Evaluating anti-poverty programs to determine what doesn't work is just as important as celebrating those programs when they do work.
Craig McIntosh is one researcher who's doing data analysis and on-the-ground field work to look closely at the outcomes of anti-poverty and anti-disease programs around the world. As a development economist at UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, his goal is not just to eradicate poverty and its effects, but to do so efficiently and sensibly — by determining whether existing programs are actually doing what they set out to do.
When they aren't, he designs better solutions based on cold, hard facts.
"Rather than beginning from an ideologically motivated place, you begin from an empirically motivated place," McIntosh said. Despite the best intentions of the people who design anti-poverty programs throughout the developing world, he said, their efforts might be in vain if they aren't fully thought through.
In a recent study, McIntosh collaborated with researchers from UC Berkeley to investigate whether coffee sold as "fair trade" actually helps farmers escape poverty, which is the stated goal of the fair trade program.
The answer, they found, was: not really. Taking into account the cost of certification and the proportion of the coffee sold at the fair trade premium, the researchers calculated the net benefit to producers by crunching numbers found in administrative records from a large Central American association of coffee cooperatives.
They found that not only is it costly for a producer to get a fair trade certification but also that there is now essentially an oversupply of fair trade coffee on the market. Producers may certify their entire output as fair trade, but they're able to sell only about a quarter of that output at the premium fair trade price.
So while we might feel good about ourselves when we sip our coffee, our purchase isn't having much of an impact on the farmers who grow and harvest the beans.
"In a way, it seems like there's more dignity in doing it through the market mechanism," McIntosh said. "But in fact, it doesn't work because the market you're trying to pass it through is competitive.
"Direct charity is the better way. If you're there at the coffee counter and you have the money in your pocket that you want to transmit to coffee producers, there are plenty of non-profits that work in exactly that area and demographic, and by giving them money, it goes to those farmers."
Direct aid to fight disease
McIntosh favors what's most direct in anti-poverty programs because that's what's most effective and logical.
For instance, studies have shown that economic dependence on men has been identified as a risk-factor for HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa. So McIntosh and other researchers investigated whether a direct monthly cash transfer to young women could reduce their risk for contracting STDs.
In a study published in the medical journal Lancet, the researchers found that such cash transfers can help, especially when they're unconditional.
Some existing programs require the girls to be enrolled in school to receive the funds, but as McIntosh notes, when they leave school, they are at the highest risk for contracting an STD. Therefore, that's the more important time for them to remain economically independent.
Insurance policies to stimulate agriculture
McIntosh said he also believes that serious poverty alleviation requires a focus on agriculture because "if you aren't improving the lives of the farmer, you're very unlikely to be improving the lives of anyone, since everyone's welfare is [supported] by subsistence farming in many very poor countries."
In one recent project, he collaborated with Ethiopian economists to design an insurance policy protecting farmers against drought in the hopes that it would encourage and enable them to grow larger, albeit riskier, crops. While the jury's still out on whether the proposed insurance policy plan could have the intended impact, the hope is that it can help the farmers not just subsist, but thrive.
"There's been an effort to put agriculture and agricultural supply chains back in the center of the development agenda," he said. "Let's get serious about trying to see: Can agriculture really be an avenue for upward mobility and success?"