Intractable problem, manageable sub-problems: Poverty eradication looks like an unsolvable problem. People from Karl Marx to Mahatma Gandhi have taken a shot at it. However, it is not clear whether we have a handle on it. Silver bullet approach like “give aids” is not helping. Banerjee-Duflo take a different view. They feel that instead of trying to answer the top question, why not look at some sub-problems – each of which might have a definite and practical solution. For example, in the talk, Duflo presents three such sub-problems: How can we have more kids immunized? How can we get more people to use bednets that can reduce malaria affliction? How can we get students to attend school more number of days for a given dollar spent on the cause? The book, like the talk, shows how we can go about systematically addressing these sub-problems.
Randomized experimentation: Let’s take the question of immunization. In
Design as if implementation matters: The beauty of Banerjee-Duflo approach is not that it does not make any assumption about the culture, anxiety, aspirations of the poor. The experiments reveal their biases anyway. I call this approach of designing an intervention – design as if implementation matters. Note that the approach does not advocate laboratory experiments – the experiments are performed in-field in actual conditions. I feel that experimentation and immersive research are the heart and the soul of systematic innovation. Banerjee-Duflo approach epitomizes both. Now, I know why the TED talk struck such a chord with me.
I strongly recommend the book for every student of social innovation.