How To Lift Families Out Of Poverty

NPR reports on an international study with a vital, yet surprisingly novel, goal: finding out whether or not humanitarian is actually effective for lifting people out of poverty. Despite the billions of dollars going into global aid of some form or another every year, there is an unfortunate dearth of data on what is most effective and how.

In response, a Yale university professor has teamed up with several humanitarian groups around the world (including MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action) to rigorously test poverty reduction programs with “the same method doctors use to test drugs (that is, randomized control trials).” Listen the result here or read the following excerpt:

They teamed up with a network of researchers and nonprofits in six developing countries. They went to thousands of communities and found the poorest families.

Then they divided the families into two groups. They gave half the families nothing. And the other half a whole smorgasbord of aid for one to two years. They gave them:

  1. Some livestock for making money, such as goats for milk, bees for honey, or guinea pigs for selling. “Depending on the site, there were different things specifically appropriate for that context,” Karlan says.
  2. Training about how to raise the livestock
  3. Food or cash so they wouldn’t eat the livestock
  4. A savings account
  5. Help with their health — both physical and mental

Karlan and his colleagues reported the results of the massive experiment in the journalScience this week.

So what did they find? Well, the strategy worked pretty well in five of the six countries they tried it in. Families who got the aid started making a little more money, and they had more food to eat.

“We see mental health go up. Happiness go up. We even saw things like female power increase,” Karlan says.

But here’s what sets this study apart from the rest: Families continued to make a bit more money even a year after the aid stopped.

“People were stuck. They give them this big push, and they seem to be on a sustained increased income level,” says Justin Sandefur, an economist at the Center for Global Development in Washington, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“What I found exciting and unique about this study is that the impact of the aid was durable and sustainable,” he added.

The results suggest that the right kind of aid does help people in multiple places. It lifted the families up just a little bit so they could finally start inching out of extreme poverty.

The researchers caution that while the data is positive, there is still a lot to be done. For starters, most recipients remained very poor, with incomes and food consumption together only increasing by around 5 percent on average.

Moreover, it is still unknown how sustainable even these modest bumps are, as the study only followed the results for a year after the aid stopped.

Even so, the findings are very important, as they show aid groups that fairly basic strategy can often work. Even a little bit of extra money can make a huge difference in improving families’ lives, whether it is allowing them to make gains in their nutrition or health, send their kids to school, or simple hope.

 

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