The author of Poor Economics on why aid that assumes the poor will do the right thing is misguided – and why political corruption does not necessarily mean economic stagnation.
... Until Poor Economics appeared last year, the debate about aid had been broadly polarised into two positions. On the left was Jeffrey Sachs, arguing that the single biggest factor keeping poor people poor is poverty. If foreign aid can lift them out of the poverty trap long enough to free them from the disease, ignorance and debt that thwart their potential, then pretty soon they will be able to solve their own problems for themselves. On the right, William Easterly argued that the real problem isn't a poverty trap but aid itself, which creates a dependency culture that keeps the poor poor, and distorts their only real roadmap to prosperity – the free market.
As Banerjee saw it, both positions owed more to polemic and conjecture than empirical evidence. Aid budgets run into billions, yet very little work had been done to analyse their outcomes. He and Duflo, both economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thought a better approach would be to appropriate the methodology of the pharmaceutical industry, and subject different types of aid to randomised controlled trials. In 2003 they established a Poverty Action Lab, and by 2010 its researchers had conducted more than 240 experiments in 40 countries, in a Herculean attempt to find out what actually works.