Six months after leaving IPA for Berkeley, I’ve found myself thinking less about the uses of RCTs and more about the big picture questions of what the governments of low income countries and aid agencies ought to be focusing on. I’m still a huge fan of RCTs for policy evaluation, and believe that there are many evidence gaps that need to be filled in. I’m also impressed by the work that organizations like AidGrade and GiveWell are doing to synthesize existing research and compare cost effectiveness across interventions. However, there’s a more basic question that isn’t answered by these organizations: if you know that both cash transfers and school-based deworming are effective, how do you decide which to prioritize? And how do either of these compare to the benefits of building a road, or restraining a military prone to abusing civilians? Even with better evidence now available for many interventions, choosing among them is still at heart a political act.
Below are some of my admittedly impressionistic thoughts on what I think it would be effective for various development actors to prioritize this year, sorted by the type of actor they pertain to. They don’t include some seemingly basic development priorities, like building stronger education or health systems, because nearly everyone already has a strong commitment to that. Read this in light of Nancy Birdsall’s and Beth Schwanke’s development wish lists for 2014 at CGD, and tell me what you think.
Governments of low income countries + aid agencies
- Quick hits: Chlorine dispensers for rural water supplies, which are cheap to install and only require occasional maintenance. Changing regulatory environments to support the expansion and interoperability of mobile money services, which offer low-cost access to financial services through existing phone networks. Substituting conditional or unconditional cash transfers for most other types of asset transfer, unless the asset in question can’t be accessed on the local market.
- Medium term: Transport infrastructure, since markets and public services all follow the roads. Early childhood interventions aimed ensuring healthy pregnancies and reducing stunting, since programs aimed at building cognitive and social skills early in life appear much more cost effective than later interventions.
- Big picture: Reducing flows of light weapons, since civil wars are disastrous for development, and it’s not otherwise feasible to try to prevent every discontented or opportunistic militia leader from rebelling. Building administrative capacity.
Governments of high income countries (note that all of the below are very politically challenging)
- Substantially expanding migration quotas for low-income countries. Remittances have substantially outstripped official development assistance or private philanthropic giving to developing countries for the last fifteen years (see figure 1). There’s also considerable evidence that migration is good for the receiving countries’ economies as well.
- Ending agricultural subsidies, which promote poor nutrition at home and hinder developing countries from using one of their largest economic sectors, agriculture, to compete in global markets.
- Preferential trade agreements for low-income countries. Industrialization is an inescapable step on the path to economic growth, despite how little attention it receives in the development community, and giving developing countries incentives to invest in export industries is important.
Residents of low income countries (obviously not speaking from experience here, so please tell me if I’ve made a foolish point or missed something important)
- Organize! It could be around any issue that seems important, on the local, provincial or national level. This is probably so obvious that it goes without saying, since loads of people are already doing it around the world, but it’s clearly a priority.
- Vote, even if it doesn’t seem likely to change the result of the election.
- Keep writing, speaking, and sharing your opinions. The other three categories of actors here all need to be much better about listening to people who live in low-income countries outside the narrow formats of participatory development programs, and the more people who are writing op-eds and engaging in debates on Twitter, the better. (There are also clear power dynamics in simply being able to engage in any debate online, in English, and the broader questions of internet access, literacy, and translation that this touches on should be acknowledged here.)
Residents of high income countries
- Push your elected representatives to support the three policies discussed above, or support advocacy organizations in these sectors. Historically speaking, it’s a pretty incredible privilege to get any voice in government decisions, and the chance to push for better development policies shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. Within the US, you can find your state and national representatives here. Michael Clemens has recommended two US-based organizations supporting immigration reform to me: FWD.us and Partnership for a New American Economy.
- Make donations to evidence-backed non-profits. Both Giving What we Can and GiveWell have useful recommendations, especially for US-based NGOs. I’m going to support GiveDirectly this year.