IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • The datasets above all have the same means, SD, and correlations explain Justin Matejka & George Fitzmaurice of Autodesk in a modern update of Anscombe’s Quartet. But the lesson is the same – always plot your stuff. (h/t everybody)
  • Jobs postings: Summer jobs with Busara Center, full-year with Michael Clemens, and many at the IPA/J-PAL (and several other orgs) jobs portal.
  • Podcasts: Tyler Cowen talks with Cardiff Garcia on FT Alphachat about his new book on his philosophy of economics that he put online free, Stubborn Attachments. My takeaways:
    • A world of full-on Peter Singer effective altruists would be a world with no ice cream because every extra dollar above what one absolutely needs should go to alleviating someone else’s suffering. He doesn’t think that’s realistic to push for but does believe in a slightly scaled down version.
    • He also thinks people undervalue the usefulness of economic growth for alleviating suffering at large scale. So it may be more advantageous to invest a dollar in economic growth if it can alleviate 3 dollars’ worth of future suffering than in alleviating 1 dollar of suffering now.
    • Mainly, it was nice to listen to a conversation that looks at the big picture of how we should be thinking about using the tools of economics. It’s nice to imagine a world where economics draws more on philosophy than math.
  • Last week’s The Weeds discussed Dube & Harish’s paper looking at 500 years of wars, showing Queens were more likely to go to war than Kings (article about it from Pacific Standard). (h/t Dina Pomeranz)
  • How many people have to die for a disaster to make the news? One if it’s from a volcano, 2 from an earthquake, and 38,920 if from hunger (ungated here). Also, if it happens in an Olympic year, the chances of it making the news and getting disaster aid go down. (via Emily Troutman)
  • Using White House visitor logs, Brown & Huang find companies whose executives visited Obama’s White House were more likely to have stock prices go up in the following months (by about 1%), and to experience better regulatory treatment after meeting with federal officials. But those firms also took a bigger hit immediately after the Trump election. (Gated, article about in Bloomberg).
  • PubMed is adding in conflict of interest information on studies after abstracts, though research shows sometimes conflict disclosures can backfire for a number of reasons, including the perception of the conflict having been addressed, while the person receiving the information doesn’t sufficiently adjust for it.
  • Apparently (at least according to Wikipedia) in the years 1937-1942 there was another organization called IPA. A collaboration of social scientists, historians, educators, and journalists, it was devoted to flagging fake news. (h/t Colin Rust)

I don’t know why people think conflicts of interest are a problem. Ocean Spray was happy to be of assistance co-authoring a paper on the healthy effects of Cranberry Juice (which have been questioned elsewhere), and even helped out with the clinical trials registry (via that Vox article):






IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Chris Blattman & Stefan Dercon have an op-ed in the New York Times, reporting on their study with IPA and the Ethiopian Development Research Institute. They randomly offered poor workers in Ethiopia who were applying for factory jobs the jobs they wanted or an alternative entrepreneurship opportunity. Turns out the jobs were pretty bad – most quit and those that stayed weren’t any better off than those who never god a job offer (the entrepreneurs did pretty well though.) Similarly to what Chris discussed with Russ Roberts on EconTalk, they conclude that middle management and professionalization is really what’s lacking in industrialization, along with a more robust social safety net to support those looking for better jobs.
  • Jonathan Morduch presented new findings from Bangladesh. He, with Lee, Ravindran, Shonchoy, and Zaman, encouraged rural migrants who were going to cities to find factory work to use mobile money, and found it bumped up remittances to their families back home. There were all sorts of positive savings and poverty outcomes (but not consumption). Similar to what Blattman and Dercon found in Ethiopia though, this came at the expense of worse health for the factory workers.
  • Some podcast recommendations:
    • On FT Alphachat, Princeton economist Anne Case discusses her triad of papers that have made a big splash about the middle-age white mortality and “deaths from despair” (overdoses, alcohol, and suicide). (iTunes)
      • In addition to the actual findings, what was really interesting was to hear was how she and her co-author have searched for explanations by engaging with colleagues in other fields like sociology and medicine (many of the findings were out there separately, but hadn’t been put together systematically), as well as how they engaged productively with methodological critiques.
    • Freakonomics has a couple of episodes with a collection of big name economists (I believe the technical term is a Davos) to ask how they’d design a new economy from the ground up. But better is a few episodes back “Why is My Life So Hard” where they talk to a couple of experimental psychologists who asked – if we know how good gratitude is for well-being, why are people always complaining about what’s going wrong in their life? They dub it  “headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry” – we take the good for granted but always notice the bad – and go into some fun studies (in pairs of siblings, each thinks the parents treated the other better) then how to avoid the trap. (Part of their inspiration is Louis C.K.’s observation, that Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy, similar observations to what Max Roser and Hans Rosling have made about the general state of humanity.) iTunes
    • Ezra Klein’s interview with computer scientist Cal Newport, about taking your life back from technology in the age of distraction, was very good (iTunes)
    • The first and most popular episode of Finding Impact speaks with Liz Jarman of Living Goods about how their entrepreneurial model of healthcare delivery in Uganda is reducing childhood mortality significantly, and how the RCT data helped change the way they expanded into Kenya. (iTunes)
  • Automakers met this week with the heads of the EPA and Department of Transportation about rolling back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards, but a new paper finds that higher efficiency standards led to lighter cars, and fewer deaths in traffic accidents. Using the statistical value of a life, they argue the lives saved alone economically justify the higher standards:

    This result is critical for policy: our illustrative calculations suggest that CAFE standards are more likely to have positive net benefits once we account for the saved lives. Further, CAFE may have positive net benefits even if the value of future fuel savings is not included as a benefit.

    (h/t Alexander Berger)

When studies have suggested a gender gap in tenure, I’m not sure they were talking about The Gap actually having a women’s clothing line called “The Tenure Track Professor” (J Crew’s Assistant Professor line seems less than practical too). Still waiting for a men’s relaxed fit Tenure Track Suit. (h/t Laura Seay)


Do sweatshops lift workers out of poverty? This experiment might surprise you.


Expecting to prove the experts right, we went to Ethiopia and — working with the Innovations for Poverty Action and the Ethiopian Development Research Institute — performed the first randomized trial of industrial employment on workers. Little did we anticipate that everything we believed would turn out to be wrong.

Stefan Dercon and I have an op-ed in today’s New York Times.

The best tweet so far:

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer started an initiative to make government data from all levels very easy to access. So if you’re in the middle of a Facebook debate and want to know how much the government spends on healthcare versus defense, or how medicare is doing, or how many firearms are found at TSA checkpoints every year since 2005, you can find an easy chart at https://usafacts.org/
  • Owen Barder argues that it would be much more effective for poor countries to prepare for disasters in advance, just like everybody else does, by taking out insurance. In a new short briefreport, and CGD event video, he argues that setting up insurance would make responding to a crisis like an Ebola outbreak orders of magnitude cheaper. An automatic payout would mean a much faster response than the current system of starting fundraising after the disaster occurs, and could be designed in a way that works with the private sector and governments to incentivize better development (freeing up governments to build effective water management in conjunction with guaranteed protections in case of flood.)
    • This article was written by someone from the African Risk Capacity (ARC) insurance org, which does just that. It argues nobody heard about the drought in Senegal last year because Senegal had bought into the insurance pool, which helped it cope much more effectively than Somalia is coping now.
    • But Barder adds a cautionary tale about ARC from last year. Malawi had agreed to terms requiring a payout in the case of a drought affecting more  than 1.39 million people. While an assessment found over 6 million people affected, ARC’s computer models (based on satellite cloud imagery and previous years’ data) only computed 21,000 people at risk. (Though ARC did later make an $8 million payout after a household survey and concluding farmers were growing different crops than their model had assumed.)
    • I’m sympathetic to the insurers though. Economists Dean Karlan and Chris Udry told Planet Money about some of their problems setting up a rainfall insurance program to test in Ghana. Insurance requires very specific and objective (non-debatable) criteria to trigger a payout, which often doesn’t jibe with how individuals are suffering, and also good data from the past to estimate future risk, both of which can be hard where rain is fickle.
  • Jonathan Morduch was interviewed about his new book with Rachel Schneider The Financial Diaries, the result of them tracking every dollar spent by 235 low- and moderate-income households for a year.
  • An investigative piece in BMJ finds Coca-Cola tried to influence how journalists covered scientific research. According to the piece (gated), the company funded conferences for journalists to attend, through grants to the University of Colorado so the journalists didn’t know the true sponsor. At the conferences, they heard research emphasizing that obesity was exercise-related rather than about diet, in line with Coca-Cola’s marketing strategy.

This is my colleague David Batcheck’s last day at IPA, and he left me with a warning about “Big Data”

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Rachel Strohm has a new subscribable newsletter, “Africa Update,” which will have the kinds of links she offers on her blog.
  • Kenya’s high court has ruled that a third of parliamentarians must be women.
  • Daron Acemoglu has put up a 569 page PDF book of his political economy class notes.
  • Taxes are here, so this is your reminder that in other countries the government figures out your taxes for you and just sends you the bill. Here’s a comparison between Sweden and Wisconsin. But a Stanford professor spent a year and $30,000 of his own money hiring a lobbyist to try to get California to adopt a European-style pre-filled system. The pilot program was universally loved by participants but quashed thanks to lobbying by Intuit (maker of tax prep software) who argues that making taxes easier “minimizes the taxpayers’ engagement.”
    • Interestingly, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist makes the behavioral economics argument against it. He argues that putting tax prep on automatic would make it easier for the government to raise taxes. Print story at Priceonomics, and podcast version from Planet Money.
  • David Evans has a thoughtful blog post about what researchers owe study participants, citing the case of Nairobi sex workers, long of interest to HIV researchers. Researchers often come in and collect data with complex IRB consent forms and vague assurances that the participants are contributing to a greater good, but they rarely see any direct benefit. The Nairobi workers are following the example of the San people of southern Africa (another longtime target of researchers), and writing their own code of ethics for outside researchers to follow (h/ts also Seema Jayachandran & twitter discussion here).
  • It’s worth knowing the name of Vasili Arkhipov (above). The Russian submarine officer is credited with preventing World War III at the height of the cold war because he refused his captain’s order to fire their submarine’s nuclear torpedoes. Or as Robert Krulwich summarizes: “You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man.” The rest of Arkhipov’s story is also interesting, he would eventually die of complications from the radiation exposure he received while saving his previous submarine from a nuclear meltdown.

The banality of anarchy

A brilliant article on the emergence of “order” from anarchy:

For April Fool’s Day, Reddit launched a little experiment. It gave its users, who are all anonymous, a blank canvas called Place.

The rules were simple. Each user could choose one pixel from 16 colors to place anywhere on the canvas. They could place as many pixels of as many colors as they wanted, but they had to wait a few minutes between placing each one.

Over the following 72 hours, what emerged was nothing short of miraculous. A collaborative artwork that shocked even its inventors.

From a single blank canvas, a couple simple rules and no plan, came this:

There is drama. An epic war between Germany and France. And of course Dickbutt.

Then 4chan gets involved, trying to turn the entire canvas black: The Void.

Take, for example, the part of the canvas right in the center. Almost since the very beginning, it had been one of the most contested areas on the map. Time and again, Creators had tried to claim the territory for their own. First with icons. Then with a coordinated attempt at a prism.

But the Void ate them all. Art after art succumbed to its ravenous appetite for chaos.

And yet, this was exactly what Place needed. By destroying art, the Void forced Placetions to come up with something better. They knew they could overcome the sourge. They just needed an idea good enough, with enough momentum and enough followers, to beat the black monster.

That idea was the American flag.



Hat tip @arvind_ilamaran

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • ICYMI, there’s a famine affecting 20 million people across a number of countries. From the Guardian, here are some orgs helping (via Rachel Strohm, with the caveat that IPA doesn’t endorse any particular one).
  • Happy birthday to the great Development Impact Blog (one of their unsung accomplishments, often amazing discussions in the comments section).


  • As shown in the figure above, most nudges for changing habits wear off pretty quickly, except for home energy conservation (last box), according to a new paper by Brandon, Ferraro, List, Metcalfe, Price & Rundhammer.
  • A new study finds in the U.S. 1 in 10 pregnant women with Zika have babies affected by the impacts. This is likely an underestimate, based on limited detection of impacts at birth.
    • Some scientists speculate that Brazilians experienced higher rates of microcephaly than Americans because of an interaction with dengue, which is closely related to Zika.
  • VOA reports a shift in Kenyan families’ strategies to cope with drought – rather than marrying daughters off early to get a dowry, a combination of lower value of cattle (because of their dying in the drought), and social safety net cash transfers from the government has led more families to send their daughters to school. (also via Rachel Strohm)
  • There’s finally an (apparently) safe and effective male injectable contraceptive that’s completely reversible, but it’s having a harder time finding it’s way to market than you might think. (h/t Osman Siddiqi)
  • Think your students are annoying arguing about grades? A University of Texas government student got a “C” on a paper about constitutional amendments, so he got the U.S. Constitution amended (seriously, it took him 10 years, but he did it.)

I wonder, when GiveDirectly decided to do a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” with three cash transfer recipients in rural Uganda, if GiveDirectly considered what it would be like for them to watch Reddit users mansplain poverty to one another? Regardless, the internet did not disappoint with their questions:


And the debate between Chris Blattman and Lant Pritchett about giving cash vs. chickens got an M. Night Shyamalan-like conclusion:


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


Most of what I post here is blatantly ripped off from other people, if you notice the h/t’s you’ll see a few names account for a disproportionate share of really good links. I’m probably forgetting many, but for interesting sources these are a good start:

(And I assume if you’re reading this, I don’t have to mention Chris Blattman).

Two views on fighting world poverty



Not everyone like my idea for fighting world poverty.

Bill Gates wants to solve African poverty by helping more poor people raise chickens. So recently I wrote Gates an open letter in Vox asking him two things. First, consider cash, because chickens are probably not that great a gift to the poor. Second, we really don’t know who is right. But an awful lot of people would be better off if we invested in a little research to find out. I think $15 million would be enough to run a horse race between different ways of giving poor people stuff to help them raise their earnings: cash, chickens, training, and combinations thereof.

Yesterday Lant Pritchett expressed his bewilderment on the CGD blog. You should read the full post, but let me summarize in a few sentences.

First, Lant thinks that focusing on the very poorest is arbitrary. Official development goals and lots of programs target the people living under $1 or $2 a day, but people living under $10 a day are also pretty badly off.

Second, and more important, if we really wanted to alleviate poverty we’d focus on economic growth, and changing the systemic problems that keep countries poor. Anti-poverty programs like mine are band-aids.

I think Lant’s right and he’s wrong. We have to focus on the big picture and growth as a society, but I think there’s a strong argument for directly tackling the worst poverty now. Especially because we know how to do that pretty well. And we could do it even better pretty easily. More so than figuring out the secret to growth. I have a hard time imagining the $15 million research project that would affect country growth rates one bit.

Let me explain.

First, I agree with Lant that we can’t lose sight of the important goal: doing whatever possible to get economic growth rates up and steady in the poorest countries. But then, I’d argue that development economics is focusing on the wrong things.

The problem in the poorest countries today is first and foremost politics.  More people should be trying to understand what is up with Sudan or Nigeria or Afghanistan, and how societies like these can constrain their leaders and states; how states can build better bureaucracies, collect more revenues, and shape society; and how the risk of coups and conflicts and crises can be averted. And how US and European policy is partly to blame.

Currently that’s a niche area (to say the least). Lant has written about this topic more than most in articles I love and teach. And indeed I think the question of getting politics right is so important I teach a whole course on it.

I’m glad rich countries spend money on this. The UK’s development agency, DFID, is one of the few donors supporting this work on a large scale. I wish they would do more of it.

But that gets me to my second point: I would have a hard time convincing myself, let alone Bill Gates, that this is the first and best way to spend money.

This is partly because I’m not even sure money is the missing ingredient. I don’t know what the secret sauce is to be honest. I’ve seen DFID pour millions upon millions into research on the questions Lant likes. I’ve enjoyed reading many of the papers and reports. Others weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. But did any of them, even the best, ever have a direct impact on policy? I’m not sure anyone knows.

In spite of this, I’m glad DFID and others invest in it. But the best use of Bill Gates’ money? I doubt it.

The reason I like the research I propose is simple: I can see exactly how it will be used and how it will change life for a large number of people in a short period of time.

International organizations and governments give poor people a lot of a lot of expensive stuff to help them be less poor. Billions a year. Most of that money is wasted, because they give the wrong stuff. I think that could change.

In fact I’ve seen it change. In the last five years the cash and other program evaluation evidence has had a big impact on these “give stuff” programs, pushing them to be more efficient and better at helping some of the poorest. I think a couple of monumental studies would be an even bigger push for more governments and organizations to change. That is, I am betting that a $15 million study would change how hundreds of billions are spent. If I’m right, the marginal return to this investment is pretty good. I don’t know many better examples.

Does this kind of policy focus too much on people who are below an arbitrary threshold like a dollar a day? Maybe. If it does, I don’t have a big problem with that, because under a dollar a day is a really miserable place to be. It’s probably the place where an extra dollar of income per day will have the biggest impact on things like child heath and mortality.

Also, my impression is that getting someone from $1 to $2 a day is easier then getting them from $10 to 11.

The little utilitarian in me feels good about this.

It’s a moot point. The fact is, these kinds of “give stuff” programs go to the $1 a day and $10 a day earners alike. In the Syria region, the research has pushed organizations to give ATM cards and cash to millions of refugees. In sub-Saharan Africa it’s pushed governments to give cash out to huge swathes of the population to stimulate local development, including the “middle class” who seem to do quite well with some extra cash. And my hope is that in Latin America maybe the evidence would push governments away at least a little from ubiquitous middle class training programs that don’t work very well.

But just because I think the best use of Gates’ $15 million is my project, doesn’t mean I think all or most of development aid should go to poverty alleviation. Not surprisingly, the answer is we need to focus more on growth and direct poverty alleviation. I think Lant is focused on the totals we spend: the world spends too much on the worst forms of poverty now and not enough on growth and ending poverty in the future. That might be right. But it’s an argument that has to be made partly on faith, because it is very, very difficult to connect the salary of a growth economist to somebody’s life being better off in 40 years. I think growth economics needed a little competition and has gotten it, and will hopefully get better and rise again.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


Greetings from IPA & J-PAL’s global staff training in Kenya. It’s where new staff from all over who’ll be collecting and analyzing the data that goes into dev econ papers come for a week. They learn advanced STATA commands, sampling methodology, and good data publication practices – it’s the summer camp that band camp makes fun of. The best training session was probably the one with tips on how to communicate with economists.

  • A Brown University student created a visual guide to statistics, with interactive explanations of basic concepts like confidence intervals (above). You can change parameters like sample size and see how it would affect results over multiple draws.
  • A number of contributors summarize a lot of new research from the Centre for the Study of African Economics conference. They’re helpfully condensed into single sentences, broken down by topic and tagged by methodology.
  • And David Evans summarizes 35+ education(ish) papers he’s read over the past few months in usual pithy fashion.
  • An Africa trade and economics summit in Los Angeles had no Africans this year. All of the participants from African countries were denied visas. (h/t Faith McCollister)
  • When poor countries have a natural resource, it can often end up hurting the general population. The benefits accrue to the few in control and the political and economic conflict around securing that control can end up hurting the general public, a phenomenon known as the resource curse. A new paper concludes that the resource curse can happen even without the actual resource. In São Tomé e Principe, off the coast of West Africa, there was an expected oil boom in the late 1990s, while Madagascar had expectations of a sapphire discovery in the late 1990s followed by oil in the 2000s. Contracts were signed with outside companies, and even though the resources never materialized, the political upheaval associated with resource curses did. (h/t This Week in Africa)
  • A prominent Cornell behavior and food lab, known for headline-grabbing research on clever nudges for healthier eating, is coming under scrutiny. A student in the Netherlands reviewed papers from the lab and discovered 150 cases of impossible statistical findings or other inconsistencies. The researcher has refused to share the data behind the studies.

But that’s nothing compared to PizzaChartGate. Remember never to annoy the data viz community.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • IPA and the International Rescue Committee are teaming up to figure out how to reduce intimate partner violence in Liberia (where 36% of ever-partnered women have experienced physical or sexual violence in the last 12 months). We’re looking to hire a spectacular senior RA to start testing ideas from public health, psychology, and economics to see what methods work. Please see & share the full job posting here.
  • And the story of the grassroots campaign that helped elect Liberia’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (h/t Rachel Strohm)
  • Chris Blattman had an open letter to Bill Gates in Vox. Gates is committed to an ambitious goal of boosting chicken ownership in sub-Saharan Africa from five to 30 percent. But Chris points out that giving out livestock can be very expensive and risky, while giving out cash is cheap and effective. The crazy thing is that we don’t yet know which is better at fighting poverty, but we could find out if we wanted to.
    • I should add that my IPA colleagues are working on two efforts to find out in Ghana and Uganda.
  • Long read: Invisible Children, the group behind the viral Kony 2012 video, now operates an intelligence gathering network of radio operators in the DRC and CAR tracking the whereabouts of the Lord’s Resistance Army for military groups trying to hunt them.
  • And convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff is trying to use his lobbying skills to fight Boko Haram.
  • Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), the ethics boards that oversee academic research, are known for often having crazy and arcane bureaucratic hoops researchers have to jump through to get their projects approved. Everybody has a story like my anthropologist friend. She was working on her research in rural India talking to people about religion when she got a notification that her study was being halted. To restart it she would have to go to the nearest town where she could find internet access to watch a completely irrelevant series of long NIH videos on proper blood and tissue sample collection over the equivalent of a dial-up modem connection.
    • Now, a new regulation has gone into effect that could streamline the IRB process, making low-risk studies (such as those talking to consenting adults or recording in very public situations) exempt from review, but it’s up to universities to put it into effect.
    • The flip side of the debate though, is this discussion on a paper that paid online workers 50 cents for an hour of work, which seems a bit odd. I think this encapsulates the paradox of regulation; regulations have to be written for the .1% of bad actors, and end up constraining the other 99.9%. Or as one sociologist put it, “Social scientists identify a regulation they’re against.”
  • Dina Pomeranz does a great public service here starting a discussion thread on the stress and anxieties most academics cope with privately.

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.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Heard about Universal Basic Income (UBI)? UBI, UBI, UBI, UBI, UBI, UBI.
  • A sad but fascinating long read, on what happened with the refugee crisis in Greece. It was a languishing overwhelmed and underfunded system, until the photo of the drowned 3-year-old boy Alan Kurdi circulated around the world. Money and pressure to act poured in, turning Greece into the center of one of the most expensive humanitarian responses in history. Refugee resources and professionals typically work in situations with little infrastructure. In this case though, they were layered on top of an existing political system in a relatively well-off country and it ended up in chaos. (h/t Michael Clemens I think)
  • A really nice conversation between Annie Lowrey and Angus Deaton. They cover a lot of topics including how to tell if it’s better to be poor in a rich country or a poor country, opioids and life in rural America, and meeting President Obama after Deaton’s Nobel.
  • South Sudan created a famine by impeding people’s access to resources. A few days after it was declared, the government raised the visa fee for foreigners (such as aid workers) from around $100 to $10,000.
  • Political scientist Aili Mari Tripp asks why in African countries recovering from conflicts, like Liberia, Uganda, and Rwanda, women’s public status advanced quickly, achieving changes in a few years that took a century in Nordic countries. She concludes that having fewer men around allows women to move into more public roles, and peace accords provide opportunities to formalize women’s rights, among other reasons. (h/t Rachel Strohm)

There’s a new book The Parent Track, on balancing parenting and academic careers. No better PR than the video going around this morning:



IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Two new user-friendly briefs from my colleagues at IPA’s Financial Inclusion Program:
    • A common assumption is that a solution to many people’s financial problems (debt, undersaving, etc) is better financial education. U.S. financial firms alone spent $670 million/yr on financial education (much more if you include the governments and NGOs around the world offering it). But there’s pretty strong evidence that it almost never works. They offer 5 promising ideas for how to make it better – it’s fastest to just show the picture:FinEdAdvice
    • Another brief summarizes how to use three nudges that do work for financial health: commitments, defaults, and reminders.
  • A Norwegian news site is making readers answer questions to prove they read the story before commenting. (If twitter starts doing that with NBER abstracts/papers I’m in trouble).
  • Justin Sandefur says we don’t really know how badly students in many poor countries are doing in school because most of those kids aren’t represented on the big international standardized tests. As he says, “What gets measured gets managed, and for now, learning isn’t.”
    • His attempt to statistically link different math tests given in different countries suggests average math scores in lowest performing countries are well below the 5th percentile of the top performing countries. Paper here, sad picture via David Evans.
  • Nigeria’s The Guardian isn’t too subtle in their story that for the second year in a row the Mo Ibrahim Foundation failed to find a head of state to whom they could award their excellence in African leadership prize.
  • A psychology journal editor was asked to step down for refusing to accept any more papers for which the authors won’t share the data or explain why they can’t (he’s not).
  • Two economists found some new data on WWII German pilots, and looked at what public recognition of top pilots did for their fellow pilots. When a colleague was publicly recognized for their achievements, it boosted performance of their high performing fellow pilots, but led average ones to start taking more risks and get killed much more often. Keep that in mind when your co-worker gets promoted.

Why I’m a Universal Basic Income skeptic, especially for poor countries


New York Times published an article last week, titled “The Future of Not Working.” In it, Annie Lowrie discusses the universal basic income experiments in Kenya by GiveDirectly: no surprise there: you can look forward to more pieces in other popular outlets very soon, as soon as they return from the same villages visited by the Times. One paragraph of the article drew my attention in particular: “One estimate, generated by Laurence Chandy and Brina Seidel of the Brookings Institution, recently calculated that the global poverty gap — meaning how much it would take to get everyone above the poverty line — was just $66 billion. That is roughly what Americans spend on lottery tickets every year, and it is about half of what the world spends on foreign aid.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but that paragraph makes me think that if we just were able to divert 50% of the current foreign aid budget towards cash transfers, we would eliminate extreme poverty. But, is that really true? The answer is: “not even close.”

That is World Bank economist and blogger Berk Ozler. His reasons are here. The short answer is “it is very hard to know who the poor are, find them, and know how much to give them”.

I would have added a couple more points. One is that we don’t really know what will happen when we scale up seemingly successful anti-poverty programs.

Also, I doubt there is long term political support in rich countries for a UBI for the poor, even if it were cheaper and more effective than our current aid programs. Mexico is already trying to figure out ways to get out from under the financial burden of its famous conditional cash transfers program. It’s such a big behemoth of a program that cash transfers draw more attention than the accumulation of many smaller but worse programs. They’re also unpopular among some. UK newspapers are already waging wars against Britain’s excellent cash transfer programs.

A successful UBI program for the poor has to find some political insulation, and have some paths for people to graduate out of it by getting wealthier.

My last comment: has no one reminded the “end of work” people that we’ve heard this claim every 20 years since the sewing machine and combine were invented? It’s possible that robots and AI mean it will be different this time. But I do not see the early warning signs. If structural unemployment will eventually be 60%, then at some point it will need to be 20%, and I don’t think we are even close. Wake me up when we see that happening.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


There have been a few related things over the past couple months that all get at this tension between how applied/practical vs. theoretical policy-related research should be:

  • At the AEA Ely Lecture in January, Esther Duflo suggested economists should be more like plumbers, tinkering and adjusting, concerned with the details. For example, whether a voucher system works can really come down to the nitty gritty. The theoretician focuses on whether a voucher is a good idea, but in practice, lots of tiny decisions, like how the voucher is distributed, and what kinds of information the designer chooses to put on the voucher can make the difference between whether the program works or not. Papers rarely even discuss those kinds of day-to-day details of a program, but she argues if the field wants to make a difference, details matter. Video and print versions available here.
    • Beatrice Cherrier puts it into historical context, including the “physics envy” some use to describe the fields’ march towards more complex mathematical models in recent decades.
    • Side note: In Cherrier’s interview on the Economics Rockstar podcast she talks about tracking how the MIT model of highly quantitative economics came to be so popular in the U.S. along with using The Wire as a teaching tool.
  • For another historical alternative model of how to think about economics, see The Economist’s article on the history of the Cambridge school of economics. The thinking there was less concerned with mathematical models and more with training economists who’d understand the social and political contexts in which their work would be used.
  • In Nature, Duncan Watts asked “Should social science be more solution-oriented?” He cites an organizational scholar’s likening of that field to the Winchester mansion in California, based on a dream the rifle company heiress had:

    Because the dream didn’t specify any particular plan for the house, however, she embarked on an open-ended construction project in which hundreds of rooms, stairwells and other elements of a normal house were added over nearly 40 years of continuous construction with no overall objective other than to keep building. The result was an agglomeration of components, each of which was individually well-constructed, but that did not cohere into any sort of functional whole: stairways ran directly into walls, doors did not open, stained glass windows were installed in interior rooms with no light exposure, and so on. In Davis’s view, organizational science has the same problem: although each individual contribution must comply with strict disciplinary standards, no attention is paid to how all the contributions fit together; as a consequence, they do not.

He suggests a solution in which research contributions are judged not on their theoretical contributions but on how well they actually solve a social problem, the way prize-oriented contests do (such as the Netflix or SpaceX challenges). This would also incentivize cross-disciplinary collaborations.

  • What might this look like? Take a look at the New Yorker profile: “Can Behavioral Science Save Flint?” It’s a very engaging ride-along with cognitive scientist Maya Shankar, of the Obama White House Behavioral Sciences Unit. In the waning days of the Obama administration she got on a plane to Flint, Michigan, and worked tirelessly to try to resuscitate the relationship between health officials and residents who’d been hurt by their governments’ poisoning of their water. (A literal plumbing crisis ruining thousands of lives.)
    • She started with listening to the problem and to the affected people, then brainstorming on what tools from the social scientists’ toolkit might be able to help. It’s a very inspiring read about what social scientists can do.