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Buried in debt

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A new NBER paper on funerals in South Africa.

We find that, on average, households spend the equivalent of a year’s income for an adult’s funeral, measured at median per capita African (Black) income. Approximately one-quarter of all individuals had some form of insurance, which helped surviving household members defray some fraction of funeral expenses. However, an equal fraction of households borrowed money to pay for the funeral. We develop a model, consistent with ethnographic work in this area, in which households respond to social pressure to bury their dead in a style consistent with the observed social status of the household and that of the deceased. Households that cannot afford a funeral commensurate with social expectations must borrow money to pay for the funeral.

In light of increased death rates due to AIDS, these findings are troubling:

These results do not lead us to optimism on the impact of the AIDS crisis on the future economic wellbeing of South Africans…we add evidence that households are taking what, in other circumstances, could be productive capital and using it on coffins, meat and groceries to bury their dead.


Written by Niall

November 9, 2008 at 7:39 pm

Risk of sleeping around

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For the same amount of sleeping around,, you now have a greater risk of getting infected with HIV if you use a condom every single time you have sex in Swaziland than you do if you never use a condom at all in China.

That is from the excellent and frequently illuminating The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, brothels and the business of AIDS by Elizabeth Pisani. The book is an treasure in its explanation of statistical methods, data collection, and the politics of HIV/AIDS prevention. Pisani provides a first-hand account of the work that goes into developing HIV/AIDS statistics, how these statistics are used to attack attention to the international movement to combat the spread of HIV, and a blunt analysis of the global failures in HIV prevention.

Chapter 3 should be mandatory reading for anyone doing field research in a developing country.

My one complaint the book is that Pisani’s argument regarding poverty reduction and HIV prevention is a bit muddled. At some opints she argues that poverty-targeted programs are inefficeint policy for HIV reduction. At other points, she makes the argument that income inequality between men and women in Africa tends to increase the spread of HIV. Pisani’s focus is on the vector that spread HIV, namely sex and needles, but the causes of risky sex and drug use must certainly be tied to economic reasons.

Nevertheless, in a retort of the poverty argument, Pisani does provide one of her numerous memorable lines:

The World Bank believes poverty and gender inequality spread AIDS. I believe sex and drug injection spread AIDS. The very best rational, utility-maximizing calculations tend to get displaced by erections and addiction.

Written by Niall

July 6, 2008 at 1:05 am

Posted in HIV/AIDS

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