Want to solve world poverty? We don’t know the answer but the answer is knowable

Bill Gates spent a lot of 2016 talking about how chickens can solve world poverty, and how he’d like to help a third of rural sub-Saharan Africans start to raise them (up from about 5 percent today). I have a Vox piece today asking “why not cash instead?” It should be at least as effective at helping people start small business, and it’s cheaper and simpler to give away.

But that’s not my main point. We actually don’t know the answer. And to me that is the big  message.

Despite the suggestive research that I’ve cited here, no one has run the race between chickens and cash programs. No one has asked whether the expensive training or supervision that often goes along with these things is worth it. No one uses that information to hold organizations like Heifer accountable for being cost-effective.

You could. It would put your intuition about chicken returns to the test. It would be straightforward to run a study with a few thousand people in six countries, and eight or 12 variations, to understand which combination works best, where, and with whom. To me that answer is the best investment we could make to fight world poverty. The scholars at Innovations for Poverty Action who ran the livestock trial in Science agree with me. In fact, we’ve been trying, together, to get just such a comparative study started.

Is this just a way to hit you up for funding? Sort of, because — let’s be honest — when was the last time someone said something to you that wasn’t a funding proposal? But I’d be happy to see others run these trials. My day job is studying ways to reduce conflict, and running a massive cash and chickens trial will pull me away from that. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen anyone try this kind of multi-country, multi-pronged, coordinated trial. Until they do I’ll keep trying to make it work.

I think a few words from you could make those studies happen. When it comes to ending poverty, you could tell people that we don’t know the answer yet, but it is answerable. You could say: “The future is randomized trials testing different poverty programs against one another in many countries, focusing on cost-effectiveness.” That sentence is short enough for a tweet. And that one tweet, with some money to back it up, could change the world.

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