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Poor Economics, Ineffective Philanthropy

The very existence of a Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is an acknowledgment both that there is also such a thing as ineffective philanthropy, and that it should be possible to tell the difference between good philanthropy and the other sort. Indeed, you might expect that this would be the main focus of the CEP’s annual meeting next week. So we were shocked to read a blog post by our old friend Phil Buchanan, head of the CEP, justifying inviting Esther Duflo as a keynote speaker from critics in the foundation community who have challenged him as to “What kind of a statement do you intend to make by having Esther Duflo speak at your conference?”

“How could the CEP possibly not invite Ms Duflo?” is our question. She is the co-author, with Abhijit Banerjee of a new book, “Poor Economics“, which we regard as essential reading for anyone committed to helping poor people to enjoy a better life – which, we would like to think, should include everyone attending the CEP’s annual conference.

“Eschewing both grandiose solutions to global poverty and sweeping claims that aid cannot work, Banerjee and Duflo draw on their pioneering experiments at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab to show what actually does work – in areas including education, health and governance. Their painstaking, cutting-edge research will allow policy makers to develop robust strategies to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people,” writes Paul Brest, president of the Hewlett Foundation, on the back cover. We couldn’t have put it better. It is a fascinating, at times depressing, but ultimately thoroughly inspiring read.

We understand that randomised control experiments are controversial, and would not wish the CEP, as Mr Buchanan’s critics suggest, to be “randomised control zealots”. But, frankly, the idea that anyone in the foundation community would feel that providing a platform to one of the pre-eminent practitioners of these experiments makes some kind of unacceptable statement, beggars belief. So kudos to Mr Buchanan, one of our favourite members of the philanthrocapitalism universe, not only for inviting Ms Duflo but for standing unequivocally behind his decision. As he writes, “I believe there is an important place for experimental design. There is a right time and place for the kind of approach Duflo espouses and, in those contexts, her approach to analyzing what works can help, quite literally, to save lives. Many lives.”

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