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Defeat Poverty

Esther Duflo: Social experiments to fight poverty

One of the biggest obstacles we face in the fight against poverty is that all too often, we don’t know what works and what doesn’t because we don’t collect good data.

Watch the above TED talk, from award-winning economist Esther Duflo to see that it is possible to know which development efforts work and those which don’t, using the same process of experimentation and testing we use in science.

And, for a summary of the talk, read on...

Duflo explains how, by using a system of randomized controlled trials, we can take the “guess-work” out of aid. To make this real, she asks three simple questions and offers three simple solutions; how to immunize children, how to stop malaria, and how to get children into school?

The answers: lentils, bed nets and deworming.

Immunization is the most effective way of saving children’s lives yet millions of children still die every year due to preventable illnesses. So, what measures could we take to encourage mothers to immunize their kids, to make immunization a priority?

Duflo ran a randomized controlled trial in Udaipur, India so that she could answer these questions. After setting up three immunization camps, Duflo found that by giving mothers an incentive to go to the camps to immunize their children, and by making it easier for them to get there, the rate of full immunization increased from 6% to 38%. The incentive – a kilo of lentils for every child immunized.

Duflo also applied a similar system of randomized controlled trials to the use of bed nets to prevent malaria. Considering bed nets are the most effective way of dealing with malaria, should they be given away for free or should we ask people to pay for them, and what affect would this have on whether or not people buy them in the future?

The trial she conducted was in Kenya where different discount vouchers were given to people to buy bed nets in their local pharmacy. The trial showed that making people pay (any amount) for the nets, significantly lowered the amount of people who used them. But, regardless of how people got them, if they had bed nets, they used them. The trial also found that if people were given the nets for free, they were more likely to buy the nets in the future. This goes against claims that giving people stuff for free simply makes them dependent on handouts – it doesn’t, as Duflo says, people just get used to using bed nets.

The final question Duflo looks at is the best way to get children into school, a question aid agencies have always grappled with. After conducting another randomized controlled trial the evidence showed that if you educate people about the benefits of going to school, the number of years a child goes to school increases to an astounding 40 years for every $100 of aid spent. This is compared to a 1 -3 year increase using traditional methods such as providing food, scholarships or school uniforms. Duflo also found that in areas where there were intestinal worms, deworming the children got you an extra 30 years of education.

Results like these are exciting because they show us how a cheap and easy solution such as deworming or bed-nets are effective aid measures which significantly contribute to enabling people to reduce poverty in their own communities.

Duflo shows us how we can approach development projects in a logical, systematic way and she breaks down what is normally seen as a problem too “huge” to deal with, into bite-size manageable chunks. Her talk is incredibly inspiring and it gives us some amazing examples of how aid can, and does, work when done in the right way. Her work should serve as a reminder to us all that our goal of ending extreme poverty in a generation, is an achievable one.