Lant Pritchett Advises Us To Zoom Out

I would much rather that you only read his post, because it is a wonderful, wonderful piece.

But if you insist on a key extract, this would be it for me:

…we development economists should keep in mind that sustained economic growth is empirically necessary and empirically sufficient for reducing poverty (at any poverty line) whereas targeted anti-poverty programs, while desirable, are neither necessary nor sufficient

Again, please, read the whole thing.

Lant’s point in his blogpost is asking what will give the biggest bang for the buck in terms of developmental work. He reviews a paper which “shows that adding a “psycho-social” component to an anti-poverty program in Niger is enormously cost-effective, as it had similar impacts as adding a cash grant but was much less expensive”.

You may get the impression, while reading the blogpost, that Lant Pricthett is being a tad sarcastic. But I don’t think he is – he is truly appreciative of the quality of the work done in the paper, and thinks that the conclusions are truly solid. But, he says, the paper rigorously and correctly answers a question that is, in itself, a completely wrong one.

The development question is: “How can the people living in Niger come to have broad based prosperity and high levels of wellbeing?” The charity question is: “If some agency (perhaps of a government) is going to devote a modest amount of resources to targeted programs that attempt to mitigate the worst consequences of a country’s low level of development, what is the most cost-effective design of such programs?”

Not enough people working in development, Lant seems to say, focus on the truly big picture question in development economics – how can we have broad based prosperity and high levels of well-being? Instead, we focus on improving the cost-efficiency of a program that “attempts to mitigate” the ill-effects of poverty.

To use an analogy, Lant is saying that medical researchers who focus on improving the quality of aspirin by, say, 5% might do better by trying to understand what is causing the headache in the first place. Get rid of the cause, rather than trying to incrementally improve the cure.

But the larger point from his blogpost is applicable to much more than development economics. Don’t try to make your existing solution to anything incrementally better, ask if eradicating the underlying problem itself is possible.

And if it is, work on that.

Leave a Reply