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Q&A with Augustin Tapsoba, assistant professor at the Toulouse School of Economics

Tapsoba, a King Center Visiting Professor, talks about factors that affect household living standards in sub-Saharan Africa

Augustin Tapsoba is currently an assistant professor of economics at Toulouse School of Economics, Université Toulouse 1 Capitole. Tapsoba visited the King Center as a Visiting Professor in 2022.

Tapsoba's areas of expertise are development economics, specifically research focused on the study of important factors that affect the living standards of households in developing countries. His recent work examines how social norms affect individual/household decision making and equilibrium outcomes on marriage markets in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Your research focuses on the economics of the family and fertility. Can you talk about what drove you to explore these issues in development economics?

augustin tapsoba
Augustin Tapsoba

I grew up in Burkina Faso and I did my undergrad studies in Senegal. That has obviously inspired me to explore issues related to economic development in my research. My special interest in family economics stems from the fact that it plays an important role for many of the things we really care about in economics. Family is the relevant unit where consumption, production, investment in human capital and transmission of beliefs/preferences take place. It plays an even bigger role in developing countries where the economic activity relies more on labor intensive agricultural activities and informal businesses. Weak institutions in these countries also limit the possibility of contracting labor and other services outside of the household and people make their marital/fertility decisions taking all these considerations into account. Understanding their incentives, constraints and the implications of their choices is therefore an exciting line of research for me given all the ramifications it has with economic outcomes.

Your most recent working paper examines how marriage markets respond to fluctuations in economic conditions due to droughts and global crop price shocks. What made you interested in exploring this issue in sub-Saharan Africa? Can you discuss your main findings in that paper?

We know that household decision-making behavior is context specific, and the efficacy of policy interventions often depends on the local environment in which they are being enacted. Sub-Saharan Africa is a vast region with places and areas that are as diverse as it gets when it comes to cultural practices and local social norms. This diversity also shows up in the ways in which unions are arranged in this area, making it a good setting for studying how local norms affect the equilibrium response of marriage markets to fluctuations in aggregate economic conditions. This is the main reason why I decided to embark on this project in the first place.  

Most ethnic groups across sub-Saharan Africa have a tradition of bride price payment (transfer from the groom’s family to the bride’s family to secure a union). The amounts paid are often substantial and parents can decide to marry off their daughters earlier to smooth consumption when they are facing an economic shock. Corno, Voena, and Hilderbrandt have a wonderful paper in which they extensively document that aggregate negative shocks such as droughts increase the equilibrium quantity of child marriage for girls in presence of bride price payments. Their analysis assumes however that marriage markets are monogamous with a one-to-one matching technology. This is the case only for roughly 1/3 of the areas in sub-Saharan Africa. In the other areas (mostly in west and central Africa), polygyny is practiced to a varying extent but in a persistent way over time. The social norms in these places allow men (often even encourage them) to be in union with more than one spouse at the same time.

My paper uses this variation in local norms to investigate how the presence of polygyny affects the equilibrium response of marriage markets to aggregate economic shocks that affect both the demand and the supply side of the market. I argue that in such markets, the demand for spouses has two independent components: a demand for first/unique spouses from young men and a demand for second spouses from older men. I show (theoretically and empirically) that under certain conditions that hold in most areas in sub-Saharan Africa, the latter is more sensitive to the income and bride price changes that occur when aggregate income fluctuates. This means that negative shocks (such as droughts) lead to an increase in the market shares of young men that are looking for a first/unique spouse while positive shocks (such as a rise in global crop prices in food-producing areas) have the opposite effect. The difference in income and price elasticity also generates a much smaller change in the equilibrium quantity of child marriage compared to the one observed in monogamous markets. This attenuation effect is so strong that there is no detectable link between short term aggregate shocks on the timing of marriage in high polygyny areas.

What policy implications do you derive from that paper?

The findings in this paper have two main policy implications. First, they suggest that policies that generate windfall aggregate income during “normal years” (such as large-scale cash transfer programs) can reduce child marriage in monogamous areas, but they will have un-intended negative consequences for marital outcomes in high polygyny areas. In equilibrium, the extra income will basically fund more second-unions for older men with limited resources.  Second, aggregate income stabilization policies are more efficient/needed in monogamous areas since they can help against an increase in child marriage that will otherwise occur in these areas. In polygamous areas however, negative shocks can create opportunities for young men because they are more likely to find a spouse and for women because they are more likely to marry younger men as first spouses (which improves their bargaining power within the household). Aggregate income stabilization policies will act as a push against this compositional change without improving the equilibrium quantity of child marriage. In presence of polygyny, it is therefore crucial to target interventions that aim at improving marital outcomes to only on one side of the market (often the supply side for ethical reasons). This paper gives therefore clear recommendations on the optimal targeting of different policy instruments that can affect marital outcomes.

Your previous research has focused on child health during times when violent conflict was feared in the Ivory Coast and Uganda, as well as during and preceding crop failure in Mali. Your work finds significant negative health effects for children when these shocks were anticipated as well as when they occurred. What surprised you about your findings? 

The most surprising thing to me in both papers boils down to the extent to which ordinary poor people can be affected today (and suffer long term consequences because of it) by information about a possible state of the world in a near future. We know that information is crucial on the stock market for instance, and it affects the net-worth of people that hold or trade shares. I personally wasn’t expecting similar market anticipation effects in the real economy of rural Africa to affect the livelihoods of the poorest people to the extent that I found in these papers and with the shocking long run consequences that come with it. Both papers show that this is happening through a reduction in time-sensitive investment in human capital such as nutritional intake, health care and maternal stress in utero and during early childhood.  In the paper on Mali for instance, my co-authors and I show how the mere anticipation of a crop failure effect due to Desert Locust plague led to a substantial price inflation before the impacted crops where harvested. Children exposed in utero to this speculative effect suffered major health setback that were detectable on height-for-age Z-scores. This points to the importance of helping vulnerable people cope with short term shocks especially when they have children that require time-sensitive investments.

What has your experience been like during your time at Stanford and the King Center?

I had a great experience during my stay at Stanford. I received useful feedback on my recent working paper during a presentation at the development seminar. Many faculty such as Kate Casey, Pascaline Dupas, Marcel Fafchamps, Melanie Morten, and Alessandra Voena provided valuable insights on some of my current projects. Stanford is one the economic departments with the highest concentration of top-notch faculty working on family economics in developing countries, so this visit was a great opportunity to get in touch with them, showcase my research, and absorb some of their wisdom and expertise in that area. I also had very insightful conversations with the postdocs at the King Center and some of the PhD students. All of that happened in a very friendly environment and I enjoyed having random (and often funny) interactions with faculty as well as staff, PhD students and predocs around the same table during the King Center weekly lunches for instance. I have learned a lot from all these people during this short visit and I would like to thank them all for that. I would also thank all the people that have made this visit possible.