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.

Read the full piece.

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

  1. This is an interesting question, but whether it is worth knowing depends on what is trying to be accomplished. The stated goal is to “solve world poverty”. But what exactly does this mean?

    In my opinion it means putting in place systems that provide what communities need to survive and grow. In a nutshell, every community needs to build and maintain systems that provide things like clean water, food, shelter, health care, education and personal security.

    The most efficient way of doing this requires connecting with the modern economy. To do this means being able to offer some form of tradable good or service and then using the proceeds from a resulting trade to acquire the tools needed to construct the necessary systems.

    Needless to say in many parts of the world many people lack an effective way to build, create or acquire tradable goods (or what they do produce is of limited value). By providing people with either chickens or cash we would in essence be providing them with a tradable asset that they can use to help begin building a better future. But is this the best and most efficient way to do this?

    For example if one of the goals is to eventually build a modern food production system, why is the first step to building such a system asking people to raise chickens the same way our ancestors did in 1817? I understand that much of the infrastructure that makes modern agriculture possible isn’t available in many places and needs to be built. But isn’t there an easier way to put such a system in place without having to duplicate the industrial revolution?

    Even this only works if what the chickens need to eat has a lower value to the community than the chickens. It won’t work if the chickens need to be fed something like corn that may already be in short supply because it is being used to feed the community. Traditionally humans raised animals because they could convert something we couldn’t or didn’t want to eat (e.g. bugs, worms, grass) into something we did want to eat (meat). So for this proposal to work you still need a large supply of the former to get the latter.

    I strongly agree the answer is to diversify beyond livestock. Providing cash (our most liquid tradable asset) is a better way of helping these communities build the needed economic systems faster than chickens. As you indicated raising chickens is really just a relatively inefficient means for people to acquire the capital they need to begin participating in the modern economy (assuming they can be produced efficiently in excess, the chickens become a somewhat liquid tradable good).

    But while better than chickens, even cash will likely result in a lot of trial and error. Sometimes people will find effective ways to invest their money, but most of the time they will make mistakes and buy things that won’t work very well (even in the developed world, most new businesses fail). In a world where we already know what it takes to build most of what these communities need, what is the point? Do they really need to start at ground zero?

    If the goal is to help impoverished or limited opportunity communities begin participating more fully in our modern economic system (which requires the sustained creation of tradable goods or services), perhaps we need to be asking a different question. For me the question we need to answer is whether struggling communities, in order to become economically successful, need to start at the absolute beginning by creating low value products like chickens and moving up from there, or whether they can just skip directly to using at least some of the modern tools we in the developed world routinely use to create higher value products and services.

    For example instead of offering chickens, can we begin by just connecting these communities to a power grid? Does a decent road to the nearest city provide more bang for the buck? Is it better to first build clinics and schools so that the community has a workforce that is healthy and educated? How do we account for the synergies of doing some combination of all of these things?

    As you pointed out in your article, the research indicates that the poor are neither lazy nor stupid. They just lack access to good quality tools. So why don’t we just figure out how to get these to them?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions. But it seem to me currently well developed places like the US, Europe and Japan have been down this road before. Was the extreme poverty that once existed in most of rural America during the 1930’s really that different from the poverty we now see in Africa or Asia today? Did devastated post WWII Europe and Japan really have more capital resources to leverage than modern Central and South America? It seems to me the Marshall Plan involved doing more than just handing out a few chickens or dollars and wishing people good luck. If past efforts to deal with these problems were successful shouldn’t we, given greater resources and knowledge, be able to do even better today?


  2. Chris, Thanks for your musings over chickens and universal basic income. I wholeheartedly share your view that we need to systematically establish impact and outcomes of the various schemes. Then we will know how to put our efforts and dollars on the approaches that result in more of the desired impact. In addition to RCTs, however, L-IFT, a new research company, proposes to use diaries research. Through diaries research you can answer more questions (e.g. why certain change happens and, importantly, why some change does not happen). Diaries possibly answer impact and effectiveness questions faster than RCTs so programmes can begin tweaking and improving faster.
    It is L-IFT’s plan to offer combinations of RCTs and diaries in 10 countries by 2020. For now these are available in Uganda and Myanmar.

  3. Hi! Can we consider this article your report card on the letter this year, or will you still be grading it? I work at the BMGF and was looking forward to circulating your grade! :)

  4. I believe there isn’t one answer to solve world poverty, there are many solutions which need to be explored for the heterogeneous communities that we are working with. There is a need to look at the skills, resources and behaviours of every community before giving one-size-fits-all solution. It isn’t about whether Chicken Vs Cash is the solutions, maybe the solution is a combination of them both, the proportion of which is decided by the communities who have been given the knowledge, skills and tools to make the right choices for themselves.

  5. 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.

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