This blog post is co-authored with Jacob Appel, co-author of my recent book, More Than Good Intentions.
Among the many questions David Gomberg and Justin Heimberg pose in their hilarious book Would You Rather is the following:
“Would you rather…
Become increasingly intelligent with the consumption of alcohol, but also become increasingly convinced you are Gloria Estefan
Have a firm grasp of Roman numerals but look exactly like Weird Al Yankovic?”
Well, that’s a tough one. Seriously. It’s a classic problem of apples and oranges—or maybe, given the absurdity of the alternatives, a problem of apples and, say, cut-off jeans shorts—two things that are thoroughly incommensurable. Fortunately, those are not real choices.
In fact there are plenty of cases where we do have to choose, and where the choices matter. How about choosing between vaccinating a child and sending her to school? How about choosing between putting a roof on your house and putting dinner on your table? Granted, these sets of alternatives are not quite as incommensurable as the ones above—but whatever they lack in silliness, they more than make up for in starkness and importance. These are the kinds of questions the poor face every day, and the kind we also face (whether we realize it or not) when we design and implement programs to help alleviate poverty.
Here too our instinct is to defer to the preferences of the beneficiaries who will ultimately receive vaccinations or school fees, roofs or dinners. But how do we elicit these preferences across entire communities, much less entire countries or regions? How do we identify the alternative that the most people will like best?
We in the developed world have at least two types of powerful tools at our fingertips to answer these questions. One is a democratic, taste-matching approach. This is the sort of tool Amazon and Netflix (and many other companies) use to make recommendations: “Customers who bought this also liked that.” The other is an expert-based approach. Think of the Michelin restaurant guides, or of the website Opinionated About Dining, which allows members to review restaurants, but weights their reviews based on the quality of the other restaurants they’ve eaten in previously.
In developing countries, at least two more approaches are in use. First, aid organizations are increasingly turning to “participatory assessments,” which ask groups of beneficiaries directly what kinds of goods and services they want most. Second, there is the ultimate in deference to individual taste: just give recipients cash, and let them spend it however they choose.
All four of these methods have their advantages and drawbacks, which we explore in a Foreign Policy article at greater length. None is perfect. And so the questions remain: Boozy Gloria Estefan or MCMXCVII-wielding Weird Al? Food or shelter?