[An interview with]

David Yanagizawa-Drott

Jul 30, 2011

“Like most researchers, I’m driven by some fundamental curiosity of how the world works…The greater goal of that is how can we use that knowledge to change public policy, and change life conditions on earth. Where that comes from, who knows?”


When you finish your Ph.D, and Harvard University wants you on staff, you know you are doing something right.

David Yanagizawa-Drott, at just 33, is one of Harvard’s latest, and youngest professors. His eclectic heritage, half-Swedish/half-Japanese, has translated into an eclectic body of international research. In my opinion, he is currently engaged in some of the most fascinating social science out there.

I was first turned on to David’s work by my good friend, Omer Ali. Knowing I had recently spent time in Rwanda, he told me about a paper Professor Yanagizawa did on the influence of the RTLM radio station in inciting violence in the genocide. Essentially, he used data from a large number of villages in Rwanda and contrasted both the amount of radio signal they received, and the amount of violence. Statistically, Prof. Yanagizawa was able to correlate higher radio coverage with higher rates of killings. The results were quite significant: villages with complete radio coverage had increased amounts of violence by 65 to 77 percent. In total, he calculated that 9%, over 45,000, deaths can be directly attributed to the influence of radio propaganda in Rwanda’s genocide (click here for the full paper). 

I was impressed, to say the least, by this study. Up to sixteen years after the event had happened, David was able to draw new, and important conclusions from data that was sitting dormant in Rwandan archives. More than anything, it made me realize that this was exactly the type of work that separates good from great. So much has been written on the Rwandan genocide, and although is has a very important role to play, Prof. Yanagizawa’s work exemplifies groundbreaking results that were waiting to be discovered. Furthermore, there are many times when I feel that there is little left to write about, in terms of history, that is unique. This thesis not only proved that very wrong, but showed me that there is so much out there that needs similar treatment, and scrutiny. The ability to illuminate the precise importance of influential actors in conflicts is key to preventing future one’s, and understanding extremely complex events. Prior to Prof. Yanagizawa’s research, everyone knew the RTLM was influential in inciting violence, but he was the first to calculate just how influential it was.

The Rwandan piece introduced me to David, but it is only the beginning of the fascinating work he is engaged with. Recently, he has done research, and written papers on issues such as: the spread of fake drugs across the developing world, the importance of civic events – especially the 4th of July – on influencing political orientation in America, and the ability of Google map images to prevent future conflicts in Sudan. His spectrum of work is remarkable, and his drive highly impressive.

There is much I WANNA KNOW from Prof. Yanagizawa, and I was lucky to speak with him over the phone from his office at Harvard.

From the influence of radio in the Rwandan Genocide, to the critics of his work, to the worth of George Clooney, we cover it all. 

Ryan Kohls: Your article on the Rwandan Genocide, “Propaganda and Conflict: Theory and Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide” was a brilliant piece of social science. When did this idea initially dawn on you?

David Yanagizawa-Drott: I was doing my graduate studies at Stockholm University; my Ph.D. studies. I had been interested in the Rwandan genocide since I was an undergrad. I wanted to really try and understand how this terrible thing could happen, on a broad level. When you start reading about the genocide in Rwanda you start hearing about this radio station, RTLM. People claim it played a key role in the genocide. The founders of this radio station have also been prosecuted in the criminal tribunal for Rwanda.


I knew about this radio station, and I was interested in the genocide, but I didn’t really know how to tackle it from a research methodology perspective. You know, how do you answer a question such as: did RTLM cause people to participate in the killings during the genocide? How do you answer that question in terms of research? Then I bumped into a paper by Ben Olken, a professor at MIT, and he was interested in understanding the impact of TV and radio on social capital in Indonesia. He had a neat method for estimating this, and I realized I could employ this in Rwanda. So I did that. I went to Rwanda. I tried to get a hold of good data, and I was lucky enough to find it. It took a year to get any results.


RK: How exactly did you go about collecting your data? Was most of it already just sitting there, untapped? 


DYD: Exactly. I was a bit lucky. I used data from local courts in Rwanda, called gacaca courts. Essentially, they are prosecutions for violence committed during the genocide. The nice thing about this data set is that it’s at a very high rate of resolution. For every village in Rwanda they measured how many people were accused of having participated in the genocide; be it serious violence, or actual killings. I found that data set, and it had just come out when I started investigating. I was lucky in a way.


RK: Were you surprised by your results? Your hypothesis assumed that radio would be influential, but were you shocked at just how influential it tended to be?

RTLM founder, Ferndinand Nahimana

DYD: I was, in fact, quite shocked by the magnitude of the results. My hypothesis was that it could have an impact – it could cause people to participate in the genocide – but the size of the effects are quite stunning.


I find the effect to be significant: if you go from no radio coverage to full radio coverage in a village, participation of violence increases by 70%. It depends of course on what your prior is before you undertake a project like this. My prior was that it could have an impact. I don’t think I thought it would be that high. The literature, and popular culture believed that RTLM had an impact, but in terms of hard evidence in Rwanda, or other conflict zones, the impact of propaganda has quite little evidence. If you put that into the picture – the existing research knowledge – than I think the results are even more surprising.


RK: I spent some time in Rwanda this year, and was surprised to see how well Rwanda has recovered from its tragic past. However, there is certainly some underlying ethnic, and political tensions that are still very much present.  Are you convinced that the ethnic problem that exploded in 1994 has been adequately dealt with?


DYD: I think there are two levels when you look at Rwanda that are apparent. The one is that after the genocide it has had very good economic growth. The country has rebounded in terms of income per capita, and grown quite strongly. In this sense things are looking very positive for Rwanda. However, when you look at the political situation, and the human rights records, and read some of the rankings that exist in terms of human rights atrocities, then the picture is not as rosy. Where will Rwanda be in 10 years? That’s very difficult to say. The last 10 years may be telling.


RK: Currently you are doing research on the spread of fake drugs in Africa. Based on your research thus far, just how serious of an issue is this? And, where are some of the hotspots? 


DYD: Not only in Africa, but in large parts of the developing world, substandard and counterfeit drugs is a huge problem. There’s not a tonne of evidence on exactly how large the problem is. If you want to figure it out you have to do lab testing, and buy drugs from different regions, and see what they contain. The evidence that exists suggests that about 30% of the anti-malarial drugs are substandard. So, you can imagine the health consequence of this. Poor people have trouble affording to buy drugs, and in many cases buy drugs that are ineffective. Given that, it appears to be a major health problem.
RK: Who does the evidence suggest are the main culprits in this counterfiting scheme? Is it mainly the manufacters of the drugs?


DYD: That’s a great question. We don’t know the answer to this, and are far from knowing. There are pieces of evidence that paint a picture. It appears to be both at an international level, say drugs that show up in East Africa that turn out to be counterfeit from China or India. That’s one piece; an international character. Some people must be producing these in China and India, and they show up in local markets in villages in Uganda, and Kenya. But then there is also counterfeiting happening at the local level, perhaps less sophisticated counterfeiting. You take a tin, put a label on it, say it’s an anti-malarial, but in fact it is just pain-killers. The problem exists on many levels.


RK: Another one of your recent works has been garnering a lot of media attention. It was a piece you did on the 4th of July celebrations in the US, and their potential impacts on political leanings in the future; particularly influencing people to sway towards the Republican party. What inspired this work?

DYD: I think there’s three things that motivated us to do this study. First of all, we were interested in the broad question in understanding whether key social, and civic events during childhood can influence the political views you have later in life. Second, we thought the 4th of July could fulfill an important role in society. In particular, by commemorating political freedoms and how they were won, children may come to appreciate them, and excercise these rights when they are older. For example, the right to vote. Thrid, we thought there may be a partisan dimension to it. Politicians, for example, often publicly attend 4th of July celebrations. We know from other surveys that individuals that identify themselves as Republicans are more likely to identify themselves as patriotic. That motivated us to do the study.


As you may have noticed, the media coverage of our paper has been almost exclusively on the impact of political preferences. We show that children who celebrate the 4th of July are more likely to favor the Republican party and vote for the Republican candidates.


RK: When did you think to include the rain or shine variable in the project?


DYD: There’s some key challenges with a project like this, in terms of research methodology. How do you separate childhood experiences of 4th of July, like watching fireworks, from other important factors, such as family background, family beliefs, and what kind of school you go to? That’s the challenge. What we did in the paper was used survey data on 25,000 individuals born between 1920 and 1990, and linked that to historical data on rainfall on the 4th of July. The idea is simple: if it rains you are less likely to participate, and it will most likely be cancelled. So, children growing up in a particular county where they have a string of good weather are more likely to celebrate. Other kids who have a string of bad weather will attend less. This allows us to separate the impact of celebrating 4th of July from other important factors like the kind of neighborhood you grew up in.


RK: Some of the press has been critical of your findings. A writer at canadafreepress.com called you anti-American, and posted your contact information asking reader’s to write you, and criticize your paper. What do you think about this reaction? Have you heard from any of these people?


DYD: I have received a lot of emails. Yes, I have!


I was quite surprised by the response. I certainly don’t view myself as anti-American. I really like this country, and moved here after all. I don’t really understand why it follows from my results that you would think that of me. Like I said earlier, we were interested in how key social events in childhood could effect your political beliefs, partly because we felt the 4th of July would have a really important role in society. There are national days of celebrating in many, many countries, so we were interested in the broad question, but used the US as our case study.


If you look at surveys, people say one of the most patriotic things to do is vote in elections. When you ask people why they vote, they say it’s what you should do as an American. That was the starting point that motivated us. When it came to the party motivation we thought there might be one, but we didn’t have a strong prior as to whether we should expect this.


So, I don’t know what to say, but I was surprised how people responded, and how it was characterized in the media. The way that some outlets have chosen to interpret our results has not always been spot on. That has led to some misconceptions of what our paper is trying to say.


We’re not making any value judgements as to whether these celebrations are good or bad. We’re not criticizing the parties, we’re trying to understand why we see these effects, and that’s what the next step will be. Why is that? We can only speculate.


RK: Another project you are working on is the Satellite Sentinel Project. Can you tell me a little bit about this project?

DYD: I think this is quite an exciting project. It started last winter, originating as an idea of George Clooney; he’s funding the project. You could call it his brainchild. The basic idea was building on experiences from other conflicts like Rwanda, where the media didn’t really cover what happened, and figuring out how to cover these conflict zones using satellite imagery. It’s now a collaboration between several organizations: Google, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which I’m apart of, the NGO Enough, and Not on our Watch.


The basic idea is to deter violence by letting actors on the ground know that they are being watched.


RK: Will the project be running indefinitely? Or, will it only be used when things start to get tense somewhere?

DYD: I’m interested in this for the broad question of how monitoring of a conflict zone can deter violence, or whether it can affect violence on the ground. We’re doing this now in Sudan, for the reasons I mentioned, but where we will be in a year or two from now who knows? It depends on what happens in the world, and what funding is available, but it’s exciting to be apart of it.


RK: I think there are many people out there who are skeptical when celebrities like George Clooney begin openly politicizing their views, and becoming engaged in politics, or development. What do you think about this conception? Is it an unfair judgement?

DYD: If you want to judge what a celebrity is saying on an issue, like Bono and foreign aid, or what to do in Southern Sudan which Clooney is engaged in, I think you should judge this person as you would judge any person based on the validity of their arguments. In that way, I don’t think the generalization is so interesting, or the connection between celebrities and political issues. Of course, having a celebrity engaged in a political issue certainly brings media attention, that’s for sure.


RK: The financial aspect is surely important on a certain level. The ability of celebrities to dispense some of their extreme wealth towards issues can be beneficial, and necessary. Would you agree?


DYD: Well, again, I think you have to judge on a case by case basis. If a celebrity is donating to a cause, be it to bed nets or de-worming pills, you have to look at the impact of these initiatives; if it’s a good thing or bad thing. In these cases they are good.


RK: I was wondering how you became interested in your current work? What led you to become passionate on these issues?


DYD: Like most researchers, I’m driven by some fundamental curiosity of how the world works. That’s one of the main drivers. The greater goal of that is how can we use that knowledge to change public policy, and change life conditions on earth. Where that comes from, who knows?
RK: How did you end up at Harvard University?

DYD: I finished my Ph.D a year ago in economics. Like most people who get a Ph.D in economics, you go into the job market. I was interviewed by different universities in the USA, and I got an offer here that I couldn’t say no to.
For More Information on David Yanagizawa-Drott:
1) Check out his personal Harvard page: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/about/faculty-staff-directory/david-yanagizawa-drott


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