14 April 2011

Things I Like (and a contest!): More than Good Intentions

This is the second post in my weekly series Things I Like.  Last week I featured Water for People.  You can follow the series by going here.

Proponents of International Aid will champion the many successes which have happened due to the implementation of interventions around the world. USAID Administrator Raj Shah warned that proposed FY2012 cuts to the program would lead to the deaths of 70,000 children. International aid is working, but we do not know why and what works best.

However, there do exist ways to begin to determine what works and what doesn't. Randomized control trials (RCTs) conducted in Kenya, India, Mexico, Philippines and other countries are helping to find out the most effective interventions. In his new book, More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics Is Helping to Solve Global Poverty, Yale researcher Dean Karlan teams up with Jacob Appel to tell the story of how behavioral economics and RCTs and are being used to put innovative solutions to work.

"We ought to find out where our money will make the biggest impact, and send it there...This isn't just about making better use of the money raised, but also about helping to convince skeptics, who think aid isn't worth giving, that development can work if done right," says Karlan in the introduction before revealing how he and other researchers have used RCTs in an effort to reach this goal.

Karlan and his writing partner, Appel, have crafted a book that is accessible to people who do not have a strong economics or development background. While it does read from time to time like a memoir, the first-person narrative makes the book more engaging as Karlan reveals his personality through his passion to perform rigorous trials that will lead to a lasting impact.

As someone who has been following the work of 'Randomistas' like Karlan and Esther Duflo, this is the kind of book that I can give to my parents for them to understand economic development. The stories will resonate with the reader and make for smooth delivery vehicle of the information that is coming out of the RCTs.

Ivory tower images are often invoked when speaking of academics, but stories that introduce people like Anthony, who is looking for a way to finance his education, casually dispel such criticisms. The people affected by the tested interventions are at the heart of the book and the RCTs described. This is the strength of the book.

As discussions about NGO's lack of accountability, like this one in the Wall Street Journal, become more prevalent, examples of how this is being achieved should be an equal part of the discussion. A good place to start is with Karlan and Appel's new book.
The teach-a-man-to-fish approach has been around for decades. The results have not been as universally great as one might hope. For natural-born fishermen, it can work. But the problem is that some people are bad at baiting the hooks; some can't cast worth a damn; and some don't live near a river with enough fish in t. Some people think fishing is plain boring. Come dinner, all these folks are out of luck. They can't eat rods and reels and lessons about casting. So what can this kind of development do for them?
More Than Good Intentions takes the reader around the world to find the solution to that question. In the book you will learn ways to get people to save money, how to make microfinance more efficient, and interventions that will get kids behind the desk and teachers in the classroom.

The book is released today:

To put a little bit of behavioral economics to work and put my money where my mouth is, I am going to double the incentives. This is the second in what I hope to be a long series of posts on things that I like in the world of aid and development. In the comment section, tell me one thing, organization, idea or person that you like in the world of aid and development with a sentence or two why. Using a randomized number generator, one lucky winner will receive my copy of More than Good Intentions, shipping on me, with a personal note of thanks from me and all of my notations taken while reading! To make it more interesting, I will match each entry (up to 50) with a $1 donation to IPA's Proven Impact Fund. So, for a few moments you can have a shot at winning a book and support a great organization.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by Innovations for Poverty Action, the NGO founded by Dean Karlan. No specific requests were made or instructions given. Everything in the review is my personal opinion.