09 September 2011

Should We Bribe the Poor?

Unfortunately, empirical evidence doesn't have instant power to convince. "There has been resistance on the left and on the right to the idea of paying people to do the right thing," says Duflo. "On the left, people say, 'How can you be so patronizing?' On the right, they insist that the poor have to be responsible, so we shouldn't give a handout." Priyanka Singh, Seva Mandir's chief executive, says that the approach was initially controversial even within her organization, and points out that other NGOs have also been divided on the issue. The Rajasthani government, after five years of Seva Mandir's continued success with the model, is still resisting linking immunization to an incentive--even though it offers incentives for family planning and sterilization.

Duflo remains undaunted. "I'm not giving up," she says. "My day job is to identify good ideas; my night job is to convince policy mak­ers that they are good ideas. That makes for long days!"

Bribing the poor is a notion that could offend just about anyone. We all like our philanthropy pure: Give the money, volunteer at the shelter, act with good intentions, and things will just get better. That's not a mode of thinking that allows the less fortunate to have human motivations, and it's certainly not a mode of thinking that encourages us to reflect on our own flaws. But be honest--you'd probably offer your own child a piece of candy as a reward for taking her shots. If we really want to make change, we have to discard what Duflo calls our "car­toon visions" of the poor. Doing good means engaging with what people really need and getting it to them by any means necessary
Some critics of the randomista's have pointed out the very problem of encouraging or even bribing behavioral change. Anya Kamenetz is one of the first journalists that I have seen to have taken up this concern. In her article for Fast Company, Kamenetz describes how the team from J-PAL is working to change attitudes surrounding vaccines in Rajasthan, India. Offering lentils to families taking their children to get vaccinated proved to significantly increase the rate of vaccinations in the tested communities.