The case for upending humanitarian aid as we know it (and what I learned along the way)

food distribution

In the last few months, I sat on a blue chip panel debating how to make the humanitarian system work better. The report is out, and recommendation number one could not be more clear:

Give more unconditional cash transfers. The questions should always be asked: ‘why not cash?’ and ‘if not now, when?’.

As readers of the blog will know, I could not agree more. This is groundbreaking stuff for humanitarians. But I can’t bring myself to write another earnest post about cash transfers. You can see others make the case or read the report. It’s very good.

What interests me more are the insights into international aid that came from serving on the panel. A grab bag of impressions:

  • It’s amazing how often the US government came up as an obstacle to doing the right thing. Anti-terror legislation; financial regulation; the fact that giving cash to the poorest wasn’t as much in the interest of US lobbyists, no matter if cash worked or not. I know the US is not the only government with perverse incentives. If France was the biggest player surely we would have long discussed the vagaries of French politics. That said, other developed countries seem to have a more professional, more charitable aid regime. I wonder what it is about the US that its generosity is so self serving?
  • I won’t even get into how low an opinion people seemed to hold of the United Nations. If anyone can figure out how to take $10 to give a refugee $1, they will.
  • Evidence was extremely influential to the discussion, but little of that evidence overlapped with what economists have found persuasive. The recent randomized trials were seldom discussed, even though they point in the same direction–that almost nothing is as effective and cheap as cash. What was important, rather, was that lots of organizations had been experimenting informally with cash here and there for decades. The accumulation of these experiences mattered a great deal. Economists like to say that the plural of anecdote is not data, but that’s clearly not true when it comes to real innovation and organizational change. I don’t think we economists are right on this one.
  • It’s interesting to think that one logical extension of cash transfers to the poor and displaced is some sort of cross-border, universal social safety net. The interesting question is whether this increases or decreases incentives to flee an oppressive country, and what this does to incentives facing the oppressors. This strikes me as a good example of the kinds of international relations dissertations that are not being written.
  • I could not believe that busy, senior people—think CEOs of large non-profits—could attend overseas meetings with a couple of weeks notice. I had work and family commitments that kept me from joining half the discussions. I would’ve thought a CEO had more. But perhaps the nature of the job is fluid, and they have the seniority to reschedule whatever they like to do what they think is important. And maybe few had toddlers. (I prefer to believe these explanations over the equally plausible alternative: they were all consulted about the ideal dates in advance and I was the last to be told.)
  • A reporter asked me: Why now? Why didn’t this happen a decade ago, or two? I don’t have a good answer. Part of it could be the slow accumulation of evidence. Maybe the randomized trials pushed people over the edge. Maybe it’s technology like ATM cards and mobile money. Maybe crises like that in Syria are so big and so poorly suited to handing out food instead of cash, the world is being forced to think hard about cash for the first time. I think it has most to do with the aid world finally feeling accountable not just for measurable impact, but at a reasonable cost.

I am curious if people have other answers to some of these questions.

Links I liked

  1. One of my new favorite podcasts is Reply All, about all things Internet
  2. Why only second rate entertainers and CEOs will run for President and why so many incompetent men become leaders
  3. Banerjee, Duflo, & Olken start their online Advanced Development Economics course tomorrow
  4. One of my favorite World Bank economists, Kaushik Basu, re-proves the Pythagorean Theorem
  5. A police chief denounces civil asset forfeiture, after it happens to him

The one thing you need to know to run an effective organization

Luigi Zingales:

I think that the first thing is spend time in hiring the best possible people. I think that one thing that works well in university is that we spend a huge amount of time selecting faculty. A lot of what we do is listening to seminars, reading papers, refereeing papers, selecting the next generation.

What I’ve learned in various organizations is the best, most successful organizations are the ones that spend a huge amount of time selecting the good people. Because it’s very costly to fire — you don’t want to fire unless you have to. Once you get the right people in place, organizations, I wouldn’t say run themselves, but almost. If you don’t have the right people in place, you spend a lot of time fixing the hiring mistakes.

From an interview by Tyler Cowen. Zingales is a Chicago finance professor, who among other things has studied culture and governance in organizations. The interview ranges from what we learn about Trump from Berlusconi, how northern Italy subjugated Southern Italy and what it tells us about the European Union, why Italian cafe’s are so productive, and why Italy has the best secretaries and the worst managers.

As if Tyler Cowen wasn’t the greatest intellectual blogger of the age, he is also hosts what I think are the greatest interviews. See his interview of Jeff Sachs. I look forward to Dani Rodrik next week.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Photo from previous coup
Photo from previous coup


  • Haidt diversity-graphA new paper (accompanied by 30 peer commentaries) argues that the field of psychology has become dominated by liberals (from 4:1 through the 1990s to 12:1 since). They suggest that the field which studies unconscious bias and group polarization has itself become biased in research assumptions, for example, that stereotypes are always inaccurate and therefore a reasoning flaw. Summary here.




And Yale, renowned for its endowment’s investments, will be collecting $153 in interest on a perpetual bond issued in 1648 from Dutch water authority de Stichtse Rijnlanden to pay for a pier in a river. Yale acquired the goatskin bond as an artifact in 2003. (via Planet Money)




The Stormtrooper as working class stiff

screenshot-2015-09-15-09-25-15A photo series by Jorge Pérez Higuera. Here is an article, which appears to take the following statement seriously:

Higuera’s decision to build the series around the Galactic Federation’s foot soldiers was inspired by modern French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of habitus, the idea that a person’s core consciousness and perception of the world is shaped by rigid, external social structures.

Randomizing for evil

The UK government pioneered the Behavioural Insights Team a unit that uses behavioral economics, psychology, and experiments to nudge people in important policy directions. There are now similar units in the White House and the World Bank.

Sound great to libertarian paternalists like me. And then, Aid thoughts points us to BIT’s latest update:

BIT has been working with the Home Office to consider new measures to help illegal migrants to voluntarily return home, focusing initially on engagement at reporting centres. Reporting centres are seen as an important but underutilised opportunity to prompt illegal migrants to consider whether leaving the UK voluntarily would be a preferable option in their circumstances.

…At this stage, the precise scope of a trial is still being finalised, with the aim to combine a number of behavioural elements to create a distinct reporting centre experience that encourages members of the reporting population to consider voluntary departure as an alternative to their current situation.


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

via European Commission ECHO


  • The UK Behavioural Insights Team is hiring someone to commercialize behaviorally informed products.
  • Nepal hasn’t yet spent any earthquake relief money. The government was reportedly at a political standstill even before the earthquake, not having been able to write a constitution since the 2006 end of a civil war.
  • Venezuela has offered to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees, after deporting 1,400 Colombians. (One hundred Cuban doctors sent to Venezuela fled there and have been stuck in Colombia awaiting US visas).
  • A new bill in Congress uses reproducibility discussions against science. According to Nature News, The “Secret Science Reform Act of 2015” passed by House Republicans requires EPA regulations to be based on “transparent reproducible science,” when many important studies (such as longitudinal environmental ones) are inherently not reproducible.
  • The NBER studies how rational economists are. A paper reports on consequences of order in which papers are listed in their weekly “new papers” email announcements. To a rational actor, something as trivial as random order shouldn’t matter, but:

We show that despite the randomized list placement, papers that are listed first each week are about 30% more likely to be viewed, downloaded, and cited over the next two years.

(via  Kim S.)

And, name quiz: are Otterbein and Brastius names of Knights of the Round Table or colleges in Ohio? Full quiz here (h/t @TexasInAfrica)

Work in the family (some research positions)

Two research jobs of interest. One working with me in Uganda, and one working for my wife (and IRC) in NYC and Pakistan.

The Uganda job with me is perfect for a recent undergrad or Master’s student, ideally someone with some research experience. It’s a one year position (maybe two), based in Kampala running two studies:

This is a great experience prior to getting a PhD or the ranks of professional impact evaluators. We’re looking for someone to start ASAP, so apply soon. We hope to make a decision in the next 3-4 weeks. Learn more and apply here.

The second job is with the NYC-based research department at International Rescue Committee, which my wife Jeannie Annan heads. It’s a study of a huge cash transfer program related to children’s education in Pakistan. It is perfect for someone wiuth a few years of research experience under their belt already. Apply here.

P.S. Don’t email me directly with questions or application, but rather go through the channels above. I’m not involved in the early hiring rounds and only see and talk to the final short list.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Adapted from


  • In a revealing and moving interview, two researchers describe their research into the lives of Americans living on $2/day. They find multitudes outside the social safety net, including evidence of the poor being actively discouraged from applying for federal aid they’re entitled to so the state can keep it:

Rae McCormack, after months and months of having nothing and being in very dangerous double-up situations, went in and applied for TANF, and her caseworker told her, “We don’t have enough to go around for everyone. Come back next year.” She took that as a no, but the caseloads in Ohio in particular are quite low.

Rural areas, where aid is low and access to transportation is poor, have it worst, and they describe how people exploit others just to survive:

The not-quite-so-poor wind up preying on the extreme poor to get by leading to real material hardship that’s probably outside most people’s sense of what ought to go on in America.

And from SMBC Comics (via Rohit) have a tough ethical problem? Let an economist help:



IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


47% of original effect sizes were in the 95% confidence interval of the replication effect size; 39% of effects were subjectively rated to have replicated the original result; and if no bias in original results is assumed, combining original and replication results left 68% with statistically significant effects.

  • Headlines are shouting “fewer than half of psychology studies replicate,” but Vox’s reporter says after talking with one of the researchers about how hard it was to set up the identical experiment (in a different country/language), she was surprised anything replicates at all. Failure might not mean the original finding was a fluke, it could just mean they didn’t manage to measure the same thing the same way.
  • A prominent researcher says the NYTimes misquoted him on this story to make him sound more skeptical than he is, and posted his own notes from the conversation, a great lesson for any researcher being quoted.
  • Bruce Wydick has a interesting post on what academic and faith-based development practitioners can learn from each other.
  • In the US, subsidies for people to move from poor neighborhoods to bettehr ones had positive long term outcomes (PDF) but Barnhardt, Field, & Pande find in India, taking people away from their social support networks is very disruptive and many people refused or left the program (PDF).

And a new visualization tool lets you play with data to show how moving data points (even one outlier) changes a correlation and variance overlap.


Kenya crime and police bleg

What organizations and donors are doing interesting or innovative programs in policing tactics, police/justice reform, or crime reduction in Kenya?

Mainly I’m looking at crime and gangs but I’m also interested in police relations with Somali refugee populations in the capital.

Contacts in the police and security sector are welcome as well. I’m especially interested in meeting internal reformers.

I can be emailed here.

Kenya food bleg

I’m headed to Nairobi this evening. I haven’t been back for 11 years. (In fact the last time I was there I met my wife because we happened to be sitting next to one another in what I can only assume was the country’s slowest Internet cafe. Just think how many relationships will be killed by broadband.)

Anyways, I will be working furiously on a project but I do like to eat good food, and restaurant recommendations are welcome. I’m not so interested in what I can eat in New York, so the best Thai restaurant or burger is not my object. But the Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Indian food in New York stinks (at least in Manhattan) so those kinds of recommendations are welcome. I have a soft spot for Choma. But please do not tell me to go to Carnivore unless something has changed dramatically in the last decade.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest Post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

via National Geographic
via National Geographic


  • National Geographic had a master taxidermist come up with a fake elephant tusk with an embedded GPS tracker so they could track the route of the illegal ivory trade live via satellite through the DRC, LRA territory, and Darfur. Article here, interactive map here, & NPR Fresh Air radio interview here.
  • New McKenzie paper on a microenterprise randomized randomized business plan/grant competition in Nigeria (PDF). Out of 24,000 entries, winners went on to grow significantly more, mostly due to the $50,000 grant enabling investment.
  • 538 has an article about p-values, replications and science with a fun live feature allowing you to p-hack “your way to scientific glory” proving conclusively that Republicans [or Democrats] are better [or worse] for the economy by adding or subtracting variables till you get to p<.05. The article’s point is that science is supposed to be iterative and media/public expectations about finality on any issue are unrealistic. And a lesson in realistic expectations from a group of biostatisticians writing up methods guidelines for other researchers:

“We had to go back about 17 [of our own] papers before we found one without an error”


  • great interview from the Center for Global Development podcast. In 20 minutes, Karthik Muralidharan manages to explain why large numbers of kids in the developing world drop out and how to fix it. The problems is curricula are designed for the top 20% of students, and those who can’t keep up get left behind. His one piece of advice to policymakers – focus relentlessly on getting kids basic reading and math skills by grade 2 so they’ll be able to benefit for the coming years.

And from the globalization file- Liam Murphy, an engineer form Ireland, was visiting Abu Dhabi and took a cab to Ferrari World theme park. When he found out his cab driver, an Indian guest worker, was going to wait outside for the day & had never been to a theme park the engineer paid for him to come along. So here’s your photo of an Indian migrant worker & Irish engineer on an Italian-themed roller coaster in an emirate.






IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


And SMBC comics explains economists’ plan to fix the world in one cartoon.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Worm Wars update:
    • Michael Clemens and Justin Sandefur have the best explainer so far.
    • Esther Duflo and Dean Karlan (for J-PAL and IPA) summarize what the debate means for open science, and would like an independent researcher to re-appraise the data.
    • Which will be easier now that the authors of the re-analysis have posted their work online.
    • And walking public good David Evans has collected everything about the debate here.
  • A study in PLOS ONE finds when the government started requiring pre-analysis plans for studies on cardiovascular drugs, success rate went from 57% to 8%. (h/t Sandefur/Lanthorn)
  • And The Berkeley Initiative for Transparency In the Social Sciences has a prize for reproducible/open social science research (with a good blog post here).
  • NPR has the story of an MIT student who learned in class about Dupas’ RCT showing that informing teen girls of HIV risk with older “sugar daddies” reduces rates of teen pregnancies, and started a non-profit in Botswana to do just that.

    “Out of hundreds of studies, here was one of the few that had that big an impact,” says Angrist, “and it sat year after year after year accumulating dust on the library shelf.”

    “I thought, ‘This is my chance to turn research into action.’ “

Cash transfers also lower rates of teen pregnancy, but there are some statistics you can’t argue with. (h/t Max Roser)


This early childhood program increased voting by 40% twenty years later

I find a strong relationship between the non-cognitive skills of grit, self control, behavioral control, and social skills measured in childhood and political participation in adulthood. This strong relationship holds even when considering measures of cognitive ability and other potential confounders.

Simply put, those children who develop non-cognitive skills are more likely to participate in adulthood. Going one step further, I test whether exogenous improvements in non-cognitive skills during early childhood translate into participation increases in adulthood. To do so, I use a unique 20-year, multi-site field experiment—the Fast Track intervention…

I show that this early-childhood field experiment targeted|and successfully moved|students’ non-cognitive skills, while leaving their cognitive skills and other factors relevant to political participation virtually unchanged…

Exposure to this program increased turnout among participants 11-14 percentage points—a substantial amount, constituting at least a 40% increase in baseline participation rates…

It appears that Fast Track mobilized because it taught children to regulate their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions and use these abilities to integrate in society.

A new paper by John Holbein. Unfortunately I did not see data on party affiliation.

In related news, my colleagues Julian Jamison and Dean Karlan produce a worthy contender for an Ig-Nobel prize for their Halloween candy voting experiments with children.

We decorated one side of a house porch with McCain material in 2008 (Romney material in 2012) and the other side with Obama material. Children were asked to choose a side, with half receiving the same candy on either side and half receiving more candy to go to the McCain/Romney side. This yields a “candy elasticity” of children’s political support.

Worm wars continued (but not by me)

Michael Clemens and Justin Sandfur at CGD weigh in:

Suppose a chemistry lab claimed that when it mixed two chemicals, the mixture rose in temperature by 60 degrees. Later, a replication team reviewed the original calculations, found an error, and observed that the increase in temperature was only 40 degrees.

It would be strictly correct for the replication team to announce, “We fail to replicate the original finding of 60 degrees.” That’s a true statement by itself, and it doesn’t fall within the strict purview of a pure replication to do additional tests to see whether the mix rose by 30 degrees, or 40 degrees, or whatever.

But it in this situation it would be excessive to claim that replication “debunks the finding of a rise in temperature,” because the temperature certainly did rise, by a somewhat different amount. This is basically what’s happened with the deworming replication, as we’ll explain.

I haven’t seen many non-economist responses, other than Stéphane Helleringer’s comments on this blog. Have I missed them or they don’t exist?

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • With the debate over deworming in danger of overtaking actual worms in terms of lost productivity, a reminder that much arguing about what analysis methods were chosen can be solved with a pre-analysis plan. The Journal of Economic Perspectives has two helpful articles:
    • Olken’s Promises and Perils of Pre-analysis Plans goes over a checklist of advantages, such as allowing for choosing unconventional tests without accusations of cherry picking, and tips for compromises, like making some of the initial data cleaning choices “blinded” (without separating treatment/control).
    • Coffman and Niederle argue Pre-analysis Plans Have Limited Upside, Especially Where Replications Are Feasible, and the problem is really that there’s little incentive for academic researchers to replicate.
    • One thought: A stats prof of mine who was a former physicist in his 80’s (at least), used to say back when stats were done by hand or after waiting days for a turn at the university’s basement-sized mainframe computer, people chose their stats tests and planned their analysis far in advance and much more carefully. When there was a “cost” to each analysis, the process was slower & more deliberative – essentially right in between “pre-analysis plan before study starts” and “test as you go.”

And Nigerian lawyer and satirist Elnathan John offers the Gospel According to Aid.

This tool will help you engineer the results you want from randomized trials!

Clinical drug trials are conducted by pharmaceutical firms to establish the effectiveness and safety of new treatments, but failure to publish the results of all trials is skewing medical science (as highlighted in our story from this week’s Science section). Using our interactive simulator, run a series of clinical trials for yourself and discover how to play the system by publicising results in favour of your own product

The Economist has a clinical trials simulator. Hat tip Ben Goldacre.