The biggest barrier to ending poverty is… our paternalism?

If anti-poverty programs can pay for themselves in two or three years rather than twenty, wouldn’t that make sense?

Today I have a post in the WashPo’s Monkey Cage on programs that give livestock or cash plus training and other services, such as supervision and advising. Some recent studies, including one of mine, say these are cost effective programs that pay for themselves many times over.

True. And this is a big deal. But my post shows it could take decades. Always read the small print:

  • Two to three years after the livestock or cash, all but one of these programs are raising the incomes of the poorest households by $71 to $202 a year. Since a dollar goes much further in poor countries, that’s actually $250 to $500 a year in purchasing power. that’s big.
  • Unfortunately several of the programs cost one, two or even three thousand dollars per person, mainly because of heavy supervision time and other staff expenses.
  • This means that, even with the high payoffs every year, the average livestock-plus program will take 18 years or more to break even. That’s not a number I have seen in the news coverage or calls for scaling up these programs.
  • But the lower cost programs (including livestock-plus in India and cash-plus in Uganda) are paying off in three to five years. And their impacts are still high.
  • Half the expenses are for supervision. What if we dropped this paternalism? If benefits fall by less than half, then the program breaks even much sooner.
  • We tried this in Uganda. Compared to cash and training with expensive supervision, cash and training alone had almost identical effects on consumption after a year. Some businesses were more likely to stay open, and profits were a tiny bit higher. But it’s hard to believe supervision passes a cost-benefit test.

The message is clear: charities need to shift the burden of proof to high cost components such as supervision and training. We need to be laser focused on how many years for a program to break even. If three years is possible, why accept 20?

Read the full post. If you’re interested in my numbers, here’s the table I calculated from the Science paper and my own work. If you want purchasing power parity figures use the multipliers (or just times things by three in your head.) Click to expand.

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IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • IPA is among the many organizations endorsing new research transparency and openness guidelines published in Science by 37 authors, including Ted Miguel and Rachel Glennerster. Also see the accompanying articles including how one cancer biologist’s findings were chosen to be independently replicated (or not…). More on what IPA is doing for research transparency here.

In the US, we’re approaching the July 4th holiday weekend, and we thought we’d provide some summer reading (and other media) lists:

  • The folks at Quartz Africa have been kind enough to supplement the NY Times all-White author summer reading list with one from African authors (and a similar one from India here).
  • If you’re going to be driving (or similarly occupied) the Financial Times’ Tim Harford recommends Owen Barder’s list of econ podcasts to load up on.
  •  Marc Bellemare has been doing a series on books that have shaped his thinking in: development, food and agriculture, and econometrics (and if you’re reading an econometrics book on your holiday weekend, I’d offer you a job, but you probably already work for IPA).
  • For casual browsing, Rachel Strohm has recently refreshed her list of twitter voices from Africa, broken down by country.

But two of the best longform articles I’ve read recently have both been about refugees and immigration:

At age six, I ran away with my sister to escape the Rwandan massacre. We spent seven years as refugees. What do you want me to do about it? Cry?

After passing through 8 countries she ended up in a wealthy Chicago suburb, then went to Yale, but much of her point is that she doesn’t feel sorry for or applaud herself, it’s just what happened. It’s wonderfully written. (h/t Tom Murphy)

Both amazingly well written and will make you feel smarter about the world, worth printing out and taking with you.


And for Canada Day, we offer you a skiing moose:

Pranab Bardhan on what’s missing from the “institutions and development” literature

His review of the state and development literature is coming out in the Journal of Economic Literature, and it’s one of the best surveys I’ve read. (Link works now)

An excerpt:

There is now a burgeoning literature on state capacity contributing to the aforementioned state ‘strength’, spelling out the various ingredients, particularly fiscal, legal and military aspects of capacity.

For example, the role of wars in forging such capacity, and that of a Weberian bureaucracy, its autonomy from the political process, its career paths and incentive payments have been discussed in this context.

Less often discussed is the nature of political coalition among different interest or identity group and ‘social pacts’ and inter‐temporal bargains that make the key difference and the underlying problems of collective action that have to be overcome in building the all‐important political capacity of the state.

I’ve made related arguments in the past:

You might argue a third dimension of institutions is the political machinery that gets developed to answer the question “Who decides?”. And re-answer it every day without a destructive conflict or tumultuous turnover of power. All the apparatus that helps elites and groups bargain and make and hold agreements, have a political conversation and compete for power more or less peacefully.

This kind of political development has a lot in common with “constraints” and “capacity”, but it’s distinct. “How to manage peaceful political transitions as the relative power of different interest groups change?” is a really, really, fundamental question a society has to answer to have persistent economic growth.

Bardhan makes the case better than I can. I think I’ve found the cornerstone for my SIPA course on the political economy of development. The full article is recommended.

China’s annual human rights report on the US

The excessive use of force by police officers led to many deaths, sparking public outcry. …After the grand jury of both Missouri and New York decided to bring no charges against the white police officer, massive protests broke out in more than 170 cities nationwide

…To acquire intelligence from suspects of terrorism and extremism, the CIA used brutal methods, such as sleep deprivation, waterboarding, long-term solitary confinement, slamming prisoners against the wall, lashing, death threat and even “rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding.

…The U.S. is a country with grim problems of racial discrimination, and institutional discrimination against ethnic minorities continued. Serious racial bias persisted in the police and justice systems.

…”Dark money” flowed into elections, and the voting rights of racial minorities and other groups were intentionally suppressed. A few interest groups with power were able to influence the government’s decision-making.

Full text. If your first reaction was “what a bunch of hypocrites,” then your second reaction, equally correct, should be “that is probably what the rest of the world says after a US human rights report.”

Hat tip to Sami Bazzi.

Scalia says, “Ask the nearest hippie”

In the dissenting opinion of this morning’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, Justice Antonin Scalia memorably wrote: “Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality (whatever that means) were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

That is L.V. Anderson, who did just that. The first hippie on the street had important things to say.

I have never been married. I have had the same wonderful girlfriend for 26 years, and just being dedicated to her … it does limit. Like, if I walk down the street and I met a woman who was hot and was interested, I would turn her down.

You cannot imagine the change in the acceptance of homosexuality. I had friends in high school who were gay people—I mean, I know now with wisdom of looking back and the misery they suffered in their shortened lives; let’s remember that first of all, all of them are dead. Here I am, almost 75, and I’m this happy straight guy with a gorgeous girlfriend and we have wonderful times, and none of them are in that position.

I mean, the degree—you know this because you’ve heard about it and read about it, but it’s even more than you can imagine, the degree to which their lives were miserable.

Even if my religion or morals told me gay marriage was wrong, the scale and scope of the misery and discrimination heaped upon gays has been so great, and the imposition of their marriage on others so trivial, I don’t see how you could oppose it. Full interview is great.

And, by the way, I feel like saying this out loud: Whatever side of this issue you are on, surely we can all agree that Scalia is a complete ass.

In case you are feeling relentlessly gay this morning…

I opened my door, and found a note from my neighbor. Regarding a set of rainbow jar solar lights hanging in my yard that spell out “Love” and “Ohana”.  They informed me that the neighborhood is “christian” and has “children” and asked me to stop being “relentlessly gay”….

Needless to say…  I need more rainbows… Many, many more rainbows….

The GoFundMe campaign has now reached more than 40k. Update: There’s a chance there is fraud, though accusations are all rather speculative.

Here are pictures of the letter and the offending art project:



Links I liked

  1. Old Navy has a “blogger” line of clothing. As if I could pull off a slim fit shirt anymore.
  2. Ben Goldacre on “How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it”
  3. How to pick a cell phone plan for international travel
  4. The Atlantic covers my ex-combatant reintegration study
  5. California cracks down on idiot parents who oppose vaccination
  6. A PR victory for One Laptop per Child: Rwanda just put them on the 500 franc note.
    Rwanda Note_500This in spite of the fact that the evaluations suggest the laptops have little impact on education. Sigh.

Obama, authoritarian BFF?

“Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Those were President Obama’s words when he addressed Ghana’s parliament in July 2009, during his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president. The historic speech, watched around the globe, was an optimistic clarion call to the leaders on the continent from the son of a Kenyan. “First, we must support strong and sustainable democratic governments,” Mr. Obama said.

The president seems to have forgotten that speech. Last week, the White House announced that, while traveling to Kenya next month, Mr. Obama also will stop in Ethiopia, the first such visit by a sitting U.S. president to the country of 94 million. It’s almost unfathomable that he would make time for an entrenched human rights abuser such as Ethi­o­pia while cold-shouldering the nation that just witnessed a historic, peaceful, democratic change of power: Nigeria.

That is a Washington Post Op-Ed. The most incredible part of this whole story: the Post editors thought African democracy mattered to its readers and the world. It’s a different era.

Personally, I think the Obama administration lost its democratic credentials when it dry humped Egypt’s coup leaders.

At least you could see the miserable strategic logic. But this Ethiopia business just goes to show that paltry little concerns, like troops in Somalia, are enough to abandon principle.

Then again, Susan Rice (Obama’s National Security Advisor) has always had a special place in her heart for African dictators who can get growth rates above 2%. She has a low bar.

But sincerely, I want to know: how does Obama the idealist justify cozying to a regime that is one of the worst oppressors of journalists, fixes and intimidates its way to victory at the polls, spies on international journalists and researchers, severely restricts freedom of expression and assembly, and that is getting worse not better over time?

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Have a research idea on financial services for the poor? IPA (with a grant from the Gates Foundation) is looking to fund new research (deadline is August 2).
  • Bloomberg Businessweek had a special issue explaining to us novices how code works (at a non-technical level) in one long article. It reads almost like an anthropology of coding.
  • The famous Stanford Prison Experiment assigned average people to what was supposed to be a prison simulation, but quickly grew out of control. It is considered one of the progenitors of modern research ethics rules, and now is portrayed in a (very dramatic-looking) movie, trailer here.
  • The US Supreme court upheld the healthcare law, apparently citing, in part, the work of a rising second year Ph.D. student. (So if you were having a good week…)
  • A newly published AEJ Applied paper reports on a randomized controlled trial of the One Laptop Per Child XO computer with 1000 students in Peru. There were no impacts found on academic achievement or cognitive skill, and lower teacher reported student effort (published paper, ungated version here).
  • Three new cases of Ebola reported in Sierra Leone (h/t Tom Murphy)
  • If you missed it, there’s a good article in Foreign Affairs by the IRC’s David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy, on how to make aid more efficient and effective, which Chris blogged about and probably summarized best on Twitter:

Amazing but true: “be more efficient” and “stop doing things that don’t work” are revolutionary statements in aid


And from Reddit via Max Roser, as you can see, people are divided about 50-50 on cutting off the Y-axis:Tunkating Y Axis


News producers agree:


Bush-tax cuts


Dear governments and aid agencies: Please stop hurting poor people with your skills training programs

Here is an incredible number: From 2002 to 2012 the World Bank and its client governments invested $9 billion dollars across 93 skills training programs for the poor and unemployed. In lay terms, that is a hundred freaking million dollars per program.

Unfortunately, these skills probably did very little to create jobs or reduce poverty.

Virtually every program evaluation tells us the same thing: training only sometimes has a positive impact. Almost never for men. And the programs are so expensive—often $1000 or $2000 per person—that it’s hard to find one that passes a simple cost-benefit test.

You might think to yourself: That’s not so bad. Nobody hurt the poor. Plus the trainers and the firms probably benefited. So it’s not a total loss.

If you think this, I urge you to transfer to an organization where you can no longer affect the world. I can think of a couple UN agencies with excellent benefits.

Because when you take billions of dollars a year (because the World Bank is hardly the only spender on skills programs) and you spend them on vocational bridges to nowhere, you have denied those dollars to programs that actually work: an anti-retroviral treatment, a deworming pill, a cow, a well, or a cash transfer. You have destroyed value in the world.

I know what some are thinking: skills program just have to be more market-driven, or on-the-job, or linked to firms, or targeted to the right people.

Maybe. And these might pass a cost-benefit test if you can make them cost much less. But I want you to ask yourself: do you want to run programs that are hard to get right, or hard to get wrong?

Because if you want to create work for unemployed people, and reduce extreme poverty, there are in fact programs that are hard to get wrong.

It gets better. Currently, about two billion people live in countries that are deemed fragile or have high homicide rates. Jobs and incomes in these countries will probably mean less crime, and maybe even a decrease in other kinds of violence. Especially if they are targeted to the highest-risk men.

If you’re thinking to yourself “hey, I would like to read 20,000 more words on this, preferably in dry prose,” well do I have the paper for you. I have a new review paper with Laura Ralston: Generating employment in poor and fragile states: Evidence from labor market and entrepreneurship programs.

It is a draft for discussion, and comments and criticisms (in emails, blog comments, and prank calls) will be integrated over the coming months.

Fortunately the paper includes a 4-page executive summary. And, even better, an abstract!

The world’s poor—and programs to raise their incomes—are increasingly concentrated in fragile states. We review the evidence on what interventions work, and whether stimulating employment promotes social stability.

Skills training and microfinance have shown little impact on poverty or stability, especially relative to program cost. In contrast, injections of capital—cash, capital goods, or livestock—seem to stimulate self-employment and raise long term earning potential, often when partnered with low-cost complementary interventions. Such capital-centric programs, alongside cash-for-work, may be the most effective tools for putting people to work and boosting incomes in poor and fragile states.

We argue that policymakers should shift the balance of programs in this direction. If targeted to the highest risk men, we should expect such programs to reduce crime and other materially-motivated violence modestly. Policymakers, however, should not expect dramatic effects of employment on crime and violence, in part because some forms of violence do not respond to incomes or employment.

Finally, this review finds that more investigation is needed in several areas. First, are skills training and other interventions cost-effective complements to capital injections? Second, what non-employment strategies reduce crime and violence among the highest risk men, and are they complementary to employment programs?

Third, policymakers can reduce the high failure rate of employment programs by using small-scale pilots before launching large programs; investing in labor market panel data; and investing in multi-country studies to test and fine tune the most promising interventions.

You think science fraud is ballsy? Try soccer fraud

Enlisting the help of his friends Carlos was able to secure a three-month trial contract with Botafogo that gave them the option of playing him in league matches. He had the physique and the natural fitness of an athlete so first impressions of him were favourable.

But Carlos knew that he would be required to play in a practice match soon and so came up with a simply but effective way of prolonging his Botafogo career, he feigned injury.

The story goes that Carlos asked for a few weeks fitness training before playing his first match. He told the club that he was a natural striker due to his speed and so the coaches gave him some time.

When the time came for a match Carlos asked for the first ball played to him to be played a number of yards ahead of him. He chased it and fell to the ground clutching his hamstring, insisting he had torn it. Medical technology being what it was in the 1980s there was no way of disproving the claim and so Carlos went to the treatment table.

Full story. He kept it up for many years across many top football clubs in Europe and South America.

I would like to point out that political science caught Lacour before he got his PhD. Then again, perhaps we should ask this: who are the Carlos Henrique Kaisers still among us?

“I fact checked Alice Goffman with her subjects”

That’s not the actual title of Jesse Singal’s latest article, but it is the URL, and I like it better.

Singal (the same journalist who tenaciously went after Lacour) summarizes the backstory extremely well, but here is my even shorter version: Goffman is a young sociologist who wrote one of the most interesting books last year on one of the most important subjects in America: the police state that black men live in. She was applauded, at least until the critics came out questioning her credibility and her field work.

Here’s Singal’s account of his fairly light fact-checking of the Goffman book:

There’s no delicate way to put this: I’d been wandering around the neighborhood I was pretty sure was “6th Street,” handing out photos of Goffman, asking anyone willing to talk to me if they remembered this small white girl who used to hang out with Chuck. (Also, I may or may not have been carrying a box of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins that I offered to people in an attempt to appear more friendly.)

I hadn’t even known Goffman was in town at the time. And now, after an hour-long chat with “Miss Linda,” Chuck’s mom, in her home near 6th Street, and several beers with “Josh,” one of Chuck’s best friends and another character from the book, in an Irish sports bar in a different part of Philly, I was sitting across from Goffman herself, convinced that the basics of her book were legitimate, but plagued by remaining questions. These loose ends never got resolved, and over the next few days they led to further calls and texts and emails with Goffman, which in turn led me to two conclusions:

Alice Goffman conducted some amazing ethnographic research, and her book is almost entirely true, not to mention quite important.

Alice Goffman is going to have a really hard time defending herself from her fiercest critics.

Hat tip to Suresh Naidu.

My read, after an incomplete investigation of reading the book as well as the online attacks and defenses, plus talking to sociologist friends and colleagues, is pretty simple: this is a very good but flawed book, and in my mind the insights far outweigh the flaws in methodology and literary license. I hope a chastened and more experienced Goffman continues to punch out important work. I will read it with enthusiasm.

The attacks, meanwhile, were poorly researched, sometimes naive, and almost always unprofessional. I’ve been surprised by the carelessness and viciousness of the critiques of the book. No one owes Goffman anything, but I like a profession that holds its members to a higher standard, especially when going after a junior colleague.

I would be interested to hear sociologist colleagues react.

I suspect the book has one thing in common with most statistical papers I know: it massages the data a little to fit a cute story, and the result is more or less true. The main difference is that the more people read your book or paper, the more likely you get caught.

Thank goodness no one reads my papers…

Conservation tech: A new biotech will produce fake rhino horns indistinguishable from real ones, and will flood Chinese market at 1/8 the price

A San Francisco biotech startup has managed to 3D print fake rhino horns that carry the same genetic fingerprint as the actual horn. It plans to flood Chinese market with these cheap horns to curb poaching.

Article. And AMA with the startup Pembient.

Apparently the critique from conservation groups:

Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn [and] could lead to more poaching because it increases the demand for “the real thing.” In addition, production of synthetic horn encourages its purported medicinal value, even though science does not support any medical benefits.

A good reminder why public policy professionals could benefit from introductory economics. Consumption of rhino horn will increase as the price falls, but high cost suppliers (i.e. poachers) should be driven out. Probably their production cost is higher at lower quantities, so assuming consumers can actually distinguish the real thing, that minority will pay higher prices. I think the conservationist is saying that people will develop a taste for rhino horn, but even then it’s hard to see why they would purchase poached rhino horns.

I did not sit down and draw my supply and demand curves, but if I am wrong I trust my commenters to tell me so.

Just when I despair that decades of intellectual work on development have fallen on deaf ears, comes stuff like this

Practitioners and academics have learned so much, and yet the governments, publics, and agencies fail to change. Or so my despondent self sometimes feels.

Then I read things like this: two new leaders of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy, writing in Foreign Affairs on how the aid system needs to change. IRC is not quite belly of the beast as, say, middle management at USAID. But still.

Here is where I disclose that I’m married to an executive at IRC (who is neither Miliband nor Gurumuthy). Nonetheless, I think their wish list is objectively superb:

  • Focus on more effective aid not more aid
  • Pay less attention to the poor, stable and thus growing places, and more attention to the unstable places that are running in the opposite direction
  • Recognize that panaceas like microfinance did nearly zip for poverty, and we were fooled for 20 years until some finally did the hard research
  • Enough already, just give the poor cash
  • Cash alone is not enough—important goals like rapid disaster relief and the last mile of vaccination need innovations in effective systems and delivery, not more money
  • Donors should not fund interventions without evidence unless they are also investing in building that evidence

It’s kind of amazing that “be more efficient”, “stop doing things that don’t work” and “do the things that do work” are all revolutionary statements in aid. Good for them for finally pushing this.

I will push back at Miliband and Gurumurthy in one place, though. It comes down to what I see as a humanitarian blind spot: the perverse incentives they help create, and the silence on the crimes that result.

Ten years ago I was living in northern Uganda in the waning days of the war. To fight the insurgency, the government forced the entire rural population of the war zone, nearly two million people, into what were essentially concentration camps.

The humanitarian system fed and clothed those people for years. Most of the aid workers  there at the time (and also researchers like me) never stepped back to think about their role in the conflict. With the best of intentions, NGOs like the IRC naively underwrote the Ugandan government’s war crime of mass forced relocation. The government never could have committed it without the UN and NGOs ensuring millions stayed alive. The same could be said of many other refugee camps on the planet today.

The humanitarian system works better than ever before. What I want us to consider is that the growing number of refugees is partly a consequence of that success.

Personally, I doubt this is because oppressed people think fleeing is more attractive than ever. Once they’ve fled, they might say “since I’m not dying of hunger here, maybe I’ll stay”. But this is not what worries me.

What worries me are the merciless and calculating Presidents and warlords who realize that they can clear a countryside, or cleanse their region of people they dislike, and NGOs will give the persecuted cash transfers to stay away. For decades. Without making a big stink.

I don’t think NGOs should withhold humanitarian assistance when they think they’re being used and abused. But I would like to see more self-awareness and deep, existential discussions about what to do.

To go back to northern Uganda, I would have like to see the international community realize how the government was using them, and speak out. Instead humanitarians were docile, donors reward the government with more foreign aid than ever, and the International Criminal Court indicted the government’s enemies while deliberately avoiding investigation of the Ugandan army.

Altogether pretty shameful. And these kinds of shameful cases persist today. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, a virtual prison to hundreds of thousands of Somalis for decades, is one example.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to see humanitarian leaders supporting technical advances like research, cost-effectiveness, and cash. Of course I am—issues like this have been the heart of my research agenda for a decade.

So, while it feels weird for me to say this to humanitarian leaders, I’ll say it anyways: Please don’t spend all your time on this stuff.

Humanitarian aid is not just a technical problem to be fixed and made more efficient. It is a political problem. When donors and NGOs frame it as a technical problem (as many, many do) they get used and abused, often unwittingly, by the more merciless and wily leaders of the world—both by the warlords in the jungle, and the warlords in the Pentagon.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • NPR and Pro-Publica have a new exposé titled “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti ­and Built Six Homes.” It documents the fundraising opportunity Haiti rebuilding presented for the Red Cross, but that they had little experience or staff in the country, and with most of their employees unable to speak the language, they had difficulty getting anything done. The US Red Cross has also faced criticism over their responses and uses of funds after 9/11, Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy.
  • The Atlantic has an article on the effective altruism movement and the most efficient way to save a life, coinciding with Princeton Philosopher Peter Singer’s open Coursera course on effective altruism.
  • Pakistan has been cracking down on NGOs, having deregistered 3,000 of them, and recently shutting down Save the Children. In recent days it appears they may be backtracking, allowing NGOs to stay open providing they re-register with the government within 3 months, but the situation is still developing. If anybody knows more, feel free to get in touch with Tom Murphy from Humanosphere who is trying write a roundup of what’s going on.
  • Slate is doing a compelling 10-episode history podcast on American slavery, each era told movingly through the experience of one slave who later wrote about their experiences. Episode 2 is downloadable here. (I think they’re free only temporarily, then will require registration).
  • A study in Nature reports positive results for a new anti-malaria drug targeting proteins within the parasite that carries the disease, so far effective in mice and human blood samples. If it works, it could cost as little as one dollar.

And, workers wearing Hip-Hop/R&B singer Akon’s name installing solar panels in an unspecified African country, part of his solar lighting initiative. (via our new follower, @fuzetheMCAkonLighting

And to whomever keeps asking our West Africa office if they can order 23 orange CBlatts vests, the answer is NO!

Links I liked

  1. “more than one-third of couples who married in the United States from 2005 to 2012 met online.”
  2. I tricked Kate Cronin-Furman into writing this: “Is the International Criminal Court really targeting black men?
  3. How two mysterious bodies belie the shame of France
  4. Jeff Bridges took panoramic photos of most of his movie sets
  5. Morten Jerven on why bad development statistics have biased policy and research
  6. Andrew Gelman does the only thing more futile than pushing back the tide with your bare hands: trying to take down a New York Times columnist
  7. UN peacekeepers make love not war