Tuesday, November 29, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 14: Bill Easterly

If there were a Top 1 List of Thinkers about Development Aid, Bill Easterly would probably be on it.  There are now several excellent development economists publishing (and doing!) micro-level work on a variety of subjects, but none is influencing the overall debate more than Bill.  His birds-eye, macro-level take on the aid industry is slowly but surely changing the way people think.

Bill joined the World Bank in 1985, and over time he realized what many of us did: namely that many of the most ambitious aid projects were failing to have much impact.  And then, in the late 1990s, he did what none of the rest of us had the guts to do: he wrote about it,  in a seminal book, The Elusive Quest for Growth, and in an article in the Financial Times.  His courage led to his involuntary departure from the World Bank soon thereafter.

Over the past decade, Bill has tirelessly and relentlessly picked apart - on both theoretical and empirical grounds - the idea that top-down and expert-driven projects work.  He coined the term Searchers vs. Planners, and drew analogies to how well functioning economies work compared centrally planned economies.  His work offended not only his former employer, but also many of the new foundations that were created with money from very smart and successful entrepreneurs.

To draw attention to the debate, Bill has employed a number of rhetorical devices and flourishes that have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.  But I am struck by how often people in big aid agencies have told me that, to be honest, they agree that their own institutions - and leaders - are stymying new ideas and experimentation.  "If only they would let me try X," is a frequent lament.  And over the last few years, I have noticed a significant increase in the number of people in big agencies (especially the World Bank) giving access to new ideas from different sources.  There is increased understanding that innovation comes from iterated, experimentation; and that failure is necessary for success.

This week, a Kenyan economist published the results of a randomized controlled trial of a Millennium Village Project (MVP) in her country.  The MVPs are (hopefully) the last hurrah of the big top-down approach to development.  The study found, in the words of Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development:

Because this project is large and intensive, spending on the order of 100% of local income per capita, it is reasonable to hope that it might substantially raise recipients’ incomes, at least in the short term...Wanjala and Muradian find that the project had no significant impact on recipients’ incomes.
The reasons for the failure (you can read the whole post here) is one that many aid workers have learned over the past decades of traditional aid projects.  The reason would have been obvious to the villagers,  if their views had been genuinely solicited.  But it is surely a surprise to the planners who designed the project.  Too bad they did not consult Bill.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 13: Laika

Friday, November 25, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 12: Extended Family

circa 1965

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 11: Nancy Mellon

My son has severe-to-profound hearing loss.  For the first three years of his life, he had little access to sound.  About six months ago, we got him hearing aids, which enabled him to hear some, but not all sounds (he had especially trouble with the high pitches, including sounds like "sh" and "th", which are critical for understanding language.)

Recently - at age 4 - he received a cochlear implant at Johns Hopkins.  The implant gives him excellent access to   the full spectrum of sounds.  But now he faces the monumental task of learning to associate those sounds with meaning - and to turn around and make the same sounds back to other people in conversation.

Most babies start the process of understanding oral language and beginning to speak from day 1 of their lives.  Playing catch up is very difficult for kids who are more than a year or two old.  Fortunately, Nancy Mellon, who faced a similar situation with her son 18 years ago, decided that she was not going accept what was then seen as inevitable - i.e., delayed and impaired language acquisition for her son.  So she went out and did the research and found the most experienced and enlightened people in the field and decided to start a school specifically dedicated to kids like her son and mine.

Nancy and her team founded the River School in 2000, initially with only five students.  It is now a thriving community of well over two hundred students, ranging from infant to third grade.  Instead of segregating kids with hearing loss in separate classes, Nancy decided her school would mix them in with very verbal kids without hearing loss, while providing intensive language coaching to the kids with hearing loss.  The goal is to get the kids with hearing loss mainstreamed into regular schools by third grade.

Nancy's own son just recently graduated from high school and headed off to one of the best colleges in the country.  My son is just starting, but so far so good.  He likes it, has great teachers, and is making steady progress.  And for that, I am extremely grateful to Nancy.