By Esther Duflo
The global financial meltdown exposed our unjustified faith in conventional solutions to social and economic problems. The recovery presents an opportunity to acknowledge our ignorance and learn how to learn.
Around the world, all kinds of people—entrepreneurs, teachers, activists, local government officials—are constantly trying out new ideas, from the commonsensical to the highly improbable. Many fail; some succeed. Either way, the rest of us usually don’t find out.
Consider the many programs being carried out by governments and organizations all over the world: disease-prevention strategies, school-reform initiatives, job-training programs. We could all be learning a lot from the results of these projects. But there is no systematic process for aggregating lessons from individual experiences. This is particularly true when it comes to social policy, where success is harder to measure than in commercial ventures. Randomized impact evaluations can help. But they require time, money, and expertise, which local actors typically don’t have. Rich countries sometimes evaluate what they do, but rarely learn from this wealth of experience about what they could do.
Progress in impact-evaluation is being made—especially in poor countries, where dozens of researchers have been working with NGOs to help them evaluate their projects. As a result, we know more than we did 10 years ago about what may work to help the poor, and we will know much more in 10 years. Governments can encourage this progress by funding innovative projects, under the condition that they are rigorously evaluated. France’s €250 million social experimentation fund and USAID’s development innovation lab are built on this model, and provide exciting templates about what the future could look like.
Esther Duflo, a professor of economics at MIT, is co-author, with Abhijit V. Banerjee, of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, due out in April.
Photo courtesy of flickr user NashvilleCorps.