MIT’s Poverty Action Lab: devising cost-effective development interventions

Development economist William Easterly has demonstrated convincingly that most “foreign aid” is ineffective, and often is worse than doing nothing (increasing corruption and dependence). E.g., see Africa’s Poverty Trap and Foreign aid vs. growth: Robert Lucas and William Easterly.

But there are effective interventions – so how do we discover how cost-effective various ideas are? That is the mission of J-PAL at MIT, created by French economist Esther Duflo. J-PAL is applying randomized controlled trials (RCT) as a key input to their cost-effectiveness methodology.

For an example, the above graphic summarizes the results of their Teacher Attendance & Incentives program. I like this example because it illustrates that some of the most effective ideas are simple and cheap. In this case, providing a basic digital camera to each village school

(…) Esther Duflo, a French economics professor at MIT, wondered whether there was anything that could be done about absentee teachers in rural India, which is a large problem for remote schoolhouses with a single teacher. Duflo and her colleague Rema Hanna took a sample of 120 schools in Rajasthan, chose 60 at random, and sent cameras to teachers in the chosen schools. The cameras had tamper-proof date and time stamps, and the teachers were asked to get a pupil to photograph the teacher with the class at the beginning and the end of each school day.

It was a simple idea, and it worked. Teacher absenteeism plummeted, as measured by random audits, and the class test scores improved markedly.

 FT has an interesting profile of Dr. Duflo (if you don’t mind reading what they had for lunch).

3 thoughts on “MIT’s Poverty Action Lab: devising cost-effective development interventions

  1. It’s good that it worked, but it’s bad that the teachers needed such motivation to induce them to work regularly. If teachers aren’t more committed than that, is their teaching really effective, or are they merely presenting themselves and doing as little teaching as they can get away with?

    I think that more study is required to find out just how effective the intervention really is.

  2. The attendance of Indian civil service teachers is well-known to be horrible. Quality is similar. That’s why many very poor families pay for private schools – it is the only chance for their kids. And the Indian state governments seem to be incapable of action. Actually, from most of what I read it appears that Indian governance is unbelievably dysfunctional, corruption is endemic. It does vary by state, and may be better in some urban areas – I’m not a student of the details.

    • A retired peace corps volunteer in Fiji told me about her experience traveling in India. She had to go to a bank to cash a traveler’s check. It required approval and signatures from an unbelievably large number of bureaucrats at the bank. It’s a wonder that they get anything done.

      Probably if it weren’t for the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies, India would be much more prosperous.

      Regarding foreign aid, I don’t disapprove of it, PROVIDED that it is carefully monitored and has short strings attached to ensure that it will be used for its intended purpose and efficiently, and not used to bribe corrupt officials. In some countries, a politician may be of modest means when elected but within a few years, he is extremely wealthy even though his salary is quite modest. That is the real reason for poverty in some countries.

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