Sunday, June 2, 2013

Towards a Value-Free Development Assistance Paradigm

The Planet Money podcast had an amazing episode last week interviewing a Good Samaritan who decided to build a new school building in a poverty-stricken village in Haiti. The episode stands out because the man, Tim Meyers, basically admits that his well-intentioned efforts were meaningless to the lives of the children he wanted to help, and possibly counter-productive for the broader development of Haiti due to perverse incentive effects. This comes on the heels of some new research showing the potential benefits of direct cash transfers to individuals as a development assistance program, as well as a new trend in charity of simply maximizing income and giving lots of it away (versus choosing a lower-paying job affiliated with the perception of moral virtue).

Underlying these three related stories is a strong emphasis on epistemic humility: social scientists and policymakers are increasingly aware of their inability to predict how interventions will play out in the real-world, which is filled with people and institutions all pushing their own agendas. The recognition that foreign aid is an issue with high "causal density" (i.e. lots of complicated factors interacting in often unforeseen ways) isn't new, but the identification of straight cash as an effective way to cut through much of the complexity that confounds the operationalization problem of development assistance is very exciting.

We'd all like to think that our pet theory of charity is the cleverest, but acknowledging that everyone has biases that muddle the connection between aid money and the lives of the people we're ultimately trying to help represents an important step in the history of global development.

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