The logical failure of development programs

The current best practice in development is to conduct rigorous evaluations to determine how well different interventions work, and to pick the ones that are the most cost-effective. It is entirely right and good that we should do this; without question, it beats the old method, still common in some circles, of just assuming that an approach is a good one and running with it. I identify strongly with this movement, which can loosely be described as the RCT approach (or the “randomista” camp) and in no way want to see it fail.

If anything, it still has a ways to go in winning over the broader development community. To pick one example, many people are convinced that a lack of access to sanitary products – things like menstrual pads/cups or tampons – are a major limiting factor in girls’ school attendance and success in poor countries, and so providing these things will help girls stay in school and excel academically. My advisor thought that might be the case as well, and so in this paper with Emily Oster she tried it out in Nepal, to see whether that approach works. The answer is a fairly resounding “no” – the girls liked the menstrual cups and used them, and benefited in other ways, but school attendance was unaffected. That has not stopped tons of NGOs from still focusing on this intervention (and they still insist it will help with school attendance). The impact evaluation movement still has much work to do, especially in publicizing its results – it’s pretty frustrating to see people cling to approaches that don’t work.

But I look at most of the projects people evaluate, including the ones I work on myself, and my perception is that they won’t really do what we want them to. What we want, really, is “development” – an improvement of people’s lives. Sen notwithstanding, there is now a strong consensus that that means reducing poverty. It is very hard, if not impossible, for people living on less than dollar per day to improve their lives in the ways that really matter, like health, education, and improving their living conditions. So people need more money, that is, larger incomes.

Most of the poor people in question are subsistence farmers in rural parts of the tropics, especially Africa. That means that anything that really promotes economic development – with all its attendant benefits in health, education and happiness – needs to either 1) increase the income people get from farming or 2) involve them substituting from farming into something else. Those are the only options, plus some convex combination of the two. If neither occurs, incomes cannot rise.

Pure logic has taken us this far, but with a little practical knowledge we can go further. First, the only real way to get more income from farming in a place like Malawi is to improve the productivity of a given patch of land. Most of the arable land is already in use. So we’re talking about increasing per-acre productivity here, and nothing else. Second, in rural Africa farming is pretty much the only game in town. Around this area some people fish, but in most places even that is rare, and in any case probably can’t be increased sustainably; people already catch a ton of fish in the local lake. Not farming, then, means going someplace else.

The two options for improving livelihoods for most of the world’s poor are therefore either improved agricultural productivity or people moving away from the countryside, i.e. to cities. If that sounds familiar, it probably should: every industrialized nation that I can think of has follow this exact path. Many people migrate to cities, while a few take advantage of massively improved productivity on farms to grow tons of food with few workers. Everyone gets much richer. The transition from rural to urban can be ugly and painful, but we forget how ugly and painful the status quo is: subsistence farming is hard, dangerous, and not really getting much better.

It’s hard to see how most of the projects people work on or evaluate could possibly help people either produce more from the soil or get out of the countryside. Raising incomes isn’t the be-all of development; it’s worth helping people even if we can’t permanently solve their problem. But we should look harder at ways to improve farm productivity, and, much more important, help people move to places where there are other jobs.

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