Rachel Glennester has her finger on the pulse of both development economicsresearch and real-world development policy. She was the long-time Executive Director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab based at MIT, and now has taken a position as Chief Economist of the primary UK agency for developiment aid, the Department for International Development. She was interviewed by Robert Wiblin and Nathan Labenz at the 80,000 Hours website. You can listen to the 90-minute podcast or read a transcript at \”A year’s worth of education for under a dollar and other‘ best buys’ in development, from the UK aid agency’s Chief Economist,\” by Robert Wiblin and Keiran Harris (December 20, 2018).
The importance of investigating basic descriptions of situations in development research
A lot of development programs just fail because they’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. … The first really important thing you’ve got to do is really understand what the issue is in any given area. If we’re worried about girls not going to school because of menstruation, well, let’s start by finding out whether they actually don’t go to school more when they’re menstruating. That’s a really basic, obvious thing. But we actually need more work on that kind of understanding the context, understanding the problem, is really important first step. …
Here is an example. I did a project looking at how to improve immunization rates in India … Only 3% of kids in this part of India were getting fully immunized. Given that immunization is one of the most effective things that you could do, that rate is just appallingly low. There were a number of theories about why that could be, and a lot of people said … they don’t trust the formal health system. There was also a question of, so the clinics are often closed, so is that the problem? … Is it nurse absenteeism that’s the problem? Or is it just a behavioral economics thing that you’re happy to get your kid immunized, but you’ll do it tomorrow? …
What we saw in the data is a lot of people got their kid immunized with one immunization, but they failed to persist to the end of the schedule. Which already, that’s just descriptive data and it starts to tell you, it’s not that they distrust the system or that they think that immunizations are evil, because they’re getting their kid one immunization. It’s more question of persistence. Now, fixing the supply problem increased the number of people getting the first shot, and the second shot, but again, it failed to fix this persistence problem. Where the incentive effect worked, was it helped people persist to the end. That tells you that one of the big problems was this persistence problem. It tells you a lot about why immunization isn’t happening.
How Randomized Control Trials Test Specific Interventions, But Reveal Bigger Lessons
I think actually RCTs should not be seen as looking at testing this specific program, they should be seen as testing big questions that can then influence policy. For example, you might test a specific project on education. A lot of the work on education has suggested that the most effective thing we can do in education is to focus on the learning within the classroom. It’s not about more money, it’s not about more textbooks, it’s not about … And that’s what governments spend their money on. They spend it on teachers and textbooks, mainly teachers. But more teachers doesn’t actually improve learning. More textbooks doesn’t improve learning. But that’s what the Indian government is spending their money on. …
If you look at the data, just descriptive data, again, the power of descriptive data … within an average Indian classroom in 9th grade, none of the kids are even close to the 9th grade curriculum. They’re testing at somewhere between 2nd grade and 6th grade. No wonder they’re not learning very much, because the teacher, the only thing that a teacher has to do by law in India is complete the curriculum, even if the kids have no idea what they’re talking about. So yes, you have RCTs testing very specific interventions; all of the ones that worked were ones that got the teaching down from the 9th grade curriculum to a level that the kids could actually understand. Now the lesson from that, the big lesson for the Indian government if they were ever to agree to this, is change your curriculum. That’s the biggest thing that you could do. Reform the curriculum and make it more appropriate to what children are doing. So yes, you’re testing little things, but you’re coming out with big answers.
Helping Countries When They have Committed to Structural Change
At DFID, we have shifted a lot of emphasis relatively recently into trying to do more on economic transformation, under the recognition that the biggest reductions in poverty as you say, have come from big transformations in economic policy. So the big opening up of India and China towards more market-oriented economies … And I’m not saying markets solve everything; they absolutely don’t, but when you’ve got a system as screwed up as Communist China, making prices have some influence moves you an awful long way, and can really help transform the economy. And the same happened in India, and you saw massive reductions in poverty, by just a move towards a slightly more sensible economic policy.
When I was recently doing my ranking of what are most effective things that DFID could do, we were saying, “Well, if there are cases of countries that are as screwed up as China, helping them move to a more effective economic management, that’s gotta be the most effective thing that we could for poverty. You can’t do that as an outside donor, unless someone’s willing to do it. So where you see … I would say Ethiopia at the moment is going through a tremendous reform, and we really ought to be focusing attention, and helping Ethiopia in that transition. Tremendous potential, because they’re absolutely fundamentally changing policy there in ways that could be really beneficial to the poor. So jump on those opportunities, but you can’t really make them happen. It’s something that the developing country themselves has to decide to do, then help them as much as you can.
Then there’s the question of what do you do to promote economic development in countries that aren’t going through this fundamental reform process. You can nudge them a bit in the right way … But we don’t always have all the tools that we need to make economic transformation happen.
What would be one piece of economic policy advice for India?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. If you could advise Narendra Modi, the PM of India, on one policy issue, hopefully get him to take you quite seriously, what do you think you would talk about, in that meeting? …
Rachel Glennerster: I would try and persuade him to put in place markets for carbon.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, interesting, really? Okay. Explain that, sorry. I didn’t expect that.
Rachel Glennerster: Right. For a couple of reasons. So, one is just climate change is going to have huge impacts on the poor, and India is a big emitter of carbon. I firmly believe that, if you get prices right, there’s lots of things that people would do differently, if the price … That are reasonably cheap, but we’ve so screwed up prices that they don’t have the incentive to do it. … And the final point is the health impacts in India of burning coal are just extraordinary, unbelievable health costs of all those coal fire power- …
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I was listening to a radio program the other day that was saying that it was taking about 10 years off the average life, for people in some of these cities like Delhi or Mumbai. I was like, it’s like the equivalent of smoking cigarettes, maybe even more so, which is absolutely crazy.
Rachel Glennerster: Yes, it’s the equivalent of heavy smoking every day. And you think about kids, breathing that in.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, the air pollution thing makes sort of sense, but wouldn’t you then perhaps want to put in a program that just taxes air pollution? Or, do you think that taxing coal comes pretty close to doing that, or taxing carbon in general, is pretty close to an air pollution tax?
Rachel Glennerster: I would also love to do stuff on pollution, but a lot of this is coming from coal, and obviously then you also have climate impacts. I’d have to work through … I haven’t gone through all the detailed numbers of how much of those particulates are coming from coal, and how much are coming from other things. But the double whammy of …
Robert Wiblin: Both climate change and saving just very large numbers of lives.
Rachel Glennerster: Yes.