Note: I had to restore my site from an old backup to solve a link injection problem. I had to republish this post, and lost all the great comments. I’m sorry!
A subscriber to the International Development Careers List asked me a question that really wasn’t about jobs the other day. I figured I’d answer it here, on the blog, instead of on the list. He asked me
“Reading on to all the writing around how we “don’t know” how to solve / what works for global poverty/issues and that to some degree a lot of the agencies are just trying out methods?”
If I parse the question correctly, he wants to know – are development organizations just making all this up? If we don’t know what works, then why are we doing it?
This is where I stop to point out that I am not a development economist. I am not an economist at all. I took four college-level classes in econ as an undergrad, and I’ve spent the last decade and a bit working for development projects. So all I have is a gut feeling and a resume. That being said, I do think about this stuff. As does almost everyone I know who works in this field.
I don’t think that anyone is making their programs up. I think that sometimes we delude ourselves about the quality of our evidence. We are so sure we have the right approach that we start mistaking all our intermediate results for actual impact. So a lot of programs end up based on doubtful evidence. Especially big, broad-based programs intended to reduce poverty or achieve some other massive societal goal.
Even if you’re committed to making all decisions based on evidence, it’s hard to measure if that kind of program works. We can end up using proxy measurements that may or may not be accurate.
Next, I think we have evidence for a lot of smaller, targeted programs. We know how to improve child survival. We know how to improve school attendance. We know how to improve the agricultural productivity of small farms. We know quite clearly what it takes to do specific things that we hope will then reduce poverty. We just don’t know that these kinds of specific things actually do reduce poverty.
In the end, I am not sure it matters. While we shouldn’t fund poverty reduction programs if they don’t actually reduce poverty, that argument doesn’t hold true for, say, bringing down the maternal mortality rate. Fewer dead mothers is an inherent good. I don’t really care if it also helps with poverty reduction.