The global aid industry is experiencing an unparalleled era of evolution and transformation. Globalization of media has increasingly brought the plight of the world’s poor, disadvantaged, and disabled before our eyes. A growing awareness of the chasm between the privileged and the poor has spawned a tremendous burst of creativity in efforts to end poverty.
At the same time there has been an increasing demand for heightened scrutiny over the impact of poverty programs. Do any of them really work?
New evaluation tools have been adopted by a generation of academic researchers keen to answer this question, and we now have an array of surprising results. In A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, husband and wife Nicholas Kristof (columnist for The New York Times) and Sheryl WuDunn (a business executive and former Times journalist) chronicle these exciting developments. This is the best new book for those with a passion for understanding the most innovative and effective ways to love their global neighbor.
The size of the charitable aid industry would surprise most people. The 1.4 million charities in the United States alone receive $1.5 trillion in revenues every year, mostly from private donations and government grants. Kristof and WuDunn point out that just in terms of its sheer mass, the charity industry is enormous, more than twice the size of the U.S. defense industry. The central theme of A Path Appears is how charitable endeavors are being transformed by a series of welcome innovations.
For example, until recently there has been very little understanding of whether dollars given to purported beneficiaries have translated into actual benefits. In many respects the aid and charitable giving industry has operated much like the medical and legal industries did centuries ago: Formal qualifications were minimal, and accountability structures were virtually nonexistent, resulting in an abundance of hucksters and snake oil.
Why has the charitable giving industry proven so difficult to straighten out? First, it has embodied a tradition of relying on emotion rather than rigorous, scientific scrutiny (the kind we expect, for example, from the food and pharmaceutical industries). And second, it has allowed a disconnect between the giver and the receiver of benefits, so that the natural feedback loop, which tends to foster accountability in other domains, is severed.
We may happily donate millions to an organization with smart-sounding ideas for working with the poor. But without a reliable way to measure whether the results are as promised, we might just keep giving based on where it feels good to give. In this respect the book’s third chapter (“From Anecdote to Evidence”) makes it worth the entire price, in that it shows the evolution of entities such as the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which, along with its sister organizations (Innovations for Poverty Action and the Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley), have devoted themselves to rigorous, scientific analysis of poverty programs. With the presence of new watchdogs such as GiveWell.org and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, no longer can organizations working with the poor receive people’s money without documenting the impact of their work.