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Tom Murphy

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Proven Impact: Better International Development Through Rigorous Research

Posted: 04/14/11 01:23 PM ET

Proponents of international aid will champion the many successes that have happened due to the implementation of interventions around the world. USAID Administrator Raj Shah warned that proposed FY2012 cuts to the program would lead to the deaths of 70,000 children. International aid is working, but we do not know why and what works best.

However, there do exist ways to begin to determine what works and what doesn't. Randomized control trials (RCTs) conducted in Kenya, India, Mexico, Philippines and other countries are helping to find out the most effective interventions. In his new book, "More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics Is Helping to Solve Global Poverty", Yale researcher Dean Karlan teams up with Jacob Appel to tell the story of how behavioral economics and RCTs are being used to put innovative solutions to work.

"We ought to find out where our money will make the biggest impact, and send it there...This isn't just about making better use of the money raised, but also about helping to convince skeptics, who think aid isn't worth giving, that development can work if done right,"
says Karlan in the introduction before revealing how he and other researchers have used RCTs in an effort to reach this goal.


Karlan and his writing partner, Appel, have crafted a book that is accessible to people who do not have a strong economics or development background. While it does read like a memoir from time to time, the first-person narrative makes the book more engaging; Karlan reveals his personality and passion, as he performs rigorous trials to create lasting impact.

As someone who has been following the work of Randomistas like Karlan and Esther Duflo, this is the kind of book that I can give to my parents to help them understand economic development. These stories will resonate with the readers.

Ivory tower images are often invoked when speaking of academics, but stories that introduce people like Anthony, who is looking for a way to finance his education, casually dispel such criticisms. The people affected by the tested interventions are at the heart of the book and the RCTs described.

As discussions about NGO's lack of accountability, like this one in the Wall Street Journal, become more prevalent, examples of how this is being achieved should be an equal part of the discussion. A good place to start is with Karlan and Appel's new book.


The teach-a-man-to-fish approach has been around for decades. The results have not been as universally great as one might hope. For natural-born fishermen, it can work. But the problem is that some people are bad at baiting the hooks; some can't cast worth a damn; and some don't live near a river with enough fish in it. Some people think fishing is plain boring. Come dinner, all these folks are out of luck. They can't eat rods and reels and lessons about casting. So what can this kind of development do for them?

"More Than Good Intentions" takes the reader around the world to find the solution to that question. In the book you will learn ways to get people to save money, how to make microfinance more efficient, and interventions that will get kids behind the desk and teachers in the classroom.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by Innovations for Poverty Action, the NGO founded by Dean Karlan. No specific requests were made or instructions given. Everything in the review is my personal opinion.

 
 
 

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