Thursday, February 02, 2012

Can you really measure social transformation?

How can you assess the impact of a child sponsorship program? Is giving a community clean water or mosquito nets more effective? When we say we want to end poverty, how will we measure it?

A new breed of development economists are starting to use research and statistical practices from the medical world to measure our efforts in development and humanitarian projects. As a guy who likes more than anecdotes and case studies, I like it. As a person who wants to be a good steward of their donations, I like it. As someone who lived overseas and struggled to find unbiased info and get clarity, I like it.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite books from the last five years, Better, by an Indian-origin surgeon named Atul Gawande. His basic premise was: please please please, measure something! If we want to improve and use our short lives wisely, try to benchmark things.

A magazine article "Cost Effective Compassion" by a US economist I read last night takes this one step further. Using randomized controlled trials of people both inside and outside relief and development programs, he's learned to more accurately assess progress. Good stuff. And while child sponsorships still make economic sense for long-term development, I was interested to note the huge cost-benefit ratio of drilling water wells, de-worming, mosquito nets, and clean-burning stoves (in order of most effective to lesser). Unfortunately, giving laptops and animals, or drinking fair-trade coffee are things that make us feel good, but have a small impact.

Of course, all this is centered around culture: when you give the survey or ask the questions, will they understand what you mean?

UPDATE: I’ve since heard that some good books on the topic include “Poor Economics” by Banerjee and Duflo and “More Than Good Intentions” by Karlan and Appel. Behavioral economics has been popularized by the "Freakonomics" books as well.

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