Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Poor Economics: Doing the good in minute particulars

I am enjoying 'Poor Economics' by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo's - the founders of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (http://www.povertyactionlab.org/) - the home of the random control trial.

I enjoy the genuine sense of wanting to find answers to well-crafted questions and answers that are driven by data rather than ideology. The outcome is a continuing sense that you do the good in minute particulars (to quote William Blake), that there is no magic bullet to achieve a solution to poverty, only carefully crafted webs of solutions that edge forward, build cumulative knowledge and are open to more inquiry and surprise.

You can see how difficult that this is to achieve because the authors are as capable of slipping into received wisdom (and ideological drift) as soon as they step out of their field of enquiry. It seems an inherent natural trait to spin speculative narratives as soon as we can relax from the evidence (and many of us relax from the evidence all too quickly).

Now, of course, the poverty action lab methodology itself is not a magic bullet. It is expensive and time consuming to run. There may be moral imperatives to action that exclude the possibility of using 'control groups'. It works best when the questions are discrete - what is the best way to help the uptake of insecticide drenched mosquito nets or to have children vaccinated - rather than where the challenges are systemic and complex by their very nature and where we need to act into an unknown future - what are the best approaches to addressing climate change? 

However, at its centre, it is a heartening journey into helping people to recognise what it means to be poor and why people make the choices they make? For example, why would you (with a small increase in income) choose tastier foods over more nutritious. Answer because, like anyone, you want variety and status in your eating as well as 'health benefits'. For example, why would a poor family scrimp and save to buy a big TV screen? Answer because it provides the cheapest form of entertainment over time for your children. And so on...insight flows after insight into people's actual lived lives.

It is a book that humanizes the faces of poor people and shows us (the wealthier reader) that they are people both like and unlike us, given the different contexts and constraints in which we live, but always utterly human - the same admixture of intelligence and folly managing the hand they have been dealt the best way they currently know how. How better to deal that hand and to manipulate what is given is the theme of the book.

Finally, they have an enjoyable sense of pitching the Sachs (Jeffrey Sachs) and the Easterly (William Easterly) against each other - the 'left' and 'the 'right' of development thinkers - and showing how a greater attention to the texture of things and the realities of people's actual lives might be more effectual than their mutual posturing. 

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