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This is one of those rare books that strikes the right balance between being choked full of fascinating information, and not being over the head of a non-specialists. It has a tremendous breadth of coverage, and I would absolutely recommend it first (before anything by Sachs or Easterly, for example) for those interested in development economics. (It's not a bad read for economists either.)
For those who don't know: there's a longstanding feud between Sachs and Easterly--who sit at opposite ends of Manhattan at Columbia and NYU respectively--over, among other things, whether giving more aid to poor countries actually does any good, with Sachs arguing that it does, and Easterly basically arguing that if you don't have good "institutions"--which no one ever quite fully defines--nothing is going to help. Banerjee and and Duflo, at MIT, are trying to move the discipline beyond this old argument, and I would say largely succeed in this book. They do this by focusing on data driven results, especially experimental results, which are very rare in much of economics, but are becoming more and more the norm in development since there's a good deal of donor money and projects in poor countries can be remarkably inexpensive. So, for example, there's this really old irritating argument over whether giving away mosquito bednets, as opposed to selling them cheaply, actually leads to less usage because people don't value them. Well, someone finally actually did the experiment, and found that people who are given bednets mostly do actually use them, though they may take extras and waste them, and selling them really cheap works pretty well too. This is what development economists spend their time on.
But there are many more interesting facts to be learned from this book. For example, hunger apparently isn't a problem almost anywhere in the world, though a few specific spots in sub-Saharan Africa may be exceptions. But in most places, if you give people more money to be spent on food, they don't end up eating any more calories; they just eat nicer food. On the other hand, poor nutrition among children and pregnant women may be an issue with serious long-term costs. Community scale drinking water systems may be one of the most effective ways of preventing illness. Microfinance doesn't hurt the poor, but it doesn't seem to help all that much either. Insurance schemes for the poor may seem like a nice idea, but are very hard to implement and are often resisted by those they're intended to help.
My main quibble: This new approach to development is inherently microeconomic (as opposed to macro) in nature. You can't really do macroeconomic experiments where you transform one country's economy and not another. Which doesn't mean macro issues aren't discussed at all--there's a very long discourse on how poverty traps, essentially a macro idea, are to be understood at the micro level. But some of the big ideas in development are inherently macro in nature. One book can't do everything, but since I really do think this should be the first book non-specialists read, I would have liked the authors to summarize some of the other perspectives on the field a little more/better.
17 of 17 people found this review helpful
For anyone who's even briefly browsed The Economist, there is a lot we think we know about development, most of it gleaned from armchair economists' big ideas about what should be done, how the world can be changed, etc. This book takes a very different perspective and looks directly at what the evidence from the field really tells us. There is so much that we think we know but we just don't and, if you choose to read it, I recommend that you take pencil and paper, and ask yourself a few questions:
Why are the poor malnourished?
Why are the poor unhealthy?
Why do the poor have so many children?
Why don't the poor save?
Why are poor countries corrupt?
I found the book illuminating in coming to answer these questions from ACTUAL field evidence in ways that are not only unexpected but ring true. It is such a breath a fresh air when most of what we hear in this area is speculation about might happen given one or another aid policy.
Yet, and this is only one part where I should caution the reader, the book is not nearly as objective as the authors want us to believe. In some places (microcredit being the big example), the authors depend on the willingness of non-governmental institutions to share their private data and, understandably, are unwilling to explicitly write against them. Given the quality of most of the book, this becomes laughable in some places when, for example, the authors do a parenthesis on the great intelligence of a person in an out-of-the-blue impromptu or, in contrast to the rest of the book, when the authors become vague about unfavorable findings in their own statistical research. Such a conflict of interest is unavoidable for sure but I wish it had been stated more clearly at the beginning of the book.
11 of 11 people found this review helpful
This book presents some amazing stories and statistics in an easy to understand format. Each chapter is a different topic and keeps you interested, makes it easy to dip in and out of. Some fascinating theories that I've not heard or read elsewhere. A must read!
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I found the ideas presented in the book to be enlightening. It's not all doom for developing countries
This provides great insight into development economics. It leans more on the Easterly school of economics (rather than Sachs) and helped me better understand how wealth and empowerment can come from the people themselves through small economic and political nudges. It also provides great first hand sources from their personal experiences in numerous countries on how the poor interact with great/bad policies that were designed to help them.
The book primarily looks at education, microfinance, health, political institutions, and arguments of giving aid based on supply and demand.
The book requires concentration but it is so data based you can be confident in its conclusions.