At my request, Public Affairs sent me an early galley of a book by Abhiji Banerjee and Esther Duflo from the Poverty Action Lab over at MIT. It’s titled Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, and I’ve been reading it for about a week now.
The authors bring analytical rigor to global charity by running controlled evaluations to determine whether individual programs actually work. For example, they’re running an experiment to find the best way to fight malaria with mosquito nets. Should they be given away so more people can have them? Should they be sold at full price so that people understand their value? Would a discount help? Once they’re distributed, do people use them? If not, why not?
Billions of dollars from governments and NGOs are donated every year for antipoverty projects, but it’s amazing just how little we know about how effectively it’s used. An important point the authors make is that there are two major schools of thought about foreign aid. Jeffrey Sachs and his allies argue for more aid, saying that without help, poor countries are likely to remain poor. Others, including William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, argue that foreign aid has failed for decades, that Western do-good missions in poor countries are ineffective at best, and motivated not by a desire to help but by misplaced guilt.
The authors of Poor Economics outline that debate, then move past it. They have a compelling argument that antipoverty programs can be effective if properly designed, and illustrate ways to test them to make sure they actually work. The writing style is accessible and engaging, but it’s not dumbed down or over-simplified. The complexity of the subject means that this book is taking me longer to read than other books, but I’ve found the effort genuinely rewarding.