Chris Blattman

Easterly on Duflo, Banerjee and Karlan

Unfortunately, the books also indulge another sort of irrationality: the demand for big, general statements even if you’re discussing limited, context-specific matters. The authors criticize over-promising and generalizing in the aid business, but they too often do their own exaggerating when it comes to what their methods can deliver. Both books end with overselling, “five key lessons” (Banerjee and Duflo) or “seven ideas that work” (Karlan and Appel), ignoring their own previous cautions about sensitivity to context and the limits to each intervention. Other economists criticize overselling as a common fault of those who do these small experiments.

But let’s extend the same consideration to these authors that they show for the people they study. They have fought to establish a beachhead of honesty and rigor about evidence, evaluation and complexity in an aid world that would prefer to stick to glossy brochures and celebrity photo-ops. For this they deserve to be congratulated—and to be read.

Article here.


One Response

  1. Easterly’s review is generally fair and I agreed with him in my own review that Karlan and Appel tend to oversell their conclusions. But I think Easterly should have acknowledged the distinction between the specific interventions recommended as Karlan and Appel’s “seven ideas that work” and the much more general “five lessons” suggested by Duflo and Banerjee, which seem useful reminders without being too prescriptive.

    I was also intrigued by the comment in the full review that “such field work also has the benefit of letting researchers chat informally with poor people”. I was reminded of one of your previous posts Chris pointing out that while sort of additional chat can be useful, it is not a substitute for doing rigorous qualitative research as well (

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