Tag Archives: education

Must reading about global poverty and the contrasting approaches to ending it

A review of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Public debate about the way to combat global poverty has ricocheted between two extremes. One was summed up in 2005 in The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia economist who spearheaded the UN Millennium Development Goals. The other was laid out by former World Bank economist William Easterly the following year in The White Man’s Burden. Sachs advocates massive government-to-government foreign aid. Easterly deplores foreign aid, convinced that it does more harm than good.

In Poor Economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo seek a path between these two extremes, emphasizing the Randomized Controlled Studies they and their colleagues had conducted to ascertain what works and what doesn’t. (As of 2010, they had completed more than 240 studies in forty countries around the world.)They characterize Easterly’s approach as demand-driven, since he believes that poor people must seek their own solutions — a conservative, free-market attitude. By contrast, Sachs’ approach is supply-driven, reflecting Sachs’ conviction that a government must provide for its people based on consensus thinking about what poor people need — a liberal, top-down attitude. (I find myself bemused that I’m on the right side of this debate.)

Banerjee and Duflo report that their observations and research results support each of these two approaches — and sometimes both — depending on what issue they study. Hunger, health, education, financial services, family planning, business development, policy options: each field offers up a unique picture of success and failure attributed to one or another of the two approaches. In other words, circumstances and details matter, all of which may vary from one country to another. There is no silver bullet, they assert, no panacea to eliminate poverty.

Poor Economics focuses on the overarching question of whether there is such a thing as a “poverty trap.” Sachs contends there is: poor people will be stuck in poverty unless and until they are given the resources to release themselves from the trap. In many circumstances, Banerjee and Duflo find scant evidence to support this assertion. In others, however, they see the need for government intervention in the lives of the poor because otherwise they will perceive no reason to act for themselves.

Rather than identifying a simple, unitary explanation why Sachs’ approach often fails, they emphasize “ideology, ignorance, and inertia — the three I’s — on the part of the expert, the aid worker, or the local policy maker.” These three I’s, they claim, “often explain why policies fail and why aid does not have the effect it should.” Banerjee and Duflo explain further: “The poor often resist the wonderful plans we think up for them because they do not share our faith that those plans work, or work as well as we claim.”

It would be difficult to find two scholars better prepared than Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo to forge a middle course through the opposite poles of thought about global poverty erected by Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly. Banerjee, an Indian economist who is also the son of two economists, holds an endowed chair in economics at MIT. He co-founded MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab with Duflo, a French economist and a former MacArthur Fellow (recipient of the “genius” award).

For anyone who seeks deeper understanding of global poverty and the ways and means of fighting it, Poor Economics is must reading. This book is the latest I’ve read in my ongoing effort to study world poverty. For a list of additional books on the topic, go to my reading list.


Filed under Nonfiction, Poverty

Why don’t more American kids like science and math?

Thoughts while reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

I was a weird kid. I actually liked science and math at a young age, and I stuck with it all the way to college. Then I found myself as a freshman in an honors course in math and discovered that there were kids smarter than me. It was clear I was never going to win a Nobel Prize (or whatever is the corresponding prize in mathematics). That was the end of that. But now, nearly half a century later, I remain fascinated by science and actually read popularized accounts of scientific work from time to time. I still like the stuff, even if my life has drifted far away from any daily connection to scientific pursuits.

As I read Bill Bryson’s masterful overview of the world of science, I start to understand why. A Short History of Nearly Everything is occasionally funny, consistently witty, and engrossing to a degree it’s hard to exaggerate — because he relates the history of science in terms of the living, breathing human beings who advanced its work. These men and women of science come to life with all their eccentricities, their foibles, their frustrations, and their failures as well as successes. In Bryson’s telling, the brilliant people who grappled with the fundamental questions of life in the universe through theoretical or experimental science, or both, are in every case interesting.

In fact, to nearly all of us, I believe the people of science are far more interesting than the work they do, and when that work is seen in the context of their lives, their circumstances, their surroundings, and their attitudes, the work itself becomes much easier to understand. Realizing that, I suddenly recall that I was weaned on the history of science and medicine as a child before I ever studied chemistry, physics, biology, or any math more sophisticated than arithmetic. Since my first exposure to the subject came through books celebrating great scientists, mathematicians, and physicians, I approached my work in the classroom in a more positive frame of mind.

Because that work in the classroom, and those deadly textbooks, were — there’s no other word for it — BOR-ing. There’s practically nothing you can do to make reading about elementary physics even mildly interesting. But if you approached the topic by relating the way such notables as Isaac Newton framed questions and thought through (or experimented their way to) the answers, students might well learn what is most important in science teaching — the scientific method and how to apply it — and leave the classroom eager to tell stories about that endlessly fascinating man. They would learn how to think and how to solve problems on their own, which is the real reason to teach this stuff, anyway.

So, why haven’t educators figured this out?

Oh, well. Who’s going to listen to me, anyway?


Filed under FAQs & Commentaries