Good design ensures a poverty program’s success, not money

Here's Abhijit Banerjee talking about why aid programs fail, even when they have adequate funding:
The real issue is often in program design. Our endlessly repeated line is that details matter infinitely. The difference between successful programs and unsuccessful programs is not the sector, it is how you do it. Has the implementer thought completely about the reasons why a program might not work? In my experience, even when you talk to very competent, well-meaning organizations, that is the step where you see the biggest gap. Perhaps because the paradigms are easily available to jump into, the last mile thinking just doesn’t happen. Details unexpectedly and often in unfortunate ways determine everything. You get the details wrong and you got it all wrong. So we often end up ritualistically talking about big picture research, and how this didn’t work or this did work. But in practice those big picture issues probably do not matter. What matters is that some programs are well designed and some are not. Our goal very much has been to draw attention to the detailing of that. Take water – within water there are any number of special solutions, and then a couple of things that seem like good ideas. The most valuable work is not in distinguishing water from health, but in separating the many meretricious ideas that get lots and lots of coverage and turning them into practical programs that are not overly complicated or unnecessarily expensive. There is a tendency to think, “I have a hammer so everything is a nail.” Everyone has their own particular bias and everything has to go through that filter. Ideology is a huge reason why you get bad design.
Banerjee's colleague Esther Duflo recently won a MacArthur grant. Their lab, the Jameel Poverty Lab at MIT, uses randomized trials to determine which antipoverty programs are actually effective. Hope more people can start doing work like they are. UPDATE: Alex Tabarrok points out that the problems facing Africa today are the same ones they faced in 1938.

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