Christian Long

Esther Duflo: Social Experiments to Fight Poverty

In TED Talks on May 26, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Extra credit reflection by KATIE R.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Esther Duflo: Social Experiments to Fight Poverty

Poverty is a global issue and has wide ranging challenges. It is not something that can be easily solved and yet has far reaching consequences. Ms. Duflo points out that we hear about the major word disasters, such as Haiti’s earthquake, and we respond by pledging large amounts of money to help in relief efforts. Yet every day, there are countless of children and people around the globe living in the grimmest conditions. There are organizations around the world that spend large amounts of money in the fight to combat poverty and yet the fight rages on. Ms. Duflo poses the question of how much aid is necessary to wipe poverty. She suggests that we may be tackling the problem in the wrong manner. Since it is such an overwhelming situation we should attack in small measured steps instead of trying to approach the problem broadly. Her model is comparable to the method used by the health industry in performing clinical trials for new medications and disease treatments. You start on a small scale and broaden the programs that produce results.

She illustrates her point by discussing three projects that have seen results: Immunization, prevention, and education. In her trials, people were given incentives to encourage them to take advantage of the help that is available. In the case of immunizations, if a person brought their children to receive immunizations then they received a kilo of lentil beans. Prior to implementing the program families were prone to postponing trips to the health centers since it meant having to travel several kilometers. Giving out the lentil beans provided the family with food and that made the effort to travel to the health center a more productive trip. In the prevention program, it was a matter of trying to attack malaria by introducing the use of bed nets keep the mosquitoes from biting people why they sleep. She offered various options in her experiment: discount vouchers for purchase the bed nets or simply handing out free bed nets. The outcome was that the use of the nets increased and even those who were given free nets originally purchased additional nets in the long term. Once again, it was more a matter of educating and getting people used to change that provides the long term benefits. Educating the children in poverty stricken countries also poses many challenges. Most children do not have the resources that would enable them to attend school. Many of these items are things we take for granted such as teachers, schools and basic necessities like uniforms. They also face health issues that we obviously do not have here. So, Ms. Duflo suggests educating both the parents and children alike. We should use some of the funding available to provide them with the teachers, schools, and health care in an effort to enable them to rise above their poverty.

Ms. Duflo has been able to achieve a measure of success in her approach to the poverty problem. She hopes that by demonstrating that by approaching the problem scientifically as the health industry has approached its research and development, she can change the way the world is handling the poverty crisis. In each of her trials the incentives, while seemingly small, yielded the highest level of participation proving that her methods are sound. If she is successful then maybe years in the future we can all look back and not wonder if the money was well spent.

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