03/23/2012 03:10 pm ET Updated May 23, 2012

Revisiting Senegal After 40 Years

Current political debates about austerity and the role of government inevitably lead thoughtful observers to the questions: Do government programs work? How effective are they?

In the international arena, graduate students studying policies and programs to reduce poverty and inequality in developing countries routinely come across these questions as they learn about the international assistance for education, health, housing or water supply coming from the United Nations, the World Bank, governments and NGOs. Idealistic students also face these questions from their own parents and friends when they announce that they are going to work overseas in poor countries.

At the New School in New York, students in the Graduate Program in International Affairs (GPIA), decided they wanted to learn about the results of a large low-income housing and infrastructure project in Dakar, Senegal, which the World Bank supported 40 years ago, in 1972. Eight female students went to Dakar, Senegal's large capital city, for two months and lived near the project area. They had been intrigued by reading reports about how the first decade of the project had been troubled, with residents, the Senegalese government and the World Bank all disappointed with the slow implementation and what appeared to be poor results. They wanted to know firsthand why the project had apparently failed.

Their field research, however, demonstrated that, 40 years later, the project was an enormous success. More than 150,000 people lived in the area. Residents had improved their housing and infrastructure over time. Schools, markets and mosques had been built and teenage girls living in the area were attending secondary schools. The neighborhood, Parcelles Assainies, is now one of the most desirable quartiers in metropolitan Dakar.

The students were very surprised by their discoveries. When they returned to New York they contacted the UN and the World Bank to see if there were other cases of projects being studied 30 to 40 years after they inception. They wanted to know of other cases where early bad results had changed over time. To their astonishment, neither institution could find examples of long-term evaluation.

This conclusion led students to the observation that no one really knows the results of development aid -- even the critics such as Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, a book criticizing aid to Africa -- because no serious long-term evaluation has been done.

With this in mind, GPIA students have now begun to study a large urban environmental clean-up project being implemented by the Argentine government in the La Matanza Rachuelo river basin to the south of Buenos Aires. The GPIA has made a five-year commitment to send students to follow the implementation process and to establish baseline data against which future evaluation can be studied. The Argentine government has warmly welcomed the student research effort.

Working in this space between theory and practice trains students -- and citizens -- to ask better questions about what government is doing, what it can do, and how students can themselves become responsible agents of change.