Thursday, July 24, 2014

Summer Reading: Poor Economics

Over the past year in my diocesan ministry, with more time in a car than I ever had before, my "reading" has often become listening. That is, I've gotten into audio books. So I'm "reading" more than ever, but it's a different experience. Most recently I finished a nine-disk book -  Chaim Potok's The Chosen and before that it was Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe. 

Summertime, however, means turning paper pages again. The book I have just finished reading is Poor Economics, by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  Barerjee and Duflo are the co-founders of J-PAL, I was encouraged to read it by my son (who works for J-PAL) and I worried that it would be over my head - but in truth I found it very compelling. At the heart of J-PAL's mission is to use "randomized evaluations to answer critical policy questions in the fight against poverty."

The way a pastoral theologian like me would say this is that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." This aphorism (not found in the Bible, by the way) has two meanings. Perhaps the more normative meaning is that we intend to do something good but fail to act - because we procrastinate, or don't have the will because it's too hard. So we intend to get to the gym more but then other things fill our life and we don't...and it shows.

But there is a second, more nuanced meaning that I find compelling as I get older - and that is that the actions we do take, with all the best intentions, very often have unintended (and negative) consequences. We see this at every level of society. Parents, for example, who grew up with next to nothing want their children to have the opportunities they never had. Such an intention is holy and good - and yet sometimes the actions taken toward that goal end up producing self-centered, materialistic children who feel entitled.

The same can happen with churches and NGOs that want to "help" the poor - but very often with less than rigorous knowledge of (or even exploration of) the root causes of poverty and of any hope of measuring the real impact of our actions.

In 2000, my denomination adopted the Millennium Development Goals to "reduce, by the year 2015, the number of people who live in extreme poverty."  The goals are noble ones that include things like eradicating extreme hunger and empowering women and combating preventable diseases. A lot of the underlying assumptions are based on the work of Jeffrey Sachs, who wrote a book focused on ending poverty in our time.  One program that Episcopal Relief and Development got behind in trying to live into the MDGs was to buy mosquito netting for African children.

So back to the book I just read. It's important to say that Banerjee and Duflo are committed to the same end results: the subtitle of Poor Economics is "rethinking poverty and the ways to end it." They are development economists, not laisse-faire capitalists! Their goal, like that of Sachs et al, is to end poverty. But the key word there is re-thinking. They are committed to the evidence. So building schools for girls sounds noble, but what if you build the school and then find that girls don't attend it? Or what if you build the schools but don't have any teachers, or the ones you have aren't qualified? Or you haven't figured out what the curriculum should be: do you teach to the top 10% or find a curriculum that gives everyone basic skills for life? Or if fathers will not allow their daughters to attend the schools you build? How do you get at these underlying issues? Sometimes it's easier just to keep building schools...

Giving out mosquito nets to prevent malaria or condoms to prevent the spread of AIDs  is a great idea , but if people don't use them, then they don't help. It is not our intentions that matter!  The road to hell is sometimes paved with those! It is what actually happens that matters.

This book is not everyone's cup of tea. But in a world where ideology (on both the right and on the left) often trumps (or skews) the evidence, it seems to me that the work that these folks are involved in has implications much larger than in the field of economics! Their commitment is to finding what works and trying to figure out why.  They tend to avoid large, grand theories and instead focus on context: why did this work here, but not there? This requires patience and a willingness to sometimes be wrong...

I find myself wondering what would happen if congregations were willing to operate in these ways -  not of looking for some magic bullet but of trying new things and then asking, what happened? What did we learn? What worked and what didn't work? How can we test this again? What does the evidence suggest and where does it lead us next? This, it seems to me, is not only a strategy for re-thinking poverty but of living life.

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