Nova workboard

a blog from young economists at Nova SBE

On risky behavior and fate in Africa

THE following thoughts recently crossed my mind as I raced through a dirt road in Mozambique at way too much speed, in the company of 30 people (not including children, live animals and dead ones too) in the back of an old Mitsubishi Canter designed to transport… well anything except people:

1. What the heck am I doing here?

2. Do these people have any love for their lives?

I am still to come up with the answer to the first question concerning the situation I was in, but regarding the last one I will try to sketch a possible answer in the following paragraphs.

Call it braveness or naiveness, Mozambicans and Santomeans engage in much bigger risks more frequently than anyone I know. In particular, I have been amazed by drivers there (excess speeding in bad awful road/weather conditions) and public transportation conditions (overcrowded vehicles all long overdue a full inspection). I was also amazed that some hazardous behaviors affect not only the person involved but her loved ones too – for example when putting immense responsibility in children (over siblings, travelling alone, handling knifes, etc.) or engaging in risky sexual behavior in high HIV prevalence environments. But my amazement was not echoed besides in foreigners like myself, for all this – including the deaths originated by such perilous behaviors – is taken as rather trivial there.

These observations lead me to think that, in Africa, professor Pita Barros’ class survey to infer the value of a statistical life (i.e. the value of saving an anonymous life) would reach much lower values, even when adjusting for income and other factors. There is simply lower willingness to pay, I suspect.

I do not wish to pass judgment over sporadic events I have witnessed. But maybe… Are they unfortunately not so infrequent?

Some selected statistics (Angola was added for further reference):

– HIV incidence[1]: high.

Rate of HIV incidence (ages 15 to 49)

Source: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 2009 estimates.

And the inverse relationship is found in condom use.

Condom use during higher-risk sex

Source: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 2009 estimates.

– Road traffic deaths: high by world standards.

Road safety

Estimated road traffic death rate per 100 000 population.
Death rate: dark green: <10; light green: 10.1-20; yellow: 20.1-30; orange: 30.1-40; red: 40.1-50; grey: not applicable; white: no data.
Source: WHO, 2006-2007.

– Treatment of injuries: weak.

Age-standardized mortality rate caused by injuries

Source: WHO Data – World Health Statistics, 2004 estimates.

So why not:

– use more the condom?
– drive more responsibly?
– act more careful in general?

Why did I see the inverse, even in educated well off adults?


– Because the value of a statistical life (VSL) in Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe is low? or

– Because of lower life expectancy and/or lower income? (And VSL need not be lower if one controls for this then.)

Lucky for me two researchers came to Novafrica’s first annual conference held this month and explained their take on this subject: regarding African travellers, yes, average VSL is low (close to zero!) even when controlling for income, life expectancy, lack of information about transport risks, liquidity constraints, etc. Their main explanation for this is “socio-cultural factors, and especially the perceived role of fate in determining life outcomes”. Indeed they estimate much higher VSL’s among non-Africans (!) in their sample “who report comparable incomes to African respondents yet are much more likely to avoid additional fatal accident risk (…)”[2].

The authors also shed some light onto another question posed here, pointing out that “the accounts of African fatalism have gained particular relevance (…) in explaining the rapid spread of HIV, and (…) in accounting for the risky sexual behaviors that underlie this spread.”

In conclusion, my observations seem to be only the tip of a giant African iceberg after all. Personally I tend to agree with the authors “socio-cultural differences” explanation. And despite (or because of) these puzzling aspects, those differences are why I will keep travelling to Africa.

Helena Afonso

[1] Data not available for São Tomé and Príncipe and Portugal in 2009.

[2] Léon, Gianmarco and Miguel, Edward: Transportation Choices, Fatalism and the Value of Life in Africa. Forthcoming.


Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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