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How to Attack Global Poverty? More Than Good Intentions Authors Answer Your Questions

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A couple weeks ago we solicited your questions about More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics Is Helping to Solve Global Poverty, the new book by Freakonomics blog contributor Dean Karlan, development economist at Yale; and Jacob Appel, a researcher at Innovations for Poverty Action. Now Karlan and Appel supply the answers to your questions:
Q. Poverty is relative. Those who are considered poor today may have been considered to have been the norm for all of human history until say 100 years ago (arbitrary date). Therefore, to me the argument being made seems to be “hey there are a lot of people better today off than others, this is not fair.” I do not accept this argument. Some might say that I am heartless. I am heartless for being willing to accept people living the way they have for 1000s of years? – jeffrey
A. Happily, we are unqualified to opine on the goodness of your heart.  You make a poignant point, but I think it honestly is an irrelevant comparison. Let me extend your analogy in a way that I think answers your question. For familiar readers, this is a twist on an analogy put forward by Peter Singer in his great book The Life You Can Save. Suppose you were walking down the street and saw a child drowning in a lake. You are on your way to a meeting in which you will earn $300. You have a choice: jump in the lake and save the child, forgoing the $300; or go to the meeting to earn that money and let the child die. Most would agree that you have an ethical obligation to jump in that lake.
Now the first twist: suppose you cannot swim, but there is a lifesaver on the other side of the lake. Do you have an ethical obligation to walk around the lake (which will take time, so you will still miss the meeting) and throw that lifesaver to the child?  I suspect you will say yes, that you do.
So now we have one last twist on this analogy, to draw a tight analogy to your question:
A thousand years ago there were no lifesavers. The technology had not been invented yet. Does this absolve you of responsibility to throw the child the lifesaver? Would you really stare at that child and shout, “I could throw this to you, but I will not, because 1000 years ago people did not have lifesavers.”?
Our hunch is that you would agree that you should throw the lifesaver. So our point is simple: who cares how people lived 1000 years ago? The point is the tradeoff you face right now. And if you do believe that you can donate to someone else and make them better off, relative to what you have to give up to make that donation, then who really cares whether 1,000 years ago someone was even worse off than both of you?
Q. Of all the things you have seen and studied, is there one thing that, over and over, reveals itself as the very best way forward against poverty? – AaronS
A. No. And if anyone tells you that they have the solution for all the world, you should immediately mistrust them.
Q. If we know that a particular piece of jungle can only successfully sustain X number of animals, is there a danger that our moral imperatives will place us in a “lifeboat” situation? That is, if there is not some sort of attrition, do we risk having so many people that we can no longer suitably sustain all of them? Or is that the false dilemma I hope it is? – AaronS
A. One nice lesson from economics is that scarcity breeds resourcefulness and innovation. There was a famous (amongst economists) bet in 1980 between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich on this question using commodity prices as a proxy. Simon won: despite population growth, commodity prices fell. Not to say that ended the debate forever. But it was “score one for human ingenuity.” For the record, our book has nothing to say about this.
Q. Hi, what can someone with a low income (like a student) but high interest in contributing to global poverty do to help with comparatively small donations of time and/or money? Are there some options that stood out as far above the others in this respect? –Bryce
A. Yes! The final chapter in the book discusses several ideas that have risen to the top. Having said that, the publishing lag is brutal… our list has changed! Not radically, but there are changes. We are not stubbornly stuck on anything; we update when better information comes along. We continue to seek more answers, but meanwhile we must take action on the knowledge we have. Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) started the Proven Impact Initiative, and we update this list regularly by adding new ideas, and removing ones that get outpaced by something new. Please check it out. IPA keeps zero percent of the funds raised, and charges no overhead on the fund either. We merely pass it on, opportunistically, to groups that we know are scaling up ideas proven to be effective.
Q. The book sounds interesting. What prompted you to go into development economics? –Allie
A. Thank you! For Dean, it was somewhat of a lark. I took an internship with a microcredit organization in El Salvador after a couple years of investment banking, before going back to graduate school to get an MBA. This internship turned into a three-year engagement, and the single biggest failure of my professional life. But I learned one thing: I had lots of colleagues with good intentions. But nobody had reliable data or analysis to say whether what they were doing was effective or not. I wanted to do something about that, to help organizations make better decisions, and help donors know what to support.
For Jake, it was also a bit of serendipity. Three months out of college I was working as an actuarial analyst in a cubicle in an office park in New Jersey, and I knew I wanted to get out. Online I stumbled onto a classified ad for an organization called Innovations for Poverty Action. They were looking for a research assistant on a microfinance project in Ghana. I had read a little bit about microfinance and had a background in math, and the IPA website said the organization was interested in bringing the rigor of science and statistical analysis to bear on the problems of poverty.  I was hooked.  A month later I stepped off the plane into the tropical heat of Accra, Ghana, and the die was cast.

Q. Do you plan on researching the most effective solutions to domestic poverty in the US? – Zack

A. Yes, we do work on domestic issues as well.  Just not as much.  IPA just started a USA household finance initiative, to help organize a series of projects on debt management and savings. Feel free to email us if you would like more information.
Q. Does the book presuppose there is such a thing as “global poverty”? Sure there are people who are poor across the globe but aren’t the causes and solutions different in different regions/countries. Is poverty the same in both Latin America and Africa? A global solution seems to suggest a common-ness in countries and cultures that seems at odds with our view of the different dynamics in different countries and regions. – Jason
A. No, we definitely do not presuppose one monolithic definition of “global poverty”, and in fact, that is one of the points of the book, that we need to understand more about the specific issues that individuals face in specific contexts in order to think about prescriptions from a policy perspective. Arguments that reside with data on “poverty” and compare changes across countries are really not getting us very far.  And, when it comes to thinking about the right policy, we absolutely have to think about context. Not all solutions will work in all places. This is not to say that evidence garnered in one setting is useless in another; quite to the contrary, this is where theory is helpful. Clear theories as to why problems exist, and how solutions work, if done well, help us understand what lessons transcend from one location to another.  Also please see above, our answer to AaronS.
Q. Public health folks tend to focus on health outcomes. Agriculture folks focus on food outcomes. Development economists focus on poverty. Governments focus on GDP growth. Shouldn’t we really care about overall well-being at the end of the day? Just because it’s hard to measure doesn’t mean we should shy away from it, or should we? – julian
A. In the most general sense, antipoverty programs always aim to improve overall welfare. And many evaluations do rigorously measure the impacts of particular interventions on broad “well-being” outcomes like stress and happiness. The challenge in looking across the whole spectrum of development programs is that people—and not just the folks evaluating the programs, but also the beneficiaries themselves—have different priorities. So it usually doesn’t work to impose one universal value system that distills all those diverse components (health, food, income, economic growth) into a single measure of well-being. Naturally in any individual case, the outcomes we care about depend heavily on the purpose of the intervention. Comparability is an ideal that is easier said than done, once specific interests weigh in on each individual study. But it is a good ideal nonetheless.
Q. What ethical constraints, if any, should ‘randomistas’ recognize? What would it be morally impermissible to test in a randomized control trial? – Scott Wisor
A. The first ethical constraint is about when to attempt an evaluation in the first place. This, we suspect, is not what you are asking; but it is the issue of most relevance we believe. Conducting an evaluation costs money—money which could otherwise be spent providing more services to people in need. So if the program in question is unsuitable for evaluation (e.g. if there are too few participants to assemble a statistically-relevant sample), or if an evaluation wouldn’t provide us with any new or potentially useful information, then we would argue it’s unethical to pull resources away from programs to do any evaluation. While IPA of course believes strongly in the value of good randomized trials, we in fact often decline requests from organizations to do evaluations for exactly this reason.
A second issue is often raised, and we suspect is what you were asking about. In a randomized trial, sometimes (not always) services are restricted to a treatment group, and not a control group. In our experience, the randomized trial is taking advantage of a genuine and real capacity constraint. For example, the organization has the funding and organizational capacity to deliver services in 200 villages. And 200 villages will receive services. In this example, we would work with the organization to identify 400 eligible villages, and then randomly choose 200, rather than the “normal” method the organization would have done if we were not present, which is to choose 200. The key fact with respect to ethics is that in both cases, 200 villages received services.
All randomized trials done by IPA go through a human subjects review board (sometimes more than one), which helps to make sure that study designs and data collection procedures protect the privacy and do not breach important ethical standards.
Q. I am currently a college student interested in global poverty and will be traveling this summer to India to work on trying to decrease diarrheal disease in urban slums. Though our student-run organization has debated this at length, I would like to know what you think of student orgs that volunteer overseas. We travel every summer to India and are committed to long term solutions for communities in Hubli and Mumbai (so not just a one week medical brigade of sorts). But even with more of an investment than such one week programs what is the true function of these volunteer programs, and are they the best way for young people to start helping? – Vaibhav Birda
A. We are all for volunteering, especially for college students and other young people. It’s true: in a couple weeks in India, your student group probably will not find a groundbreaking new solution to diarrheal disease in the slums. But that’s not the point.  The biggest impact from getting involved, especially at the ground level in the field, will likely be on you, and then hopefully your later impact on the world. Spending time face-to-face in developing countries is a great way to become engaged in the fight against poverty, and so a few weeks of summer volunteering can lead to a lifetime of work in development—and that really has the power to change lives.