prescriptions based on differences in their starting assumptions.

IL Course Notes: Actors

The theme this week, carried over from last week, is “actors in international law”. We will finish discussing states, and move on to other actors. But the unfortunate events in Syria provide a lens for thinking about some of these actors.

One of the first things we learn in international law is that sovereign states are largely treated as “equal” subjects. However, over at Opinio Juris, Jens Ohlin notes that in the area of security some actors (the permanent members of the security council) are more equal than others (the rest of the states): “Syria, Intervention, and Recognition”. This is why the Security Council cannot act on Syria. Two of its members, Russia and China, seem unlikely to allow any resolution on Syria to pass, regardless of what the rest of the world may want.

However, another interesting aspect to the Syria issue is the question of forum shifting by actors. If the Security Council’s actions can be blocked by two states, what about the International Criminal Court. Julian Ku asks this in another post at Opinio Juris:“Since the Security Council Won’t Act, Send in the ICC?” These are two somewhat independent international organizations. And while one (the Security Council) is mostly focused on regulating the behavior of states, the other (ICC) is primarily focused on regulating the behavior of individuals. Unfortunately for those who would like to see ICC action, it would likely require Security Council support, given that Syria is not a member. And, once again, China and Russia will likely block such a decision.

Sudan is a case where the Security Council did ask the ICC to investigate a state who was not a member of the ICC. However, this has proved controversial in Africa. Just last month, the African Union asked its commission to consider seeking an ICJ advisory decision on whether Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir should be considered immune, whether the ICC process is against international law in this instance. (Likely the ICC is in the right here, I would say. But it could be an interesting ICJ decision to follow, should it get there.) See: “African Union may ask ICJ for opinion on Bashir’s immunity from ICC”.

WES-FID: Some thoughts

I thought yesterday’s student-run Forum on International Development was a great success. The event was well-organized and well-attended. But most of all, I think there were opportunities for just about everyone who attended to learn something new.

Here is what I observed:

Morning Keynote
David Rice, Executive Director of NYU’s Development Research Institute, gave a nice opening keynote address, mapping out a macro-oriented perspective on development trends.

Approaches to Development
We were all invited to choose one of three presentations on “approaches to development”. I chose the Technology seminar led by Amir Hasson (Wesleyan ’98), Founder of United Villages. I thought this was a great talk about the ups and downs of being a social entrepreneur. He discussed how he began with a project developed for a graduate class at MIT to provide rural areas in India with internet access. That became an actual project implemented in Cambodia, a project which helped created UV. But today, about 10 years later, UV is doing something very different: connecting rural retailers with a more efficient supply chain. Some of the lessons: (i) you have to be ready to go when opportunities arise; (ii) you have to listen to those you want to help; (iii) technology can be an important tool for development but it comes with some caveats, including obsolescence (their technological solution for providing internet access is less useful today) and dependence on the specific development context; (iv) you need to be flexible and adaptable to take into account the above; and (v) success requires committed leadership which includes careful management at the local level.

I found it interesting that Amir did not see politics as playing a big role in their activities. Obviously, I am biased as a political scientist. But for him, the biggest issue seemed to be getting past the red-tape necessary in India for their ISP. Governance issues, in terms of their activities, were relatively unimportant. He did mention, however, that a project they did in Rwanda might have proved to be the exception to that experience. This made me wonder a bit how much the “governance” frame in development relies on a type of African exceptionalism.

Wesleyan Non-Profits
After these seminars were a series of workshops for critically assess non-profits students at Wesleyan have created. I was assigned to moderate a discussion of SHOFCO. I commented briefly about this a couple days ago. Given the expertise of our guest panelists, Harvard Professor Rema Hanna and Conner Brannen (IPA, Wesleyan ’10 and a former student of mine), we focused on the process of evaluation. I thought some of the important suggestions for SHOFCO, included:

  • Take the time to learn from the existing literature about what works;
  • Continue to build on your monitoring and evaluation program;
  • Learn from similar groups who are engaged in monitoring and evaluation (what are their best practices?); and
  • Don’t try to measure too many things with one survey.

Both Kennedy Odede and Nathan Mackenzie did a great job explaining SHOFCO’s mission and addressing some of the concerns. Both seemed to acknowledge the challenges of making the project sustainable for the long-term and the potential for mission creep. In terms of the latter, they seem to have had success thus far at finding projects that are synergistic, but there is always the concern of taking on too much before perfecting the rest. And, as Conner noted, it may be harder to measure progress in one area when one is moving in multiple directions at the same time.

In terms of involvement with the Wesleyan Community, there seemed to be a general consensus that this was a good thing that should continue into the future. As Professor Hanna noted, this is good for the students (it exposes them to parts of the world they may not otherwise visit) and for the people of Kibera (in terms of knowledge transfer). At least, I hope I am remembering her correctly! Conner and others mentioned how to them SHOFCO will always be part of the Wesleyan community. This place played a role as an incubator. Hopefully, it can assist the organization as it matures.

Lunch: Awesome food, as always, from Iguanas Ranas.

Afternoon Keynote
Nathanael Goldberg (Wesleyan ’98),
Policy Director at Innovations for Poverty Action, spoke on “How do we know what works in development?”. I thought this was the best talk of the day. Being a little familiar with IPA’s work, I suppose there wasn’t a whole lot of new information for me, but it was well-delivered and comprehensive. I especially liked how he framed what they do (randomized control trials) with the uncertain findings of past research on development projects, especially micro-finance. What I didn’t realize before yesterday was how ambitious the scope of their work is: more than 400 projects right now. There have been criticisms of their approach to development and it might have been nice to hear some of that debate flagged for our students. As they mention on their own website, there has been a little backlash. I talked recent with an economist about Randomized Control Trials and he mentioned his concern that some developing countries might be getting over-saturated with these projects. And that could become a problem. But it was inspiring to hear their mission and their success thus far. A number of our students and alumni have done work for IPA and I hope more continue to do so.

Small Lectures
There were several choices and I decided to attend Professor Rema Hanna’s lecture on “Randomized Experiments to Improve Policy”. I thought this was an especially useful talk for our students who have not been exposed to research methods. She did a great job at presenting the experimental approach that she and her development colleagues at J-PAL and IPA are using. Unfortunately…

That was the end for me…
Unfortunately, I was unable to stay until the end. And I even missed the end of Hanna Rema’s lecture. But I really came away appreciating the wonderful event our students organized. I was glad to see both of my thesis students — Rachel Levenson and Kathlyn Pattillo — playing key leadership roles alongside a host of others. I hope students consider repeating this event in the future!

Noted: Climate Change Edition

Some good news:

But also some bad news, and some just not-so-great-news, on the climate front:

WES-FID: Commenting on SHOFCO

Tomorrow (Saturday, Feb 18) Wesleyan students are hosting a Forum on International Development. And I am very excited about this event! There are a number of reasons I think this will be a great event.

  1. It celebrates some of the fantastic things our students and alumni have done. This conference really just touches the tip of the iceberg in representing the projects our students have initiated and participate in.
  2. It is an opportunity to critically reflect on these projects and experiences.
    • Students will learn from alumni that have been doing this for much longer and with great success.
    • Students will learn from outside academics and experts.

I will never forget how, in my very first year teaching at Wesleyan, I was lucky enough to have several of the students participating tomorrow present in my introductory course. Both Kennedy Odede, founder of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), and Ali Chaudry, founder of Possibilities Pakistan, were in my classes. As was one of the organizers, Kathlyn Pattillo. And the next year Rachel Levenson, another of the primary conference organizers, also took that course. And I am probably missing the names of others involved in this event. It makes me think I should teach it more often!

I have been asked to moderate a panel discussing the work of Shofco. Besides Kennedy, both Nathan Mackenzie (representing Shofco) and Connor Brannen (Wesleyan ’10; current analyst at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab) are former students of mine. Rema Hanna, a Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government will round out the panel. Our panel has been tasked with helping Shofco reflect on its development as an organization, its mechanism for evaluating its work, and the involvement of the Wesleyan community in the organization. While SHOFCO has had amazing success at attracting attention and funding in a relatively short time, I suspect the biggest questions will be about how they can build a sustainable program that stays true to its development objectives. This project represents a relatively rare collaboration between an activist in the developing world (Kennedy) and activists in the developed world (the Wesleyan community and especially Jessica Posner, yet another former student). That may be a key ingredient to their current success. But what will be important to sustaining this and how, at the end of the day, will we be able to measure their success?