What It Takes to Lift Families Out of Poverty

Friday, May 15, 2015

Eighteen years ago, Dean Karlan was a fresh, bright-eyed graduate student in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He wanted to answer what seemed like a simple question:

“Does global aid work?” Karlan says.

He was reading a bunch of studies on the topic. But none of them actually answered the question. “We were tearing our hair out reading these papers because it was frustrating,” he says. “[We] never really felt like the papers were really satisfactory.”

One problem was that no one was actually testing global aid programs — methodically — to see if they really changed people’s lives permanently. “They haven’t been taking the scientific method to problems of poverty,” he says.

Take, for instance, a charity that gives a family a cow. The charity might check on the family a year later and say, “Wow! The family is doing so much better with this cow. Cows must be the reason.”

But maybe it wasn’t the cow that improved the family’s life. Maybe it had a bumper crop that year or property values went up in the neighborhood. Researchers really weren’t doing those experiments, Karlan says.

So he and a bunch of his colleagues had a radical idea: Test aid with the same method doctors use to test drugs (that is, randomized control trials).

The idea is quite simple. Give some families aid but others nothing. Then follow both groups, and see if the aid actually made a difference in the long run.

Source: NPR (link opens in a new window)

aid agencies, poverty, poverty alleviation