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Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

Reviewed by Mal Warwick

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Public debate about the way to combat global poverty has ricocheted between two extremes. One was summed up in 2005 in The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia economist who spearheaded the UN Millennium Development Goals. The other was laid out by former World Bank economist William Easterly the following year in The White Man’s Burden. Sachs advocates massive government-to-government foreign aid. Easterly deplores foreign aid, convinced that it does more harm than good.

In Poor Economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo seek a path between these two extremes, emphasizing the Randomized Controlled Studies they and their colleagues had conducted to ascertain what works and what doesn’t. (As of 2010, they had completed more than 240 studies in forty countries around the world.)They characterize Easterly’s approach as demand-driven, since he believes that poor people must seek their own solutions — a conservative, free-market attitude. By contrast, Sachs’ approach is supply-driven, reflecting Sachs’ conviction that a government must provide for its people based on consensus thinking about what poor people need — a liberal, top-down attitude. (I find myself bemused that I’m on the right side of this debate.)

Banerjee and Duflo report that their observations and research results support each of these two approaches — and sometimes both — depending on what issue they study. Hunger, health, education, financial services, family planning, business development, policy options: each field offers up a unique picture of success and failure attributed to one or another of the two approaches. In other words, circumstances and details matter, all of which may vary from one country to another. There is no silver bullet, they assert, no panacea to eliminate poverty.

Poor Economics focuses on the overarching question of whether there is such a thing as a “poverty trap.” Sachs contends there is: poor people will be stuck in poverty unless and until they are given the resources to release themselves from the trap. In many circumstances, Banerjee and Duflo find scant evidence to support this assertion. In others, however, they see the need for government intervention in the lives of the poor because otherwise they will perceive no reason to act for themselves.

Rather than identifying a simple, unitary explanation why Sachs’ approach often fails, they emphasize “ideology, ignorance, and inertia — the three I’s — on the part of the expert, the aid worker, or the local policy maker.” These three I’s, they claim, “often explain why policies fail and why aid does not have the effect it should.” Banerjee and Duflo explain further: “The poor often resist the wonderful plans we think up for them because they do not share our faith that those plans work, or work as well as we claim.”

It would be difficult to find two scholars better prepared than Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo to forge a middle course through the opposite poles of thought about global poverty erected by Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly. Banerjee, an Indian economist who is also the son of two economists, holds an endowed chair in economics at MIT. He co-founded MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab with Duflo, a French economist and a former MacArthur Fellow (recipient of the “genius” award).

For anyone who seeks deeper understanding of global poverty and the ways and means of fighting it, Poor Economics is must reading.

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