Can Three People End Global Poverty?

J-PAL is going to change the way we think about poverty. Fast Company writer Ryan Blitstein takes a closer look at the three person team (two women and one man) who are casting a critical eye on development theory.

The Fast Company article begins by outlining the grim reality of our current aid situation:

Every year, wealthy countries and donors ship billions upon billions of dollars in aid to the developing world. The money has not bought prosperity: Diarrhea still kills 1.5 million children annually. More than 210 million kids work when they should be in a classroom. Polio, which had once been eradicated in all but four countries, is spreading across Africa again. Some 2.6 billion people have no access to modern toilets. And more than 1 billion people don't have enough to eat in 2009, setting a new record.

Why? From an unremarkable old building overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a trio of MIT economists is leading a remarkable global movement that's working to find out. "A lot of money gets spent by well-meaning people with no idea what they're doing," says Abhijit Banerjee, who has spent much of his career studying corruption. "It's wasted."

Obviously, much of the money that goes to help the developing world is not being used effectively. But what's not so obvious is how all that money should be spent. That's where the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) comes in. Led by the Indian-born Banerjee, Briton Rachel Glennerster, and Esther Duflo — a Frenchwoman who just won a MacArthur genius grant for her work on poverty — this global network of researchers has one joint ambition: to transform the living conditions of 100 million poverty-stricken people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Within the next five years. On a budget of barely $10 million. While building development models that could eventually effect change for billions more people.

J-PAL's work is vital because of their intention to question commonly held assumptions, and to use research to determine if a particular course of action results in a certain result. This may seem basic, but quite often, theorists develop their ideas and implement them, without going back to evaluate the effectiveness of a certain program. J-PAL manages a network of affiliated researchers around the globe, tasked with gathering data and sharing their results with the group.

Thanks to J-PAL and their affiliates, certain ideas that are taken as truth are being reconsidered. In a small village in India, a research team discovered that the conventional wisdom said that local parents were afraid immunizations would sicken their children further. However, research showed that with a small incentive (in this case, a small bag of lentils per visit) dramatically improved immunization rates. In another study, J-PAL researchers discovered that the traditional practice of charging people nominal fees for insecticide-treated bed nets, deworming drugs, water chlorination services, and HIV testing was a discouraging factor, when many organizations assumed that people would value these things more if they were provided at a nominal fee.

The J-PAL method is not without criticism. Blitstein notes:

The notion of experimenting on the poor can be unsettling, evoking shades of past scientific scandals like the Tuskegee Study. Duflo, who is working on projects in five countries, counters that the billions of dollars being spent by governments and donors to fight poverty are tantamount to experiments anyway, so better to have experts watching over them, implementing scientific methodology and gauging whether they actually work. "With precautions in mind, we believe that not experimenting is what is unethical," she says. "If you scale up a policy that does no good, or even some unintended harm, or if you do not adopt a policy that could make a great amount of good, this is when you are carrying out gigantic experiments on people's lives. And that should not be acceptable."

The more common — and more valid — criticisms cut to the heart of the way J-PAL researchers study and interpret their trials. Several well-known economists have raised questions about the randomized controlled approach, citing long-standing criticisms of clinical medical trials by the Nobel-winning University of Chicago economist James Heckman. Though the arguments are math-heavy, the concepts are straightforward: It's difficult to prove that a small-scale experiment in one village applies to another town with another culture in another country. And while trials describe the effects of a program on a population, they may fail to explain why some people are affected more than others or are impacted negatively. Overly focused experiments may be dismissed as little more than program evaluations, salves that address poverty's symptoms without aiding understanding of its root causes.

J-PAL, however, is confident that their system will be beneficial in the long run. Their focus on smaller, individual experiments allow them to determine patterns - and their hope is to reshape the idea of of a problem, which will eventually work toward discovering lasting solutions.

(Image Credit: Doug Menuez for Fast Company)

Which Poverty-Fighting Policies Work? J-PAL Has the Answer [Fast Company]

Earlier: Nick Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn Talk Half The Sky With Oprah