Foundation Friday: Schoolyard Brawl

My thanks, as many times before, to Philanthropy 2173 and sister blogger Lucy Bernholz for introducing me to the work of MIT development economist Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, his Poverty Action Lab which conducts randomized trials of various approached to alleviating poverty and promoting economic development, and his new book arguing that demonstrated successes of particular methods of aid give donors the opportunity to fund nothing but proven approaches.  A list of commenters from NGOs and philanthropies alike throws a hissy fit in the issue of the Boston Review in which Banerjee’s new book appears in article form, arguing that Banerjee is anti-innovation (when in fact he’s just anti-wishful thinking), anti-government intervention (when in fact he’s recognizing private philanthropy’s limited role by promoting effective use of its limited resources) and anti-inclusion (when in fact he’s simply proposing to capitalize on situations where everyone is not included in a particular program to determine whether those included have anything to be particularly grateful for).

Bernholz and I share a professional’s interest in the question whether evaluation is best done in the kind of randomized trials Banerjee advocates, and performs, rather than as a haphazard slapdash–one might say random!–component of the aid delivery itself.  The same donors who are outraged by Banarjee’s recommendation that we take advantage of opportunities to find out what works, and then do it, are perfectly happy to ask overburdened nonprofits to design testing strategies for their interventions–when, if Banerjee proves nothing else, he easily proves that rigorous evaluation is not an activity for amateurs. 

Hey, foundations?–fund proven stuff or fund innovation, your choice, but if you want to know whether innovation is working, let the NGOs do the innovative work and do the testing yourself. 

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One Response to “Foundation Friday: Schoolyard Brawl”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    I didn’t read the Boston Review responses as THAT hostile to Banerjee’s idea. Or maybe I’m more skeptical about empirical review of development aid oriented toward building a predictive science, which I take to be Banerjee’s goal in promoting randomization. Of course foundations should do more to learn whether their past investments succeeded. That goal might be advanced, as one of the Boston Review commentators noted, if funding organizations assigned more prestige to competent evaluation: right now honors go to persons of action, who fly out and DO something, or appear to do something, rather than the bean-counters.

    They could take a leaf from the US government, which has finally made the General Accounting Office a pretty snazzy bureaucracy. Of course GAO needed a riotously inept and corrupt presidential administration to demonstrate that honest measurement is a treasure. Let’s hope the foundations don’t have to sink that far before they learn to count!

    Alas, I feel certain that, at least for now, meaningful review can only look backward. Any initiative always carries its own particulars–this government, this precipitating event, these ethnicities, these extrinsic variables (strong currency or not, war or peace, even the weather)–that can’t be fully seen until the project is well underway, if not concluded. I doubt we’ll form a predictive science of development aid in my lifetime, and I don’t blame the Boston Review commentators for not embracing Banerjee as their prophet. But I agree with your suggestion that for foundations, even a little more measurement would be a step forward.

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