Development economist William Easterly has demonstrated convincingly that most “foreign aid” is ineffective, and often is worse than doing nothing (increasing corruption and dependence). E.g., see Africa’s Poverty Trap and Foreign aid vs. growth: Robert Lucas and William Easterly.
But there are effective interventions – so how do we discover how cost-effective various ideas are? That is the mission of J-PAL at MIT, created by French economist Esther Duflo. J-PAL is applying randomized controlled trials (RCT) as a key input to their cost-effectiveness methodology.
For an example, the above graphic summarizes the results of their Teacher Attendance & Incentives program. I like this example because it illustrates that some of the most effective ideas are simple and cheap. In this case, providing a basic digital camera to each village school:
(…) Esther Duflo, a French economics professor at MIT, wondered whether there was anything that could be done about absentee teachers in rural India, which is a large problem for remote schoolhouses with a single teacher. Duflo and her colleague Rema Hanna took a sample of 120 schools in Rajasthan, chose 60 at random, and sent cameras to teachers in the chosen schools. The cameras had tamper-proof date and time stamps, and the teachers were asked to get a pupil to photograph the teacher with the class at the beginning and the end of each school day.
It was a simple idea, and it worked. Teacher absenteeism plummeted, as measured by random audits, and the class test scores improved markedly.
FT has an interesting profile of Dr. Duflo (if you don’t mind reading what they had for lunch).