There are a lot of charitable organizarions and programs helping poor people. But how to make sure that a program works and how to measure success? MIT’s Poverty Action Lab have designed experiments that aim to make charity more effective. 


What is the lab?

The Poverty Action Lab is officially known as the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-PAL and was founded in 2003. The network consists of 145 affiliated professors from 49 universities, whose mission is to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. Across six regional offices, J-PAL is testing more than 800 programs around the world. Professors and experts conduct randomized evaluations to design, evaluate, and improve programs and policies aimed at reducing poverty. They set their own research raise funds to support their evaluations, and work with Poverty Action Lab staff on research, training and policy outreach.

The experiments of J-PaL rely on randomized evaluation method borrowed from medicine. The team subjects social-policy ideas to randomized control trials, as one would use in testing a drug. This approach filters out statistical noise; it connects cause and effect. The policy question might be: Does microfinance work? Or: Can you incentivize teachers to turn up to class? Or: When trying to prevent very poor people from contracting malaria, is it more effective to give them protective bed nets, or to sell the nets at a low price, on the presumption that people are more likely to use something that they’ve paid for?


Who Stands Behind the Project?

Eshther Duflo, a co-founder of J-PAL,44-year old professor of development economis  – the economics of poor countries – dreamed to combine her two passions: doing science and doing good. In her research, she seeks to understand the economic lives of the poor, with the aim to help design and evaluate social policies. She has worked on problems concerning health, education, financial inclusion, environment and governance. Professor Esther Duflo’s first degrees were in history and economics from Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris. In 1994 she decided to work on  development economics, ans in 1999 she got Ph.D. in Economics from MIT.

As her academic advisor said, Esther was “extraordinarily bright, but not like your average pushy student. She didn’t speak unless she had something to say”.

Duflo has received a lot of academic honors: Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences , the A.SK Social Science Award, Infosys Prize, the David N. Kershaw Award, a John Bates Clark Medal, and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship.  With Abhijit Banerjee, she wrote Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, which won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2011 and has been translated into more than 17 languages.

Currently she is the Editor of the American Economic Review, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.


How Does it Work?

One of the first experiments back in 2003 conducted by J-PAL was a randomized trial devoted to the problem of absentee teachers in schools run in India that involved 120 schools. In 60 of them, teachers were told to have a photograph taken of themselves, with their students, at the start and the end of each school day, using a tamper-proof camera that time-stamped each image. Payment was adjusted to attendance. Compared with a control group of the same size, the photographed teachers were half as likely to be absent. They did not resent the cameras, but it wouldn’t have troubled Duflo if they had: “Who do you care about? Lazy teachers who show up 60% of the time, or the kids? Ok., I care about the kids.” Because the teachers turned up more, they taught more, and their students performed better on exams. One of the Duflo’s collegues has described watching her work on the experiment: “I was witnessing a new economics being born”.

The recent project is the step towards inclusive and more avaliable education: one of the bright examples of J-PAL’s experiments in action is a bold experiment by MIT. It allows students to take courses online for credit, and if they perform well on exams, to apply for a master’s degree program on campus. The experiment is pioneering master’s degree program: now the applicants don’t have to provide GRE results the letter of recomendation from professors, earlier grades and even a college diploma. In most of the cases this is not informaitve enough. That’s why new-opened master program requires submitting results of  online-courses provided by MIT.

“I’m hoping with these five online courses at MIT, and hopefully, with a master’s degree, to really learn how to better bridge this gap between implementation work in the field … the research and the policy”, says Kathryn Saloom, one of the students of experimental master programs.

Charity giving itself is one of the ways to make the world a better place. But making charity effective, as J-PAL has been doing for14 years, multiplies all the advantages and benefits of nonprofits’ work.

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