How to Attack Global Poverty? Bring Your Questions for the Authors of More Than Good Intentions

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The experts generally fall into two camps when it comes to alleviating global poverty: those who believe we simply need to spend more money in more places; and those who think that too many billions have already been spent too inefficiently and ineffectively, requiring a new and smarter approach to aid.

In a new book called More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics Is Helping to Solve Global Poverty, Freakonomics blog contributor Dean Karlan, a development economist at Yale, and Jacob Appel, a researcher at Innovations for Poverty Action, describe the split:

Each camp claims prominent economists as adherents: Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, an adviser to the United Nations, and Bill Easterly of New York University, a former senior official at the World Bank. Sachs and his supporters regale us with picture-perfect transformational stories. Easterly and the other side counter with an equally steady supply of ghastly the-world-is-corrupt-and-everything-fails anecdotes. The result? Disagreement and uncertainty, which leads to stagnation and inertia — in short, a train wreck. And no way forward.

Karlan and Appel argue for a third way, one that draws from behavioral economics and relies on rigorous evaluation. To wit:

Three questions organize our discussions. First: what is the root cause of the problem? Using both behavioral and traditional economics to answer this question is exactly the first prong of our attack in this book. Then two more questions: Does the “idea” at hand, whether a government policy, NGO intervention, or business, actually solve the problem? And how much better off is the world because of it? Using rigorous evaluations to answer these two questions together is the second prong of our attack.

Karlan and Appel have agreed to answer your questions about their book and, more broadly, development economics and poverty. So fire away in the comments section below. You can now read their answers here.

And here’s the table of contents from their book to prime the pump.

1.  Introduction: The Monks and the Fish
2.  To Work Against Poverty: How We Do What We Do
3.  To Buy: Doubling the Number of Families with a Safety Net
4.  To Borrow: Why the Taxi Driver Didn’t Take a Loan
5.  To Pursue Happiness: Having Better Things to Do
6.  To Cooperate in Groups: What About the Weakness of the Crowd?
7.  To Save: The Unfun Option
8. To Farm: Something from Nothing
9.  To Learn: The Importance of Showing Up
10.  To Stay Healthy: From Broken Legs to Parasites
11. To Mate: The Naked Truth
12.  To Give: The Takeaway


Poverty is relative. Those who are considered poor today, may have been considered to have been the norm for all of human history until say 100 years ago (arbitrary date). Therefore, to me the argument being made seems to be "hey there are a lot of people better today off than others, this is not fair". I do not accept this argument. Some might say that I am heartless. I am heartless for being willing to accept people living the way they have for 1000s of years?


My question to you is why can't we break out of this feudal paradigm? Call it capitalism, call it social Darwinism, it's really just a feudal system with a slightly less birthright bias.

What is holding us back? Is it the poor just aren't motivated enough to not be poor or is there an incentive at the top of the heap not to let anyone else get there to share in the spoils?

Obviously both are a factor but can one be singled out as the overwhelming contributor?


1) Do you think that a free liberal arts college education (perhaps via DVDS, using some of the greatest professors in the world) would make any dramatic difference? Is it possible that just having a bigger picture of the world, a bigger dream of what could be, could change things for people?

2) Of all the things you have seen and studied, is there one thing that, over and over, reveals itself as the very best way forward against poverty?

3) If we know that a particular piece of jungle can only successfully sustain X number of animals, is there a danger that our moral imperatives will place us in a "Lifeboat" situation? That is, if there is not some sort of attrition, do we risk having so many people that we can no longer suitably sustain all of them? Or is that the false dilemma I hope it is?


Hi, what can someone with a low income (like a student) but high interest in contributing to global poverty do to help with comparatively small donations of time and/or money? Are there some options that stood out as far above the others in this respect?

Eric M. Jones

It is hard to say that all the people on the Earth need to live like some notion of yours or mine, but surely we are all our brother's and sister's keepers. Why? Not because the Bible says so, but because it makes for a better outcome for all concerned.

Every person has to make this decision early in life: A) Is it better to be rich in a country of poor, or B) to spend some time and resources to raise up the poor?

Bill Sisk

How do you go about alleviating poverty in a place like Haiti, where you have not just a failed state but a non-state without any coherent infrastructure or market place?

Fabio Franco

"what is THE root cause of the problem?"

How can you know for sure that there is one? Does the mere fact that you are posing the question in that manner already presuppose some of the answers? Shouldn't this question be more open-ended, less skewed and directed? Is it possible that there is no "root cause" -- that no agent, nothing specific is at work, but that it is just the unpremeditated result of an imponderable number of connections between a hodge-podge of human actions?


The book sounds interesting. What prompted you to go into development economics?


I would guess that material poverty is associated also with culture and traditional ways of doing things. In trying to overcome poverty we may face the uncomfortable position of destroying traditional cultures and replacing them with "modern" cultural values.

What are you views on this? Should attempts to alleviate poverty seek to do so without destroying traditional cultures? Should they attempt to reconcile and reform traditional cultures, update them so that they are more productive? Are there concerns that such attempts to reform - to make society mimic a foreign developed society - could be construed as imperialistic?

(For example many poorer countries have very high fertility rates. To avoid population explosion fertility rates need to fall. They usually do so, but that might run contrary to traditional ideas about the roles of women and the virtues of large families.)


Do you plan on researching the most effective solutions to domestic poverty in the US?


What's the best way to keep up with the most interesting research being done on poverty today? Similarly who are some up and coming researchers to keep an eye on?


Public health folks tend to focus on health outcomes. Agriculture folks focus on food outcomes. Development economists focus on poverty. Governments focus on GDP growth. Shouldn't we really care about overall well-being at the end of the day? Just because it's hard to measure doesn't mean we should shy away from it, or should we?

Scott Wisor

What ethical constraints, if any, should 'randomistas' recognize? What would it be morally impermissible to test in a randomized control trial?

Vaibhav Birda

I am currently a college student interested in global poverty and will be traveling this summer to India to work on trying to decrease diarrheal disease in urban slums. Though our student-run organization has debated this at length, I would like to know what you think of student orgs that volunteer overseas. We travel every summer to India and are committed to long term solutions for communities in Hubli and Mumbai (so not just a one week medical brigade of sorts). But even with more of an investment than such one week programs what is the true function of these volunteer programs, and are they the best way for young people to start helping?


Does the book presuppose there is such a thing as "global poverty"? Sure there are people who are poor across the globe but aren't the causes and solutions different in different regions/countries. Is poverty the same in both Latin America and Africa? A global solution seems to suggest a common-ness in countries and cultures that seems at odds with our view of the different dynamics in different countries and regions.


I noticed some questions have been raised concerning our right to even interfere in the lives of certain groups of people living in poverty. There is some evidence to suggest that people living in poverty are actually happier than those living in developed countries. This is usually because they rely on and promote values such as tight knit communities and they are not as materialistic as some in developed countries. I don't think alleviating poverty is about changing these values. If anything we can learn as much from them as they are receiving from us.
My question is, how do we stop 22,00 children from dying every single day? Many of these deaths are completely preventable with adequate access to food, clean water, and medical services. How do we provide the opportunity to a small girl to get an education in a country that deems her unworthy of anything other than raising children. Poverty may be relative, but starving, dying from preventable illnesses and the lack of opportunity are not. How can we raise the bar of quality of life from the bottom up?



If poverty equals lack of prosperity, then to me the solution is obvious: identify all the roadblocks to prosperity and remove them.

In his book 'The Rational Optimist', Matt Ridley presents a compelling bottom-up model of how prosperity evolves from 3 pre-requisites:

1. a population pool large enough to sustain the exchange of ideas and technical innovations
2. division of labour
3. the free trade of ideas, goods and services between individuals.

I am prosperous because I have got more than a billion people working for me, and I am working for more than a billion people on the planet - through trade.

I would be interested in finding out about your proposals to lift the prosperity level of the areas of the planet in dire need of such an uplift.