Poverty Fault Lines: Towards an Understanding Persistent Poverty

Some of the biggest (and perhaps most meaningless) news is in the cycle again. In late September the world leaders signed an ambitious pledge to “eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere by 2030”. Next, the World Bank “moved the goalposts” by increasing the global poverty line from $1.25 per day to $1.90 per day. This is big news because it’s important to understand why these sorts of things happen, but it’s potentially meaningless because these ambitious pledges and new definitions don’t effectively change anything for those actually living in poverty around the world.

I don’t want to write about why the World Bank redefined the poverty line (that has already been written about, in depth). I want to write about what poverty lines tell us, what they don’t, and how they can be improved.

Poverty lines allow us to define a population as “poor” and “non-poor” at a single point in time. By establishing a money metric poverty line and collecting data on household consumption or expenditures or income researchers and policymakers are able to calculate the proportion of a given population that is (strictly speaking) poor. Furthermore by using the standard Foster-Greer-Thorbecke measurements we are able to calculate both the extent and depth of poverty within a population. To be clear, these calculations (done well) are very informative and useful. When representative surveys are repeated we are able to understand the evolution of poverty within a society over time.

However, this sort of poverty measurement is unable to disentangle two very different types of “the poor”. Take an example from Carter and Barrett (2006):

Say, a 33 percent poverty headcount ratio could reflect a society in which the same one-third of individuals are persistently poor, period after period. In such a society, poverty would be experienced by only a minority, but intensely and indefinitely for those unlucky few. Alternatively, repeated observations of the same headcount could reflect a reality in which poverty is a purely transitory phenomenon in which individuals routinely swap places on the basis of random outcomes, or perhaps based on age or other demographic process. Over time, all households would be poor one-third of the time, thus all would share the burden of poverty equally and only for a minority of the time.

Clearly these two types of societies are very different. In the first we’d be worried about hopelessness and fatalistic behavior in a relatively large subgroup of the population. In the second, poverty is simply a step on the road to prosperity. A typical poverty line measurement can not distinguish between these two extremes. This is a problem if you’re a policymaker who cares about this distinction and wants to inform policy to prevent the first case from obtaining.

One way of working around this problem is repeatedly surveying the same exact households, but this method is commonly hampered by challenges tracking down households period after period. If the panel is rife with attrition, even the fanciest analysis won’t be able to draw reasonable results. Even if we were able to find the same exact households year after year after year, there would still be issues. Simply observing a transition out of poverty is unsatisfying to policymakers because we fail to understand how the individual transitioned out of poverty. Some may have transitioned due to good or bad luck others because they have accumulated a new set of assets and their private returns are now enhanced. Again, the implication for policy between these two transitions out of poverty are drastically different.

To overcome these issues Carter and Barrett (2006) and Barrett and Carter (2013) suggest including a dynamic asset poverty line. Identifying this so-called Micawber Threshold allows researchers and policymakers to distinguish between who is likely to escape poverty on their own given the correct amount of time and who is effectively trapped in poverty.

While none of this is new, it bares importance in light of all the discussion about the United Nations “Sustainable Development Goals” and the World Bank’s new definition of “extreme poverty”. It is only by empirically identifying this dynamic asset poverty line will we actually be able to understand the moral and economic efficiency imperatives of poverty in our world today and into the future.

References for further reading:

Barrett C.B. and Carter M.R. (2006) “The Economics of Poverty Traps and Persistent Poverty: An Asset-Based Approach” The Journal of Development Studies, 42 (2) pp. 178-199.

Carter M.R. and Barrett C.B. (2013) “The Economics of Poverty Traps and Persistent Poverty: Empirical and Policy Implications” The Journal of Development Studies, 49 (7) pp. 976-990.

Kraay A. and McKenzie D. (2014) “Do Poverty Traps Exist? Assessing the Evidence” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28 (3) pp. 127-148.

Reforming Global Food Aid

A small but important slice of the US federal budget contributes to global food aid intended to help the hungry around the world. Recently the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a forum to discuss reforms. The panel of experts included former US Secretary of Agriculture Glickman, former Chief Administrator of USAID Dr. Rajiv Shah, Professor of Applied Economics at Cornell University Dr. Chris Barrett, and President of Bread for the World David Beckmann.

Here’s a brief summary of the points made by each of the panelists:

Mr. Glickman:

  • Providing food to those in humanitarian conflicts is extremely important.
  • The US historically has provided about half of global food aid.
  • The food aid program no longer provides benefits to the American agricultural system as it once did.
  • Therefore reform of US global food aid will not negatively impact US farmers.

Dr. Shah

  • We have evidence that cash vouchers saves more lives and is much more effectives than sending food abroad.
  • US global food aid needs more flexibility to meet the needs of any given humanitarian situation.
  • Our discussion today is possible due to the ability to test and collect data.

Dr. Barrett

  • The current restrictions on US food aid waste tax payer money at a human cost.
  • Inflation adjusted US food aid has decreased by 80% since the 1960s.
  • The evidence is clear: the most effective way to help hungry people around the world is by providing cash, electronic transfers, or by purchasing food locally.
  • Every dollar spent on US food aid generates only 35-40 cents of food purchased. The rest goes to shipping and handling. For sake of comparison Canada gets about 70 cents to the dollar spent on their food aid.
  • This translates to a conservative estimate of 40-45,000 children’s lives lost per year.

Mr. Beckmann

  • The world is experiencing a current surge in humanitarian need and the resources are not keeping up with the need.
  • Food aid is no longer important to American agriculture. What is important to American agriculture is the vast reduction in hunger and poverty
  • The progress we are making globally in reducing hunger and poverty is nothing short of remarkable, but the job is not done.

International Migration and (you guessed it) Hope

After my last post, my grandpa left the following comment:

My father experienced some of the kind of poverty you write about when he was growing up in the Netherlands. The “hope” factor for him was emigrating to the USA, for which I (and you) owe our very lives…

Thanks grandpa!

This brings up an important point that (a) was backed up by ALL of the households I visited in the rural areas of Myanmar (b) has implications for voters in the United States and other Western nations and (c) for full disclosure, confirms my priors on the topic of immigration.

Migration is the most effective poverty alleviation method on the planet ever. Full stop.

Consider this. I visited households in six villages in one region of Myanmar. We talked to people at random and every household had someone in their family who was living or had lived abroad. Most of the time the family member was in Thailand. It is relatively easy for someone from Myanmar to broker a deal to get into Thailand, even if it is illegal. (I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but it is not difficult to imagine that these desperate migrants would be super-vulnerable to human trafficking.)

One household had a son who had even made it to the United States as a refugee and was working in a fast food restaurant. He was sending back remittances and they were the richest household in their village.

Think about that for a second. Their son is working in the United States in a fast food restaurant (probably making minimum wage in a job most Americans above the age of 17 wouldn’t accept), he sends back his excess income, and they are the richest household in the village…

This story and my own family history demonstrate the transformative power of international migration.

Dani Rodrik (an economist at Harvard) is writing a book on the economic and moral imperative to open our borders. Here are some striking figures:

Letting someone migrate to the West does so much for their wealth, at so little cost to Western workers, that we (the West) have to care about a random person inside our borders five times as much as someone on the other side to justify not letting the outsiders in.

Or we have to value whatever we think we get from closed borders (protecting the culture) so much that we’re willing to deny other human beings a path from poverty.

So here’s the point:

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll remember that psychologists say hope is comprised of three elements that interact and feed off of each other: goals, agency, and pathways. Therefore, if my experience chatting with people from rural villages in Myanmar indicates the true reality, that migration is one of the (if not the only) pathways out of poverty and if we believe hope is an important characteristic to posses, then we have two options:

(1) We should help improve the local situation so that migration isn’t the only viable pathway out of poverty. (This is proves challenging. Development is a long-term, frustrating, slow, and sweaty business that isn’t very glamorous and doesn’t photograph well.)

(2) We should take strides in allowing for safer, cheaper, easier, and legal international migration.

While we should probably do both, if you’re from the West (and are not a development practitioner or an economist at the IMF) the easiest and simplest way to bear witness to hope is by voting for the opening of our borders. It is simply the most effective, most direct, most dynamic way we (those who have already benefited from international migration) can make a difference in the lives of the poor and vulnerable around the world.

 

The Poor are Poor because…

Tim Hoiland, a fellow theology/development/general stuff blogger, posted a piece last week entitled, “The Church Among the Poor“. In it he quotes Jayakumar Christian (Christian development scholar) who says, “The poor are poor because someone else is trying to play God in their life”.

Now, there are a lot of so-called axioms that start with “the poor are poor…” To list a few (in no particular order):

“The poor are poor because they lack capital (money).”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of human rights.”
“The poor are poor because they are dependent on the rich.”
“The poor are poor because of the rich.”
“The poor are poor because poverty traps.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of foreign assistance.”
“The poor are poor because of foreign assistance.”
“The poor are poor because of political corruption.”
“The poor are poor because of extractive political and economic institutions.”
“The poor are poor because they are unlucky.”
“The poor are poor because they make bad decisions.”
“The poor are poor because they are lazy.”
“The poor are poor because they have poor soil productivity.”
“The poor are poor because there are no markets.”
“The poor are poor because of geography.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of freedom.”
“The poor are poor because they are discouraged.”
“The poor are poor because of misguided policies.”
“The poor are poor because of mal-investment.”
“The poor are poor because they hyperbolically discount the future.”
“The poor are poor because of culture.”
“The poor are poor because of colonialism.”
“The poor are poor because of capitalism.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of labor specialization.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of technology adoption.”

…and so on… some of these are more right than others, some overlap with others, and of course, there are many that have been left out.

It strikes me that Jayakumar’s axiom is probably one of the most-right among this list. (Excluding, of course, Acemoglu and Robinson’s theory, which almost no one argues against.) Jayakumar’s axiom is both nuanced and simple. Razor sharp and remarkably general. The idea that we may be “playing God in someone else’s life” is immediately horrifying for those of us who strive to help others in any sort of capacity, and it’s easy (perhaps natural) to say, “I’m not ‘playing God’ I care about the people I serve”, dismissing the potential tort entirely.

I think, however, we all need to think about what we do and (more importantly) how we do it and ask, “Am I playing God?” Consider the following video of Financial Times journalist and former World Bank economist, Tim Harford:

Rethinking Environmentalism

Amartya Sen the so-called “Mother Theresa of Economics” and many development guru’s fourth member of the Trinity recently wrote an excellent piece about environmental policy. Slashing through nonsensical partisan beliefs, Sen challenges readers to not only take climate change seriously but also to keep it in it’s place among the important issues facing the world today. As the title of the article claims, many environmentalists – obsessed with their unequivocally nobel goals – forget about many of our world’s other important and pressing issues, namely the needs of poor countries.article_inset_sen_625

The recent focus of energy thinking has been particularly concentrated on the ways and means of reducing carbon emissions and, linked with that, cutting down energy use, rather than taking energy use as essential for conquering poverty and seeing the environmental challenge within a more comprehensive understanding. There would appear to be an insufficient recognition in global discussion of the need for increased power in the poorer countries. In India, for example, about a third of the people do not have any power connection at all. Making it easier to produce energy with better environmental correlates (and greater efficiency of energy use) may be a contribution not just to environmental planning, but also to making it possible for a great many deprived people to lead a fuller and freer life. 

Through Sen’s own “Freedom’s” (or capabilities) approach:

The environment is not only a matter of passive preservation, but also one of active pursuit. Even though many human activities that accompany the process of development may have destructive consequences (and this is very important to understand and to address), it is also within human power to enhance and improve the environment in which we live. Indeed, our power to intervene, with reason and effectiveness, can be substantially enhanced by the process of development itself. For example, greater female education and women’s employment can help to reduce fertility rates drastically, which in the long run can reduce the pressure on environmental destruction, including global warming and the decimation of natural habitats. Similarly, the spread of school education and improvements in its quality can make us more environmentally conscious. Better communication and a more active and a better informed media can enhance our awareness of the need for environment-oriented thinking. It is easy to find many other examples of interconnection. In general, seeing development in terms of increasing the effective freedom of human beings brings the constructive agency of people in environment-friendly activities directly within the domain of developmental efforts.

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HT @JustinSandefur

“Are you poor?”

I do a bit of consulting work on the side from time to time. It is usually fun and always interesting. Last week when sitting in a meeting developing an organizational toolbox for global monitoring and evaluation the question was raised, “Why don’t we just ask ‘Are you poor?’ isn’t that the most important thing to measure?”

The logic was right. When I graduated college I was, technically speaking, poor. But if you’d have asked me then ‘Are you poor?’ I would surely have said “no”. I had just graduated college and was navigating the job market for the first time. It was a stressful time with not a whole lot of income but I had opportunities on my horizon, so I did not consider myself poor.

The question picks at a more general question: Why use objective measurements (like income or assets or calorie intake) when subjective attitudes (probably) matter more?

My answer in the meeting sited the recent research on happiness. A lot of researchers are attempting to unwrap the complexity of human happiness as an angle to measure well-being. The inherent difficultly in asking somebody, ‘Are you happy?’ is happiness is multidimensional and relative on an extensive laundry list of (probably) unknown factors. For example: You could ask somebody whose relative has just died ‘Are you happy?’ and get different answers simply based on how they interpret the question rather than actual changes in well-being. Almost certainly in the strict context of the funeral of a close relative they will not admit to be happy, but in a more broad context of the direction their life is going they could no doubt admit to being happy.

It turns out, in many ways, poverty is a lot like happiness. It is inherently multidimensional and relative on an extensive list of (probably) unknown factors.

After the meeting I did some searching for anybody who had actually gone out somewhere and asked a significant number of people ‘Are you poor?’ I didn’t find much, and for good reason. I turned to Angus Deaton, currently one of the world’s leading experts in poverty measurements, and his book Measuring Poverty for some guidance.

Everyone has some idea of what poverty is, and most people have little difficulty answering the question, “Do you consider yourself poor?” although some people need a moment or two to think about it. Nor do people find it hard to answer the same question about their neighbors or other people that they know. Yet these simple ideas turn out to be hard to extend to countries, and harder still to the world as a whole.

Why is it hard to extend these ideas to nations or the world in general? It is tricky to ask somebody if they are poor because the actual measurement may pick up on warped incentives rather than a subjective measurement of poverty identification. 

A Participatory Rural Assessment, usually known by its acronym PRA, is a procedure often used by researchers and by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in villages in poor countries. These researchers sit with the villagers at the local gathering place and find out about the village, mapping its houses, the school, the water supply, its agricultural activities, and who lives where. It is common to ask the villagers to say who is well-off, who is not so well-off, and who is poor and, in most cases, villagers have no difficulty in making the identification. No doubt there are some mistakes, and some people conceal some assets from their neighbors, but the results usually make sense. The poor are often people who cannot work because they are ill or suffer from a long term disability, or are elderly. They are also poor and vulnerable groups in specific locations, such as those Indian widows who are unfortunate enough not to have sons to support them. Such information can sometimes be used as part of poverty relief efforts. In India, one scheme, the Antyodaya (last man first) food program, relies on local councils to identify the very poorest few percent of rural households, who receive subsidized food rations. There is a similar scheme in Indonesia. But it is possible to push this local poverty identification too far. If the sums to be distributed are large enough, they become worth misappropriating, and their is an incentive for people to identify their friends and relatives (or themselves) as poor. Similarly, some NGOs have discovered that, if they use the poverty identification to enroll people into employment or training schemes, then after a few visits everyone is reported to be poor.

The key lesson is clear. Measuring poverty is an approximation and always wrong in one way or another. Poverty identification almost certainly is a measurement we care most about, but it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to measure with any sort of precision or accuracy. The next best thing is to measure a bunch of objective indicators that tend to be associated with people who most likely identify as being poor. Which is, basically, what we already try to do.

The Poverty of Numbers

Several weeks ago the number of people living in ‘extreme poverty’ in the world fell by half.

Any thoughtful reaction to this should of muted exuberance. Why? Because this rather large change in world living standards did not happen as quickly as the statistics show. This dramatic decrease is due to a recalculation of the purchasing power parity (PPP) numbers from around the world. It is however, remarkable as the world is, in fact, richer than we previously believed.

PPP statistics allow us to compare living standards across countries by relating the amount of money people have to live on converted into US dollar terms.For example, when the new calculations showed 11% of the world lives on less than $1.25 per day (down from 21%), that means 11% of the world lives on the local equivalent of living on $1.25 per day in the US. This is a fascinating statistic and has important uses, but it is not hard to imagine large swaths of life that are left out by such a statistic. For example, the calculations only measure private spending. Public spending, and the benefits it brings to citizens, is not counted. Therefore it may actually be impossible to compare life in the US to life in Niger simply on expenditures alone.

TenindicatorsThis brings me to the latest multidimensional poverty index (MPI) released and updated for the fourth time since 2010. The MPI measures poverty on a three dimensional scale with ten equally weighted indicators (see table 1). Health measured by nutrition and child mortality. Education measured by years of schooling and school attendance. And living standard measured by cooking fuel, sanitation, water, electricity, floor, and other assets. As you can imagine the MPI can get rather complicated rather quickly. It may, however, allow us to measure poverty a bit more closely than simply by measuring expenditure levels relative to the US dollar.  

Duncan Green, strategic advisor for Oxfam Global, and relentless development blogger highlighted a few lessons from the newly released 2014 MPI. Here are a few important highlights:

  • A total of 1.6 billion people are living in multidimensional poverty; more than 30% of the people living in the 108 countries analysed (compare that with a global figure of 1.2 billion in income poverty).
  • The country with the highest percentage of MPI poor people is still Niger; 2012 data from Niger shows 89.3% of its population are multi-dimensionally poor.
  • Of the 1.6 billion identified as MPI poor, 85% live in rural areas; significantly higher than income poverty estimates of 70-75%.
  • Of 34 countries for which we have time-series data, 30 – covering 98% of the MPI poor people across all 34 – had statistically significant reductions in multidimensional poverty.
  • Nepal made the fastest progress, showing a fall in the percentage of the population who were MPI poor from 65% to 44% in a five-year period (2006-2011). Other star performers include Rwanda, Ghana, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Tanzania and Bolivia
  • Over 638 million people are destitute (see table 2) across the 49 countries analyzed so far – half of all MPI poor people.
    • India is home to 343.5 million destitute people – 28.5% of its population is destitute.
    • In Niger, 68.8% of the population is destitute – the highest share of any country.

MDPI

MDPI-destitution

The Challenges of Simple Problems

Book Review: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End PovertyNina Munk131010125449-idealist-cover-459xa

It is hard to come up with something to say about Nina Munk’s magnificent book that hasn’t already been said. The sincerity of this statement is proven by the fact that those very words have already been said. Due to this reality and the fact that I’ve been meaning to review this book since I read it several months ago; I will review Nina’s work by reviewing the most popular reviews already written. Four key lessons stick out to me while reading the actual book and its many reviews.

Nina spent the better part of six years following Jeff Sachs around to meetings with African diplomats, to seminars with large aid agencies, and flash-mob appearances in various rural African villages. She also spent considerable time in two of the Millennium Villages. Dertu, an arid Kenyan village close to the Somali boarder and, Ruhiira, a village in Western Uganda.

Joe Nocera in a New York Times Op-Ed sets the stage:

Nina Munk’s new book, “The Idealist,” is about the well-known economist Jeffrey Sachs and his “quest to end poverty,” as the subtitle puts it. I know: That subtitle sounds like classic book-industry hyperbole, but, in this case, it’s not. That really is what Sachs has been trying to do. The question of whether or not he is succeeding is where things get tricky.

The quest began in 2005, when Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, started an ambitious program called the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). He and his team chose a handful of sub-Saharan African villages, where they imposed a series of “interventions” in such areas as agriculture, health and education. The idea was that these villages would show Africa — and the world — how the continent could loosen the grip that extreme poverty had on so many of its people.

From the start, the Millennium Villages Project has been controversial. It has soaked up large sums of money — the original seed money was $120 million — which its critics believe could have been better used on more targeted, less grandiose forms of aid. Because Sachs, for years, refused — on ethical grounds, he said — to rigorously compare the results at his villages with villages that didn’t get the same kind of help, development experts complained that there was no way of knowing if the project was making a difference.

Jeffrey Sachs is a brilliant man. This much is clear. As a world-renowned economist Sachs successfully (more or less) turned around the economic fortunes of Bolivia and Poland with “Shock Therapy”—a plan that aimed to jolt an economy out of socialism and into a market economy and gave him the nickname “Dr. Shock”. It is important to note that Sachs is a macro-economist. He is trained to think about the world at the country level, rather than at the individual level. To be sure he is very good at analyzing the country level of the world. This is the reason, however, macro-economists typically are not called to evaluate projects, programs, or policies. It is the job of the micro-economist to consider individual behavior in aggregate and evaluate success or failure.

If the first lesson is that Sachs is brilliant—on the level of his grad school age-mates Paul Krugman and Larry Summers—the second lesson is that solving poverty is not easy. Erika Fry summarizes a few of the challenges faced by Sachs the MV Project in her review in Fortune:

But Sachs’s quest—which plays out in the handful of villages in sub-Saharan Africa that comprise his Millennium Villages Project—seems to falter at every turn. A livestock market is abandoned two months after it opens. Villagers use their new mosquito nets (distributed to prevent malaria) on goats. Water-carrying donkeys drop dead. Hospital generators break down. Much-anticipated markets for banana flour and pineapple never materialize. And, because there is no market or local storage facilities, a bumper crop of maize—thanks to fertilizer and high-yield seeds—goes to the rats.

 

Bill Easterly articulates the third lesson in his first review of Nina’s book. “As the author makes clear, no one has worked harder to help the world’s poor than Jeffrey Sachs, or made more of the world’s affluent care about their plight.” This lesson put in context with Sach’s idea that, “we have enough on the planet to make sure, easily, that people aren’t dying of their poverty”, presents a harrowing conclusion. That nobody has worked harder, than Jeff Sachs, trying to show ending poverty is easy.

But as Easterly writes in his second review of the book:

Sachs’ technical fixes frequently turned out to be anything but simple. The saga of Dertu’s wells is illustrative. Ahmed Mohamed, the local man in charge of the effort, discovers that he needs to order a crucial part for a generator that powers the wells. The piece takes four months to arrive, and then nobody knows how to install it. Eventually a distant mechanic arrives at great expense. A couple of years later, Munk returns to find Mohamed struggling with the same issues: The wells have broken down again, the parts are lacking, and nobody knows how to fix the problem.

A little more than a year after that, the wells are up and running again, and the Millennium Villages blog celebrates Dertu as having “the most reliable water supply within the region.” Yet by 2011 the wells have run completely dry due to a drought—a not-uncommon occurrence in the arid region.

Such examples multiply in Munk’s book, showing that purely technological answers to poverty fall well short of Sachs’ promises. It turns out that technology does not implement itself; it requires the assistance of real people subject to widely varying incentives and constraints in complex social and political systems.

The final lesson comes from Angus Deaton’s review:

Modern technology, with its models and manuals, has an irresistible fascination for social engineers, and has done so for most of the past century. New knowledge and new ways of doing things have indeed been the source of much of human progress. Yet the schemes of the planners have rarely brought the improvement in the human condition that their well-intentioned architects had hoped for, and have often brought disaster. Thousands of years of painstakingly accumulated local knowledge cannot be incorporated into such plans. Nor can technocratic methods make up for bad politics, or provide a substitute for the two-way contract between politicians and people that provides public goods in exchange for taxes and that underpins development.

….

The Millennium Villages come with none of the coercion that accompanied the rural development projects of Stalin or of Nyerere, let alone the murderous horrors of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. For that we should be grateful. Yet the crying shame is that while the hubris came from Sachs, the nemesis came to the villagers.

The fourth lesson is tragic. When technical “experts” fail to act with humility or seriously consider the local challenges not mentioned in textbooks, suffering comes not to the foreign experts but to the local poor.

about-ninaThese lessons, which are discussed and summarized in the podcast Development Drums in which Nina is interviewed, are important for everyone wishing to do something good in this world. In this podcast Nina dispels several misguided reactions to this book. Some people when they read The Idealist say, “I’ve read your book, you must be against foreign aid” or “I’ve read your book, helping the poor must be hopeless”. Nina is vehemently against either of these reactions. In the former foreign aid is not the problem; it is hubris, an unwillingness to recognize failure, a disregard for the difficulties of specific contexts, and a general lack of appreciation for the challenges inherent in development projects led by outsiders. In the later helping the poor is not trivial, it is an imperative. We must however understand the challenges at play and approach the situation with humility, especially as an outsider.

If this all hasn’t been enough to convince you to read The Idealist, perhaps the following quotes will. The book is about poverty, development, and economics; but unlike most books in this genre, it is an absolute pleasure to read. Don’t take my word for it, others have already said the same thing.

Angus Deaton, in The Lancet: “Beyond the enormous punch that the book delivers, the quality of the writing is that of a fine novel, not of the usual tract in social science. We get to know and care about the characters, including Munk herself; we share their dedication, their optimism, and their dreams of improving lives. We also care when their illusions are destroyed, and their dedication is betrayed. Much of the message is conveyed by the arc of the story, and by the change in Munk’s own voice as she moves from her initial optimism and her commitment to reporting on something that really matters—the fight against global poverty—into final disillusion. It is a trip that many of us have made over the years, but few with so much knowledge from the field and none whose experiences are so eloquently and movingly reported.”

Erika Fry, in Fortune: “A fine writer with a gift for deploying spare, vivid detail, Munk overcomes the burden of what could be duller-than-dirt subject matter—the politics of foreign aid; the ins and outs of Uganda’s matoke market; NGO infighting over anti-malaria efforts—into a lively and at times, quite funny book.”

Andrew Jack, in The Financial Times: “Nina Munk’s The Idealist, [is] a highly readable examination of Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages Project in Africa.”

Laura Seay, in The Christian Science Monitor: “[The Idealist] is an absolute must-read for anyone who is interested in doing good for those in need. Far from writing a cheerleader’s account about someone who “just wants to help,” Munk raises questions about whether poverty actually has technical solutions, or whether cultural norms and behaviors can derail even the most well-funded and planned activities.”

The Plagues of the Poor

Book Review: The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence by Gary Haugen

Every Saturday, after exchanging polite Swahili greetings with the security guard, I walk the dusty and unpaved road into town. I walk past shops made from scraps of wood and torn plastic tarp. Heaps of corn kernels dry in the hot sun. Children practicing their English shout, “Mzugu, how are you! How are you?” and some run beside me begging for money. I cross the dilapidated colonial-era railroad tracks and finally make my way toward the bustling center of town to do my shopping for the week.

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Links I Like [1.14]

I am adding a new element to this blog starting in 2014. On a monthly basis I will be posting a short list of “Links I Like”. These are external links to articles, websites, or anything else that I come across that I deem worth sharing. (I concede this is what Twitter is designed for, but—sadly—we have not yet reached the day when every sensible person I know utilizes a Twitter account.)

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