GPF – Measuring Development Impact

Rachel Glennerster blew me away here; her work as an economics researcher at MIT focuses on the scientific evidence of development impact. For instance, it turns out that clean water pumps alone don’t fix health–the water will get contaminated elsewhere in the process from ground to mouth. Also, most HIV education doesn’t work, however educating people about who is likely to have AIDS (e.g. prostitutes) drastically helps. There were also some indirect actions that had more impact than direct action. Giving away school uniforms drastically reduces HIV/AIDS transmission because it changes the atmosphere children live in and educates them about health in general.

Raj Desai also presented some counterintuitive evidence. Increasing access to education in Uganda caused school overcrowding and actually decreased the level of education attained; Haiti sacrificed overall health due to its intense fight against HIV.

So how do you help? Fight the basic needs and the rest will follow–for instance, the most effective way to get kids in school is to finance and implement de-worming programs. It’s hard to learn when you’re sick. Also, very small upfront payments can make a huge difference in the efficacy of programs. The researchers proved that a payment of 10 cents will get people to show up for their AIDS test results, and possibly prevent future spreading of the disease, when they wouldn’t have otherwise. Similarly, giving people dahl will get them to show up for immunizations–and actually saves money from the cost of a nurse traveling to everyone’s house individually.

The most important thing is to test problems, not projects. By testing projects, you may be ignoring negative side effects or possibly greater opportunities.

They gave a shoutout to the World Values Survey, which describes itself as “a place to learn more about values and cultural changes in societies all over the world.”

Finally, the speakers mentioned ways to apply their methodology to war prevention. How do you test if something prevents war? Since you’re testing the absence of something, you have to look at proven indicators of war–things that have caused war consistently throughout history–and measure the ability of anti-war actions to reduce or eliminate the expected conflict from the indicators.

The gut feeling I had several times during the panel was “that’s heartless! If you can do anything you think will help people who are suffering, then you should do it. Don’t experiment with lives!” But taking a longer view, the importance of finding the absolute root causes and most effective solutions to world problems–even though it might prevent some people in the interim “control group” from getting relief–is a more attractive proposition. I guess it depends on the urgency of the problem and the speed of the evaluation…but either way, this way of analyzing and fighting problems was fascinating to me.